Template:Under Construction This page contains a detailed summary of Jonathan Glover's book Utilitarianism" and its Critics[1], a compilation of essays published in 1990.


We do not reach adult life with open minds about right and wrong. Our ideas have been shaped by television, religion, books, and, probably most of all, by family and friends. The morality created in us by these influences may be a set of rules... Part of becoming independent is to stand back from the rules we have absorbed.(p. 1)

Jonathan Glover says the attraction of utilitarianism lies in its ability to replace "arbitrary rules" with a "single coherent basis" (p. 1). Its alternatives are percieved by the utilitarian as a "ghostly legal system, commanding obedience despite some obscurity as to how these moral "laws" were enacted". To the utilitarian, consciousness is necessary for value. Glover says that, additionally, preferences are required. In a world where beings experienced mere sights and sounds, "never minding what happened", he argues that there would be no good or bad (p. 2). Glover identifies two central features of utilitarianism, orientation towards the future, which neglects past quarrels, and equality, which gives it a radical edge. Glover categorises objections to utilitarianism into practical and moral. Practical objectors argue that happiness cannot be measured, aggregated, weighed or compared. Moral objectors hold that although utilitarianism is "roughly workable", it provides the wrong answers. This moral controversy arise in discussion of justice, life and death and the use of extraordinary means such as torture. Glover thinks the love-hate relationship with utilitarianism stimulates progress in ethics and thus it is the topic of his book.

Part One: Utilitarianism and its FoundationsEdit

The passages from this section are characterisations of utilitarianism from its founding fathers. Jeremy Bentham's passage exemplifies this. John Stuart Mill's passage famously attempts to prove utilitarianism. Alongside it is a typical critique, authored by G.E. Moore. Henry Sidgwick's claim, another controversial one, is that throughout human history, we have always tended towards a Morality of Common Sense that is unconsciously utilitarian. Glover sees this contention as problematic. To start with, the moral consensus that Sidgwick imagines seems to be undermined by the deep moral divisions between societies. Furthermore, moral consensus has been imagined many times before. Marxists have sought to explain all morality in terms of the interest of a dominant class. Feminists have attempted to do the same with male dominance. Credence is not usually given to these accounts. Furthermore, even supposing the moral sense is unconsciously utilitarian, "How impressive we find this will depend on how impressed we are with conventional morality" (p. 6). Another derivation of utilitarianism is presented as a counterpart to Sidgwick's, this one written by R.M. Hare. In this essay, the proof of utilitarianism is independent from psychological facts.

Jeremy Bentham: Of The Principle of UtilityEdit

This essay is taken from The Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter one so it is discussed on that page.

John Stuart Mill: Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility Is SusceptibleEdit

This essay is taken from Utilitarianism, chapter one and it is discussed on that page.

G.E. Moore: Criticism of Mill's “Proof”Edit

“Mill has made as naive and artless a use of the naturalistic fallacy as anybody could desire”[2], writes Moore. By this, he means that Mill is confounding the nature of things with the way they ought to be. Mill's statement - that you can only find out what is desirable by seeking to find out what is desired - is the target of Moore's argument:

The important step for Ethics is the one just taken, the step which pretends to prove that “good” means “desired”. Well, the fallacy in this step is so obvious, that it is quite wonderful how Mill failed to see it. The fact is that “desirable” does not mean “able to be desired” as “visible” means “able to be seen.” The desirable means simply what ought to be desired or deserves to be desired, just as the detestable means not what can be but what ought to be detested and the damnable what deserves to be damned. Mill has, then, smuggled in, under cover of the word “desirable,” the very notion about which he ought to be quite clear.
Mill's approach requires him to claim that happiness alone is desired. Accordingly, he says thtat although money is desired in itself, it has thus become a part of one's conception of happiness. To Moore, this is absurd. Money and happiness are distinct. And if anyone says that they are not, then words have lost all meaning.

Henry Sidgwick: Utilitarianism and Commonsense MoralityEdit

The overarching theme of Henry Sidgwick's writing is that he is searching for moral principles that are "self-evident" and "of real significance" (p. 24)[3] . The first of these is that "whatever action any of us judges to be right for himself, he implicitly judges to be right for all similar persons in similar circumstances", popularly known as the Golden Rule. Sidgwick sees that this must permit two individuals to cooperate in sin. Thus he sharpens the rule: It cannot be right for A to treat B in the way that B should not treat A, unless there is a morally important difference between the natures and the circumstances of the two (p. 25). To Sidgwick, the similarity of individual beings to each other requires that they be treated fairly. The good of all beings is mathematically combined into a "whole". This is no different to the fact that the parts of one's conscious life ought to be treated prudently: the future is no more or less valuable than the present. (p. 26). This first self-evident principle says that good does not discriminate on the basis of time or person. His second principle is that one ought to aim at good generally, and not merely at "a particular part of it" (p. 27)

Sidgwick recognizes the temptation to prove utilitarianism, but resists it: "I do not see why the Egoistic principle should pass unchallenged any more than the Universalistic. I do not see why the axiom of Prudence should not be questioned, when it conflicts with present inclination, on a ground similar to that on which Egoists refuse to admit the axiom of Rational Benevolence. If the Utilitarian has to answer the question, "Why should I sacrifice my own happiness for the greater happiness of another?" it must surely be admissible to ask the Egoist, "Why should I sacrifice a present pleasure for a greater one in the future? Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons?""

Sidgwick percieves a double-standard applied to ethical theories. Certain rules are recieved as binding and are accepted although they are not self-evident. When a utilitarian claims to supersede them with a higher principle, he is "challenged... to demonstrate the legitimacy of his claim". Sidgwick cautions that it is not strictly possible to prove a first principle, as this would require premises that are themselves unproven. Moreover, in a proof of utilitarianism, the conclusion would be more valid than its premises, which are prima facie principles for specific situations and this would be unusual. So Sidgwick contents himself to outline approaches for persuading ethicists from rivalling camps to accept utilitarianism. First comes the egoist. Sidgwick suggests pointing out sanctions that punish selfishness. This ought to bridge the gap between practical egoism and utilitarianism. If the egoist implies that his happiness is objectively valuable, this allows the utilitarian to explain that his happiness is no more or less valuable than another's from the perspective of the universe. Sidgwick addresses the inuitionist somewhat differently. According to Sidgwick, the intuitionist usually comes to the table with a set of principles such as truth and justice. These principles, however, require exceptions and qualifications, some of which need to be admitted. The intuitionist has other needs. For instance, there is conflict between principles that needs to be resolved. And some concepts, such as justice, are fundamentally vague and in need of "further determination". Utilitarianism can meet these needs, by systematising and binding the Morality of Common Sense.

Citing David Hume and Adam Smith, Sidgwick states that the Morality of Common Sense often coincides with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism "broadly" supports current moral rules. However, "Utilitarianism is not concerned to prove the absolute coincidence in results of the Intuitional and Utilitarian methods. Indeed, if it could succeed in proving as much as this, its success would be almost fatal to its practical claims; as the adoption of the Utilitarian principle would then become a matter of complete indifference... Utilitarianism may be presented as the scientifically complete and systematically reflective form of that regulation of conduct, which through the whole course of human history has always tended substantially in the same direction." Sidgwick recognises conflict between rules. In his view, proponents of each rule always make appeals to utility, no matter how strongly they maintain it to be self-evident.

R.M. Hare: Universalizability and UtilitarianismEdit

R. M. Hare understands that when one uses the word "ought", one is making a "universal prescription"[4]: "Moral judgements are... universalizable in only one sense, namely that they entail identical judgements about all cases identical in their universal properties." Hare argues that universality implies preference utilitarianism. In Hare's example, he prescribes an action to someone who does not want to carry it out. Then, whose preferences should prevail? Should that agent's preferences prevail, because they are his own? Should Hare's preferences be weighed against his another according to intensity? In Hare's words: "I can see no reason for not adopting the same solution here as we do in cases where our own preferences conflict with one another." He reinforces this point using the example of a bicicle that is occupying a car space. It doesn't matter who owns which vehicle, or whether they are owned by the same person. The inconvenience of moving the bicycle should be weighed against the importance of the space. This reasoning is extended to multilateral conflicts: "the interpersonal conflicts, however complex and however many persons are involved, will reduce themselves, given full knowledge of the preferences of others, to intrapersonal ones." If each person fully represents their situation to the other, unaninimity can be reached. Hare regards it as "logically incomprehensible" for someone to treat the date, or the grid map reference of an event as morally relevant. He concludes "if someone said I ought to do it to him, but nobody ought to do it to me if I were in precisely his position with his preferences", then the same logical incomprehension would arise.

Part Two: HappinessEdit

Jeremy Bentham: Happiness as Pleasure and No PainEdit

This essay is from An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapters 3 and 4.

A.J Ayer: Happiness as Satisfaction of DesiresEdit

Ayer says that psychological hedonism, the notion that everyone pursues what makes them happy, is false: "Not all human action is purposive and of those actions which are purposive it is not true that they are always such as the agent thinks will bring him the most happiness"[5]. According to Ayer, people mostly aim for other things like meeting physical needs and gratifying their friends. They don't "have happiness in view" when they pursue these either. Many of our actions cause pleasure. We can even pursue an object specifically because it will bring us pleasure. This, however, is rare. The utilitarian logic is that surely a man would always "do what he likes". But "If the measure of what a person likes is simply what he does, then to say... that every man acts with a view to his own happiness is just to assert a tautology". Ayer offers two options to utilitarians. They can come to value things other than pleasure (roughly, consequentialism) or they can pursue happiness, where happiness is whatever is desired (roughly, preference utilitarianism). Ayer describes a further objection to utilitarianism that recurse in anti-utilitarian literature: some consequences are extremely indirect and in the distant future, so that the question of how much different an act makes to the general happiness "succumbs into absurdity". Ayers thinks that only those consequences that can be forseen ought to be used in utilitarian calculation. Then, judgements should be practical guides to future action, not made after the fact. He insists that Bentham himself wished his principle to be regarded this way. Ayer also doubts the ability of utilitarians to predict the consequences in specific instances. He says that with greater certainty, utilitarians can describe rules that will, on balance, produce happiness: "The members of a given community will be more likely to obtain what they want on the whole, if they habitually behave towards one another in certain ways rather than in cerain other ways."

Richard Brandt: Objections to Desire-Satisfaction Views of HappinessEdit

Brandt seeks to decide between the intrinsic value of happiness or desires.[6] The desire theory that he describes is equal to preference utilitarianism. Brandt recognises belief systems other than these two, in which "some things, different from happiness and possibly not desired by anyone or everyone are worthwhile in themselves and worthy of being produced for no further reason" but he rejects them instantly. Brandt suggests that we psychologically wish for others to be happy, not to have their desires satisfied, and that benevolence involves sympathy for others' experiences. He regards the central awkwardness of the desire theory to be its treatment of past and future desires: moral value is said to arise when something occurs that a person has wished for or will wish for. But this is problematic:

That there is a poblem begins to appear when we reflect that we think some desires need not count. Suppose my six-year-old son has decided that he would like to celebrate his fiftieth birthday by taking a roller-coaster ride. This desire now is hardly one we think we need to attend to in planning to maximize his lifetime well-being. Notice that we pay no attention to our own past desires. Are we then to take into account only the desires we think my son will have at the time his desire would be 'satisfied', here at the age of fifty? If we take this line, we come close to the happiness theory-of providing that for each future moment he enjoys himself maximally at that moment.
In Brandt's view, a problem arises from two facts: desires are for something to happen at another time and desires change over time. Does the length of time someone has a desire matter. Brandt reports being tempted to value only what the person desires at the time of satisfaction. But there is a counterexample from Parfit. What if an atheist converts to religion on their deathbed and asks for a priest to be summoned? If this person has actively rebelled against religion for a lifetime, should this prevail over the present desire? Brandt believes that no proponents of desire theories have ever outlined how the possible courses of action is preferable, and thus the whole concept is "unintelligible". Brandt regards the aggregation of preferences as "stranger" than the aggregation of happiness. To Brandt, one person's preferences should not be allowed to prevail over another's merely because it is more intense. One person might have stronger and more numerous preferences generally. Should we then act in line with this person's prefereneces more often? On the other hand, it does not seem so strange to seek to produce "the most happiness, however divided between the two".

Robert Nozick: The Experience MachineEdit

Nozick's famous thought experiment goes as follows:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would he floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that yon're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them.[7]

Nozick asks whether we should plug into this machine. Firstly, he says that "we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them". Secondly, he says that we want to "to be a certain sort of person." Thirdly, Nozick suggests that the experience machine would limit us to "manmade reality", depriving us of any "deeper reality", which is described as numinous. Thus, says Nozick, we value things outside of our experience.

Felipe de Brigard's response to the Experience Machine thought experiment explains the reluctance to enter the Experience Machine as a status quo bias.[8]

John Stuart Mill: Higher and Lower PleasuresEdit

This essay is taken from Utilitarianism, chapter two

John Stuart Mill: A Crisis in My Mental HistoryEdit

John Stuart Mill's passage, drawn from his autobiography[9], describes an episode of depression. When Mill read Bentham, he gained an "object in life", to "reform the world", with which his own happiness was "entirely identified". Five years on, Mill found himself "indifferent", "dejected", guilty and demotivated, finding it impossible to imagine what would make him happy. The books that used to motivate him now lacked their "charm". Though there is no mention of a diagnosis, today he would be called depressed [10]. There was nothing in Mill's thorough education of utilitarianism that would equip him for this moment. But it was worse than that. His analytic approach was quite opposite to what he needed here: "I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings; as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives." To all those he looked up to, sympathy and altruism were the greatest sources of happiness. Mill believed that such feeling would make him happy again, but this did not give him the feeling. He describes how he felt, educated though unmotivated: "My education, I thought, had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influences of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else." Mill eventually emerged from his depression. What Mill learned was that although happiness remained the end of all conduct, it ought not be made a direct end: "Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end." This is modernly known as the Paradox of Hedonism, that happiness is more easily achieved by averting one's eyes from it, instead pursuing other ends. The other thing that Mill learnt was that the "internal culture of the individual" is a necessity of wellbeing. One should not attach "almost exclusive importance" to "outward circumstances", as Mill reports doing previously.

James Griffin: A Sophisticated Version of the Desire AccountEdit

James Griffen regards desire as too broad an account of utility, requiring limitation.[11] It seems reasonable to Griffen that some things that one is unaware of, such as secret theft, ought to be considered. However, things that do not affect one's life at all should not. So which desires should count, and is experience required? A previous attempt at answering this question is that informed desires should count. But one strikes up a conversation with a stranger on a train and form a considered opinion that the stranger ought to succeed. However, if one wishes the same success for one's children, that "enters one's life" in a different way. In Griffen's view, some of the desires of the dead ought to count, while others should not.

Griffen addresses a criticism of utilitarianism. The argument is that utilitarianism supposes that we desire only one thing but we actually value many irreducibly different things. Griffen points out that this does not apply whatsoever to an informed-desire account of utilitarianism. In this account, one can be strongly pluralistic about values: when one fully understands what is involved, one can give many things intrinsic value. Griffen recognises the demand for a method for resolving conflict between values. However, he resists it. Instead, he says he gives "a formal analysis of what it is for something to be prudentially valuable to some person."

If asked whether his system is subjective or objective, he at first resists the distinction but if pressed, answers that it is both. This is because some desires such as "enjoyment, accomplishment [and] autonomy", we have in common, whereas others such as our wishes for people special to us, are personal. He summarises his vision for utilitarianism as follows: "It has to move from mental state accounts to a desire account; it has to move from an actual-desire to an informed-desire account; and it has to set the standards for a desire's being "informed in a place not too distant from an objective-list account."

Amartya Sen: Plural UtilityEdit

The purpose of Amartya Sen's essay is to describe utility as a "vector", with distinct components[12]. To Sen, the description of utility as a homogenous magnitude comes only second. The vector view of utility is not supposed to combined rivalling conceptions of utility, such as happiness and desires together. Rather, it is supposed to capture the "coexisting aspects of utility... within any one interpretation of utility". Between the pleasure-based and desire-based views of utility, Sen identifies a "basic asymmetry". He notices that although pleasure is a utility in itself, desires are not. They have to be fulfilled and this raises several problems. There is the problem of "irrational desires". In one example of an irrational desire, a person wants fame because they think they would adore it. If he actually became famous, however, they would "not be able to work up much adoration". There is the problem of the timing of desires with respect to the timing of the fulfilment, discussed by Brandt and others. Lastly, there is the problem of whether one has to be aware of the fulfilment of a desire. Sen offers to resolve these problems with the vector approach. He begins by taking an example of the editor, Jonathan Glover's own work: "Glover tells you the story of the prisoner and his unfaithful wife. You presume that the prisoner never knew, but you still feel sorry for him. "Did he ever know?" you ask Glover. "Yes," says Glover, "it got to him eventually". You feel sorrier for the prisoner. Is your sympathy a good indicator of the prisoner's utility? I don't see why not. The fact of the desire fulfilment and the awareness of it can be both relevant, and the relevance of one does not rule out the relevance of the other." Similarly, Sen says that rational and irrational desires are not equal, but are both relevant. Similarly, past desires ought not to be removed from the equation altogether. Sen proposes that his vector view permits the entry of a new and sophisticated theory that will weigh past and present desires against each other. Furthermore, Sen regards desires about one's own life to be more important than "nosey" desires about the lives of others. Thus, they are given extra weight.

Sen says that in a pluralistic, desire-based utilitarianism, optimisation is more difficult, but not unintelligible. Even if the relative weightings of desires are not specified, one can pursue what rates highly among all desires. That is, the overlap between desires is used: "If K ranks higher than y according to each element, then x must yield higher total utility than y." If the weights to be put on the desires are specified, a full calculation can be made.

Having explained how special weighting can be given to certain desires, Sen now explains what cannot be done within his approach:

  • "Any objective notion of a person's well-being or interest which is independent of his desires has no status."
  • A person's opportunities are not given status. Only a person's actual decisions and actual situation are considered.
  • Exploitation and discrimination are not given special status independently from the desires to eliminate them.

Part Three: Persons, Justice and RightsEdit

By addressing persons, justice and rights, Glover introduces some sophisticated theories of utilitarianism and deontology. Glover actually prefers these sophisticated versions: "Crude forms of utilitarianism and of rights theory are both open to powerful objections. Sophisticated forms of both theories tend to converge. The important question is what the best sophisticated theory will be like. It may he only of secondary importance whether it looks more like a modified rights theory or more like modified utilitarianism."

John Stuart Mill: Liberty and IndividualityEdit

In this excerpt from On Liberty (book), Mill describes the importance of impulses to his philosophy [13]:

There is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connection is the other way. To say that one person's desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good. Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature

John Rawls: The “Separateness of Persons” ObjectionEdit

Rawls objects to the utilitarian treatment of persons[14] :

The striking feature of the utilitarian view of justice is that it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals any more than it matters, except indirectly, how one man distributes his satisfactions over time. The correct distribution in either case is that which yields the maximum fulfillment....The most natural way, then, of arriving at utilitarianism (although not, of course, the only way of doing so) is to adopt for society as a whole the principle of rational choice for one man. Once this is recognized, the place of the impartial spectator and the emphasis on sympathy in the history of utilitarian thought is readily understood. For it is by the conception of the impartial spectator and the use of sympathetic identification in guiding our imagination that the principle for one man is applied to society. It is this spectator who is conceived as carrying out the required organization of the desires of all persons into one coherent system of desire; it is by this construction that many persons are fused into one.'
The ideal utilitarian observer becomes like an entrepreneur who is merely trying to maximise profit, or a consumer who is trying to buy goods that will maximally satisfy him. This turns ethics into "a question of efficient administration".

Derek Parfit: Personal Identity and the Separateness of PersonsEdit

Parfit's essay directly responds to Rawl's preceding one (p. 93) [15].

Since their attitude to sets of lives is like ours to single lives, Utilitarians ignore the boundaries between lives. We may ask, 'Why?' Here are three suggestions

1. Their method of moral reasoning leads them to overlook these boundaries.

2. They believe that the boundaries are unimportant, because they think that sets of lives are like single lives.

3. They accept the Reductionist View about personal identity.

In Parfit's view, utilitarians are of the third group. Rawls has mistakenly characterised them as adherents of the first suggestion. That is, Rawls supposes that utilitarians identify with everyone's interests and imagine everyone's perspective at once—we are Identifying Observers. Instead, Parfit says utilitarians maximise others utility without imagining it: they are "Detached Observers" (p. 94). Parfit believes Gauthier mistakenly ascribed the second suggestion to utilitarianism. The second suggestion supposes that all living beings are a single super-person; an irreducible whole. But this is a rare and unusual view. The last suggestion is the utilitarian view. In this view, a person is not a "separately existing entity, distinct from his brain and body" so they area the sum of their parts. "If we are Reductionists, we regard the rough subdivisions within lives as, in certain ways, like the divisions between lives.

We may therefore come to treat alike two kinds of distribution: within lives, and between lives. But there are two ways of treating these alike. We can apply distributive principles to both, or to neither" (p. 97). Parfit expects further criticism: "Some claim: 'We are free to maximise within one life only because it is one life.'" This claim supports Gauthier's charge against Utilitarians: that we are free to maximize over different lives only if they are parts of a single life. When presented with this argument, Utilitarians can deny its premise. They can claim: "What justifies maximization is not the unity of a life. Suffering is bad, and happiness is good. It is better if there is less of what is bad, and more of what is good. This is enough to justify maximization. Since it is not the unity of a life that, within this life, justifies maximization, this can be justified over different lives without the assumption that mankind is a super-person". Utilitarians neither deny (Gauthier's suggestion) nor forget (Rawls' suggestion) that people are separate. They just refuse to give it moral importance.

Parfit targets two objections to utiltiarianism:

  1. The "Objection to Balancing": ""The reasoning which balances the gains and losses of different persons ... is excluded'.""; and
  2. The "Claim about Compensation": "Someone's burden cannot be compensated by benefits to someone else" (p. 100).

Parfit tries to steer a middle path through these objections. He expresses some sympathy to the latter: one person's burden cannot be compensated by another's benefit. However, the notion of compensation cannot be given moral importance. He is less generous to the former. One person's burden can be outweighed by another's benefit, as per the impartiality of ethics. An analogy can help: It is sometimes required to impose burdens on a child for his greater benefit later in life.

Donald Dworkin: The “Double Counting” ObjectionEdit

Ronald Dworkin's contention is that utilitarianism is not as egalitarian as it seems[16]. Dworkin notices that utilitarians value both personal preferences and external ones. Weighing the personal preferences against each other seems to embody egalitarianism. Various demands on scarce resources are simply weighed against each other to select an appropriate course of action. But weighing the external ones as well is dubious. Then, respect or affection for one's way of life is considered, which corrupts utilitarianism. Dworkin amplifies the point with the example of distribtion of medicine. Suppose one person has political preferences for medicine to be distributed in a certain way. These preferences are contrary to utilitarianism. Thus, to weigh these preferences against personal preferences would make utilitarianism "self-defeating" . Taken another example: what is the value of the enterprise of swimming? There is great public support for athletes. So ought the preferences of fans be considered alongside the personal preferences of swimmers? Dworkin answers that they should not. The result will be a form of double counting: each swimmer will have the benefit not only of his own preference, but also of the preference of someone else who takes pleasure in his success. The problem is this is an unequal version of utilitarianism. Dworkin's last example suggests a solution: Imagine a student who wishes for racial segregation of classes because of her prejudice against black people. This can be stated as a personal preference, the wish to associated with some colleagues but not others. But even then, this is a personal preference "parasitic" on external ones. The situation in which such preferences are personal, and morally important is limited to when the student "has racist, social, and political convictions, or because he has contempt for blacks as a group." Racism is wrong because it denies black people the right to be treated as equal and lowers their self-esteem. In any community in which prejudice is strong, the prejudice "saturates" personal preferences, makes discrimination against the minority unfair.

H.L.A Hart: Commenting on the “Double Counting” ObjectionEdit

H.L.A Hart contends that Dworkin has tried to derive too much from the idea of equal consideration of persons[17]. What is important is that in utilitarian calculation, or in a voting procedure, a white person's vote is not allowed to count for two while a black person's vote is made to count for none: "a black student denied access to higher education as a result of such double counting~would not have been treated as an equal, but the right needed to protect him against this is not a right to any specific liberty but simply a right to have his vote or preference count equally". Hart says that there are other arguments against discrimination. There is the argument that noone should be deprived of higher education. In evaluating Dworkin's writing, it is important to distinguish the allegation of "vices of unrefined utilitarianism" from objection to conclusions reached from them. Hart imagines a situation in which the liberty of a minority is impinged by hostile external preferences. Why, in this situation, is utilitarianism not treating people as equals? "Dworkin's answer seems to be that if, as a result of such preferences tipping the balance, persons are denied some liberty, say to form certain sexual relations, those so deprived suffer because by this result their conception of a proper or desirable form of life is despised by others, and this is tantamount to treating them as inferior to or of less worth than others, or not deserving equal concern or respect." Hart says he would question this reasoning. But even if he accepts it, he would not put the unfair conclusions of utilitarianism down to the decision procedure. It is not because of the consideration of external preferences that the conclusions are unfair. It is only because of their "liberty-denying and respect-denying content". Then the message need not be, as Dworkin interprets it, "You and your views are inferior, not entitled to equal consideration, concern or respect," but "You and your supporters are too few. You, like everyone else, are counted as one but no more than one. Increase your numbers and then your views may win out."

Amartya Sen: Rights ConsequentialismEdit

The aim of Amartya Sen's essay is to reconcile welfarist and deontological approaches to rights[18]. The welfarist says that a situation is good based on its utility, possibly giving extra consideration to those worst off. The deontologist says that acts are constrained by others' rights. According to Sen, these approaches have a problem in common: "The particular common ground is the denial that realization and failure of rights should enter into the evaluation of states of affairs themselves and could be used for consequential analysis of actions." Sen identifies two difficulties with constaint-based approaches. Firstly, they have difficulty account for positive liberty]. Secondly, they have problems weighing constraints against each other, especially multilaterally.

Sen uses the example of a racially motivated bashing to investigate several ethical approaches. The scenario, slightly simplified here, is as follows: Donna's friend Ali, who is from East Africa, is going to a secluded spot this evening, where he is expected to be bashed. Ali has left a note on his colleague's desk. The only way Donna can protect Ali from the bashing is by breaking into this colleague's room, taking the note and intercepting Ali. The people who would assail Ali - the "bashers" are racists who would take pleasure from this act. If they bash Ali, they will individually not gain very much utility. However, when taken together, the bashers' utility gain exceeds Ali's loss. Whether or not the bashing takes place, their utility will still be less than Ali's because they have lower socioeconomic status.

  • If Donna takes a standard utilitarian approach, she should not prevent the bashing from going ahead.
  • If Donna takes a consequentialist approach that gives additional consideration to those worse off, she should be even more inclined to let the bashing go ahead.
  • Suppose Donna uses an indirect utilitarian approach. Then, she focusses on how she could have affected the disposition of the bashers. From the perspective of the bashers, they ought not to commit the bashing lest they reinforce their violence and prejudice. For Donna, however, averting the bashing is not likely to improve the disposition of the bashers significantly. Nor is it clear what sort of disposition she would be cultivating in herself by breaking in to Ali's colleague's office: "A disposition to break in for a perceived excellent cause", perhaps? Or a mere disposition to break into others' rooms? And if not the latter, then why not?
  • Taking a constraint-based approach, the bashers are forbidden to interfere with Ali's freedom to move without harm and his bodily integrity. However, from your perspective, the deontological law does not compel you to save your friend. Are you even free to do so? Probably not, since this would involve violating the rights of Ali's colleague.

On reflection, to prevent Ali's bashing, Donna feels compelled to break in to his colleague's office. Sen contends that what she ought to do is count the violations and realisations of rights as states of affairs and weigh them against each other. He summarises that

"Donna can have a good case for breaking into Charles's room to save Ali if she can use a consequential analysis with nonwelfarist evaluation of consequences. Constraint-based deontology does not permit the former (namely, consequential analysis), while welfarist instrnmentalism does not permit the latter (namely, nonwelfarist evaluation of consequences). It appears that to make room for her deeply held and resilient conviction that she must save Ali by breaking into Charles's room, Donna must reject both these traditional approaches and look for a new approach that is at once consequentialist and nonwelfarist."

Part Four: Life and DeathEdit

John Harris: The Survival LotteryEdit

In his essay, John Harris outlines the now famous transplant surgeon objection to utilitarianism[19]. This is a thought experiment where two patients in a hospital are dying. One of them is in need of a transplant heart; the other, transplant lungs. But there are no donors to be found. The patients, unhappy about being left to die, make an argument: "that it is not strictly true that there are no organs which could be used to save them... if just one healthy person were to be killed his organs could be removed and both of them be saved." The doctors refuse and this seems intuitive: "We would not say that the doctors were killing their patients if they refused to prey upon the healthy to save the sick." We say that the patients had died of natural causes, not from the neglect of their doctors.

On one view, one should never kill, even to save life. The patients agree that it is wrong to kill the innocent. But they see themselves as no less innocent than the healthy, unsuspecting donor. So they ask the doctors why they should prefer to kill two innocents than one. The most straightforward argument against killing a passer-by is that it would induce terror and distress in witnesses and society generally. It would also place undue power in the doctors' hands. In an attempt to address these problems, they specify their proposal: "Whenever doctors have two or more dying patients who could be saved by transplants, and no suitable organs have come to hand through "natural" deaths, they can ask a central computer to supply a suitable donor. The computer will then pick the number of a suitable donor at random and he will be killed so that the lives of two or more others may be saved." This could have the overall effect of lowering rates of premature death and increasing life expectancy. That is the obvious advantage of the lottery. There are potential disadvantages:

  • The population could become older. However, this is avoidable. The obvious method, although not mentioned by Harris, would be to age-match the donors to the recipients.
  • It could be unfair, for example, for someone who abstains from alcohol to have to to donate their liver to an alcohol. However, the patients who have proposed the lottery offer a solution: donors are never called on to cure disease that they themselves were not at risk for.
  • We would fear "hearing them knocking at our door". However, the chance of being called upon to make that sacrifice is smaller than the chance of being killed on our roads. Moreover, the chance of dying prematurely is lower under the lottery.
  • We respect individuality, and would rather not see people as "interchangeable units in a structure, the value of which lies in its having as many healthy units as possible". However, the patients would object to a donor's individuality being worthy of more respect than theirs.
  • There is a suggested distinction between killing and letting die. However, in the patients' opinion, they are about to be killed by their doctors: "If the absolutist wishes to maintain his objection he must point to some morally relevant difference between positive and negative killing."

Harris says that in any society in which the lottery is accepted, "saintliness" is "mandatory". Rather, Harris suggests that we have a right to self-defense. However, he makes some concessions:

  • On prudential grounds, the survival lottery is rational
  • On utilitarian grounds, the survival lottery may be mandatory
  • The patients who proposed the lottery would protest that they also have a right to self defense.
  • A Limited objection might be made to the involvement of third parties. Why does one patient not donate their heart to, or recieve the lungs of the other? Perhaps this would be to regard patients on transplant lists as second-class citizens, somehow less worthy of life
  • Perhaps the dying ought to be the first donors. However, is it even possible to narrow down the field of donors down to those who are dying without discriminating? Harris suggests not.
  • On absolutist grounds, one might object to the whole enterprise of making utilitarian calculations about life and death. In this view, evaluating the survival lottery is "macabre" and an affront to "common decency"

So can these objections be answered? The natural response is intuitive. As Harris says, "We might be inclined to say that only monsters could ignore the promptings of conscience so far as to operate the lottery scheme. But the promptings of conscience are not necessarily the most reliable guide. In the present case, [the patients] would argue that such promptings are mere squeamishness, an over-uice self-indulgence that costs lives.

There would be great practical difficulties in adopting the survival lottery. It could be misused deliberately or inadvetantly. "Perhaps we should be thankful that such practical difficulties make the survival lottery an unlikely consequence of the perfection of transplants. Or perhaps we should be appalled."

Jan Narveson: Utilitarianism and New GenerationsEdit

Using utilitarian reasoning, Jan Narveson draws two seemlingly contradictory conclusions[20]. On the one hand, she says that we have no moral obligation to rear children that we know will be happy. This is because we the child's happiness has not improved, since there is no previous level of happiness to compare it to. On the other hand, she argues that we are morally obliged to refrain from rearing children that will suffer. This is because, in her view, there are two utilitarian duties: "to avoid inflicting misery on people, and to reduce misery where it exists." She believes that the second of these is violated because to rear a miserable baby is to omit to prevent its suffering. Furthermore, she believes that it violates the second. Her logic here is that: "although one does not inflict pain on someone by giving birth to him even though he is in pain ever after, since if you cannot make someone happy by bearing him, you also cannot make him miserable by doing so, nevertheless in many such cases, e.g. the slum-dwelling case, you will actually have inflicted misery on the child, by underfeeding him, exposing him to disease, filth, and ugliness, making him associate with equally wretched persons, and so forth, and thus you will also have transgressed the first duty." Thus, from a utilitarian perspective, according to Narveson, one should not rear a baby who will be miserable.

Derek Parfit: Overpopulation and the Quality of LifeEdit


Consequences and CharacterEdit

Stuart Hampshire: “The Mainspring of Morality Has Been Taken Away” Edit

Stuart Hampshire expresses, through this essay, dissatsifaction with the utilitarian treatment of prohibitions[21]. Hampshire says that morality ought to regulate "the taking of human life, sexual relations, family duties and obligations, and the administration of justice" He characterises the utilitarian position on duty as believing that prohibitions are "systematically connected, and... to be thought of as not absolute, but conditional, being dependent for their validity as prohibitions upon the beneficial consequences of observing them." His reasons for rejecting the utilitarian position are linguistic and anthropological, intuitive and reflective.

Hampshire identifies a reason that some people regard prohibitions as primitive. These people, including Mill are said to contrast primitive, intuitive thinkers who hold moral taboos (prohibitions) with intellectually evolved men who reason clearly. This, to Hampshire, is a false dichotomy. In his opinion, "reflection may discover a plurality of clear and definite moral injunctions"

Hampshire's own conception of ethics, which he describes in some detail, involves aspiring to a way of life that is worthy of respect and admiration. In this vision, one acts such as to become respectworthy, while avoiding prohibited actions. Reasons for necessary actions can involve either the consequences of an action or its nature and quality. Hampshire argues against utilitarians using their own moral framework: "Lowering the barriers of prohibition, and making rational calculation of consequences the sole foundation of public policies, have so far favoured, and are still favouring, a new callousness in policy, a dullness of sensibility, and sometimes moral despair, at least in respect of public affairs." He also states that utilitarians have failed to recognise a discontinuity between the value of human life and the value of other things.' "For a strict utilitarian... the horror of killing is only the horror of causing other losses, principally of possible happiness; in cases where there are evidently no such losses, the horror of killing becomes superstition. And such a conclusion of naturalism, pressed to its limits, does produce a certain vertigo after reflection. It seems that the mainspring of morality has been taken away."

Hampshire concludes his passage in the hope that humans who move from a religious morality to a secular one do not lose certain "customs, habits and observances": "sexual customs, family observances, ceremonial treatment of the dead, gentle treatment of those who are diseased and useless, and of the old and senile, customs of war and treatment of prisoners, treatment of convicted criminals, political and legal safeguards for the rights of individuals, and the customary rituals of respect and gentleness in personal dealings. This complex of habits, and the rituals associated with them, are carried over into a secular morality which makes no existential claims that a naturalist would dispute, and which still rejects the utilitarian morality associated with naturalism." This is the error of the "optimistic utilitarian": "he carries the deritualisation of transactions between men to a point at which men not only can, but ought to, use and exploit each other as they use and exploit any other natural objects, as far as this is compatible with general happiness. And at this point, when the mere existence of an individual person by itself has no value, apart from the by-products and uses of the individual in producing and enjoying desirable states of mind, there is no theoretical barrier against social surgery of all kinds. Not only is there no such barrier in theory: but, more important, the non-existence of the barriers is explicitly recognised."

Bernard Williams: Utilitarianism and IntegrityEdit

Bernard Williams presents two scenarios that bring utilitarianism into opposition with our intuitions[22].

  1. George, a man who has just got a Ph. D in chemistry is having difficulty finding a job. An older chemist offers him a "decently paid" job researching ..biological and chemical warfare". "George says that he cannot accept this, since he is opposed to chemical and biological warfare. The older man replies that he is not too keen on it himself, come to that, but after all George's refusal is not going to make the job or the laboratory go away; what is more, he happens to know that if George refuses the job, it will certainly go to a contemporary of George's who is not inhibited by any such scruples and is likely if appointed to push along the research with greater zeal than George would...George's wife, to whom he is deeply attached, has views (the details of which need not concern us) from which it follows that at least there is nothing particularly wrong with research into Chemical and Biological Warfare." (p. 165)
  2. "Jim finds finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform". Jim, who arrived here by misadventure during a botanical exhibition is approached by the captain in charge, who tells him that these men, who are political prisoners, are to be excecuted. "since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest's privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion [and the excecutioner will] kill them all." Jim wonders if he use the gun to hold up the excecution and allow the prisoners to escape, but he sees that this would not work. The men against the wall beg Jim to accept the captain's offer. (p. 166)

Williams says that from a utilitairan perspective, George should take the job and Jim should kill an Indian. A common utilitarian argument is that acting in this way would alter George and Jim, so Williams takes a preemptive strike against these: "The certainty that attaches to these hypotheses about possible effects is usually pretty low; 'in some cases, indeed, the hypothesis invoked is so implausible that it would scarcely pass if it were not being used to deliver the respectable moral answer, as in the standard fantasy that one of the effects of one's telling a particular lie is to weaken the disposition of the world at large to tell the truth." That is, utilitarians use a double-standard to avoid unpalatable conclusions. One specific objection that Williams anticipates is that George and Jim might feel bad for having done the wrong thing. However, from the utilitarian perspective, this would "irrational". Williams says of this guilt: "their weight must be small: they are after all (and at best) one man's feelings." (p. 168)

If Williams is correct in his application of utilitarianism, the utilitarian can argue that "a refusal by Jim to do what he has been invited to do would be a kind of self-indulgent squeamishness". Williams says that this description is rather empty of content, a mere appeal to take on the utilitarian point of view. To someone who refuses the utilitarian point of view, the negative feelings associated with moral reasoning are "emotional expressions of a thought", which are legitimate. To someone who accepts the utilitarian view, negative feelings, are, of course, given virtually no weight. To Williams, the squeamishness appeal is unsettling. This is because it asks us to dissociate from our emotive responses to moral situations and the very fact that we cannot view our emotions as of merely utilitarian value shows that we are "partially, at least, not utilitarians. Because our moral relation to the world is partly given by such feelings, and by a sense of what we can or cannot "live with," to come to regard those feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one's moral self, is to lose a sense of one's moral identity; to lose, in the most literal way, one's integrity."

J.J.C. Smart: Integrity and SqueamishnessEdit

This, passage is a reply to Bernard Williams [23] and it is famous for characterising intuitive resistance to utilitarianism as squeamishness. Smart uses an example in which a riot that would kill thousands is prevented by imprisoning an innocent man. Eventually, Smart 'bites the bullet', admitting that utilitarianism is sometimes unintuitive. Before doing so, however, he voices the relevant objections to anti-utilitarian thought experiments:

  • Punishing innocent people destroys "faith in the law"
  • When we consider doing injustice to someone, we intuitively give unbalanced consideration to their suffering
  • "In any empirically likely situation, there would be a better way of dealing with the situation"
  • "The sort of man who is most likely to behave in the most optimific way in normal circumstances is one who will find it hard and distasteful to do the act of injustice which is postulated in [this] case.

If a utilitarian finds himself in a thought experiment having to imprison one innocent man, he will be mentally conflicted. Smart acknowledges that this could cause lack of integrity, as per Williams' suggestion. Smart's point of difference is that in his view "I think that the utilitarian must be to sacrifice the harmony of his own mind for the good of others." The case is analogous to one in which I might have the knowledge to perform a life-saving operation, but in which I just could not bring myself to cut into human flesh. This would be weakness of will, however laudable (because generally optimistic) a squeamishness about cutting into human flesh would be in normal circumstances (supposing of course that I am not a medical person, who must learn to overcome such squeamishness). The man who is most likely to do the utilitarian thing in normal circumstances may not he the one who is likely to do the utilitarian thing in very out of the way circumstances." The idea is that a surgeon in training ought to persist with their work, in spite of any inner conflict. A utilitarian in extreme circumstances, can find himself in a similar position. Granted, sometimes he will fail to override his traditional ethical teaching, his intuition and so on. But is he then a utilitarian at all? Is he a subscriber to some compromise position between deontology and utilitarianism? In Smart's view, the man can continue to be called a utilitarian and his divergence from utilitarianism can be put down to "weakness of will". This is the same as if he submits to hunger when he knows it is not in his interests to eat.

Gregory S Kavka: Some Paradoxes of DeterrenceEdit

Kavka evaluates utilitarianism through the lens of nuclear deterrence[24]. In his paradoxical scenarios, a nation, N, can only prevent nuclear attack by the threat of nuclear retaliation. N would prefer not to fire nuclear weaponary, as this would take an immense toll on human life. However, N understands that the threat of retaliation will only work if it is genuinely intended. If N is only bluffing, its rivals will discover this through espionage, and N will be attacked. The paradox is that to prevent nuclear war, N must have an intention to do immense harm. This is a Special Deterrent Situation, a situation in which the agent knows that:

  • "it is likely he must intend (conditionally) to apply a harmful sanction to innocent people, if an extremely harmful and unjust offense is to be prevented"
  • "such an intention would very likely deter the offense"
  • "the amounts of harm involved in the offense and the threatened sanction are very large and of roughly similar quantity"
  • "he would have conclusive reasons not to apply the sanction if the offense were to occur"

By considering Special Deterrent Situations, Kavka figures that any reasonable system of ethics must be somewhat utilitarian. If one action, for example obtaining weapons that deter nuclear strikes, has much greater utility than the alternatives, then this utilitarian consideration takes dominates decision-making. Kavka says that utilitarian consideration is overriding when:

  1. a large amount of negative utility is at stake
  2. people will "suffer serious injustices", if the most useful act is not done.

In Kafka's view, prohibitions can be overriden only when the consequences would be catastrophic

Special Deterrent Situations as challenging three principles:

  • "Wrongful Intentions: To intend to do what one knows to be wrong is itself wrong."
  • "Right-Good: Doing something is right if and only if a morally good man would do the same thing in a given situation"'
  • "Virtue Preservation: It is wrong to deliberately lose (or reduce the degree of) one's moral virtue."

Kavka identifies some peculiar features of utilitarianism:

  • "Normally, an agent will form the intention to do something because he either desires doing that thing as an end in itself, or as a means to other ends. In such cases, little importance attaches to the distinction between intending and desiring to intend. But, in the case of deterrent intentions, the ground of the desire to form the intention is entirely distinct from any desire to carry it out. Thus, what may be inferred about the agent who seeks to form such an intention is this. He desires having the intention as a means of deterrence. Also, he is willing, in order to prevent the offense, to accept a certain risk that, in the end, he will apply the sanction."
  • "The principle of act evaluation usually employed in utilitarian systems is: in a given situation, one ought to perform the most useful act, that which will (or is expected to) produce the most utility. What will maximize utility depends upon the facts of the particular situation. Hence, as various philosophers have pointed out, the above principle could conceivably recommend one's (i) acting from nonutilitarian motives, (ii) advocating some nonutilitarian moral theory, or even (iii) becoming a genuine adherent of some nonutilitarian theory."

In the end, Kavka finds extreme Kantian and utilitarian positions unintuitive, while he identifies paradoxes with middle-ground positions. Thus, he is not able to find a satisfactory solution to Paradoxes of Deterrence.

Direct and Oblique StrategiesEdit

This chapter considers possible utilitarianism-evaluative foci for utilitarianism: act utilitarianism (J.J.C. Smart and Peter Singer), rule utilitaranism (Henry Sidgwick and D.H. Hodgson), two-level utilitarianism (R.M. Hare) motive utilitarianism (Robert M. Adams). The rest of its essays regard related objections and suggested changes to utilitarianism.

J.J.C. Smart: Act-Utilitarianism and Rule-UtilitarianismEdit

J.J.C Smart, whose essay argues in favour of act utilitarianism, begins by defining it and contrasting it with rule utilitarianism[25] "Act-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself. Rule-utilitarianism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the goodness and badness of the consequences of a rule that everyone should perform the action in like circumstances." Smart's objection to rule-utilitarianism is captured by the phrase "rule worship": "The rule-utilitarian presumably advocates' his principle because he is ultimately concerned with human happiness: why then should he advocate abiding by a rule when he knows that it will not in the present case be most beneficial to abide by it? The reply that in most cases it is most beneficial to abide by the rule seems irrelevant. And so is the reply that it would be better that everybody should abide by the rule than that nobody should. This is to suppose that the only alternative to "everybody does A" is "no one does A." But clearly we have the possibility "some people do A and some don't." Hence to refuse to break a generally beneficial rule in those cases in which it is not most beneficial to obey it seems irrational and to be a case of rule worship." Smart then shares David Lyon's argument that rule utilitarianism "collapses into act utilitarianism" The reason is that whatever rule, R, is specified, there is room for a new rule "do R, except for in circumstances C." Any rule can bear exceptions. Thus, whenever an act-utilitarian would break a rule, so would a rule-utilitarian. Thus, in Smart's opinion, "an adequate rule-utilitarianism would not only be extensionally equivalent to the act-utilitarian principle (i.e. would enjoin the same set of actions as it) but would in fact consist of one rule only, the act-utilitarian one: "maximize probable benefit."

Henry Sidgwick: Esoteric MoralityEdit

Henry Sidgwick explains that under utilitarianism, public and private morality differ[26]. First, Sidgwick considers when exceptions ought to be made for rules. He says that sometimes a rule suitable for individuals "defined by exceptional qualities of intellect, temperament, or character" is not "adapted for the community". Thus, introducing the rule could weaken the current morality. It could be dangerous. And it all depends how widely publicised the advice is. Under utilitarianism:

  • It can be right to do and privately reccommend what it would be wrong to advocate openly
  • It can be right to teach to somewhat what it would be wrong to teach to someone else
  • It can be right to do secretly what should not be advocated openly, or even advocated to a select audience.

These are paradoxical. How could an act be made right by becoming secret? The common opinion is that secrecy does not absolve an immoral act. There are strong utilitarian reasons to preserve this opinion. This opinion encourages bad acts to be done publicly, so that they can be met with dissaproval and so that this dissapproval can "operate" (so that it can deter bad acts). Therefore, the utilitarian conclusion is "that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret". And it seems that the idea of an esoteric morality—a morality for only the elite—ought itself to be kept esoteric. Alternatively, it may be desirable that common sense drives out utilitarianism so that its use is restricted to "an enlightened few". Utilitarians can even reasonably desire that common people reject some of their conclusions, or are oblivious to their entire system if their use of the utilitarian calculus would lead to bad results.

D.H. Hodgson: Is Act Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?Edit

Hodgson's contention is that if act utilitarianism was universally accepted rather than conventional morality, there would probably be worse consequences[27]. The idea is that "everyone knows that everyone else attempts with high rationality to act in accordance with act-utilitarianism, and so no one is concerned to criticize the conduct of others or to make demands of them." How can one keep promises without rules? For that matter, how could we play sport? If rules are lost altogether, it seems that the consequences would be poor. So, would rules somehow be followed by act utilitarians? Would they mostly keep promises, for example? For the purpose of explanation, Hodgson explains the two possible worlds:

  1. The act utilitarian principle generally requires conformance to rules. Then, conformance to the rules would be expected by act-utilitarians.
  2. The act utilitarian principle does not require conformance to rules. Then, conformance would not be expected by act-utilitarians.

Hodgson's understanding is that if there is no expectation for rules to be followed, then there is no reason for act utilitarians to follow the rules either. And a promise would become equal to merely mentioning a possible future action.

In non-act-utilitarian societies, there are many reasons to expect promises to be kept:

  • It is required by a conventional moral rule (not true in any act utilitarian society)
  • It is accepted by many as a personal rule (true in 1)
  • Most promises are kept (true in 1)
  • Some promisors are known to be trustworthy (true in 1)
  • To keep a promise usually has the best consequences (to be discussed)

Furthermore, there are many reasons to keep promises:

  • Because of the conventional moral rule, one loses respect by breaking promises (not true in any act utilitarian society)
  • Breaking promises may undermine confidence in the moral rule (not true in any act utilitarian society)
  • Breaking a promise has negative consequences because others expected the promise to be carried out and counted on it. Thus their actions are interrupted. (to be discussed)

But the last criterion should not apply, according to Hodgson, when exceptional circumstances require a promise to be broken, because noone would expect the promise to be carried out due to the exceptional circumstances. Thus, noone's actions would be interrupted. Note that Hodgson's argument relies on the unrealistic assumption that all of the act utilitarians being aware of all circumstances.

Hodgson extends his logic to discuss truth. In Hodgson's conception of an act-utilitarian society, individuals can either tell the truth or lie. And their choice depends on the utility involved. When someone recieves supposed truth, they have no idea whether they have been told the truth, because of its utility or a lie, because of its utility. "No one could take information communicated to him as more,likely to be true than false (or vice versa); and that therefore it would be pointless to attempt to communicate information to another." Without promises and communication, there could be "no human relationships as we know them".

Peter Singer: Is Act Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?Edit

Singer's essay addresses Hodgson's objection that act-utilitarians would not tell the truth or make promises [28]. Singer assumes that what is required is a slight reason for truth-telling to be more likely than lying. If a slight reason is found, act-utilitarians will start to expect the truth to be told more often. Then, they will have another reason to tell the truth, and so a positive spiral continues. He suggests five reasons that act-utilitarians would be inclined to tell the truth, or would not be inclined to lie:

  • Hodgson's logic only applies to questions with one true and one false answer (p. 214). Suppose B asks A when the bus departs. There are many ways for A's answer to be false, but only one way for it to be true. " if A tells B a fictitious time, B will treat this false information as false, but this cannot ensure, or even make it likely, that B will go to the bus stop at the right time". By telling B the true time, on the other hand, he has at least a 50% chance that B will believe him, a greater chance.
  • "if everyone were an act-utilitarian most of the reasons, selfish and unselfish, which we would otherwise have for lying would not exist" (p. 215). Instead of lying to manipulate someone, one could merely tell him or her the true reasons for the alternative desired behaviour, and they would do it.
  • If a mere remark is made (e.g. "There is a very good film on at the local cinema this week"), one must be at least a fraction more likely to take this at face value than to invert it, because of the mental energy required.
  • Thinking of a plausible lie itself requires energy.
  • "It would be justifiably on act-utilitarian grounds to take steps to form a social practice of telling the truth... Any steps toward the formation of these practices would have the good consequences of making desirable activities possible."

Donald H. Regan: Utilitarianism and CooperationEdit

Donald H. Regan conceieves a utilitarianism in which the moral enterprise is communal[29]. A group of utilitarians eliminate those who are not co-operating, and will examine each other a few times. Then, once the community is formed, people go about maximising happiness. He contrasts this with act utilitarianism as follows: "There is no reference in the act-utilitarian principle itself to the need for co-operation or to the fact that producing good consequences is a task which many moral agents share. To be sure, act-utilitarianism requires each agent to engage, when he has the opportunity, in behaviour which will improve others' behaviour or which will increase the likelihood of desirable co-ordination. Each agent should try to influence others to better behaviour, to enter into useful agreements, and so on. But there is still a fundamental dichotomy between the agent's own behaviour and everyone else's. The point of view embodied in the act-utilitarian's ultimate criterion of right behaviour is the point of view of one agent alone. It is not the point of view of an agent who is participating in a joint effort." His analogy is to a chorus. In rule utilitarianism, the individuals know their part, but ignore each other. For true success, the chorus must tune together, breathe together and so on.

Samuel Scheffler: Agent-Centred PrerogativesEdit

Samuel Scheffler's essay attempts to fuse consequentialist and agent-centred theories[30]. The former is self-explanatory. The latter includes theories that allow or required agents can or must follow their life plans. His two candidates for this task are sophisticated consequentialism and hybrid theories. In the sophisticated consequentialist approach, satisfaction of life plans is included in the definition of utility. So, we are all required to cause as many people as possible to fulfil their plans. Suppose there is an agent who will endure hardship. This hardship is assigned a value and is fed into the impersonal calculus. Thus it has been considered. But this is unlikely to exhaust [the agent's] own feeling about the matter", which, in Scheffler's view, is a problem. In Scheffler's favoured view, the hybrid conception, individuals are never forbidden to produce the best consequences. But they are not required to do so either. They are permitted to behave according to their own life plans. Thus Scheffler's approach favours liberation over maximisation. At any rate, in Scheffler's view, both the sophisticated consequentialist and hybrid approaches include some elements missing from ordinary consequentialism:

  • The importance of the natural fact of personal independence
  • The personal point of view

Here is the summary of Scheffler's terminology:

Theory Description Strategy
Hybrid (preferred by Scheffler) There is an agent-centred prerogative: one is permitted, but not required to produce the best consequences Liberation
Sophisticated consequentialist One is required to cause as many people as possible to fulfil their plans Maximisation

R.M. Hare: Levels of Moral ThinkingEdit

R. M. Hare seeks to describe two levels of moral principles[31]. Level 1 principles are,

  • ready for use in an emergency
  • part of our moral education
  • general

Level 2 principles are:

  • arrived at by "by leisured moral thought in completely adequate knowledge of the facts, as the right answer in a specific case."
  • act utilitarian. Another way of putting this is that they are rule-utilitarian with infinitely specific rules. (p. 233)

Imagine an archangel, an individual with perfect information and powers of moral reasoning. The archangel should always use level 2 principles, he has no need to approximate level 2 reasoning with level 1 principles. Now imagine this archangel has children. They do not share his powers and he will not always be with them. So what should he do? He should not his children only level 2 principles as they would misapply them. They would engage in self-deception, favouring their self-interest. They would struggle to find the time and the information required for level 2 reasoning. Thus, the archangel should start by teaching his children level 1 reasoning. He ought to give them level 2 reasoning too because:

  • It will help the children to weigh level 1 principles against each other
  • It will help the children in highly unusual situations for which level 1 principles are not designed
  • It will help the children to select new level 1 principles to teach future generations. The archangel's children not merely pass what they learnt on to their children. Rather, the world will have changed over the intervening decades. So the level 1 principles should be readjusted to approximate the conclusions of perfect level 2 reasoning.

Hare then pauses to clarify his terminology. The right action is the one that turns out best; the rational action is the one that is likely to do so given the agent's limited information. He also recognises a distinction between right and good actions. A good action is what a virtuous person would do, even if this is wrong for an all-knowing, benevolent person. For various reasons, virtuous agents sometimes do the wrong thing:

  1. They may recognise that they their time, knowledge or powers of reasoning are limited. So, they decide to act according to level 1 principles. This is rational but not right.
  2. They may find themselves unable to break a level 1 principle, even though they know that they should. This is neither rational nor right.

And there are sure to be more possibilities. Hare's final contention is that the conflict between level 1 and level 2 thinking can explain a lot of the history of moral philosophy:

Level-l thinking forms the greater part of the moral thinking of good men, and perhaps the whole of the moral thinking of good men who have nothing of the philosopher in them, including some of our philosophical colleagues. Such are the intuitionists, to whom their good ingrained principles seem to be sources of unquestionable knowledge. Others of a more enquiring bent will ask why they should accept these intuitions, and, getting no satisfactory answer, will come to the conclusion that the received principles have no ground at all and that the only way to decide what you ought to do is to reason it out on each occasion. Such people will at best become a crude kind of act-utilitarians. Between these two sets of philosophers there will be the sort of ludicrous battles that we have been witnessing so much of. The philosopher who understands the situation better will see that both are right about a great deal and that they really ought to make up their quarrel. They are talking about different levels of thought, both of which are necessary on appropriate occasions.

Robert Merrithew Adams: Motive UtilitarianismEdit

Adams suggests that a perfect person is one who has the most useful patterns of motivation[32]. He explains the difference between act utilitarianism and his motive utilitarianism by way of example. Jack is visiting the cathedral at Chartes. He enjoys inspecting the statues there so much that he spends his whole day there. Unfortunately, this causes him to miss his dinner, have to do night driving and have trouble finding a place to sleep. Had he just left on time, he would have been much happier. Indeed, by the time he reached the last few statues, he was tired. He neither enjoyed or remembered them much. Although he knew he would be happier if he went home, he was interested in staying, and so he did. From an act-utilitarian perspective, this was wrong. But there's more to it. Indirectly, one's motives alter one's enjoyment: It may very well be that his caring more about seeing the cathedral than about maximizing utility has augmented utility, through enhancing his enjoyment, by more than it has diminished utility through leading him to spend too much time at Chartres. So, staying at the Chartes is right according to motive utilitarianism but not according to act utilitarianism.

In this view, a "great concern to squeeze out the last drop of utility is likely to be a great impediment to the enjoyment of life." Roughly speaking, we should maximise happiness while averting our eyes from it.

In Adams' view, one can be both an act and motive utilitarian at once. To the question of whether it is always good to apply the felicific calculus, the act and motive utilitarian says that it is "sometimes better to be relatively uninterested in considerations of utility"

So to recap Adams' position: "Having such a conscience, he would be strongly concerned (1) not to act in ways gravely detrimental to utility, and (2) not to be in a bad motivational state. If he performs a mildly unutilitarian action as an inevitable consequence of the most useful motivation that he can have, on the other hand, he is still living as well as possible, by his over-all utilitarian standards; and there is no reason why such action should undermine his determination to live well."

The next challenge that Adams anticipates is that one cannot be both motive utilitarian and act utilitarian simultaneously. Behaving with the best motives will mean knowingly acting so as not to maximise happiness. Here is Adams' solution: It is "not morally wrong, in general, to fail to maximise utility by a small margin". Then, most moral choices are just judged by their motives.

He then flags the possibility that one might evaluate one's conscience, rather than one's motive. That is, we should do what is demanded of us by the most useful kind of conscience we could have. Lastly, he repudiates global utilitarianism: "The moral point of view-the point of view from which moral judgments are made-cannot safely be defined as a point of view in which the test of utility is applied directly to all objects of moral evaluation. For it is doubtful that the most useful motives, and the most useful sort of conscience, are related to the most useful acts in the way that the motives, and especially the kind of conscience, regarded as right must be related to the acts regarded as right in anything that is to count as a morality. And therefore it is doubtful that direct application of the test of utility to everything results in a system that counts as a morality."

Lastly, Adams dinstinguishes individualistic motive utilitarianism from uiversalistic motive utilitarianism. In the former, the better motive is the one that has greater utility on a particular occasion. In the latter, the better motive is the one that people would be more likely to have on any occasion.


  1. The full pdf can be accessed here:
  2. Principia Ethica, Chapter 3
  3. From The Methods of Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 13, and Book 4, Chapters 2 and 3.
  4. Moral Thinking, Chapter 6
  5. From A. J. Ayer: "The Principle of Utility," in A. J. Ayer: Philosophical Essays.
  6. From R. B. Brandt: A Theory of the Right and the Good, Chapter 12
  7. From Rohert Nozick: Anarchy, State and Utoph, Chapter 3
  8. Felilpe's blog post with an attached paper
  9. John Stuart Mill: Autobiography, Chapter 5.
  10. The DSM-IV criteria for depression. Mill met most of these
  11. From James Griffin: Well-Being, Its Meaning, Meosuremmt and Moral Importance, Chapters 1 and 2.
  12. From Amartya Sen: "Rights and Agency," Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1982.
  13. John Stuart Mill On Liberty, Chapter 3
  14. From John Rawls: A Theory of Justice, section 5.
  15. From Derek Parfit "Reasons and Persons" Chapter 15
  16. From Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, Chapter 9.
  17. From H.L.A. Hart: "Between Utility and Rights," in Alan Ryan (ed.): The Idea of Freedom.
  18. From Amartya Sen: "Rights and Agency," Phihsnphy and Public Affairs, 1982.
  19. From John Harris, "The Survival Lottery," Philosophy, 1975.
  20. From Jan Nameson, "Utilitarianism and New Generations," Mind, 1967.
  21. From Stuart Hampshire: Morality and Pessimism.
  22. From A Critique of Utilitarianism in Utilitarianism: For and Against by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams.
  23. From J. J. C. Smart, "Utilitarianism and Justice," Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 1978
  24. From Gregory S. Kavka: Some Paradoxes of Deterrence, Journal of Philosophy, 1978.
  25. From J. J. C. Smart, "An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics," in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism, For and Against.
  26. From Henry Sidgwick: The Methods of Ethics, Book 4, Chapter 5.
  27. From D. H. Hodgson: Consequences of Utilitarianism, Chapter 2
  28. From Peter Singer, Is Act-Utilitarianism Self-Defeating? Philosophical Review, 1972.
  29. From Donald H. Regan: Utilitarianism and Co-operation, Chapters 10 and 12.
  30. From Samuel Scheffler: The Rejection of Consequentialism, chapters 1 and 3
  31. From R. M. Hare, "Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism," in H. D. Lewis (ed.): Contemporary British Philosophy, Fourth Series.
  32. From Rohert Merrihew Adams, "Motive Utilitarianism,"Journal of Philosaphy, 1976.