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Utilitarianism: Restorations; Repairs; Renovations

  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Utilitarianism, belaboured by repeated counterexamples, has fallen out of favour as an ethical theory. InUtilitarianism: Restorations; Repairs; Renovations, noted Canadian philosopher David Braybrooke revisits Jeremy Bentham's master idea that statistical evidence should determine social policies, and ? perhaps surprisingly, given Braybooke's recent championship of natural law ? dispels the discredit that standard versions of utilitarianism have invited.

    On the issue between rule-utilitarianism (which gives due weight to rules) and act-utilitarianism (which does not), Braybrooke argues that act-utilitarianism cannot be carried out even in principle except under the auspices of rules. He shows that the problem with not knowing all consequences ahead of time vanishes if decisions are subject to continual rounds of revision. Invoking the elementary statistical principle that groups should not be changed in membership just to get more favourable results, he disposes of the accusation that utilitarianism prescribes gratuitous life-sacrifices.

    Substituting comparative censuses for the hedonistic calculus that figures in standard utilitarianism, Braybrooke excludes gratuitous sacrifices also of happiness short of life-sacrifices. The census notion is proof against the self-contradictory advice that the calculus sometimes supplies. Moreover, it readily accommodates evidence about happiness and needs, both better pursued by dropping the notion of utility. Recast in these ways, utilitarianism takes on a very different guise from the standard versions; it is notwithstanding a guise congenial to Bentham's master idea, and its affinity with the utilitarian tradition and ordinary language shows up in the full intelligibility that it gives to the slogan, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8298-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    In this book, I bring together for revision and supplementation my chief writings, early and late, on the subject of utilitarianism. The result is an account that gives utilitarianism a new look. What is new about the new look?

    By ʹnew,ʹ I have in mind not so much the dates of my writings, or even the date of bringing them together, as the fact that the chief ideas that shape my view of utilitarianism have not so far established an easily visible place for themselves in the standard literature. Though I have had some success with the separate writings, I...

  4. Part One: Restorations and Repairs That Leave Utility and the Calculus in Place

    • 1 Does Utilitarianism (Benthamʹs Master-Idea, Applied as Hedonic Act-Utilitarianism or Otherwise) Undermine Reliable Adherence to Moral Rules? No
      (pp. 11-41)

      Hedonic Act-Utilitarianism (a name I owe to Judith Jarvis Thomson¹) is an interpretation of Benthamʹs position that captures the features of utilitarianism most commonly ascribed to it in the literature. It assumes that it is possible to calculate the pleasures and pains attributable to individual persons affected by given actions and to add up those pleasures and pains across all the persons affected. It prescribes that those actions the effects of which so calculated and so added up bring about a net sum of pleasure greater than would be brought about by any action alternative to them (or at least...

    • 2 Does Utilitarianism (Benthamʹs Master-Idea, Applied as Hedonic Act-Utilitarianism or Otherwise) Require Perfect Information about Consequences, Leaving Coordination Problems Aside? No
      (pp. 42-79)

      Nietzsche dismissed utilitarianism (hateful to him anyway as an expression of British commercialism and petty-mindedness), because as he reasonably (but mistakenly) thought, it calls for knowing the truth about all the consequences of any proposed action, which is impossible. Thus, as he too hastily concluded, utilitarianism is a theory with no possibility of application, Benthamʹs innovating efforts and expectations notwithstanding. In a Note of 1888, published withThe Will to Power, he says, The value of an act must be measured by its consequences, the utilitarians say ... But does one know the consequences? Perhaps as far as five steps....

    • 3 Does Utilitarianism (Benthamʹs Master-Idea, Applied – If It Is Applied as Hedonic Act-Utilitarianism, Only with Qualifications That May Be Ascribed to Him) Ever Endorse Sacrificing Someoneʹs Life to Make Other People Happy? No
      (pp. 80-100)

      The objection about sacrificing someoneʹs life simply to obtain a higher aggregate happiness score is the most electrifying familiar objection to utilitarianism. It has obtained vivid expression in the notorious case of organ transfer – medical cannibalization, which I take from the Afterword to the collection of Judith Jarvis Thomsonʹs essaysRights, Restitution, and Risk:¹ ʹA surgeon has five patients who will die unless they are provided with certain essential bodily parts. A young man has just come in for his yearly check-up, and his parts will do: the surgeon can cut him up and transplant his parts among the...

  5. Part Two: A Renovation That, Accommodating Utility Still, Replaces the Calculus with the Census-Notion

    • 4 Does Utilitarianism (Benthamʹs Master-Idea, Applied Not as Hedonic Act-Utilitarianism, but in Association with the Census-Notion Rather Than the Calculus) Ever Require Substantial Gratuitous Sacrifices of Happiness on the Part of Some People to Make Other People Happier? No
      (pp. 103-130)

      The preceding chapter exculpated Benthamʹs Master-Idea and with it utilitarianism as Bentham thought of it from the charge that it permitted, even prescribed, sacrificing on occasion the life of one person (reducing anyoneʹs own natural lifespan) in order just to promote the happiness (increase the natural lifespan) of others. The statistical principle that I mainly relied on for this purpose does not, unfortunately, preclude sacrifices short of life, even sacrifices that make the rest of the lives of those who make them utterly miserable. For that principle basically requires only that the population whose happiness is at issue not be...

  6. Part Three: A Renovation That Makes Provision for Needs Prior to Concern with Utility

    • 5 Does Utilitarianism (Benthamʹs Master-Idea) Fail Because of Problems about the Intelligible Systematic Use of the Concept of Utility? No
      (pp. 133-172)

      Benthamʹs original purpose, to hold actions and social policies accountable to effective evidence of their impacts on human welfare, has proved cogent enough to enable utilitarianism to survive a long-standing embarrassment about the evidence of such impacts, namely, the embarrassment about not being able to make anything effective in practical application of the felicific calculus. Utilitarianism has even survived more recent embarrassments about evidence. One comes from redefining utility as simply a matter of realizing preferences and then in consequence foundering in the renunciations of welfare economics, reduced to silence with the Pareto Welfare Principle whenever a conflict of preferences...

  7. Envoi
    (pp. 173-174)

    When I was beginning in philosophy, I made my way to Oxford, after an appropriate preparation at Cornell, and found myself studying and practising ordinary language philosophy in its all too brief heyday. I took instruction from J.L. Austin, who was propounding, and himself setting an example of heeding, the maxim that before embarking on innovative theories about concepts, philosophers should look carefully first at how the concepts (and cousin-concepts) worked in ordinary language. I think what I have done in my treatment of Bentham′s Master-Idea is show that by disregarding Austin′s maxim, chiefly by ignoring the census-notion (which Austin...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 175-200)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-204)
  10. Index
    (pp. 205-212)