How Useful is Utilitarianism?




In ‘Is Non-Consequentialism Self-Effacing?’, I noted that utilitarianism seems to encourage good acts in practice (e.g. via effective altruism), and so should be more widely appreciated.

(Unfortunately, the view often seems associated in people’s minds with villainous rhetoric about omelets. But I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting that real-life dictators were actually influenced by Bentham, Mill, or other utilitarian thinkers. I don’t believe for a moment that Hitler et al. were honestly trying to impartially promote well-being, counting all people equally. And I’m sure that villains will find a way to rationalize their villainy no matter what moral philosophers might say. So I don’t think fears of a “utilitarianism → atrocities” causal pipeline have any credibility.)

In this post, I want to ask: how might utilitarian-leaning philosophers seek to do more good through their work? It’s something I’ve been pondering of late, and would welcome additional feedback. (I’ve already benefitted immensely from chatting over the summer with some fantastic colleagues in philosophy and economics at UT Austin.)

Thinking constructively.

So far, I can see four broad “cause areas” for utilitarian philosophy:

Pure research to better develop and test the details of the utilitarian worldview.

Persuasively-oriented research, to better communicate to fellow academics the theory’s virtues and responses to objections.

General outreach, to students and the general public.

Targeted outreach, to policymakers and policy-adjacent academics (e.g. in the public health community).

Pure research

This will likely be the most intrinsically appealing “cause area” for my fellow utilitarian-leaning philosophers, as it involves doing just what we tend to most enjoy anyway. And I think it is important! I’m a big fan of even the most impractical pure philosophy (so long as it’s genuinely philosophically interesting). But even putting aside the purely intellectual value, I would expect (high quality) pure research in ethics to have significant long-run instrumental value by contributing to our collective understanding of moral (and decision) theory. It’s important to test and develop the best ideas of both utilitarianism and its most promising competitors, to give us a better chance of accurately discerning what’s really important and true.

Persuasively-oriented research

This category isn’t wholly distinct from the first one, but involves some degree of deliberately addressing one’s work to non-utilitarians (in contrast to purely “internal” debates between utilitarians of subtly different stripes). Much of my own work falls under this category. I’m interested in developing the strongest, most broadly persuasive case for a (mostly) utilitarian approach to ethics. Three projects I’m currently most excited about:

A paper developing a ‘New Paradox of Deontology’. (Currently revising—more on this soon.)

A paper arguing that importance, rather than permissibility, should be considered the central concept of normative ethics. (More on this in an upcoming post.)

My book project on Bleeding Heart Consequentialism, which develops a sympathetic picture of the beneficent agent, to finally put to rest the awful caricature of the “cold and calculating” consequentialist agent.

I’d love to hear from others doing work in this same vein—please share your own (related) research projects in the comments!

The potential instrumental value I see emerging from this sort of work is greater sympathy for (broadly) utilitarian ethics within the academy, which is important because an academic consensus has a tendency to eventually “trickle down” to society at large (both through the teaching of undergraduates / professional masters students, and via quotes in the media or other “public philosophy” contributions from our academic colleagues).

General outreach

Here I think it makes an important difference whether you’re targeting philosophy students or the general public. For philosophy students, I think it makes sense to talk about moral theory, and hence utilitarianism, since this is stuff they’re going to be taught about anyway. To this end, I’m really proud of the work we’re doing on to present the theory in a clear, accessible, and sympathetic way.

For the general public, it’s less clear that moral theory per se is worth talking about. The practically important part of utilitarianism is just its beneficentrism (which may also be shared by any other decent view). It’s not as though we really want to encourage anyone to go around pushing people in front of trolleys. So in many contexts, I expect it would make a lot more sense to promote effective altruism rather than utilitarianism.

Targeted outreach

Likewise for policy influence, I think what we really want to promote is not utilitarianism per se, but just a beneficence-focused ethic. (See: Theory-Driven Applied Ethics.) You don’t have to be a utilitarian—mere sanity suffices—to think that passing a cost-benefit analysis is at least a necessary condition for justifying restrictive medical policies, for example.

So I’d be keen to see a lot more NY Times op-eds and other elite-focused communications that explicitly foreground beneficence or doing the most good as key considerations that should guide policy choice and analysis.

Another promising avenue for (longer-term) positive influence in this area would be though producing better teaching materials specifically in applied ethics for “professional” masters students (in public policy, bioethics, etc.). As the pandemic made clear, something has gone terribly wrong with how the public health community (for example) thinks about ethics and policy evaluation. I’m not sufficiently familiar with how they got to this point to be well-positioned to prescribe solutions, but “better teaching materials in applied ethics” seems like a promising first step, at any rate (though much would then depend upon securing uptake from the relevant teachers). I welcome others’ thoughts and proposals.


I think utilitarian philosophy can be useful, both for encouraging more beneficent behaviour in general, and for encouraging better public policies in particular. Within the academy, there’s much to be done to develop and rehabilitate utilitarian moral theory, which is unjustly maligned in many quarters. Outside of the academy, encouraging a more beneficence-focused moral perspective could do even more good. Putting this all together suggests plenty of room for sympathetic philosophers to contribute to a Beneficence Project that explicitly seeks to use utilitarianism for good.

Comments / suggestions on this project conception would be most welcome! (How would you prioritize between the various project branches identified above? Do any strike you as potentially or likely counterproductive? What good ideas have I missed?)

Please also get in touch if you might be interested in working on (some aspect of) such a project yourself. (It’s always helpful to find more potential collaborators! The more people doing good things, the better, in my view…)

Originally appeared on Good Thoughts Read More



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