Category Archives: Kant, Rawls, Ross, Bentham, & Utilitarianism

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Non-Consequentialist and Consequentialist Theory

Non-Consequentialist Theory

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant gives several versions of his categorical imperative.  One is that we should treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.  By this account, censorship of school literature could be justified or not depending on the intent of the censor.  If the censor is truly trying to protect minors from harmful content, then the removal of certain books from library collections may be justified.  If, however, the censor is removing books because of ideological differences and to stop the spread of ideas divergent from his or her own, then that person’s actions are unethical.

Another version of Kant’s categorical imperative states that we must act from moral rules that we can will to be universal law.  This is a more difficult approach to the categorical imperative.  We cannot say, in a school library, school officials have the right to withhold all information.  Nothing would get taught; students wouldn’t have access to any information because if it were a universal law it would be self-defeating.  We could say, school officials have the right to withhold harmful information.  However, as Diana Woodward questions, how would we determine what is harmful without entering consequentialist territory?  Or, we could also say, withhold no information.  The last two seem like the only viable options as they are not self-defeating.

Woodward, D. (1990). A framework for deciding issues in ethics. Library Trends, 39(1/2), 8-17.


In looking at the different opinions of ethical theorists, John Rawls, a right-based theorist, brings a unique view to the ethics of censoring material in children’s libraries. Rawls believes that because one has agreed to be part of a society, one often makes social contracts. These social contracts are agreements made between others within a society that are necessary for a society to work. However, these agreements are not always fair and equal because people tend to put their best interests first. (Fallis, 2014). Rawls suggests that the only way to make a fair and equal decision is to look at a situation from behind the “veil of ignorance” (Fallis, 2014). Rawls also believes that the least advantaged members of society should be benefited. Behind this veil the individual views the situation without any knowledge of their position in society, giving them an unbiased view. In doing so, the individual behind the veil with not want to shortchange any group of a society, because they may be a part of that group (Fallis, 2014).

If we apply Rawls’ theory to the ethics of censorship in children’s libraries, we can view the situation behind the “veil of ignorance”. We can see that there are three groups in this situation: One group of adults who feel that children’s literature containing controversial topics should be censored from children’s libraries, one group (most likely the library, the American Library Association, and other adults) who feel that it is unethical to censor material in children’s libraries, because it takes away their right to freedom of speech and intellectual freedom, and the last group is the children themselves. If one were to look from behind the veil they would not know which group they belonged to. I believe that the best stance to take in this situation would be to oppose censorship of material in children’s libraries. If I were behind the veil, I could possibly be a child, and I would not want to limit my access to materials that I may need. Also, a child may be the least advantaged group of society in this scenario, because they do not often have a voice of their own to defend their rights for access of library materials. It is adults who make these decisions.

Fallis, Don. (2014). Rights. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from


WWRD = What Would Ross Do?

Deontological perspectives on the topic of censoring children’s and young adult literature require a quick recall of Kant’s attempts to universalize a moral perspective. Kant believes that “duty embodies the idea that one should do the right thing in the spirit in the right spirit” (Spinello 24), and Ross adheres to a philosophy that “through reflection on our ordinary moral beliefs we can intuit the rules of morality” (Spinello 26). Both present lofty goals for librarians and how we should behave in the face of censorship for young adult literature?

If I am on the receiving end of a complaint about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, my reflection on the challenged novel leads me to intuitively side with a child’s right to read, a healthy respect for free speech and access to that speech, an obligation to allows challenges to come forward which foster healthy and productive debate on the material, and ultimately (for me), the conviction that the students who come into my library should NOT have their access to a book in any way, shape, or form limited because some people don’t like the references to masturbation or “boners.” However, the problem for me with Ross’s reflection is that I examine these perspectives through a very hubristic lens.  I am flawed, and capable of making bad judgements.  I can also be intimidated by large masses of a population who may completely disagree with my “intuition.”  When only one parent challenges material, it’s all well and good to stand up for grand ideas.  When a majority of a parental community challenge a book such as Part-Time Indian, what then does my intuition tell me is the moral course of action?  Do I falter in my previously listed convictions in the face of a large population?  I’m only human after all, and subject to fear, intimidation, or simply flawed logic.  I may believe my logic is sound and rationale, but I could very well be completely wrong in my convictions and intuitions.

Ross’s “prima facie” duty allows for one moral conviction to be “superseded by a higher obligation” ( Spinello 27). As a librarian who works for a school do I first and most importantly consider free speech when our library has Seventeen magazine on our shelves and consider a student’s right to read and access to information?  That access to information is seminal to educational goals, after all. Or do I have a different prima facie duty: Do I consider the extremely unhealthy perpetuation of sexualizing children, questionable marketing campaigns that communicate a chronic message that only youthful, white, “sexy” females are valid on planet earth, and thereby first and most importantly consider the mental and emotional health of my students who don’t conform to the marketing standards within beauty magazines like Seventeen? Of both convictions, the right to read or the right to a healthy emotional environment, which conviction supersedes the other?  The duties that Ross lists include “one ought to avoid injury to others” (Spinello 27), and for sure with the advent of bulimia, anorexia, and other toxic maladies that media critics attribute to dangerous and misogynistic marketing are on a proportional rise with the type of marketing found in Seventeen, surely this is reason enough to believe that my prima facie duty lies in protecting the health of my students, and thereby to censor not only Seventeen magazine, but all magazines that employ destructive forms of marketing.

Spinello writes that “Ross does not maintain that [his] list [of moral duties] is exhaustive, but he does believe that these duties are self-evident and indisputable” (my emphasis 27). Well, the more I consider the issue of Seventeen magazine, the less “self-evident” the decision is for me.  Recall that earlier I wrote I’m flawed.  My logical and rational mind wants to leave these types of magazines open for healthy critical discourse.  In my dream scenario of addressing magazines such as Seventeen, Vogue, Cosmo and other fashion cash cows, a group of parents, students, and library faculty would convene with the intention of dissecting the publications, examining for “merits and suitability” and how to proceed with the portions of such periodicals that are questionable.  We would speak frankly with the sons and daughters who read these magazines and coach our students to read the advertising with a critical eye and not to be duped by marketing agendas. We would coach our students to critically examine the denotative and connotative messages embedded in the text of the articles, and to question the message, and to arrive at personal conclusions.  Maybe this scenario is not actually logical and rational.  Maybe this idealized scenario is more of an implausible fantasy, but at the end of this scenario, I don’t see myself pulling Seventeen magazine from any library shelf. Open discourse, as Mill suggests, requires access to Seventeen.

Consequentialist Theory

Bentham’s Maximum Happiness

“As to the evil which results from censorship, it is impossible to measure it, because it is impossible to tell where it ends.” Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s greatest good were those actions that promoted the greatest happiness.  Happiness, to him, was pleasure and the absence of pain.  His hedonic calculus was “a method of working out the sum total of pleasure and pain produced by an act, and thus the total value of its consequences” (  Bentham believed that if people were to develop their intellect through education, the more capable they would be in making rational decisions about what would be in their own best interests.  He felt, “individual rational decision-making would therefore, in aggregate, increasingly tend to promote the greater general happiness” (  Bentham would not approve of censorship in school libraries because it would limit a student’s ability to develop his or her intellect, which, in turn, would prevent that student from making decisions that were beneficial in the long-term.


One ethical theory that can be used to support a ban on censorship is called utilitarianism. This theory asks its audience to consider the collective happiness of all involved. If a certain action increases the overall happiness of society, then that action is considered justified within the framework of utilitarianism. To use this ethical theory to undermine censorship, it must be shown that censorship decreases overall happiness. Predictions must be made about how happiness will be affected by the actions in question. Doing so isn’t always easy, for the simple reason that the future has proved rather difficult to predict. One writer who has addressed this issue, and whose writings are still read and considered nearly 200 years later, is John Stuart Mill. There are three claims Mill makes as to why censorship should be avoided from a utilitarian perspective. The first reason Mill mentions is that if censorship is implemented, people won’t have access to all of the truth, which will make them unable to form true opinions. This will decrease their happiness, and the overall happiness of society. Censorship, Mill says, will end up censoring some true information. Censors are not infallible. It is inevitable that some truth would become unavailable. The second reason is that even false information can be a sort of handmaiden to the truth. This is because the truth, if left unopposed in the mind of an individual, can become what is known as a dead dogma. It would become stagnant and lose the power of persuasion it holds over a person’s actions. People can forget why they believe what they believe is true if they don’t actively participate in mental defenses of these truths against opposing ideas. Mill claims that if censorship were to somehow succeed in only censoring false information, this second objection would be enough to support banning censorship. The third and final reason Mill discusses is related to the first. It is conceivable, Mill says, that there are problems society faces today that could be solved by a tiny bit of truth tucked away amid a pile of falsehood. If censorship were to remove this pile, then society would suffer from the absence of this bit of truth, and might continue to suffer for quite a while.

The right to have a comfortable place to read.

The right to have a comfortable place to read.