Ethics as Social Science

Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

New Thinking in Political Economy series

Leland B. Yeager

With this important book, esteemed economist Leland B. Yeager grounds moral and political philosophy in the requirements of a well-functioning society, one whose members reap the gains from peaceful cooperation while pursuing their own diverse goals.

Chapter 7: Is Utilitarianism Immoral?

Leland B. Yeager

Subjects: economics and finance, austrian economics, political economy, public choice theory, politics and public policy, political economy, public choice


UNWORTHY PLEASURES AND SCHADENFREUDE Critics charge utilitarianism not only with pernicious aggregation but also with miscellaneous immoralities. Rolf Sartorius sees three “central and unanswerable” objections to “any form” of utilitarian theory (1984, p. 197). His making them is remarkable because he had published an eminently sensible book on utilitarianism in 1975. His first objection is familiar: utilitarianism aims at maximizing an aggregate measure “totally insensitive to distributional considerations except insofar as they are causally relevant”. Second, it takes all sources of dissatisfaction and satisfaction at face value, including both envy and “what Bentham without any apparent embarrassment described as ‘pleasures of malevolence.’ ” Third, it reduces all moral considerations “to one common dimension such as preference-satisfaction or happiness in the sense that Bentham understood it”. It does not distinguish between urgent objective needs and strong subjective preferences and does not recognize that family members have any greater claim on a person’s property than strangers in equal need. Although applying his charges to all forms of utilitarianism, Sartorius specifically cites no writer here other than Bentham (1789/1948, p. 36). He says that all utilitarians conceive of happiness as Bentham did, even though John Stuart Mill provides an obvious counterexample (recall Chapter 4 and the appendix to Chapter 6). Sartorius’s sweeping charges exemplify the familiar error of defining utilitarianism by some of the worst strands of its worst versions. Sartorius’s second charge invites elaboration. Nicholas Rescher had already made it in 1975, also failing to name specific guilty utilitarians. Rescher noted paradoxes arising...

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