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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 6: The Alleged Problem of Aggregation

Leland B. Yeager


THE CHARGE OF AGGREGATION This chapter is the first of two that face some leading criticisms of utilitarianism. One might conceivably accuse utilitarianism of being too individualistic, perhaps because its British champions of the early nineteenth century, the “philosophical radicals”, generally advocated free-market policies. More recently, Ludwig von Mises forthrightly advocated both utilitarianism and economic laissez-faire. Nowadays, however, roughly opposite charges are more common. Utilitarianism is said to be collectivist in spirit: it aims at maximizing an aggregate of measurable and interpersonally comparable individual utilities, even without regard to their distribution. It would unfairly sacrifice the utility of some persons for the supposed greater utility of others. At their most superficial, critics imagine utilitarians going around looking for opportunities to murder redheads to gratify the multitude or to excuse rape when the rapist’s pleasure outweighs the victim’s distress (Rothbard 1982, pp. 202, 211, 212; Machan 1989, pp. 64-5, 219 n. 5). More respectable examples of the charge surfaced at a conference held in 1989 to celebrate James Buchanan’s seventieth birthday. Several participants faulted utilitarianism for taking as its criterion not the diverse welfares of actual individuals as experienced by each but rather some impersonal aggregate utility. John Gray warned against “a consequentialist or utilitarian conception of the market as maximiser of aggregate welfare” (1989BoL, p. 12). Assessing such charges requires some distinctions, including one between identified lives and statistical lives (made by Thomas Schelling 1968). Almost any action or policy, compared with an alternative, puts some persons at a disadvantage....

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