Formal Ethics 3 - Conscientiousness

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These questions are about Chapter 3 of Harry J. Gensler's book on FORMAL ETHICS (Routledge: 1996). These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler; but they may be distributed freely.

I won't have any questions on Section 3.4 (Ends-Means Questions), since this gets rather technical.


To aid us in developing consistency norms, willing is construed as accepting an imperative. For example, resolving never to eat ice cream is seen as accepting the imperative "Don't ever eat ice cream."

I use "imperative" broadly to include forms addressed to yourself ("Turn left now") and wishes about the past ("Would that I hadn't eaten so much!"). To accept an imperative is to will the corresponding action(s) to be done -- to act, be resolved to act, want others to act, regret the act, or be glad the act took place.

Permissives like "You may do A" are weaker members of the imperative family; they express our consent to the act, but not necessarily our desire that the act take place.

Axioms and theorems -- PURE LOGIC

Formal ethics has four axioms (PURE): Prescriptivity, Universalizability, Rationality, and Ends-Means. These lead to five groups of theorems (LOGIC): Logicality, Omni-perspective (universal law), Golden Rule, Impartiality, and Conscientiousness.

Rationality axiom R says that we ought not to accept combinations that, when conjoined with other axioms, are inconsistent.

Ends and means

Ends-means axiom E claims that this inference is deductively valid:
    Do end E.
    Your doing means M is causally necessary for you to do end E.
    So do means M.
By axiom R, you ought not to combine accepting the premises with not accepting the conclusion. To accept these is to want, believe, and act. So we get this ends-means theorem: "You ought not to combine wanting to do E, believing that your doing M now is causally necessary for you to do E, and not acting to do M."

From axiom E, we also can derive Kant's Law, that "You ought to do A" entails "It's possible for you to do A."


Conscientiousness requires that we keep our actions, resolutions, and desires in harmony with our ethical beliefs. Conscientiousness duties are generated using weak prescriptivity axiom P, which says "If you ought to do A, then do A" -- and "If it's all right for you to do A, then you may do A." These express a policy of practical commitment to morality. This follows using axiom P:
    You ought to do A now.
    So do A now.
By axiom R, you ought not to combine accepting the premise with not accepting the conclusion. So we get a conscientiousness theorem: "Don't combine believing that you ought to do A now with not acting to do A."

Other conscientiousness theorems

Here are two related theorems: "Don't combine believing that it's wrong for you to do A now with acting to do A" and "Don't combine believing that everyone ought to do A with not acting to do A yourself." Some of our theorems will use this corollary of P:
    P1 "Do A" with P entails "It's all right for you to do A."
P1 equivalently claims that "Do A -- but it isn't all right for you to do A" is inconsistent with P. This theorem follows: "Don't combine acting to do A with not believing that it's all right for you to do A now." So our theorems require that we act on our ethical beliefs and that we form ethical beliefs about our actions.

Why be conscientious?

We might follow conscientiousness because it promotes our desire to be a good person -- or because it promotes our well-being and self-respect and earns us social approval. Or we might speak of its usefulness in promoting the social good, or the inherent badness of violating conscientiousness. Or we might appeal to social conventions, ideal observers, or God's will. Or we might see the conscientiousness norm as self-evident, as coherent with our moral intuitions, or as required by ideal ethical thinking. Or we might just have positive feelings in favor of it.

Some think that logical consistency requires conscientiousness. This view would claim that "You ought to do A" logically entails "Do A" -- and that "It's all right for you to do A" logically entails "You may do A." Then ought judgments would logically commit us to action, under pain of inconsistency.

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