Developments in Major Fields of Economics
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 40: Utilitarianism and anti-utilitarianism
While there is wide variation in utilitarian approaches to ethics, they are united by their endorsement of the following general principle: the morally right action is judged through the goodness of its outcomes for society, and, conversely, what is good for society is based on what is good for individuals. Utilitarianism, as a family of philosophical theories, has been the most powerful and pervasive approach in the development of economics since the marginalist revolution. Utilitarianism was developed in the eighteenth century and then fully articulated in the nineteenth, designed to do good to the world not from the point of view of the Christian church or any religion, but rather from a secular point of view based on rational thought. It was conceived as a way to think about the legal system, and to improve it on the basis of a single coherent rational and acceptable principle, that of the utility principle. It hence may be used to think about the constitution, about civil and penal laws, and, last but not least, any kind of policy judgment whether economic or social. Economics has endorsed some important aspects of utilitarianism ever since the 18th century. In particular, welfare economics, and hence virtually every public policy recommendation formulated by economists, has for years been influenced by utilitarianism in some manner, albeit not always explicitly recognized. The efforts to get away from utilitarianism may even explain aspects of the evolution of welfare economics.
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