From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present
- New Thinking in Political Economy series
Broadly speaking, utilitarianism is the view that social policy can be reduced to a kind of calculation of the consequences of alternative courses of action. Just exactly what is being calculated and how one measures those anticipated consequences is itself a matter of dispute among holders of utilitarianism. The well documented problems with utility can be summarized as follows: we cannot appeal to consequences without knowing how to rank the impact of different approaches with regard to different moral interests (liberty, equality, prosperity, security, and so on); we cannot appeal to preference satisfaction unless one already grants how one will correct preferences and compare rational versus impassioned preferences, as well as calculate the discount rate for preferences over time; appeals to disinterested observers, hypothetical choosers, or hypothetical contractors will not avail because if such decision-makers are truly disinterested, they will choose nothing. If we choose in a particular way, we must already be fitted out with a particular moral sense or a thin theory of the good. Any intuition can be met with contrary intuitions; any particular balancing of claims can be countered with a different approach to achieving a balance; in order to appeal for guidance to any account of moral rationality one must already have secured content for that moral rationality. In short, it begs every question. Jeremy Bentham was among the first to proclaim utilitarianism, and he influenced the development of economics in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century.
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