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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 10: Rivals of Utilitarianism

Leland B. Yeager


CLASSIFYING DOCTRINES Often the exposition of a doctrine gains from contrast with alternatives. Dutyoriented ethics claimed attention ahead of the other rivals examined here. Rival ethical doctrines may differ in their epistemologies and in their perceptions of reality. Disagreements over empirical fact and over chains of reasoning can in principle be narrowed by further observation and discussion, since reality and logic must ultimately be the same for all competent and honest investigators willing to revise their judgments as knowledge accrues. Even the doctrine whose supreme value is conformity to God’s will must attend to the existence of God, what his will is, how it is known, and how the facts of our world condition the details of its application. With errors of perception and logic capable in principle of being corrected, enduring doctrinal differences must ultimately trace to fundamental value judgments. (Admittedly, though, “ultimate” agreement on all questions of fact may lie only in the remote future.) This chapter’s closing section faces the charge that utilitarianism is “vacuous”. It lists some alternatives to the utilitarian fundamental value judgment. The question of an alternative attitude is illuminating, particularly when pressed onto adherents of natural-rights and contractarian approaches to ethics. Within the category of utilitarianism, alternatives exist to the rules or indirect version expounded here. “Consequentialism” is a broader category: actions, institutions, precepts, character traits, and so forth are to be appraised by their consequences, understanding which requires empirical analysis. One can imagine versions of consequentialism that differ in their specific conceptions...

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