David Ross, Ideal Utilitarianism, and the Intrinsic Value of Acts

Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 1 (2) (2012)
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The denial of the intrinsic value of acts apart from both motives and consequences lies at the heart of Ross’s deontology and his opposition to ideal utilitarianism. Moreover, the claim that acts can have intrinsic value is a staple element of early and contemporary attempts to “consequentialise” all of morality. I first show why Ross’s denial is relevant both for his philosophy and for current debates. Then I consider and reject as inconclusive some of Ross’s explicit and implicit motivations for his claim, stemming from his philosophy of action, his axiology, and his concept of intrinsic value, or a combination of these. I also criticize Ross’s later view that all right acts somehow produce some good, but that the value of some of these goods is explained by the prior rightness of the act. In the course of the discussion, the idea that acts can have intrinsic value apart from motives and consequences gains credibility both from the weaknesses in Ross’s arguments and from some putative examples. So, finally, I distinguish two attitudes in the history of ideal utilitarianism towards the necessity or not to give a detailed account of the intrinsic value of acts, and suggest that a Why Bother attitude is more promising than a Constructive one.

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Francesco Orsi
University of Tartu


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