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The Limits of Utilitarianism

The Limits of Utilitarianism

Harlan B. Miller
William H. Williams
Copyright Date: 1982
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Limits of Utilitarianism
    Book Description:

    Many philosophers have argued that utilitarianism is an unacceptable moral theory and that promoting the general welfare is at best only one of the legitimate goals of public policy. Utilitarian principles seem to place no limits on the extent to which society may legitimately interfere with a person’s liberties - provided that such actions can be shown to promote the long-term welfare of its members. These issues have played a central role in discussions of utilitarianism since the time of Bentham and Mill. Despite criticisms, utilitarianism remains the most influential and widely accepted moral theory of recent times. In this volume contemporary philosophers address four aspects of utilitarianism: the principle of utility; utilitarianism vis-à-vis contractarianism; welfare; and voluntary cooperation and helping others. The editors provide an introduction and a comprehensive bibliography that covers all books and articles published in utilitarianism since 1930.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6370-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)
    William H. Williams

    The traditional questions about utilitarianism are still with us. In the main they comprise the agenda of current debate. Is the final test of conduct the good or evil that results therefrom? If so, how might that be demonstrated, and what is the good by which conduct is to be appraised? Is the good the same as happiness, or the satisfaction of desires, or something else? How might we establish the answer to that question? If goodness is the test of conduct, how does the test apply? What precisely is the bearing of goodness (or of evil) on the morality...

  5. Section I: The Principle of Utility

    • [Section I Introduction]
      (pp. 19-22)

      The papers in this section are concerned mainly with the meaning, status, and justification of some version or other of the principle of utility. All of them, moreover, address these issues through the examination of classical sources, especially the works of J. S. Mill and Henry Sidgwick.

      Although utilitarianism is understood to be a theory chiefly about what makes actions right or wrong, what has been advanced as “the principle of utility” has not always been a principle of right action: one asserting that the rightness of actions is determined by the value of their consequences or by their conformity...

    • 1 Mill’s “Proof” of the Principle of Utility
      (pp. 23-34)
      Henry R. West

      Utilitarianism, in every one of its forms or formulations, requires a theory for the evaluation of consequences. Whether the units of behavior being judged are acts, rules, practices, attitudes, or institutions, to judge them by their utility, that is, by their contribution to good or bad ends, requires a theory of what count as good or bad ends. In the philosophies of the classical utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, some variety of hedonism served this purpose. Mill calls this

      the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded —namely that pleasure, and freedom from pain,...

    • 2 Egalitarianism and the General Happiness
      (pp. 35-41)
      John Marshall

      It is commonly supposed as beyond dispute that utilitarianism is a maximizing theory, that the utility to be promoted, directly by individual actions, indirectly by moral rules, moral virtues, or public institutions, is maximum utility, either maximum utility altogether (on the classical view) or maximum average utility (on most modern views). J. S. Mill’sUtilitarianismis read, sometimes one way, sometimes the other, but it is almost always read in one wayorthe other. Of course, utilitarianism, in many of its traditional and perhaps in all its modern elaborations is a maximizing theory. And it is anything but forced...

    • 3 Benevolence and Justice in Mill
      (pp. 42-70)
      David Lyons

      Mill devotes the last and longest chapter of his essay onUtilitarianismto justice.¹ Along with his critics he recognizes that justice creates severe problems for his moral theory. But, whereas he regards justice as important, he does not think it is the whole of morality. In fact, he warns against “merging all morality in justice” by ignoring other moral obligations, such as those of “charity,” “generosity,” and “beneficence”(U,V, 15).

      Mill provides no general name for the moral obligations that fall outside the realm of justice; his few comments as well as his utilitarianism suggest the term “benevolence.”...

    • 4 Inchoately Utilitarian Common Sense: The Bearing of a Thesis of Sidgwick’s on Moral Theory
      (pp. 71-85)
      Allan Gibbard

      One of the central theses of Sidgwick’sMethods of Ethicsis that the morality of common sense is “inchoately and imperfectly utilitarian” (IV.iii.2, p. 427).¹ This is an intriguing thesis, and part of what I want to do in this paper is to ask what the content of the thesis might be. What I principally want to do is to explore the normative implications of the thesis: to ask whether the thesis, if true, would give us any reason to be utilitarian.

      Sidgwick’s claim is not that the morality of common sense is precisely utilitarian.

      Utilitarians are rather called upon...

    • 5 Utilitarianism and Unconscious Utilitarianism
      (pp. 86-98)
      A. John Simmons

      The most prominent claim in Book IV of Sidgwick’sThe Methods of Ethicsis that “the Morality of Common Sense may be truly represented as at least unconsciously Utilitarian.”¹ Sidgwick presents this claim as an important step in the only possible “proof” of utilitarianism, and hence as having considerably more significance than one might normally attribute to an observation about “positive morality.” Similarly, Mill’sUtilitarianismsuggests in several places that a convincing defense of utilitarianism relies in part on showing that common-sense morality is at heart utilitarian. In Chapter V, for instance, Mill undertakes to demonstrate that the demands made...

  6. Section II: Utilitarianism and Contractarianism

    • 6 Utilitarianism and Contractarianism
      (pp. 101-114)
      B. J. Diggs

      Until recently contractarianism was not widely regarded as a moral philosophy although traditional contract theorists often discussed morality more than government. The early parts of Rousseau’sSocial Contract,for example, read better as moral than as political philosophy, not that the two should be wholly separated. Contractarianism in moral philosophy is a kind of ethical formalism; as such, it is theoretically compatible with a number of other views, including some kinds of utilitarianism. Rawls says as much when he mentions the possibility of using some form of contract theory to defend utilitarianism.

      A form of contractarianism will be developed here...

    • 7 Fairness to “Justice as Fairness”
      (pp. 115-127)
      Alan E. Fuchs

      John Rawls’sA Theory of Justice¹ expounds a potentially viable and certainly influential contemporary alternative to utilitarianism. Rawls confesses, moreover, that his desire to present just such an alternative ethical system motivates his exposition and defense of a contractarian normative theory (viii), and his attempt to demonstrate the preferability of “justice as fairness” vis-à-vis classical utilitarianism informs many of the central arguments of his book.² I therefore propose to look at one central feature of Rawls’s work in the light of this overall objective. I shall argue that, as they are articulated and applied in his theory, Rawls’s distinctive views...

    • 8 Rawls and Utilitarianism
      (pp. 128-143)
      Jan Narveson

      The major polemical concern of John Rawl’s by now celebratedA Theory of Justice(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1971) is utilitarianism. On the very first pages of the preface (vii-viii; henceforth all numbers in parentheses in this essay refer to pages or sections of that book), he observes that in modern times the “predominant systematic theory” of justice has been “some form of utilitarianism,” whereas his own theory offers an “alternative systematic account of justice that is superior, or so I argue, to the dominant utilitarianism of the tradition.” Many pages and whole sections of the book are devoted to working...

    • 9 On the Refutation of Utilitarianism
      (pp. 144-164)
      David Gauthier

      Modern normative social thought treats ethics as part of the general theory of rational behavior.¹ It has been argued by thinkers from Bentham to Harsanyi that theonlytheory of ethics consistent with acceptable conceptions of value and reason is utilitarianism.² I hold that on the contrary, utilitarian ethical theory isincompatiblewith the accounts of value and rationality characteristic of modern economic and social thought. This claim is too large to demonstrate in the present paper. Rather, I hope to establish a much more modest thesis —that the most subtle and sophisticated defense of utilitarianism as uniquely rational, that...

  7. Section III: Welfare
    (pp. 165-168)

    Since utilitarianism prescribes the maximization, in some sense, of welfare, its significance and its usefulness as a guide for action turn in part on what notion of welfare it uses. The most widely accepted notion of welfare in recent times is that of the satisfaction of desires. It is not clear, however, that utilitarianism can provide a plausible or even coherent account of morality if it is formulated in terms of the maximization of desire-satisfaction. First of all, getting what one wants does not always make one happier or, in any recognizable way, better off. Second, if getting what one...

  8. Section IV: Utilitarianism and the Moral Community

    • 13 Benevolence, Collective Action, and the Provision of Public Goods
      (pp. 209-216)
      Rolf sartorius

      Numerous instances may be cited in which voluntary cooperation among a number of individuals would be sufficient, and might be necessary, to achieve shared social goals. Some familiar and important examples: prevention of inflation, preservation of scarce natural resources, control of population growth and pollution, widespread political participation in a democratic society.

      In spite of the important differences among them, these examples share the following significant features: (1) Properly coordinated actions on the part of some but not all of the members of a group are sufficient to provide each member of the group with a social good that each...

    • 14 The Free-Rider Problem
      (pp. 217-224)
      Lawrence C. Becker

      People are often uneasy about the utilitarian requirement:Act so as to maximize aggregate welfare.The emphasis on the welfare of all is, of course, one of the things that distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism. But one may be unsatisfied with egoism,¹ be satisfied that a concern for aggregate welfare is the proper direction to take, and yet be wary of the level of self-sacrifice implicit in the utilitarian requirement.² That is why Invisible Hand theses are a constant source of fascination. If, for a large range of important cases, the way to maximize aggregate welfare is for each person to...

    • 15 Utilitarianism and Aiding Others
      (pp. 225-241)
      Dan W. Brock

      Utilitarianism is the moral view that right action is that action among alternatives open to an agent that will produce at least as much utility as any other alternative. For this quite general and abstract principle to become a precise moral theory, a number of rather complex issues must be resolved, among them the account of utility to be adopted, the way in which utility is to be interpersonally measured, the criteria for delineation of alternatives and consequences, the way in which rules may enter into calculations, and so forth. For the purposes of this paper I shall assume utilitarians...

    • 16 Utilitarianism and World Poverty
      (pp. 242-252)
      Thomas L. Carson

      Act utilitarianism is a moral theory that states that one ought always to act so as to bring about the best possible balance of good consequences relative to bad ones. Most utilitarians hold that the only things that are instrinsically good or bad are the well-being and ill-being of human beings and other sentient creatures. According to this view, an agent’s own interests are not entitled to any special weight in determining what he ought to do. One ought to promote the general welfare even if it is contrary to one’s own self-interest. In principle, there is no limit to...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-300)
  10. Index
    (pp. 303-316)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 317-317)