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Joon Ho Kang
" Ma x i mi z a t i o n and E q u a l i t y :

An Ex a mi n a t i o n o f

U t i l i t a r i a n R e s p o n s e s t o Rawls and Other C r i t i c s "

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MAXIMIZATION AND EQUALITY:


AN EXAMINATION OF
UTILITARIAN RESPONSES
TO RAWLS AND OTHER CRITICS

A Thesis
Submitted to the Faculty
of
Purdue University
by
Joon Ho Kang

In Partial Fulfillment of the


Requirement for the Degree
of
Doctor o f Philosophy

December 2003

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To My Mother

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Since I entered the doctorate program of Purdue University in August 1999,1


have received more help than anyone could possibly expect, from my family. My
grandmother, who has no knowledge of philosophy, has always encouraged me to
continue my study. I thank her for her constant faith in me. My mothers sisters helped
whenever I was in financial difficulties. I am grateful to them, and especially to my
mother for her lavish support and understanding.
In the course of writing this dissertation, my thoughts about utilitarianism have
gone through a considerable change. Inevitably, my initial project - a project of
proposing a defensible form of utilitarianism - also has changed both in details and in its
framework. All these crucial changes could not be made without the generous help of my
committee members. Let me here thank Profs. William L. McBride, Paul Thompson, and
Patrick Kain, each of whom provided invaluable comments on the prospectus as well as
the entire manuscript. I also thank Prof. Leonard Harris for accepting to be the fourth
reader of this dissertation.
Finally, I must thank Profs. Rahul Kumar (at the University of Pennsylvania) and
Yoen-Kyo Jung (at Kyunghee University in Seoul, Korea). My interest in moral
philosophy started with their wonderful sessions.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Page

ABSTRACT

vi

.........................

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION

....................................

CHAPTER 2: CLASSICAL UTILITARIANISM.

.............................

1
12

.12
Introduction...........................................................................
Mills Rule-Utilitarianism...............................
17
Sidgwicks Conception of Common-sense Morality...........................
31
The Relation of Interest and Duty in Classical Utilitarianism
......................54
Concluding Remarks ...................
71
CHAPTER 3: TELEOLOGY, EQUALITY, AND THE CONCEPT OF UTILITY...........74
Introduction.................................................
....74
Teleological Interpretation of Utilitarianism..................................
76
Egalitarian Interpretation of Utilitarianism
........
81
Has Rawls confused the two interpretations of utilitarianism?.....................
84
Roles of Equality at Different Levels
................................
88
Kymlickas Misunderstandings about the Utilitarian Strategy.
............... 95
The Concept of Utility: Happiness or Desire
............................103
The Desire Account of Utility: Too Broad or Too Narrow
......... ........Ill
Desiring and Valuing.
.........
117
Concluding Remarks...................
121
CHAPTER 4: UTILITARIANISM AND THE SEPARATENESS OF PERSONS

124

Parfit on the Nature and Identity of Persons


.............................
125
Parfit on how reductionism can support utilitarianism................
130
Criticisms of Parfits Argument for Utilitarianism
................
......138
Utilitarianism and the Separateness o f Persons....................
153
Concluding Remarks
..................
167

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Page

CHAPTER 5: MAXIMIZATION AND EQUALITY. .................................

171

Introduction.................................
171
Direct and Indirect Utilitarianism...........................
174
178
Central Features of Indirect Utilitarianism. ......
Some Problems of Indirect Utilitarianism...................................
184
Utilitarianism: a Standard of Rightness or a Decision Procedure?..................... .191
Maximization and the Principles of Equality..........................................................197
Maximization and Anti-Utilitarian Restrictions on Trade-Offs
............ .....211
Concluding Remarks. ..........................
221
LIST OF REFERENCES

.......................

VITA.......................

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.........225
232

ABSTRACT

Kang, Joon Ho Ph.D., Purdue University, December 2003. Maximization and Equality:
An Examination of Utilitarian Responses to Rawls and Other Critics. Major Professor:
William L. McBride.

The primary purpose of the present study was to investigate several important
reactions to the modem criticisms of utilitarianism. Since the publication of John Rawls
Theory o f Justice (1971), the contrast between utilitarian approaches to social decision
making and any rights-based social philosophy has spawned a large literature. Rightsbased theorists have typically claimed that the utilitarian rule of maximization is bound to
be indifferent to distributional issues, and also that no substantial human rights can be
embraced within the scope of utility, however broadly it could be defined. In their
reactions to this, some utilitarians as well as some thinkers sympathetic to the personneutral morality have proposed some ingenious interpretations of the role of
maximization in the utilitarian approaches. These interpretations may be divided into two
branches. The first is concerned with the compatibility of utilitarianism and the notion of
equal regard for persons. On the interpretations belonging to this branch, the first
principle of utilitarianism is not the principle of maximization but the Benthamic formula
of equality, everyone counts for one and none for more than one. The second is
concerned with the possibility that substantial rights may be grounded in utilitarianism.

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On the interpretations belonging to this branch, maximization is regarded as a general


standard of evaluation, not as a principle for practical decision-making.
However, my view is that none of these redefinitions of the role of maximization
can represent a viable alternative form of utilitarianism. Maximization is the first
principle of utilitarianism; and it is the utilitarian principle of decision-making. These two
propositions express the essence of utilitarianism. Thus, any utilitarian theory that denies
one or the other, or both, is self-contradictory. I suggest that the right answer to the
modem criticisms o f utilitarianism should be found, not by formulating some deflationary
notion of maximization, but by correctly understanding the use of maximization in the
utilitarian theories of social choice. One fundamental use of maximization is to tell when
sacrificing one person for another is justified. That is, utilitarianism utilizes the principle
of maximization to answer the question to which our moral concerns about distribution
converge. In this sense, maximization is a principle of distribution. And this is the crucial
point which modem critics have failed to recognize.

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CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION

Throughout the twentieth century, utilitarianism was the most disputed ethical
position. Especially since the publication of John Rawls Theory o f Justice (1971), there
has been a considerable literature that involves grave criticisms of utilitarianism.1 The
collective force of these criticisms has actually made it doubtful if there remains anything
central and defensible in utilitarianism. My primary objective in this dissertation is to
provide a critical examination of some significant utilitarian reactions to these seemingly
devastating criticisms.
Those utilitarian reactions to be investigated here consist of the following four
subject matters:
1. the received interpretation of classical utilitarianism as actutilitarianism;
2. Rawls distinction between teleology and deontology;
3. the separateness-of-persons objection and Derek Parfits reductionist
view o f persons;
4. two distinct utilitarian approaches to moral rights: indirect utilitarianism
and maximization as a principle of trade-offs.
Discussions of the first three subject matters directly correspond to Rawls criticism of
utilitarianism in the first chapter of his Theory of Justice: (1) his analysis of classical

1 John Rawls, A Theory o f Justice, the revised edition (Harvard University Press, 1999);
hereafter abbreviated as TJR; originally published in 1971.

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2
utilitarianism as extending the principle of personal choice to social choice; (2) his
characterization of utilitarianism as a teleological theory of ethics; and (3) his conclusion,
which is sometimes termed the Rawlsian complaint, that utilitarianism disregards the
morally crucial fact of the separateness of persons. And the fourth subject matter is
concerned with the utilitarian reactions to the widely recognized objection that
utilitarianism cannot consistently support substantial moral rights.
As for the first subject matter, I shall tackle the typical association of classical
utilitarianism with act-utilitarianism. In modem terminology, classical utilitarianism is
often used as a term interchangeable with act-utilitarianism or direct utilitarianism. In
his introductory essay to Utility and Rights (1984), for instance, R. G. Frey defines it as
the view that acts are right or wrong solely in virtue of the goodness or badness of their
consequences. Undoubtedly, this definition relies on the long received interpretation
that act-consequentialism is a component part of what classical utilitarians actually said.
For the last forty or so years, however, there have been a great number of
challenges to this act-utilitarian interpretation. These challenging reinterpretations of
classical utilitarianism constitute an important part of the recent utilitarian reactions to
critics. Back in the 1950s, moral philosophers employed a distinction between two
distinctive forms o f utilitarianism, namely, the well-known distinction between act- and
rule-utilitarianism. For many critics as well as proponents, for the last several decades,
this distinction was taken to come in handy in the discussion of the classical utilitarian
doctrine. It will play a vital role in my discussion in the next chapter as well.

2 R. G Frey, Introduction: Utilitarianism and Persons, in Utility and Rights


(Minneapolis: University o f Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 4.

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3
The conclusion I shall make is that the typical identification of the classical
utilitarian doctrine with act-utilitarian ethics can be misleading. To support this
conclusion, I shall attempt to show that classical utilitarians were deeply concerned about
their theorys compatibility with the precepts of common-sense morality. But it is not my
intention to argue that the rule-utilitarian interpretation is closer to the truth. Rather, the
crucial point comes out of the observation that there have been a growing number of
scholars holding that the classical utilitarian doctrine does not at all fit into the
established act/rule distinction. To put it somewhat daringly, the point is that now it is
time to drop the distinction once and for all in the discussion of the classical utilitarian
doctrine.
In the deontologists arguments against utilitarianism, it is noticeable that they
resist any meaningful distinction between various forms of utilitarianism. They assume
that certain critical objections apply to all feasible forms of utilitarianism and hence
cannot be answered by taking this or that specific formulation of utilitarianism.
Correspondingly, Rawls criticism o f utilitarianism is focused on those underlying
features which he believes to be shared by all variants of utilitarianism. Roughly speaking,
his analysis o f these underlying features is reduced to the fundamental question of what is
wrong with the notion o f maximization implicit in all variants of utilitarianism.
The first feature brought up by Rawls is concerned with the question of how
utilitarianism j ustifies or derives its adoption of the maximizing principle in handling
social and public matters. It is that in (classical) utilitarianism the principle of choice for a
society is in fact an extension of the principle of choice for one man (TJR21). In other
words, utilitarianism derives its principle of social choice from an analogy between what

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4
is rational from an individuals perspective and what is rational from everyones
perspective. Rawls and many others have claimed that this analogy is simply false
because there is a huge difference between the one-person and the many-person case, and
also that classical utilitarians adopted this false analogy to argue that maximization is
appropriate in the many-person case because it is appropriate in the one-person case.
Against this claim, in Chapter 2 , 1 shall argue that classical utilitarians were not
committed to this sort of argument, though they believed, to be sure, that maximization is
appropriate in both the one-person and the many-person cases. It should also be observed
that even if they were indeed committed to the argument from analogy, that does not
prove the inappropriateness of maximization in handling the many-person cases.
But Rawls explication o f the inappropriateness of maximization draws out
another feature o f utilitarianism. The second feature of utilitarianism to be discussed is
that it is a teleological theory o f ethics. Rawls analysis of this feature pertains to the
question of how utilitarianisms teleological character, i.e., its defining what is right as
that which maximizes the good, leads to indifference to distributive concerns. In
utilitarianism as a teleological theory of ethics, the good is defined independently from
the right or independent of any moral concepts or principles (TJR21-22). In contrast to
this, Rawls claims, a deontological theory is defined as one that either does not specify
the good independently from the right, or does not interpret the right as maximizing the
good (TJR 26). This distinction between teleology and deontology is the main topic of
my discussion in Chapter 3.
Recently, Will Kymlicka has argued that Rawls characterization of utilitarianism
as a teleological theory of ethics is seriously mistaken; that it depends on an artificial

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5
2
t
reconstruction of utilitarianism. His substantial claim is that utilitarianism is one way of

spelling out the notion of equal regard for persons, and thus that it is as deontological as
any other non-utilitarian theories. According to his interpretation, utilitarianism embodies
the fundamental principle of treating people as equals by giving equal weight to each
persons preferences, regardless of what they are preferences for. The principle of
equality thus embodied provides a utilitarian basis for a fair social decision procedure. On
this interpretation, maximization of utility is not the direct goal but a by-product of a
decision procedure that is intended to aggregate peoples preferences fairly (LCC 25).
Kymlicka himself is no utilitarian and his interpretation of utilitarianism as a
deontological theory does not purport to be a defense of it but only to attack Rawls
teleological/deontological distinction. Nevertheless, it may seem that his interpretation,
on the utilitarians part, has an effect of diluting those existing criticisms of utilitarianism
which are typically concentrated on its teleological character, i.e., its maximizing
principle. But I shall argue, against Kymlickas interpretation, that utilitarianism is
teleological in principle; that it is utterly pointless to deny that it is a goal-based theory at
the substantive level. Maximization is not a by-product but a basic policy adopted to
decide when ones sacrifice for another is justified.
At the fundamental level, all moral conceptions worth our attention are supposed
to specify a notion of equality as impartiality. Utilitarianism does specify a notion of
equality as impartiality at the fundamental level, as expressed in Benthams dictum,
everyone counts for one, none for more than one. Commitment to equal regard at this

3 Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1989); hereafter abbreviated as LCC.

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fundamental level is not what distinguishes moral conceptions. What differentiate moral
conceptions from one another are their moral principles at the substantive level which can
really tell us what we ought to do or what it is right for us to do. But Kymlicka
misunderstands at which level Rawls teleological/deontological distinction is supposed
to work. It is supposed to work at the substantive level, not at the fundamental level of a
moral conception. Kymlicka claims that modem utilitarians like R. M. Hare and John
Harsanyi, non-utilitarians like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Ronald Dworkin, and
even many perfectionists, all accept that equal concern and respect is the fundamental
moral principle. In a way, this claim expresses a truth. But it oversimplifies the matters
involved, and contains serious misunderstandings about both Rawls and utilitarians.
Let us reconsider Rawls characterization of utilitarianism as a teleological theory.
To repeat, what is objectionable in its teleological character is that its specifying what is
right by the maximization standard displays indifference to distributive concerns. As I
shall argue with special reference to James Griffins account, however, this is an one
sided view. Utilitarianisms commitment to the maximization standard does not
inevitably lead to the alleged indifference to distributive concerns. The fundamental role
of a principle of distribution is to tell when ones sacrifice to another is justified.
Utilitarianism can utilize the maximization standard to play such a role. So to speak, it
can be, right or wrong, a principle of distribution.
The third feature of utilitarianism, which Rawls takes to be the result of the other
two features explained above, is epitomized in a single famous sentence: Utilitarianism
does not take seriously the distinction between persons (TJR 24). According to Rawls,
the most serious problem with utilitarianism as a satisfaction-maximizing system lies in

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7
that it calls for the perspective of the Ideal Observer which he thinks is deeply rooted in
the utilitarian tendency to adopt for society as a whole the principle of rational choice
for one man (TJR 24). In short, Rawls claims that taking this perspective is bound to
lead to ignoring a single fundamental moral fact, the fact of the separateness of persons,
to which all feasible substantive theory of rights must subscribe.
One modem utilitarian response to Rawls is that utilitarians have no reason to
presuppose such an intuitively unpalatable perspective at all; so to say, they have no
delusion that there is such a being which Rawls refers to as the perfectly rational
individual who identifies with and experiences the desires of others as if these desires
were his own (TJR 24). Harsanyi argues, for instance, that the rule-utilitarianism he
advocates involves no delusion that there could be an ideal legislator in Rawls terms.
Harsanyi writes;
One way of looking at rule utilitarianism is to regard it as an attempt to
simulate the activities o f an ideal Moral Legislator - one possessing
perfect wisdom, perfect knowledge, perfect impartiality as between
different members of society, yet also perfect sympathy with each of them.
What rule utilitarianism tries to do is to identify the moral code that such
an ideal Moral Legislator would choose for society and then to persuade
all of us to follow this moral code, even though in fact there is no Moral
Legislator who could impose any moral code on us. If there were such a
Legislator, then his choice of a moral code could be analyzed in terms of
the means-ends model because he would have the power to impose his
moral code on society and could use his imposition of this moral code as a
means to achieve the highest possible level of social utility. But we
ordinary rule utilitarians are not in a position to do this.4
Such an ideal Moral Legislator is simply something impossible. Public officials or
policy-makers are not required to be such an impossible being, i.e., to have complete

4 John C. Harsanyi, Does reason tell us what moral code to follow and, indeed, to
follow any moral code at all? Ethics 96, p. 45.

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information on the circumstantial peculiarities of each and every individual in their


society and on the effect that their choices will have on individuals, one by one. They are
obliged to make their choices under some degree of uncertainty. In this vein, Robert E.
Goodin says that What they typically do know are generalities: averages and aggregates.
They know what will happen most often to most people as a result of their various
possible choices. But that is all.5
In Chapter 4, however, I shall approach the issue of the separateness of persons
from a different direction. It is from a critical examination of Derek Parfits reductionist
view o f persons. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit proposes quite an intriguing answer to
Rawls separateness-of-persons objection.6 It is that the reductionist view of persons
could support utilitarianism by showing that the unity of selves or persons is not deep
enough to support Rawls objection. To this, I shall reply that Parfits proposition can
only be either controversial or perhaps damaging to utilitarianism in the sense that the
loss in plausibility from accepting the reductionist view of persons might be greater than
the gain. Utilitarianism does not deny the natural separateness of persons. In fact, it
requires as strong a criterion of personal identity as the Kantian would. Along with this
reply, I shall also investigate some alternative suggestions for neutralizing the
separateness-of-persons obj ection.
Maximization is the key concept to all modem criticisms of utilitarianism. Rawls
maintains that an essential feature of his theory of justice is that it makes no commitment

5 Robert E. Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge University Press,


1995), p. 63.
6 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford University Press, 1984); hereafter
abbreviated as RP.

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9
to any notion of maximization; and that this is the feature that characterizes his theory as
deontological. All deontologist criticisms converge to a point that the utilitarian decision
procedure founded on the maximization standard allows no deliberative space for
considerations of equality or fairness in distribution. For utilitarians, it is an important
question whether there is a way to sweep away these criticisms all at once. I think that
there is not. I mean that there is no easy way to do this.
To summarize: Kymlickas interpretation may seem to offer such a way, simply
by emphasizing utilitarianisms commitment to the notion of equal regard for persons at
the fundamental level. As I shall show, however, this interpretation turns out to be
irretrievably mistaken about Rawls as well as utilitarians. The primary aim of any
utilitarian theory should be maximizing utility, so that it is basically a goal-based theory,
namely, a teleological theory in a broad sense. Derek Parfit makes another interesting
suggestion for neutralizing the criticisms about utilitarianisms alleged indifference to
distributive concerns, by urging a significant change in our metaphysical view of personal
identity. However, I shall argue that this suggestion is seriously mistaken as well. Parfits
suggestion relies heavily on the premise that the reductionist view o f persons is closer to
the truth than the ordinary view. But this premise is simply controversial. That is, the
change in our view of personal identity he urges may not be acceptable at all. Thus, how
much plausibility utilitarianism may obtain by taking the reductionist view will also be
controversial.
Finally, my discussion will turn to a form o f utilitarianism which has been termed
indirect utilitarianism. As a matter of fact, this term does not stand for a definable
formulation of utilitarianism. It is often used as a generic name that comprehends a

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10
variety of formulations other than direct utilitarianism. Nonetheless, we can still
determine a common characteristic to them. Many of the indirect utilitarian arguments
begin with the criticism that act- or direct utilitarianism is in some way self-defeating, so
that adopting the principle of utility as a practical principle of decision-making yields
outcomes that are less than optimal when evaluated by that same principle. In other
words, indirect utilitarian formulations engage in redefining the scope o f the principle of
maximization, i.e., redefining it not as a prescriptive principle but as a general standard of
evaluation. Generally speaking, indirect utilitarian theorists have argued that by means of
this redefinition of the principle of maximization, hopefully, they might be able to
provide a utilitarian rights theory much more accommodating than direct utilitarianism.
It should be observed here that these indirect utilitarian theorists presuppose a
distinction between a standard of evaluation and a decision procedure. Making this
distinction and defining the principle of utility as only a standard of evaluation, they seem
to reason that their theories can be immune to the key objections to utilitarianism as a
decision procedure. But there is a strong argument against the distinction they make
between a standard of evaluation and a decision procedure; and their substantial claim
that utilitarianism is not a decision procedure suffers from its own problems.
As explained thus far, this dissertation will be, in part, concerned to demonstrate
that some of the principal utilitarian reactions to the well-recognized modem criticisms of
utilitarianism have failed to lessen the effect of these criticisms. On the positive side of it,
however, this demonstration can give, I believe, a vague picture of what a tenable form of
utilitarianism should be like. This picture, in sum, contains the following propositions:
(1) utilitarianism is a goal-based theory; (2) it can be compatible with a strong criterion of

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personal identity; (3) it is a decision procedure; and (4) it is a view of equal regard; that is,
its principle of maximization should be understood as a principle of distribution.
Discussions in the subsequent chapters are concerned to show that those utilitarian
formulations outside this picture, i.e., those utilitarian reactions which deny any of the
propositions stated above, give rise to new complications that wont be any easier to
solve than the old ones.

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12

CHAPTER 2
CLASSICAL UTILITARIANISM AND ACT-UTILITARIANISM

Introduction
As a preliminary study, this chapter concerns some widely shared views about
classical utilitarianism. The British precursors of utilitarianism - Jeremy Bentham, John
Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick - all died over a hundred years ago. Yet their works in
ethics and politics can be found to be a vital source of argument for both modem
proponents and critics. R. G Frey rightly observes that Today, when utilitarianism is
n

criticized, it is almost always classical utilitarianism that critics have in mind. Its
importance to critics, in part, consists in the thought that it supplies a relatively
uncomplicated formulation of basic utilitarian doctrines. By classical utilitarianism,
thus, critics often refer to a generalized form of utilitarianism with certain underlying
features. In the present chapter, most attention will be paid to a divergence between this
generalized picture o f classical utilitarianism and the actual claims of the three British
precursors.
Classical utilitarianism as a whole is often associated with act-utilitarian ethics.
So to speak, it is held to be the view that acts are right or wrong solely in virtue of their
consequences. It may be noted that this statement of act-utilitarian ethics is not complete,
7 R. G Frey 1984a, p. 4.

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13
for it lacks a part that explains the specific conception of intrinsic goodness, i.e., a
description about that standard adopted to tell what sorts of consequences are to be
regarded as intrinsically good or bad. Without such a description it would be a statement
of, say, act-consequentialism rather than act-utilitarianism. The truth is that there can be
no single complete statement of act-utilitarian ethics unless all act-utilitarians agree upon
a homogeneous conception of intrinsic goodness. The same truth holds for the classical
view: there is no single complete statement of act-utilitarian ethics that uniquely applies
to it. For classical utilitarians indeed held various conceptions of intrinsic goodness
profoundly different from one another. However, the point I wish to make here is not just
that they thereby formulated different versions of act-utilitarian ethics. The primary
objective o f the present chapter is to scrutinize several interpretations that cast doubts on
that typical association of the classical view with some version of act-utilitarian ethics or,
o

in Bernard Williams terms, direct utilitarianism.


To define strictly, act-utilitarian ethics is the view that the goodness or badness of
the consequences of a particular action is not only the ultimate but also the immediate
criterion by which one can justify the ascription of rightness or wrongness to it. It says
that each of our actions, one by one, should be chosen so as to maximize overall utility.
There has been much philosophical criticism o f act-utilitarian ethics as such. Perhaps the
most familiar criticisms are of two kinds. First, it is criticized as being counterintuitive

8 Bernard Williams, A Critique of Utilitarianism, in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard


Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge University Press, 1973). He says
that direct utilitarianism is just another terminology for the same thing as actutilitarianism. In the ordinary sense, that is, direct utilitarianism is regarded as a form of
utilitarianism that considers only the utility of actions.

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14
for two principal reasons.9 On the one hand, it is contended that act-utilitarian ethics
requires one to undertake something that is contrary to the substantive moral convictions
of most persons - for example, to kill or punish an innocent person. Because of its
inclusion of the maximizing principle, it permits one to do anything necessary to increase
the total amount of happiness or general welfare. As a result, it disregards common-sense
moral rules such as Keep your promises, Do not steal, and Do not lie, and the
duties to obey them. On the other hand, it is contended that it obscures the distinction
between immorality and inexpediency by condemning as morally wrong even those
actions to which there exist no corresponding duties, if they are not conducive to
promoting the ultimate end. That is, act-utilitarian ethics ascribes rightness or wrongness
to those actions which we normally do not take as morally required, in view of their
conduciveness to overall utility.10
Second, it is criticized as being self-defeating. It is contended that acting upon the
act-utilitarian principle would have worse consequences than would acting upon wellaccepted moral rules. This criticism generates from the idea that the process of
determining which act among many alternatives available to agents would bring about the
best consequences - evaluating the likely causal effects of each and every alternative act

9 A common move in much of modem moral theory and criticism is to test the theory
under consideration against our moral beliefs, intuitions, or so-called common sense.
Thus, it can be said that this counterintuitiveness criticism is not special to act-utilitarian
ethics. Whether a theory supports or violates the beliefs and intuitions is a general
question that should be asked in evaluating any moral theory.
10 Another reason might be added. Act-utilitarian ethics says, as defined above, that the
goodness of the consequences of an action is the ultimate criterion of its rightness; so to
say, it does not take into account the goodness of anything other than the consequences of
that action, for example, the goodness of the intentions behind that action. This disregard
of the intentions behind an action might as well be regarded as counterintuitive.

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15
in order to minimize the possibility of catastrophic mistakes - must take considerable
time and resources, and thereby that it would be counterproductive to adopt act-utilitarian
policy. Interestingly this kind o f criticism has been raised mostly by utilitarians
themselves. Many arguments for indirect utilitarianism begin with the analysis that act or
direct utilitarian position turns out to be self-destructive in some way or other. John Gray
writes, Indirect utilitarianism embodies and exploits the apparent paradox that utility
maximisation will not be achieved by adopting the strategy of maximising utility. Indeed,
its central contention is that utility is best promoted if we adopt practical precepts which
i|

impose constraints on the policies which we adopt in pursuit of utility.

Probably, the most straightforward way to argue that these criticisms cannot
disparage classical utilitarianism would be to show that it is not act-utilitarian. In
contemporary utilitarian writings, it is not very difficult to find a good number of
attempts to demonstrate that the system of normative ethics which classical utilitarians
were concerned to defend is only indirectly consequentialist. These attempts are,
explicitly or implicitly, intended to arrive at the conclusion that they assigned moral rules
and rights an independent standing which can hardly be allowed in act-utilitarian theories,
and hence that they could answer or at least avoid many of the key objections to actutilitarian ethics. To be sufficient for that conclusion, however, they need to clear another
hurdle. It is that most critics resist any meaningful distinction between various forms of
utilitarianism. Consider, for example, Rawls criticism in the first chapter of his Theory of
Justice. He says that his criticism is focused specifically on the strict classical doctrine

11 John Gray, Indirect Utility and Fundamental Rights, in E. F. Paul, F. D. Miller, and J.
Paul eds., Human Rights (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 74.

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16
of utilitarianism.

i 'y

But he believes that it after all applies to utilitarian thought generally

and so to all of these different versions of it (TJR 20). Simply supposing that certain
underlying, unacceptable, features are shared by all variants of utilitarianism, Rawls does
not involve himself in the dispute over the distinction between these variants. The same
attitude can be detected in most of modem critics of utilitarianism.
David Lyons provides us with a very powerful argument for the denial of the
distinction between various forms of utilitarianism, which he calls the extensional
equivalence argument.

1T

Lyons argument comprises two phases. In the first phase, he

famously argues that forms of indirect utilitarianism or, alternatively, forms of ruleutilitarianism would eventually collapse into act-utilitarianism or are extensionally
equivalent to it. The point of this phase lies in the demonstration that whatever would
lead the act-utilitarian to break a rule - namely, the best probable consequences - would
lead the rule-utilitarian to modify the rule; that the rule-utilitarian would always yield
substantively equivalent judgments with respect to particular actions, and therefore be
exposed to the same old objections to act-utilitarianism. The second phase of Lyons
argument is to assert that those forms of indirect utilitarianism which are not
extensionally equivalent to act-utilitarianism would be unsatisfactory on utilitarian
grounds. In fact, a consideration similar to this second phase has been put forward by
some other thinkers. Holding that only direct utilitarianism fully retains the simpleminded utilitarian spirit, for instance, Williams says that [indirect] forms of

19

When he defines classical utilitarianism as the ethic of perfect altruists, it is quite


evident that Rawls is identifying it with the extremist form of utilitarianism, perhaps one
much like the strictest form of act-utilitarian ethics defined above (TJR 165).
13 David Lyons, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press, 1965).

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17
utilitarianism which help themselves too liberally to the source of indirectedness lose
their utilitarian rationale and end up as vanishingly forms of utilitarianism at all.14
From this two-phase argument, it seems to follow that there are no viable forms of
utilitarianism which can be rightfully distinguished from act-utilitarianism and
accordingly which can avoid the objections to it. Obviously Lyons argument is of great
importance to contemporary rule-utilitarians. It is no exaggeration to say that all the effort
that has been made by them is to work out a theory that can dodge his argument, that is, a
theory that does not collapse into act-utilitarianism but can still be fittingly based on
utilitarian grounds. Several arguments for such a theory will be scrutinized in the
following chapters. As aforementioned, however, the primary purpose of the present
chapter is limited to the examination of those challenging interpretations which connect
classical utilitarian moral theories - especially, Mills and Sidgwicks - to some form of
indirect utilitarianism. Along this examination, I shall also concentrate on the two
tensions which seemed to be left unsolved by classical utilitarians: the tension between
common moral precepts and the principle of utility and that between self-interest and
utilitarian duty.

Mills Rule-Utilitarianism
Many of Mills expositors and critics have noticed that for him the natural
consequences of a particular action were not the immediate criterion of rightness or
wrongness of that action. But this is the only point that seems to have been settled. Many

14 Bernard Williams 1973, p. 81.

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18
important questions about his moral philosophy still remain strikingly unsettled. I shall
here canvass two predominant readings of his position: (1) act-utilitarianism with
summary rules or rules of thumb as handy guides for deciding what to do in ordinary
moral reasoning; (2) rule-utilitarianism which considers moral rules as more than mere
rules of thumb, i.e., which treats them as if fundamental at least in most of practical
decision-making situations.
The first reading rests upon the long received view that Mills official position,
consistently and throughout his life, was act-utilitarian. Yet adherents of this reading are
aware that they need an explanation of why, in the appraisal of actions as right or wrong,
Mill so constantly assigns great importance to the question of an actions conformity to
moral rules or what he terms secondary principles. Naturally, their reading is grounded
on those evidences from Mills texts which they believe unmistakably indicate not only
his act-utilitarian stance but also his conceiving of moral rules as nothing more than rules
of thumb. In his letter of April 14, 1872 to the logician John Venn, for instance, Mill
writes:
I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences,
is to test them by the natural consequences of the particular action, and not
by those which would follow if everyone did the same. But, for the most
part, the consideration o f what would happen if everyone did the same, is
the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the
particular case.15
In a brief response to the rule-utilitarian readings of Mill, D. G. Brown asserts that these
two sentences can suitably close....the whole controversy and dispel such shadows

15 John Stuart Mill, Collected Works o f John Stuart Mill, Vol. XVII (Toronto: Toronto
University Press), p. 1881.

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19
of doubt over Mills act-utilitarianism.

1f\

Seemingly, these two sentences favor the first

reading and make clear the point that for Mill the consideration of the consequences
which actions upon a system of rules would generally produce is not the right way of
testing actions, even though these rules may be indispensably useful in most cases. As I
shall attempt to show, however, Browns confidence is rather premature.
For Mill, at any rate, the immediate criterion of appraisal of actions would be
rules. In practice, people base their conduct on rules. Even if it is not impossible that
acting upon rules does not produce the best consequences in every particular case, people
would adopt them to assess their conduct because so doing is more likely to produce
good results than trying directly in every case to do right acts.17 This sort of reasoning
can be exemplified in a letter of Mill to George Grote: human happiness, even ones
own, is in general more successfully pursued by acting on general rules, than by
measuring the consequences o f each act.18 General rules are needed to most
successfully achieve happiness, and this is due, as Mill explains, to our less perfect
knowledge of others interests and the need for regularity of conduct. How might this be
accommodated in the act-utilitarian reading of Mills position?
Some critics of utilitarianism hold that if one bases ones conduct on rules,
maximizing utility has been given up and act-utilitarianism has been abandoned.
Although ones conduct on rules could have rather good consequences, one would be

16 D. G Brown, Mills Act-Utilitarianism, Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1974), pp. 6768 .

17

Mill did not assume that every act is of moral significance. Thus not every act is to be
assessed as morally right or wrong. In particular, he held that self-regarding conduct does
not raise issues of right and wrong.
18 John Stuart Mill, Collected Works, Vol. XV, p. 762.

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20
forming habits to do acts known not to be justified according to act-utilitarianism.19 In
some sense, this turns out to be an objection to an extended version of act-utilitarianism,
a version of act-utilitarian theory that is prepared to take into account the utility of things
other than actions, such as rules, institutions, and dispositions of character. Possibly, I
think, Mills theory can be viewed as such an extended version of act-utilitarianism. Fred
Berger maintains that, in Mills theory, general rules are adopted or inculcated as a
means of maximizing the doing of right acts as judged by the act-utilitarian standard.
As in any classical utilitarian theory, maximizing utility has never been given up in Mills
theory. It is just that a set of general rules, instead of thorough appeal to act-by-act
consequences, has been suggested as a practically better strategy for maximizing
utility.

91

The act-utilitarian standard has never been given up either. It remains to be the

fundamental justifying ground for those rules strategically adopted.


As some holding this interpretation have pointed out, Mills theory quite
resembles an act-utilitarian theory that R. M. Hare has outlined in his Moral Thinking.

99

Elucidating that resemblance, Berger states:


Essential to [Mills] theory is the view that there is a difference between a
criterion o f right and wrong, and a procedure for deciding what to do. The
19 D. H. Hodgson, Consequences o f Utilitarianism (Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 48.
20 Fred Berger, John Stuart Mill on Justice and Fairness, in David Lyons ed., M ills
Utilitarianism: Critical Essays (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1997), p. 52;
originally published in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 5 (1979),
pp. 115-136.
Fred Berger, Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of
John Stuart Mill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). He asserts that Mill
holds a strategy conception of rules, the conception that in practical deliberation, we
should follow useful rules in determining our moral duties, except in extreme or special
circumstances where a great deal is at stake, or the rules conflict, in which case we
determine what morality requires by appeal to the consequences o f the act (p. 67).
22 R. M. Hare, Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Methods, and Point (Clarendon Press, 1981).

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21
former can guide the latter, but, under the conditions of life, cannot in
practice be the rule which directs our behavior. Mill did argue that the
attempt to guide ones conduct in each case by the calculation of
consequences will not result in conduct which meets the criterion of
utility.23
Hare distinguishes two levels of moral thinking, critical and intuitive, takes up actutilitarianism at the critical or theoretical level, and finds a place for substantive moral
rules and rights at the intuitive or practical level. In short, his theory is a hierarchic
conjunction o f act-utilitarianism in theory and rule-utilitarianism in practice. Moral rules
as guides for deciding what to do in ordinary moral situations are selected by actutilitarianism at the critical level, and take the form of principles. The principles thus
selected, and certain rights conferred by them, have a central role to play in determining
what is a right thing to do at the practical level unless there is a conflict of principles or a
situation one cannot readily deal with. At the practical level, in this sense, Hares twolevel account o f moral thinking may be seen as only indirectly consequentialist.
Like Hare but in a less explicit way, Mill deems that appeal to act-by-act
consequences - that is, critical or act-utilitarian reasoning about right and wrong - is not
appropriate at the level of ordinary practice; so to say, what is right to do in practice will
not be determined by direct appeal to consequences even if there is nothing to hinder our
assessment o f them. Moral rules and rights must be respected, and they must not be easily
overturned for minor or moderate gains in utility. Thus it may seem that Mills theory can
meet the criticism that act-utilitarian theories are inconsistent with recognition of
substantive moral rules and rights. Indeed, to answer that criticism is precisely what Hare
meant to do in developing his two-level account of moral thinking.
23 Fred Berger [1979] 1997, p. 52.

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Questions about how successful the Harean split level theory might be in doing so
are beyond my present concern. But a common objection to it can be marked. It is that
Hare can provide no guarantee in theory that our deeply embedded intuitive principles
will be alive to particular consequences, since it is conceivable that our moral thinking
at the intuitive level may be constantly subjected to and revised in the light of our moral
thinking at the critical or act-utilitarian level. If we may move at random from the
intuitive to the critical level of thinking, we might often be led to break the principles and
eventually deprive them of their authority. Making a similar point in his critical review on
Hare, J. L. Mackie says that the real dispute, then, concerns the choice between utility
and rights as the central concepts in higher level, critical, moral thinking.24 What
Mackie demands here is the recognition of rules and rights, not merely at the practical
level but rather at the fundamental level o f moral thinking.
Given its alleged resemblance to Hares theory, Mills theory would confront an
analogous criticism. According to Bergers interpretation, as shown in the passage quoted
above, a moral principle at the practical level can provide only a procedure for deciding
what to do and not a criterion of right and wrong; strictly speaking, the nature o f its
role is basically instrumental, and its status is no more than a mere rule of thumb in that
one is obligated to follow it only if it maximizes the doing of right acts. The ultimate
criterion of right and wrong is always the principle of utility which governs all appraisals
of action. Then it would follow that one at the critical level may decide to disregard a rule

24 J. L. Mackie Rights, Utility, and Universalization, in R. G Frey ed., Utility and


Rights (1984), p. 103. Frey also holds that rights are theoretically nonbasic in the actutilitarian theory o f rightness, and calls them appendage rights. See his ActUtilitarianism, Consequentialism, and Moral Rights, Utility and Rights (1984), p. 66.

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23
if ever one finds out that action on the rule is not maximally felicific, and in this respect
moral rules then become like rules of thumb. Anticipating this implication of his
interpretation, Berger comments that Mills theory may be defective in that it seems to
sanction, at least in principle, sacrificing an individuals rights in order to maximize
utility.25 This is where the rule-utilitarian reading of Mills conception of moral rules
departs from the act-utilitarian reading considered so far.
The problem with Hares view is, in sum, what would prevent us from constantly
or randomly shifting from our intuitive principles to critical thinking about them and thus
from violating them for a small gain of utility? In a sense, it is a problem of balance,
namely, balancing whether to follow generally useful rules or to engage in further
reflection on the particular cases by directly appealing to the principle of utility. Without
certain unambiguous restrictions placed upon the occasions for critical thinking, however,
our intuitive principles, however deeply internalized into our characters through moral
education or social customs and however strongly supported by empirical facts showing
that they effectively promote overall utility in the long run, might lose their authority at
any particular case and always be in danger of being violated. Then we are back with the
criticism that act-utilitarianism cannot consistently support the substantive moral rules
and rights. But the rule-utilitarian interpreters of Mills position have thought that his
theory may get around the problem with Hares view, by endorsing a yet more
independent standing o f moral rules and rights.

25 Fred Berger [1979] 1997, p. 54; Also see R. G. Frey 1984b. Pointing out that the
Millian approach to moral rules and rights resembles the Herean two-level account of
moral thinking, Frey argues that the objections to the latter may directly apply to the
former.

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Mill concedes that no rules of conduct can be exceptionless because of the


complicated nature o f human affairs. ...and that hardly any kind of action can safely be
laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable.26 Nonetheless, he says
that if utility is the ultimate source o f moral obligations, it would be only when there is no
moral rule or law that is applicable to the case at issue, or just because it is better than
none at all (UT 25). This implies that it is not utility but moral rule or law that is the
primary source of moral obligations. Mill is quite explicit on this point: We must
remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite
that [the principle o f utility] should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation
in which some secondary principle is not involved (UT 25). In his well-known paper on
Mill, J. O. Urmson argues that this quotation shows that Where no moral rule is
applicable the question o f the rightness or wrongness of particular acts does not arise,
i.e., that right and wrong are derived from moral rules, and accordingly that for Mill
moral rules are not mere rules of thumb which aid the unreflective man in making up his
77

mind, but an essential part of moral reasoning.

There are a few things which it would be pointless to deny on any account of
Mills view. One of them is that for him the principle of utility is the most comprehensive
principle which governs all appraisals of actions, including appraisals of actions as right
or wrong. Claiming Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle to be the foundation
of morals, he explains that the theory of morality is grounded on the theory of life; and

26 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Hackett Publishing Company, 1979), p. 25; originally
published in book form in 1863; hereafter abbreviated as UT.
J. O. Urmson, The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J. S. Mill, in David
Lyons ed., 1997, p. 3; originally appeared in Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1953), pp. 33-39.

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25
that the principle o f utility is the theory of life (UT 7). Utility is supposed to be used to
judge the expediency of acts, and morality is a division of expediency. Exactly what this
means may not be so clear, however. Speaking of the need for an ultimate standard, or
first principle of Teleology, in the Logic, Mill proclaims that the promotion of
happiness is the ultimate principle of Teleology.28 If utility is the principle of
expediency and morality constitutes a sub-class of expediency, would it then follow that
the principle of utility, i.e., the promotion of happiness, is somehow a moral principle? In
the second chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill presents the well-known formulation of the
principle o f utility, which has been called the proportionality criterion of rightness and
wrongness: actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as
they tend to produce the reverse of happiness (UT 7). On this formulation on which
most discussions o f Mills theory has been focused, the principle of utility does speak of
right and wrong and thus does look to be, in itself, a moral standard.
However, those holding the rule-utilitarian reading characteristically contend that
the principle of utility does not speak of right and wrong, emphasizing the distinction
Mill makes between expediency and morality, i.e., the distinction between ranking acts
according to their instrumental value and judging them as right or wrong. In the chapter
on justice and utility, Mill writes:
We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person
ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by
the opinion o f his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of
his own conscience. This seems to be the real turning point of the
distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is a part of the
notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be
compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person,
28 John Stuart Mill, Collected Works, Vol. VIII, p. 951.

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26
as one exacts a debt. Unless we think which may be exacted from him, we
do not call it his duty.. .There are other things, on the contrary, which we
wish that people should do, which we like or admire them for doing,
perhaps dislike or despise them for not doing, but yet admit that they are
not bound to do; it is not a case of moral obligation; we do not blame them,
that is, we do not think that they are proper objects of punishment... .1
think there is no doubt that this distinction lies at the bottom of the notions
of right and wrong; that we call any conduct wrong, or employ, instead,
some other term of dislike or disparagement, according as we think that
the person ought, or ought not, to be punished for it; and we say that it
would be right to do so and so, or merely that it would be desirable or
laudable, according as we would wish to see the person whom it concerns,
compelled, or only persuaded and exhorted, to act in that manner. (UT 4748)
In this passage, Mill presents another formulation of the principle of utility, which may be
named the punishability criterion of rightness and wrongness. Central to this
formulation is his reliance on the distinction between simple expediency and morality.
Expediency and morality are said to be two distinctive manners in which an act is to be
evaluated, in the sense that an act regarded as desirable or laudable (because it effectively
promotes utility) may not be morally right and that an act regarded as undesirable or
inexpedient may not be morally wrong.
Mill clearly maintains here that not every act which does not maximize utility is
morally wrong. To be regarded as morally wrong, an act must deserve or be liable to
punishment. Conceptually linking moral obligation and punishment or sanctions, Mills
theory uses a model based on coercive social rules. The sanctions include not only legal
sanctions, but also social disapproval and internal guilt or pangs of conscience. Lyons
explicates the model as follows:
These considerations suggest that Mill had a view like this. To call an act
is wrong is to imply that guilt feelings, and perhaps other sanctions, would
be warranted against it. But sanctions assume coercive rules. To show an
act wrong, therefore, is to show that a coercive rule against it would be

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27
justified. The justification o f a coercive social establishes a moral
obligation, breach o f which is wrong.29
L. W. Sumner has expressed the same point as follows: asserting that a particular act a is
wrong is identical with asserting that the existence of a coercive social rule against doing
acts of kind A would be justified. Coercive rules are rules backed by sanctions... .the
wrongness of an action is thus connected with the justifiability of imposing sanctions

iri

against the doing of that sort of action.

In summary, the point is that the very distinction between expediency and
morality indicates that Mill is not committed to calling an act that fails to maximize
utility wrong; more importantly, this also indicates that Mill is not act-utilitanan.

Lyons

goes further to suggest that Mills basic view o f morality and justice does not even
assume utilitarianism. As an example, take the following statement of Mill: When we
call anything a persons right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him
in the possession of it, either by the force of law or by that of education and opinion (UT
52). Lyons finds that this and other statements of Mill on moral rights are entirely
neutral with respect to utilitarianism.32 To show that someone has a right, on Mills
account, it is sufficient to show that there is a moral rule which gives rise to that right.
Thus the possession o f a right is not at all a matter of the utilities of the particular case. It
is a matter of the secondary rules that are applicable to the case.
29 David Lyons, Mills Theory of Morality, Nous, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Symposium on
Utilitarianism (1976), p. 109.
30 L. W. Sumner, The Good and the Right, Canadian Journal o f Philosophy,
Supplementary Volume 5 (1979), p. 104.
31 David Lyons 1976, p. 103. See also his Human Rights and the General Welfare, in
David Lyons ed. 1997, p. 34; originally appeared in Philosophy and Public Affairs 6
(1977), pp. 113-129.
32 ibid., p. 105

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28
Lyons argument for the rule-utilitarian reading purports to prove that Mill refuses
to require that each act maximize utility, and that his model of utilitarianism does not
collapse into act-utilitarianism. Mills Greatest Happiness Principle concerns ends,
specifically happiness. Each act can be compared with alternatives, and whether it is
preferable to them will be determined in terms of its expediency in maximizing happiness.
But the crucial point is that his principle does not require one, in moral terms, to choose
that act which maximizes happiness. Lyons insists that it is a mistake to assume that
Mills principle o f utility itself lays down moral requirements.33
Two things to note. First, it should be realized now that Lyons argument here
seems to be at odds with his claim considered in the previous section, that there is no
viable form of rule-utilitarianism which is not extensionally equivalent to actutilitarianism. In answer to this, he explains that the extensional equivalence argument
applies only to a special category of primitive rule-utilitarian theories, the rules
recognized by which are. ...in effect, derivative, second-order judgments about classes of
acts, and can be as complex and subtle as utilitarian discrimination requires.34 By
contrast, those rules with which Mills theory is concerned are ordinary social rules which,
unlike the rules employed by primitive rule-utilitarianism, depend for their justification
not just upon the utility of the conduct to be regulated but also upon the utility of
regulating it. Lyons then concludes that the extensional equivalence argument does not
apply to this kind of rule-utilitarianism.

33 ibid.,p. 113.
34 ibid., pp. 113-114.

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29
Second, though it seems quite clear that Mill proposes a fairly sophisticated
version o f rule-utilitarianism, his conception of the general welfare standard is not limited
to rules o f conduct. Thus Lyons claims that Mill is not obliged to be either a ruleutilitarian or an act-utilitarian.35 For his principle of utility concerns ends, not acts or
rules. All that his principle tells us is that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end.
So whether it is acts or rules that are more conducive to promoting that end is of no
importance. I think this might be one major source of all the controversies over Mills
position.
Most o f Mill scholars have taken notice of a tension between the second chapter
of Utilitarianism where Mill claims the principle of utility to be the foundation of morals,
and the fifth chapter where he makes the distinction between simple expediency and
morality - that is, the tension between the proportionality criterion and the punishability
criterion of rightness and wrongness. By and large, the rule-utilitarian interpreters such as
Urmson and Lyons base their main argument upon the latter, and ask how supporters of
the act-utilitarian reading would square their reading with Mills distinction between
expediency and morality. Having admitted the existence of the tension, in my view,
adherents of the act-utilitarian reading seem to tacitly assume that Mills position is
somewhat inconsistent. However, it seems to me that the rule-utilitarian interpretation

35 David Lyons, [1977] 1997, p. 33. See John M. Baker, Utilitarianism and Secondary
Principles, Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 21, Issue 82 (Jan., 1971), pp. 69-71. Baker
views that Mills account o f moral rules is ultimately compatible with forms of both
act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. See also D. G Brown, What is Mills
Principle of Utility? in David Lyons ed. 1997, p. 15; originally appeared in Canadian
Journal of Philosophy 3 (1973), pp. 1-12. Brown observes that Mills teleology does not
treat rule-following, and doing the right thing, as rival conceptions to that of pursuing an
end.

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30
does not mitigate the tension either. In his proof of the principle of utility in the fourth
chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill writes:
If so happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the
test by which to judge of all human conduct; from whence it necessarily
follows that it must be the criterion of morality, since a part is included in
the whole. (UT38)
In this passage, again, Mill makes us wonder, in what sense is the principle of utility the
foundation of morals? I do not think that Lyons has offered a satisfactory answer to this
question.
To repeat, the principle of utility governs expediency or prudence; and morality is
a part o f expediency. Then it would seem to naturally follow that moral principles are
subservient to that end dictated by the principle of utility, that is, that the principle of
utility directs us to promote happiness in moral situations as well. As observed above,
however, Lyons argument is concentrated on Mills differentiation of morality from
expediency. And further, it leads us to the rather uneasy conclusion that Mills moral
theory is not even utilitarian at all. Lyons claims that it is not the case that in Mills theory
moral or social rules could only be justified on utilitarian grounds. He goes on to say that
Mill could consistently acknowledge that someone who rejected utilitarianism could
accept his theory o f morality and apply it in the light of different substantive views about
justification.36 Apart from the interpretive issues, however, it seems to me that this is
not the answer anyone would expect, and that the tension in Mills Utilitarianism is left
unmitigated.

36 David Lyons 1976, p. 109.

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Sidgwicks Conception of Common-sense Morality


Unlike Lyons Mill, Sidgwick conceives of utilitarianism as a moral theory that
purports to establish a system of duties or moral obligations. The principle of utility is a
moral principle that can specify what kinds of acts are to be regarded as right or wrong. A
moral principle, according to him, asserts that some property which acts may or may not
possess is an ultimate reason - or an ultimate end - for the rightness of act.37 The
principle of utility as a moral principle points to universal happiness or pleasure as
representing the [ultimate] end, therefore, to which the action of a reasonable agent as
such ought to be directed.38 The principle tells us that right acts are those which will
produce the greatest amount of happiness on the whole (ME 411). Thus it says
something about right and wrong.
Another noteworthy contrasting point is that relative to Mill, Sidgwick does not
appear to have been troubled by the tension, as discovered in Mills Utilitarianism,
between prudence and morality, or by various forms of doubt about the rationality of
moral reasoning. As Jerome Schneewind puts it in his masterly work on Sidgwick, the
central thought of the Methods of Ethics is that morality is the embodiment of the
demands reason makes on practice under the conditions of human life, and that the
problems of philosophical ethics are the problems of showing how practical reason is

Note that Sidgwicks use of such terms as ultimate end, ultimate reason, and
ultimate principle, seems very confusing and sometimes inconsistent. Marcus Singer
has provided a brief explanation of the relation between these terms: for Sidgwick, an
ultimate end is an ultimate reason, and is in turn specified or prescribed by a first or
ultimate principle. See his The Many Methods of Sidgwicks Ethics, Monist 58 (Jul.,
1974), pp. 439-441.
38 Henry Sidgwick, The Methods o f Ethics, the seventh edition (1907), p. 421; its first
edition published in 1874; hereafter abbreviated as ME.

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32
articulated into these demands.39 Sidgwick himself speaks little about how reason can
be practical, which is a central question in Kants moral philosophy, but simply supposes
that morality can be fully rational, calling moral judgments dictates o f reason. While
defining a method of ethics as a rational procedure for determining what it is right to do,
he explains that the question of what one ought to do or what it is right for one to do
is identical with the question of what it is most reasonable for one to do. Though not
entirely consistent, for the most part, Sidgwick identifies right and ought with
reasonable. And morality requires for its complete systematization a harmony between
the maxim of [Rational] Prudence and the maxim of Rational Benevolence (ME 498).
Sidgwicks conception of the principle of utility roughly described above,
together with his confident rationalism, has led many philosophers to read him as being
committed to act-utilitarian ethics. Classifying him, along with Bentham and Moore, as
an extreme utilitarian, Smart asserts that for the extreme utilitarian moral rules are
merely rules of thumb.40 Indeed, some remarks in the Methods exhibit that Sidgwick
seems to treat moral rules as rules of thumb. In the beginning chapter of Book IV, he
writes:
It is not necessary that the end which gives the criterion of rightness
should always be the end at which we consciously aim: and if experience
shows that the general happiness will be more satisfactorily attained if
men frequently act from other motives than pure universal philanthropy, it
39 J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwicks Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 303-304.
40 J.J.C. Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism, Essays Metaphysical and
Moral: Selected Philosophical Papers (Basil Blackwell, 1987); originally published in
Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956), pp. 344-354. Extreme utilitarianism is simply an
equivalent to act-utilitarianism. Also see his An Outline of a System of Utilitarian
Ethics in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams 1973. Smart writes that The best sustained
exposition of act-utilitarianism is, I think, that in Sidgwicks Methods o f Ethics (p. 4).

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33
is obvious that these other motives are reasonably preferred on utilitarian
principles. (ME 413)
Sidgwicks suggestion here is that with the choice of actions in particular, utilitarianism
need not require explicit application of the criterion of rightness, and that it may allow
people to take their guidance from more handy moral rules or motives. But the point
might appear to be clear: the criterion of rightness is embedded in the ultimate end
dictated by the principle of utility, namely, general happiness; moral rules and other
motives than those directly appealing to consequences may be adopted as useful guides
for deciding what to do, if it is reasonably expected through experience that following
them will be more conducive to that end. So the passage might be viewed as showing that
Sidgwicks position well tallies with the act-utilitarian reading considered in the previous
section. But I shall argue that this reading is premature, as with the case of Mill, and
examine a few serious complications involved in determining Sidgwicks true position.
In his Foreword to the Hackett edition of the Methods, Rawls comments that the
book presents the clearest and most accessible formulation o f what we may call the
classical utilitarian doctrine (ME v). This concise characterization, as it seems, is meant
to honor Sidgwicks profound accomplishments in the book. However, the main concern
of this section is to argue that it could be seriously misleading. Confidently holding that
the kind of utilitarianism which Sidgwick seeks to formulate is the strictly classical
doctrine, Rawls says that the significance of the Methods in the history o f moral
philosophy consists in that Sidgwick is more aware than other classical authors of the
many difficulties this doctrine faces, and he attempts to deal with them in a consistent and
thorough way while never departing from the strict doctrine, as for example, did J. S.

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Mill (ME v; my emphasis). In his other writings, Rawls repeats that the moral theory
delivered by Sidgwick belongs in the end to the tradition of classical utilitarianism,
despite its being so modem in both method and spirit.41 Although the issue of
modernity of Sidgwicks moral theory could turn out to be a matter of opinion, it seems
to me that Schneewinds observation has a strong point. In his essay on the intellectual
intercourse between Sidgwick and those whom he calls Cambridge moralists,
Schneewind has made a great effort to demonstrate that this intercourse, in effect, had
Sidgwick in the Methods depart from classical utilitarianism in a number of ways.
Schneewind recapitulates:
For many purpose it is quite adequate to think of Sidgwick as a classical
utilitarian, but to think of him only in this way makes a number of facts
about his main treatise on morality quite puzzling.... [the Method of Ethics]
centers on an examination of the accepted moral opinions and modes of
thought o f common sense. It involves a rejection of empiricism and
dismisses the issue of determinism as irrelevant. It emphasizes an attempt
to reconcile positions seen by utilitarians as deeply opposed to each other.
It finds ethical egoism as reasonable as utilitarianism; and it concludes
with arguments to show that, because of this, no full reconciliation of the
various rational methods for reaching moral decisions is possible and
therefore that the realm of practical reason is probably incoherent.42

41 John Rawls, Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory, Journal o f Philosophy 77


(1980), pp. 555-557. According to him, Sidgwick advances three principles each selfevident in its own right, which characterize classical utilitarianism, namely, the principle
of equity meaning that two persons should not be treated differently merely because they
are different persons, the principle of rational prudence meaning that mere temporal
difference should not matter in considering ones own good, and the principle of rational
benevolence meaning that the good of one person is no more important than the good of
another. From these principles, when combined with the principle that, as reasonable
beings, we are bound to aim at good generally and not at any particular part of it, the
principle of utility follows (p. 558).
2 J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick and the Cambridge moralists, in Bart Schultz ed.,
Essays on Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 94; originally
published in Monist 58 (Jul., 1974), pp 371-404.

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As Schneewind goes on to argue, Sidgwick shared a number of the assumptions and
concerns with the philosophers whom he was most concerned to criticize - namely, the
Cambridge moralists, such as F. D. Maurice, William Whewell, and John Grote, who
represented the intuitionist alternative to utilitarianism, an alternative that involved an
uncritical endorsement of such traditional principles of duty as veracity, promise keeping,
justice, and so on. In this vein, it can be said that Sidgwick was an intuitionist, at least of
a certain type.
Leaving aside the issue of Sidgwicks departure from classical utilitarianism,
however, I shall focus on another important misleading point in Rawls characterization
of the Methods. It pertains to the question of what the true aim of the book was. Rawls
claims unconcernedly that it was at establishing the truth of utilitarianism.43 As we shall
see, however, this claim seems to discord with the structure of the book itself and of
Sidgwicks main arguments in it. For instance, the largest portion o f the Methods that
amounts to over two hundreds pages, that is Book III, consists of his arduous scrutiny of
common-sense moral precepts and opinions. Rawls seems to suggest that this is only
meant to be a means to a reasoned and satisfactory justification of utilitarianism (ME
vi). To me and perhaps to anyone who has read the book, however, this claim may not
sound reasonable at all. In fact, what Rawls claims is one of the serious misapprehensions
over which Sidgwick was worried most after the publication of the first edition of the
Methods (1874). In the preface to the second edition, Sidgwick expresses his worries
about some mistaken impressions his reviewers have taken from the first edition. One of

43 Schneewind rejects this view, and says that it is in fact a mistake to view the book as
primarily a defense o f utilitarianism. See Schneewind, 1977, p. 192.

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them is to regard Book III as containing mere hostile criticism from the outside, namely,
from the utilitarian standpoint (ME xii). According to Schneewind, Sidgwick is genuinely
concerned to take common moral precepts and opinions into consideration as fully as
possible, and naturally assigns them a central place in his systematic account of moral
conceptions; they are not mere subsidiaries but the very philosophical focus of the whole
project.
Sidgwick constantly assures us that every and each method of ethics to be studied
in the Methods will be treated neutrally and impartially, and that his immediate object is
to investigate multifarious modes of moral thought implicit in our common sense, out of
the same disinterested curiosity to which we chiefly owe the great discovery of physics
(ME viii). In the last paragraph of the Introduction, he claims that the intended inquiry
into various moral conceptions will inevitably involve a discussion about the first
principle of morals, but that it is not my primary aim to establish such principle; nor,
again, is it my primary aim to supply a set of practical directions for conduct (ME 14).
Another mistaken impression Sidgwick did not want the reader to have is that his
principal object is the suppression of Egoism. Sidgwick distinguishes two forms,
egoistic and universalistic, o f hedonism and attributes equal rationality to both: I do not
hold the reasonableness of aiming at happiness generally with any stronger conviction
than I do that of aiming at ones own (ME xii). From the concluding chapter of the book,
it is also clear that he is perfectly aware of the consequence which the attribution of equal
rationality to both species o f hedonism could bring about, i.e., what he calls the Dualism
of the Practical Reason; the opposition between egoism and utilitarianism leaves an
ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable

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in conduct (ME 508). If the whole book were indeed intended to be a demonstration of
the superiority o f utilitarianism over other moral conceptions, then his attitude towards
egoism would not be understandable at all. In this connection, Peter Singer comments
that Sidgwicks conclusion about egoistic hedonism alone can be taken to be an
independent evidence of his real intention, and goes on to claim that it is impossible to
regard the Methods as an argument for utilitarianism.44
Sidgwick himself declares that the main treatise of the Methods is not a
demonstration of Universalistic Hedonism (ME xii). Nonetheless, this denial has often
been neglected for good reasons. Admittedly, Sidgwick was a convinced utilitarian. And
almost all present and future readers of the Methods might come to think that he is not
altogether successful in his aim of dealing with different methods of ethics neutrally and
impartially.45 For one thing, in the end, he attempts to prove the truth of utilitarianism in
the last part of the book; and no such proof seems to be provided for the other two
theories, namely, ethical egoism and intuitionism. Noticeably, in this proof, he abandons
the neutral stance he promised, proceeds to search for the first principle of morals which
he maintains in the Introduction it is not his primary aim to find, and finally affirms that
the utilitarian principle is the most promising candidate for a principle of synthesis
which can adjust unavoidable discordance within moral reasonings of ordinary people.
Common moral precepts are, therefore, taken to be subordinate in the sense that they
need some further principle to be combined with each other and synthesized into a
complete and harmonious system (ME 422).

44 Peter Singer, Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium, Monist 58 (Jul., 1974), p. 505.
45 Marcus Singer 1974, p. 432.

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According to Schneewinds analysis, Sidgwicks proof has two closely tied stages,
and the first stage has already begun in Book III where he asks whether common moral
principles, such as the principles of Truth, Justice, Benevolence, etc., are really selfevident and independent in validity. This stage, which Schneewind names the
dependence argument, is to reveal that common moral principles are not really selfevident and that they are dependent in validity upon some further principle. Intuitively
enough, the second stage, which Schneewind names the systematization argument, is to
affirm the utilitarian principle to be a principle of synthesis, i.e., the real first, self-evident,
principle. But I expect that there would be a simple objection to this well-known
formulation. For it seems as if Schneewind somehow admits that the Methods is in fact
an elaborate attempt to prove. .. .the truth of utilitarianism; despite all his effort to
demonstrate the contrary, as if Rawls and he after all have the same view about its true
Ar

aim.

To find out a possible response to this objection, it is worth expanding a little on

Schneewinds formulation.
The supposed first stage of Sidgwicks proof is epitomized in Chapter XI of Book
III. What Sidgwick does first is to set up the conditions of a self-evident principle or a
first moral principle. He lays down four conditions: (1) terminological precision and
clarity, (2) rational reflection, (3) internal consistency, (4) universality or generality (ME
338-343). Among these conditions, the most important seems to be the third: The
propositions accepted as self-evident must be mutually consistent. Here, again, it is
obvious that any collision between two intuitions is a proof that there is error in one or
the other, or in both (ME 341). For this condition is, markedly in the concluding chapter,
46 Peter Singer 1974, p. 496-497.

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applied to the relationship between the utilitarian principle and the egoist principle, and
eventually leads Sidgwick to the gloomy conclusion that the domain of practical reason is
incoherent. The next step is to test each of the principles accepted as self-evident in terms
of these four conditions. For example, according to his account, Justice clearly fails the
test of internal consistency. Our common notion of Justice contains two quite distinct
conceptions of it.. .the individualistic and the Socialistic Ideals of a political community
(ME 239). The first conception takes freedom and the second distributive justice as the
ultimate end. Sidgwick asserts that they are incompatible, since, though freedom is
widely desired and an important source of happiness, the realisation of Freedom
cannot be the one ultimate end of distributive justice (ME 278). Sidgwick seems to
believe that neither a society in which freedom is realized as far as is feasible, like a
night-watchman state, nor a society founded only on the Socialistic Ideal of
Distribution can completely suit our sense ofjustice. Because of such inevitable
incompatibility and divergence between these two conceptions of Ideal Justice, the notion
ofjustice within common moral reasoning remains obscure and incomplete. In this
manner, common moral principles are proved to be failing to meet the conditions of self
evidence; and because of intrinsic obscurities they cannot provide the ultimate standard
o f actual rightness and fully determine the exceptions and limits; even if they could
provide that standard, they would probably need another principle with which to set the
exceptions and limits; consequently their validity would be dependent upon this
additional principle.
As said above, the main purpose of the systematization argument is to prove that
the utilitarian principle qualifies as a first moral principle, i.e., to show that it has no

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40
exceptions and limits and determines actual rightness (ME 36In). But it is important to
observe that what Sidgwick has in mind is clearly different from ordinary proof (ME
420). As Bentham does, he explicitly rejects the possibility of proving a first moral
principle, if by proof we mean a process which exhibits the principle in question as an
inference from premises upon which it remains dependent for its certainty (ME 419).
The actual procedure of his proof is only to speak of how well the principle of utility may
support the current moral rules, their generally received limitations, and qualifications
(ME 425). Thus the largest chapter of Book IV is dedicated to explicating such
supportive character of the principle of utility. Sidgwicks primary concern in this chapter
is to exhibit how satisfactorily the perplexities and conflicts implicit in common sense
moral principles can be resolved by adopting utilitarianism, i.e., by reducing the
difficulties which we found in the intuitional method to difficulties of hedonistic
comparison (ME 439).
Here the point I wish to stress is that Sidgwick conceives of the principle of utility,
not as one single overriding principle which can interfere with our moral reasoning at any
incident, but rather a principle o f harmonization which sustains the general validity of
the current moral judgments, and thus supplements the defects which reflection finds in
the intuitive recognition of their stringency (ME 422). In Mills theory, the principle of
utility might be viewed as playing the role of a justifying ground for existing social and
moral rules, though, in itself, not a moral principle. In contrast to this, as aforementioned,
Sidgwick defines the principle of utility as a moral principle which determines actual
rightness. But we need pay attention to the complementary nature of the principle of
utility. In both Sidgwick and Mill, the central question with regard to the relation of the

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utility principle and common sense moral precepts is not why common sense moral
precepts should give way to the utility principle but rather how the latter can support the
former, i.e., how and under what circumstances the utility principle can come into play
and help common sense moral precepts work more positively, not taking over their place
but only adjusting the discords among them. Apparently, Sidgwicks emphasis on this
complementary nature o f the utility principle has led some philosophers to think of his
theory as only indirectly utilitarian.
Many commentators have found the two stages in Sidgwicks argument in Book
III and IV, as Schneewind has. I think, however, that some of them have misidentified the
real focus of the argument and claimed that it is a spirited defense of utilitarianism as
well as a clear rejection o f intuitionism. Those holding this view have failed to appreciate
the other side of the argument, i.e., the possibility that the two stages of the argument, as
a matter of fact, indicate two phases of his examination of common sense morality, not
those of the proof of utilitarianism. Originally it is not Schneewind but Sidgwick himself
who has proposed the division of the two stages and he calls them negative critique of
common moral principles and more positive treatment of Common-sense morality, in its
relation to Utilitarianism respectively (ME 361; my emphasis). It should be observed
that the subject matter o f both stages is common sense morality, and that the second stage,
the systematization argument, can only be seen as one part of his study of this subject
matter.
Even if we take for granted the more obvious side of the argument, i.e., the proof
o f utilitarianism, it is also important not to overlook that it is not meant to prove the
utilitarian first principle to be the sole or supreme moral axiom. As Sidgwick insists, it is

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one moral axiom (ME 421). What a utilitarian might claim in defense of her position is
merely that if our moral reasoning need be systematized or rationalized, the principle of
utility can serve the purpose. Of course, the utilitarian might also claim that utilitarianism
provides the most reasonable answers to all the quandaries which might occur in daily
moral decisions because of the obscurities immanent in common sense moral reasoning;
so to say, that anomalies in the Morality of Common Sense could be best explained by
the utilitarian method (ME 425); the difficulties and perplexities within common moral
axioms could be best remedied by the utilitarian method (ME 425-6). The utilitarian may
go even further to say that it is the unavoidable duty of a systematic Utilitarianism to
make a thorough revision of the moral rules of common sense (ME 467). However,
there is a complication in taking this last remark as informing Sidgwicks genuine
intention.
At the outset of the chapter entitled Philosophical Intuitionism, Sidgwick
proclaims that if a philosopher is in any important point in severe conflict with common
sense morality, her theory will be rejected (ME 373). This seems to mean that the
acceptability o f any moral theory is in the end dependent upon its being compatible with
common sense morality. So if utilitarianism were to be proved valid, the proof would
have to show that it is in every important point compatible with common sense morality.
Indeed, against the notion that a systematic utilitarian could make a complete revision of
common sense moral rules to bring them into line with a perfectly utilitarian code,
Sidgwick acknowledges that humanity is not something that exhibits the same properties
always and everywhere: whether we consider the intellect of man or his feelings, or his
physical condition and circumstances, we find them so different in different ages and

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countries, that it seems prima facie absurd to lay down a set of ideal Utilitarian rules for
mankind generally (ME 467-8). Though he may be viewed as thinking that not all of our
common moral principles are sacrosanct and seeking the reform of some part of common
sense morality, Sidgwick does not seem to believe that utilitarianism is going to be
allowed to sweep aside just any of the views and convictions of the plain man.47 Yet it
is a difficult question whether Sidgwick really considers the compatibility with common
sense morality as an ultimate test of the validity of moral theories.
With regard to this question, Peter Singer makes a distinct point. He agrees with
Schneewind that Sidgwicks concentration on common sense morality determines the
essential characteristic of the argument developed in Book III and IV. But his key claim
against Schneewind is that from the very beginning Sidgwick is not proposing a twostage argument which is intended to be a means of establishing the validity of
utilitarianism, but rather one ad hominem argument to the intuitionist.

a q

In short, the

upshot o f the argument is that, in order to convince a proponent of intuitionism, what a


utilitarian can do is only to show that supporting evidence of the utilitarian axioms is
already contained in our common moral beliefs and judgments. Sidgwicks famous thesis
that common sense is inchoately and imperfectly Utilitarian seems to be the central
presumption o f that ad hominem argument. However, Peter Singer claims that this

47 R.G Frey, Act-Utilitarianism: Sidgwick or Bentham and Smart? Mind 86 (1977), p.


95. Arguing that Sidgwick takes a compromising stance over conflicts between ordinary
moral convictions and utilitarianism, Frey writes that Sidgwicks position appears to be
that the application of act-utilitarianism will sometimes give results that warrant
amending some parts of commonsense morality but at other times will give results that
warrant amending act-utilitarianism.. .The point is.. .that he thought amending the theory
was an appropriate response in the light of at least some deeply counterintuitive results.
48 Peter Singer 1974, pp. 498-501.

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evidence alone falls short of sustaining the validity of utilitarianism. He also holds that
Sidgwick does not use the compatibility with common sense as a method of testing moral
theories or confirming their validity, a method which Rawls calls reflective equilibrium
procedure.49
The question of whether Sidgwicks argument is a two-stage argument or a single
ad hominem argument will not be settled here. Instead, I emphasize Sidgwicks
conviction that common sense morality is a system of rules tending to the promotion of
the general happiness and that utilitarianism needs common sense morality for guidance
on the ground o f the general presumption... .that moral sentiments and opinions would
point to conduct conducive to general happiness (ME xxi). In fact, Sidgwick says that
no one doubts that it is, generally speaking, conducive to the common happiness that
men should be veracious, faithful to promises, obedient to law disposed to satisfy the
normal expectations o f others, having their malevolent impulses and their sensual
appetites under strict control (ME 485). It turns out that the utilitarian must start,
speaking broadly, with the existing social order, and the existing morality as a part of it
(ME 473). What he ought to show is that utilitarianism can sustain the approximate
validity of common sense moral judgments, explaining the exceptions to them and
providing a principle for adjusting them into a complete and harmonious system. Thus,

49 ibid., p. 490. See also Russell Hardin Common Sense at the Foundations, in Bart
Schultz ed., 1992, p. 143-160. He writes that A common move in much of contemporary
moral theory and criticism is to test the theory under consideration against our moral
beliefs. If the theory does not match the beliefs, intuitions, or so-called common sense,
the theory is supposed to fail. In The Methods of Ethics Henry Sidgwick makes a nearly
opposite move in his account of the method of utilitarianism (p. 143). In contrast to this,
Frey seems to believe that Sidgwick, to some extent, considers common sense morality
a test for adequacy of normative ethical theories (1977, p. 96).

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45
the common antithesis between intuitionists and utilitarians should be discarded.50
Utilitarianism appears in friendly alliance with Intuitionism, says Sidgwick (ME 86).
He believes that their synthesis undertaken in Book IV is quite successful (ME 496).
Thus far, I have discussed Sidgwicks view of the relation o f intuitive moral
principles and utilitarian principles. In summary, our common moral principles are not
truly self-evident because o f their intrinsic obscurities, and accordingly they need an
additional principle which is truly self-evident and can adjust them into a harmonious
system. Rather ironically, Sidgwick, who was one of the most influential critics of
intuitionism in the nineteenth century, did endorse a conservative attitude toward
common sense which we have found in Mill: Adhere generally, deviate and attempt
reform only in exceptional cases in which, - notwithstanding the roughness of hedonistic
method, - the argument against Common Sense is decisive (ME xx). Even on this view,
of course, the basic utilitarian principle is meant to be applied to all departments of moral
and political practice. Still, however, it is a grave mistake to view what Sidgwick has
done in Book III and IV as a clear rejection of intuitionism. Sidgwick does not reject all
forms of intuitionism. Utilitarianism, or Universal Hedonism, requires a rational intuition
to the effect that it is rational or right for me to sacrifice my happiness for the good of
the whole of which I am part (ME xvi). In this sense, utilitarianism rests on an
intuitional basis, or philosophical intuitionism, as Sidgwick calls it. In addition to this,

50 Bart Schultz, Introduction: Henry Sidgwick Today, in Essays on Henry Sidgwick


(1992), p. 15. But this should not be understood as simply rejecting the difference
between their methods. Sidgwick says no doubt there is great difference between the
assertion that virtue is always productive of happiness, and the assertion that the right
action is under all circumstances that which will produce the greatest possible happiness
on the whole (ME 424-5).

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46
we should remember the supportive nature of the principle of utility in Sidgwicks
conception.
The last issue I shall bring up is concerned with another conception of common
sense morality, a broader conception of common sense morality in which it implies
egoism as well and thus should not be equated with intuitionism. In the above, I have not
used the terms intuitionism and common sense morality as if they are
interchangeable. In fact, it has long been a standard view that in the Methods, common
sense morality is used to refer to an independent method of ethics which is simply
identified with (dogmatic) intuitionism. But Schneewind, who is undoubtedly one of
the most preeminent Sidgwick scholars, and some recent commentators have rejected this
view.51
One important feature of this broader conception of common sense morality is
that it is comprehensive enough to encompass ethical egoism as well. Evidence for this
feature is, though scarce, quite convincing. For Sidgwick, it is clear that considerations of
individual happiness or concern about the quality of the existence is of fundamental
significance to our common sense. In this vein, he writes:
It would be contrary to Common sense to deny that the distinction
between any one individual and any other is real and fundamental, and
that consequently I am concerned with the quality of my existence as an
individual in a sense, fundamentally important, in which I am not
concerned with the quality of the existence of other individuals: and this
being so, I do not see how it can be proved that this distinction is not to be
taken as fundamental in determining the ultimate end of rational action for
an individual. (ME 498)

51 For example, Janice Duario, Sidgwick on Moral Theories and Common Sense
Morality, History o f Philosophy Quarterly 14 (1997).

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47
Now the question is in what sense egoism is implied in common sense morality. There is
no doubt that, for Sidgwick, egoism is a viable method of ethics. But does he really
regard it as a morality? If morality is to be defined as being concerned with duties alone,
and duties or virtues in turn are conceived as opposed to self-interest or self-love, then
egoism would be ruled out from the domain of morality, and also from common sense
morality. Frankena makes a similar point:
It is proper to call ethical egoism as ethics because it is generally regarded
as reasonable for a man to act in the manner most conducive to his own
happiness and because it is in fact ultimately reasonable for him to do so.
Interestingly, although Sidgwick is willing to call ethical egoism an ethics,
he does not, so far as I can find, call it morality, though he does call
intuitionism and utilitarianism
moralities, and does not even ask whether
c'y
they are methods of ethics.
In order to uphold the broader sense of common sense morality, i.e., to claim that
common sense morality implies egoism, there seems to be only one answer: by the term
morality Sidgwick simply means ethics, that is a rational procedure for determining
what it is right for one to do.53 For the most part, as aforementioned, Sidgwick identifies
right and ought with reasonable. Again, he firmly believes, it is also important to
note, that morality requires for its complete systematization a harmony between the
maxim o f [Rational] Prudence and the maxim of Rational Benevolence (ME 498). It
seems then to follow that a complete system of morality relies upon the egoistic maxim
as its essential part.
Several things to note. First of all, Sidgwick is well aware that egoism is rather
different from what most people mean by morality, and also that this common notion of
52 William K. Frankena, Sidgwick and the Duality of Practical Reason, Monist 58 (Jul.,
1974), p. 452.
53 ibid., pp. 459-466.

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48
morality is closely tied with the received duties, especially, social or other-regarding
duties. Secondly, it is true, as Frankena says, that he is reluctant to call ethical egoism
morality. Sidgwick claims on his extensive examination of egoism that occasionally it is
in practical conflict with those common notions of duty... [which] we are accustomed to
expect from Morality (ME 199). Thirdly, however, he does not make any clear
distinction between ethics and morality. In some places in the Methods, he appears to
take them as interchangeable. In Book II, he starts with a remark that a system of
morality, satisfactory to the moral consciousness of mankind in general, cannot be
constructed on the basis o f simple Egoism (ME 119); his conclusion is that egoism is
definitely incompetent for that task. By no means, however, is he denying the significant
role of the egoistic method that must be played in making moral decisions. Lastly, there is
no indication that Sidgwick himself accepts the common notion of morality that rules out
egoism.
I do not wish to insist that there is conclusive evidence showing that Sidgwick
somehow regards egoism as a morality. But I do wish to claim that the idea, found in
many interpretations, that egoism is incompatible with common sense morality, is
ungrounded and problematic. This idea is based on a false observation that Sidgwick
identifies common sense morality with dogmatic intuitionism, and on his remark that
to the egoist the common precepts of duty., .must be. ..rules., .which under special
circumstances must be decisively ignored and broken (ME 199).54 It has been argued

54 Sidgwick distinguishes three phases of Intuitionism; they are called respectively


Perceptional, Dogmatic, and Philosophical (ME 102). Dogmatic intuitionism, however, is
the only form of intuitionism Sidgwick considers as a method of ethics. This view seems
to be the standard one at present. See Marcus Singer 1974, p. 435.

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49
that Sidgwick provides no precise definition of common sense morality; as Marcus
Singer puts it, it is actually dubious that a precise definition can be given.55 Only
vaguely does Sidgwick sometimes associate common sense morality with a set of
intuitive moral precepts. However, his own description o f it explains that its scope is
much broader than dogmatic intuitionism; he says that the morality of common sense is
a machinery of rules, habits, and sentiments, roughly and generally but not precisely or
completely adapted to the production of the greatest possible happiness for sentient being
generally (ME 475). I do not know exactly what he refers to by such a machinery.
Maybe it can be taken as referring to all sorts of the subject matter with which the moral
philosophers are concerned in developing their theories; or even a comprehensive whole,
chaotic or organized, into which all different methods of ethics and different ultimate
ends are to be comprised. In any case, my view is that it is not itself a specific method,
and thus that the egoistic method cannot be said to be compatible or incompatible with it.
On this broader conception, rather, rules of conduct based on the principles of egoistic
hedonism could be understood to take part in, or to be a constituent of, the morality of
common sense.
I have to admit that I have deliberately followed one sort of interpretation of
Sidgwicks concept of morality, the so-called internalist reading. It is the view that in
55 Marcus Singer, Common Sense and Paradox in Sidgwicks Ethics, History of
Philosophy Quarterly 3 (1986), pp. 65-78.1 think that this remark is tacitly connected
with his own conception o f common sense, not Sidgwicks, that Common sense is no
system and has no system, in the sense intended, hence there is nothing that needs to be
further developed. ..What it does not require is to be remade into the model o f some
ethical system; therefore, it can contain nothing that is to be defined with scientific
precision. Marcus Singer here seems to take as unnecessary or impossible the essential
procedure of Sidgwicks inquiry into the subject, i.e., to throw the Morality o f Common
Sense into a scientific form (ME 338).

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Sidgwicks moral theory there is an internal connection or identity between morality and
rationality. According to this reading, confident rationalism is key to Sidgwicks concept
of morality; for him, complete systematization of our moral reasoning is simply complete
rationalization o f it. That is the reason why Sidgwick in the concluding chapter takes so
seriously the contradiction between those two species of hedonism to which he attributes
equal rationality. But there is another influential interpretation. David Brink rejects such
an internal connection that Frankena has defended and proposes to distinguish fairly
sharply between theories of morality and theories o f rationality.

According to the

reading which he calls the externalist reading, Sidgwicks dualism may be understood
as a conflict not between two theories of morality or two theories of rationality but
between an egoist account of rational actions and a utilitarian theory of moral obligations.
Brinks reading is based on the evidence that Sidgwick often describes the opposition
between egoism and utilitarianism as that between Self-interest or rational prudence and
(utilitarian) Duty. He cautiously remarks that Sidgwick is ambivalent between the
cn

internalist and externalist interpretations of the dualism of practical reasoning.


One significant outcome of the externalist reading is that since egoism and
utilitarianism are theories of different subject matters, they may be stated without obvious
theoretical inconsistency. The problem with the internalist reading is this. Sidgwick
thinks that both utilitarianism and egoism are supported by rational intuitions that are
supposed to be self-evident. As seen above, one of the conditions for self-evidence is that
the propositions in question be mutually consistent. But if ethical egoism and
56 David O. Brink, Sidgwick and the Rationale for Rational Egoism, in Bart Schultz ed.
1992, p. 203.
57 ibid., p. 204.

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51

utilitarianism are not mutually consistent, then it would seem to follow that neither can be
self-evident at least on the internalist reading. On the externalist reading, however, there
need be no inconsistency: For even if there is a conflict between duty and interest,
rational egoism can truly state the agents reasons for action and utilitarianism can truly
state his moral obligations... .Only the externalist reading, therefore, allows us to avoid
attributing to Sidgwick a fairly significant inconsistency or confusion.58 Brink notes
that the externalist reading as well embodies some sort of dualism or tension in practical
reason, since the rational authority of moral considerations, on this reading, depends on
the extent of the coincidence of duty and interest, and Sidgwick believes that this
coincidence is imperfect. Thus there is a tension and practical inconsistency between
egoism and utilitarianism; we cannot always act so as to satisfy both egoism and
utilitarianism.59 But Brinks point is that the tension between egoism and utilitarianism
must be less severe on the externalist reading that it is on the internalist reading. For, on
the externalist reading, the tension in question is only practical, not theoretical. On this
reading, Sidgwick can embrace both egoism and utilitarianism compatibly, because they
defend different structures for different domains.60
I do quite agree on Brinks analysis about the inconsistency problem faced by the
internalist reading, and think that his assertion that Sidgwicks text supports both readings
and thus neither can be decisive is quite fair. At a couple of points, however, I am still
inclined to think that the externalist reading is less decisive than the internalist reading.

58

David O. Brink, Sidgwicks Dualism o f Practical Reason, Australasian Journal o f


Philosophy 66 (1988), p. 305.
59 David. O. Brink 1992, p. 205.
60 ibid. p. 205-205.

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52
For one thing, the externalist reading does not satisfactorily explain Sidgwicks
philosophic despair: Morality is Chaos.61 Attempting to explicate a way of the
practical blending of egoism and utilitarianism, Sidgwick says:
It is much easier for a man to move in a sort of diagonal between Egoistic
and Universalistic Hedonism, than to be practically a consistent adherent
of either. Few men are so completely selfish, whatever their theory of
morals may be, as not occasionally to promote the happiness of others
from natural sympathetic impulse unsupported by Epicurean calculation.
And probably still fewer are so resolutely unselfish as never to find all
mens good in their own with rather too ready conviction. (ME 84).
Sidgwick claims that such a practical blending, if possible at all, is a mere coincidence,
and further that the practical affinity between Utilitarianism and Intuitionism is really
much greater than that between the two forms of Hedonism (ME 85). Although the
methods o f egoistic and universalistic hedonism might come to the same conclusions on
many points, there are bound to be clear conflicts, as in cases where the general good
would call for the sacrifice of ones life. Faced with these conflicts, we would be looking
for some practical solution to them. And the trouble is that there would be no such
solution. As in the externalist reading of it, thus, the contradiction between egoism and
utilitarianism can be seen as posing a coordination problem in practice. I wonder,
however, why Sidgwick had to be so pessimistic about finding a solution to this problem;
why he came to think that the only way to overcome the contradiction is by means of a
theological premise, an appeal to a Supreme Being to underwrite the moral order of the
world and guarantee the coincidence of the two methods.
61 In his diary, dated March 16 1887, Sidgwick writes: Or am I to use my position - and
draw my salary - for teaching Morality is Chaos, from the point of view of Practical
Reason; adding cheerfully that, as a man is not after all a rational being, there is no real
fear that morality wont be kept up somehow. Arthur Sidgwick and Eleanor Sidgwick
eds., Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (London: Macmillan, 1906), p. 472.

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53
The point is that Sidgwicks real concern is with his own conclusion that the
contradiction is not merely practical but rather fundamental and theoretical; that
the idea of a harmony between the maxims of [Rational] Prudence and the maxims of
Rational Benevolence which is necessary for rationalizing morality is after all illusory
(ME 508). We must pay heed to the way Sidgwick frames the issue. Given that he
describes the contradiction in terms o f the basic notion o f a demand o f reason, it is simply

impossible to tease his arguments into an externalist form.

f\0

In every important instance,

so far as I can see, he describes it as a conflict of irreconcilable demands of reason.


Brinks externalist reading views the contradiction as a conflict between the utilitarians
account of morality and an egoist theory of rationality, namely, as a conflict between
different subject matters. As seen above, however, Sidgwick does not distinguish between
morality or virtue and what is rational, as Butler and others did. Evidence for this is
simply overwhelming all over the Methods. For him, morality and what is rational are not
different subject matters; as it would seem to follow, then, the externalist reading
collapses. His real view is that the principles of egoism and utilitarianism are equally
reasonable and valid from the same point of view, that of reason intuiting self-evident
elements. As Frankena puts it, the dilemma is not between duty and interest. ...since for
Sidgwick both principles are at once principles of duty and of rationality.
My view is that the internalist view is indeed Sidgwicks own. Even if I am right,
however, the value of the externalist reading does not diminish, in the sense that even
62 William K. Frankena, Sidgwick and the History of Ethical Dualism, in Bart Schultz
ed. 1992. In this essay, Frankena tries to demonstrate that the internalist view is further
supported by the way that some such view apparently colored his reading o f the history
o f ethics.
63 ibid., p. 195.

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54

though it is incorrect of Sidgwicks view, it can still be a good suggestion about how to
view the contradiction between ethical egoism and utilitarianism as well as about the
alleged inconsistency problem involved in the internalist view. Another valuable aspect of
it seems to me that it brings up profound questions about the relation of self-interest and
duty in classical utilitarianism. As we shall see in the next section, these questions relate
to one major modem objection to utilitarianism.

The Relation of Interest and Duty in Classical Utilitarianism


Generally speaking, classical utilitarians uncovered, and failed to solve, the
conflict between self-interest and duties, imposed by utilitarianism, to promoting the
general welfare. But it is not the case that they were utterly indifferent to that conflict. In
the Preface to the sixth edition of the Methods, Sidgwick proclaimed that he set himself
to examine methodically the relation of Interest and Duty (ME xviii). Under Butlers
influence, as argued above, he was led to accept a Dualism o f Practical Reason, and in
the concluding chapter of the book itself, he was left in the position that without a
hypothesis unverifiable by experience reconciling the Individual with the Universal
Reason (first edition, p. 472), we are forced to admit as fundamental and unavoidable a
vast hole between egoistic inclinations and necessities at one end, and impersonal
benevolent happiness-management at the other.64 Although Sidgwicks position should

Bernard Williams 1973, p. 112. While he claims, on the one hand, that utilitarianism in
general has a tendency to leave this vast hole, Williams notes, on the other hand, that only
the most primitive form of utilitarianism has to leave this hole; and that modem versions
of utilitarianism may well acknowledge that what makes people happy is not only making
other people happy, but also being involved in any of a vast range o f commitments {ibid.).

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55
be understood as skepticism rather than failure, it is always the failure part that has
received critics attention.
It has been argued that classical utilitarians attempt at solution relies upon a
purported analogy between what is rational from the perspective of individual persons
and what is rational from the perspective of all affected persons. A hint at this analogy is
found in Mills Utilitarianism: each persons happiness is a good to that person, the
general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons (UT 34). His
principle o f utility is epitomized in a proposition that happiness is the only thing desirable
as an end. With regard to the scope of this proposition, Brown argues:
On the face of it.. ..[the principle] sounds like a theory of individual
interest, appropriately addressed to an agent considering conduct from his
own point of view. As a result it sounds in principle inadequate to
adjudicate the conflict of interest and duty. The trick is turned by the
parenthetical but momentous insertion of the words whether we are
considering our own good or that of others... .When considering ones
own good, ones own pleasure and the absence of pain for oneself are the
only thing to be taken as ultimate ends; and when considering the good of
others, their pleasure and the absence of pain for them are the only thing to
be taken as ultimate ends. On this reading, the second part would be a
mere application of the first, since the first part applies to anyones good.
But then the question would be, how does the agent come to be
considering the good of others....?
The question is, in other words, if a rational agent is convinced that a persons happiness
is a good and the sole good to that person, does it follow that the agent will also be
convinced that the general happiness is a good and the sole good to the aggregate of all
persons? Before we think o f any answer to this question, let us see another, more visible,
hint at the purported analogy. This hint is found in one of the most discussed chapters in
Sidgwicks Methods:
65 D.G. Brown [1973] 1997, pp. 18-19.

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56
So far we have only been considering the Good on the Whole of a single
individual: but just as this notion is constructed by comparison and
integration of the different goods that succeed one another in the series
of our conscious states, so we have formed the notion of Universal Good
by comparison and integration of the goods of all individual human - or
sentient - existences. And here again, just as in the former case, by
considering the relation of the integrant parts to the whole and to each
other, I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one
individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say
so) of the Universe, than the good of any other.. .And it is evident to me
that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally. (ME 382)
In this passage, Sidgwick explicates those two rational intuitions which he takes to be
self-evident truths, and which many commentators have deemed to characterize classical
utilitarianism: (1) the principle of rational prudence, meaning that mere temporal
difference should not matter in considering ones own good; and (2) the principle of
rational benevolence, meaning that the good of one person is no more important than the
good of another. Sidgwick regards the former principle as implied in Rational Egoism,
and the latter as a rational basis for the Utilitarian system (ME 386-7). In this
transitional paragraph, more importantly, he appears to be working out an argument from
the former to the latter via the purported analogy.
This argument from analogy has been subjected to severe criticisms. On the face
o f it, the argument does not seem plausible. For it simply gives no reason why a model of
what is rational from the perspective of individual persons should be applicable to that of
what is rational from the perspective of all persons. A yet more serious criticism is
inflicted on what follows from this argument from analogy. Rawls criticism in A Theory
of Justice_consists of the contention that in classical utilitarianism the principle of choice
for society is in fact an extension of the principle of choice for one man, namely, the
principle of rational prudence (TJR21). He thus claims that on the classical utilitarian

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57
conception of it social justice is the principle of rational prudence applied to an
aggregate conception of the welfare of the group (TJR 21). This contention is an
indispensable premise to his famous sentence: Utilitarianism does not take seriously the
distinction between persons (TJR 24). Herbert Hart presents a succinct account of how
the contention that utilitarianism extends the principle of personal choice to public
decisions leads to the conclusion that utilitarians fail to recognize the separateness of
persons.
According to this criticism, maximising utilitarianism, if it is not
restrained by distinct distributive principles, proceeds on a false analogy
between the way in which it is rational for a single prudent individual to
order his life and the way in which it is rational for a whole community to
order its life through government... In its misleading analogy with an
individuals prudence, maximising utilitarianism not merely treats one
persons pleasure as replaceable by some greater pleasure of that same
person, as prudence requires, but it also treats the pleasure or happiness of
one individual as similarly replaceable without limit by greater pleasure of
other individuals. So in these ways it treats the division between persons
as of no more moral significance than the division between times which
separates one individuals earlier pleasure from his later pleasure, as if
individuals were mere parts of a single persisting entity. 6
In this passage, Hart explains how Rawls contention relates to a persistent criticism of
utilitarianism: since what matters for the maximizing utilitarian is always the gain or loss
in total pleasure or happiness in the world, he is bound to neglect the basic truth that
[each individual] is a separate person, that his is the only life he has, and thereby to
take one person as replaceable by another.

Similar arguments with distinct emphases

66 H.L.A. Hart, Between Utility and Rights, in Alan Ryan ed., The Idea o f Freedom
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 80.
67 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books Inc., 1974), p. 33. For
another example, see also R.G Frey, Introduction: Utilitarianism and Persons (1984),
pp. 7-8. Frey thinks that what committed classical utilitarians to the replaceability
argument was [their] value-theory focused around pleasure/pain {ibid.).

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58
have been put forward by the adherents of the Kantian thesis that human beings should be
treated as ends in themselves.

68

The general form o f the utilitarian argument from analogy is, according to Rawls,
that just as it is rational from the perspective of individual persons to maximize their net
balance of satisfactions, so also it is rational from the perspective of everyone to
maximize the overall net balance of satisfactions. He writes:
Since the principle for an individual is to advance as far as possible his
own welfare, his own system of desires, the principle of society is to
advance as far as possible the welfare of the group, to realize to the
greatest extent the comprehensive system of desire arrived at from the
desires of its members. Just as an individual balances present and future
gains against present and future losses, so a society may balance
satisfactions and dissatisfactions between different individuals. And so by
these reflections one reaches the principle of utility in a natural way. (TJR
21).

As with Bentham and Mill, Sidgwick thinks that the principles of rational prudence and
impartial benevolence, as the fundamental precepts of morality, are not susceptible of any
direct proof. For him, as Rawls and other commentators hold, these principles are selfevident as much (e.g.) as the mathematical axiom (ME 383). Having the status of an
axiom, each principle needs no further principle from which it can be deduced. That is,
they are independent of, and hence do not depend for their validity on, each other. The
former principle is not required to establish the latter, and vice versa; so to speak, the

68 For example, Nozicks emphasis is placed upon his libertarian conception of the
legitimate State or government; while Rawls emphasis in the Classical Utilitarianism
section is on the contrast between contractarian and utilitarian standpoints, the contrast
between the standpoint of the Ideal Contractor and that of the Ideal Spectator. But
Nozicks argument consists of the assertion, similar to Rawls, that if the functions of
government are not restricted to the protection o f the basic entitlement rights, then the
fault of ignoring the separateness o f persons which critics impute to utilitarianism will
have been committed.

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59
self-evidence of the principle of benevolence does not derive from the principle of
prudence.
Then it becomes unclear what use the analogy has. It could also be asked, what is
the alleged similarity between them? According to Sidgwicks account, it is a reflective
procedure that includes considerations of the relation of the integrant parts to the whole
and to each other, the relation which individuals and their particular ends bear as parts
to their wholes, and to other parts of these wholes (ME 382). This is a procedure that
reveals a self-evident element in the two principles, convinces us of their being
essentially reasonable, and thereby differentiates them from other moral maxims
requiring rational justification of some sort, such as I ought to speak the truth, I ought
to keep my promises (ME 383). In short, Sidgwicks use of analogy is not to propose an
argument from the principle of prudence to the principle of benevolence, but rather to
indicate the core procedure for recognizing these abstract truths.
In Browns estimation, Mill also wanted to save the rationality of both prudence
and [benevolence] by dissolving both in a higher, more abstractly conceived pursuit of an
end.69 To repeat, in Mills theory, the principle of utility governs prudence. When an
agent is considering his own interest, it is the principle of utility with which he is
promoting his own happiness. Brown argues:
Then, when the agent considers his moral situation, the same principle
continues to direct him to promote happiness, only the incidence of
pleasure and pain is more widely surveyed, so as to take in the pleasures
and pains of others on exactly the same term. The transition, in this sense,
from self to others is smoothed out to the point of invisibility, by the idea
that pleasure and the absence of pain, regardless of whose, are in

69 D.G Brown [1973] 1997, p. 18.

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60
themselves simply desirable, and therefore ends of (anyones) rational
+ 70
action.
Contrary to this broad conception of the principle of utility, however, Mill makes clear in
the second chapter of Utilitarianism that by the acceptance of the utilitarian standard he
means the acceptance not of the agents own greatest happiness, but of the greatest
amount of happiness altogether as the ultimate end of human action (UT 11). Thus,
when he says that the utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only
thing desirable, as an end, it is more likely that by happiness in this particular sentence,
he means the general happiness rather than each persons happiness; accordingly, the
doctrine can be restated as the principle that the general happiness is desirable.
When he comes to give the proof of this doctrine, Mill offers the following
argument.71
The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is
that people do actually desire it.. .No reason can be given why the general
happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to
be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we
have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is
possible to require, that happiness is a good, that each persons happiness
is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the
aggregate of all persons. (UT 34)
This appears to be an argument in two steps: one step from each person desires his own
happiness to each persons happiness is desirable for that person; the other step from

70 ibid., p. 20.
71 At the end o f the first chapter o f Utilitarianism, Mill explains that though questions
o f ultimate ends are not amenable to proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the
term, there is a larger meaning of the word proof in which they are amenable to it.
He continues to say that The subject is within the cognisance of the rational
faculty. ..Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to
give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof (UT 4-5). So
when he speak o f the word proof, he means it in this larger sense.

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61
the latter to the general happiness is desirable for every person. An immediate reply to
this argument is that desire does not confer desirability. What is actually desired cannot
be legitimately inferred to be desirable. The first step of the argument seems to move
without warrant from is to ought. Even if we grant that desire confers desirability,
there is a further objection: an aggregate of actual desires, each directed towards a
different part of the general happiness, does not constitute an actual desire for the general
happiness, existing in any individual. Certainly it would be absurd to think that a desire
which does not exist in any individual can possibly exist in an aggregate of individuals.
Since there is no actual desire for the general happiness, therefore, the proposition that
the general happiness is desirable for every person cannot be established in this way.
Strictly speaking, there is not much of argument in Mills passage. In the second
step of the argument, he passes from each persons happiness is desirable for that
person to the general happiness is desirable for every person in one sentence.
Presumably, he thinks that this step, which seems to involve a fallacy o f composition, is
obvious. Holding that Mills proposition can be interpreted as a much weaker claim than
commentators have thought it to be, Henry West says that by the general happiness, he
does not mean a collective something but a mere sum of instances of individual happiness,
just as personal happiness is simply a sum of pleasures. 72 The proposition that the

general happiness is desirable thus does not imply that every human beings happiness is
a good to every other human being, but merely that since As happiness is a good, B s a

72 See Henry R. West, Mills Proof o f the Principle of Utility, in David Lyons ed.
1997, p. 91; originally published in Harlan B. Miller and William H. Williams eds., The
Limits o f Utilitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982), pp. 23-34.

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62
good, Cs a good, etc., the sum of all these goods must be a good.73 Mills substantive
claim is that, wherever it occurs, happiness is the kind of thing which is desirable as an
end. West explains that whether or not any single individual desires the general
happiness, if each of its parts is shown to be desirable by the evidence of desire, because
of the kind of thing each part is, then the sum of these parts will be desirable because it is
simply a summation o f instances of the same kind of thing.74 Given this interpretation,
Mills argument seems able to prove the desirability of the general happiness, without
supposing that there is an actual desire for it. It seems to me, however, that in this
interpretation the notion o f the general happiness would be trivialized into that which
seems neither to be particularly utilitarian nor to supply a normative object of action. To
anyone who can understand that an individuals happiness is a good, surely, the general
happiness as a mere sum o f instances of individual happiness must also be a good. If a
piece of chocolate is a good, then it is obvious that a box of chocolate must be a good.
Even in this interpretation, however, Mills argument is far too inadequate to explain why
anyone should care about the general happiness, or how what is good for a person
transcends the bounds o f individual prudence.
I have tried thus far to show that though in different manners, both Mill and
Sidgwick have made use o f an analogy o f some sort in justifying the rationality o f the
utilitarian doctrine. In Mills case, it is used to argue from the desirability of individual
happiness to that of the general happiness; while in Sidgwick, to specify a common
reflective procedure for recognizing the principles of prudence and benevolence as

73 John Stuart Mill, Collected Works, Vol. XVI, p. 1414.


74 Henry West [1982] 1997, p. 94.

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essentially reasonable. In my view, however, Sidgwicks use of the analogy is not to
prove anything; it is only explanatory of the common feature of the two principles, the
feature that they are our fundamental intuitions of morality that are equally rational. This
view is further supported by his dualism o f practical reason.
Sidgwicks utilitarianism is unfailingly high-minded and gives great scope to the
social and sympathetic side of human nature: the selfish man misses the sense of
elevation and enlargement given by wide interests....He is made to feel in a thousand
various ways, according to the degree of refinement which his nature has attained, the
discord between the rhythms o f his own life and o f that larger life of which his own is but
an insignificant fraction (ME 501). Nevertheless, Sidgwick himself does not believe that
the supposed reflective procedure common to the principles of prudence and benevolence
can be utilized in laymens reasoning to resolve the contradiction between the egoistic
pursuit of happiness and the duties imposed by utilitarianism. For him, in my estimation,
it is not likely to happen that any person who is rational enough to accept the principle of
prudence would proceed, as effortlessly as Rawls describes, to accept the principle of
benevolence and then, in a natural way, arrive at the principle of utility. In this vein,
Sidgwick argues that the proof of utilitarianism offered in Book IV of the Methods cannot
really convert them from Egoistic to Universalistic Hedonism; but only convinces them
that, unless the two can be shown to coincide, Practical Reason is divided against itself
(first edition, pp. 460-1). Similarly, the final chapter of the Methods in later editions
begins by noting that [the Egoist] may avoid the proof of Utilitarianism by declining to
affirm [that his own happiness is not merely the rational ultimate end for himself, but a
part of Universal Good] (ME 497-8).

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In contrast to Sidgwicks skepticism which is, indeed, rather unique in the
utilitarian tradition, Mill appears quite optimistic:
Genuine private affections and a sincere interest in the public good are
possible, though in unequal degree, to every rightly brought up human
being. ..everyone who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual
requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and
unless such a person, through bad laws or subjection to the will of other, is
denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will
not fail to find this enviable existence, if he escapes the positive evils of
life. (UT 14)
In Mills theory, again, each persons happiness or interest is part of the general happiness
or interest. The latter is not something collective but a mere sum of instances of the
former. On this interpretation that the relation o f individual and general happiness is
simply a part-whole relation, there can be no contradiction between them. In his
explanation that the utilitarian duties to the promotion of public utility is, in practice, in
no conflict with the interests of individuals, Mill claims that these duties and social
interferences grounded on them are restricted, by both legal and informal means, to the
prevention of manifest social harms. He writes:
It is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought to conceive it as
implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as
the world, or society at large. The great majority of good actions are
intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of
which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most
virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular
persons concerned. (UT 18-9)
In Mills theory, there is no hint of doubt about the idea that human actions are mostly
concerned with the interests of individuals, and the occasions on which any person
(except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do [the multiplication of happiness] on
an extended scale - in other words, to be a public benefactor - are but exceptional (UT

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19). The utilitarian ethics whose principle governs prudence cannot be indifferent to the
pursuit o f personal interest or utility that constitutes the great majority of human actions.
And further, the amount of regard for public utility imposed by utilitarianism, Mill
asserts, is no greater than is demanded by every system of morals, for they all enjoin to
abstain from whatever is manifestly pernicious to society. The utilitarian duties to the
promotion of public utility do not require one to be concerned about other than those
manifest social harms of which every intelligent agent, whatever his/her system of morals,
is consciously aware. This awareness is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it.
In Utilitarianism, as far as I can see, Mill does not take account of the occasions of
conflicts between interest and duty. All his remarks on the issue seem to reassure his
conviction that there is an approximate harmony between interest and duty.
Apparently, Mill inherited this optimism (or indifference) from Bentham. In his
well-known book on Bentham, Lyons discussion converges to make two crucial points:
(1) Bentham is an upholder of the idea that there is a natural harmony of interests; (2)
Benthams principle of utility is not universalistic, and, instead, he embraces a dual
standard.75 As to the second point, Lyons argues that Benthams criterion of right and
wrong within the public or political sphere is one of parochial rather than
universalistic hedonism. While this parochial standard applies to the field of public
ethics or the art of government, Bentham embraces a different standard for the field of
private ethics or the art of self-government. One of the most supportive passage of this
interpretation is this:

75 David Lyons, In the Interest o f the Governed: A Study o f Benthams Philosophy of


Utility and Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

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Private ethics teaches how each man may dispose himself to pursue the
course most conducive to his own happiness, by means of such motives as
offer o f themselves: the art of legislation (which may be considered as one
branch of the science of j urisprudence) teaches how a multitude of men,
composing a community, may be disposed to pursue that course which
upon the whole is the most conducive to the happiness of the whole
community, by means of motives to be applied by the legislator.76
The important question for the present discussion is, how could he have said that in the
private sphere one should maximize ones own happiness, while in the public sphere one
should maximize the happiness of others? How could he have reconciled an egoistic
standard in private ethics with a community standard in public ethics?
Lyons basic answer to these questions relies upon Benthams optimism:
Bentham, when he embraced the dual standard, did not entertain the possibility of a real
conflict between the long-term interests of a single individual and the interests of his
community.77 He admits that, from some of his later works, it is quite apparent that
Bentham did not retain the belief in the natural harmony o f human interests. Maintaining
that at the time when he wrote An Introduction to the Principles, Bentham would have
denied the possibility of such conflicts of interests, Lyons draws attention to the
following paragraph:
There is no case in which a private man ought not to direct his own
conduct to the production of his own happiness, and of that o f his fellowcreatures.. .Every act which promises to be beneficial upon the whole to
the community (himself included) each individual ought to perform of
himself.. .Every act which promises to be pernicious upon the whole to the

7 ft

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principle o f Morals and Legislation


(Prometheus Books, 1988), Ch. XVII, Para. XX; first printed in 1780, and published in
1789; henceforth abbreviated as IPML.
77 David Lyons 1973, p. 42. He admits that it is still possible to read Benthams principle
of utility as a basic universalistic principle from which the standards of public and private
ethics derive; but claims that this formulation is not explicitly set out in Benthams work.

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67
community (himself included) each individual ought to abstain from of
himself. (IPML Ch. XVII, Para VIII).
In saying that a private man ought to do what is beneficial on the whole to the
community and ought to abstain from doing what is pernicious to it, Bentham is clearly
treating community interest as a standard applicable to both private and public matters.
Lyons argues, however, that Bentham also says that a private person ought always to
pursue his own happiness as well as to benefit his community. According to Lyons, the
only way of making sense of this passage is to suppose that Bentham assumes that the
interests of a private person converge, at least in the long run, with those of his
community. Thus, Lyons interprets him as saying, in effect, that a man who serves his

78

own happmess will always serve the happiness of his fellow creatures.

Though it has stimulated a considerable amount of discussion, Lyons view has


not gained wide acceptance. Bentham does not classify behavior into public behavior,
which should be judged by the standard of community interest, and private behavior,
which should be judged by the standard of self-interest. The textual evidence suggested
by Lyons is not conclusive enough to reject the usual interpretation that in Benthams
view actions o f all kinds, private as well as public, could be judged good or bad by the
utilitarian standard of community interest. And the claim that Bentham believed in a
natural harmony o f human interest has not been welcomed either. Ross Harrison argues:
Bentham does not espouse the natural harmony of interests... if the whole
point o f the Benthamite legislator is to introduce motives to get people to
do things which they would not naturally do, then it cannot be that these
are the things that would be done if only everyone followed their own
interests. So if there really are differential ends proposed in Bentham, with

78 ibid., 54.

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68
independent public and private ethical thought, then it cannot be held that
this would not produce a divergence in practice.79
In fairness to Lyons, it should be noted that he has anticipated this kind of objection. He
summarizes the usual interpretation of, for instance, Benthams theory of legal
punishment as follows:
Benthams rationale for legal punishment.. .presupposes that the interests
of an individual often conflict with those of his community.. .Punishment
is needed to create an artificial harmony, so that individuals while serving
their own interests will be obliged to serve the overall interest of the
community too. The threat of punishment is added to change the interests
SO
of those who come under the laws.
Lyons maintains that this interpretation has no foundation in An Introduction to the
Principles. The function of punishment, in Benthams view, is not to change our long
term interests but only to adjust our motives, which is no simple function of our long
SI

range interests.

He seems to be saying that, according to Bentham, punishment or the

threat of punishment is necessary to adjust peoples motives in cases where the people
concerned misconceives their long-term interests. But it should be observed that in
claiming that around 1780 Bentham did not regard legal punishment as necessary to
create an artificial harmony of interests, Lyons relies on the absence of evidence against
his own interpretation rather than on positive evidence in support of it. He claims that
Benthams actual pronouncements on punishment and human psychology in An
Introduction to the Principles are all compatible with the view that there is a natural
harmony of human interests in the long run.

79
80
81
82

As L.J. Hume has pointed out, however,

Ross Harrison, Bentham (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 268.


David Lyons 1973, p. 62.
ibid., p. 63.
ibid., p. 63-64.

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there are clear evidences in Benthams other writings which show that both before and
after An Introduction to the Principles, he regarded legislation as necessary to adjust and
harmonize peoples interests, not simply to adjust their motives. 83

The interpretive problems involved will not be decided here. But the point to be
stressed is that the different standard for the field o f private ethics, which Lyons insists
Bentham embraced, does not amount to a second fundamental standard in Benthams
overall doctrine but merely a standard for a particular practical purpose. Harrison
contends that this is the purpose of persuasion, of making people do what they ought to
do, only now without the sanctions or power of the law.84 The only task that private
ethics or, in Benthams terms, private deontology can undertake is to point out that
something is in someones interests. Harrison writes:
Rather, [private ethics] is an auxiliary method of reaching the unique final
end, the general happiness. When, as happens in the great majority of
cases but not universally, someones interest coincides with the general
interest, this method can be used. Otherwise it is not practical....So the
role of private ethics must be subordinate to that of legislation; rather than
setting up an alternative end, it fills in some of the gaps [in the legislative
programme]. However, when things are serious, as they inevitably are
when there is a conflict of interests, private ethics cannot be relied on.85
As generally argued by Bentham scholars, Bentham did not give much thought to
purely personal ethics. He regards it as a relatively peripheral part of his work. As a
matter o f fact, much of the concern with utilitarianism at his time was with it as a

83 L. J. Hume, Revisionism in Bentham Studies, Bentham Newsletter 1 (1978), pp. 320. As an example, he takes up A View of the Hard-Labour Bill (1778) in which Bentham
says that it is the function o f law, by the administration of punishments or rewards, to
connect a persons interest with his duty.
84 Ross Harrison 1983, p. 269.
85 ibid., pp 270-1; my emphasis.

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justification of a political or legal system rather than a system of personal ethics. In his
memorial essay on Bentham, Mill writes:
It is fortunate for the world that Benthams taste lay rather in the direction
of jurisprudential than of properly ethical inquiry. Nothing expressly of
the latter kind has been published in his name, except the Deontology a book scarcely ever. ..alluded to by any admirer of Bentham without deep
regret that it ever saw the light.
Turning from what Bentham did badly to what he did well, Mill continues:
If Benthams theory o f life can do so little for the individual, what can it
do for society? It will enable a society...to prescribe the rules by which it
may protect its material interests. It will do nothing.. .for the spiritual
interests of society. ..What a philosophy like Benthams can do [is to]
teach the means o f organizing and regulating the merely business part of
the social arrangements.86
This is a fair assessment of Bentham, and of the tradition to which he gave rise. The
upshot to be drawn from all this is that Bentham seemed to take as a proper object of
utilitarianism public or political morality rather than private morality.
Benthams idea about the proper object of utilitarianism was inherited by
Sidgwick. Despite his skepticism about a complete rationalization of the moral order of
the world, Sidgwick remarks at the end of the Methods that we should doubtless still,
not only from self-interest, but also through sympathy and sentiments protective of social
wellbeing, imparted by education and sustained by communication with other men, feel a
desire for the general observance of rules conducive to general happiness (ME 508). In
fact, he had an optimistic faith in utilitarianism, though intellectually disturbed by his
skepticism. This optimistic faith was exerted in his later works on political economy.

86 John Stuart Mill, Essay on Bentham, London and Westminster Review (1838);
Reprinted in Mary Wamock ed., John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism; On Liberty; Essay on
Bentham (Cleveland: Meridian, 1962), pp. 104-106.

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71

Thus, it may be said that the current strand o f utilitarianism, which holds that
utilitarianism applies more directly to collective actions, to governments and
government-like institutions and policies, is not a novel and unprecedented approach but
a faithful revival of its tradition.87

Concluding Remarks
Critics, and even some proponents, of utilitarianism have used the term classical
utilitarianism to refer to act-utilitarianism or a form of utilitarianism of which actconsequentialism is a component part. In this chapter, I have tried to show that this
customary use of classical utilitarianism is unfounded on the actual claims of classical
utilitarians. Most of the interpretive problems, dealt with in my discussion but left
undecided, are reduced to the question of how to measure the specific gravity of the
established social and moral rules in their theories.
As for Mills theory, I have examined two dominant readings of the role of what
he called secondary principles in his theory. In summary, while those holding the actutilitarian reading take these principles as mere rules of thumb, i.e., a means of
maximizing the doing of right acts as judged by the act-utilitarian standard; in contrast
to this, those holding the rule-utilitarian reading take them as the ultimate source o f moral
obligations. As hinted at above, each reading has its own problem. On the one hand, the
act-utilitarian reading misleadingly writes off the significance o f secondary principles

87 Lincoln Allison, Utilitarianism: What is it and Why should it respond? in The


Utilitarian Response: The Contemporary Viability of Utilitarian Political Philosophy
(Sage Publications, 1990), p. 2.

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72
in Mills theory of morality. So far as I can see, textual evidences against this reading are
not trifling. On the other hand, the rule-utilitarian reading involves difficult questions
about the relation of the principle of utility and secondary principles - for instance, the
crucial question, to which I think Lyons does not provide a satisfactory answer, of in what
sense the principle of utility, in Mills theory, is the foundation of morals. Considering
this situation, an alternative, perhaps more tenable, position might be to abandon the
act/rule distinction and claim, as Fred Berger and Lyons do, that Mills theory is neither
OQ

an act- nor a rule-utilitarian theory as those terms are strictly defined.


As for Sidgwick, the whole discussion need not be repeated here, but I just point
out his unreserved respect for the established moral rules. In Chapter V of Book IV of the
Methods, he urges the utilitarian to repudiate altogether that temper of rebellion against
the established morality, as something purely external and conventional, into which the
reflective mind is always apt to fall; instead, to contemplate it with reverence and
wonder, as a marvellous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth, and to
recognize it as a mechanism which no politicians or philosophers could create, yet
without which the harder and coarser machinery o f Positive Law could not be
permanently maintained (ME, 475-6). Along with this remark, we should also remember
the supportive nature of Sidgwicks principle of utility.

88 Fred Berger 1984, p. 65. See also Wendy Donner, Mills Utilitarianism, in John
Skorupski ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge University Press, 1998),
pp. 255-292. Donner goes further to claim that the act/rule distinction is a false
dichotomy to which few can strongly adhere in practice and that it is uncharitable to
insist that [Mills] reflections be fitted into categories developed in the twentieth century
(pp. 279-280).

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73

Presumably, the typical association of classical utilitarianism with act-utilitarian


ethics originates from the Benthamite versions of utilitarianism. To the effect that it may
not be entirely hopeless to see Bentham as a rule-utilitarian. Robert Goodin notes:
Bentham \\txAn Introduction to the Principles] was inclined to use the
utility calculus, more ambiguously, as a guide for both morals and
legislation. Insofar as he used the utility calculus to guide our choice of
legislation, constitutional codes, penal regimes and so on - in short, to
choose systems of rules as well as discrete actions with a view to
maximizing social utility - he might reasonably be classed among rule as
well as act utilitarians.8
But this remark is misleading in a way, for it sounds like saying that every utilitarian who
concerns himself about public and political matters is going to be seen as a rule-utilitarian.
That is, Goodin seems to ignore the conceptual difference between the act/rule distinction
and the private/public distinction. In his treatment o f punishment and torture, for example,
Bentham wanted to specify the precise circumstances in which they can take place and to
regulate their implementations with equal precision. So to speak, he attempted to
approximate to case-by-case deliberation - i.e., act-consequentialism - by specifying
relevant rules of great complexity.
Roughly speaking, the act/rule distinction should be discarded, especially in the
discussion of the classical utilitarian doctrine. I wonder, in fact, why this distinction has
entered into the discussion in the first place. And I do not see how it could possibly help
us have a better understanding of the doctrine. In the classical utilitarian definition of the
principle of utility, the key concept is always happiness or benefit, neither act nor
rule. Thus, the distinction has been an obstacle to our proper understanding of its kernel,
the greatest happiness principle.
89 Robert Goodin 1995, p. 16.

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74

CHAPTER 3
TELEOLOGY, EQUALITY, AND THE CONCEPT OF UTILITY

Introduction
A moral individualist approach is based on the assumption that only individual
agents and their interests are of concern in the evaluation of socio-political arrangements.
Indisputably, moral individualism has occupied a central place in rights-theorists works
published since 1970. It has also supplied a focal point into which their assorted
criticisms of utilitarianism converge. That focal point is the charge that utilitarianism
ignores the moral significance of the separateness or distinctness of human persons. As
seen in the previous chapter, this charge which Hart takes to be the distinctly modem
criticism of utilitarianism is relied upon the analysis that utilitarianism simply transfers
the structure of intrapersonal trade-offs to interpersonal ones.90
Rawls (and Nozick), who can be said to be an outstanding example o f a moral
individualist, objects to that transfer, i.e., a false analogy between the model of what is
rational from an individuals perspective and that of what is rational from everyones
perspective.91 Although it is right and proper that I sacrifice my present satisfaction for
my later satisfaction if doing so will increase my overall satisfaction, it is wrong to

90 H. L. A. Hart 1979. p. 78.


91 Robert Nozick 1974, pp. 32-33.

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demand that I sacrifice my present satisfaction to increase someone elses satisfaction or
merely to increase overall social utility. In the former case, the trade-offs take place
within one persons life, and the later, possibly greater, satisfaction compensates for my
present sacrifice. In the latter case, the trade-offs take place across lives, and the fact that
someone else benefits does not compensate for my sacrifice. Thus, trade-offs that are
appropriate within one persons life may be inappropriate and unfair across lives.
Rawls (and Nozick) argues that it is a mistake for a moral theory to take
maximization as appropriate in interpersonal trade-offs because it is appropriate in
intrapersonal trade-offs, and that making this mistake is characteristic of teleological
moral theories. Obviously, Rawls believes that utilitarianism is teleological in principle,
and that classical utilitarianism was the culmination of that perpetual tradition of
teleology which can be traced back to Aristotles perfectionist account of existence.
Maximization is a defining term in the teleological conception of what is right: the
good is defined independently from the right, and then the right is defined as that which
maximizes the good (TJR21-22). Teleological theories differ only in how the
conception o f the good is specified. Utilitarianism defines the good as the satisfaction of
(rational) desires, and then its teleological nature defines what is right as that which
maximizes the sum o f satisfactions.
A standard objection to utilitarianism as a satisfaction-maximizing system is that
it is indifferent to the distribution of the good. It is in its teleological nature that Rawls
locates its alleged indifference to distributive concerns. For utilitarians, he claims, justice
is but a precept derivative from the principle of utility: The striking feature of the
utilitarian view of justice is that it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of

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76
satisfactions is distributed among individuals (TJR 23). Justice, which implies equality
of distributions and fairness of processes and thus which falls under the concept of right
as one intuitively understands it, would be defined only as a means of maximizing the
aggregate or average good (TJR 22). In utilitarianism, thus, justice itself is no intrinsic
value.
In this chapter, I shall discuss Will Kymlickas challenge to Rawls view, with
special reference to the third chapter of his book, Liberalism, Community, and Culture.
Kymlicka directly rejects Rawls claims considered above:
I think Rawls misdescribes utilitarianism, and hence misdescribes the
debate over distribution. The most natural and compelling form of
utilitarianism is not teleological, and doesnt involve any antiindividualistic generalization from the individual to society. Rawlss
characterization of utilitarianism represents, at best, just one interpretation
o f that doctrine, and misses an important element in many justifications of
it, an element that is not teleological at all. In fact, Rawls conflates these
different elements in utilitarianism, and thereby creates an artificially
teleological formulation of utilitarianism. (LCC 24)
Kymlicka argues that Rawls distinction between teleology and deontology is based on a
serious confusion (LCC 21), and that utilitarian theories, and even many perfectionist
theories, turn out to be deontological in the sense that they all are just as committed to
equality, equal respect for persons, and fair distributions as any non-utilitarian rightsbased theories: All these theories are deontological in that they spell out an ideal of
fairness or equality for distinct individuals (LCC 26).
As we shall see, Kymlicka puts forward an interesting way of understanding
Benthams formula, everybody counts for one, nobody for more than one. Questions
about this formula - e.g., questions about its scope and role in the utilitarian theories and
about its relation to the principle of utility - have troubled both critics and proponents of

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77
utilitarianism. Kymlicka does not answer much about these questions. Nevertheless, his
interpretation is valuable in giving an opportunity of reconsidering the egalitarian
implications o f Benthams formula. I shall argue here, however, that his challenge to
Rawls contains some serious misunderstandings about Rawls theory of the priority of
right as well as the modem utilitarian strategy of avoiding the standard objection. To
explain the modem utilitarian strategy, I shall briefly discuss the utilitarian conception of
equal regard and the concept of utility founded on the (informed) desire account. On the
ground of this discussion, I shall conclude that Rawls criticism of utilitarianism as a
teleological view of ethics cannot apply to modem utilitarianism.

Teleological Interpretation of Utilitarianism


Kymlicka distinguishes two interpretations of utilitarianism: teleological and
egalitarian. According to the teleological interpretation o f utilitarianism that seems more
in line with Rawls characterization of it, maximizing the good is primary, and we count
individuals equally only because that maximizes value. Our primary duty isnt to treat
people as equals, but to bring about valuable states of affairs (LCC 27). Thus the role
that the notions of equality and fairness play in this interpretation is nothing more than
what Rawls regards as a socially useful illusion (TJR 25). The ultimate goal of
utilitarianism is not persons but states of affairs. Kymlicka asserts that it is difficult to see
how this interpretation of utilitarianism can be viewed as a moral theory:
Morality, in our everyday view at least, is a matter of interpersonal
obligations - the obligations we owe to each other. But to whom do we
own the duty o f maximizing utility? Surely not to the impersonal ideal
spectator who often figures in such a theory, for he doesnt exist. Nor to

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the maximally valuable state of affairs, for states of affairs dont have
moral claims. (LCC 28-29)
What is contended in this passage amounts to the claim that teleological theories are not
moral theories at all. For they misidentify the true bearer of moral claims. If moral duty is
defined as maximizing overall social utility, whom is it a duty to? (LCC 28) As it
appears, Kymlickas definition of moral duty is based upon moral individualism. Implicit
in his definition is the assumption that the true bearers of moral claims are individual
agents; and that there are no distinct moral claims made, for example, by the interests of
cultures or groups or structures. On this account of morality, Kymlicka claims that a
teleological utilitarianism does not merit serious consideration as a political morality
(LCC 29).
Are teleological theories consequentialist? Williams defines consequentialism as
the doctrine that the moral value of any action lies in its consequences and that it is by
reference to their consequences that actions, and indeed such things as institutions, laws
and practices, are to be justified if they can be justified at all.92 For the consequentialist,
hence, the rightness of an action is derived from the goodness of the consequences
brought about by that action. So construed, consequentialism treats the objects of moral
assessment, such as actions, as bearers only o f extrinsic value. Williams argues that
some of the unacceptable features of utilitarianism. ...are traced to its character as a form
o f consequentialism, particularly to its being primarily concerned with states of affairs.
This implies that utilitarianism does not treat actions, motives, etc., as intrinsically
valuable.
92 Bernard Williams 1973, p. 79.
93 ibid.

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79
In contrast to this, it is arguable that teleological theories allow that actions and
other objects o f moral assessment might have intrinsic value and that their intrinsic value
counts toward the rightness of those objects of assessment. But Kymlickas notion of
teleology is not this loose one but a strict and narrow one that seems equivalent to
Williams definition o f consequentialism. On Kymlickas teleological interpretation, the
fundamental duty is to bring about the most valuable state of affairs. If I fail to
maximize utility, Kymlicka says, those whose interests have been neglected have no
special grievance against me. I dont have to apologize to them more than to anyone else
for my failure to maximize the good, because....my duty isnt to respond fairly to people,
each of whom has a right to equal consideration (LCC 27-28).
Assume that teleology is a notion broader than, or at least equivalent to,
consequentialism. Then, it follows that all consequentialist theories are teleological. But
there have been some arguments against this result. Repeated efforts have been made to
incorporate deontic moral considerations into a consequentialist theory. T.M. Scanlon, for
instance, suggests that his two-tier view can incorporate a notion of equality without
losing the basic appeal o f consequentialism.94 Scanlons reasoning is something like this.
If we treat procedural fairness and distributive equality as goods in themselves, then they
must be considered along with other goods like net aggregate satisfaction in determining
the value of overall outcomes that are to be maximized. Rights could then be introduced
at the level of casuistry, to promote the good of equitable states of affairs and also to

94 T.M. Scanlon, Rights, Goals, and Fairness, Samuel Scheffler ed., Consequentialism
and Its Critics (Oxford University Press, 1988); originally published in Stuart Hampshire
ed., Public and Private Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 93-111.

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place limits on consequentialist reasoning.95 It is acknowledged that there are morally


valuable states of affairs. The two-tier view is in a broad sense consequentialist, Scanlon
argues, in that it holds rights to be justified by appeal to the states of affairs they
promote.96 In evaluating states of affairs to be promoted, however, it is required that the
interests of every person be given equal consideration. This is one way in which a notion
of equality can be incorporated into a consequentialist theory.
Why is this not teleological? It is conceivable that a teleological theory may
define rightness in terms of goodness and goodness in terms of moral properties such as
fairness and respect for persons. What would then be the difference between this
teleological theory and Scanlons theory? On Rawls account of the terms, however,
Scanlons theory would not be seen as teleological; it would be deontological. Rawls
states:
Whereas if the distribution of goods is also counted as a good, perhaps
higher-order one, and the theory directs us to produce the most good
(including the good of distribution among others), we no long have a
teleological view in the classical sense. The problem of distribution falls
under the concept o f right as one intuitively understands it, and so the
theory lacks an independent definition of the good. (TJR 22).
A teleological theory cannot define goodness in terms of moral properties such as fairness
and respect for persons. If goodness is defined in terms of these moral properties, then,
since these properties fall under the concept of rightness, the resulting theory would seem
to define goodness in terms of rightness. No longer is it a teleological theory, by

95 ibid., p. 75.
96 ibid., p. 85. Scanlon argues that his theory departs from the standard consequentialist
theories in admitting explicitly moral considerations into the evaluation of consequences
(p. 81).

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81
definition - that is, by the definition that in a teleological theory goodness is defined
independently from the right (TJR21-22).97
Rawls defines a deontological theory as one that either does not specify the good
independently from the right, or does not interpret the right as maximizing the good, and
claims that Justice as fairness is a deontological theory in the second way (TJR 26).
Quite clearly, Scanlons theory is deontological in the first way. For it proposes to bring
in fairness and equality as moral goals. But is it deontological in the second way?
Scanlon seems to endorse some notion of maximization, though it is not the utilitarian
one. He sets forward a general goal, the goal of promoting an acceptable distribution of
control over important factors in our lives, which he believes to be a central concern of
go

most rights.

Those states of affairs in which this general goal is to be best achieved

play an important role in the justification and interpretation of rights. In this sense,
Scanlons theory is consequentialist, and some notion of maximization is working in it.

Egalitarian Interpretation of Utilitarianism


In distinguishing the two interpretations of utilitarianism, Kymlickas aim is not to
attack teleological theories but to show that Rawls distinction between teleology and
deontology cannot do the work assigned. Originally, the distinction is devised to explain
a contrast between (classical) utilitarianism as a teleological theory and his theory of

07

David O. Brink, Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View, Journal of
Philosophy 83 (1986), pp.420-421. Brink insists that it is still possible for the teleologist
to define goodness in terms of some other moral properties without circularity, i.e.,
without identifying goodness with rightness.
98 T.M. Scanlon 1988 [1978], pp. 86-87.

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82
justice as a deontological theory. According to Kymlickas claim, however, the egalitarian
interpretation of utilitarianism meets the crucial condition for a deontological theory, the
condition that the fundamental principle must be concerned with a way of treating people
as equals. Kymlicka states:
Utilitarianism is a procedure for aggregating individual interests and
desires, a procedure for making social choices, specifying which trade-offs
are acceptable. Its a moral theory which purports to treat people as equals,
with equal concern and respect. It does so by counting everyone for one,
and no one for more than one. (LCC 25)
This interpretation embraces the notion of treating people as equals by giving equal
weight to each persons preferences, regardless of what they are preferences for. And this
notion provides a utilitarian basis for a fair social decision procedure. If we act upon this
procedure, that is, if we are to give equal consideration to the equal interests of everyone,
then utility is supposed to be maximized. In adopting this procedure, however, our
primary aim is not maximizing utility. Maximization occurs but as a by-product of a
decision procedure that is intended to aggregate peoples preferences fairly (LCC 25).
Here equality is an essential property of a decision procedure through which we decide
our duty. Thus it can be said that we are under a duty to give equal consideration.
The upshot is that utilitarianism is one way of spelling out, whether better or less
well than Rawls theory of justice, the idea that from the moral point of view the interests
of each person matter equally, and that it is as deontological as any other, since it views
each person as having a distinct and equal standing which must be respected (LCC 26).
Certainly, the Benthamic formula is the fundamental principle in the egalitarian
interpretation. It is interpreted to the effect that the utilitarian social decision procedure
does not define morally right acts for society in terms of maximizing the good without

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83
qualification and that utilitarianism does not deny that individuals have distinct claims to
equal consideration.
Rawls characterization of utilitarianism as a teleological theory, as discussed
above, depends upon the analysis that utilitarians are moral teleologists because they
generalize from the fact that individuals are prudential teleologists (LCC 31). Kymlicka
thinks that this analysis is simply untrue and not grounded in the actual arguments that
underlie classical and modem utilitarian theories. Teleological theories are not concerned
to provide a social decision procedure for the rational aggregation of peoples preferences
and interests, for their concern completely centers on maximizing the good. Accordingly,
a teleological utilitarianism does not seek to define a decision procedure for aggregating
peoples preferences and interests by generalizing from the one-person to the manyperson case. Its ultimate goal is not the putatively rational aggregation of individual
interests, but maximizing overall social utility, a non-moral ideal, akin in some way to
an aesthetic ideal (LCC 29-31). Kymlicka argues that Rawls has confused the two
interpretations:
Rawls seems to have taken the social-choice element of the [egalitarian]
interpretation, combined it with the teleological element... and connected
them by saying that social-choice utilitarians become teleological
utilitarians by generalizing from the case of rational individual choice (a
generalization that ignores the distinctness of persons). But that is an
artificial reconstmction of utilitarianism. (LCC 31)
The confusion is as simple as this. If Rawls intended to take utilitarianism seriously as a
political morality and to compare it with his theory of justice, he should not have defined
it as teleological in the first place. For a teleological utilitarianism is no social-choice
theory, and hence the comparison will be pointless.

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84
Kymlicka does believe that Rawls original position (and Dworkins equality of
resources scheme) is potentially a better theory of equal respect than utilitarianism, in the
sense that Rawls theory is more egalitarian, on one level, since it puts greater
constraints on the differences that can legitimately arise in peoples life situations.99 But
the point is that any comparison between them must proceed on the proper understanding
of the latter, on the interpretation that utilitarianism is a theory of equal respect for
persons and does recognize individuals as distinct persons with their own rightful claims.
The concern with equal respect for persons, Kymlicka claims, clearly underlies
Benthams argument and is explicitly affirmed by modem utilitarians such as John
Harsanyi, James Griffin, and R. M. Hare. They all believe that utilitarianism could be
defended only by reference to a foundational premise of equal respect.

Has Rawls confused the two interpretations of utilitarianism?


Mostly, Kymlickas discussion concerns utilitarianism. But his conclusion is
much more substantial: all that give priority to the good over the right are not moral
theories at all. To define the right as the maximization of the good. ...is to abandon the
moral point of view entirely (LCC 40). Thus, Rawls distinction between teleology and
deontology is not applicable within the sphere of morality. Utilitarianism, taken as a
moral theory, and Rawls theory of justice as fairness share the same egalitarian plateau
(LCC 21). There is no disagreement between them about the priority of the right or the
good. Comparison between them should be understood as that between two different
99 Will Kymlicka, Rawls on Teleology and Deontology, Philosophy and Public Affairs
17 (1988), p. 178.

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deontological theories. Thus, Rawls criticisms of utilitarianism, Kymlicka claims, are
best understood in terms other than the priority of the right or the good (LCC 25).
But has Rawls really confused the two interpretations of utilitarianism? Clearly
Rawls is not the only critic who has viewed it as teleological in principle. By many other
critics, it has been typically argued that utilitarianism takes up a non-moral ideal and
illegitimately extends its application to moral matters. Further, it is also clear that Rawls
is aware of the role that the Benthamic formula has played in the justifications of
utilitarianism: It is customary to think o f utilitarianism as individualistic, and certainly
there are good reasons for this. The utilitarians were strong defenders of liberty and
freedom of thought, and they held that the good of society is constituted by the
advantages enjoyed by individuals (TJR 26). This he denies immediately, however.
Utilitarianism is not individualistic. The Benthamic formula, prima facie, gives
utilitarianism a moral individualist outlook. But the teleological character of
utilitarianism leads to the conflation of all systems of desires, i.e., to the atomistic
individualism which differs in many ways from Rawls moral individualism.
The important point here is that any blending of a teleological ideal and a
principle of equal consideration can hardly be made coherent, if both of them are claimed
to be equally fundamental. No one would seem to deny this point. The same point would
apply to any attempt to blend the maximization standard and the Benthamic formula
while taking them to be equally fundamental. Kymlicka remarks in an endnote:
Utilitarians tacitly appeal to the good-maximizing standard to deflect
intuitive objections to their account of equal consideration. Indeed, it may
seem to be a unique advantage o f utilitarianism that it can mix [the
teleological and the egalitarian justifications]. Unfortunately, it is simply
incoherent to employ both standards in the same theory. One cannot say

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86

that morality is fundamentally about maximizing the good, while also


saying that it is fundamentally about respecting the claim of individuals to
equal consideration. Some utilitarians seem to accept both positions,
without recognizing that the one conflicts with the other. (LCC 41-42)
Just as Kymlicka does, Rawls would criticize such a mixing of the two incompatible
justifications of utilitarianism. Since it is all about maximizing the good, a teleological
utilitarianism is prevented from recognizing the distinctness of persons. No theory of
distribution or equal consideration could be plausible without seeing persons as distinct.
Rawls thus would have agreed with Kymlicka that teleological utilitarians do not seek to
define a social decision procedure. But the problem, Rawls seems to think, lies in that,
after all, they do seek to define a social decision procedure, by generalizing from the oneperson to the many-person case, and occasionally by employing some subordinate
principles of distribution (TJR 164n). This social decision procedure thus defined is
doomed to be seriously defective, because it is grounded on that inadequate principle
which does not tell us which system of distribution is better than another - that is, which
has no inherent concern about fairness at all.
The word confusion picked up by Kymlicka seems inappropriate in the first
place. The serious confusion upon which he thinks Rawls description of utilitarianism
is based, the fault of mixing the two incompatible interpretations of it, is not committed
by Rawls. On the contrary, Rawls would answer that it is committed by utilitarians. His
reasoning goes like this. As long as the ultimate goal is concerned with overall social
utility, a teleological utilitarian would feel the need of a principle for making public
decisions and policies, whose sole purpose is to help him achieve that ultimate goal. By
this need and the idea of rationality, the teleological utilitarian would be tempted to

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derive such a principle from the principle of rational prudence, that is, from the one that
he has already employed as a principle for making private decisions. But Rawls thinks
that the principle thus derived is not a proper social-choice principle: In any case, from
the standpoint of contract theory one cannot arrive at a principle of social choice merely
by extending the principle of rational prudence to the system of desires constructed by the
impartial spectator (TJR 26). As this seems to imply, Rawls too thinks that a teleological
utilitarianism is not a social-choice theory, strictly speaking.
In my view, there was no confusion. Rawls contention is just that utilitarianism,
if interpreted in general as teleological, is no plausible social-choice theory. Of course, it
is still arguable that it is an artificial reconstruction to characterize all variants of
utilitarianism as teleological in principle, when considering many sympathetic arguments
for the classical utilitarian approach to human rights and the recent development of
indirect utilitarianism. Further, it is admitted that the Benthamic formula, the principle of
equal consideration of interests, has some egalitarian content. Nevertheless, it is a
standard rejoinder that the role of that principle seems too instrumental to account for
the moral importance equality has for us, especially in classical utilitarianism.100
Claiming that Not all utilitarians desire maximization, Kymlicka cites some in support
of his egalitarian interpretation (LCC25). It could be asked whether those references
provided can really upset the standard rejoinder. But the debate between Rawls and
Kymlicka is not merely over an interpretive problem.

100 T.M. Scanlon 1988 [1978], p. 80.

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88
Roles of Equality at Different Levels
Let us return to the claim that equal consideration, not maximum utility, is the
fundamental goal of the egalitarian utilitarian theories (LCC 31). Maximum utility is
merely the state o f affairs that happens to be realized by giving equal consideration to
everyones interests. What Kymlicka means here is that because utilitarians incorporate in
some way equal respect for persons as a major premise of their arguments for the
principle of utility, their view is made non-teleological. On the egalitarian interpretation,
utilitarianism does provide an account of what it is to treat people as equals, an account
o f peoples moral equality that Rawls sees as separating deontological and teleological
theories.
Sidgwick, for example, appeals to two sets of philosophical intuitions to justify
the principle of utility: the Principle of Equity and the Principle of Impartial Benevolence.
The Principle o f Equity reads: it cannot be right for A to treat B in a manner in which it
would be wrong for B to treat A, merely on the ground that they are two different
individuals, and without there being any difference between the natures or circumstances
o f the two which can be stated as a reasonable ground for difference of treatment (ME
380). The Principle o f Impartial Benevolence reads: each one is morally bound to regard
the good of any other individuals as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to
be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him (ME
382). These two self-evident axioms of practical reason, each of which incorporates a
notion of equality as impartiality among persons, together with the Principle of Prudence,
provide a rational basis for the Utilitarian system (ME 387). Equality here does look to
be a major premise for the derivation o f utilitarianism. In his reply to Mackie, Hare also

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maintains that to give equal weight to [everyones] interests...is exactly what
I /X l

utilitarianism requires.
In contrast to these examples, equal consideration is not a major premise in the
impartial spectator argument offered by Rawls. Kymlicka maintains that it is only
because Rawls characterizes utilitarianism as teleological that he cannot recognize the
Benthamic formula as a principle of distribution, and appreciate that utilitarianism does
see persons as distinct. But the fact that some utilitarian arguments appeal to egalitarian
premises to justify the principle of utility might not be as much fatal to Rawls argument
as Kymlicka believes it to be.
Equality is a multi-level notion in the sense that it has different roles to play at
different stages of a moral conception. At the fundamental level, i.e., at the stage of
justification of a moral conception, equality is to be invoked as an interpretation of
impartiality. It is an interpretation of, Griffin says, that sort of impartiality that
constitutes the moral point of view.

1 cyj

All different moral conceptions that are

distinguished by the ways of specifying this impartiality suggest in some way or other
that every person must be granted some sort of equal status. At the stage of justification, a
moral conception includes a basic perspective that specifies a notion of equality as
impartiality. The basic perspective of Justice as Fairness is the perspective o f the Ideal
Contractor. The Ideal Contractor implies ideals of social cooperation and of free and
equal persons presumed to be implicit in our conception of ourselves as democratic

101 R.M. Hare, Rights, Utility, and Universalization: Reply to J.L. Mackie, R.G. Frey
ed., Utility and Rights (University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 107.
102 James Griffin, Towards a Substantive Theory of Rights, in R.G Frey ed., Utility
and Rights (University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 150; hereafter abbreviated as TSTR.

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90
citizens. On the basis o f this perspective, Rawls models a procedure, what he calls the
original position, in which persons are situated equally behind a veil of ignorance. His
argument is that the egalitarian principles of justice would be agreed to from this equal
position.
At the stage of justification, utilitarianism as well invokes a notion of equality as
impartiality. The Benthamic formula everyone counts for one, nobody for more than
one expresses this notion. In this sense, equality can be looked to be a major premise for
the justification of the utilitarian moral conception. Rawls and others contend that the
utilitarian way of specifying impartiality is from the perspective of the Ideal Observer, a
god-like standpoint that abstracts from the distinctness of persons; it merges persons
interests into a single moral judgment by maximizing them. Thus, it is an unqualified
way of specifying impartiality that turns into an undesirable impersonality. What is the
difference between qualified and unqualified way of specifying impartiality? This is
an important question. But the question to be asked here is at what stage of a moral
conception Rawls distinction between teleology and deontology is meant to work.
Equal respect constitutes the moral point of view at the fundamental level.
However, the principles on this level are so vague that it is the principles on the next level
that provide necessary content for these rather empty conceptions o f impartiality
(TSTR 151). Griffin maintains that the perspectives of the Ideal Observer and of the Ideal
Contractor are so vaguely described that they in themselves may not be viewed as rival
ways of fixing the moral point of view. There is a strong argument that the rationality of
the Ideal Contractor would lead him, not to Rawls two principles, but to Average

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91
Utilitarianism.103 There is also an argument that the benevolence of the Ideal Observer
would not let him accept some of the sacrifices of one person to others that utilitarian
aggregation permits.104 One way to make these vague conceptions of impartiality more
determinate is to fix what follows from them, i.e., to fix substantive moral principles that
result from applying the fundamental-level principles to facts.
On the face o f it, Griffins account may seem to be much in line with Kymlickas
egalitarian interpretation. For one thing, both take the inclusion of a deep notion of equal
regard at the stage o f justification as a necessary condition for being a moral theory, and
they think that utilitarianism satisfies this condition. The Benthamic formula expresses,
Griffin says, the spirit with which one will, if one is moral, consider the facts of the
matter (TSTR 151). But there are some momentous discrepancies between their views.
The most perspicuous one is that while Kymlickas discussion is confined to the
justification o f utilitarianism (LCC 25), the ultimate ground of the theory (LCC 29);
Griffin moves on to the level o f substantive moral principles, which he claims to be the
promising candidates for what we normally regard as human rights. (TSTR 152). It is at
this substantive level that the deep, vague, notion of equal regard at the fundamental level
comes to take a determinate shape and to be embodied in the form of moral principles
which determine permissible trade-offs between rights and between rights and mere
utilities by specifying limits on them.

103 R.M. Hare, Rawls Theory of Justice, Norman Daniels ed., Reading Rawls: Critical
Studies on Rawls A Theory o f Justice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), pp. 81-107
104 BJ. Diggs, Utilitarianism and Contractarianism, H.B. Miller and W.H. Williams
eds., The Limits o f Utilitarianism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

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92
Can the Benthamic formula play this role at the substantive level? This question is
exceptionally important with regard to Rawls distinction between teleology and
deontology. In Sidgwicks argument, the principle of utility is derived from, i.e., justified
by, certain egalitarian premises, the principles of Equity and Impartial Benevolence. To
incorporate a notion of equality at the stage of justification is a necessary condition for
being a moral theory. As it could be argued, however, it is not a sufficient condition for
being a deontological moral theory. Critics typically reason that utilitarianism allows one
persons sacrifice for others without limit. So to speak, counting everyone for one does
not seem to operate as a moral restriction on trade-offs at the substantive level. While
equality is an essential feature of each of Rawls substantive principles of justice, the
substantive content of the utility principle, on the face of it, does not incorporate any
notion of equality. The principle simply looks to be nothing more than a maximizingaggregative principle which tells us to maximize a sum, not to share a distribution; what
it says is just that right conduct maximizes the good (ME 411).105
Precisely in this sense and at this level, Rawls claims that utilitarianism is
teleological. Whether it is justified by egalitarian premises or on some other grounds,
what characterizes it as teleological is that its substantive standard which is to be used to

105 Sidgwick himself was acutely aware of the fact that the Utilitarian formula seems to
supply no answer to the question whether any mode o f distributing a given quantum of
happiness is better than any other (ME 416). He takes his support for pure equality
expressed in his principles of Equity and of Impartial Benevolence as the only one
which does not need a special justification (ME 417). See Amartya Sen, Utilitarianism
and Welfarism, Journal o f Philosophy 76 (1979), pp. 463-489. Sen argues that
Sidgwicks egalitarian principles go against outcome utilitarianism which he takes to be
common to all variants of utilitarianism. Sen comments that Sidgwick did not seem to
entertain any possibility of trade-offs between the size of the utility sum and the equality
of the utility distribution (p. 469).

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assess acts and institutions does not incorporate any notion of equality. That is, the
egalitarian premise employed in the justification o f the utility principle is, in itself, not a
principle of right conduct. In this vein, Samuel Freeman maintains:
But we must distinguish principles of right conduct from principles of
moral reasoning. (In Rawls view, this makes a distinction between what
he calls the Right and the Reasonable.) The former are a subset of the
latter in any complete moral theory.. .not all principles of moral reasoning
supply standards for right conduct. Instead, they serve a different role in
helping us discover, justify, or apply those principles of Right that we
appeal to, to decide what it is right to do. The utilitarian principle of equal
consideration is, in this sense, not a principle of right conduct at all.106
For utilitarians, indisputably, right conduct maximizes the good. Kymlicka does not deny
that. What Kymlicka does deny on the egalitarian interpretation is the claim that for
utilitarians acts are right because they maximize the good; maximization is no principle
o f right conduct. But Freeman seems to suggest that Kymlicka confuses principles of
right conduct with principles of moral deliberation. The Benthamic formula (or in
Sidgwicks argument, the principles of Equity and Impartial Benevolence) is a principle
of moral deliberation that works but at the stage of justification. It would also work in
applying the utility principle to decide what we ought to do, giving equal weight to
everyones interests. It is not a principle of right conduct, however, for it specifies no
duty that moral agents can act on, nor does it provide a substantive standard by which to
assess whether acts and institutions are right or just.

107

Rawls teleological/deontological distinction is designed to work specifically at


the level of those substantive standards which specify duties and principles of right

106 Samuel Freeman, Utilitarianism, Deontology, and the Priority of Right, Philosophy
and Public Affairs 23 (1994), p. 326.
107 ibid.

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conduct. In his analysis of teleological utilitarianism, Kymlicka argues that it is not a
moral theory at all because maximizing utility is no duty to anyone. But Kymlicka gives
no answer to a similar question that can be raised against his interpretation. The question
is whether, in any account o f the utilitarian principle of right conduct, it is a duty to
anyone to give equal consideration to everyones interests. Assume that some utilitarians
deny that acts are right because they maximize the good. Would they say, however, that
act are right because equal weight is given to equal interests? Unlikely. By contrast,
justice as fairness is a deontological theory, Rawls claims, not only in that no maximum
principle is used in it, but also in that its substantive standard for just institutions is
based upon a principle of equal liberty as well as restrictions on economic and social
inequalities to those in everyones interests; the question of attaining the greatest net
balance of satisfaction never arises injustice as fairness (TJR 26-27). In short,
Kymlickas fault is the misidentiflcation of that level to which Rawls distinction is
supposed to apply.
In another presentation of the egalitarian interpretation, Kymlicka says that the
requirement that we maximize utility is entirely derived from the prior requirement to
treat people with equal consideration. The argument runs as follows:
1. people matter, and matter equally; therefore
2. each persons interests should be given equal weight; therefore
3. morally right acts will maximize utility.10
This reconstruction matches Hares assertion that his argument for utilitarianism is based
upon the right to equal concern and respect... .a precept which leads straight to

108 Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1990), p. 31.

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Benthams formula and to utilitarianism itself.109 On this reconstruction, utilitarianism
is taken to be basically about treating people as equals: If utilitarianism is best seen as an
egalitarian doctrine, then there is no independent commitment to the idea of maximizing
welfare.110 From this reconstruction, does it really follow that maximization is merely a
by-product of treating persons as equals? So it seems. But if utilitarianism is an
egalitarian doctrine, that is, truly a doctrine about treating people as equals, why does it
care about whether morally right acts will maximize utility or not? Even if giving equal
weight to each persons interests, as it could be intuitively thought, does not always
maximize utility, would utilitarians yet regard doing so as a morally right act? No, they
would not Or they might say, yes, very reluctantly. The point is that the formal
requirement to treat people with equal consideration does not, by itself, imply much of
anything about how we ought to proceed or what we ought to do.111

Kvmlickas Misunderstandings about the Utilitarian Strategy


Utilitarians standard defense against the criticism that utilitarianism is insensitive
to distributions proceeds in a rather different direction from Kymlickas interpretation. It
is that utilitarianism is concerned with fairness and distributions, since the principle of
utility respects all persons as equals by observing the Benthamic formula. Pretty much
the same line o f argument can be attributed to influential modem utilitarians such as Hare
and Griffin, whom Kymlicka believes to back up his egalitarian interpretation. But

109 R.M. Hare 1984, p. 107.


110 Will Kymlicka 1990, p. 35.
111 Samuel Freeman 1994, p. 333.

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Kymlickas interpretation, as I shall attempt to show, is not suggested by their texts and
his misunderstandings about their strategy in detail are not insignificant.
Contrary to Kymlickas claim that the egalitarian utilitarian theories are not
committed to the generalization from the one-person to the many-person case (LCC 25),
first o f all, the shared strategy of modem utilitarians is not to deny that utilitarianism
transfers the structure o f intrapersonal trade-offs to interpersonal ones, but rather to argue
that this transfer does not lead to overlooking the separateness of persons. For instance,
Hare admits that, in order to give equal consideration to everyones interests, it is
inevitable to treat their interests in the same way as a prudent person treats his own
117

interests, present and future.

But to do this, he thinks, is not to fail to recognize the

separateness of persons. Utilitarianism does see persons as distinct and separate, though it
merges their interests to maximize their utilities. This much is secured by the Benthamic
formula. In this connection, Griffin writes:
But since there is no fact of separateness that anyone has overlooked, no
delusion that a group of persons is one super-person, the protest that
utilitarians overlook separateness amounts to no more than the claim that
one ought not to transfer the model of intrapersonal trades to interpersonal
trades. It is an expression of one view about equal respect, and so not a
reason for choosing it.113
The upshot is that the separateness o f persons, in itself, should not be regarded as a
reason to rule out the utilitarian conception of equal respect. Utilitarianism prescribes
merging persons interests into a single moral judgment by maximizing them. Perhaps,
this may seem to critics to be the major defect in the utilitarian account of equal respect.

112 R.M. Hare 1984, p. 107.


113 James Griffin, Well-Being (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 169-170; hereafter
abbreviated as WB.

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But it is still arguable that this is a view about equal respect, in the sense that, for
utilitarians at least, merging persons interests seems to be the best policy for protecting
their respective interests. Whatever the technical or conceptual problems with transferring
the structure of intrapersonal trade-offs to interpersonal ones, utilitarianism may well be
seen as a theory of equal consideration.
Secondly, the utilitarian conception of equal respect is implicit in its maximization
standard. As aforementioned, Kymlicka objects to having both the maximization standard
and the equal consideration standard in the same theory (LCC 41-42); a coherent
utilitarian position must hold either of them, not both, as the fundamental standard. But it
seems to me that this is only because he does not see them as inseparable but only as
independent of, or possibly conflicting with, each other. In my view, few utilitarians deny
that utilitarianism is one principle moral conception. The Benthamic formula is not a
separate principle over and above the principle of utility (WB 168). It is simply part of
what is involved in applying the principle of utility. In merging persons interests, the
aim of utilitarians is straightforward, i.e., to maximize their utilities, and perhaps whose
utility it is would be irrelevant. Nonetheless, the principle of utility is a distributive
principle. Griffin goes on to claim:
[The utilitarian conception of equal respect] is a view, right or wrong,
about when sacrificing one person for another is justified. It is just a
modem muddle to contrast sharply distributive and aggregative principles,
as if an aggregative principle could not also be fully deliberately
distributive. It crops up commonly in regarding, as economists often do,
an aggregative principle as a principle of efficiency and other principles
as ones of fairness. Similarly, no plausible principle of distribution - think,
for instance, of Rawls Difference Principle - could be purely distributive,
without some maximizing tendency, as if reducing everyone to the same
level of misery could satisfy it. Every plausible principle of equality is
based on the thought that everyone matters and matters equally, and to

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stress only formal features of distribution is to recall the equally but to
forget the matters. (WB 168-169)
Clearly, this remark is addressed to Rawls and other critics, who have held that
utilitarianism subjects public decisions to the scrutiny of an aggregative conception of
well-being. Being purely aggregative, utilitarianism would not be able to draw the bottom
line for everyone concerned, a line that would prevent limitless sacrifices of one person
to others or to community. Roughly, a possible utilitarian reply to this charge is that the
principle of utility is one o f double features, that is, it is a principle which is aggregative
and simultaneously distributive. The principle of utility, too, represents another
conception of the distribution that equal respect for persons requires (WB 169). Many
persons have protested its distributive feature in favor of some other view of equal
respect, e.g., the contractualist view. But it is simply mistaken to see it as a purely
aggregative principle.
Blurring the sharp distinction between aggregative and distributive principles, on
the one hand, may seem to have an effect of weakening the distinction between
teleological and deontological theories. In some sense, doing so could be read to hold up
the claim that utilitarianism is as deontological as any others. Griffins position is, on the
other hand, quite contrary to Kymlickas egalitarian interpretation. That is, maximization
is not merely a by-product of treating people as equals. Griffin would rather say that the
principle of utility is an aggregative principle that has a built-in mechanism of equal
respect as well. To assess its conception of equal respect, all we need to do is just to seek
for reasons for and against accepting it as a guide to distribution. It is no fair treatment to
leave it out o f consideration from the beginning.

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To recapitulate: Kymlickas egalitarian interpretation contains some serious
misapprehensions about Rawls as well as those utilitarians quoted in support of it. The
reasoning that underlies his interpretation can be summarized as follows:
1. Being justified by egalitarian premises is giving priority to the right
over the good.
2. Giving priority to the right over the good is the fundamental
characteristic of a deontological theory.
3. some utilitarian theories are, deep down, grounded on an egalitarian
principle, i.e., Benthams dictum of counting everyone for one and
none for more than one.
4. Therefore, these utilitarian theories can be regarded as deontological
theories.
Again, Kymlicka regards being justified by egalitarian premises as a necessary condition
for being a moral theory, and then equates it with giving priority to the right over the
good, i.e., being deontological. Throughout his discussion, he identifies deontology with
the priority o f right. The utilitarian theories, thus, as justified by egalitarian premises,
satisfy that condition for being a deontological moral theory.
It seems to me that Kymlickas reasoning oversimplifies the matters involved. For
Rawls, the priority o f right presupposes the justifications of principles: Once the
conception o f justice is established, the priority of right guarantees the precedence of its
principles (TJR 494). The role of the priority of right is to describe the structure and
substantive content of a moral conception, not its procedural justification. It defines a
notion of permissible ends and morally admissible conceptions of the good: The
principles o f right, and so of justice, put limits on which satisfactions have value; they
impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of ones good (TJR 27). In
contrast to this, Benthams dictum can only provide a formal principle that is involved in
justifying and applying the principle of utility. It is devoid of content, like other first-level,

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formal principles such as treat similar situations similarly or one person may not be
sacrificed without limit. Such empty principles, as Griffin would argue, do not fix the
moral point o f view; they leave so much undetermined that nothing can be got out of
them until more is put into them (TSTR 152). Thus, it must be not expected that
Benthams dictum whose restrictive role is largely formal would be able to tell us as
much as the priority of right does (TJR 28).
Another o f Kymlickas misunderstandings about the common strategy of modem
utilitarianism is this. Rawls distinction between teleology and deontology should not
have been given so much weight in the first place. It is not as clear as it might appear. For
example, the notion of the separateness of persons is notoriously vague. What Rawls
distinction has is just one interpretation of teleology and one interpretation of deontology.
This distinction is often taken to parallel the distinction between aggregative and
distributive. If the latter distinction, as in Griffins claim, is just an unfortunate modem
muddle, then so is the former. The utilitarian strategy is to claim not that utilitarianism is
as deontological as any others but that the distinction should not be taken so seriously.
Utilitarians might hold a broad notion of teleological, a notion broad enough to
encompass all substantive theories of rights. For example, Griffin argues that the first
level of a substantive theory of rights is constituted within a generally teleological
framework (TSTR 145-146). Fundamental values such as autonomy and liberty are best
understood as belonging to a teleological structure, the goals of which are the valued
ways of life (TSTR 150). In order to be a substantive theory of rights, utilitarianism
should also be concerned to formulate a teleological framework of the values that rights
protect, by defining an accommodating notion of utility. What utilitarians need to do is to

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find the links between that notion of utility and substantive values. In a sense, thus,
utilitarianism is as teleological as any substantive theories of rights would be. For
instance, Scanlons theory of rights may seem to be teleological in the sense that it
establishes a general goal of promoting and maintaining an acceptable distribution of
control over important factors in our lives and that this general goal becomes a
teleological framework within which his substantive theory of rights will be constituted.
Within such a teleological framework, something will be maximized. This seems to be
part of what Griffin means by saying that every plausible distributive principle has an
aggregative element. Deontologists standard rejoinder against utilitarianism would be
that that something, Scanlon says, can not, in view of the role that the goals of fairness
and equality play in the theory, be simply the sum of individual benefits.114
Lastly, it might be said, to do justice to Kymlickas view, that he rightly points out
that the debate between utilitarianism and Rawls conception of justice is not over
whether people have distinct claims, but over how we give equal weight to each persons
claims in formulating principles of justice (LCC 32). Still, however, Kymlickas claim
that utilitarianism demands that peoples equal standing be respected at all costs in the
decision procedure, it seems to me, immoderately cuts down the importance of the
maximization standard in the utilitarian theories. Moreover, Rawls denies equal
consideration of interests because of the priority of right. Kymlicka repeats several times
that to give equal weight to each preference of each person, regardless of the content of
the preference, is one way of spelling out the idea of equal consideration, though it may
not be the best. But the priority of right in Rawls conception does concern the content of
114 T.M. Scanlon 1988 [1978], p. 86.

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desires and preferences. According to Rawls, desires must not be taken as given; their
content must be compatible with principles of right. If they conflict with principles of
right, then their satisfaction is of no value whatsoever in pol itical decisions. For Rawls,
just to give each preference of each person the same weight, without the restriction
imposed by the priority of right, is no way of spelling out the idea of equal respect. In
other words, Kymlicka misses the significant distinction between equal respect for
persons and equal respect for interests}15
Utilitarians do not accept this distinction. Hare states that to have concern for
someone is to seek his good, or to seek to promote his interests; and to have equal
concern for all people is to seek equally their good, or to give equal weight to their
interests.116 In response to this, deontologists characteristically claim that persons
have aspects that cannot be fully explained in terms of well-being or utility, no matter
how broadly define well-being within the limits of that general concept.117 They think
that crucial values such as autonomy and personal liberty relate to these aspects
inexplicable by the concept of well-being or utility. Thus, utilitarians have always been
burdened with finding an explanation of how these values or aspects can be linked with,
or brought into, the concept of utility. That explanation would also affect their approach
to equality. Let us briefly sketch some known issues relevant to the concept of utility.
115 John Rawls, Fairness to Goodness, Philosophical Review 84 (1975), p. 554. He
says that We should not speak of fairness o f conceptions of the good, but of fairness to
moral persons. ...it is fairness to persons that is primary and not fairness to conceptions of
the good as such.
116 R.M. Hare 1984, p. 107.
117
Amartya Sen, Well-being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984,
Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985), p. 186; hereafter abbreviated as WAF. Of course, well
being and utility are not interchangeable concepts here. Utility is just one way to
explain well-being.

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The Concept of Utility: Happiness or Desire
Is utility a value? Is it a substantive value like autonomy and personal liberty?
Answers to these questions will immensely affect answers to questions about its relation
to autonomy and personal liberty. Utility is often seen as a single overarching value under
which many things we value are to be subsumed and which is not identified with but
forms a standard for making comparative evaluations. It has been a question of great
importance, for both utilitarians and critics, how utility as such can explain, or be linked
with, other substantive values. Understandably, while critics have tried to demonstrate
that substantive values such as autonomy and liberty fall outside the ambit of utility,
utilitarians have replied that the notion of utility in critics use is unjustly too narrow.
There are different interpretations of utility, i.e., different views about what things are to
count as utility: in particular, (1) happiness and (2) desire fulfillment or preference
satisfaction. Let us examine some common objections to these interpretations and
utilitarian replies.
The first set of objections I want to begin with has been raised mostly against the
happiness account. With good reasons, Bentham and Mill are taken to have simply
equated utility with happiness, and happiness with pleasure. A traditional
objection to their account o f utility takes a form of skepticism. Happiness is basically a
mental state. But can we ever know anything at all about the inner mental states or
experiences of others? In other words, are we able to know how happy a person is? An
equally critical trouble with the happiness account is that one kind of mental state seems
insufficient to explain the ordinary meaning of utility. Utility, when interpreted as
happiness, is not very informative. For most people, unless of a scholarly background,

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do not associate utility and happiness. The trouble is that happiness as one particular
kind of mental state cannot cover up all the other activities, mental or physical, that we
regard as having utility - e.g., eating, reading, working, creating, helping, etc. In a similar
context, Sen states:
The perspective of happiness may give a very limited view of other mental
activities. There are mental states other than being just happy, such as
stimulation, excitement, etc., which are of direct relevance to a persons
well-being....It is hard to avoid the conclusion that although happiness is
of obvious and direct relevance to well-being, it is inadequate as a
representation of well-being. (WAF 189)
The skeptical objection alone may seem insurmountable. One response is to say that
happiness is not one mental state but a complex of mental states (feeling happy is not like
a stimulation or a taste but a more abstract or intricate feeling). It is also conceivable that
happiness refers to a common mental property that may be possessed by many other
mental states (thus, happiness would rather be a semi-technical term that can be widely
connected to a variety of mental activities). But these alternative conceptions of
happiness are no answers to the skeptical objection. The skeptic would reply that in either
conception we never know what happiness is and how happy a person is. Of course, such
a complete skepticism about other minds should not be taken seriously, for it would have
truly unwanted consequences concerning how one should treat others. But these
unwanted consequences would not make the mental state account look any better. On the
utilitarians part, it is still arguable that utility consists of many different kinds of mental
states, giving it a little more breadth, and that we should promote the entire range of
valuable mental states. Utilitarians who adopt this account accept that some mental states
can be rewarding without being pleasurable. Nevertheless, the mental state account

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would not be a promising representation of utility, simply because the things worth doing
and having in life, the things that we regard as having utility, are not all reducible to
certain mental states.
Clearly, the desire (or preference) approach prevails in modem utilitarianism. The
main advantage of taking this approach is that the (informed) desire account, Griffin says,
does not require that fulfillment of desire translates itself in every case into the
experience of the person who has the desire, and that is what gives the account its breadth
and attraction as a theory of what makes life valuable (WB 13-14). It is obvious that not
all that we actually desire are mental states. The desire account explains utility as lying in
the state of the world rather than in the state of mind. Thus, it can confer a much
broader scope upon the concept of utility. The desire account has been taken as another
departure o f modem utilitarianism from the classical utilitarian tradition, on the
widespread interpretation that Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick all saw utility as having to
enter our experience (WB 13).
For Bentham, pleasure does not name a single, particular, kind of feeling but is
a generic term referring to all those things towards which someone is positively
motivated. What we have are different kinds of pleasures which are not directly
comparable - e.g., the pleasures of sympathy, sex, power, religion, intoxication, and so on
- rather than different ways of achieving a single kind of feeling. Benthams account of
utility does not depend upon particular types of mental states. He is even skeptical about
the commensurability of different kinds of pleasures or pains: punishment of different
kinds are in few instances uniformly commensurable (IPML 192). Hence, Benthams
account comprises many kinds of mental states which are incomparable in quality and

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incommensurable in quantity. These assorted mental states are stimulated by, and
connected to, a variety of things and events in the state of the world.118 But there is
something in common to these mental states. As referred to as pleasures or pains,
they are motives to action. It seems to be a standard view that Bentham produces a
reductive analysis of human psychology in which all motives, all springs of action, are
made sense of in terms of seeking pleasures and avoiding pains.119 No matter what things
one finds pleasure in, they must enter ones state of mind. To be regarded as giving
pleasure, i.e., having utility, they have to be motives to actions.
Bentham and Mill both use utility to explain actions and focus on its causal role

in motivating actions.

1JO

One important characteristic of the desire approach is that it

departs from this Benthamic (or Humean) theory of action. The desire account of utility
should not be seen to be attached to certain theories of action: It is not committed to the
view that action is the result purely of a vector of desire-forces (WB 12). But the
important question is whether it really can find its way out of the mental state account.
118

Wendy Donner 1998. In her explication of the difference between Benthams and
Mills hedonism, Donner argues that Mills qualitative hedonism as a complex mental
state account of utility is a sophisticated alternative to Benthams quantitative hedonism
(p. 257). Donner here seems to follow the standard view that while Bentham takes only
the quantity of happiness to be productive of its value, Mills principle of utility
prescribes maximization of the quality as well as the quantity of happiness. In my view,
however, this standard view is not entirely correct, in the sense that Bentham seems to
allow that there are different kinds o f pleasures and their difference in quality is not
reducible to the difference in quantity o f pleasure they produce.
119 Ross Harrison 1983, p. 148. But he argues that for Bentham pleasures and pain are
not unproblematic real entities about which there are no problems of identification
(ibid.).
120
It is controversial whether Mill was committed to the Benthamic (or Humean) theory
of action. Griffin claims that he was. But some commentators have argued that Mill was
not a psychological hedonist and thus did not hold that all actions are motivated by the
anticipation of pleasure or pain. See Wendy Donner 1998, p. 259; Fred Berger 1984, pp.
12-17.

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Desiring something appears to be a mental action or state. Remarking that There
can be, of course, hardly anything more mental than desires, Sen states in response to
Griffins desire account:
I believe that Griffin underestimates the extent to which a desire account
has to be concerned with the state of mind. An account of well-being
that is to serve as a basis for a utilitarian calculus must be able to present a
cardinal and interpersonally comparable view of utility. Neither of these
types of information can be obtained just by checking whether the
persons desires have been realized in the state of the world. The metric
that will be needed for an informationally adequate view of utility cannot
be obtained from the observation of objects of desire. The strength of
desire must come into the picture, and the desires of different people have
to be compared. Thus, the desire account of well-being is also, in an
important sense, a mental-state account, though it is not a purely mentalstate account (given the need to observe the objects of desire as well).
(WAF 189)
I read this passage as suggesting that Sen is here clarifying a notorious problem which
has long been thought of as involved in any account of utility, the problem with its
subjective perspective on a persons well-being. In the desire account, the needed
information for a utilitarian calculation depends upon the knowledge of how satisfied a
persons desire is and how intensely a person desires the objects desired. To obtain this
knowledge, after all, we would need look into the persons mental states. Thus, the desire
account cannot break off relations with the mental state account. But this argument is no
fair treatment o f Griffins efforts to eliminate psychological elements in the desire
account.
Sen deals with desire, I think, in the ordinary sense in which desiring something
is taken to be ultimately a mental state like being happy and thereby in which strength of
desire means its felt intensity. However, Griffin attempts to give technical senses to all
important terms involved. In the technical sense offered by him, desires do not have to

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have felt intensities. Some desires are aims or plans adopted as a result of
understanding and judgment (WB 14). Desiring something is, Griffin says, in the right
circumstances, going for it, or not avoiding or being indifferent to getting it. Much in
line with this definition of desire, the terms fulfillment and strength of desire are
also expounded in the non-psychological technical senses. Griffin writes:
Being fulfilled cannot be understood in a psychological way, or we
should be back with mental state accounts. A desire is fulfilled in the sense
in which a clause in a contract is fulfilled: namely, what we agreed
(desired) comes about... Strength of desire ...in its technical sense here,
has to be understood in connection with the structure that informed desires
have. ..One must assess their strength, not in the sense of felt intensity, but
in a sense supplied by the natural structure of desire. (WB 14-15)
Along with these technical definitions of the basic terms, it is assumed that our desires
have a structure and hence that they are not put on one level. The structure of desires
consists of local desires (e.g., for a drink) but also higher-order desires (e.g., to distance
oneself from material desires) and global desires (e.g., to live autonomously). In its
technical sense, strength of desire is not its felt intensity but is explained, in large part,
within that structure to which the desire to be assessed is belonging. Griffin asserts that
felt intensity is not a reliable sign of anything as deep as well-being: The desires I feel
most intensely could be satisfied by your constantly imperiling my life and saving me
only at the last moment, whereas I should clearly prefer peace to peril (WB 15). So to
speak, a persons well-being may not be explained simply in terms of satisfaction of the
persons desires most intensely felt or strongest.
What seems most important to the desire account is the notion that principal
constituents of the structure o f desires should be informed or sanitised desires which
are formed by appreciation of the nature of the objects of desire. Information here

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means what advances plans of life.121 The informed desires may not be the desires that
win out in motivation. Take an example: If my doctor tells me that I shall die if I do not
lay off drink, I shall want to lay off it. But I may later crack and go on a binge, and at that
point my desire to drink will, in a perfectly clear sense, be strongest (WB 15). The point
o f this example is that even when my bare desire to drink is strongest and so wins out in
motivation, what is indeed linked with my well-being, it seems quite obvious, is the
informed desire to lay off drink, which is based upon the information given by my doctor
and my own judgment o f that information. To interpret strength of desire as
motivational force is to make the same mistake as classical utilitarians made in their
mental state account o f utility. That is, utility would lose its links with well-being.
Thus, to keep hold of the links with well-being, Griffin argues, the relevant sense of
strength has to be, not motivational force, but rank in a cool preference ordering, an
ordering that reflects appreciation o f the nature of the objects of desire (WB 15).
Another o f Sens critical points is that the desire account is deeply problematic
particularly in the context of interpersonal comparisons: Comparative intensities of
desire may be a very dubious guide indeed to well-being intensities in comparing one
person with another, since these intensities are influenced by many contingent
circumstances that are arbitrary for well-being comparisons (WAF 190-191). It is natural
to think that different persons under difference circumstances may have entirely different
preference orderings: Our reading of what is feasible in our situation and station may be
crucial to the intensities of desire, and may even affect what we dare to desire (WAF

171

James Griffin, Modem Utilitarianism, Revue Internationale De Philosophie 141


(1982), p. 335.

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191). It could be asked whether there be a reliable interpersonal metric of desire


fulfillment on the basis of which these different preference orderings of different persons
can be compared with one another?
Utilitarians have attempted to propose such a metric, by restricting the scope of
desires that count. Hare, for instance, demands purified desires: when I am
considering the desires of others, considering what they would be if those others were
perfectly prudent - i.e. desired what they would desire if they were fully informed and
unconfused.122 John Harsanyi also demands that, and, in addition, to exclude all
clearly antisocial preferences, such as sadism, envy, resentment, and malice.

19 3

The

metric o f desires thus shaped may well be quite useful to deal sensibly with some
problems, particularly those associated with factual ignorance and thoughtless decisions.
But Sen thinks that it will fail to eliminate the problem with the circumstantial
contingency of desires. Sens contention is that the circumstantial contingency must be
taken into consideration in well-being comparisons: Desiring is a part o f living. ...To ask
what one would desire in unspecified circumstances - abstracting from the concreteness
of everyones life - is to misunderstand the nature of desire and its place in human life
(WAF 191). That is, actual and informed desires are both relevant in the consideration of
a persons well-being. Utilitarians appeal to the purified desires in the context of
interpersonal comparisons is arbitrary and uncalled for.124

122 R.M. Hare, Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism, Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams
eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 28.
123 John Harsanyi, Morality and the theory of rational behaviour, Amartya Sen and
Bernard Williams eds. 1982, p. 56.
124 Amartya Sen, Plural Utility, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 81 (1980-1), pp.
203-204.

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Ill
Happiness is a valuable part of well-being, and so is desire fulfillment. However,
Sen rejects the claim that utility represents well-being, and proposes an alternative
approach. It is to regard well-being as a plural notion, a vector of many different
functionings: The primary feature of well-being can be seen in terms of how a person
can function, taking that term in a very broad sense (WAF 197). Instead of going into
the details of Sens alternative, I discuss some further problems of the desire account.

The Desire Account of Utility: Too Broad or Too Narrow


The desire account o f utility, at first, is criticized as being much too broad. On this
line of criticism, it has been argued that in applying the principle of utility, utilitarians
regard desires as given and satisfaction of any (rational) desire as having value. In
Rawls account, the priority of right restricts what desires are, to use Kants terms,
worthy of satisfaction. The point seems that there is nothing equivalent to this
restriction in utilitarianism. Another unattractive feature of this over-broad desire account
is that all desires are put on a par in deliberation, and assessed according to their sheer
intensity, to decide what is right to do. A central feature of utility-maximizing views is
the homogeneity of desires, says Freeman.

In Griffins account, however, the recent development of the desire account starts
with (1) the recognition that actual desires can be faulty (WB 12): in some appropriate
sense, his own preferences at some deeper level are inconsistent with what he is now
trying to achieve; and with (2) the substantial claim that our desires have a structure

125 Samuel Freeman 1994, p. 339.

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within which their strength must be understood.

1 9 f>

It thus follows that not all desires are

put on a par in deliberation, even if taken as given. In this development, the


fundamental distinction is made between actual (or manifest) desires and informed
(or true or rational) desires. This distinction implies a strong restrictive function in
defining social utility in terms of peoples personal preferences. Harsanyi says:
His manifest preferences are his actual preferences as manifested by his
observed behaviour, including preferences possibly based on erroneous
factual beliefs, or on careless logical analysis, or on strong emotions that
at the moment greatly hinder rational choice. In contrast, a persons true
preferences are the preferences he would have if he had all the relevant
factual information, always reasoned with the greatest possible care, and
were in a state of mind most conducive to rational choice. Given this
distinction, a persons rational wants are those consistent with his true
preferences and, therefore, consistent with all the relevant factual
information and with the best possible logical analysis, whereas irrational
wants are those that fail this test. In my opinion, social utility must be
defined in terms of peoples true preferences rather than in terms of their
manifest preferences.127
Set aside the troublesome questions about who and how to determine peoples true
preferences. Sens objection is that this time the desire account o f utility which can only
take in these purified preferences is much too narrow, or in his terms informationally
too constrained, to be a representation of well-being.128 It may seem that it is inevitable
for utilitarians to forcibly narrow down the scope of desires that count toward utility, for
they somehow demand a complete (or near-complete) ordering o f preferences that is
126 John Harsanyi 1982, p. 55.
127 ibid.
128 Sen believes that his functioning account of well-being is broader than the purified
desire account as well as even the over-broad one in the sense that the functioning
approach pays attention to a persons capability to function. He is clearly aware that this
comes at the price o f incompleteness: The natural form of well-being ranking is
indeed that of partial, incomplete order. It would be just as extraordinary if every possible
pair of functioning vectors could be compared in terms of over-all well-being, as it would
be if none o f them could be (WAF 198).

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serviceable in the utilitarian calculation of social welfare. Such a completeness


requirement, Sen claims, is neither methodologically sensible nor substantially
plausible (WAF 200). To obtain the purified desire information, both Hare and
Harsanyi make use of the imaginary exercise of counter/actual desiringX'WAF 192).
They ask what one would desire in unspecified circumstances. Sen argues that such an
imaginary exercise is pointless. For if the desire information thus obtained were
imaginary anyway, then would it not be better for us to start from some simple
assumption that our desires would be in line with what Scanlon has called an objective
criterion of well-being, appealing to a certain consensus of values about the content of
well-being ? (WAF 191)
A plausible desire account must give weight to both actual and informed desires.
In short, the dilemma is that while to take up only the latter kind o f desires, i.e., the
purified desires, in well-being consideration is too narrow, to take up both is too broad.
It should be noted that the specific aim of the process of purifying preferences is to
define the concept of social utility. Preference utilitarianism defines social utility in terms
of each persons utility function, and then the latter in terms of his or her personal
preferences. Thus, in the end, social utility is defined in terms of peoples personal
preferences. The problem lies in that the same purifying process will be applied in
defining the concept o f personal well-being, and that that concept of personal well-being
is too narrow. One expectable strategy to avoid this problem is to make the scope of
informed desires more flexible so that those desires, otherwise ruled out through the
purifying process, can be encompassed in that scope when explaining the concept of
personal well-being. Something like this is Griffins strategy. Griffin believes that the

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best prospect of a utilitarian account of well-being is to hold on to the over-wide desire
account and look for good reasons to rein in it (WB 20).
Griffin asserts that it would be a mistake simply to exclude desires of some sorts
because they are irrational or immoral. For the fulfillment of some irrational or immoral
desires may affect a persons utility. Griffin writes:
So since irrational desires cannot be excluded wholesale, why not let them
in, and if their fulfillment is sometimes morally intolerable, look to other
moral matters besides utility to block it...The suggestion earlier was that
desires that are irrational on utilitarian grounds should not be given weight,
because no utilitarian value is at stake. But if someone is upset or
distressed, then there is a utilitarian value at stake. The theoretical oddity
would come, not in giving weight to such desires, but in giving them none.
(WB 25)
Basically, the desires that count are informed desires; they are not brute and
unconstrained. Informed desires have structures which are plans of life. But these
structures may contain some irrational or immoral desires. A compulsive hand-washers
desire must not be excluded from the structure simply because of its being irrational. The
same holds for sadistic desires: Perhaps there is someone for whom sadistic kicks are all
he has, who is incapable of better (WB 26). Someone may have a desire to do something
because it would be morally right. Similarly, the importance of this desire does not
depend upon its being a moral desire but upon its place in the persons plans of life, i.e.,
the structure that his informed desires have.
One disadvantage o f this over-wide desire account is that it complicates the notion
of well-being, probably to the extent that that notion may not be handled by a utilitymaximizing view. That is, it may not be the best account of utility that yields the most
adequate one principle, utility-maximizing, moral theory (WB 26). There are advantages

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as well: first, it provides the materials needed to encompass the complexity of prudential
value; second, it has scope, because all prudential values, from objects of simple varying
tastes to objects of universal informed agreement, register somewhere in informed
preferences; third, it has flexibility, because it is sensitive to the differences between
individual conceptions of well-being (WB 30-31). But the most significant advantage is
that the informed-desire account can avoid the objection that utilitarianism focuses on
maximizing the one rational value or good, i.e., utility; it is a value pluralism. The point
that we value many irreducibly different kinds of things may count against certain mental
state accounts, but not against the informed-desire account. The desire account is, Griffin
claims, compatible with a strong form of pluralism about values (WB 31).
In Rawls contrast between justice as fairness and teleological perfectionism, the
assumption central to his liberalism is that there are a plurality of intrinsic values, and a
plurality of ways of life that it is rational for individuals to pursue. The same assumption
can be explained by the informed-desire account. On the informed-desire account, Griffin
says, one can allow that when I fully understand what is involved, I may end up valuing
many things and valuing them for themselves (WB 31). A plurality of ways of life can
also be explained in terms o f the structures of desires.
The upshot is that, in the informed-desire account, utility is not to be viewed as
the super, overarching, substantive value that subsumes all different things we value.
What the desire account, as a utilitarian account of well-being, advises you to do is to
maximize the fulfillment of your desires. But this does not involve requiring you to
subject your action to some dominant end or to select this or that end. On the contrary,
maximizing the fulfillment o f ones desires presupposes a hierarchy of goals. In the

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mental state account, happiness or pleasure plays the role of a dominant end and also of a
principle of choice, completely occupying all deliberative space. There is little doubt that
it results in a value monism. On the desire account, however, utility is to be seen as a
formal analysis of what it is for something to be prudentially valuable to some person
(WB 31-32). Utility, as such a formal notion, will be linked with substantive values such
as pleasure, autonomy, and liberty, not by being the dominant end that subsumes them,
but by providing a way o f understanding the notion (prudentially) valuable and hence
the notions more valuable and less valuable (WB 32).
Besides intuitive protests to value monism, the old notion of utility as a dominant
end, i.e., a single substantive value, brings in many wearisome quandaries, for example,
about its links with other substantive values. Perhaps the only possible way to find the
links is to put those substantive values on the utility scale. To this as well, there have been
a number of objections, for instance, the issue of incommensurability between values. We
might think that some values are not quantifiable at all, or that some values are
quantifiable only on different scales. If we fail to resolve the issue of incommensurability
between utility and substantive values and thus fail to find its links with them, it would
then be criticized as being too narrow to represent well-being. It appears quite dilemmatic.
In formulating a new notion of utility, roughly speaking, Griffins strategy to find
its links with substantive values is to argue that they are on the metric of our informed
preferences, that they are given value by their places in this metric, and that they,
therefore, fall within the ambit of utility. Griffin asserts that liberty and autonomy, which
are apparently not utilitarian values, can be fitted into the scheme of our preferences,
and its value explained by its place there (TSTR 150). Liberty and autonomy are

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intrinsic goods or values, i.e., valuable in themselves, as we are prone to think of. The
formal notion of utility denies, probably, that they are of absolute value, value greater
than any utilitarian values, but not that they are valuable in themselves. It is a mistake to
argue from their being valuable in themselves to the conclusion that utility does not
encompass them (TSTR 150). The formal notion of utility has scope in the sense that it
concerns what makes our life valuable, various conceptions and all possible ingredients
of a valuable life.
The informed-desire account is a value pluralism which allows that there are
irreducibly many prudential values. Does pluralism, i.e., the denial of reduction, infallibly
lead to incommensurability, i.e., the denial of complete ranking? I shall not try to find an
answer to this question. Let us just assume that the new, formal, notion of utility is
accepted. It is clear, then, that utilitarianism is not a teleological theory in Rawls sense,
i.e., in the sense that the one rational good enables us completely define what is right and
justice in maximizing terms. For utility is not the one rational good, the one super-value,
that can resolve all conflicts between subordinate values and ends. Utilitarians may well
deny, as deontologists do, that there is but one rational and ultimate good in terms of
which all other values and activities are to be ordered and justified.

Desiring and Valuing


Sen argues that desiring is not a valuational activity but has merely an
evidential role, in the sense that while it is the case that I desire x because x is valuable
for me, it is not the case that x is valuable for me because I desire x. In arguing that, it

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seems to me, Sen presupposes a notion that desiring is an isolatable mental activity, a
mental activity that can be sharply distinguished from valuing. I think that this is not
entirely true. It is a commonplace now that if I do not quit smoking cigarettes, I shall be
more liable to have a lung cancer. Being aware of this, I may want to quit it once and for
all. Or, of course, I may give in to cravings. Here my wanting to quit smoking may be
neither an animal instinct like fear of death nor an unreflected desire to live longer. It may
involve a careful valuing of smoking in view of the form of life I desire to live and of my
plans o f life. It could be said that the value of smoking is grounded in the structure of my
informed desires. It may not be the case that x is valuable for me because I desire x. But
it is not impossible that x s being valuable for me is grounded in my desires other than x.
Attentions must be paid to our global desires, e.g., desires for clean air or healthy life.
Does it not make sense at all to say that the value of objects that help preserve a clean
environment is grounded in our desire for it, or that the value of quitting smoking is
grounded in our desire for being healthy? Still, someone might argue that the value of a
clean environment and that of health are not grounded in our desires for them, but in
something else. But few of us would believe that.
There could be valuable things I have never had desire for. But it is not always
clear exactly how much value I should give to them. Imagine that I happen to pick up a
bottle o f quinine pills on the street. But I have neither been to the tropics nor had any
worry about malaria disease. How much value does this bottle of quinine pills have to
me? Maybe, the tag price? All that I am sure of is that if I had desire (or need) for them.
their value for me would have been greater. It seems to me perfectly intelligible to say
that desiring appears in valuing. And valuing (interchangeable with understanding in

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the sense that to value something is to understand its features) also appears in desiring, in
the sense that some desires are aims and plans adopted as a result of judgment and
understanding. I believe this is part of what Griffin means by saying that Desire is not
blind. Understanding is not bloodless. Neither is the slave of the other. ...It is the strength
of the notion of informed desire that it straddles - that is, does not accept any sharp
form of - the divide between reason and desire (WB 30).129
Desire is not merely a mark but rather a ground of value. The more informed, the
stronger ground of value it becomes. This conception of desire is essential in explaining
the links of utility with substantive values such as autonomy and personal liberty, i.e., in
explaining the value of autonomy and personal liberty in terms of their place in our
informed desires. Griffin writes:
Or... .one might instead decide that the value of autonomy, while not
absolute, is not given by its place in informed desires either, in other
words, that reflectively wanting to be autonomous and recognizing its
value to one can be at variance. But what then would one say is the
difference between them? When, for instance, would trade-offs sanctioned
by these different views of the value of autonomy diverge? It is hard to
find examples, and that suggests that autonomy falls largely within the
ambit o f utility. (TSTR 148)
By no means, does this mean that the value of autonomy depends upon our desiring to be
autonomous. This only means that when one sufficiently spells out why autonomy is
valuable, one merely discovers a new link with utility (TSTR 150). What one discovers

190

As it appears, this can be seen as a position that, in some sense, compromises the
historically important conflicting accounts o f practical reason, that is, the Humean
account of action that reason alone cannot supply a motive and the Kantian reaction that
it can. The crucial difference o f this position from the two historical accounts is that
while they somehow retain the sharp divide between desire and reason, it obscures the
divide.

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is that autonomy can get into the scheme of our preferences, and that its value is partially
explained by its place there. The same holds for liberty.
To sum up: Sens objection to the desire account is that although the importance
of desires in reflecting a persons well-being is quite substantial, it is primarily
evidential. A persons desires as the evidence for the persons valuation may not fully
translate into evidence for his or her well-being (WAF 190). In this sense, the desire
account is inadequate to be a representation of well-being. Further, Sen distinguishes
between the agency aspect and the well-being aspect of a person. It is the agency
aspect that characterizes a person as a responsible moral agent. This aspect of a person
consists of values other than the pursuit of well being, in particular, autonomy and liberty.
For Sen, thus, it is improbable that the importance of desires, which is not even
competent to deal with the well-being aspect, could cope with those values belonging to
the agency aspect. This distinction is also the basis for Rawls distinction between equal
respect for persons and equal respect for interests.
It is utilitarians task to look for the linkage between the concept of utility and the
substantive values of the agency aspect. It may sound unsatisfactory to answer, as Hare
says, that to have concern for someone is to seek to promote his interests, if this is to
interpret the concept o f persons solely in terms of their interests. Before concluding that
this is simply a wrong answer, however, we must think of our prudential life and the
place of autonomy and liberty there. Griffins answer may not be different from Hares.
But Griffin is more clearly aware of that task, that is, the task of finding the links of
utility with autonomy and liberty. As argued so far, the strategy is: first, to keep hold of
the over-wide desire account, in order to give it scope and flexibility; secondly, to claim

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desire to be a ground of value, by means of rejecting the acute distinction between desire
and reason or understanding; thirdly, to show autonomy and liberty as taking part in the
structures o f our informed desires, i.e., our plans of life.130 One apparent consequence of
this strategy is that it broadens the notion of well-being so as to weaken the distinction
between the agency aspect and the well-being aspect of a person, at least in the realm of
prudential values. Of course, it leaves a serious question unanswered yet, how could this
over-wide desire account be the account of well-being that suits moral or political theory?
I shall come back to this question later in the subsequent chapter.

Concluding Remarks
Rawls employs the aggregative-distributive dichotomy to categorize the
principles o f philosophical conceptions (TJR 32). This dichotomy has been often abused
to characterize the principle of utility as a purely aggregative principle, i.e., a standard of
efficiency. Rawls is aware that a plausible philosophical conception must comprise both
principles, aggregative and distributive principles. The most important problem to be
solved is the priority problem, the problem of determining how these two principles are
to be balanced against each other (TJR 32). In contrast to this, Rawls claims, the priority
problem never arises in (classical) utilitarianism. For it is a single-principle conception
(TJR 36). This single principle, i.e., the principle o f utility, straightens out and systemizes
our judgment, and renders otiose all subsequent criteria for distribution (TJR 38-39).

130 See WB 38-39 for Griffins answer to the question of whether this account is still
utilitarian. He claims there that the desire account is a natural development of classical
utilitarianism.

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But this is one interpretation o f the principle of utility, probably, the predominant one
among Rawls and other deontologists. True, utilitarianism is a single-principle conception.
But equal regard is an integral part of this single principle. Equal regard, i.e., to count
everybody for one and none for more than one is not a goal separable from
maximization. Kymlicka sees the former as a fundamental goal and the latter as merely a
by-product. This seems to me a grave misinterpretation.
Equal regard is, for sure, not at all a prudential value but a moral value. So
equality presents the best case for saying that rights are grounded in more than just
prudential values, says Griffin (TSTR 150). Earlier in this chapter, I have briefly
discussed the role o f the Benthamic formula in the utilitarian conception of equal regard,
and some criticisms o f that conception. The fundamental criticism is the Rawlsian one
that utilitarianism transfers the model of intrapersonal trade-offs to interpersonal ones.
Kymlicka replies that the egalitarian interpretation is not committed to that transfer. As
argued above, however, this is a serious misunderstanding about the modem utilitarian
strategy. The strategy does endorse the transfer of the model of intrapersonal trade-offs to
interpersonal ones. Maximization is the basic policy in both kinds of trade-offs, and, in
order to carry out this policy in the context of interpersonal trade-offs, it is inevitable to
merge persons interests.
More importantly, the Rawlsian criticism alone does not prove that maximization
is inappropriate in interpersonal trade-offs. The difference between one-person cases and
many-person cases must not be taken as showing, by itself, that the maximizing approach
is inappropriate, or a non-maximizing approach appropriate. Maximization may not be
the best policy for equal regard for persons in the sense that it seeks to express the

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demands of everybodys counting for one in utility calculation rather than the moral
significance of the separateness of persons. The Rawlsian complaint that utilitarianism
ignores the separateness of persons implies that the limit on trade-offs that the
separateness of persons desiderates will be the limit imposed by equal regard. But this is
one conception o f equal regard; as aforementioned, it is extremely vague. Maximizing
utility by giving equal weight to everyones preferences is a policy for equal regard
anyway, and the utilitarian conception of equal regard is a view about rights and
distribution. Like all the other conceptions of equal regard, it is concerned to specify
when sacrificing one person for another is justified.
In an important sense, Rawls characterization of utilitarianism as teleological in
principle is the criticism about the inappropriateness of the idea of a single rational
*

good in practical deliberation and in the formulation of moral and political principles.

131

But I have argue that utilitarianism based on the informed-desire account is compatible
with value pluralism. Pluralism does not entail incommensurability. Of course, there will
arise a question about how utilitarianism can make a plurality o f values commensurable
without appealing to some super-value or some super-scale. I leave this question
unanswered. In the next chapter, I shall discuss the utilitarian conception of persons with
reference to Derek Parfits Reasons and Persons, and ask whether his reductionist view
of persons helps utilitarianism answer the Rawlsian complaint.

131 Samuel Freeman 1994, p. 313.

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CHAPTER 4
UTILITARIANISM AND THE SEPARATENESS OF PERSONS

In Reasons and Persons (1984), Derek Parfit asserts that persons are not
separately real entities and that their unity is less tight than we are inclined to think. This
assertion has been taken to be a pro-utilitarian response to the separateness-of-persons
objection, in particular, the objection to utilitarianisms alleged indifference to
distributive justice. Parfit maintains that the Reductionist View of personal identity can
give some support to utilitarianism by undermining the very metaphysical ground of the
separateness-of-persons objection. This chapter comprises three tasks. The first task is to
give a brief outline o f the reductionist view of the nature and identity of persons and of
Parfits argument about how this view might helps utilitarianism with neutralizing the
separateness-of-persons objection. The second task is to discuss the major criticisms of
Parfits claim that the reductionist view of personal identity can give some support to
utilitarianism. Finally, the third task is to inquire into some alternative suggestions for
neutralizing the separateness-of-persons objection. In the course o f undertaking these
three tasks, I shall attempt to show that Parfits reductionism cannot provide any positive
support for the utilitarian view.

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Parfit on the Nature and Identity of Persons
Parfits analysis of the nature and identity of persons rejects the ordinary view,
which he refers to as the Simple or Non-Reductionist view, that personal identity
involves a separately existing entity (RP 210). On the ordinary view, as Parfit describes it,
personal identity involves an underlying self such as a Cartesian ego. As an underlying
self, I am something separate from my body, my mind, my thoughts, and my feelings.
I am something more than a body, a brain, and interrelated physical and psychological
events, i.e., something irreducible to them. On this view, this underlying self is what
makes my body and my experiences mine and also explains their unity. By contrast, on
the reductionist view (or what Parfit refers to as the Complex View), persons are not
separately real entities. Simply there is nothing more to them than the various interrelated
physical and psychological events. These are all that exist. Parfit argues that there is no
such entity or deep further fact underlying what I am, and that what truly matters in
personal identity, that is, in ones continued existence as the same person, is not
identity per se but psychological relatedness across time.
Parfits reductionist account consists of two central issues: (1) what persons are
and (2) what their continued existence over time consists in. As to the first issue, Parfit
claims that persons are conceptual entities: we [reductionists] deny that we are not just
conceptually distinct from our bodies, actions, and experiences, but also separately real
(RP 341). To understand what this means, we need a closer look at Parfits argument. The
fundamental premises of his argument are that:
(1) A persons existence just consists in the existence of a brain and body,
and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical and mental events,

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(2) A person is an entity that is distinct from a brain and body, and such a
series of events. (RP 211)
Seemingly, these two propositions are inconsistent. But Parfit claims both to be true. The
second proposition does not entail that a person is a separately existing entity. Parfits
argument is to show the consistency of (1) and (2) and how they can lead to the
conclusion that a complete description o f reality can be given without claiming that
persons exist (RP 213).
Basically, Parfits argument relies upon an analogy between persons and other
complex persisting objects, such as ships, clubs, or nations. Nations do exist, for example.
A nations existence just consists in the existence of its citizens, living together in
certain ways, on its territory. A nation just is these citizens and this territory (RP 211212). Of course, when we refer to it, a nation is an entity that is distinct from its citizens
and its territory. But that is only in a conceptual sense. A nation is not real separately
from its citizens and its territory. And further, a complete description of a nation can be
given without conceiving it as separately real. Analogously, persons do exist. Persons,
like nations, are entities that are distinct from their mental and physical constituents,
though not separate from them. But a complete description o f our lives, i.e., what exists,
need not make reference to persons. Persons are conceptual entities whose existence just
consist in the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated
physical and mental events (RP 212). In order to obtain a complete description of our
lives, we need nothing more than a complete description of these constituents of persons.
So to speak, the claim that persons exist is superfluous.

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Given our understanding of the concept of a person, if we know that a particular


brain and body and a particular series of interrelated mental and physical events exist,
then we know that a particular person exists (RP213). The antecedent implies or entails
the consequent. On the reductionist view, however, if our description of reality either
states or implies or would enable us to know the existence of everything that exists, our
description is complete (RP 213). The consequent that a particular person exists need not
be claimed at all in such a description of reality. In summary, there exist persons distinct
from their constituents. But this distinctness is of a conceptual nature in that it depends on
a way o f thinking about reality and goes beyond what we can directly perceive, i.e.,
bodies and mental and physical events. Bodies and mental and physical events are more
basic than persons as conceptual entities in the sense that a complete account of our lives
can be given by a complete description of these constituents alone.
Parfits account of personal identity proceeds on the belief that the reductionist
approach to the issue of what persons are seems plausible. Specifically, it depends on the
Psychological Criterion. It holds that person x is identical with person y iff person xs
psychological states are appropriately related to person ys psychological states.
According to Parfit, the appropriate psychological relations are of two kinds:
psychological connectedness and psychological continuity (RP 206). The psychological
connectedness of a persons life involves the holding over time of particular direct
psychological connections. Person x is psychologically connected to person y if and only
if, for example, x may perform a certain action because y intended to perform it, or x may
remember having a certain experience because y had that experience, or x may have the
same goals and character traits that y had. Psychological connections are relations of

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resemblance or causal dependence between psychological states. The crucial point is that
connectedness is a matter o f degree, since psychological connections can hold more or
less in both number and strength. We can describe cases, for example, where the
psychological connectedness between me and some future person will hold only to a
reduced degree (RP 214).
In contrast to this, psychological continuity is a transitive, all-or-nothing,
relation. The psychological continuity of a persons life involves the holding over time of
overlapping chains of particular direct psychological relations (RP 206), as when I
remember what happened yesterday and yesterday remembered what happened the day
before but do not now remember what happened the day before yesterday. Person x at
time t is psychologically continuous with person y at time t' if and only if x and y are the
endpoints of a series of persons at times such that each person at a time in the series is
psychologically connected to the preceding person in the series. Thus, the continuity
relation depends on the connectedness relation, which is a matter of degree; that is, the
latter is more important both in theory and in practice (RP 206).
In his earlier paper, Parfit clarifies the difference between the two general
psychological relations, continuity and connectedness, by drawing a distinction between
persons and selves. He writes:
The descriptive equivalent of the concept of a person was on my proposal
the concept, not of a single self, but of a series of successive selves; and
for this series the unity relation is - as it is for persons - psychological
continuity... .Connectedness, if sufficiently strong, provides the unity
relation not for the whole series, but for each successive self.132

132 Derek Parfit, Lewis, Perry, and What Matters, A. Rorty ed., The Identities o f
Persons (University o f California Press, 1976), p. 106n.

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As it appears, psychological continuity corresponds to persons, and psychological


connectedness to selves. Thus, personal identity, on the typical reductionist analysis,
consists of some sort of continuity between stages of a person life, i.e., between
successive selves. On all the plausible views about the nature of personal identity,
Parfit says, personal identity nearly always coincides with psychological continuity
rather than psychological connectedness (RP215). Selves, in the normal case, are the
more tightly integrated stretches of a persons psychology. It should be noted that Parfits
notion of selves does not match the conventional conception of them. Selves are not
something separately existing. Talk of selves is just a manner o f speaking, a way of
indicating that the psychological connections are strong or weak.
And it should also be noted that, although he states that both continuity and
connectedness matter equally (RP 301), Parfit seems to think that connectedness is the
more important element in survival. In Reasons and Persons, almost all of his effort is
devoted to showing why connectedness matters and holds to varying degrees. As Bart
Schultz comments, it may be asked just why continuity should matter at all.133 But
Parfits concentration on connectedness can be explained by his substantial claim that
personal identity is not what matters (RP 215). The reasoning behind this claim seems
to be this. Once we deny that we are separately existing entities, i.e., once we accept that
the reductionist view of what we are is true, then we must accept that personal identity
just consists in physical and/or psychological continuity. And once, as Parfit does, we
accept the Psychological Criterion of personal identity, i.e., we accept the view that
personal identity just consists in psychological continuity, then we cannot hold the view
133 Bart Schultz, Persons, Selves, and Utilitarianism, Ethics 96 (1986), p. 725.

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that our identity must be determinate. For psychological continuity involves


psychological connectedness, which is a matter of degree. Thus, if it can be shown why
connectedness matters and holds only to varying degrees, it seems to follow that our
identity is not determinate and also that personal identity is not what matters. Parfit
argues that only if we are separately existing entities can it be true that our identity must
be determinate (RP 216). The real point is to focus on the importance of connectedness
rather than continuity, i.e., selves rather than persons.

Parfit on How reductionism can support utilitarianism


Rawls and innumerable others have contended that utilitarianism can have
difficulty with justifying principles of distribution, for it takes the boundaries between
individuals to be of merely derivative importance (TJR 23). One principal utilitarian
response is to say that utilitarianism does respect these boundaries between individuals.
Though seriously mistaken about the common strategy of modem utilitarians, as
observed in the previous chapter, Kymlickas egalitarian interpretation points out the fact
that some utilitarian replies to the separateness-of-persons objection, implicitly or
explicitly, rely on the egalitarian content embedded in Benthams dictum. It should be
noted that advocates of rights-based theories attack the utilitarians exactly for applying
this dictum, counting everyone for one and none for more than one. But the important
point for the present discussion is that utilitarians have attempted to show in some way or
other that utilitarianism does have concern about distributions and the distinctness of
persons.

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131

However, Parfit does not adopt this predictable line. His argument for the
utilitarian view is quite eccentric in two ways. First, it is significantly in agreement with
critics of utilitarianism. Parfit asserts that utilitarians reject the principles of distributive
justice because they ignore the boundaries between lives. Further, he agrees on the
common charge that utilitarians treat equality as a mere means, not a separate aim (RP
330-331). Thus, the reply that utilitarianism does respect the boundaries between lives is
not a defensible claim. Given the fact that almost all contemporary criticisms of
utilitarianism are fundamentally about its alleged indifference to these boundaries and
distributive justice, then one may wonder how Parfits argument could be pro-utilitarian.
The second eccentricity of his argument lies in that it is concerned with the
metaphysical underpinning of the person. I believe that most of influential moral theories
involve a particular conception of the person. So does Rawls theory of justice. The first
principles of justice, says he, must issue from a conception o f the person, the free and
equal person.134 But this conception is not metaphysical but political. It concerns a
certain general ideal rather than universal facts about persons. Scheffler argues that for
Rawls, what underlies morality is the commitment to some general ideal of the person,
which may be neither universal nor morally neutral.135 In contrast to this, Parfits
argument starts with the belief that the change in our metaphysical view of personal
identity may lead us to change our views about both rationality and morality (RP 215).
134 John Rawls, Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory, Journal o f Philosophy 77
(1980), p. 560; reprinted in Samuel Freeman ed., Collected Papers (Harvard University
Press, 1999), pp.303-358. He claims that a Kantian doctrine joins the content o f justice
with a certain conception of the person; and this conception regards as both free and
equal (p. 518).
135 Samuel Scheffler, Ethics, Personal Identity, and Ideals of the Person, Canadian
Journal o f Philosophy 12 (1982), pp. 240-241.

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Parfits extensive explanation of personal identity is concluded with the claim that
since the fact on which distributive principles are based is seen to be less deep, it is
more plausible to give less weight to these principles (RP 346). He adds that it becomes
more plausible to be more concerned about the quality of experiences, and less concerned
about whose experiences they are. It follows that this gives some support to the
Utilitarian View because the impersonality of Utilitarianism is less implausible. To
explain, these claims seem to derive from the following reasoning:
(1) Entities within the scope of distributive principles are persons as
conceptual entities.
(2) Entities within the scope of the principle of utility are constituents of
persons, such as suffering, pleasure, pain, happiness, and objects of direct
experience which cannot be excluded from a complete description of our
lives.
(3) Entities of the latter kind are more fundamental than those of the
former kind.
(4) Therefore, the principle of utility is fundamental, and the distributive
principles are derivative.
Clearly, this reasoning proceeds on the reductionist view that persons are only
conceptually distinct, not separately real. Any theory of distribution presupposes the
distinctness of persons. But on the reductionist view, this distinctness is regarded as being
merely conceptual and having less importance or being less fundamental than the
constituents o f persons in a complete description of our lives. The principle of utility
directs our attention towards these constituents rather than the conceptual distinctness of
persons. On the utilitarian view, our ultimate moral aim is to achieve the greatest net
balance of happiness, or of desirable consciousness in Sidgwicks terms. All that
matters are the amounts of happiness and suffering, or of benefits and burdens. It makes
no more difference how these amounts are distributed as between different people (RP

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330). That is, all that matter on the utilitarian view are exactly what is of more
importance on the reductionist view than the entities within the scope of distributive
principles.
Rawls suggests that the reason why utilitarians ignore the boundaries between
lives consists in their method of moral reasoning, namely, the method of making moral
judgments from the perspective of the Impartial Observer. His suggestion can be
summarized like this. When deciding what would be right or what would be impartially
preferable, a utilitarian may identify himself with all of the affected people, imagining
himself as being all o f these different people. This imaginary identification will lead him
to ignore the fact that different people are affected, and so to ignore the claims of just
distribution between these people (TJR 24). But Parfit regards this suggestion as only
partially correct:
Many Utilitarians consider moral questions as if they were Impartial
Observers. Some of these may be, as Rawls claims, identifying observers.
But there can also be detached observers. While an identifying observer
imagines himself as being all of the affected people... .a detached observer
imagines himself as being none of the affected people. Some Utilitarians
have been detached Impartial Observers. These Utilitarians do not
overlook the distinction between people. And....there seems little reason
why detached observers should be led to ignore the principles of
distributive justice. (RP 331)
Since the detached observers would not fear that they themselves might become one of
the worst off, it is possible that they may be somewhat more inclined to reject distributive
principles than a Rawlsian contractor. But this possibility does not sufficiently explain
why these utilitarians reject distributive principles. Parfit argues that there is a better and
simpler explanation. It is that utilitarians accept the reductionist view about personal
identity (RP 331).

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Why would utilitarians be inclined to take the reductionist view? Parfits answer
is simple as follows: the non-reductionist view about personal identity supports the non
utilitarian views about distributive justice (RP 333). To illustrate this answer, he supplies
an example:
The Childs Burden. We must decide whether to impose on some child
some hardship. If we do, this will either
(i) be for this childs own greater benefit in adult life, or
(ii) be for the similar benefit of someone else - such as this childs
younger brother. (RP 333)
The disagreement between utilitarian and non-utilitarian replies to this case is over who
benefits. Non-utilitarians would reply that to justify imposing the hardship on the child, it
should be the child himself who, as an adult, benefits. That is, it does matter morally
whether (i) or (ii) is true. In contrast to this, utilitarians would reply that it does not. For
them, the justification of imposing burdens on the child depends only on how great the
later benefit will be.
The first thing to realize is that the non-utilitarian reply presupposes the non
reductionist view o f personal identity, in this example, the identity between the child and
his adult self. Someone might question whether this is the case, i.e., whether it is
impossible to conceive of a non-utilitarian theory grounded on the reductionist view of
personal identity. Indeed, it is arguable that some non-utilitarian theories are grounded on
some sort of reductionism. In Parfits view, however, no non-utilitarian theories can be
grounded on reductionism, as long as they are concerned to uphold such notions as
compensation, desert, distribution. For, while these notions presuppose the importance of
personal identity, reductionism proves that personal identity can be indeterminate. If we
accept a reductionist view about some kind of thing, Parfit writes, there may be cases

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where we believe the identity o f such a thing to be, in quite unpuzzling way,
indeterminate, i.e., where the question Is this the same? is empty (RP 213). It is an
empty question, on the reductionist view, whether the child in the above example is the
same person as his adult self; hence, it is also an empty question whether the child can be
compensated for his burden by benefits to his adult self.
Compensation requires that personal identity be determinate; in other words, it
presupposes that if x is a person then for any future being y Is x identical to y? has an
answer. Determinacy is a defining feature of personhood. The non-reductionist view, in
Parfits terms, means a view that upholds this determinacy of personal identity. It is on
this view that the child can be compensated for his burden and the burden is justified. On
the reductionist view, however, the identity between the child and his adult self is less
tight than it is on the non-reductionist view. If we accept the reductionist view, Parfit says,
we may compare the absence o f many [psychological] connections between the child
and his adult self to the absence of [psychological] connections between different people
(RP 333). Reductionism treats the rough subdivisions within lives as, in certain ways,
like the divisions between lives (RP 334). Put it in another way, the relation between
stages o f a persons life, or between different selves at different times, is treated as like
a relation between different persons. Both kinds of relations alike are explained solely in
terms of psychological connectedness or psychological relatedness in general. Likewise,
the relation between the child and his adult self is explained solely in terms of direct
psychological connections that remain between them. If there arent many connections
left between them, their relation would become more like a relation between different
persons, e.g., between him and a total stranger. It follows that the child cannot be

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compensated for his present burden by benefits to his adult self, if there arent enough
direct connections.
The reductionist view, Parfit claims, has the effect of widening the scope of
distributive principles by treating the subdivisions within lives as like the divisions
between lives. If we view interpersonal contexts as analogous to intrapersonal contexts,
then we may apply distributive principles not only to the distribution between lives but
also to that within lives. The case of Childs Burden shows that considerations of fairness
may apply to different stages of a persons life as well. It could be said, on the
reductionist view, that just as it would be unfair if it is someone else who benefits, so if it
will not be the child, but only his adult self, this would also be unfair. In this respect, the
reductionist view may not be in favor of the utilitarian view. For it seems to undermine
the rationality of prudence by extending the scope of distributive principles to
intrapersonal contexts. Contrariwise, it seems to be the non-reductionist view which
supports the utilitarian notion of prudence. By widening the scope of distributive
principles, Parfit says, we would be moving further away from the Utilitarian view (RP
334).
However, Parfit denies that the reductionist view must therefore have counter
utilitarian implications. His answer to the question of how the reductionist view can give
some support to the utilitarian view, has been given already: Though... .the Reductionist
View supports widening the scope of distributive principles, it also supports giving these
principles less weight. And if we give these principles no weight, it will make no
difference that we have given them wider scope. This is how the net effect might be the
Utilitarian View (RP 335). The rights-theorists who appeal to the separateness of persons

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- Rawls, Nozick, and Nagel - share a view that Parfit has called the Objection to
Balancing (RP 337). The objection to balancing claims that a burden to one person
cannot be morally outweighed by benefits to other people even though the benefits are
greater than the burdens. In other words, benefits and burdens that belong to different
people cannot morally cancel one another in the way that utilitarianism supposes. Parfit
argues that the objection to balancing rests in part on a different claim that he has named
the Claim about Compensation (RP 337). This claim is that someones burden cannot
be compensated by benefits to someone else. Parfit admits that we cannot deny this claim.
But the point he wants to make is that the utilitarian view that ignores the question Who
benefits? may not be less plausible than the non-utilitarian view, only if it accepts the
reductionist view.
Consider again the case of Childs Burden. If we are reductionists, we may arrive
at the conclusion that there seems to be no way in which the child can bqfully
compensated for his burden.136 The childs burden cannot be compensated by benefiting
either his adult self or someone else. Then, it follows that Who benefits? in this case
136 Parfit seems to think that on the reductionist view the notion of compensation can
also be taken as a matter degree just as is psychological connectedness. He says that the
claim about compensation is clearly true, with one qualification: Our burdens can be
compensated by benefits to those we love. But they cannot be compensated by benefits to
total strangers (RP 337). Indeed, the claim that someones burden cannot be
compensated by benefits to someone else is much too strong. In the case of Childs
burden, there seem to be many ways in which the childs burden can be compensated by
benefiting someone close to him, like his families or friends. Here close means
psychological relatedness. Still, it remains true that the child cannot be compensated by
benefiting total strangers who have no psychological relatedness to him. How fully the
child can be compensated by benefiting someone else depends upon the psychological
relatedness or closeness between them. That is, compensation is also a matter of degree.
Diane Jeske uses a new term for this kind of compensation, quasi-compensation, in her
paper, Persons, Compensation, and Utilitarianism, Philosophical Review 102 (1993),
pp. 541-575.

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makes neither factual nor moral difference because, on the reductionist view, the relation
between the child and his adult self is just like that between the child and someone else,
and also because both benefiting his adult self and benefiting someone else would be
equally or similarly unfair to the child. It also seems to follow that the utilitarian reply to
this case, which is concerned only about the net balance of benefits, is less implausible
than the non-utilitarian reply.
To summarize: the reductionist view supports the utilitarian view by weakening
the importance of distributive principles, the importance of the question Who?
According to Parfit, all distributive considerations - such as the Claim about
Compensation, the Objection to Balancing, and the notion that goods should be equally
distributed among equally deserving people - presuppose that personal identity involves
more than it actually does, that the question Who? is of fundamental importance. The
reductionist view rejects this assumption about personal identity, and thereby it shows
that various distributive principles must be weakened. Nevertheless, Parfit maintains that
it is even plausible to claim that....[utilitarians] should aim for an equal distribution over
time (RP 340). But they aim for this only because of its typical or foreseeable effects.
For the utilitarians, what is of fundamental importance is the nature of what happens, and
all distributive considerations are only of derivative importance.

Criticisms of Parfits Argument for Utilitarianism


Thus far I have described Parfits claim about why utilitarians should accept the
reductionist view. It is that the impersonality of utilitarian moral principles can be more

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convincingly defended on this view. Take a closer look at the implications of this claim. It
obviously implies that utilitarian moral conceptions would become more plausible on the
reductionist view than they are on the non-reductionist view. But does it also imply that,
on the reductionist view, utilitarian conceptions would become more plausible than non
utilitarian conceptions?
Scheffler contends that Parfit in no way rules out the possibility that non
utilitarian conceptions may be more plausible than utilitarian conceptions, even on [the
reductionist] view.137 This contention relies on the observation that Parfits
reductionism does not support the complete abandonment of deontological principles in
favor of strict utilitarian principles. Indeed, Parfit wraps up his discussion of distributive
moral principles with a somewhat guarded line that, when we cease to believe that
persons are separately existing entities, the Utilitarian view becomes more plausible. Is
the gain in plausibility great, or small? My argument leaves this question open (RP 342).
On the one hand, this line may seem to testify that he is not confident of how much
supportive the reductionist view can be of the utilitarian view; or that he himself thinks
that the support may not be so substantial.138 On the other hand, it is also possible to take
the line in question as indicating that the reductionist view can take many different

137 Samuel Scheffler 1982, p. 234.


138 Bart Gruzalski, Parfits Impact on Utilitarianism, Ethics 96 (1986), pp. 770-771.
This seems to be Gruzalskis reading. He maintains in a somewhat reproachful tone that
Parfit underestimates the potential effect of the reductionist view on utilitarianism. The
reductionist view concludes that persons exist, yet their existence just involves bodies
and interrelated mental and physical events. According to Gruzalskis view, this
reductionist conclusion of what we are corresponds precisely with the utilitarian account,
for utilitarianism treats persons as fundamental and separate existents, while grounding
this treatment on the impersonal elements of pains, suffering, happiness, and
contentment (p. 771).

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interpretations and thereby apply to a moral theory in many different ways, and that these
different interpretations and applications of it will also be different in their effect on
utilitarianism. That is, Parfit is saying that the effect of the reductionist view on
utilitarianism is not determined; that it could be powerful or unsubstantial.
For the present discussion, however, attention will be paid mostly to the fact that
Parfit considers extreme cases in which deontological principles are supposedly given no
weight at all, and also to the consequence that the importance of these principles would
become a matter of degree and thus derivative on the reductionist view. Suppose that his
argument were not to prove that, on the reductionist view, utilitarian conceptions would
have plausibility more than or, at least, equal to non-utilitarian conceptions. Then its
impact on utilitarianism, it seems to me, would have been seriously diminished. Possibly
it could be regarded as another criticism rather than a defense of utilitarianism, namely, as
showing that, on any account of personal identity, utilitarian conceptions never become
more plausible than non-utilitarian conceptions.
Assume that Parfit has indeed intended to argue that utilitarian conceptions are, on
balance, more plausible than non-utilitarian conceptions, on the reductionist view. It is
then natural for the non-utilitarian to question whether this reductionist view of Parfit is a
defensible view o f what we really are. More importantly, if it is a defensible view and
accepted by most o f us, will it then compel us to change our view about the weightiness
o f distributive principles? Specifically, does it suffice to select utilitarianism as the
philosophically favored moral conception? We may agree with Parfit on the point that
changes in our view about personal identity will bring in changes in our view about

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morality and practical reason.

1 TQ

If we shift from the Simple View to the Complex

View, we may well be inclined to reconsider the weightiness of non-utilitarian


distributive principles. For these principles are often believed to be more plausible on the
non-reductionist view than they are on the reductionist view. Nonetheless, many of
Parfits commentators have found it difficult to endorse his repeated claim that the
reductionist view of personal identity can give some support to utilitarianism. Now I
discuss some of their objections.
In an earlier paper, Later Selves and Moral Principles, Parfit tries to show how
the reductionist view might support pro-utilitarian views, not just of distributive
principles, but also of the principles of desert and commitment.140 To illustrate what a
shift from the Simple View to the Complex View could mean, Parfit offers the example of
the convict who bears little resemblance, namely, little psychological connectedness, to
his earlier criminal self because, say, he was convicted many years after his crime, his
memories have faded, his character changed, and so on. Does he still deserve
punishment? Parfit suggests that when the connections between convicts and their past
criminal selves are less, they deserve less punishment; if they are very weak, they perhaps
deserve none, and this is because when some morally important fact holds to a reduced
139 David Brink, Self-Love and Altruism, Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1997), pp.
122-157. Here Brink maintains, like Parfit, that personal identity comprises the right kind
o f psychological relations, though he emphasizes that the relations that unify persons
over time also obtain between bodies that are separated in space. But the relevant point is
that Brink advances the claim that a revised conception o f personal identity should have
consequences for practical reason. Much the same point has been made by Christine
Korsgaard, in her paper Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response
to Parfit, Creating the Kingdom o f Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1996), pp. 363-397.
140 Derek Parfit, Later Selves and Moral Principles, in A. Montefiori ed., Philosophy
and Personal Relations (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 137-168.

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degree, it can be more plausibly claimed to have less importance - even, in extreme cases,
none.141 Principles of desert and commitment, like compensation, presuppose the
importance o f personal identity. Adopting the reductionist view will result in their
weakening by reducing the importance we attach to personal identity. Parfit speculates
that the effect of weakening these principles would be pro-utilitarian. His main argument
is simply that since these principles compete with the principle of utility, it is obviously
in theory pro-utilitarian if they are weakened.142
Is this a compelling argument? Parfits reasoning is quite straightforward as
follows. First, switching to the reductionist view would mean reducing the scope of the
principles of desert and commitment, for, on this view, these principles should be applied
to not enduring persons but selves, i.e., those temporal stages of a persons life. Second,
a reduction in the scope of such principles would effect a reduction in their weight or
importance. Third, therefore, switching to the reductionist view will render these
principles less important. In this vein, Parfit maintains that a reduction in psychological
connectedness would reduce both responsibility for past crimes, and obligations to fulfill
past commitments (RP 446). But some philosophers have objected to his reasoning,
particularly, its second move from a reduced scope to a reduced importance of moral
principles. Norman Daniels has remarked that the problem is not just that there is vague,
metaphoric language about the depth of a certain facts and the weight of related
principles but that:
there is not a single argument that reducing the (metaphysical?) depth of
the fact is sufficient reason to warrant reducing the (moral) weight
141 ibid., p. 143.
142 ibid., p. 148.

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ascribed to a relevant principle. What we would expect to be in question is
the moral importance (depth?) of the fact, not its metaphysical depth, if
there is to be a relationship of the fact to the weightiness of relevant moral
principles.143
If we change our view about the nature of personal identity, assuming that some moral
principles presuppose personal identity, we can accept, without much trouble, that these
principles would have a different scope or be applied to different units. However, Daniels
lays doubts on the second step of Parfits reasoning which holds that the scope effect
would alter the moral weight of relevant principles.
In fact, the claim that a reduction in moral weight follows on a reduction in the
depth o f a morally relevant fact is far from self-evident. From accepting the fact that the
unity o f a life is less deep, in other words, it does not obviously follow that some relevant
moral principles would have less weight. The second step of Parfits reasoning seems to
require some explanation. But he provides no such explanation, as Daniels correctly
observes. Nagel notes that simply applying our distributive principles to the units of a
different size (the experiences of persons at a time) does not render these principles less
weighty.144 In response to this, Parfit writes that Why should the effect be only on the
scope? A change o f view about facts often makes it plausible to give different weight to
some moral principle. If this cannot be plausible in the case of a change of view about the

143 Norman Daniels, Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons, Monist 62 (1979), p.
269.
144 Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp.
124-125. Nagel does not believe that distributive principles depend on any idea of
personal identity. The impulse to distributive equality arises, says he, so long as we
can distinguish between two experiences being had by two persons. Thus, the size of the
units to which distributive principles be applied does not matter. See also Diane Jeske
1993, p. 561. She says that the mere fact that we have changed our view about the
identity conditions does not justify us in revising our moral claims.

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nature of personal identity, this needs to be shown. I believe that it could not be shown
(RP 343-344). Here he seems to be saying that the burden of explanation is, on the
contrary, on his critics and they ought to demonstrate why it is unreasonable to expect
that a change of view about the scope of some moral principles would affect their
importance. As I have noted above, some philosophers have expressed their agreement
with Parfits general assumption that a change of view about personal identity would
bring in a change of view about morality and practical reason. However, I do not see how
this particular response of Parfit to Nagels note could make his position more plausible.
Still, I think, some burden of explanation remains on Parfit. It should be explained why it
is impossible to maintain, as Nagel seems to do, that deontological principles are weighty
or important enough to retain some roles in our moral theories, even on the reductionist
view.
A yet stronger objection to Parfits argument arises when we consider the extreme
cases in which deontological principles are given no weight at all. In these cases, the
reductionist view cannot account for the rationality of our feelings o f regret and remorse
for our past misdeeds. Since, on the reductionist view, that in which my existence
consists is continually changing, it is defensible to claim that, say, to punish my current
self now for what I did yesterday or thirty years ago is to punish a radically different
entity. Say, I murdered my wife. But, if I am now a totally different person, i.e., if I just
happen to be stand in certain causal relation to the man who killed my wife, why must I
feel guilty about that? If identity is merely psychological continuity, then it becomes

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impossible to account for the fact that people bear responsibility over time. Hence, on the
reductionist view, we cannot deserve to be punished for our crimes (RP 324).145
Parfit objects to this conclusion, referring to it as the Extreme Claim. He asserts
that this Extreme Claim... .can be defensibly denied (RP 325). Instead of giving any
reason for this assertion, he writes:
It may help to give this analogy....if there is no such [deeper] fact
[involved in personal identity], there is no desert. This is the analogue of
the Incompatibility View. Desert can be held to be incompatible with
Reductionism. But a different view is also defensible. We can defensibly
claim that psychological continuity carries with it desert for past crimes.
Perhaps there is an argument that decisively resolves this disagreement.
But I have not yet found this argument. (RP 325).
And Parfit writes that it is defensible to claim that psychological continuity justifies
anticipation of the future. He has not found an argument which refutes this claim either.
But his use o f the above analogy is unpersuasive, because, on the reductionist account of
the nature o f persons, all there is to explain human agency, roughly speaking, is the
constant conjunction between motives and actions. There is no deep further fact to
support a more libertarian concept of agency, a concept of agency which carries desert

145 On the reductionist view, what matters in survival is not identity but psychological
connectedness, and thus if we can ask what matters in survival then we can ask what
matters in psychological connectedness. And resemblance is a fundamental component of
psychological connectedness, i.e., what matters in psychological connectedness. So it
seems to follow that psychological connectedness carries desert only if resemblance
carries desert. However, resemblance does not carry desert. Suppose that I died after
committing a crime and that by pure random coincidence scientists on Mars created a
man who had a personality, memories, skill, interests, and so on just like mine. On the
reductionist view, it can be said that my relationship to this replica contains everything
that matters in survival, namely, resemblance. But does this relationship - namely, that
the replica resembles me coincidentally - justify the replicas being punished for the
crime he never committed? If resemblance is what matters in survival, then the
coincidental replica ought to be punished for my crime. But this may sound, I think, to
most of us, outrageous.

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and warrants anticipation, pride, and remorse.146 Schefflers objection that I discuss here
is to this reductionist concept of agency.
Consider the following remark o f Sidgwick: Grant that the Ego is merely a
system of coherent phenomena, that the permanent identical T is not a fact but a fiction,
as Hume and his followers maintain: why, then, should one part of the series of feelings
into which the Ego is resolved be concerned with another part of the same series, any
more than with any other series? (ME 419) Parfit interprets this remark as showing the
possible connection between the theory of personal identity and the utilitarian moral
principle of impartial benevolence. The basic idea is that the lack of unity in a persons
life makes impartial benevolence more plausible and the competing theory of self-interest,
based on the deep division between lives, less plausible. But the problem is how this
basic idea could be developed in a way that does not either give too much depth to the
notion of personal identity or lead to a thoroughgoing Humean skepticism. Scheffler
asserts that this cannot be done because, in order to give any support to utilitarianism, the
reductionist view should take an extreme form that eliminates all depth from the notion of
personal identity. Unavoidably it comes to a radical skepticism about the self.147
What Scheffler does is first to develop some of Parfits remarks on an atomistic
model and thereby to postulate the extremist possible form of reductionism. About what
is wrong with utilitarianism, as combined with this form o f reductionism, he writes that:

146 Bart Gruzalski 1986, pp. 766-767.


147 Also see Jim Stone, Parfit and the Buddha: Why there are no people, Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research 48 (1988), pp. 519-532. He proclaims that if
Reductionism is true.... There arent any persons and deontological ethics....lack a
subject matter. Reductionism, which affirms the existence of persons while denying they
are something extra, is incoherent.

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Parfit rightly says that these remarks embody an atomistic attitude


toward persons... .The atomistic utilitarian suggestion... .seems somewhat
plausible only if we think about atomized persons exclusively as potential
objects of beneficial or harmful action, and forget that they are also the
beings who are expected to perform actions in accordance with the
utilitarian maximizing formula... .1 really have no idea what moral
demands can most plausibly be made of atoms or events. ...it is unclear
how we are even to think of ourselves, let alone how we are to think of
morality. That is why the atomistic utilitarians project seems doomed.148
It should be observed that in Parfits remarks there is nothing which implies atoms in
Schefflers sense. Reductionism acknowledges, Parfit says, that we are not thoughts and
actions, but thinkers and agents (RP 341). It denies that a person is an entity whose
existence is separate from the existence of his brain and body, and the occurrences of his
experiences, and that a persons continued existence is a deep further fact, that must be
all-or-nothing, and that is different from the facts of physical and psychological
continuity (RP 341). By no means, however, does this entail the denial of the existence
of persons. Reductionists do not deny that persons exist. They just claim that persons on
their account turn out to be very different from what we believed. Parfit writes, The truth
may be disturbing (RP 324).
But Scheffler justifies his atomistic interpretation on the ground that unless that
conception of ourselves [as thinkers and agents] is completely undermined by [the
Reductionist View] and its associated atomism, the non-utilitarian may continue to
insist... .that his moral principles are perfectly compatible with [the Reductionist
View].149 In other words, the only way in which the reductionist view can confer any
force on utilitarianism is to completely undermine the ordinary conception of ourselves -

148 Samuel Scheffler 1982, pp. 236-238.


149 ibid., p. 237.

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so to say, the conception of ourselves as beings with rational hopes, fears and
anticipations about the future or regrets about the past and, more importantly, as beings
which bear commitments, obligations, and rights through time. Scheffler seems to argue
that the reductionist view should not even allow us to think of ourselves as existing over
time.
Schefflers criticism purports to present a dilemmatic situation. The situation is, in
short, that the reductionist view either undermines the shared ground of all moral theories,
utilitarianism included, or is compatible with both utilitarian and non-utilitarian moral
conceptions. Most of us think that utilitarianism is one of the most demanding moral
conceptions. As in any familiar moral conceptions, utilitarian agents are demanded to
have projects, plans, etc., and carry them out. Scheffler argues that standard utilitarianism
thus requires some coherent notion o f a minimally unified moral agent. But if, on the one
hand, the reductionist view rejects such a notion of a moral agent, i.e., if it takes an
atomistic interpretation, then it follows that it will undermine utilitarianism. On the
other hand, if it somehow retains the ordinary notion of a moral agent, then it will provide
no unique support for utilitarianism. Either way, Scheffler claims, the reductionist view
fails to select utilitarianism as the uniquely favored philosophically.150
On the extreme atomistic reductionism, there is no underlying persistent self, not
even for short periods, not even between my present self and myself yesterday. Thus, it
would have drastic consequences for anything resembling common-sense morality. As his
objection to the Extreme Claims shows, it is clear that this extreme reductionism is not
the view Parfit favors. Instead, he seems to admit that if we reject the Extreme Cases, we
150 ibid., p. 238.

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can accept reductionism and yet continue to think that the principles of desert and
commitment, whatever their precise value as moral principles, are at least coherent and
may have some independent standing in an acceptable moral theory. He might also admit
that selves, if not persons, will be deep enough to support some distributive principles.
Against Schefflers interpretation, we might grant Parfit that some roughly coherent
account of agency can be constructed on some moderate reductionist view. But the
critical point of Schefflers argument is that this type of view will not give any reason to
select utilitarianism as the philosophically favored moral conception. For Parfit has not
explained why it would fail to generate those qualities that make persons or selves
morally valuable. If he is indeed holding this moderate view, it would seem difficult to
see how he can with any real conviction suggest that this view supports utilitarianism.151
Generally speaking, Parfits critics have made the point that the metaphysical
conclusions he offers might leave it rather undecided which is the more compelling moral
conception. Something like this point was made by Rawls. As Rawls put it, the
conclusions of the philosophy of mind regarding the question of personal identity do not
provide grounds for accepting one of the leading moral conceptions rather than another.
Whatever these conclusions are, intuitionism and utilitarianism, perfectionism and
1

Kantian views, can each use a criterion of identity that accords with them. "
Rawls agrees that Kantian and utilitarian views, for example, may have somewhat
specialized notions of personal identity. Kantianism assumes a strong criterion of identity.

151 Bart Schultz 1986, p. 741. Schultz criticizes that such a suggestion is premature,
however pregnant it may be.
152 John Rawls, The Independence of Moral Theory, Proceedings and Addresses of the
American Philosophical Association 47 (1975), p. 15.

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For its concern with fair distribution requires that the links of responsibility and
contribution be more carefully tracked, and its ideal of autonomous persons is an ideal
that envisages a far greater period of time than the extension of the longest complete and
valuable experience recognized by the utilitarian theory; and so [the Kantian] must
conceive of identities as stretching over much longer intervals.153 Having little concern
with fair distribution and autonomy, by contrast, utilitarianism may be satisfied with a
weaker criterion o f identity, e.g., Parfits reductionist criterion of identity. But the fact
that utilitarianism relies on a weaker criterion of identity, Rawls asserts, is irrelevant to
the feasibility of other moral conceptions. This assertion is based, in part, on the belief
that both Kantian and utilitarian criteria of identity satisfy the conclusions of the modem
philosophy of mind. As to Parfits claim that his metaphysical conclusions favors a
utilitarian conception that relies on a weaker criterion of identity, Rawls answers that
these conclusions do not affect the possibility that we can still set up an ideal of what is
desirable from a moral point o f view, an ideal that requires a strong criterion of identity.
Rawls goes on to claim that since Parfit has not shown that the Kantian conception is
impossible to achieve in practice, he has not made the case for selecting utilitarianism
because it better accords with the reductionist view.
Rawls talk o f identity presumes, it is important to see, that a criterion of identity
can be cultivated or manipulated on the societal level. There is, Rawls says, no degree of
connectedness that is natural or fixed; the actual continuities and sense of purpose in
peoples lives is relative to the socially achieved moral conception.154 So to speak, what

153 ibid., p. 19.


154 ibid., p. 20

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kinds of persons we are will be shaped by the nature of the society we live under, and
especially by the socially achieved moral conception. Parfit concedes that if we want our
lives to have greater unity, we can give our lives greater unity, in ways that express or
fulfill our particular values and beliefs (RP 446). This may seem to imply that the unity
of lives can be manipulated on the individual level. But why is it impossible to cultivate it
on the societal level in order to sustain dominant moral values and beliefs? On the
extreme reductionism, of course, that would be impossible. On this view, we cannot even
think of the unity of our lives. On the moderate versions of reductionism, however, we
can conceive of variations in such unity. And it would not be entirely impossible for
certain variations to be brought out by some socially achieved moral conception. Rawls
and other critics o f Parfit seem to think that the moderate versions of reductionism open
up the possibility that both Kantian and utilitarian criteria of identity are possible and
feasible on the reductionist grounds.
Although Rawls general point is a good one, it seems unclear exactly how his
argument addresses the problem posed by Parfit. Remind ourselves that what Parfit seeks
to find out is the facts about identity, not some ideal of what kinds of persons we should
be. His argument for the utilitarian view starts from the premise that those facts, found
out on the reductionist analysis, are true. And the most fundamental fact is that
psychological connectedness will be reduced in number and weakened in strength with
the passage o f time. For instance, even if I will be having certain thoughts, beliefs, and
life plans, etc., throughout my whole life, this has nothing to do with the fact that under
normal circumstances, the psychological connectedness between me now and myself
tomorrow must be stronger than that between me now and myself forty years later;

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conversely, the latter must be weaker than the former. Thus, it is not entirely irrational to
care more about what will happen to myself tomorrow than what will happen to myself
forty years later.
This may be not a defensible result of reductionism .155 In any account of the
reductionist view, in fact, there is nothing to guarantee that the psychological
connectedness between me now and myself tomorrow will be stronger than that between
me now and myself forty years later. Tomorrow, I could be a brand new person. My
mental states are wholly new in every moment, my brain and body radically different in
various ways than they were just before. There is no fixed pace in the diminishment of
psychological connectedness over time. Yet Parfit seems to me to suggest that
reductionism might allow, once it rules out the extremist form, that under normal
circumstance the psychological distance between two different stages of a persons life is
somewhat related to the temporal distance between them; that is, it must be admitted that
under normal circumstances the psychological connection between me now and myself
tomorrow must be greater in number and in strength than that between me now and
myself forty years later. Still, however, it is arguable that no coherent formulation of
reductionism can support this result.
Parfit might agree on Rawls claim that there is no degree of connectedness that is
natural and fixed. For psychological distance is not always coincident with temporal
distance, and there can be many interpretations of the notion of connectedness.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that the fact that connectedness will be reduced and

155 In realizing this, I am indebted to Prof. Paul Thompsons comments on the first draft
o f this chapter.

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weakened over time is not something that can be manipulated by a socially achieved
moral conception; that is, it is a morally neutral fact. Roughly speaking, Parfits claim is
just that this fact, if true, must be taken into consideration when modeling a sound
criterion of identity and also evaluating the feasibility of a moral conception. But Rawls
argument against this claim seems to fail to show why the reductionist conclusion about
identity is irrelevant. Disappointingly, it simply appeals to a different conclusion about
identity, which he takes to be accepted by the leading moral conceptions, that persons
are always embodied and bodily continuity is a further necessary feature of a criterion of
personal identity. Thus, in sum, persons are mental continuities expressed and embodied
in a connected order o f planned conduct through space and time.156 Rawls argument
does not respond to the alleged implications of the premise that the Parfitian
psychological reductionism is true.

Utilitarianism and The Separateness of Persons


Supposedly, the reductionist view weakens not only the principles regarding
distributive justice, desert, and commitment, but also the principle of rational prudence.
This raises the question of whether a person is justified in having plans concerning his
life as a whole. Conceding that on the reductionist view, the justification of such long
term life plans is undermined to some extent, Parfit maintains that we should heavily
discount the well-being of the future occupant of the body we now occupy. This is on the
grounds that the future occupants of that body border on being separate persons with the

156 ibid., p. 16.

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passage of time, and prudence does not require us to sacrifice our current well-being for
the benefit of others. Therefore, prudence is less demanding than is commonly supposed.
Parfit elaborates the reductionist notion of prudence as follows: My concern for my
future self may correspond to the degree of connectedness between me now and myself in
the future.... Since connectedness is nearly always weaker over longer periods, I can
rationally care less about my further future (RP 313).
Reductionism rejects the traditional notion of prudence which, like compensation,
presupposes personal identity. The traditional notion of prudence is indifferent to the
psychological and temporal distance between two different stages of a persons life. For
example, what I am doing for myself forty years later may have the same importance as
what I am doing for myself tomorrow, if what I am doing in both cases are expected to
have the same outcome. In contrast to this, the reductionist notion of prudence is
characterized by the psychological distance. Sacrifices of my current well-being for my
future self must be valued in terms of the psychological connectedness between me now
and myself in the future. Their value will hold to a reduced degree when connectedness is
weakened. After all, the importance of prudence is a matter of degree. If there is no
persistent self even for short periods, as in the extreme reductionism, no judgments that
demand to sacrifice my current well-being can be justified. On this view, the
psychological distance between me now and myself tomorrow is not closer than that
between me and a total stranger.
Parfit describes his new notion of prudence as a challenge to that Self-interest
theory which requires that a rational person should be equally concerned about all the
parts o f his future (RP 313). On the Self-interest theory, according to him, we cannot

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rationally care less about our further future, merely because it is more remote {ibid.).
Against this, Parfit claims that it is irrational to be completely unconcerned about
psychological distance. Psychological distance ought to be an important element in
making prudential judgments. It is not irrational for us to care more about our near future
than about our remote future. Parfit provides quite a plain example: Suppose that I shall
have a day o f pain both tomorrow and in forty years. I am strongly psychologically
connected to myself tomorrow. There will be much less connectedness between me now
and myself in forty years. Since connectedness is one of my two reasons for caring about
my future, it cannot be irrational for us to care less when there will be much less
connectedness (RP 314-315).
In the above example, what is at stake is the same amount o f pain at two different
times. The conclusion that it is not irrational for me to care more about the pain tomorrow
than about the pain in forty years may sound obvious to most of us. But it should be
observed that cases as plain as this one are not those in which we demand an explanation
of why and how connectedness matters. Normally our prudential judgments deal with
those benefits and burdens that differ in amount as well as in quality. For instance,
imagine that if I save a thousand dollars now, instead of, say, having a three-day fancy
trip to an exotic island, the money will be doubled in three years and I can go to college.
In cases like this, the foreseeable benefit in the future is an important drive that gets me to
set up a plan and carry it on. On the reductionist view, of course, it is possible for me to
come to think that three years later, I will not be the same person as I am now and that the
psychological distance between me now and myself three years later must be taken into
consideration in evaluating the choices I have now. In view of this possibility, the

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reductionist might then argue that the nominal value of the future benefit may not be so
fixed and decisive in our making choices, since it should be discounted in accordance
with the psychological distance, and hence that prudence does not demand that we should
always go for a little gain in benefit. But I dont think that this, and Parfits example,
prove that in our prudential judgments what fundamentally matters are psychological
connectedness and continuity (RP 313; my italics). All that seems to be shown by the
reductionist argument is merely that considerations of psychological distance may affect
our prudential judgments in some unspecifiable ways.
On the face of it, Parfits argument does not accord with a benefit-maximizing
moral conception like utilitarianism. Besides, most of important classical and modem
utilitarians have held the traditional notion o f prudence. But Parfit believes that the
reductionist notion of prudence can answer the question of what we have most reason to
do when morality conflicts with self-interest, i.e., the fundamental opposition Sidgwick
has found between the rationality of the egoistic pursuit o f personal happiness and the
morality of impartial benevolence (RP 329). In short, Parfit holds that the reductionist
view can alleviate that opposition by refuting the Self-interest theory about rationality, on
the one hand, and by strengthening the plausibility of the principle of impartial
benevolence, on the other hand.
But let us ask whether, on the utilitarians part, it would be a clever move to
follow Parfits steps. If all that Parfit claims can be proved valid and acceptable, there
will be advantages. A significant advantage may be that the reductionist notion of
prudence provides the utilitarians with a way of avoiding Rawls charge that
utilitarianism falsely extends the principle of rational choice for one person to the

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principle of choice for a society. Clearly, however, there will be as many disadvantages.
On the reductionist notion o f prudence, as aforementioned, a persons having a long-term
life plan, i.e., sacrificing his current well-being for his future benefit, can hardly be
justified. Predictably, this would invite overwhelming intuitive objections, and make us
wonder whether the reductionist view is really worth the hardship of answering these
objections. The same question arises when accepting the reductionist account of
compensation, desert, and commitment. Moreover, it should be made clear that the
alleged theoretical support which Parfit believes the reductionist view can give to
utilitarianism is just a way of eluding the common criticisms of it, not a way of dissolving
them. On the reductionist view, for instance, the importance of equal distribution is not
self-standing but derivative, just like the importance of personal identity. Thus, the charge
that utilitarianism is indifferent to equal distribution will still hold, and this indifference
will remain objectionable especially to those who do not accept the reductionist view.
The most serious problem with Parfits argument for the utilitarian view seems to
me that he has loaded too heavy work on the controversial premise that the reductionist
view of personal identity is true. Insofar as that premise is controversial, the claim that it
can give some support to utilitarianism would also be controversial. But another serious
problem I want to discuss now lies in Parfits remark as follows: It becomes more
plausible, when thinking morally, to focus less upon the person....[and] to claim
that....we are right to ignore whether experiences come within the same or different
lives (RP 341). This remark appears to suggest that in practical situations the utilitarian
looks not to persons but directly to the relevant experiences. Indeed, Parfit often says that
on the utilitarian view, a person is merely the subject of experiences, i.e., a possessor of

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sensory states that can add to or subtract from the general happiness. For the utilitarian,
so to speak, what is o f prime importance is the general happiness, not persons.
Parfits remark precisely represents the way in which critics have seen the
classical utilitarian conception of persons. The part that seems to me misleading is that
for the utilitarian, experiences or sensory states can be separated from the person who is
the subject of them. It is very doubtful that experiences such as pleasure or pain could, in
fact, be separated from the living subject of these experiences. Parfit ignores the fact that
what the utilitarian takes as the central difficulty in the achievement of the greatest
happiness of the greatest number is securing not merely happiness now but also the
course of future happiness. The course of future happiness can be taken account of only
through considering persons as persisting subjects with the potential for future
experiences. So the utilitarian quite easily can regard the individual living subject as
being morally important apart from any experience he has at any given moment. That is,
the moral importance o f persons or selves consists in their being the potential subject of
future experiences.
As argued above, Parfit defines persons as merely conceptual entities. It might
be granted that persons thus defined are not as metaphysically fundamental as their
constituents. But the typical utilitarian takes their importance seriously in practical
situations. Consider Mills remarks on the secondary principles which include moral rules
and rights. On any utilitarian account, the justification of them depend on their typical
and foreseeable effects on the maximization of happiness. In other words, they are not as
theoretically fundamental for the utilitarian as maximizing happiness. However, Mill
treats them as if they were not derivative in practice. For him, the security of life,

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159
property, and rudimentary freedoms which are sanctioned by legal coercion, is the most
general human interest. Thus, the rights pertaining to this general interest should be
treated as if fundamental. The relevant point is that these fundamental rights presuppose
that persons are distinct, potential subjects of future enjoyments or pains; so to say, that
persons are in practice as basic as their constituents.
Mill states that Each person maintains that equality is the dictate of justice,
except where he thinks that expediency requires inequality. The justice of giving equal
protection to the rights o f all is maintained by those who support the outrageous
inequality in the rights themselves (UT 45). The point to be stressed here is that for Mill,
the idea o f justice involves the conception of some definite person (UT 51-52). Mills
strong appeal to those basic constituents of a person-centered moral theory may appear
quite unusual in classical utilitarianism. But there is nothing unusual in his conception
that persons are distinct, persisting entities. Classical utilitarians indeed had a very strong
hold of the distinctness or separateness of persons. As Parfit himself quotes it, for
example, Sidgwick believed the separateness of persons to be a deep truth (RP 329).
This belief brings out the fundamental opposition between the egoistic principle and the
utilitarian moral principle. With regard to this opposition, again, Parfits suggestion is
simply to deny that the separateness of persons is a deep truth.
In my view, however, Parfits suggestion can only be either controversial or
perhaps detrimental to the utilitarian view. Parfits reductionism purports to provide a
handy middle ground between Realism and Eliminativism, i.e., a comfortable
compromise between the view that persons are something extra and the view that they

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dont exist at all.157 As we have seen, Parfits reductionism refutes both Realism and
Eliminativism, by maintaining that persons are not separately real entities and that they
exist, nevertheless, only in a conceptual sense though. Persons exist on the reductionist
view, only they turn out to be very different from what we believed. Parfit writes, The
truth may be disturbing (RP 324). Someone might answer back, however, that the truth
is never disturbing; reductionism disturbs us because it is no truth. If reductionism is true,
there are no persons, no such beings which are capable of anticipations about the future
or regrets about the past. If reductionism is true, there are no such beings which carry
rights and obligations through time. As Scheffler contends, all moral conceptions would
suffer the loss of heir subject matter. This is what Parfit refers to as the Extreme claim.
He carefully puts forward a moderate formulation of reductionism. As aforementioned,
however, this moderate formulation seems to involve a coherency problem.
And further, Parfits reductionism may be detrimental to utilitarianism, in the
sense that the loss in plausibility from accepting the reductionist view might be greater
than the gain. Simply asserting that we were wrong about our identity cannot relieve our
existing concerns about our future well-being. The plausibility of a moral conception
consists in its capability o f giving positive answers to these concerns. The reductionist
view, on the contrary, seems to me to deprive utilitarianism of such capability. For, if
combined with the reductionist view, utilitarianism would become less capable of, for
example, embracing our concern for equal distribution over time. Instead, it would only

157 Jim Stone 1988. Stones substantial claim is that there is no such handy middle
ground; either persons are extra, or there are no persons. If Reductionism is true, there are
no persons. Reductionism, which affirms the existence of persons while denying they
are something extra, is incoherent (p. 530).

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be capable of giving a negative answer to anything like this concern. Utilitarians might
say, our concern for equal distribution over time is caused by a false belief about the
nature of persons. The truth is that the difference between lives is not morally important.
They might also say, as Parfit describes, What is important is the nature of what happens.
When we choose between social policies, we need to be concerned only with how great
the benefits and burdens will be. Where they come, whether in space, or in time, or as
between people, has in itself no importance (RP 340). It seems to be the case that how
great the benefits and burdens will be is an important factor in choosing between
competing social policies. But non-utilitarians might reply that our concern with the
question Who takes the benefits and burdens? is almost always antecedent to the
questions What happens? This conversation gives a very blunt picture o f the
disagreement between utilitarianism and non-utilitarianism. Parfit believes that the
reductionist view can give more plausibility to what the utilitarians said. In my view,
however, what the reductionist view can do is, at best, to make the utilitarians repeat what
they might say on the non-reductionist view. Nothing is changed in the impression that
they disregard the question Who? Hence, the modem criticisms of utilitarianism
regarding its indifference to distributive justice remain unanswered.
Parfit asks himself whether utilitarianisms gain in plausibility by accepting the
reductionist view is small or great, and leaves this question open (RP 342). In contrast, I
argue that there would be either no significant gain or possibly some loss. To do justice to
the intricacy of Parfits discussion, it should be noted that he does not claim that the
reductionist view can completely neutralize the separateness-of-persons objection. The
reason might be that he has realized that even if it is allowed that the concern with the

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self is in some sense derivative, and that what really matters is psychological relatedness,
it would not follow that the impersonality of utilitarianism would be any more acceptable,
since to ignore the separateness of persons or selves is still to overlook the difference
between different psychologies with different concerns, projects, etc.158 Whatever the
reason might be, it seems to me that Parfit is not sufficiently aware of the difference
between the derivative concern with the self in the reductionist sense and that in the
utilitarian sense.
I shall now consider alternative suggestions for neutralizing the separateness-ofpersons objection, which would seem to me more useful for the utilitarians than Parfits
suggestion. One alternative suggestion is, roughly speaking, to lay doubts not on the basic
truth that we live different lives, but on the view that the separateness of persons leads to
egalitarianism or at least to some non-utilitarian moral conception. Parfit imagines an
egalitarian saying, Since it is a deep truth that we live different lives, it is an ultimate
moral aim that, in so far as we are equally deserving, the lives of each should go equally
well (RP 330). It simply affirms that equality is the best moral response to the difference
between lives, and it expresses the importance that egalitarians confer on the difference
between lives. But it is not an argument to show' how the difference between lives gives
rise to a requirement of equality.
As Parfit points out, the philosophers who appeal to the separateness of persons Rawls, Nozick, and Nagel - claim that burdens and benefits in different lives cannot be

158 Bart Schultz 1986. In this connection, Schultz argues that What Parfit has not shown
is why the differences between one web of psychological relatedness and another should
not retain something of the same moral significance as the separateness of persons (p.
737).

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morally weighed (RP 337). Parfit calls this the Objection to Balancing. Rawls says,
The reasoning which balances the gains and losses of different persons as if they were
one person is excluded (TJR 25). Nozick says, [the moral side constraints] reflect the
fact that no moral balancing act can take place among us; there is no moral outweighing
o f one o f our lives by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good.159 Nagel says,
The model....renders plausible the extremely strict principle that there can be no
interpersonal compensation for sacrifice.160 Parfit argues that the Objection to
Balancing is on the grounds that the separateness of persons is a deep truth.
So to speak, the philosophers may appear to be arguing in this way: the
separateness of persons supports the objection to balancing, and, in turn, the objection to
balancing leads to egalitarianism or at least to some non-utilitarian view. As it is, the
argument consists of two steps: the first step that considers the connection between the
truth o f the separateness o f persons and the objection to balancing, and the second step
that considers the connection between the objection to balancing and some specific
egalitarian or non-utilitarian principles. Dennis McKerlie has named these two steps a
negative connection and a positive connection respectively.161 The negative
connection is to show that utilitarian and teleological views are insensitive to distributive
justice, namely, that utilitarians believe that benefits and burdens can be freely weighed
against each other, even if they come to different persons. The positive or constructive

159 Robert Nozick 1974, p. 33.


160 Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 142.
161 Dennis McKerlie, Egalitarianism and the Separateness of Persons, Canadian
Journal o f Philosophy 18 (1988), pp. 205-226.

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164
connection is to show how the appeal to the separateness of persons motivates the
distributional claims of contractualism and other deontological theories.
McKerlie thinks that the argument in question could be resisted at both steps.
Focusing on the second step, however, he asks how the objection to balancing might
support egalitarianism. As to the difficulty with the second step of the argument,
McKerlie asserts that The objection to balancing prevents us from choosing between
gains and losses for different people on the grounds of the sizes of those gains and losses.
But it does not tell us how to make these choices. It is compatible with an egalitarian
principle of justice, but it is also compatible with many decidedly non-egalitarian
principles o f justice.162 What the objection to balancing tells us is merely that gains and
losses do not outweigh one another across lives. There must be an explanation of how the
objection can lead to the conclusion that we should respect one persons freedom by
sacrificing gains in well-being of others; or, an explanation o f how it can support an
egalitarian claim, for example, that gains for the worst off do morally outweigh losses for
the better off.
Rawls uses the objection to balancing to make the negative connection. He says
that when the goods o f two people conflict benevolence is at a loss as to how to proceed,
as long anyway as it treats these individuals as separate persons (TJR 167). But it seems
doubtful if the objection to balancing can give a direct support to a solution other than
benevolence. For it only tells us what we should not do, i.e., not to balance the gains and
losses of the two people against each other, but not exactly on what principles we should
act to solve the conflicts. And utilitarians might rightfully ask why we cannot decide
162 ibid., p. 211.

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conflicts between the claims o f different people by weighing the claims against one
another and satisfying the strongest claim. In this vein, McKerlie concludes that there is
no more a direct connection between the separateness of persons and egalitarianism than
there is a direct link between the separateness of persons and utilitarianism. The
separateness of persons may show the need for contractualism, but we need independent
arguments to show that contractualism results in egalitarianism, and those arguments will
not be arguments which draws out the moral implications of the separateness of
163

persons.

In short, the argument from the separateness of persons to the objection to

balancing and then to egalitarianism breaks down at its second step, i.e., it fails to
establish a positive connection between the separateness of persons and egalitarianism.
We may also consider Nozicks argument. Nozick also uses the objection to
balancing to criticize utilitarianism. His use of it differs from Rawls in that what he is
criticizing is not utilitarianisms insensitiveness to distributive equality. Nozick links the
separateness o f persons to a moral view that recognizes side constraints, not to
egalitarianism. We can ask a question, analogous to the one that we asked about Rawls
argument for the positive connection, whether the objection to balancing can justify any
specific moral side constraint. It could be granted that the objection to balancing favors a
moral view which treats the claims of individuals as inviolable. This moral view could
turn out to be egalitarian, if the claims were egalitarian in their content. However, there is
no argument that the claims should be egalitarian. More than the objection to balancing is
needed to show that the claims are egalitarian. Both Rawls and Nozick suppose that the
objection to balancing imposes the requirement that a moral principle must somehow
163 ibid., pp. 214-215.

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treat every person in a way in which that person should find acceptable. But the objection
to balancing cannot show the specific ways. Their arguments to find out such an
acceptable way demand more than what the objection to balancing implies in itself.
Rawls and other critics accept intrapersonal balancing but reject interpersonal
balancing. Their rejection of interpersonal balancing is based, according to Brinks
analysis, on the idea that the metaphysical implication of the separateness of persons, i.e.,
that I am a separate person, is supposed to motivate a normative distributive constraint
that sacrifice requires compensation (SRC).164 Clearly, compensation is the most
important notion in their explanation of the disanalogy between intrapersonal and
interpersonal balancing. On a strong interpretation of it, SRC implies that compensation
is a necessary condition of the moral acceptability of all balancing o f one persons good
against that of others. It seems evident that on this interpretation, SRC will devastate such
person-neutral moral conceptions as utilitarianism. But Brink argues that its devastating
effect will fall on some egalitarian moral conceptions as well. He writes:
[On the strong interpretation] SRC knocks out much more than personneutrality; it knocks out any view that redistributes resources (in Paretoincompatible ways). For instance, it will certainly knock out the kind of
egalitarianism that appeals to opponents of utilitarianism, such as Nagel
and Rawls. The egalitarian feature common to Nagel and Rawls is the
claim that it is morally incumbent to benefit those who are worse off even
if we can benefit them less than we could benefit others. And this can
require not only that the better-off accept lower prospects so that the
worse-off may gain but also that the better off accept a larger absolute loss
in order that the worse-off may experience a smaller absolute gain. In fact,
[this interpretation] of SRC knocks out any view that recognizes duties of
mutual aid in which benefactors are uncompensated or
undercompensated... .If so, the price of treating the separateness of
164 David Brink, The Separateness of Persons, Distributive Norms, and Moral Theory,
R.G. Frey and Christopher W. Morris eds., Value, Welfare. and Morality (Cambridge
University Press, 1993), pp. 254-255.

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persons objection as a knockdown objection to the person-neutrality
characteristic of utilitarianism is prohibitive. All reasonable moral theories
violate [this interpretation] of SRC.165
As someone might claim, of course, this interpretation of SRC is implausibly strong. We
may come up with a more plausible, moralized interpretation of SRC which may imply
that it is unacceptable to impose unjustified losses or burdens on one person in order that
others may benefit. But on this interpretation, as Brink asserts, the separateness of
persons no longer presents an obviously decisive objection to the person-neutral moral
theories. Answers to the questions of when a loss or burden is unjustified and what sort of
balancing is permissible cannot be given simply by appealing to the separateness of
persons. Critics should explain how utilitarianism violates the moralized version of SRC,
by showing the specific moral failings of its person-neutrality.

Concluding Remarks
Parfifs argument for the utilitarian view is based on the assumption that the facts
about personal identity affect the status of persons as the subject matters of morality. The
reductionist view claims that personal identity is indeterminate, that the boundaries
between different persons are not as clear-cut as we believed, and accordingly that the
importance o f the moral principles regarding these boundaries, namely, the principles of
distributive justice, should also be seen as indeterminate. Hence, if we accept the
reductionist view of personal identity, the standard objection to utilitarianisms alleged
indifference to distributive justice can be somewhat neutralized.

165 ibid., pp. 257-258.

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A common response to this argument is that reductionism cannot support
utilitarianism, since it could be either destructive of all reasonable moral conceptions or
otherwise compatible with any of them. That is, if utilitarianism is to be counted as a
reasonable moral conception, then either reductionism would be destructive of
utilitarianism as well or utilitarianism would gain no advantage by the acceptance of
reductionism. As part of their criticism of utilitarianism, some philosophers have argued
that utilitarianism would favor a reductionist criterion of personal identity. As seen above,
Rawls contends that utilitarianism may adopt a relatively loose criterion of identity
because the most efficient way of maximizing the total of valuable experiences involves
disregarding the distinctness of persons. Nagel also examines a situation where
utilitarianism takes the Parfitian criterion of identity. Both refute Parfits substantial claim
that a change in the scope o f distributive principles, supposedly resulting from the
acceptance of the reductionist view, would affect the importance of these principles.
However, these philosophers as well as Parfit are mistaken about the utilitarian
conception of persons. Parfits claim that utilitarianism accepts the reductionist view is
simply untrue as a generalization. I have mentioned that classical and modem utilitarians
have attached fundamental importance to personal identity over time in explaining their
conception o f prudence. It is arguable that by itself, prudence or intrapersonal
compensation has no special significance in utilitarianism.

But it is still important in

the sense that utilitarians transfer the structure of intrapersonal compensation to


interpersonal compensation - that is, in the sense that they make use of the rationality of
prudence to derive their principle of social choice. The point to be stressed is that the
166 Thomas Nagel 1979, p. 120.

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utilitarian conception o f prudence requires as strong a criterion of identity as the Kantian
would, rather than the Parfitian criterion of identity. In my view, the utilitarians have no
particular reason to favor a reductionist criterion o f identity. The person-neutrality of
utilitarianism comes from its conception of being moral, not from its view of personal
identity.
Some utilitarians concede that in utilitarianism equal distribution is only of
derivative importance. By this, however, they do not mean that it is not important but, as
Parfit correctly understands, that its importance lies in its typical effects. The utilitarians
have put forward a variety of strategies to argue that utilitarianism values equality. One
classical strategy is to focus on the fact that the typical effects of valuing equality on our
general interests are consistent and significant. This sort of classical strategy can be found,
for instance, in Mills treatment of the secondary moral principles as if fundamental in
practice. This classical strategy has been criticized as appealing to a mere contingent fact.
In contrast to this, as discussed in the previous chapter, the modem strategy is to indicate
that there are different notions of equality and that utilitarianism is not entirely insensitive
to equality, but simply its notion of equality differs from others. Something like this
seems to be Griffins strategy. What is important to see here is that all these utilitarian
strategies will be blocked on the reductionist view. For the reductionist view is meant to
support utilitarianism by undermining the moral requirement of equality itself. My view
is that, on the contrary, this will result in a considerable loss for the utilitarians.
Admittedly, Parfits approach to the relation between distributive principles and
personal identity is quite intriguing and has stimulated much discussion. But suppose that
a non-utilitarian actually proceeds on the non-reductionist view, and a utilitarian on the

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reductionist view, and that switching to the reductionist view has all the effects Parfit
claims it to have. Except for the talk of identity, then, there would be little to talk to each
other. Thus, the reductionist view, if actually accepted by the utilitarian, will become a
conversation stopper, not a conversation starter.

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CHAPTER 5
MAXIMIZATION AND EQUALITY

Introduction
In Chapter 2 ,1 have briefly outlined rule-utilitarian readings of classical
utilitarianism. For Mill, I have argued there, moral rules or what he called secondary
principles were not merely rules of thumb but the ultimate source of moral obligations;
and also that Sidgwick deemed utilitarianism as being in friendly alliance with the
precepts of common sense morality. Although it involves many difficult interpretive
issues I have not even touched, the point I wanted to make is simply that the ruleutilitarian readings of classical utilitarianism have gained fairly wide acceptance now, and
accordingly that the so-called official view which blindly identifies it with actutilitarianism is no longer out of doubt.
Recently, as we can observe, interest in the act/rule distinction o f utilitarianism
and related controversies has much subsided. In large part, the remarkable proliferation
during the 1960s and 1970s in types and versions of rule-utilitarianism and utilitarian
generalization was invoked by the elimination of the alleged defects of act-utilitarianism,
i.e., by the task of working out an alternative without self-defeating and counterintuitive
features. And part of the motivation behind this proliferation was the conviction that if
only we continued to explore different types and versions of utilitarianism, eventually we

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should discover some form of utilitarianism that met many of the objections to actutilitarianism.167 Unsurprisingly, critics have denied the possibility of discovering such a
form. Their denial is based on the argument that all viable forms of utilitarianism would,
after all, collapse into act-utilitarianism; otherwise, they would lose their utilitarian
rationale. This sort of argument we can still find in the work of contemporary critics.
In the meantime, the skepticism expressed in the modem critiques of
utilitarianism runs to a deeper source. Modem critics have centered their attention on the
person-neutrality of utilitarian reasoning generally, namely, the person-neutral exercise of
trying to determine whether the world is a better or worse place solely in terms of the net
balance of pleasure or desire satisfaction or whatever. Hart avers, the modem insight
that it is the arch-sin o f unqualified utilitarianism to ignore... .the moral importance of the

separateness o f persons is... .a profound and penetrating criticism.

168

The problem for

modem utilitarians is to find out a formulation not merely that can avoid the selfdefeating defect of act-utilitarianism but rather that can graft considerations about
fundamental rights and justice into a person-neutral morality. Rawls and many other
rights-theorists have contended that this is simply impossible.169 According to Grays
account, they have constmed the situation as follows:

167 R.G Frey 1984a, p. 3; H.L.A. Hart 1979, p. 77. Both give negative remarks on that
conviction.
168 H.L.A. Hart 1979, p. 80.
169 For instance, think of Rawls Impartial Spectator argument. The direct point of the
argument is that the perspective of the Impartial Spectator which seems to be followed on
the utilitarian moral reasoning overlooks the boundaries between lives. As with David
Gauthier and others, however, the argument also suggests that the utilitarian moral
reasoning demands a delusional point of view, like that o f a super-organism or a single
World Soul; it demands a point of view that humankind is such a single entity, which is
simply false. See David Gauthier, Practical Reasoning (Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 126.

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This is, after all, only a consequence of the disparity between utility as an
aggregative principle and the distributive character of principles about
rights and justice. At its deepest, this disparity expresses a most
fundamental divergence in the force of moral principles; a divergence
between those goal-based or teleological principles which enjoin us to
promote some value, and those rights-based or duty-based principles
which impose deontological constraints on the promotion o f values. The
impossibility of a utilitarian derivation of fundamental rights is only a
consequence of this fundamental distinction.170
To a great number of modem philosophers, it seems that proper consideration of
fundamental rights and justice demands the person-centered exercise of looking at
persons as distinct and autonomous beings. The principle of utility as a purely
aggregative principle just isnt right for such consideration.
As I have tried to explain in Chapter 3 with reference to Griffin and Hare,
however, modem utilitarians have resisted this one-sided construal of the situation, i.e.,
the dichotomous conception o f philosophical principles as either purely aggregative or
purely distributive. Griffin remarks that The idea that certain of [competing
philosophical principles] are distributive while others are aggregative is an unfortunate
contemporary muddle (TSTR 152). What this remark implies is that critics have failed
to understand what the principle of utility is meant to do in utilitarian theories. Defining a
principle of distribution as a principle about when sacrificing one person for another is
justified, Griffin asserts that this is precisely what the principle of utility is meant to be;
as a principle of trade-offs, it represents another conception of the distribution that
equal respect for persons requires (WB 169). And Hare too argues that treating people
with equal concern and respect is exactly what utilitarianism is about; as shown above,

170 John Gray 1984, p. 74.

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the formal requirement of treating people as equals is an indispensable premise of his


reconstruction of utilitarianism.
It is a widespread view that utilitarianism cannot support rights as anything more
substantial than socially useful illusions. In response to this view, modem utilitarians
have engaged in giving new definitions to the scope and role of the principle of utility.
There have been a number of attempts to argue that indirect utilitarianism can succeed
where its direct counterpart has apparently failed. The indirect utilitarian argument in
support of substantial rights is that the proper consideration of the principle of utility at
the critical level of analysis will lead to the adoption of substantial individual rights at the
practical level. It is the hard complications involved in this general form of argument that
I shall discuss in most part of this chapter. Along with this, I shall also look into a
suggestion about how principles of equality might come into a utilitarian picture of
morality.

Direct and Indirect Utilitarianisms


In the contemporary writings o f moral philosophy, the direct/indirect distinction
of utilitarianism has become trendier than the act/rale distinction. But do we have a clear
description of the first one? Ordinarily, direct utilitarianism is used to indicate a form
of utilitarianism that considers only the utility o f actions, so that it is often equated with
act-utilitarianism; while indirect utilitarianism to indicate a form of utilitarianism that
considers the utility of things other than actions, such as rules, institutions, and
dispositions of character. On this understanding of the terms, it looks as though there

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really is no essential difference between the two distinctions in question, save that
indirect utilitarianism comprises more than versions of rule-utilitarianism - for instance,
motive utilitarianism proposed by Robert Adams.171 Thus it may seem that the existing
argument of critics to refute the act/rule distinction can be used to refute the
direct/indirect distinction as well.
Let us consider an exemplary argument from Williams. Being based on the
ordinary conception o f the terms direct and indirect explained above, the argument
proceeds from the assumption that both direct and indirect utilitarianisms are supposed to
be systems of total assessment. From this assumption, it follows that as a system of
total assessment, direct utilitarianism must take into account everything that possesses
utility - perhaps, the utility effect of every single act. But suppose that there is a surplus
causal effect of adopting a certain rule which cannot be expressed in terms of the utility
of particular acts. Indeed, no sensible utilitarian, at least no utilitarian of importance, has
denied that social rules and certain character traits are important sources of utility and
further that their total utility effect may not be exhausted in terms of the utility of the acts
that follow on their existence. If this is the case and, nevertheless, direct utilitarians insist
on counting only the utility of particular acts, then, certainly, they would not be able to
capture all differences o f utility and thereby would be regarded as being irrational, in
terms of overall aims o f utilitarianism, simply because they ignore important sources of
utility. The only available rational move for them must be to take into account not only
171 Robert Adams, Motive Utilitarianism, Journal o f Philosophy (1976). But many
commentators do not see his motive utilitarianism as an indirect view, but rather as a
sophisticated act-utilitarianism, something like an act-utilitarianism that endorses the role
of rules of thumb as useful practical guides in ordinary moral reasoning. Thus, it is not
quite appropriate to classify Adams motive utilitarianism as an indirect view.

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the immediate utility effect of particular acts but also such things as, say, the acceptanceutility of social rules and the gradual utility effect that might be produced by honoring
certain character traits. Williams says that the direct utilitarian, therefore, must be
prepared to consider the utility of anything: his aim is to maximize utility,
and... .whatever has effects on the amount of satisfaction in the world must be a candidate

for assessment by the utilitarian standard.

172

The important point to be drawn here is that the difference between direct and
indirect utilitarianism cannot be captured only by reference to what their firsthand objects
of assessment are. The same point arises in a different situation. This time, suppose that
the situation is in favor of direct utilitarianism in the ordinary sense, that is, there is
nothing which has a utility which could not be counted in terms of the utility of particular
acts. Being loosely equated with act-utilitarianism, direct utilitarianism may be identified
with a familiar principle that right acts are those which bring about the best consequences.
Indirect utilitarianism may be expected to deny this, and to hold that some acts are right
even though they do not maximize utility. So the difference between them might be
surfaced at the level of the assessment of particular acts. It may be that it is precisely with
regard to the rightness of the acts that the difference can be captured. To the question of
what the rightness of acts consists in, the indirect utilitarian will reply, for instance, in
their being done in accordance with a rule which is utilitarianly valuable, and this must
be an answer with which the direct utilitarian will disagree to a certain extent. According
to Williams, however, the crucial question to both the direct and the indirect utilitarian is,
in what does the value of rules and character traits, etc., consist? He suggests that the
172 Bernard Williams 1973, p. 119.

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indirect utilitarian will reply in the utility of the acts that follow on their existence,

which is the answer that the direct utilitarian will give as well.

173

If things other than

actions are to be candidates for the utilitarian assessment, that is, if they are regarded to
be utilitarianly valuable, then their value must consist in the contribution they make to
the overall utility. More importantly, their total utility effect must be cashable in terms of
the utility of the acts that result from their existence. Williams imagines someone saying,
if institutions or rules or dispositions of character possess utility, then they possess it in
terms of the acts which they variously encourage, license, enjoin or lead to.174 If this is
the case, then it may be said that, in the end, all utility counting performed by the indirect
utilitarian would come down to counting the utility of these resultant acts, i.e., exactly
what the direct utilitarian does in the utility calculation.
What Williams has tried to do is to present those situations in which the difference
between direct and indirect utilitarianism would become unclear. On the one hand, in
short, direct utilitarianism may be unable to insist on counting only the immediate utility
effects of particular acts; on the other hand, indirect utilitarianism may be unable to be
completely unconcerned about these effects. Their being systems of total assessment
would not allow that. In some way, Williams argument resembles Lyons extensional
equivalence argument. He himself believes that direct utilitarianism is the paradigm of
utilitarianism which is the most faithful to the spirit of utilitarianism; and also that
indirect utilitarianism would collapse back into direct utilitarianism; otherwise it would
lose its utilitarian rationale. But the explicit conclusion he draws is just that whether or

173 ibid., p. 122.


ibid., p. 119. Williams calls this the act-adequacy premiss.

174

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not there is anything which could not be counted in terms of the utility of particular acts,
the difference between direct and indirect utilitarianism is not so clear, if they are to be
systems of total assessment.
Apparently, what their firsthand objects of assessment are constitutes a visible
difference between direct and indirect utilitarianism. One defining feature of indirect
utilitarianism is the idea that utilitarian assessments apply, not directly to actions, but to
all the considerations which govern actions, such as social rules and the whole body of
sentiments, attitudes, and dispositions. Part of what Williams has tried to show is that this
visible difference is merely a difference in appearance. He may be right about that, I think.
As in the other critiques of utilitarianism in the 1970s, however, Williams critique
centers on direct utilitarianism. The chapter devoted to the indirect view, as a matter of
fact, does not really tell us much about his knowledge of that view. Indirect utilitarianism
has several other features which seem to me to distinguish it from direct utilitarianism in
more fundamental ways. Let us look at these features and think of how they function in
the indirect utilitarian argument in support of substantial rights.

Central Features of Indirect Utilitarianism


In the indirect view, first and most importantly, the principle of utility figures not
as a prescriptive principle, but as a general standard of evaluation. As it is found in Hares
work, indirect utilitarianism may be defined as that species of utilitarian theory in which
a strong distinction is marked between the critical and the practical levels of moral
thinking, and in which the principle of utility is invoked, solely or primarily, at the critical

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level. Thus the role o f the principle of utility is not that of a decision procedure for
resolving specific practical problems.
Hare distinguishes two kinds of substantive moral principles: (1) critical moral
principles o f unlimited specificity, each tailored to a particular detailed situation and
telling one what to do in that situation; and (2) prima facie principles of limited
specificity which we usually find in moral codes.175 But, for him, the principle of utility
is not a substantive moral principle but rather a canon of moral reasoning; while
substantive moral principles of the two kinds are all supposed to be prescriptive, a canon
of moral reasoning is not. According to Hares two-level theory, critical moral thinking
makes use of the canons o f moral reasoning and issues in substantive moral principles of
both kinds, and intuitive moral thinking makes use of principles of the second kind and
issues in intuitive moral judgments about what is right or wrong in particular cases. Hare
also asserts that critical moral thinking is epistemologically prior to intuitive moral
thinking in the sense that the prima facie principles adopted by intuitive moral thinking
should be selected or at least tested by critical moral thinking, which itself cannot and
should not depend in any way on the principles and judgments of intuitive moral
thinking.176 In short, the relevant point here is that the principle of utility is distinguished
from a prescriptive moral principle, and that the distinction between them is explained by
their being adopted at different levels of moral thinking. By defining the principle of
utility as a general standard of evaluation and not a prescriptive moral principle, generally
175 R. M. Hare 1981, p. 60, 120.
176 According to Hares account, moral principles of the first sub-class, called universal
prescriptive principles, are not allowed to be overridden; while those o f the second sub
class are. And moral principles of the first sub-class are made use of when critical moral
thinking selects or tests those o f the second sub-class.

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speaking, indirect utilitarianism confines the scope of the principles use to the critical
level of moral thinking, and its primary role to the selection or test of substantive moral
principles.
As alluded to in Chapter 2, it is in Mills theory that indirect utilitarianism has
discovered the prototype of its conception of the principle of utility. Through his
separation of mere expediency and morality, Mill argues that utility is a principle of
general evaluation and not a principle which yields in any straightforward way judgments
about what ought to be done.177 That is, his principle of utility is not itself a moral
principle, though it applies as the supreme standard of evaluation in all branches of
conduct that include ethics ; thus, it does not of itself give us a criterion of right conduct.
Hart argues that Mills notion of the principle of utility follows Bentham here:
Neither Bentham nor Mill regarded the direct requirements of the principle
of utility as in themselves constituting obligations. Both thinkers tied the
notion o f obligation to the notion of coercive sanctions, though they
differed both as to the form of the connection and as to the possible forms
which such sanctions could take. Though Bentham calls the principle of
utility the measure o f right and wrong and regards it as constituting
standards by which both the law and the conventional morality of any
society should be judged, he plainly does not think that obligations or
177

There are opposing interpretations of Mills statement that the principle of utility is
the supreme standard of evaluation in all branches of conduct. Revisionist interpreters
such as Dryer and Brown have argued that Mills principle of utility is a purely
axiological principle which in no way guides actions, but stipulates that happiness is
the only thing desirable for its own sake. See D. P. Dryer, Mills Utilitarianism, in
Collected Works o f John Stuart Mill, Vol. X (1969); D. G. Brown, Mill on Liberty and
Morality, Philosophical Review 81 (1972), pp. 133-158. Against this view, however,
Jonathan Riley suggests that Mills principle of utility is an action-guiding principle in
the sense that, by defining happiness as the end of actions, the principle enjoins or
recommends that actions should promote happiness. So to speak, the principle guides
actions towards a definite end. See Jonathan Riley, Liberal Utilitarianism: Social choice
theory and J. S. M ills philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Indeed, Mill is
fairly clear, Riley says, that the principle of utility must rank various kinds of actions in
order of priority, so that in cases of conflict the preferred action is known (p. 192).

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181
duties (which he treated, as Mill also did, as equivalent) are generated by
1 78
the principle of utility.
In short, neither Bentham nor Mill identify moral obligation with conduct which
maximizes general utility. For Mill, more clearly and explicitly, morality is a special
segment of utility distinguished from mere expediency and does not require us to do
every act which would maximize the general welfare.
Furthermore, Mill claims that as a matter o f utilitarian strategy, morality should
be maximally permissive as to liberty, on the ground of the view that the direct pursuit of
happiness is likely to be collectively counterproductive, i.e., that conscious concern for
the best consequences should be displaced as a criterion of right action. This claim is
another important indication of Mills being committed to the indirect view. In On Liberty
as well as Utilitarianism, Mill commends adoption of his principle of liberty rather than
the principle o f utility itself as the primary maxim for framing the terms of social
cooperation, i.e., for regulating the coercive aspects of social life. His defense in
utilitarian terms of the adoption of a maxim other than the principle of utility for the
regulation of social life has always puzzled interpreters. Anyway, the point is that the
indirect view employs certain strategic principles, more specific than the principle of
utility, which impose constraints on the policies which we adopt in pursuit of utility.
A couple o f notes to make, before we get to the indirect utilitarian argument for
fundamental rights. The first note concerns Sidgwicks position; whether his overall
position should really be understood as indirectly utilitarian. There are opposing views
178 H.L.A. Hart, Essays on Bentham: Studies in Jurisprudence and Political Theory
(Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 86-87. But Hart adds in a footnote that Bentham
occasionally speaks o f the requirement of the principle of utility as obligations,
apparently forgetting his definition of all forms of obligation in terms of sanctions (p. 87).

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182

about this issue.179 Some contemporary commentators have recognized that Sidgwicks
utilitarianism is indirect.180 But it should be observed that Sidgwick does not clinch all
the features of indirect utilitarianism just described. Not less clearly than any indirect
utilitarian, on the one hand, does Sidgwick recognize the paradoxical character involved
in applying the direct utilitarian policies in practice. He actually believes that the attempt
to bring about a world in which all people have become utilitarians may be indefensible
in utilitarian terms. For the price of bringing about such a state of affairs could be too
high. Thus, Sidgwick says, a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles,
that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally (ME 490). On the
other hand, however, the principle of utility itself is a direct moral principle in Sidgwick.
Despite all his stresses on the role in our ordinary moral life of the precepts of common
sense morality, he does not claim, unlike Mill, that they are the ultimate source of moral
obligations or can determine the actual rightness of conduct. Nor does he think that, when
the straight application of the utility principle seems undoubtedly inappropriate, some
specific strategic maxim can be there to take its place rightfully. For instance, Sidgwick
agrees with the chief idea behind Mills argument for the principle of liberty that less

179 JJ.C. Smart sees Sidgwick as an intrepid act-utilitarian. See Smart 1973; Richard
Brandt, Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1992), p. 16. For those philosophers who do not see him as an act-utilitarian, see Philip
Pettit and Geoffrey Brennan, Restrictive Consequentialism, Australasian Journal o f
Philosophy 64, pp. 439-455; Janice Duario, Sidgwick on Moral Theories and Common
Sense Morality, History o f Philosophy Quarterly 14, pp. 425-445; Allen Gibbard,
Inchoately Utilitarian Common Sense: The Bearing of a Thesis of Sidgwicks on Moral
Theory, in H.B. Miller and W.H. Williams, The Limits of Utilitarianism (University of
Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 71-85.
180 Marcus Singer, Sidgwick and Nineteenth-Century Ethical Thought, in Bart Schultz
ed., Essays on Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 76-86;
Derek Parfit 1984, esp. Chapter 7; Robert Adams 1976, p. 467.

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restrained social interference with personal liberty is unavoidably counterproductive, but
he does not make it a matter of principle not to accept any reason for interfering save the
prevention of harm to others. He describes personal liberty merely as a socially useful
stimulus (ME 442). So it is still questionable whether he really is an indirect utilitarian
or a sophisticated act-utilitarian.
The second thing to note, which is also one of the key features of indirect
utilitarianism, is that those practices, which the indirect view supports as imposing
constraints on utilitarian policy, are not rules of thumb of which critics and act-utilitarians
speak. In typical rule-utilitarian accounts, the actual and the potential power on our action
and deliberation that social conventions and practices have is sometimes named the
second-order utility. But critics have not taken this second-order utility seriously,
because they have reasoned that these conventions and practices supported by ruleutilitarians are always vulnerable to utilitarian overriding. That is, critics have regarded
them as mere rules of thumb which, in any incident, can be sacrificed to greater utility. In
contrast to this, Gray says, Indirect utilitarianism... .requires that certain practices and
conventions be accorded enough weight for their claims to be able to resist erosion by
utilitarian appraisals.181 In other words, the indirect view can consistently treat them, on
utilitarian grounds, as more than rules of thumb, if they operate as constraints on simple
maximizing policies which are bound to be counterproductive.

181 John Gray 1984, p. 84.

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Some Problems of Indirect Utilitarianism
The standard objection to the utilitarian rights theory is that even if utilitarian
theories can accommodate rights as part of the body of rules of thumb, these rights are
unable to serve as constraints on the pursuit of general welfare. An indirect utilitarian
reply to this may be that if rights have the property of second-order utility, they have a
utilitarian justification, especially where we need practical constraints on direct utilitarian
policy which is counterproductive. But it isnt easy to see how this reply can meet the
objection, i.e., how can it show that in the indirect view rights can be more than mere
rules of thumb. For it may seem that all that the indirect view can confer on rights is only
strategic importance. If here strategic means useful or expedient or instrumental,
what makes it essentially differ from a sophisticated version of act-utilitarianism? How
can it be guaranteed that the weight conferred on rights according to the indirect
utilitarian strategy will not be swayed by considerations of general welfare? Does the
indirect view actually require the adoption of rights principles?
Another problem with the indirect utilitarian reply arises when we see that the
indirect view, after all, depends on a fallibilistic argument, the argument that we have no
reliable means o f identifying the act that will bring about the best consequences. This
fallibilistic argument might be able to establish the need for some strategic maxims other
than the principle of utility. But it cannot support the case for rights.182 The indirect
utilitarian argument goes likes this. There are some certain situations where the truly
utilitarian course of action is not clear. In such situations, social rules and rights may arise
and act to pre-constrain individual action so as to avoid sub-optimality. These social rules
182 ibid., p. 85.

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and rights are justified precisely in the general welfare standard, in the sense that the
general welfare would best be promoted in the long run by following them consistently.
The argument explicitly makes an appeal to the fact of human fallibility. However,
advocates of the indirect view argue that such fallibilism does not render the view
unintelligible; on the contrary, it renders the indirect view perfectly intelligible.
With regard to the question about the status of rights in the indirect view, it may
be said that in some way, the indirect view appears to lead to inflexible moral
conservatism. For example, Mills principle of liberty is no rule of thumb of the sort
associated with act-utilitarianism, though it results from a direct application of the utility
principle as a sole basis of evaluating things. It is presumed to be persistent and inflexible,
in the sense that under normal circumstances, it is indefeasible by considerations of
general welfare. In his account of justice in the last chapter of Utilitarianism, Mill takes
security as embodying the most fundamental of all classes of utility and tries to give
good reasons for admitting a substantial moral right to security as being possessed by all
humans. It is not that this right may never be justifiably violated. Mill makes it clear that
none o f the fundamental rights is indefeasible. But he argues that security is to be
awarded the status of a substantial moral right, under normal circumstances indefeasible
by considerations o f general welfare. The argument in On Liberty parallels and completes
that in the last chapter of Utilitarianism. In On Liberty, Mill adduces the human interest
in individuality and autonomy, along with the fact of human fallibility and the role of the
unfettered intellectual speculation and practical experiment in advancing the growth of
knowledge, to limit the sphere of coercive social control. Only where harm to others
interest is at stake can limitation of liberty ever be justified. In other words, the fact that a

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186
restriction on liberty may yield greater benefits in terms of welfare is no reason at all in
favor of it, unless the limit on liberty also prevents harm to others.
Within the whole range of human interests, Mill advocates, on the grounds of
utilitarian strategy, ranking the two interests of humans in autonomy and in security
above all the rest. It can be asked why this particular pair o f human interests should be
regarded as having good utilitarian reason for being selected over the rest; that is,
whether Mills actual reading of human psychology is plausible.

Quite aside from this

question, the point might simply be that Mills argument provides a perfectly intelligible

183 My committee members have stressed the importance of this question. Prof. William
L. McBride questions, how could there ever be a precise test to show that humans
(most? all? above average?) favor autonomy and security above all the rest? Prof.
Patrick Kain asks whether our interests in autonomy and security are deep facts like
Mill suggests. I have no direct answer to these questions. Maybe, I might reply that their
questions do not raise a special problem with Mills theory but rather a general problem
with all moral conceptions working with a theory of essential interests - for instance,
Rawls theory of primary goods. If Profs. McBride and Kain are asking whether I think
that the particular theory o f Mills about the essential interests of humans is sound, I have
no direct answer to it either. Maybe, I might reply that security and autonomy, to be sure,
are general attributes o f a happy life in civil societies. And further, I might acknowledge
that they are deep facts. In Mills account, security has quite an extensive meaning.
In fact, its meaning is too vague and too large to point to a specific value or good. But the
important point is that the permanent interest o f security, according to Mill, brings up the
most important axioms of morality, such as the principle of social and distributive
equality and the principle o f liberty. In other words, it brings up the idea that each person
has a general moral right to equal and impartial treatment by society in the pursuit o f his
ends; in Mills terms, the idea that each individual should be protected by society from
being harmed by others, either directly or being hindered in his freedom of pursuing his
own good (UT 58). I do not know if there is anything deeper than this. It should be
observed that Mills hypothesis of permanent interests is part of his general ideal of a
liberal person. It is a difficult question whether his ideal of a person is really general
enough not to vary with times. Again, however, this difficult question does not seem to
me to pose a special problem with Mill but rather a general problem with all moral
conceptions which presuppose a certain general ideal of a person. I think that most
modem moral conceptions of importance, including Rawls theory of justice, do
presuppose a general ideal of a person. To determine the soundness of Mills ideal in
comparison with modem ideals will need a lot o f work.

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position, since it is successful in demonstrating that one need not reject the general
welfare standard in order to accept such a principle of liberty.184 However, the structure
o f Mills derivation of fundamental rights contains some uneasy complications.
Probably the most difficult complication arises when there is a conflict within the
pair of vital interests, i.e., security and autonomy, or a conflict between the fundamental
rights grounded on these vital interests. It seems that Mill needs to provide a decision
procedure for resolving this kind of conflict. However, this isnt a special problem for
Mill but a general problem in all theories in which it is allowed that fundamental rights
may make conflicting demands in practice, and in which these rights are regarded not as
having absolute status but as those which can be traded off - think, for instance, of the
problem Rawls has in respect to his theory o f primary goods. A problem that is special for
Mill or other indirect utilitarians may be that the decision procedure to be provided
should not involve any underlying commitment to maximization. The indirect utilitarian
answer to this problem may be that, as a rule of utilitarian strategy, we are justified in
prohibiting trade-offs between rights, so as to avoid the maximizing commitment
permeating into practical policies. As before, the indirect utilitarian would base his
justification of prohibiting such trade-offs on a fallibilistic reasoning: we have no reliable
means of identifying cases where such trade-offs of rights against rights are optimum in
terms of on balance rights protection.

184 David Lyons 1997(1977), p. 32. In this connection, Gray too maintains that Mills
argument becomes intelligible and powerful once we see him as holding that utilitarian
considerations themselves necessitate ranking the Principle of Liberty as a practical
precept over any maximizing consequentialist principle. See John Gray 1984, p. 86.

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As it appears, the indirect utilitarian derivation of fundamental rights depends


quite deeply on the fallibilistic reasoning. This raises another complication. Someone
might ask whether such fallibilistic reasoning itself is really a reliable means of
supporting fundamental rights, because it sounds like saying that the rigidity and
inflexibility of rights rely on our ignorance. So it can be asked whether it really makes the
indirect view intelligible. The fallibilistic reasoning says that if we are justified in
prohibiting trade-offs between rights, it is partially because we are uncertain about the
relevant facts, the facts about how those trade-offs would affect the general welfare in the
long run. Thus it is just part of a wholly instrumental account of the value of rights. It is
no answer to the deontologist objection that the utilitarian view of rights is so
instrumental that it cannot capture our sense of the moral importance of fundamental
rights. On the contrary, the fallibilistic reasoning takes part in establishing the view that
rights enter moral and political theory always and only as derivations of some more
fundamental principle, namely, the principle of utility. In fact, it is a key claim of the
indirect view that no moral principles or rights are self-certifying. The deontologist
objection to this claim is founded on an argument that presupposes some sort of
intuitionism in our moral knowledge, an intuitionism as to the weight that rights
principles are to have in our theory. Utilitarians, direct or indirect, contend that this
translation of intuitive judgments into moral theory represents a mistake in method, and
that the decision between conflicting rights should be governed by some principle that is
not merely intuitionistic.
However, what about the dependence o f the indirect view on the fallibilistic
reasons? Arent these reasons merely ad hoc empirical statements? Consider another line

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of indirect utilitarian argument, what Philip Pettit and Geoffrey Brennan have called
restrictive consequentialism. This line of argument is based on the factual assumption
that some particular valued consequences are, by their very nature, incapable of
attainment by direct calculation. Pettit and Brennan suggest that there are certain benefits
which are thought to motivate a choice of certain calculation-inhibiting
predispositions... .They must be calculatively elusive and... .calculatively vulnerable.185
A calculatively elusive benefit is defined as a benefit which is reliably produced by
the unselfconscious predisposition but which evaporates under a regime of sustained
action-calculation; and a calculatively vulnerable benefit, as a benefit which is
destroyed as readily by calculative supervision of the involvement.186 These benefits
arise only as by-products of a system of rights of some particular status. Restrictive
consequentialist argument exhibits the basic features of indirect utilitarianism considered
so far. Being based on the distinction between the critical and the practical level of moral
thought, it suggests that rights must be of instrumental status at the critical level. By
making higher-status rights in decision-making a necessary condition for the achievement
of desired consequences, however, it supports the institution of such rights as if
fundamental at the practical level. In decision-making situations at the practical level, on
this argument, individuals should act as if such higher-status rights have inherent value
even though they do not. It is clearly reminiscent o f Hares split level theory.
The most important question about the restrictive view seems to be, which
benefits produced by what rights or practices are calculatively elusive or calculatively

185 Pettit and Brennan 1986, p. 442.


186 ibid.

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vulnerable? Pettits explanation is very largely based on the psychological analysis of our
predispositions, the analysis of the psychological options of whether to encourage this or
that trait, this or that motive, this or that policy, and so on.187 But what I am concerned
to point out is just that the restrictive consequentialist argument shares with the Millian
derivation o f fundamental rights, the factual assumption that there are certain benefits
that cannot be attained under the calculative choice of action; and that they argue alike
that this factual assumption gives good reason for the consequentialist, or the utilitarian,
to go restrictive in certain areas of actions. It seems to me that critics of utilitarianism will
not reject this factual assumption as simply untrue. There is a paradox in the utilitarians
acceptance o f this assumption. It is a defining paradox of indirect utilitarianism: the
indirect utilitarian should operate with a maxim, or a selection criterion, that is known to
be inconsistent, in each instance, with the best probable consequences. We already have
the indirect utilitarian answer to this. It is that in order to achieve the best result overall,
the utilitarian agent should not pursue the best result in each case. However, there seems
to be another difficulty with the factual assumption at issue. Critics might ask that if those
benefits unattainable under the calculative choice of actions, whether calculatively
elusive or calculatively vulnerable, are apt to be incalculable benefits in essence, i.e.,
benefits that are not amenable to the utilitarian calculation, then the question is how they
can fit into a utilitarian theory of general welfare.

187 ibid, p. 440.

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191

Utilitarianism: a Standard of Rightness or a Decision Procedure?


To recapitulate: Indirect utilitarianism exploits the apparent paradox that utility
maximization will not be achieved by adopting the strategy of maximizing utility. This
does not mean that it denies that the right decision is always that which maximizes the
probable good. What it denies is that the way of identifying that decision is always by the
direct application of the criterion o f rightness. It suggests that in some cases the optimific
decision may only be delivered by restricting or constraining the maximizing mode of
deliberation. Still, the Millian notion of the principle of utility is quite perplexing. When
Mill defines it as a general standard of evaluation and not a moral principle, he may seem
to be asserting that it is not a criterion of rightness, but rather that it is just an axiological
proposition specifying that pleasure or happiness alone has intrinsic value. It should be
noted that not all indirect approaches endorse this deflationary notion of the principle of
utility. In fact, most of them accept that it is a criterion of rightness. What they claim is
that the principle o f utility can be displaced as a criterion of right action, as a matter of
utilitarian strategy. In other words, maxims other than Utility arise as alternative criteria
of right action and specify moral obligations at the practical level. And the primary role
of these maxims is to constrain the maximizing mode of deliberation which will turn out
to be self-defeating, so as to serve as maximizing constraints in respect o f the promotion
of utility.
As argued in the previous section, the indirect utilitarian argument for maximizing
constraints depends on the limitations on our ability to make reliable estimates of
consequences and their value. Advocates of the indirect view argue that these limitations
provide utilitarian reasons for believing that a utilitarian agent should deliberate, not by

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attempting to maximizing welfare, but by appealing to moral rules and rights that are in
fact justifiable as being conducive to the protection or promotion of our vital interests.
The moral rules and rights that are justifiable on utilitarian grounds and the rigidity with
which they should be followed or respected depend on just how serious and general our
inability to estimate consequences and their value is. In certain unusual circumstances
and in case of conflicts of moral rules and rights, it is much more likely that the utilitarian
agent should set aside the moral rules and rights and deliberate according to the
maximizing mode. Either when the application o f generally optimific rules would
produce considerable and clearly avoidable suffering or when these rules, each of them
utilitarianly justifiable, collide with each other, the direct maximizing mode becomes the
right mode of deliberation. Then, Brink argues, the utilitarian agent can construe his
theory as a criterion o f rightness rather than a decision procedure.

1 &R

Human fallibility

provides us with a good utilitarian reason for acting on utilitarianly valuable moral rules
and motives and for respecting moral rights grounded on vital human interests. By
regularly acting from these rules and motives and by respecting these rights, we will
maximize the total utility realized by our actions.
It may seem that we have every reason to believe in the limits of our ability to
make reliable estimates o f consequences and their value. It is often difficult to know what
would benefit others. However, an equally important point is that it is also difficult to
decide how much support the appeal to human fallibility can give to the indirect view.
The indirect view suggests that, with such human fallibility assumed to be true, then it
becomes perfectly intelligible to hold that a set of moral rules and rights, justifiable on
188 David O. Brink 1986, p 426.

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193
utilitarian grounds, should be applied more or less strictly and uncritically in most cases.
In short, we can agree with Lyons, Gray, and other indirect utilitarians that the fact of
human fallibility renders the indirect utilitarian approach to moral rights a perfectly
intelligible position and, o f course, much more intelligible than the direct utilitarian
approach. It seems to me, however, that this sort of argument from general facts does not
help them much in answering the persistent deontologist objection.
Let us see what utilitarianism would become on the indirect view. First, it is not a
direct moral theory, though, in certain extraordinary cases, it might be appealed to as a
criterion of rightness at the practical level.189 Second, let us recollect Lyons conclusion
about Mills moral theory: Mills moral theory is not even utilitarian at all. On the indirect
view, utilitarianism is supposed to let us know what moral rules and rights are more
favorable on its grounds. But this set of moral rules and rights may include clearly non
utilitarian moral rules and rights simply because we do not know, as the indirect view
assumes, how they would affect the general welfare on the whole. Indeed, the fact of
human fallibility does not say that particular rules and rights are justifiable on utilitarian
grounds but that there are some rules and rights with which we just do not know what to
do. Even though we are sure that they do not affect the general welfare positively, we just
1 RQ

For an example of the distinction between direct and indirect moral theories, see
Schneewind 1977, p. 196-197. He explicates the distinction as follows. Direct and
indirect moral theories are distinguished in terms of the way in which method and
principle are to be connected. In a direct moral theory, the method points to a process
which enables one to identify the right-making property indicated by the ultimate
principle. In an indirect moral theory, in contrast to this, the agent identifies right acts by
a mere mark or sign of rightness, what Schneewind calls criterial property. This
distinction applied, then the claim that utilitarianism is not a direct moral theory would
mean, roughly speaking, that it does not specify maximizing happiness as the rightmaking property, but can only insinuate what acts exhibit a mark of rightness. It could
also be noted that Schneewind claims that Sidgwick constructs only direct moral theories.

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194
cannot abandon them, if there is no evidence that they do affect it negatively. There may
be certain rules and rights that are only protective, not promotional in terms of utility.
Anyway, Lyons claims that it is not the case that in Mills moral theory moral rules and
rights could only be justified on utilitarian grounds. In this or some other ways, generally
speaking, the indirect view characterizes utilitarianism as providing only a standard of
evaluation, not a decision procedure.
Obviously, most intuitive objections to utilitarianism are directed to utilitarianism
as a decision procedure. So the advantage for utilitarians of denying that it is a decision
procedure is also obvious. However, critics argue that the utilitarian cannot just do that;
utilitarianism cannot distinguish between criteria of rightness and decision procedures so
as to justify non-utilitarian motives and uncritical acceptance of a plurality of moral rules.
Williams avers that There is no distinctive place for... .utilitarianism unless it is, within
fairly narrow limits, a doctrine about how one should decide what to do. This is because
its distinctive doctrine about what acts are right, and, especially, for utilitarians, the only
distinctive interest or point of the question what acts are right, relates to the situation of
deciding to do them.190 Consider Rawls contention in the following:
We should note, then, that utilitarianism, as I have defined it, is the view
that the principle of utility is the correct principle for societys public
conception of justice... .What we want to know is which conception of
justice characterizes our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium
and best serves as the public moral basis of society. Unless one maintains
that this conception is given by the principle of utility, one is not a
utilitarian. (TJR 158-159)
In a way, Rawls objection to the distinction between criteria o f rightness and decision
procedures directly leads to the denial of the very grounds of the indirect utilitarian
190 Bernard Williams 1973, p. 128.

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195
approach to moral rights. When the indirect utilitarian claims that certain moral rules and
rights can be justified on utilitarian grounds, he can only mean that they are acceptable by
the utilitarian standard; but he cannot mean that their substantive content actually derives
from the principle of utility. To Rawls, this is no utilitarianism. Given that the contrast
between utilitarianism and justice as fairness with regard to their conception of justice is
the whole point of his criticism of utilitarianism in A Theory of Justice, utilitarianism
must be a moral theory whose substantive content derives from its first principles.
For Rawls, as it seems, being the public moral basis of society is a conceptual
condition of what can count as a moral theory. This conceptual condition, which Rawls
calls the publicity condition, would seem to undermine the distinction between criteria
of rightness and decision procedures, because the public moral basis of society should not
only be a criterion of rightness but also provide a procedure for deciding what to do in
practical situations; that is, it seems that a true moral theory should be recognized or
recommended as a decision procedure. According to Rawls, however, utilitarianism as a
moral theory violates the publicity condition. A moral theory that violates this condition
would be less plausible for that reason. A desirable feature of a conception of justice is
that it should publicly express mens respect for one another, says Rawls (TJR 156). To
the effect that utilitarianism violates the publicity condition especially on the matter of
self-respect, Rawls argues:
This [publicity condition] requires that in maximizing the average utility
we do so subject to the constraint that the utilitarian principle is publicly
accepted and followed as the fundamental charter of society. What we
cannot do is to raise the average utility by encouraging men to adopt and
apply non-utilitarian principles of justice. If, for whatever reasons, the
public recognition of utilitarianism entails some loss of self-esteem, there

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196
is no way around this drawback. It is an unavoidable cost of the utilitarian
scheme. (TJR 158)
When they characterize utilitarianism as not providing a decision procedure, indeed,
indirect utilitarians postulate it as what Sidgwick calls an esoteric morality, which
means that in practical situations, it would be best that most people not even recognize
utilitarianism as providing the standard of right conduct (ME 489-490). For Rawls, this
esoteric morality simply violates the publicity condition, a fundamental condition for a
plausible moral theory. And more serious problems arise when the utilitarian principle is
publicly accepted as the moral basis of society.
In response to Rawls, Brink claims that to be an esoteric morality is a possibility
for any moral theory. In any moral theory, there are possible circumstances in which its
recognition and application would satisfy the theory worse than recognition and
application o f some alternative theory. And Brink asks, Arent there circumstances in
which a Kantian would think publicity should be violated?191 He then argues that the
fact that there are merely possible circumstances in which a moral theory would require
violation of publicity is not a fact peculiar to utilitarianism and is not itself an objection to
utilitarianism. Even if he is right, however, I think that Brink here has missed the point.
For Rawls, again, utilitarianism as an esoteric morality is of no interest. In fact, most
criticisms of it arise when it becomes an exoteric morality, i.e., when the principle of
utility becomes a decision procedure which governs the moral deliberation of most
people; or, whether it is esoteric or exoteric, when utilitarianism becomes a social
decision procedure.

191 David O. Brink 1986, p. 429.

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197

It is right that the objection from the person-centered perspective can be construed
as an objection to utilitarianisms criterion of rightness, i.e., its teleological definition of
the right as what maximizes utility. What has been thought of as objectionable in this
definition is a purely impersonal attitude. But if utilitarianism is a standard of rightness
and not a decision procedure, then it need not require us to adopt an impersonal attitude.
If differential concern for ones own project and welfare turns out conducive to the
general welfare, then it can be justified on the utilitarian standard of rightness. Thus, the
utilitarian account of morality is compatible with the moral permissibility of differential
concern. As discussed so far, however, Rawls denies the distinction between criteria of
rightness and decision procedures. And a more important question is, what if differential
concern for individuals turns out not conducive to the general welfare? What would
utilitarians do about that? As Rawls puts it, it is characteristic of utilitarianism that it
leaves so much to arguments from general facts (TJR 138). Though this is said in a
rather different context, it seems to me to point out exactly what seems to be the central
problem of the indirect view.

Maximization and the Principles of Equality


What can count as a moral theory is never a matter of opinion. The publicity
condition, if accepted as a conceptual condition for a plausible moral theory, must be
taken seriously by the indirect utilitarian as well. The indirect utilitarian might reply that
utilitarian appraisal does not violate the publicity condition. In the actual world, on the
contrary, utilitarianism satisfies the publicity condition. This condition would be violated,

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Brink says, only if utilitarianism could not be recognized as the standard of rightness
and utilitarian reasoning was always inappropriate.

109

Utilitarian appraisal is

appropriate in some circumstances. There are some circumstances that call for utilitarian
deliberation to limit the application of moral rules and rights and to resolve conflicts
among them. Moreover, some agents in some circumstances should take the time and
effort to appraise the consequences of past and continued adherence to a particular set of
moral rules. This attitude toward utilitarianism, Brink declares, is psychologically
possible and does not offend against the publicity condition.193 In this reply, however,
Brink has missed a crucial implication of the publicity condition, the implication that it
demands a moral theory to be the public moral basis of society, i.e., to be a social
decision procedure. The publicity condition differs from that of universality, according to
Rawls, in the sense that the latter leads one to assess principles on the basis of their
being intelligently and regularly followed by everyone (TJR 115). But the former
condition - that is, the condition of being publicly acknowledged and fully effective
moral constitutions of social life - cannot be fully met merely by a principles being
appropriate in some possible circumstances (TJR 115).
We have seen what the indirect view seems to obtain by making the distinction
between criteria of rightness and decision procedures. It seems that we can have a fairly
flexible utilitarian justification for differential concern for our own welfare or interests. In
some circumstances, of course, an impartial weighting of everyones interest will require
us to sacrifice an important personal project or commitment in order to prevent great

192 David O. Brink 1986, p. 428.


193 ibid., p. 429.

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harm to others. This sort o f impartiality is not at all objectionable in itself. Rather, it is
exactly what we expect a moral theory to demand. Thus it does not undermine a
utilitarian account of morality. Yet, the deontologist objections to the instrumental
reasoning that underlie almost all attempts to incorporate moral rights into a utilitarian
theory have not faded away. A particularly difficult question to the indirect utilitarian
would be whether the flexibility of the indirect view, e.g., its alleged justification of
differential concern, is grounded in the resources of utilitarianism. Even if the indirect
view can endorse a moral theory quite permissive to some moral rights we actually
conceive as fundamental, its permissiveness to them is based solely on their instrumental
value which, in turn, relies deeply on a factual assumption that they are, on the whole,
conducive to promoting vital human interests. Grounded on this factual assumption, as
critics have typically argued, the utilitarian account of morality can specify no substantive
moral rights because their status as fundamental rights can always be overridden by the
prospects of greater benefits; because, in a nutshell, they are not among the resources of
utilitarianism.
In Chapter 3 ,1 have discussed an analogous criticism raised against the utilitarian
conception of equal regard, the criticism that we cannot discover a substantive egalitarian
principle of distribution among the resources of utilitarianism. Rawls and other critics
have argued that Benthams dictum, everybody to count for one, nobody for more than
one, upon which modem utilitarians have relied to claim that utilitarianism is sensitive
to questions about justice and fair distribution, is not a principle for the distribution of
goods; that it is a purely formal principle that is part of a hypothetical decision

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200
procedure that (on many accounts) no one may ever actually apply or appeal to.194 The
point is that the formal requirement, implied by the dictum, of treating people with equal
consideration cannot say anything about how we ought to proceed in the actual
distribution o f goods.
In the course o f seeking for a utilitarian answer to this criticism, I have outlined
Griffins account of the utilitarian conception of equal regard, which begins by
contending that utilitarianism qualifies as a moral theory because it is animated by a
deep notion of equal regard, regarding each person as on an equal footing with every
other person.195 And I have also tried to draw attention to different readings of
utilitarianisms commitment to this deep notion of equal regard at the fundamental level.
For example, Kymlicka thinks that this commitment at the fundamental level alone can
confer an egalitarian outlook upon utilitarianism; and he goes further to claim that it can
characterize utilitarianism as a deontological moral theory, in the sense that equality or
fairness is an essential property of a utilitarian decision procedure and maximization is
but a by-product of this procedure. However, critics are skeptical about Kymlickas
interpretation for the reason that counting everybody for one cannot operate as a moral
restriction on interpersonal trade-offs because the substantive content of the principle of
utility pertains solely to aggregation; that is, because counting everybody for one can
specify no duty that moral agents can act on. For an analogous reason, Griffin too
disagrees with Kymlicka. He argues that moral theories are not simply derivations from
that root idea of equal regard at the fundamental level or from the perspective of the Ideal
194 Samuel Freeman 1994, p. 328.
195 James Griffin, Some Problems of Fairness, Ethics 96 (1985), p. 103; hereafter
abbreviated as SPF in text.

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201

Observer or the Ideal Contractor because the latter are too vague to allow anything as
tight as a derivation. The crucial question we should ask is how utilitarianism might
incorporate equality or fairness at the level of substantive moral principles, not at the
fundamental or justification level.
Moreover, maximization is not a mere by-product of counting everybody for one.
Different moral theories elaborate the root idea of equal regard into different moral
principles. Utilitarianism elaborates it into maximization, counting everybody for one. As
Mill remarks in a well-known passage toward the end of Utilitarianism, the principle of
utility as the maximizing rule logically requires calculating the effects on each person,
which means considering the interests of each: the principle of utility presupposes the
anterior principle that everybody has an equal right to happiness (UT 61). Benthams
dictum here notes a constitutive part of the theory o f utilitarianism, not a separate and
logically independent moral principle. What Kymlicka has failed to realize is that
maximization is the utilitarian way of expressing the root idea of equal regard at the
substantive level.
Utilitarianism has been distorted, Griffin claims, by misunderstanding how it
uses aggregation (SPF 102). In the correct interpretation, he argues, aggregation or
maximization is to be construed as a principle of trade-offs, which tells us when
sacrificing one person for another is justified. The most serious misunderstanding arises
when maximization is not recognized as a principle of trade-offs, namely, a distributive
principle. Griffin avers, the distributive principle in utilitarianism is maximization; so to
say, the principle o f utility is a distributive principle, a principle which allows the
sacrificing of one person for another only when by directing benefit to you instead of

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202
me....youbenefit more (SPF 102). As we shall see, this interpretation of
maximization is central to Griffins view. What we need to do is to see how in this
interpretation maximization can be construed as an expression of the root idea of equal
regard. Griffin thinks that the utilitarian conception of equal regard becomes clearly
visible in three main places: (1) in a utilitarians being committed to equality at least to
the degree that he would want everyone to have the same level of well-being, except
where the principle o f trade-offs dictates otherwise; (2) in its principle of trade-offs;
maximizing well-being, counting everybody for one and nobody for more than one (SPF
102); and (3) in its principle of equal chances at benefits, which tells us that, when the
principle of trade-offs cannot decide between options, then the utilitarian agent must
choose the option that gives everyone an equal chance to the benefit. I shall consider a
few questions as to this description of the place for a notion of equal regard in
utilitarianism. The first question to be considered is whether the utilitarian conception of
equal regard implies at all that the utilitarian would want everyone to have the same level
of well-being. Deep down, this question relates to what normative force Benthams
dictum could have.
As quoted above, Mill acknowledges the dictum by the principle that everybody
has an equal right to happiness. Aside from whether other utilitarians would accept Mills
understanding of the dictum, we should here distinguish between an equal right to
happiness and a right to equal happiness or to an equal level of well-being. Intuitively
enough, saying that I have a right to happiness just as you do is not the same thing as
saying that I have a right to be happy just as much as you are. Benthams dictum,
interpreted as implying an equal right to happiness, may seem to mean nothing more than

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that in the calculation o f overall happiness, everybody counts for one, nobody for more
than one; that is, it means nothing but an equal standing in the felicific calculation, which
itself ignores the distinction between particular individuals. Conjoined with the dictum
thus interpreted, utilitarianism is simply neutral, impartial, or indifferent between persons.
In his critical essay on Griffins view, Kurt Baier comments:
Mills remarks to the effect that we are to promote the greatest possible
happiness and that equal amounts ofhappiness are equally desirable,
whether felt by the same or different persons implies that what really
matters is the greatest amount of overall happiness, and that it does not
matter at all which individuals are happy, and therefore whether some
individuals are less happy or indeed unhappy. And that seems another way
of saying that individuals and their relative happiness do not matter. Equal
regard for persons here is tantamount to equal disregard....Maximizing
does not imply or suggest anything about how happy any particular person
should be, either absolutely or in comparison with some other person.196
In this passage, Baier states what may seem quite obvious, namely, that
maximizing the greatest overall level ofhappiness is different from and incompatible
with aiming at the same level ofhappiness for everyone, and thereby concludes that
Benthams dictum provides no normative advantage which demands a serious moral
concern for individuals. Even if utilitarians show some concern for individuals and their
happiness, as critics will urge, that is not because of a moral perspective which grants the
individuals justified claims to a certain level ofhappiness but only because of
considerations about what will promote the general happiness. Baiers point is that
reading Benthams dictum as implying, in any way, a right to an equal level of well-being
provokes a conflict with the goal of utility maximization. The trouble, he thinks, is that
utilitarianism contains a conception of impartiality that implies only that all persons

196 Kurt Baier, Maximization and Fairness, Ethics 96 (1985), p. 122.

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matter equally, not that every person matters.

1 07

He then adds that it would be easier for

a utilitarian, in applying his maximizing standard, if no particular person mattered at all;


otherwise he would be emotionally tom apart by those maximizations that require him
to sacrifice one for the greater good of all.198
The remark that in utilitarianism equal regard for persons is tantamount to equal
disregard does not quite do justice to the utilitarian position, in the sense that it rashly
underrates possible normative advantages that might be implied by Benthams dictum.
The utilitarian can agree, it seems arguable, that since the general happiness is nothing
over and above the sum of the happiness of individuals, individuals are necessarily the
loci of moral concern. The ultimate goal of maximizing happiness logically requires
counting the anticipated effects on each and every person whenever an action or policy is
contemplated. In applying the maximizing standard, so to speak, the utilitarian must be
concerned about how happy each and every person will be. For without taking everyones
interests into account he simply lacks the information required to determine which
available action or policy to adopt. And further, as aforementioned, Benthams dictum
reflects a formal impartiality constraint: if there is a reason to include consideration of
your interests in the calculation there is also a reason to include consideration of my
interests. In this formal sense, I have an equal right to have my interests entered into the
calculations. As Baier seems to argue, however, this right to an equal standing in the
utility calculation does not entail a commitment to anything that looks at all like a moral
right, especially, a right to protection against the results of maximization.

197 ibid., p. 121.


198 ibid., pp. 121-122.

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Again, Baiers point is that no substantive moral principles of equality are among
the resources of utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism, according to his analysis, Mill appears
to adopt both the principle of utility and the principle of promoting everyones well-being
equally. Baier argues, however, this shows that Mill did not see clearly that these two
principles might come into serious conflict; that is, that there could be situations in which
we have to choose between maximizing happiness and increasing it equally for everyone
affected. It could be questioned what Mill would have done, if he did take notice of such
situations; whether he would have suggested a hierarchical ordering of the principles of
utility and equal regard; or whether he would have abandoned the lexical priority of the
principle of utility and taken a more egalitarian stance. Quite aside from these questions,
Baier points out that Mill could not take notice of such situations because he did not see
clearly the difference between an equal right to happiness which, by his definition,
directly flows from Benthams dictum and a right to an equal level of well-being which
seems often incompatible with the goal of maximizing overall happiness and thus which
seems to go beyond what the dictum could possibly imply. But does Mill really confuse
the two? In my view, there is no direct textual evidence showing that he does. Mill
defines impartiality - or an obligation of justice - as an obligation that we should treat
all equally well (when no higher duty forbids) who have deserved equally well of us
(UT 60; my emphasis). He also declares that all persons are deemed to have a right
corresponding to this obligation, namely, a right to equality of treatment (UT 61). Does
treating people equally well entail promoting their well-being equally? Maybe, in some
circumstances. For Mill, the duty of treating people equally well is simply a duty to do
to each according to his deserts, returning good for good, as well as repressing evil by

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206
evil (UT 60). As it seems, however, this duty has little to do with ensuring people a
certain level ofhappiness. To me, it appears to be merely an abstract maxim o f fairness.
Clearly, Griffin acknowledges that there is a big difference between an equal right
to happiness and a right to an equal level of well-being and also that utilitarianism
embraces only the first. Hence it is also acknowledged that one cannot extract a right to
an equal level of well-being from Benthams dictum. In fact, what Griffin pursues is a
weaker but consistent position. According to him, one natural way that utilitarians might
take to elaborate the root idea of equal regard is to act on, first, a principle of
maximization and next, when maximization does not rank options, a principle of equal
well-being; and finally, when equalization does not rank options, a principle of equal
chances at well-being (SPF 104). Maximization here means that in trade-offs which
person benefits does not matter; only the sum matters. That is part of the utilitarian view
about when trade-offs are justified, and is the reason why maximization should be
construed as a principle of distribution. When we act on a principle of maximization, of
course, utilitarianism offers no protections for individuals against the results of
maximization. In that sense, it disregards persons. However, when there are equal
maxima, i.e., when maximization can no longer decide between options, utilitarians
would need some additional tie-breaking principles. In his reply to Baier, Griffin asks
why Baier thinks if utilitarianism excludes protection of individuals against the results
of maximization... .then it cannot include equal chances for individuals when there are
equal maxima.199

199 James Griffin, Reply to Kurt Baier, Ethics 96 (1985), p. 132.

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Baier admits that those additional tie-breaking principles suggested by Griffin are
not logically inconsistent with the principle of utility. What then seems to be the problem
with utilitarians adopting them? The problem, Baier thinks, is that: they are contrary to
the spirit of utilitarianism... .It is at least as natural to say that utilitarianism holds that
when the principle of utility does not rank options then, morally speaking, they are
equally permissible or even desirable.200 Actually, it is a widespread view that when
there are options that would make the same maximal contribution to overall happiness,
which option to choose, in utilitarianism, makes no moral difference. It is not difficult to
imagine cases in which two competing policies differ, say, in a sense that while one raises
the living standard of all persons of the society equally, the other only that of a particular
class significantly. It has been typically argued that if these two policies make the same
maximal contribution to overall happiness, utilitarianism cannot give a special duty to
choose the first, i.e. to favor all persons equally. And in the absence of such a duty, it
cannot hold anything like Griffins principle of equal chances either. We would be
inclined to think of Griffins requirement as foreign to utilitarianism, asserts Baier.
It is true that something like Griffins egalitarian principles goes beyond
Benthams principle in the application of the principle of utility. But it is difficult to
understand why Baier thinks o f these principles as contrary to the spirit of
utilitarianism; so to say, why utilitarians cannot adopt them even when maximization
stops being mattered. It is also questionable what Baier means by the spirit of
utilitarianism. The following passage from Griffin shows one possible response to
Baiers objection:
200 Kurt Baier 1985, p. 120.

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[A principle of equal chances] is....a modest addition to the principle of
maximization. Still, no doubt some persons will want to deny that
utilitarianism has even this modest egalitarian implication. What I want to
say is that I can find no good reason for their doing so. They might argue
that, if one adopts maximization as the principle governing trade-offs, as
all utilitarians do, then one accepts that, in a certain sense, individuals do
not matter, the sum matters; which particular individuals get which part of
it does not. But that individuals do not matter in this sense does not imply
that they cannot matter in the sense that these further, tie-breaking
egalitarian principles require. The sort of concern for individuals that is
displayed in maximization is not inconsistent with the sort of concern
displayed in this modest egalitarian addition. (SPF 104)
There is, as Baier admits, no consistency problem with the holding of both principles of
maximization and equal chance, for they operate at different stages of utilitarian theory.
Thus, the utilitarian can consistently argue that just as equal regard is shown by giving
equal weight in calculating different peoples interest, so it is shown by giving different
people an equal chance at the benefit. By the spirit of utilitarianism, as it seems, Baier
points to its indifference between persons or, in his terms, its equal disregard for
persons. This seems to be no fair conception of the spirit of utilitarianism. In fact, I think,
even this conception gives no good reason to deny that utilitarianism can construe the
question of what to choose between equal maxima as having some importance.
Imagine a case in which we have a plurality o f options that are expected to have
roughly the same outcome. As long as their outcomes are not exactly the same, for
utilitarians, what to choose between them should be determined by the principle of
maximization. As in Griffins or any other utilitarians proposal, the principle of
maximization is lexically prior to any tie-breaking additions. Only when there are options
whose outcomes are exactly the same, do these additions come into play and get the
notion of equal regard back in the picture. Baier says that we would tend to call [a

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209
person] a utilitarian if and only if he accepted the principle of utility as primary and that
where it did not rank options there was nothing to choose between them.201 Here he
seems to suggest two necessary conditions for being a true utilitarian: the acceptance of
the principle of utility (1) as the primary principle governing our selection between
options, and (2) as the principle which is silent on what to do about equal maxima. But it
is mysterious where the second condition comes from; in other words, why a utilitarian
should think o f himself as becoming inert whenever the equal maxima arise. The
difference between Baier and Griffin is not very complicated. Baier thinks, quite in line
with the traditional criticisms, that maximization alone fixes the spirit of utilitarianism
and that the notion of equal regard suffers from internal conflict with this spirit. Griffins
reply was given already: every moral theory has the notion of equal regard at its heart. To
repeat, he views maximization as the way in which utilitarians express that deep notion of
equal regard which animates all moral theories, including utilitarianism.
True, the egalitarian content implicit in the principle of maximization must be
only minimal, in the sense that it gives each person nothing more than an equal standing
in the utility calculation; or in the sense that Benthams dictum does not indicate a claimright with a specific content, since having each person considered is not giving each a
specific positive benefit. But I have mentioned that this minimal egalitarian content
implicit in the principle of maximization should not be underrated. Benthams dictum, the
rule that each person is to be counted, may be seen as holding an important normative
relation among individuals, a normative relation such that each person is acknowledged
to be a possible beneficiary of social policies or individual choices and at the same time is
201 ibid., p. 123.

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a possible benefactor o f every other individual. This normative relation involves, as


David Crossley explains, on the one hand, the obligation to recognize each as a possible
object of duty and, on the other hand, the expectancy that one is to be treated as a
possible object of moral obligation, thereby being a possible beneficiary of any moral
decision.

Crossley asserts that Benthams dictum indicates an immunity-right such

that each person is the subject of an immunity-right to not have the normative
status ....o f being a possible recipient of benefits, altered.

According to his account,

this immunity-right is an indefeasible right because it cannot be overridden and yet does
not undermine the principle of utility.
Again, this immunity-right should be distinguished from a claim-right that
concerns specific positive benefits, and it is merely a right protective of each persons
moral status as a possible recipient of benefits. More importantly, it is not a right to
protection against maximization. In this connection, Baier seems to claim that
maximization exhibits a sort of moral insensitivity that rules out utilitarianisms being
sensitive to equal chances. It seems to me that this is an unreasonable complaint. Even if
Benthams dictum grants us the normative status of being a possible recipient of benefits,
o f course, the actual chances we have at the benefits may not be equal when we are in
pursuit o f maximization. For that normative status granted, in itself, does not place a
constraint on maximization. Thus, the suggestion o f the principle of equal chances may
look to Baier and others like adding an independent principle of fairness to the principle
of utility. But Griffin does not think that this is so. He explains the reason in a single

202 David J. Crossley, Utilitarianism, Rights, and Equality, Utilitas 2 (1990), p. 51.
203 ibid., p. 52.

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sentence: Each persons chance at welfare matters and matters equally because each
persons welfare matters and matters equally and because of the causal connection
between chance at welfare and welfare itself (SPF 104). If my welfare matters just as
much as yours, then it seems natural to say that, when it comes to chances of welfare,
mine matter as much as yours. For chances may affect ones welfare. Where
maximization provides no criterion - that is, once it stops mattering - it does not follow
that utilitarianism would become inert.

Maximization and Anti-Utilitarian Restrictions on Trade-Offs


So far, I have discussed two distinct utilitarian approaches to moral rights: (1)
indirect utilitarianism and (2) the conception of maximization as a principle of trade-offs.
On the indirect utilitarian view, the practical decision procedure must be something like
this: we ignore case-by-case consequences and, in deciding what to do, observe the
principles that express the habits, dispositions, and practices that have the best long-run
consequences in the light of normal human shortcomings; therefore, we have to give up
act-by-act deliberation in large parts o f our life. If utilitarianism is defined as act
consequentialist in essence, then it is evident that this practical decision procedure that
appears broadly consequentialist would not be utilitarian. But the indirect utilitarian
might reply, as Brink does, that utilitarianism itself is not supposed to provide a decision
procedure but only to be a standard of evaluation or a criterion of rightness that delimits
the nature o f moral principles permissible on its grounds. Hares proposal is to confine
the act consequentialist deliberation to the reflective procedure.

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Griffin rejects this basic idea of indirect utilitarianism. In his account of the
difference between Hares proposal and his view, Griffin writes:
It seems that, although some thought that goes on in the reflective decision
procedure is act consequentialist, some is not. Our commitments and lifestructuring aims largely take away our freedom to deliberate occasion by
occasion; this loss of freedom is not made appropriate by the normal
shortcomings that shape the practical decision procedure, so it does not
disappear when they do... Just as act-by-act deliberation is barred from
the practical decision procedure, it is at times barred from the reflective
procedure... .This conclusion does not mean that consequentialist
deliberation is not, ultimately, at some particularly deep level, act by act.
In a sense it has to be. One department of moral thought is actmorality....Ultimately a consequentialist has to be an act consequentialist,
but it is often very ultimate indeed. Where act consequentialism has its
unqualified place is not in the decision procedures... .but among the
criteria o f right and wrong. (WB 201)
Hares picture o f our moral thinking is awkwardly two-dimensional. He seems to suggest
that the two levels, the critical and the intuitive, designate the two distinct depths of our
moral thinking. However, it is questionable whether, in realty, the depths of our moral
thinking can be so clear-cut. It could also be asked, why could there not be more than two
levels? It is not very persuasive that at the deep level, our moral thinking always operates
by act-by-act deliberation or that at the practical or intuitive level of moral thinking, we
are generally unconcerned about case-by-case consequences. What seems closer to the
truth is that our act-by-act deliberation and concern about case-by-case consequences do
not disappear at any level of moral thinking and hence that in the practical decision
procedure, we do not simply ignore these consequences.
As argued above, the indirect utilitarian description of the practical decision
procedure depends for its intelligibility on a fallibilistic reason, the reason that we have
no reliable means of identifying the act that will bring about the best consequences. It

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seems that this reason alone can lead us neither to the conclusion that act consequentialist
deliberation will actually make things worse for our life, nor to the conclusion that the
general welfare will best be promoted in the long run by following certain social rules
consistently and respecting moral rights. The fallibilistic reason is, by itself, no reason
that a utilitarian should abstain from implementing act consequentialist deliberation in
practical decision-making situations. The utilitarian might admit that act consequentialist
deliberation will at times produce bad effects on the quality of our life. But this is no
reason that he would want to adopt a restrictive outlook that concerns only the reflective
procedure, a relatively small segment of his life. As far as I can see, the indirect
utilitarians are unconcerned about the price they should pay when they go restrictive - for
example, the price that utilitarianism becomes an esoteric morality and so violates the
publicity condition o f a plausible moral theory. Particularly, I am not convinced of the
claim that utilitarianism itself provides only a standard o f rightness and not a decision
procedure. Griffin argues persuasively that To the extent that consequences determine
right or wrong.. ..[and thus] to the extent that consequentialism has a hand in assessing
what people do, it has to look at how what they do affects the quality of life. And what a
person does can affect the quality of lives in very many different ways: by the
dispositions he encourages or discourages, by the goals he sets himself, by co-operating
with others, by adopting conventions, and so on. These are all things that we choose to
do (WB 202).
A moral theory requires agents to assume an impartial point of view. But critics
have objected that utilitarianism interprets this impartiality requirement into a
requirement that agents take an impersonal attitude toward their own welfare: an agent

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must view his own projects and interests as no more valuable than those of others.
Utilitarianism, therefore, cannot accommodate the personal point of view. This is an
objection to utilitarianism as a decision procedure: utilitarian reasoning requires agents to
discount their own projects in a way which disregards the personal point of view. In order
for the utilitarian to avoid this sort of objection, Brink claims, the simplest way is to
redefine utilitarianism as a standard o f rightness and not a decision procedure. This is for
sure the simplest but, 1 think, the most absurd way to avoid the objection. It is absurd in
the sense that it denies that a standard o f rightness, once adopted by an agent, would
somehow take part in shaping his decisions of what to do in practice. Utilitarianism is a
decision procedure: it requires everyone to value his projects and commitments
impartially. In the classical utilitarian texts, we can find some remarks to the effect that
the goal of maximizing utility will not be achieved by universal benevolence; rather, it
would be better achieved if we allow special concern for ourselves and those close to us.
In this connection, Sidgwick says that the doctrine that Universal Happiness is the
ultimate standard must not be understood to imply that Universal Benevolence is the only
right or always the best motive of action (ME 413).

In classical utilitarianism, the

motives that lead to compliance with the principle of utility are various and not related to
its truth. Motives other than universal benevolence can be reasonably preferred on
utilitarian principles. However, it is still a mistake to interpret this as implying that
utilitarianism can be a standard of rightness without being a decision procedure.
As hinted at earlier, Griffins approach runs in a direction quite different than
Brinks, in the direction that puts stress on maximization as a decision procedure.
Maximization as a utilitarian decision procedure has been criticized as being purely

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215

aggregative. This criticism, however, overlooks that for the utilitarian maximization
would be taken to be a principle which ranks options for how to distribute goods among
persons, namely, that it is a distributive principle. Being a distributive principle is not
merely a possible but an essential usage o f maximization. Like every other moral theory,
on Griffins account, utilitarianism is animated by a deep notion of equal regard.
Maximization as a distributive principle is a utilitarian way of expressing this deep notion
of equal regard. Thus, utilitarianism is a view, right or wrong, about equal regard. Is this
account unorthodox? I think not. Critics misdescribe the spirit of utilitarianism by
discounting the egalitarian implications of Benthams dictum and by overlooking that
maximization is an expression of respect for equal regard which includes the dictum as
a constituent principle. Or they sometimes misdescribe it by construing the dictum as a
separate and independent principle essentially in conflict with maximizing policies and,
after all, making

utilitarianism appear to be an incoherent moral theory.

Once we drop these misdescriptions, there would not be much trouble in arguing
that utilitarianism is a moral theory which is animated by a deep notion of equal regard.
So to speak, this deep, animating notion of equal regard is behind both the principle of
maximization (the utilitarian principle of trade-offs) and its constituent principle of equal
weight (everybody to count for one). As pointed out repeatedly, of course, such a deep
notion may be too vague to derive any substantive moral principle about equality. But
this is no quandary peculiar to utilitarianism. For example, modem contractualists often
use the separation of persons or respect for persons as a reason why utilitarians are
wrong to transfer the intrapersonal maximizing standard to interpersonal cases. As I have
tried to show in the previous chapters, however, these vague expressions amount to no

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216
more than the claim that one ought not to transfer the model of intrapersonal trade-offs to
interpersonal trade-offs and do not make the contractualist view of equal regard look
more attractive. What utilitarians must be concerned to show in defense of their position
is simply that as an expression of one view about equal regard, maximization in
interpersonal trade-offs is not particularly objectionable in comparison with other
competing moral conceptions. Modem utilitarians have attempted to show that in two
quite expected ways: one that undermines the intuitive attractiveness of anti-utilitarian
restrictions on trade-offs, and the other that highlights the intuitive attractiveness of the
utilitarian principle o f trade-offs.
It has been a common observation that the utilitarian principle of trade-offs is far
too permissive. Pressing this observation against utilitarians, modem contractualists go
on to impose restrictions on the operation of utilitarian trade-offs. One utilitarian response
to this is that these restrictions proposed in various contractualist formulations are far too
strict. In the previous chapter, we have seen that modem anti-utilitarians endorse the
objection to balancing argument which implies the requirement that a moral principle
must somehow treat each person in a way which he should find acceptable. And I have
argued there that finding out such an acceptable way demands more than what the
objection to balancing implies in itself. In short, anti-utilitarian restrictions on trade-offs,
as requirements that define such an acceptable way, are bound to depend somehow on the
testimony of intuitions.
Modem utilitarians like Hare and Brandt have concluded that we must renounce
appeal to intuitions altogether. According to Brandts definition, intuitions are beliefs

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217
in, and dispositions on occasion to utter, certain normative statements.204 Somewhat
more specifically, for Hare, intuitions are merely the attitudes, feelings, dispositions,
inclinations that have been formed by social pressures, contingencies of personality
development charted by depth psychology, and the like.

The common upshot drawn

by Brandt and Hare through very different approaches is that intuitions, once seen on
their own, have no probative force; that is, intuitions are not self-justifying. And they
cannot depend for their justification on some other intuitions, probably, intuitions that are
of higher credence level, since credence level of intuitions seems to change with time. A
certain set of intuitions or normative beliefs that are of a high level of generality can be
defended on utilitarian grounds by critical thinking, as having a high acceptance-utility.
Hare argues, however, that these intuitions and all the moral feelings associated with
them will provide no argument against utilitarianism; on the contrary, it is utilitarianism
that is actually able to justify the intuitions, where they can be justified.206
But it seems that many will find it untenable to renounce appeal to intuitions
altogether. Indeed, something like Rawls proposal for reaching reflective equilibrium,
the proposal that we modify sometimes intuition and sometimes theory until they are in
balance, has been a very popular method of testing proposed general normative principles

204 Richard B. Brandt, A Theory o f the Good and the Right (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1979), p. 17. But he notes that what intuitionist philosophers refer to as intuition is
usually a class of normative beliefs somewhat narrower than the totality of such
normative beliefs. It is limited to the already accepted general principles like all lies
are wrong, and to those judgments which are made or could be made in moments of
emotional calm, and are not obviously distorted by personal interest (pp. 17-18).
205 R. M. Hare 1981, esp. chapter 8.
206 R. M. Hare 1981, p. 137. As seen in Chapter 2, this account o f the relationship
between utilitarianism and intuitionist moral principles can be traced back to Sidgwicks
conception of common sense morality.

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218

by appeal to intuitions. Many modem philosophers seem to believe that this is the most
reasonable way to incorporate intuitions into a moral theory.207 However, utilitarians
might reply that how these philosophers might justify their view that a normative
principle should be tested against our intuitions in the sense of our considered beliefs is
no easy question. Moreover, once we let intuitions guide us, it is a tremendously difficult
question where we should stop.
To repeat, modem contractualists have attacked the allegedly counterintuitive
permissiveness of the utilitarian rule of trade-offs. Their attack can be seen as implying
that they think that their restrictions on trade-offs are much closer to our moral beliefs or
intuitions. But this appeal to moral intuitions might backfire.
Let us consider an example. Sen once proposed what he called the Weak Equity
Axiom, which he believed to be an absolutely minimum requirement: if one person is a
less good utility producer than another, say, because he is handicapped, so that at any
level of goods he is less well off, then he must be given something more than the other.

208

Later, he redefined this axiom in a somewhat less demanding form. In this weaker
definition, the axiom demands only that the unfortunate one must not be given less, if he
is below and the more fortunate one already above a minimum acceptable level of
welfare: If person i is worse off than person j whenever i andj have the same income
level, then no less income should be given to i than to j in the optimal solution of the pure

207 Of course, not all modem philosophers have endorsed Rawls proposal - not to
mention Hare and Brandt. Expressing his skepticism of any appeal to intuitions, Prof.
McBride comments that Rawls reliance on intuitions has set a bad example from which
we are all still suffering. Although I do quite agree with his comment, I shall not pursue
this issue any further here.
Amartya Sen, On Economic Inequality (Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 18.
Ann

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219

distribution problem.209 Sens proposal emerges in the context of contrasting the two
rules of decision-making yielded respectively by the Rawlsian maximin conception of
justice and by classical utilitarianism. He argues that in making ethical judgments on
distributional issues, we rely on an information set which consists of comparisons of
levels of welfare as well as comparisons of welfare gains and losses; and that while the
utilitarian approach calls for only the latter half of the information set, Rawls has
concentrated totally on the other half of it, namely, the information based on comparison
of levels of welfare. Hence, Sens main conclusion is that neither Rawls maximin rule
nor the utilitarian rule can provide a complete theory in itself. One important conclusion
relevant to our discussion is that the utilitarian rule which is concerned with the
maximization of individual welfares violates the Weak Equity Axiom, since it ignores the
demand of the axiom that a person who is more deprived in non-income respects should
o1n

not be made to receive less income as well.

Note that Sens axiom uses exactly the

same type of information as the Rawlsian maximin rule. But the maximin rule has been
criticized because of its exclusive concern with the welfare level of the worst off person.
Sen asserts that this extreme nature of the maximin rule can be removed in a more
general approach which could still retain the concentration on welfare levels, and that the
Weak Equity Axiom is an example of a partial rule that is not extremist in the sense in
which the maximin rule is.

90Q

Amartya Sen, Rawls versus Bentham: An Axiomatic Examination o f the Pure


Distribution Problem, in Normal Daniels ed., Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls
A Theory of Justice (Basic Books, 1975), p. 285.
210 ibid.

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220

In Sens account, again, the Weak Equity Axiom is meant to be a model of an


uncrossable line, i.e., an absolutely minimum restriction on interpersonal trade-offs.
However, utilitarians might reply that this restriction is still too demanding. In his critical
comments on Sens proposal, Griffin makes this point in an example which goes like this:
Surgeons, in choosing between patients for a kidney transplant, are often guided by a
patients prospects. If Jones has been chronically ill, below the minimum acceptable level
for most of his life, with poor prospects of surviving long after an operation, and Smith,
never as ill, has good prospects, Smith may be the one to be operated on (TSTR 153).
Griffin argues that the intuitions of many people are on the side of these medical policies.
They do seem at least debatable. The trouble with the Weak Equity Axiom is that it rules
them out of consideration. In short, our intuitions go against what this axiom demands.211
In the above example, what utilitarianism seems to require is that we write off the
unfortunate Jones and concentrate resources to the already far more fortunate Smith.
Certainly few people would feel that this is a moral requirement. But the point is that the
same objection goes to what the Weak Equity Axiom seems to require. The axiom
requires the worse off person always to be favored. It seems that this requirement can
hardly be felt by most of us to be an acceptable moral requirement either. A further point
is that if both Sens axiom and the utilitarian rule of trade-offs turned out unsatisfactory
on the testimony of intuitions, there would be no clear reason why the utilitarian rule
should give way to that axiom. In this connection, Griffin suggests that as such anti
utilitarian restrictions on trades seem unpromisingly strong, the utilitarian restriction is

211 James Griffin, Equality: On Sens Weak Equity Axiom, Mind 90 (1981), p. 282.

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221
bound to seem unpromisingly weak. We seem to need either to loosen the former or to
tighten the latter (TSTR 156).
In arguing that the utilitarian rule violates the Weak Equity Axiom, a fundamental
feature of utilitarianism with which Sen is concerned is its ruling out essential use of any
non-utility information.212 The axiom itself expresses an objection to this feature of
utilitarianism by saying that a persons misfortune in non-utility respects should be
considered in making moral judgments about distributional matters. The force of Sens
argument against utilitarianism, in part, comes from the claim that utilitarianism
recommends not helping those who suffer from special misfortune but allowing more
misfortune to befall them. However, it seems that there may be a large number of cases in
which our intuitions are not on the side o f the Weak Equity Axiom. Probably, one feasible
utilitarian strategy to answer Sens argument is to collect these cases and to argue, as
Griffin does, that the attractiveness of anti-utilitarianism disappears once it is faced with
them.

Concluding Remarks
The two utilitarian approaches to moral rights discussed in this chapter, namely,
(1) indirect utilitarianism and (2) the conception of maximization as a principle of trade
offs, have their own problems. On the one hand, the problem with indirect utilitarianism
is that it appears to demand a contentious redefinition of utilitarianism. In fact, the
212 Amartya Sen, Utilitarianism and Welfarism, Journal o f Philosophy 76 (1979), p.
478. He argues that welfarism is the most fundamental element of utilitarianism and
imposes an informational constraint in making moral judgments about alternative states
of affairs. This constraint is to neglect non-utility information.

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222

problem lies in the distinction between criteria of rightness and decision procedures
which is behind this redefinition. We have seen Rawls strong argument against this
distinction. And further, in my view, it is not easy to convince the majority of
contemporary utilitarians, who are still trying to work out a feasible utilitarian decision
procedure, that utilitarianism is not supposed to provide a decision procedure; so to speak,
that they are working in vain. On the other hand, the problem with the conception of
maximization as a principle of trade-offs is that even if this conception invites in some
principles of equality, it seems that they are not within the resources of utilitarianism. Or,
since these principles are mere tie-breakers, it is questionable how they might help
utilitarians in answering the standard objection to the counterintuitive permissiveness of
the utilitarian rule o f trade-offs.
But this standard objection starts to weaken once we consider following questions.
What kinds of intuitions are critics talking about? What kinds of things do they have in
mind when they speak of intuitions against which the utilitarian rule of trade-offs can
be checked? Why do utilitarians have to allow that the ultimate test of their rule of trade
offs is its compatibility with our intuitions, whatever they are? That is, what gives the
intuitions such an authority? It seems to me that all these questions are difficult to answer
and that they are directed to those critics who have raised the counterintuitive
permissiveness objection.
Defenders o f appeal to intuitions might ask whether there is a better method for
testing normative principles than by appeal to intuitions. With regard to this question, for
instance, Brandt argues:

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223

There is a viable alternative: to make up our minds what it is we want to


know when we are faced with practical problems....Once we know what
[the questions we want to answer for purposes of action] are, we can use
the ordinary method of science and observation to determine the answers.
We need not rely on our antecedent moral commitments.213
Intuitionism, as a theory about how to answer ethical questions, according Brandts
account, holds that the proper order of reflection goes like this: antecedently accepted
normative beliefs about concrete situations, then information from science or observation,
and finally inference to normative generalization.214 In contrast to this, the proposed
order of reflection rules out these antecedently accepted normative beliefs, i.e., replaces
the first step o f the intuitionist reflection by a step of reflection on what we want to
j

know, for purposes of decision-making.

1r

But it is beyond my concern here to decide whether, on the utilitarians part, this
seemingly total renunciation of appeal to intuitions is the most promising way to meet the
counterintuitive permissiveness objection. In partial defense of the conception of
maximization as a principle of trade-offs against the counterintuitive permissiveness
objection, as Griffin suggests, one option for utilitarians is to put those intuitions, which
are used as the basis o f the objection, under pressure by uncovering their origins and
thereby to lay some doubts on the old method of appeal to intuitions. This option does not
necessarily lead to the total renunciation of appeal to intuitions. On the contrary, what
utilitarians might want to show is that the testimony of intuitions is not always in favor of
anti-utilitarianism. Griffin writes:

213 Richard B. Brandt 1979, p. 22.


214 ibid., p. 16.
215 ibid., p. 10.

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224

It is easy, altogether too easy, to announce attractive-sounding principles.


But if one collected the trade-offs that fairly wide-spread intuitions
support, and if one took the task seriously enough to collect large number
of them over a wide range of cases, this undisputed set of trade-offs, so
to speak, would undermine every proposal that moral philosophy has yet
produced of principles of governing trade-offs....it certainly shows how
far we are from having any satisfactory arguments on the subject. (TSTR
154)
This undisputed set of trade-offs might show, of course, that the maximization principle,
the utilitarian rule of trade-offs, is not satisfactory on the testimony of intuitions. But it
might show that the competing principles of trade-offs, put forward by the present-day
anti-utilitarians - for instance, those of Rawls, Nozick, and Sen - are, on the testimony of
intuitions, not satisfactory either; so to speak, that they seem unpromisingly strong. This
might be named the counterintuitive strictness objection. Of course, this objection does
not provide any direct support for the utilitarian principle of trade-offs. Yet, as Griffin
hopes, it might suggest that some sort of very broadly utilitarian restriction on trade-offs
seems again worth serious investigation (TSTR 155).

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LIST OF REFERENCES

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225

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VITA

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VITA

Joon Ho Kang was bom in Pusan, South Korea on July 9, 1968. He received his
Bachelors degree from Kyunghee University in Seoul, South Korea in February 1994
with a major in philosophy. Kang continued his study of philosophy at the University of
Pennsylvania where he received his Master of Arts degree in May 1999. He completed
the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Purdue University in
December 2003.

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