Brandt, R. B. (1910–1997)

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Richard Booker Brandt was born on October 17, 1910, in Wilmington, Ohio. He graduated from Denison University in 1930 and received a second BA from Trinity College in Cambridge, U.K. After receiving a PhD in philosophy at Yale University in 1936, Brandt taught at Swarthmore College and then at the University of Michigan, where he was named Roy Wood Sellars Distinguished College Professor of Philosophy. Brandt was a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation and of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; he was also a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For more than fifty years, Brandt addressed a broad spectrum of theoretical and applied issues in ethics, drawing on the natural and social sciences to enrich our understanding of morality. His empiricist orientation displayed itself early on in his Hopi Ethics (1954), which recorded his own anthropological studies undertaken during three summers spent on a Hopi reservation in the 1940s. It found full expression in A Theory of the Good and the Right (1979), which presented his mature metaethical ideas and reflected his close study of work in behavioral psychology.

Brandt was a prominent exponent of utilitarianism, the view that morally correct action is action that maximizes utility. His ideas about what utility is changed over the years. In Ethical Theory (1959), he adopted a pluralistic view that included pleasure, knowledge, virtue, and equality of welfare as intrinsic values. Soon, however, he came to see happiness and desire-satisfaction theories as the real contenders. He briefly defended a desire theory, but by the time he wrote A Theory of the Good and the Right, he had evidently come to favor a happiness theory.

Brandt's most important contribution to normative ethics was his formulation and defense of an ideal rule utilitarianism, or "ideal moral code" theory. According to ideal rule utilitarianism, an act is right if and only if it would not be prohibited by the ideal moral code for a society. By an "ideal moral code," Brandt meant a code, the currency of which in a society would produce at least as much welfare or good per person as that of any other code. A moral code has currency in a society when a high proportion of adults in that society subscribe to its rules and recognize that those rules are accepted. The rules an ideal code comprises must be ones that people can learn and apply, so they cannot be too complex or too numerous. And because any set of rules will exact costsin training, in guilt for noncompliance, and in restrictions on freedomthe rules should pertain only to important matters. Brandt recognized that the institutional rules of a society can give rise to obligations, even when existing institutions are less than optimal, and so institutional setting partly determines which moral code would produce the most good in the long run.

Brandt argued that ideal rule utilitarianism was distinct from act utilitarianism, because it need contain no higher-order rule prescribing that people maximize utility when lower-level rules conflict. So the two theories will differ in at least some of their implications. He also argued that whereas act utilitarianism seemingly implies that various immoral acts, like murdering one's aged parent, would be permissible if they could be kept secret, a moral code that sanctioned secret murders, say, would not maximize utility. Finally, because an ideal moral code would contain rules akin to W. D. Ross's prima facie duties, ideal rule utilitarianism can capture the personal character of morality, which Ross alleged that act utilitarianism misses.

Critics have questioned whether Brandt's ideal rule utilitarianism escapes the standard problems for rule utilitarianism, among them, that it is internally inconsistent, that it collapses into act utilitarianism, and that it cannot handle cases where others are not behaving as they ought. Critics have also questioned whether Brandt's theory can allow for moral appraisal of unique situations not covered by the rules, and whether moral rules lacking actual currency can plausibly provide the criterion of right acts. But at least one defender of an ideal-code consequentialism, Brad Hooker (2000), argues that a properly formulated theory can withstand such objections.

Later in his career, Brandt famously worked to resuscitate the metaethical theory known as ethical naturalism. He advocated a "method of reforming definitions," which involves redefining our ordinary vague ethical words in terms sufficiently clear and precise to render the traditional questions of moral philosophy empirically tractable. Following his proposed method, Brandt defined "rational" to refer to desires, actions, and moral systems that would survive maximal criticism and correction by facts and logic. He defined "good" to mean rationally desired, treating rational desires as those that would survive or be produced by "cognitive psychotherapy," a process in which persons represent to themselves repeatedly, in an ideally vivid way and at the appropriate time, all available relevant information. He defined "morally wrong" and "morally right" relative to the idea of a moral code that all fully rational persons would tend to support for a society in which they expected to spend a lifetime. Brandt argued that fully rational persons would opt for a broadly welfare-maximizing moral code, and that fully rational persons, insofar as they are benevolent, would seek to maximize not desire satisfaction but net lifetime enjoyment or happiness.

Brandt's critics have argued that his definitions foreclose important normative questions, such as whether it is rational to smoke even when the desire to smoke survives cognitive psychotherapy. They have questioned the coherence and empirical adequacy of appeals to full information, though such appeals remain common. They have also argued that his method begs the question against moral realism, and that his theory, like earlier forms of ethical naturalism, fails to capture the normativity of ethics. Ethicists continue to debate whether naturalism and moral realism are tenable. Whatever one concludes about Brandt's own views, his work played a crucial part in the late-twentieth-century revival of metaethics.

See also Consequentialism; Ethical Naturalism; Hedonism; Metaethics; Utilitarianism.


works by brandt

Hopi Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.

Ethical Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959.

"Toward a Credible Form of Utilitarianism." In Morality and the Language of Conduct, edited by Hector-Neri Castañeda and George Nakhnikian. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1965.

"Some Merits of One Form of Rule-Utilitarianism." In Readings in Contemporary Ethical Theory, edited by Kenneth Pahel and Marvin Schiller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

A Theory of the Good and the Right. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Facts, Values, and Morality. New York: Cambridge, 1996.

works on brandt

Diggs, B. J. "A Comment on 'Some Merits of One Form of Utilitarianism.'" In Readings in Contemporary Ethical Theory, edited by Kenneth Pahel and Marvin Schiller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Hooker, Brad. Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule Consequentialist Theory of Morality. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Hooker, Brad, ed. Rationality, Rules, and Utility: New Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Richard B. Brandt. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Loeb, Don. "Full-Information Theories of Individual Good." Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995): 130.

Rosati, Connie S. "Brandt's Notion of Therapeutic Agency." Ethics 110 (2000): 780811.

Rosati, Connie S. "Persons, Perspectives, and Full-Information Accounts of the Good." Ethics 105 (1995): 296325.

Sobel, David. "Full Information Accounts of Well-Being." Ethics 104 (1994): 784810.

Sturgeon, Nicholas. "Brandt's Moral Empiricism." Philosophical Review 91 (1982): 389422.

Velleman, J. David. "Brandt's Definition of Good." Philosophical Review 97 (1988): 353371.

Connie S. Rosati (2005)