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Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

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.
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Chapter 4: The Case for Indirect Utilitarianism

Leland B. Yeager


THE MEANING OF UTILITARIANISM Philosophers sometimes ask which takes precedence, “the right” or “the good”. It seems noble to say “the right” on the grounds that nothing morally wrong can be good. But this answer is superficial and circular, failing to identify the grounds for judgments of right and wrong. Some notions of good (and bad) must enter into these judgments, so good does take precedence over right. This is true anyway, according to utilitarian doctrine. This book expounds one version, a rules or indirect version, in contrast with act utilitarianism. (This chapter will further distinguish between varieties of utilitarianism.) Utilitarianism compares and appraises alternative sets of institutions, laws, traditions, patterns and maxims of behavior, and personal dispositions and character traits. Only sets of realistically possible and mutually compatible characteristics and practices are in the running; a set with mutually inconsistent features is out of the question. (Again, ought presupposes can.) Positive analysis - economics, political science, sociology, psychology, and the natural sciences - helps in judging whether particular institutions, rules, practices, and character traits are or are not consistent with one another. Utilitarianism approves or disapproves of institutions and principles according to whether they tend to support or to subvert a society that affords people relatively good opportunities to make satisfying lives for themselves. Ones that facilitate fruitful cooperation among individuals pursuing their own diverse specific ends score ahead of ones that cause clashes. (The comparative-institutions approach to policy assessment, further explored in Chapter 11, is thus closely related...

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