Thursday, 1 October 2009

Utilitarianism and Equality (MA Dissertation)


In this dissertation I investigate a utilitarian approach to equality. My conclusion is that utilitarianism is egalitarian enough as it stands and does not need to be combined with any egalitarian theories. I then defend this conclusion against a range of criticisms.

I have divided the work into four chapters, with each chapter subdivided into several sections. In the first chapter, I look at utilitarianism and egalitarianism, clarifying which versions of each theory I wish to focus on. I decide to focus on hedonistic act utilitarianism and a hedonistic egalitarianism of outcome. This simplifies the analysis, as both theories are focussed on the same quantity, namely “mental welfare”, which I define as straightforward pleasure (negative mental welfare being pain). Before I combine the theories, I investigate the repercussions of each if pursued alone, finding that, although both have shortcomings, egalitarianism’s are far greater.

In the second chapter I investigate three ways to combine the two theories and then conclude that utilitarianism has sufficient egalitarian credentials as it stands. The three combinations that I reject are a simple hybrid theory, then two more sophisticated approaches, namely the sufficiency view (Frankfurt 1997) and prioritarianism (Parfit 1997). I argue that my conclusion applies to all major forms of act-utilitarianism and that various forms of egalitarianism may be of instrumental value towards creating happiness.

The second half of the dissertation (chapters 3 and 4) is devoted to trying to answer potential criticisms of the utilitarian conclusion reached in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 is devoted to answering rights-based criticisms and Chapter 4 deals with two other criticisms: the argument against grand reductionist views and the “contented pigs” argument.

I begin Chapter 3 by discussing the anti-aggregation, or “separateness of persons” view (Rawls 1999: 24). I then try to deal with the criticisms that my view sanctions murder and excessive paternalism. I argue that all these criticisms are vulnerable to catastrophic scenarios and should therefore be rejected.

In Chapter 4, with regard to arguments against reductionism I concur with Mill that conflicting principles need an “umpire” to decide between them (Mill 1861: 158). Finally, against the “contented pigs” argument, I contend that the value of knowledge, understanding etc. can be explained by the hedonistic utilitarian in terms of its usefulness towards creating happiness (instrumental value). I do acknowledge, however, that this argument may cast some doubt on the utilitarian approach and, therefore, my conclusion.


1.1 Chapter Introduction

The aim of this first chapter is to look at utilitarianism and egalitarianism, clarifying which versions of each theory I shall focus on, and investigating the repercussions of each if pursued alone. This will prepare the way for the analysis that follows in Chapter 2 where I will look at ways to combine the theories.

For the purposes of the analysis of the next chapter it will be wise to focus on one form of utilitarianism and one form of egalitarianism. Towards the end of Chapter 2 (sections 2.6 and 2.7) I will then extend my conclusions to the other forms of the theories. This choice of which versions of the theories to focus on will take up much of this first chapter (sections 1.2 and 1.3).

Both theories come in many forms. My criteria for which versions on which to concentrate my attention will be twofold. Firstly, I wish to use forms of utilitarianism and egalitarianism that are easy to understand and work with in my analysis. Secondly, I wish to use forms of the theories that are plausible, as there is little to be gained from working with ones that are likely to be false.

Due to limits of time and space, some forms of the two theories that seem very far from meeting the above criteria will barely be considered. Rule utilitarianism, for example, will be discussed only briefly, and many forms of egalitarianism, as it is a diverse family of views, will hardly be mentioned at all. In particular, equality of treatment will not be my focus, as equality of outcome, in my view, meets the criteria of plausibility and simplicity far more successfully.

My discussion of which form of each theory to analyse will, therefore, be mainly confined to answering the question “maximisation of what?” within act-utilitarianism and the parallel question “equality of what?” within egalitarianism of outcome. After considering some alternatives, I will settle on investigating the simplest case of the interaction of the two theories, where both focus on the same quantity, namely “mental welfare” which I define as pleasure (negative mental welfare being pain).

In the latter half of this chapter I will investigate the repercussions of the pursuit of each of the theories alone. This will be very useful in informing the analysis of combinations of the theories that we will move on to in Chapter 2. In section 1.4, I will show that hedonistic utilitarianism pursued alone leaves us vulnerable to a powerful egalitarian argument that I call The Exploitation Objection. In the following section (1.5) however, we will see that utilitarianism does arguably gain some egalitarian credentials from instrumental effects. In the last section of the chapter (1.6) I will show that egalitarianism pursued alone leads us to The Levelling Down Objection, which is even more disastrous than The Exploitation Objection. Other problems with pure egalitarianism that I will discuss are temporal and I also look at dilemmas concerning how to measure equality.

1.2 Choosing Type of Utilitarianism on which to Focus Analysis

Let us begin, then, by specifying the type of utilitarianism on which we wish to focus our attention. Two great divisions among utilitarians that we can start with are the “maximisation of what?” debate and the rule v/s act debate (Mulgan 2007: 61-92, 115-129). As I have just stated, I will only discuss rule utilitarianism briefly here. Although it is probably as simple to define as act-utilitarianism for the purposes of my analysis, I do not find it a particularly plausible version of the theory. I agree with Tannsjo (1998: 49) that “the fact that, if everyone does not do his or her rule-utilitarian duty, my doing so may have disastrous effects” indicates a problem with the theory.

There are two brief further points that I would like to make about my hasty dismissal of rule-utilitarianism before I leave the subject. Firstly I would point out that the conclusion I reach in the next chapter can probably apply just as easily to rules as to acts anyway, making specific discussion of rule-utilitarianism redundant. Secondly, one of the appeals of rule-utilitarianism is that it keeps us away from the allegedly repugnant deviations from common-sense morality that act-utilitarianism leads us to (Mulgan 2007: 120). However, these deviations from common sense are often examples of gross inegalitarianism, which are, I hope, successfully incorporated into my analysis in the next chapter anyway.

So, let us move on to the “maximisation of what?” debate. Answers to this question can perhaps be divided into three. Firstly there is straightforward hedonistic utilitarianism as espoused by Bentham that maximises happiness or pleasure. Next, there is the maximisation of preference satisfaction known as preference utilitarianism. Lastly, we have the idea of maximising other additional ideals, such as the attainment of knowledge or beauty, in a cocktail of aims, which we might group under the heading of ideal utilitarianism (Smart 1973: 13).

The hybrid of utilitarianism and egalitarianism that I will be considering at the beginning of the next chapter (section 2.2) would qualify as a form of ideal utilitarianism, as it is a utilitarianism with more than one aim. This theory still leaves us the dilemma of whether to formulate its utilitarian part in a hedonistic or preference form. Whether we accept ideal utilitarianism or not, therefore (and in Chapter 4 we will re-visit this issue with regards to anti-hedonistic criticisms) we still have to chose between the hedonistic and preference views.

Let us recall the criteria that we are applying to our choice of which form of each theory to use: simplicity to work with and plausibility as a theory. On the issue of simplicity, I would contend that the happiness and misery of hedonistic utilitarianism are simpler quantities than the desire satisfaction of preference utilitarianism. The latter involves the interaction of two quantities, desire and the fulfilment of it. Happiness can be considered one quantity, although it can be positive or negative, the latter being called misery. Consideration of simplicity for our analysis, therefore, pushes us in the direction of hedonistic utilitarianism.

With regard to plausibility, the debate between the hedonistic and preference forms of the theory is settled, in my view, by test cases, where desire satisfaction and mental welfare differ. The case that I find most convincing in favour of the hedonistic version is one where a person has been genetically engineered by a malicious scientist to have irresistible desires that cause him or her immense pain when satisfied. In this case I believe that denying the person his or her preferences would be the morally correct thing to do, suggesting, to me, a moral priority of preventing pain over satisfying desire.

Another thought experiment that I find convincing, is one where a person gains an addiction to a drug that gives him or her no pleasure when taken, only painful withdrawal symptoms when not taken (Parfit 1984: 497). Preference utilitarianism might imply the conclusion that addiction to such a drug is a good thing. I find this conclusion difficult to accept. These cases lead me to conclude that the hedonistic version has greater plausibility as well as simplicity, and I shall, therefore, focus my analysis on this form of the theory.

While I contend that happiness (and misery) is a simpler concept than desire satisfaction, I would not wish to give the impression that it is at all simple. Philosophy has been searching for a definition of happiness since ancient times and I should clarify the concept before I continue to use it.

The major dilemma for a definition of happiness is probably between viewing it as mere pleasure or including other features of life, for example positive thoughts or even successful or virtuous actions. Since most of us would accept the possibility of a successful or virtuous but unhappy person, the latter possibilities should probably be rejected.

We can, therefore, limit the debate to two views: a narrow view and a wide view. According to the narrow view, happiness is simply pleasure experienced in a moment and need not be accompanied by any thoughts. According to the wider view, happiness includes all the pleasures of the narrow view plus positive thoughts approving of one’s life and environment/society. This debate echoes Mill’s discussion of contented pigs v/s discontented philosophers (Mill 1861: 140) as well as Nozick’s experience machine (Nozick 1974: 42) (both of which I discuss in Chapter 4).

The criteria of plausibility and simplicity lead me here to favour the narrow view, where happiness is viewed as straightforward pleasure. With regard to plausibility I believe that our moral goal should be to give people pleasure and not necessarily to give them positive thoughts. If it turned out for some bizarre reason that negative thoughts about one’s life and environment were the ones that generally gave rise to pleasure then those would be the kinds of thoughts that I would wish to promote. I thus view pleasure as morally ultimate. With regard to simplicity for the sake of our analysis, it is clear that the narrow definition of happiness is simpler, as the wide contains the narrow.

However, as I stated in the chapter introduction, once I reach the conclusions of my analysis I will extend them to the other forms of the theories, so my conclusions do not rely on my choice of hedonistic utilitarianism over other forms of the theory.

Apart from the wide/narrow issue, another important question that our definition of happiness needs to answer is whether happiness and misery can really be defined as the positive and negative values of the same quantity. I would answer this question in the affirmative, based on the observation that happiness and unhappiness cannot be experienced simultaneously and also on the belief that both seem to be open ended in the intensity they can take.

So we have arrived on a definition of utilitarianism for our analysis, as the pursuit of pleasure maximisation/displeasure minimisation. In order to avoid the inconvenience of having to constantly repeat this cumbersome formulation I will, in most instances, replace pleasure and displeasure with the general term: “mental welfare”. One’s mental welfare is one’s level of pleasure (when it is positive) or pain (when it is negative). I do not intend to suggest any of the social connotations that the word “welfare” might carry.

1.3 Choosing Type of Egalitarianism on which to Focus Analysis

So, now we know which sort of utilitarianism we are going to analyse, let’s do the same for egalitarianism. Unfortunately egalitarians are an even more diverse group than utilitarians, representing, as they do, a major and controversial thread in the history of political thought (Weale 1998).

A major question for the definition of egalitarianism, that we might begin with, is between equality of outcome and equality of treatment. Equality of outcome is perhaps simpler to understand, and certainly more compatible with utilitarianism, as it is a consequentialist approach. If, as moral actors, we are trying to achieve equality of outcome, all we have to do is pick a quantity, for example wealth or mental welfare, and act so as to leave each person with the same amount of it.

Equality of treatment on the other hand might mean many things, and connects with the concepts of justice or fairness. Capitalism, for example, might be claimed to treat all equally, even though those with greater money-making ability end up getting treated better than others. It might be claimed that all are rewarded for the money-making ability that they have to an equal extent, just like an exam treats all equally even though some end up getting given better grades. Likewise it might be claimed that utilitarianism fulfils the criterion of equality of treatment, as each person is treated so as to maximise the happiness potential that they have, even though a person who has a greater capacity for happiness is likely to be treated with greater priority. (This connects to Bentham’s claim that utilitarianism treats each person as “one and no one as more than one” (Gosepath 2008) which is probably, therefore, something of an overstatement of utilitarianism’s egalitarian credentials).

So we may use “Equality of treatment” in a variety of senses. In the weak sense that I have been discussing, it is already an ingredient of utilitarianism. Indeed, some sort of equality of treatment or impartiality presents itself as a requirement for any moral system.

But I wish to deal with a stricter form of egalitarianism than one which utilitarianism or any moral system already contains. I also wish to deal with a form of egalitarianism that is easy to analyse and compatible with utilitarianism. I shall therefore focus on equality of outcome, rather than treatment. The omission of equality of treatment from these first two chapters will, I hope, to some extent, be compensated for by my discussion of rights-based criticisms in the Chapter 3, as rights-based views represent, perhaps, the best attempt to put a stricter form of equality of treatment into an ethical theory.

So, having settled on equality of outcome, we are still left with a wide range of outcomes to choose from. Prominent candidates are welfare, resources and opportunity (Gosepath 2008). From this list, welfare seems an appealing option. It might be construed as mental welfare, the value that I defined in the previous section, that we are trying to maximise with our utilitarianism. We would therefore be considering the simplest case of the interaction of the two theories, where we try to maximise and equalise the same quantity. It seems wise, therefore, to begin our analysis with this. As with the other forms of utilitarianism, our conclusions will then be extended to other forms of egalitarianism.

1.4 Investigation of Hedonistic Act Utilitarianism Pursued Alone

Before we try to combine utilitarianism and egalitarianism in the following chapter, it will be useful for us to consider, in turn, the consequences of pursuing each of the theories without the other. Firstly, what if we pursue utilitarianism without any “side constraints” or considerations of equal distribution of mental welfare?

The immediate response of many to this idea might be that pursuing the maximisation of mental welfare in society, but not worrying about who receives it would be a callous theory. Surely a world with the same amount of mental welfare but a more lopsided distribution of it would be a worse one, wouldn’t it? Let me begin with an example.

Imagine a fantasy scenario where mental welfare is somehow transferring down a wire endlessly away from one person and into another. The total amount of mental welfare in this situation stays constant but the distribution changes. Surely, in this scenario, by the time both people are groaning, one in agony, the other in ecstasy, anyone with common decency would wish the process to stop? Our concerns for the badly-off person here seem to carry weight despite our knowledge that the total amount of mental welfare in this group of two people is not being altered by the process. This intuition might lead us to adopt a moral theory that offers more safeguards to the badly-off individual than we find in pure utilitarianism.

Another example, which puts the exclusive pursuit of maximisation in an even more negative light, would be one where mental welfare is being transferred from one person as in the previous example, but where there are a large number of recipients instead of just one. There might be enough mental welfare recipients in this example that each person’s increase is tiny, and he or she hardly notices the benefit. Furthermore, we might suppose that these recipients are already living very pleasant lives, and the person losing the mental welfare already living a very unpleasant one. Let us use the word Exploitation to describe this case. We can call the moral objection to this The Exploitation Objection.

A graphic example of Exploitation might one where people are tortured live on television. Here, a large number of sadists, who happen to already be living very pleasant lives, tune in to a television programme where one unfortunate person is tortured live on air. From watching the show they gain small amounts of pleasure and he or she suffers appallingly.

I should quickly clarify my choice of the term “exploitation” to describe this situation, as it may give the impression that the beneficiaries of mental welfare in the example are committing the act. This is not my intention. In my situation, the beneficiaries may have been forced to receive the happiness by a powerful ruler who is “playing God” with them all. I am not trying to discuss blame in this example.

Tannsjo has suggested a similar example to Exploitation, called The Ultra Repugnant Conclusion (1998: 73). This is exactly like Exploitation except that the benefit is so thinly spread out among the beneficiaries that they can´t notice it at all. It is debatable whether hedonistic utilitarians should value differences in mental welfare that are too small to notice, or whether there is even any sense in talking about such differences, as mental welfare would seem to be a subjective phenomenon. This issue is not the concern of this dissertation, however.

Exploitation is, on face value, appalling. A Utilitarian might wish to “bite the bullet” here, a possibility that I will return to in Chapter 2. However, at this point in the discussion it would seem callous not to see the inegalitarian distribution of mental welfare here as a serious ethical problem.

1.5 Egalitarian Instrumental Effects Towards Mental Welfare Maximisation Examined

Before I discuss the pursuit of egalitarianism alone, I would like to devote this section to considering the importance of instrumental effects (Zimmerman 1998). These are, with regard to the subject with which we are dealing, ways in which equality of mental welfare causes, or coincides with, higher total mental welfare. Instrumental justifications for egalitarianism can be contrasted with intrinsic ones, where we value egalitarianism for its own sake. An obvious example of an instrumental effect is the likelihood that differences between people will create hostility which is likely to make people miserable. Instrumental effects mean that mental welfare maximisation pursued alone may, in practice, lead to some consideration of equality of mental welfare.

The case just given of people being tortured on T.V. may be invalidated as an example against the pursuit of pure utilitarianism when instrumental effects are fully taken into consideration. The images of torture would probably have the psychological effect of making people more unpleasant to one another, which would lead to increased conflict in society and therefore misery. Also, some people would identify with the victims, which would cause them to have a hostile attitude to viewers of the programme and the government that allowed it to be made. All this would make the pure utilitarian unlikely to support the existence of such a T.V. show in practice. However, it may be possible for us to invent a slightly different example where these instrumental effects don’t come into play. For example, an amnesia drug might be given to those who have just seen the programme. The pure utilitarian is, then, still faced with the essential cruelty of a situation where one is tortured for the pleasure of others.

Another major instrumental effect is that of diminishing returns to scale. If we were considering egalitarianism of something other than mental welfare, this would apply as follows: to take wealth as an example, every extra pound one gains makes less difference than the last to one’s mental welfare. Another example might be freedom. Consider a person who is allowed to visit one city a year, and a second person who is allowed to visit three. It is likely that the first person will gain more pleasure than the second from being allowed to visit an extra city this year. This effect will lead a hedonistic utilitarian to wish to distribute most things in an egalitarian fashion. Equality of these quantities would statistically tend to coincide with equality of mental welfare itself. The utilitarian would, therefore, tend to endorse actions that give rise to equality of most things, including mental welfare itself.

Instrumental effects might run the opposite way, however. For example, it might be the case that having the occasional extremely happy or successful person around inspires others to be happy (Leyard 2005: 52) or having a person who is suffering much more than everyone else might cause others to “count their blessings” and feel happier than they would otherwise.

A pure utilitarian might claim that our intuitions about equality can all be traced to instrumental effects. Indeed, I think that if someone were forced to name bad things about inequality they might well name some instrumental effects, such as antagonism being caused between people.

However, the pure utilitarian must still face examples where these effects don’t apply. He or she therefore still faces The Exploitation Objection.

1.6 Investigation of Hedonistic Egalitarianism of Outcome Pursued Alone

So, let us conclude this chapter by asking what it would be like if we pursued the equality of mental welfare alone, with no regard for its maximisation? Few people would wish to defend this kind of pure egalitarianism of outcome, and with good reason: it seems to lead to even more unacceptable consequences than pure utilitarianism does. However, it is still useful for us to discuss this idea here as it will inform our views on combined theories.

If we followed this extreme doctrine, we might decide to kill everyone, because once we do, we can be sure that we will all have zero, and therefore equal, mental welfare. Alternatively, if we allow ourselves to live, then we might pursue equality by locking everyone up separately and torturing them to an equal degree. These are extreme examples of what is known as the Levelling Down Objection (Parfit 1997: 211). This is the idea that we may wish to make the better-off worse off, without any compensating benefit going to anyone. This objection is probably enough to discredit the idea of pursuing hedonistic egalitarianism alone, but there are also other problems with the approach.

Firstly, it may lead to temporal problems. Consider a world that is divided into two human communities that exist at the same time but have no contact with one another. Suppose that, for some strange reason, the members of the first community experience great pleasure on odd days of the month and displeasure on even days. In the second community, the situation is reversed, with people feeling pleasure on even days and displeasure on odd ones. It seems to follow from a pure egalitarian’s position that the fact that the two communities are unsynchronised in their mental welfare is of great negative moral value. If the communities had, instead, pleasure on the same days, would the world be a radically better place? This is intuitively odd, to say the least.

A way to avoid this problem for the egalitarian is to suggest that we shouldn’t be trying to achieve equality from second to second, but over the course of a human life. This approach is vulnerable to criticism from a reductionist position on personal identity (Parfit 1984: 199-302). It also leads to other strange conclusions: if two people are half-way through their lives, with one having had a very pleasant life and the other a very unpleasant one, then we would not want to equalise their situation, but to reverse their roles. This doesn’t seem like a very egalitarian thing to do.

A further problem with hedonistic egalitarianism, or at least a challenge for it, lies in the fact that, in examples containing more than two people, there may be several different, equally appealing, definitions of equality which we could use. If, for example, we compare a society which has one person living a very pleasant life and everyone else a hedonistically neutral one, with a society that has one person living a hedonistically neutral life and everyone else living a very pleasant one (Temkin 1986: 107) then it’s debatable which, if either, is the more egalitarian. This is not necessarily a fatal objection to the theory, but something that would definitely need to be worked out.

So, bringing together all these considerations, we can safely conclude that pursuing hedonistic egalitarianism alone is not acceptable and raises many difficult issues. These drawbacks will be relevant to my analysis of combinations of the two theories in the following chapter.

1.7 Chapter Conclusion

In this chapter I have selected particular forms of utilitarianism and egalitarianism to focus on, after reviewing many alternatives and have studied each in isolation. I have therefore done the groundwork for the analysis of combinations of the theories that I will attempt in the next chapter.

With regard to utilitarianism, I looked at rule, ideal and preference versions, but have decided to focus on the hedonistic form on the grounds of simplicity and plausibility. With regard to egalitarianism, I looked at equality of treatment and listed some options in terms of equality of outcome, settling on equality of mental welfare. These choices have been partly made for simplicity of analysis and should not be taken as a final judgement on the other versions of the theories.

I have arrived at a clear definition of the quantity that our moral theories are trying to maximise/equalise, that being “mental welfare”, which I defined as pleasure (negative mental welfare being pain).

Lastly, I have shown that utilitarianism and egalitarianism, as defined above, have serious shortcomings if pursued alone. These come, for utilitarianism, in the form of the Exploitation Objection, and, for egalitarianism, in the even more troubling forms of The Levelling Down Objection, temporal and measurement problems. I also showed that utilitarianism may gain some egalitarian credentials from instrumental arguments.


2.1 Chapter Introduction

In this chapter, I shall analyse three alternative ways to combine utilitarianism and egalitarianism into one theory, using the forms of the two theories arrived at in the previous chapter. I will then move on to argue my conclusion that utilitarianism is, in fact, sufficiently egalitarian as it stands and doesn’t require an egalitarian theory to be combined with it. Lastly, I shall extend my conclusion to other forms of utilitarianism and also investigate how egalitarianism might continue to exist in instrumental forms if my conclusion is correct.

The three ways of combining the two theories that I shall look at are a simple hybrid theory (section 2.2) the sufficiency view (section 2.3) and prioritarianism (section 2.4). The simple hybrid theory, I find to have the problem that it may allow Exploitation, Levelling Down, and other egalitarianism-related problems to persist in watered down forms. Of the sufficiency view I conclude that it has the problem of a abrupt threshold, but prioritarianism, I find, avoids this problem with a gradual approach. As I find no other significant differences between the theories I will conclude that prioritarianism is the better one. I also find that prioritarianism avoids many of the problems of a straightforward hybrid theory discussed in the first section, such as Exploitation and Levelling Down.

Although I find prioritarianism to be the best of the three, a closer investigation of the Exploitation case (in section 2.5) leads me to discover that utilitarianism has considerable prioritarian properties of its own, attaching a high, and non-arbitrary negative value to suffering. I conclude, therefore, that utilitarianism should be pursued alone and not combined with any intrinsic egalitarian theory.

In the last two sections of the chapter, I find that my conclusions can equally apply if other forms of utilitarianism are used (section 2.6) and that instrumental effects mean that, in practice, egalitarianism may continue under pure utilitarianism (section 2.7).

2.2 A Simple Utilitarian-Egalitarian Hybrid Theory Analysed

Let me begin by combining utilitarianism and egalitarianism (as defined in the previous chapter) in the simplest way possible: a straightforward hybrid theory. Here we take a measure of equality of mental welfare and add it to or multiply it with total mental welfare. We then pursue policies and actions that maximise the result.

Adding, rather than multiplying, seems to lead to two difficulties. First there is the oddness of adding quantities expressed in different units. Mental welfare is, at least in theory, a measurable physical quantity. Equality is, on the other hand, a mathematical ratio. The second, related problem, is of arbitrary weighting. Supposing that we wish to give the two elements equal consideration, it is not obvious how this might be done, as they cannot be expressed in the same terms. We would, therefore, be forced to invent a relative weighting that matches our moral intuitions. We could only achieve this by adding them and introducing a constant to the equation, but we can always ask why this particular weighting has been chosen and not a slightly different one.

Multiplying the two quantities largely eliminates these problems. However, two difficulties remain. Firstly, we still have to choose a particular way of measuring equality. Some methods may cause sharper differences in values than others, causing the weighting attached to equality to be, in practice, higher. Secondly, any straightforward hybrid theory of this kind may allow the problems with the two pure theories to continue, albeit in reduced forms. We may still, therefore, suffer from the Exploitation Objection, the Levelling Down Objection, and temporal problems with egalitarianism, to some degree.

Parfit (1997: 217) has expressed this last point strongly with regard to Levelling Down by suggesting that if we attach any value to equality we are still saying that the unpleasant scenarios suggested by the Levelling Down Objection are in some respects desirable. This expression of the point is perhaps a little strong, however, as we might point out that any terrible thing could be said to be good in some respect. A family tragedy might bring the survivors closer together in their common grief. However, holding this view doesn’t make us supporters of tragedy. Our resultant, or “net” moral assessments, therefore, should be what our moral theories are judged on.

However, the possible persistence, albeit in reduced forms, of The Exploitation Objection, The Levelling Down Objection, and the temporal and measurement problems associated with egalitarianism, represents a serious problem with this straightforward hybrid theory.

2.3 The Sufficiency View Analysed

The objections just mentioned can all be eliminated, however, by thinking about equality in an alternative way. Consider a situation of inequality in the world, one, for example, where some of the world’s poorest people are starving while the rest of us have plenty to eat. Some would see the problem as inequality itself. Alternatively we could say that the problem is simply that some people are suffering or have insufficient food. We can imagine a second scenario where the same people are starving but the rest of us don´t exist. It could be said that what is bad about the first scenario is also equally bad in the second: the suffering of the starving people (Arneson 2009).

The simplest way to express this idea is the sufficiency view, which has been championed by Frankfurt (1997). The sufficiency view is like utilitarianism in that it aims to make each person as well off as possible. It differs with utilitarianism in that it identifies a level of welfare (or another quantity such as wealth) which it considers to be the acceptable minimum. If a person lies below that level we have an extra duty to help him or her, versus people above that threshold.

We might interpret this as a utilitarian calculation with an extra weight on increases of mental welfare which lie below the threshold. Alternatively we might adopt a more extreme version of the sufficiency view in which benefits below the threshold have absolute priority over ones above it.

In the previous chapter we identified three problems with egalitarianism pursued alone: The Levelling Down Objection, temporal problems and dilemmas about how to measure equality. The sufficiency view solves all three. Decreases in mental welfare are always bad according to the sufficiency view, so The Levelling Down Objection never applies. Also, the temporal problems and dilemmas about how to measure equality only apply if the equality of the world is being expressed as a single quantity, which the sufficiency view does not require us to do.

The theory’s success might be explained by the fact that it conforms to the Person Affecting View, also known as Welfarism (Sen 1979). This is the intuitively appealing idea that for something to be good or bad it must be good or bad for someone.

With regard to The Exploitation Objection, in many cases, the exploited person will be below the sufficiency threshold and the exploiters above. Here, the sufficiency view does what we intend it to do, ascribing a greater amount of negative value to the act of taking the former’s mental welfare than we see under pure utilitarianism. However, we can imagine weak cases of Exploitation where all parties are at more similar levels of mental welfare and lie on the same side of the threshold. In these cases the sufficiency view fails to give a greater priority to the badly off than we see under pure utilitarianism.

Also, we might compare a case where the exploited person lies just above the threshold with another, slightly stronger case where the exploited person lies just below it. The supporter of the sufficiency view would expect us to believe that hurting the first person is far less morally reprehensible than hurting the second, even though the difference between the situations may not be dramatic for the victim.

This latter example makes the position of the threshold look somewhat arbitrary and abrupt. There may be a partial solution to this problem, however. An arguably non-arbitrary place to put the sufficiency threshold on the mental welfare scale would be at the point of zero pleasure and zero pain. There is something intuitively appealing about giving the alleviation of suffering priority over the attainment of pleasure.

If we combine this with the extreme form of the sufficiency view, where increases below the threshold take absolute priority over ones above, we arrive at the doctrine called negative utilitarianism. The problem with this doctrine, however, is that it might lead us to advocate the extermination of all life on earth, as we would value non-existence more highly than any life that contained even the tiniest amount of suffering (even if this suffering were outweighed by a large amount of pleasure) (Smart 1973: 29). Virtually the same problem faces the absolute form of the sufficiency view wherever we choose to place the threshold. We should, therefore, reject the absolute form of the doctrine in favour of attaching a weighting to the improvements in mental welfare below the threshold. However, even if we place the threshold at zero, and consider the zero point to be a non-arbitrary place for the threshold to be, the magnitude of this weighting seems unavoidably arbitrary.

Although this arbitrariness is a problem, I would conclude that the sufficiency view, with its avoidance of The Levelling Down Objection, The Exploitation Objection, the temporal problems associated with egalitarianism and dilemmas about how to measure equality, is an improvement on the straightforward hybrid theory of the previous section.

2.4 Prioritarianism Analysed

An arguably even more sophisticated combination of the theories is prioritarianism. It is exactly like the sufficiency view except that instead of one sudden jump in the value of an increase in a person’s mental welfare we have a gradual increase. So prioritarianism would be like utilitarianism except that we add a greater moral weight to increases/decreases in mental welfare that take place at low levels. It is arguably more sophisticated than sufficiency because it values, say, an increase in torture, more highly than an increase in the annoyingness of an annoying itch. It also takes the same kind of approach on the happy end of the spectrum. It does all this in a smooth transition, unlike the sufficiency view, with its sudden jump.

Prioritarianism has proved popular with philosophers, having been discussed in Derek Parfit’s article “Equality and Priority” (1997) and defended in the work of Richard Arneson (2000) and others. It also conforms to The Person Affecting View and manages to avoid The Levelling Down Objection, The Exploitation Objection, and the temporal and measurement problems associated with egalitarianism. Unfortunately the problem remains that, as Dorsey put it, “The grand dilemma for any pluralist axiology is the problem of weight” (2008: 12): Prioritarianism still faces the problem of potentially arbitrary weighting that tends to affect hybrid doctrines.

The amount of extra weighting that we wish to give to increases/decreases of mental welfare at lower levels will be the amount that lets us avoid what we feel to be excessive examples of Exploitation. Prioritarianism does allow aggregation: one person to be made to suffer for the benefit of others. For example if one person has to lose a tiny amount of satisfaction for everyone else to gain a huge amount of pleasure then prioritarianism will permit us to let this happen. However, it will not allow extreme examples of Exploitation to take place as utilitarianism does. Somewhere in-between, lies prioritarianism’s weighting. However, I see no obvious point where prioritarianism’s weighting should lie. The extra weighting that prioritarianism assigns to suffering versus pure utilitarianism, therefore, as I just stated, seems unavoidably arbitrary.

An additional issue for prioritarianism is that its gradual approach means that it has to be mathematically construed one way or another. As with straightforward egalitarianism, no particular method may recommend itself and this is an issue that would have to be worked out.

We can conclude our analysis of prioritarianism by stating that it is superior to the sufficiency view as it avoids the latter’s abrupt threshold, and both theories seem superior to the straightforward hybrid theory, which was vulnerable to multiple objections associated with the two constituent theories.

Despite being the superior combination of utilitarianism and egalitarianism, prioritarianism still suffers from arbitrariness, and allows Exploitation to some extent. In the next section, however, I will analyse The Exploitation Objection more deeply than I did when I introduced it, and argue that it is not as persuasive as first appeared, leading us to conclude in favour of pure utilitarianism.

2.5 Conclusion in Favour of Pure Utilitarianism Reached

The major problem that my analysis of the previous chapter identified with utilitarianism pursued alone is The Exploitation Objection. In this scenario, pleasure is being taken from one person and given to a large group of people. This person is suffering appallingly and the others barely notice the benefit, as it is spread out so thinly. Furthermore, the large group may have begun with much higher levels of mental welfare than the other person. Most of us see something immoral in allowing or causing this process to take place. Pure utilitarianism on the other hand seems to be indifferent about this, hence it seems, on face value, to be failing as a moral theory.

I will now argue that this objection should be rejected. Before I do this, however, let me start with a simpler case, albeit one that is a little less powerful against utilitarianism, that will also be recalled from earlier. In the simpler case there are two people, and mental welfare is flowing down a wire from one to the other. Eventually, we have the unpleasant sight of one person groaning in agony, the other in ecstasy. Yet the utilitarian can surely have no complaint, as the total amount of mental welfare is not changing, hence, again, utilitarianism looks bad.

Now, this case (and the previous one) relies upon the assumption that we can take a loss of mental welfare at a low level, and gain at a higher level and say that they are “the same amount” of mental welfare. But can losses or gains of mental welfare at different levels be compared in such a way? For example, could the difference in mental welfare between having an excruciatingly painful experience and a merely painful one, say, at the dentist’s, be “the same” as the difference between enjoying a tasty meal and an exceptionally tasty one at a restaurant? Both Utilitarianism itself and these objections to it rely on such things being comparable.

The only sense I can make of these comparisons are in terms of what I shall call “the compensation approach”. According to this method, two differences in mental welfare are the same size if we are indifferent between which one we experience. Using the example above, suppose I know that I am going to have an excruciatingly painful dental appointment next week and also, at another point in the week (either earlier or later) go for a tasty meal in a restaurant. Someone offers me the possibility of either improving the dental appointment experience from excruciating to merely painful or to improve the restaurant experience from a tasty to exceptionally tasty. Suppose that I am indifferent between which experience I would rather improve: each change seems equally desirable. This, according to the compensation approach, signifies that the amount of mental welfare increased in each of the two options is the same.

There is another way of expressing the same approach. Suppose that I were going to have a merely painful dental appointment and a tasty meal next week, and someone offered me the option of changing both experiences: the dental appointment from painful to excruciating and the meal from tasty to exceptionally tasty. Now, if I am indifferent between taking this option or not, then this again signifies that the two changes in welfare are the same. One change compensates for the other, hence I call this “the compensation approach”.

However, in the example described there’s no way that I’d actually be indifferent. It would be very difficult for any meal to be good enough to compensate me for the amount of extra pain that I’d get from the dentist. If we apply this kind of thinking to the example of mental welfare flowing down the wire, we will see that the process is not quite as morally repugnant as first appears.

When one person is groaning in agony, the other must be experiencing a pleasure that would compensate someone for having to experience that agony him or herself. How good would that pleasure have to be? We should bear in mind that the experience itself has to compensate for the pain; pleasurable experiences can often lead to a lifetime of happy memories, but only the experience at the time can count in the “wire” example, I would contend.

I, personally, don’t think that there’s any pleasure that would compensate me for agony. If I had to undergo torture for an hour next week, there’s no pleasure (that didn’t carry with it some long term benefit, such as happy memories, increased status etc.) that I could experience for some other hour that would make up for it. So, assuming my tastes to be typical, the person groaning in ecstasy would have to be experiencing pleasure beyond human experience. At an earlier point in the process, when this person was experiencing the heights of human pleasure, the other person would not be suffering the equivalent of torture but something less than this, perhaps equivalent to a bad headache.

All this makes the example of mental welfare flowing down a wire look less morally objectionable. What about the more powerful case against pure utilitarianism, that of Exploitation? This case is slightly more complicated as one person suffers for the sake of many. We therefore have one painful experience being compensated for by many good experiences.

Suppose that a treatment were available that improved one’s taste buds for a year, so that all meals during that period tasted substantially better, but that it required half an hour of one’s tongue being subjected to excruciating pain without anaesthetic. Even a whole year of taste benefit (perhaps a thousand meals) might not compensate the typical person for that half hour of pain. So in Exploitation we might see a thousand or more people enjoying the equivalent of a substantially more enjoyable meal while one suffers the equivalent of tongue torture.

This is still, admittedly, a serious objection to utilitarianism. However it is clear that appreciating the compensation approach shows that pure utilitarianism attaches a serious weight to suffering. To the utilitarian, a thousand or more experiences of pleasure may not add up to one experience of pain. This is clearly prioritising suffering to a serious extent. Also, the compensation approach means that the people on the pleasant end of things would be prepared to go through all sides of the experience, or to be more accurate, be indifferent between going through all sides or not (and this is also true in the “wire” example). The suffering is therefore being taken extremely seriously.

The question is whether it takes suffering seriously enough to allay our moral concern for the badly off. If not, the analysis of the previous few sections has revealed prioritarianism to be our best alternative. Another alternative is the rights-based approach that the next chapter is devoted to. The debate of Chapter 3 notwithstanding, we have to conclude whether the extra concern of prioritarianism is worth the arbitrariness of the theory, or to go with pure utilitarianism.

My conclusion is that the extreme seriousness with which, as we have just seen, utilitarianism takes suffering, is also the right amount of seriousness with which to take it, as it has been arrived at in a logical fashion. Prioritarianism, on the other hand, takes utilitarianism’s already substantial and non-arbitrary prioritisation of the worse-off in terms of mental welfare and adds an arbitrary and unnecessary extra weighting to it.

It might be objected that I have only achieved this high level of egalitarianism for utilitarianism by assuming “the compensation approach” to comparisons of changes in mental welfare at different levels. However, if there is a more natural way for utilitarianism to compare these things then I don’t know what it would be. The only other approach that we might take would be to measure mental welfare in terms of the number of neurons firing in a particular part of the brain, or endorphins released, or something along these lines. These approaches, however, seem unlikely to reflect the subjective experiences which are arguably what we care about from a moral point of view. “The compensation approach” on the other hand, echoes Mill’s when he appeals to the person who has experienced both “higher” and “lower” pleasures as the only competent judge to compare the two. This is also similar to the concept of the impartial person, which carries intuitive appeal as a fundamental moral concept.

Those who have analysed prioritarianism seem, to me, to have failed to appreciate the full weight that utilitarianism already assigns to suffering. Parfit’s discussion of a welfare scale (1997) may be an example of this.

When Parfit introduces his scale, he says that “each unit is of roughly equal benefit, however well off the person is who receives it. If someone rises from 99 to 100, this person benefits as much as someone else who rises from 9 to 10” (204). He goes on to say that “these units should not be thought of as equal quantities of resources. The same increase in resources usually brings greater benefit to those who are worse off.” He uses “welfare” not “mental welfare”, which he defines as a much broader concept, including health, opportunities etc. but is clearly grappling with the same issues that I have been in this chapter.

However, the only way to understand such a welfare scale, I would contend, is in terms of the compensation approach. If a rise from 99 to 100 is of “equal benefit” to a rise from 9 to 10 then this seems to imply that the former rise would compensate someone for forgoing the latter rise (or vice versa). According to such a scale, we all have different needs, but our need for the next point of welfare is the same, wherever we are on the scale. Such as scale seems to already prioritising the worse off, to what appears to me to be the correct degree, and doesn’t require prioritariansim.

2.6 Extension of Conclusion to Other Forms of Utilitarianism

So I have reached my conclusion that utilitarianism should be pursued alone. However, my analysis has been limited to the hedonistic form of the theory. I would now, in this section, like to explore whether the conclusion I have reached applies to different versions of utilitarianism. In the section that follows this I will attempt the same for egalitarianism.

While, as I stated earlier, I find hedonistic utilitarianism to be the most plausible form of the theory, I take most forms of utilitarianism seriously. Perhaps the next most plausible form of the theory is, for me, preference utilitarianism. If we had adopted preference utilitarianism in the above discussion, and preference egalitarianism, I believe that essentially the same conclusions would have been reached. We would have, for example, still seen in Chapter 1 that egalitarianism pursued alone falls foul of The Levelling Down Objection, the temporal problems associated with egalitarianism and dilemmas about how to measure equality. The only difference in our analysis would be that we would see preference satisfaction in the place of mental welfare, being “levelled down” etc.

Likewise, in this chapter, the issues would have been much the same. We would have equal grounds to conclude that prioritarianism and the sufficiency view deal well with the aforementioned problems but suffer from an arbitrary extra weighting given to egalitarian considerations. The conclusion that pure utilitarianism has considerable egalitarian properties, arrived at in the previous section, is, I contend, equally true on the preference version of the theory.

Much the same might probably be said of versions of utilitarianism that combine or lie in-between the hedonistic and preference forms. These might include versions that take a broad definition of happiness that include positive thoughts about the world and oneself and conscious desire satisfaction.

For reasons of simplicity and elegance, I focussed on a utilitarianism and egalitarianism defined in terms of the same quantity. This need not necessarily have been the case. However I see nothing particularly appealing about, at least as far as the choice between preference satisfaction and mental welfare is concerned, focussing on one quantity for utilitarianism and another for egalitarianism. It seems natural to me that the quantity that we see as society’s ultimate need should also be the quantity that, the lack of which, concerns us most directly in the case of the worst-off people.

An interesting argument in the hedonistic v/s preference utilitarianism debate in favour of the latter arises from the discussion of the previous section. There, indifference between different changes in experiences, for example at the dentist’s and the restaurant, defined my “compensation approach”. If we are resorting to indifference, and therefore preferences, to compare the hedonistic values of different experiences, are we not conceding that preferences are of more fundamental value than pleasure, and that preference utilitarianism is, therefore, the truer form of the theory? I would counter, however, that it is still happiness that we are trying to maximise, but that preference is our only way of perceiving differences in the levels of it.

Aside from rule utilitarianism, which I have chosen largely to ignore, the other major form of utilitarianism is ideal utilitarianism. This doctrine might come in many forms, which amount to hybrid theories of the pursuit of mental welfare or preference satisfaction with the pursuit of some other quantity or quantities, for example intellectual capacity or the attainment of knowledge. While the adoption of ideal utilitarianism clearly would add complexity to the discussion and conclusion reached in the previous section, I see no reason why the arguments would not essentially stand. From the point of view of ideal utilitarianism, the discussion above can be seen as the consideration and rejection of egalitarianism as one of the ideals to be pursued. With the exception of rule utilitarianism, then, I contend that my conclusions apply to all major forms of utilitarianism.

2.7 Extension of Conclusion to Other Forms of Egalitarianism

So, moving on to egalitarianism, my conclusion, above, states that it should be rejected, and I have just extended that conclusion to all versions of act-utilitarianism. However, the above discussion has been confined to one definition of egalitarianism, where it is considered to be the pursuit of equality of mental welfare. Does my conclusion also follow for other forms of egalitarianism?

As I stated in the previous section, it seems natural to me that the quantity that we see as society’s ultimate need should also be the quantity that, the lack of which, concerns us in the case of the worst-off people. I therefore see the hedonistic form of egalitarianism of outcome that we have been discussing, as the most plausible version of the theory. Having rejected egalitarianism in its most plausible form, it seems reasonable to apply this result to all other forms, including all versions of treatment and outcome.

I conclude, therefore, that egalitarianism should only be justified where it is instrumental to utilitarian ends. The extension of my conclusion to other forms of egalitarianism in this section will be restricted, therefore, to assessing the instrumental merits of different forms of egalitarianism towards the utilitarian goal. This is in contrast to the previous section about other forms of utilitarianism where the alternative forms were considered as possible intrinsic ethical theories.

Assessing the merits of instrumental goals is a complicated endeavour. It requires us to apply our utilitarian aim to the real world. It is therefore as much in the realm of social science and, I believe, futurology, as philosophy, and my discussion here can be little more than a brief sketch. It is also a difficult subject to discuss with any degree of certainty, especially without extensive research in the aforementioned sciences.

I suggested some instrumental effects in section 1.5, where I was trying to make clear the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic aims. In order to give a more comprehensive account, a little background utilitarian theory needs to be discussed. Utilitarians are not short-termist, or even medium-termist. Utilitarianism is just as concerned about people in a thousand years time as people now. A contentious issue within the theory concerns how we should count the extra happiness of additional people who are born because of our choices. This is the debate between the “total happiness” and “average happiness” views (Smart 1973: 27).

Both positions have been accused of leading to absurdities. According to the total view it is arguably morally wrong not to have a child, if we assume that the child and its possible descendents will have more pleasure than pain in their lives. If we follow the average view, on the other hand, we would be morally justified, required perhaps, to kill off all but the happiest person in society.

Both these views have a touch of absurdity, but the second one far more so. I would therefore favour the total view. What policies would the total view lead us to, and what are the repercussions for egalitarianism?

The potential for pleasure in the future is immense. This is for two reasons. Firstly, our planet’s biosphere has billions of years ahead of it, not to mention other biospheres that might be colonised. If humanity doesn’t get wiped out, a huge number of humans, dwarfing the number that have already lived, might have pleasant lives here and elsewhere. Even more importantly, “transhumanism” might occur: humans might use technology to transform their own bodies and minds, altering their potential for pleasure and, perhaps, eliminating physical and emotional pain (Bostrom 2005).

According to the total view, then, the survival of the human race has immense moral value. The survival of our race should therefore overshadow considerations of our present well-being. We can think of this as a case of Exploitation taking place between ourselves and a future group of humans, with us on the unpleasant end. If causing ourselves to suffer more will bring them extremely happy lives versus non-existence then we should let ourselves suffer.

Our chief instrumental aim is therefore sustainability for the human race. It is debatable which of the many threats that the human race faces is the greatest. The fact that humanity has survived for tens to hundreds of thousands of years suggests that natural disasters do not pose too great a problem for us. However, unintended side-effects of new technology and the destructive effects of new weaponry appear to pose a great threat. Acting sustainably, therefore, would probably mean eschewing war and weapons development, acting cautiously about creating new technology, limiting pollution and being very sparing in the use of natural resources.

There may be many egalitarian policies that promote these aims. On the international stage, increased equality of wealth of countries would be likely to reduce envy and therefore the prospect of war (Russell 1961: 76). Domestically, the rationing of resource use would be a useful egalitarian policy. We would probably also wish to limit materialistic behaviour generally. Redistribution of wealth, conditions, or any desirable thing would be likely to reduce incentives to overproduce and overconsume for the sake of individual social status (Leyard 2005: 149-165). It seems possible to me that radical egalitarianism may be justified in order to tame runaway consumerism. A major culture shift to a more co-operative attitude may be required, and away from the current competitive, capitalist ethos, if the goal of a sustainable human development is to be achieved.

Egalitarian policies imposed by governments may not, however, be the best tool to bring about such changes. They may be seen as draconian and be counterproductive. Also, national governments with their capitalist and competitive attitudes towards one-another seem unlikely to embrace the required changes. A redistribution of power from governments to the people may therefore be required. Egalitarianism of political power may therefore be the form of egalitarianism that carries the greatest instrumental value.

Other approaches that have nothing to do with egalitarianism may, on the other hand, be the best road to sustainability, such as “green growth” and changes in education. Equalities of the discussed quantities may or may not be side effects of these policies

This section can be summarised then, by stating that while all the conclusions that I have reached are highly speculative, it should be considered a serious possibility that egalitarianism of power, resources and wealth, maybe even radical egalitarianism of these, are of instrumental value.

2.8 Chapter Conclusion

We can conclude this chapter by saying that of the three combinations of utilitarianism and egalitarianism studied, the simple hybrid theory, the sufficiency view, and prioritarianism, the latter does the best job, successfully dealing with The Levelling Down Objection, The Exploitation Objection, the temporal problems associated with egalitarianism and dilemmas about how to measure equality. However, I argued that, on closer examination, utilitarianism has considerable prioritarian properties of its own. Apart from valuing equality instrumentally, it attaches a very high, but non-arbitrary value to suffering. I conclude that we should reject prioritarianism, the sufficiency view, and the simple hybrid theory discussed at the beginning of the chapter, in favour of pure utilitarianism.

I then argued that this conclusion can equally apply if other forms of utilitarianism are used, that egalitarian policies may well continue in practice as instruments towards a sustainable and therefore mental welfare-rich future.


3.1 Chapter Introduction

This and the following chapter, which constitute the second half of the dissertation, will be devoted to potential criticisms of the conclusion reached in the previous chapter. This chapter will be focussed on criticisms from a rights-based perspective.

The rights-based view also relates to equality of treatment, and this discussion may, as I suggested in Chapter 1, compensate for my lack of focus on that form of egalitarianism in my analysis above. While the concept of equality of treatment might be used in a vague way, rights-based theories attempt to put the concept into a more tangible form.

The first section of this Chapter (3.2) is concerned with an argument that has been very influential in modern philosophy: the case against aggregation, advanced by Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1999: 24) often called the “separateness of persons” view (I shall use the phrase “anti-aggregation view”, however, as it seems to me to be less ambiguous (Norcross 2009)). This argument is believed by many to have rebutted utilitarianism once and for all (Tannsjo 1998: 2). I will argue that it, in either of two possible forms, is vulnerable to catastrophic examples, the main one of which I call The Itchy Nose argument.

In the next section (3.3) I will deal with the charge that my view sanctions murder and that this is unacceptable. In the following section (3.4) I try to answer the view that utilitarianism disrespects persons and constitutes “playing God”. These views both fall foul of catastrophic scenarios similar to that of the Itchy Nose. In section 3.5 I then reveal some of Rawls and Nozick’s own doubts about a purely rights-based approach. Throughout the chapter, however, I repeatedly return to the argument about catastrophic examples, which I consider to be the most convincing argument against rights-based views.

3.2 Anti-Aggregation Position Argued Against

The anti-aggregation view (or “separateness of persons” view) with regard to mental welfare, would say that we are not permitted to reduce one person’s mental welfare merely to increase another’s. This prohibition on our actions can be called a “side constraint”. For the anti-aggregation view to amount to something beyond prioritarianism, these side constraints must be absolute. It therefore prohibits us from reducing one person’s mental welfare, however great another’s gain might be. Nozick defends the anti-aggregation view thus:

Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits others. Nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him......

The moral side constraints upon what we may do, I claim, reflect the fact of our separate existences. They reflect the fact that no moral balancing act can take place among us; there is no moral outweighing of one of our lives by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good. (Nozick 1974: 33)

The anti-aggregation view has the problem that it commits us to the following action. Let us suppose that a super-being arrives on earth and offers bliss to everyone for the rest of their lives. Its offer states that we would not have to experience bliss at all times but could choose our own happiness levels from now on. Let us suppose that the human race would have to either accept or refuse the offer as a group and that the General Secretary of the United Nations would be the one left making the choice. However, the super-being has one condition. One person will not be given the offer of bliss, but will instead be given the misfortune of suffering an itchy nose for a few seconds and then have to carry on life as before, without the bliss option. If the General Secretary of the U.N. follows the anti-aggregation principle, he or she would refuse this offer as the principle forbids us from harming the one person’s mental welfare merely for the sake of others. I would describe this counterexample as disastrous for the anti-aggregation principle, as letting one itchy nose prevent us from accepting this wonderful offer seems absurd (Arneson 2000: 12).

Perhaps we are being uncharitable to the anti-aggregation principle here by presenting it in an unnecessarily strong form. We could, instead, interpret the principle in what we might call the “maximin form” (Rawls 1999: 133). According to this position we are forbidden to make one person worse off only if they are the worst-off person to begin with, among the group affected. The worst-off person would, therefore, be given absolute priority over everyone else: a sort of absolute or lexical prioritarianism.

This would lead to an example exactly like that of the itchy nose, above, except that the person with the itchy nose would have to be the unhappiest person on Earth to begin with. Let us try to imagine this in practice. The unhappiest person on Earth might, perhaps, be someone in a mental home suffering from severe depression. In our example, to that person’s woes would be added an itchy nose for a few seconds. Here the principle is, in my opinion, leading us to nearly as serious an absurdity as the previous principle did.

The strength of what we might call The Itchy Nose Argument becomes even more vivid when we consider real world cases. Imagine a government that had a policy of never aggregating mental welfare. If the policy took the strong (as opposed to maximin) form, it is difficult to see how it would be able to have a tax policy, as tax policies must create winners and losers. It would also not be able to have ambulances or police cars as they inconvenience people some of the time. It might be countered that ambulances and police cars benefit everyone. But it is clear that they don’t in every case. For example, a person might pay taxes and be slightly inconvenienced by ambulance sirens throughout his or her life and then die suddenly after an entirely healthy life, thus only losing through the existence of a health system. Another person might be inconvenienced by a police car one day and, later that day, be killed in an unrelated accident, thus gaining nothing from the crime-reducing actions of the police on this occasion. The anti-aggregation view in the strong form leads us, therefore, to try to please all of the people all of the time, or at least not upset any of the people any of the time. It is therefore not a viable doctrine.

The maximin version of the view may be something of an improvement but still has a dramatic, and in my view negative, impact on everyday life. A society based on this principle would devote the entire state budget to the people in, or about to be in, the greatest distress. Our entire effort would be devoted to improving the lives of people with incurable, unpleasant conditions, or in mental homes. We would attempt to severely limit all recreational, artistic, cultural etc. activities in our pursuit of this narrow medical cause. This is much less objectionable than the situation discussed in the previous example, but still a difficult bullet to bite for proponents of the theory.

The proponent of the anti-aggregation view might argue that the absurd conclusions reached in these examples result from the fact that I have put their doctrine in terms of mental welfare, a quantity that they would be unlikely to adopt. Indeed the quantity that Rawls based his view on was the “primary good”. However, it seems likely that any quantity chosen will lead to examples analogous to those just discussed. If the super-being in the Itchy Nose example landed on earth offering us all unlimited “primary goods”, with the caveat that one person would be left out and suffer a minute reduction in his or her share of primary goods then the anti-aggregationist would be required to refuse this offer (Arneson 2000: 5).

3.3 Moral Prohibition on Killing Argued Against

The rights-based critic might concede that aggregation is acceptable but accuse the utilitarian of disrespecting a person’s ultimate right: his or her right to life. The utilitarian is accused of having a theory, the logical extension of which is to kill people for the sake of the greater good. This criticism has intuitive and popular appeal, and is taken seriously by philosophers, as in the following passage:

The basic problem with standard versions of core consequentialism is that they fail to recognize adequately the normative separateness of persons. Psychological autonomous beings (as well, perhaps, as other beings with moral standing) are not merely means for the promotion of value. They must be respected and honored, and this means that at least sometimes certain things may not be done to them, even though this promotes value overall. An innocent person may not be killed against her will, for example, in order to make a million happy people significantly happier. This would be sacrificing her for the benefit of others. (Vallentyne 2006)

First, it would be wise to establish to what extent my view does in fact allow killing. Killing is not an obvious matter for utilitarianism to deal with. As with the issue of creating new people, it leads us to the total v/s average debate discussed in the previous chapter. As I have concluded in favour of the total view, I am able to say that killing a person is bad in itself if the person gains positive enjoyment from life. Also, I can concur with all utilitarians that the grief caused to relatives and friends and general disruption to society make killing generally bad. However, I accept that killing one innocent person would be justified if it did lead to a greater amount of mental welfare in the universe.

Although my conclusion on this matter is not a pleasant one, the rights-based critic’s position that killing is always wrong runs into greater difficulties. To begin with, the idea of mercy killing suggests that killing is not fundamentally wrong. If someone is permanently in enormous pain, people often believe it to be morally correct to end their lives. It might be countered that it is only correct because it is what the person wishes or is our best estimate of what their wishes are if they are unable to communicate. However, we can use an argument similar to one used earlier (section 1.2) of a case where a malicious scientist has genetically engineered a person to never choose death however much pain they are in. Here I think that we should kill the person if their suffering becomes permanent and immense, whatever their stated preference.

However, the more serious difficulty for the absolute prohibition on killing comes from catastrophic scenarios similar to the Itchy Nose case. For example, suppose that it were possible, on the eve of the Second World War, to avert the entire global conflict by killing one innocent person. Even if it were true that this person would otherwise have survived the Second World War, would it not be preferable that this one murder takes place rather than all the invasions and genocides? The anti-killing principle, in contrast, commits us to condemning millions to die here (Norcross 2009: 82).

This example is fictional, but not all are. Actions that are likely to cause death are accepted and perhaps a necessary evil in our society. For example, most people would, I think, defend a country’s right to wage war against an invading army. However, war is no respecter of the rights of individuals. A war of any size is sure to kill some innocent civilians (Honderich 2006: 29). The decision to wage a defensive war is precisely the sort of trading-off of some deaths against others or against a better outcome overall that utilitarians recommend. Any moral approach that justifies war is clearly one which finds the death of some civilians an acceptable cost (Otsuka 1998).

Another area in which we are prepared to accept innocent deaths for an overall gain is in the area of road use (Norcross 1997: 159). Anyone who makes use of cars or busses must be aware that pedestrians are being killed on a daily basis. We are prepared not only to risk our own lives on the road, but to risk the lives of others, in the full knowledge of the repercussions of our actions. I would argue that transport users (of which I am one) act as a group to kill these people and bear something like equal responsibility for their deaths. Road travel is something we can avoid, albeit at a cost to our standard of living. We weigh the deaths against the benefit to our standard of living and decide that the deaths are worth it. Anyone who supports the anti-killing view should, therefore, refrain from all but essential journeys that use vehicles and be a complete pacifist with regard to any war.

It may seem callous and disrespectful to talk of lives as expendable. However, the utilitarian does not take murder remotely lightly. He or she gives the same consideration to the murdered person as him or herself. He or she only hurts another with their feelings fully taken into account, as expressed by the compensation approach.

A similar discussion to this might take place based on, instead of killing, other acts, such as torture or rape. Prohibitions on these other acts again lead us straight to catastrophic scenarios such as the Itchy Nose and are therefore as untenable as the killing prohibition. We dealt with torture at length in the previous chapter and we could take rape to be a particular sort of torture. Both could be justified in utilitarian terms by a vast amount of pleasure to the exploiter, however in the real world the amounts of pleasure that compensate for extreme suffering are very unlikely to occur as a result of such acts. Instead, a huge amount of conflict and pain tends to be caused by such acts over the long term on all sides.

So we can summarise this section by saying that the anti-killing view (as well as anti-torture and anti-rape) runs into catastrophic examples and in any case the utilitarian is not callously disregarding the feelings of others but, on the contrary taking all feelings fully into account.

3.4 Absolute Individual Freedom Argued Against

An alternative rights-based critique of my view might be to accuse it of sanctioning the making of decisions by one person about other people that only they have the right to make. There are, however, sound utilitarian reasons for letting each person make decisions that affect him or herself. Each person knows his or her own tastes better than anyone else does. Also each individual is very likely to have his or her own interests at heart. However, taking individual rights further leads to the same problem that afflicts the anti-aggregation and anti-killing views. If one person is not prepared to endure an itchy nose for a few seconds to allow millions to avoid torture, then the millions will be made to suffer needlessly on this selfish whim.

There is a related intuition against utilitarianism that the utilitarian is paternalistic and prepared to override people’s choices on a grand scale. This might be summed up by the phrase “government house utilitarianism” (Sen and Williams 1982: 16) or a more common phrase “playing God”. Again, there are perfectly sound reasons to be suspicious of people that want to “play God” with other people’s lives. However utilitarianism can account for these intuitions, as it is very dangerous to leave large amounts of power in the hands of a single individual or small number of people, as they are very likely to act in their own interests rather than for the welfare of the majority.

However, an absolute moral prohibition on “playing God” leads us yet again to catastrophic scenarios such as the Itchy Nose. It might be that an authoritarian government’s policies on a certain occasion are the only ones that can save the world from catastrophe. Authoritarian governments are generally bad, but on such a rare occasion they would surely be a good thing.

Also, we are not always able to act democratically. There are, therefore, some circumstances where we are forced to “play God”, and override individual freedom. One example might be decisions we might make about future generations. Things we do now may affect the quality of future lives, and also the number of lives affected. We cannot consult future generations, but our decisions, say, about population control, how we fight diseases or tackle environmental problems will affect these unborn people. One course of action might, say, leave one group of people a few centuries hence with a serious disease, while another might leave a larger group with environmental problems. Although this by no means proves that we should therefore play God in other cases, it does perhaps cast doubt on a general revulsion about this kind of approach.

Another problem with the principle of never overriding individual freedom is the fact that our criminal justice system is imperfect and we are therefore constantly locking up innocent people. We clearly have no right to do this in terms of respecting persons and not “playing God”. Here we are totally overriding virtually the entire life of an innocent person for years or even decades. Yet our criminal justice system can probably never be perfect, and our civilised society probably relies on the presence of a criminal justice system, therefore there seems to be no alternative to overriding the freedom of a few unknown individuals.

3.5 Defenders of Deontology Discussed

The rights-based critic of my view might claim that I am missing the point about rights by constantly returning to consequentialist arguments. It might be said that I have ignored the distinction between axiology and deontology (Norcross 2009: 84). That is, I have assumed that the most morally valuable world and the morally best actions always coincide. The rights-base critic might admit that a world where one suffers instead of many is a better world but claim that we have no right to harm the one in order to bring this about. The critic here is saying that we shouldn’t always do the thing that makes the world better off. I could concoct any number of catastrophic scenarios such as the ones above, and the deontologist, it is supposed, would bite the bullet on all of them, saying that some acts are wrong whatever the consequences, even one murder preventing World War Two etc.

This debate seems to come down to basic moral assumptions, in which it may be fair to say that neither side can, in a deep sense, refute the other. However, it still, I believe, is resolved by catastrophic scenarios such as the Itchy Nose. I can bite the bullet on murder, torture, rape, etc. but I don’t think that many who hold rights-based views can really bite the bullet on these scenarios.

Rawls has said that “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy" (1999: 30). And even Nozick, albeit grudgingly in a footnote, promised us that cases where adherence to his side constraints will lead to “catastrophic moral horror” are ones that he will “largely hope to avoid” (1974: 30). Avoid them he does, but by not discussing them rather than by thinking of a solution.

The rights-based critic seems to be left with only one option. This is to see catastrophic scenarios as simply an exception to the rule, but one that somehow doesn’t bring the correctness of the rule into question. This is, for example, what Otsuka (1998) has done when dismissing the support of rights in catastrophic scenarios as “fanaticism” but continuing to adhere to a rights-based view. I criticise this inconsistent approach to theorising in ethics in the first section of the following chapter. To allow such inconsistency seems odd, also, as rights-based theorist have been keen to dismiss utilitarianism on the grounds of “counterexamples” such as utility monsters and forced organ donations.

3.6 Chapter Conclusion

The discussions in this chapter have cast much doubt on rights-based criticisms of the conclusions reached in Chapter 2. All rights-based arguments that I have discussed seem to run into to catastrophic scenarios such as that of the Itchy Nose.

I argued that both the strong and maximin versions of the anti-aggregation view are dismissed by the Itchy Nose Argument. I then argued that the intuitively appealing prohibition on murder is dismissed by similar catastrophic cases, and likewise for the position against paternalism and “playing God”. Lastly, I revealed that even Rawls and Nozick appear to have some respect for consequentialism and catastrophic scenarios, and suggested that such scenarios can’t be simply dismissed as “exceptions to the rule”.


4.1 Chapter Introduction

In the above discussion, I believe that I have offered good reasons to dismiss intrinsic egalitarianism and rights-based approaches. The major areas of criticism against my conclusion of Chapter 2 remaining are, I believe, ones that question my utilitarian assumptions. There are many different possible criticisms of utilitarianism that might apply to my approach and therefore my conclusion and there is no space to do justice to them all. In this final chapter, therefore, let me focus on two of the most powerful: anti-reductionist and anti-hedonistic views.

With regard to reductionism, much of my discussion has assumed implicitly that we should take such an approach, favouring an all-pervading ethical theory. This has been apparent, for example, where I have accused prioritarianism and the sufficiency view of “arbitrariness”. It was also apparent in my rejection of the dismissal of catastrophic examples as “exceptions to the rule” by rights-based theorists, in the previous section. In the first section of this chapter (4.2) I consider two views that cast doubt on this reductionist approach: moral scepticism and particularism. I use the label “particularism” to cover all views that are not sceptical about morality in general but only of reductionist moral theories, for example Williams’s belief that utilitarianism oversimplifies moral thinking (Chappell 2009). With regard to moral scepticism, I accept that it cannot be refuted, although I believe that it does nothing to prevent us from preferring to follow moral systems. However, I argue against particularism, following Mill’s point that different principles must have an “umpire” to decide between them where they conflict (Mill 1861: 158).

In the final section (4.3) I consider the criticism of my hedonism, in the form of the longstanding and, I believe powerful “contented pigs” argument (Mill 1861: 140). This argument need not be fatal to my conclusion, as it is an argument against the hedonistic form of utilitarianism, and my conclusion, it will be recalled, extends to other forms of the theory. If convincing, the “contented pigs” argument may merely require me to switch to a form of ideal utilitarianism. However, such a move, away from what has appeared to be utilitarianism’s most plausible form, will not be without cost. All non-hedonistic forms of the theory have drawbacks which I have discussed briefly above. This argument therefore threatens to undermine my approach and therefore the conclusion that I reached in Chapter 2.

I find that knowledge, understanding etc are of great instrumental value (as opposed to intrinsic value, as the “contented pigs” argument contends) and suggest that in cases where this value does not apply, their merit appears far more dubious. I then investigate the argument that any doubt the utilitarian has about his or her goal can only be considered using knowledge, understanding etc. which seems to suggest the priority of the latter values. I accept that this argument casts doubt on utilitarianism, although it does not offer us an alternative.

4.2 Objections to Grand Reductionist Theories Argued Against

So, let us investigate the view that we should avoid reductionist theories in ethics. This can be argued from two points of view. Let me begin with a discussion of moral scepticism, and then move on to talk about the views that I will group under the heading “particularism”.

Moral scepticism seems to me to be ultimately irrefutable, and this a serious problem for utilitarianism and all ethical views. It is difficult to see how we can bridge the is/ought gap. Ethical views don’t seem to be amenable to proof in the way that other views are. I also confess that my adherence to utilitarianism is not based on reason alone. I have been a utilitarian since childhood, long before I might have seriously considered many of the arguments for or against it. Without proof, utilitarianism and all ethical theories, are ultimately left being, or being based on, moral assumptions.

However, moral scepticism doesn’t give us a reason not to act according to ethical principles. If we divide our possible approaches to life into acting selfishly, acting ethically and acting randomly, moral scepticism does not show any one of these three approaches to be better than the others. We are currently living life, and must take one course of action or another. Even to commit suicide, individually or on mass, or to fall to the floor in an inactive heap, represents a course of action. Acting according to ethical principles seems to be as good an option as any other. There is no reason not to take the ethical approach that we favour.

But, moving on to the issue of particularism, why, once we have decided to follow an ethical approach, should we follow a reductionist one such as utilitarianism? One possible approach to answering this question might be to talk about consistency. Consistency is appealing to the adherents of a wide range of ethical opinions and might be considered an essential feature of a good moral theory (Bergström 1996). It might be said that utilitarianism is consistency coupled with the assignment of a positive moral value to human welfare. (The fact that an alternative theory might combine consistency with the assignment of a negative moral value to human welfare instead shows that consistency isn’t the whole of ethics.) Another word that we might like to use is elegance. Scientists are drawn towards elegant explanations.

But should the appeal of elegance and consistency carry over from science to ethics? The opposing view has gone by the name of particularism (Tannsjo 1998: 10) and I find this name to be appropriate to much of modern ethical thinking. Particularism says that we can apply different moral principles in different circumstances. Rawls, for example, is prepared to go further down the particularist road than the utilitarian, applying his principles only to a particular sphere of life (i.e. his two principles only apply to basic structure of society). Inelegant things happen at the borders where the jurisdiction of one set of principles ends and another begins. But are we to reject all ethical views that have such inelegancies?

One famous Philosopher who favoured an even more particularist method was Bernard Williams (1973). Williams was sceptical about all reductionist approaches to ethics, believing that they miss essential ethical nuances. The approach of Williams and the Particularist, it should be made clear, is not one of moral scepticism, it is, instead, one of morality but without an overriding moral system.

While I believe that, as is the case with moral scepticism, there is no way to ultimately disprove particularism, the argument that convinces me to reject it is Mill’s. Mill said that where two principles conflict, we need some way of deciding between them (1861: 158). This must come in the form of an overriding ethical system that acts as an umpire between the others. Also, If we don’t adopt an overriding moral system, as Honderich has pointed out, someone else will be able to look at our behaviour and tell us the principle that we are using even if we can’t or won’t do so ourselves (2007).

My conclusion that we should pursue pure utilitarianism without egalitarianism is clearly vulnerable, as are all ethical conclusions, to the criticism of the moral sceptic. However, from my discussion in this section I reject the criticism of the particularist. Pure utilitarianism has nothing to be ashamed of for being a reductionist ethical view. Any ethical view, as Mill’s argument makes clear, must have an overriding ethical theory acting as “umpire”. Likewise my rejection of egalitarianism cannot be criticised for being reductionist or systematic.

4.3 “Contented Pigs” Objection Argued Against

Let us move on, in this final section, to the view, asserted since Mill’s day, that utilitarianism is a philosophy of “contented pigs”. I should begin by repeating, as I stated in the introduction to this chapter, that this is an argument against hedonistic utilitarianism, not the other forms of the theory. However the alternative forms all have shortcomings, and are therefore not entirely satisfactory. The ideal utilitarianism that we might switch to is somewhat arbitrary and ad-hoc. We spent much of Chapter 2 dealing with the messy business of hybrid theories, which, in the name of elegance and ultimately, plausibility, as discussed in the previous section, we might prefer to avoid.

Hedonistic utilitarianism commits us to the view that intelligence, understanding, knowledge etc. are of zero value. By “contented pigs” argument I simply mean the denial of this, which appears on face value to be well founded, as such values seem to be universally considered to be of great value.

Let us, before we begin tackling the argument itself, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, as we did with “mental welfare”, define a term that encompasses intelligence, understanding, knowledge etc. The term I shall use is “intellectual capacity”. This is the extent to which a mind has these qualities. If a person increases his or her intelligence, gains a new insight or learns a new fact, his or her “intellectual capacity” increases. It might be argued that “intellectual activity” is closer to what we want, as there is little point in having intelligence if you don’t use it. However, the promotion of intellectual activity seems to commit us to wishing to see people repeating intellectual tasks which they have performed many times before. I don’t find this very appealing and will therefore stick with “intellectual capacity”.

To defend pure hedonistic utilitarianism, I must now argue that intellectual capacity is only of instrumental value. Let’s consider the forms that this instrumental value might take. Firstly, the more informed or intelligent an agent’s behaviour is, the more effective it is likely to be when applied to any goal. Examples of this might include the use technology to give us labour-saving devices, painkillers, faster transport, art, sport etc. Secondly, knowledge and appreciation of the workings of the world around us might be satisfying in themselves: for example, some people find beauty in mathematics or enjoy learning trivial facts. Lastly, intellectual capacity may be required for consciousness and therefore pleasure to occur. If a person has little intelligence then he or she may only be experiencing a very limited level of consciousness. Somewhere in-between a human and a stone on the intelligence scale (the latter, presumably, totally lacking consciousness) there must, I believe, be creatures with half the consciousness of a human, who, even when doing something that a human does, for example eating a good meal, must be experiencing only half the human level of pleasure.

So it is clear that intellectual capacity does have enormous instrumental value towards the goal of mental welfare maximisation via the three effects just mentioned. However, does intellectual capacity have any value beyond these three effects that we would have to accept as being intrinsic?

Let us imagine cases where these instrumental effects don’t apply. One case might be that of a person who is forced to take a history course in school, from which he or she and the world derives no practical benefit and gains no enjoyment at the time. Is it of intrinsic value that this person gains this knowledge?

To take another, completely different example, suppose that the knowledge of the existence of the dwarf planet Pluto has not been useful in any particular way to humanity beyond increasing our intellectual capacity via increased knowledge. Further suppose that if Pluto had not been discovered in the early 20th century, that in the middle of the 21st century a probe would discover it anyway. What value might the increased intellectual capacity provided by the knowledge of the dwarf planet’s existence for the intervening century or so have?

Stripped of any possibility of practical benefit it doesn’t seem clear that the increased intellectual capacity in the two examples just mentioned has any value. We often praise the pursuit of “knowledge for its own sake” in schools and universities, etc. but we do so with the thought at the back of our minds that the knowledge might help us in the future. Devoid of any possible spin-offs as with these examples, we see that perhaps intellectual capacity does not have intrinsic value.

We have all been brought up in a world where much is still left to discover and where it is difficult to predict what might be of instrumental value in the future. Therefore, we are sensible to err on the side of assuming that any extra intellectual capacity might be useful.

Another reason to value intellectual capacity is purely egotistical. Intellectual capacity is likely to raise the status of one person within a group. Part of us doesn’t want to be a contented pig for these social reasons, and this selfish reasoning can leak into our moral thinking.

Indeed, Nozick’s famous “experience machine” critique of utilitarianism (1974: 42) was set up as a choice of one individual. If one is faced with the choice of whether to enter virtual reality or not, it is likely that self-interest will sway one’s decision. The decision to live in virtual reality might cause one’s status (Sinnott-Armstrong 2008) or even level of safety, to suffer, especially if few others are taking the virtual option.

So, stripped of all instrumental value and disregarding egotistical motives, the idea of intellectual capacity having intrinsic value seems far from conclusive. However, there is an alternative version of the “contented pigs” argument that is, I believe, extremely convincing. We might describe this as a meta-ethical version of the argument. This version states that our intellectual capacity is required for, and therefore prior to, our ethical views. We cannot let go of our intellectual capacity for moral reasons as we can only have moral views that are brought into being by our intellectual capacity.

To approach this from a slightly different angle, a utilitarian must have some doubt about his or her position, just as one who believes in any empirical fact cannot be 100% certain. To the extent that the utilitarian doubts his or her position he or she would want to “hedge his/her bets” by maintaining the pursuit of intellectual capacity. Even if he or she is very sure of his or her view, it seems possible that a new philosophical argument might be discovered that discredits utilitarianism. This is comparable to an atheist who acknowledges that convincing proof of God’s existence might appear one day, however unlikely they consider that possibility to be.

A further point that might be added to this argument is that utilitarianism lacks a proof. Yet we can imagine a proof for an ethical view being discovered in the future. Therefore it seems to be most vital that humanity continues to develop its intellectual capacity, particularly in the area of Philosophy. Also, we probably want to keep developing technology as one day a computer like Douglas Adams’s “Deep Thought” might be developed to work on the ultimate questions and prove one ethical approach to be true. Our current inability to bridge the is/ought gap, discussed in the previous section, causes me to be impressed by the argument that we should “hedge our bets” and continue to develop our intellectual capacity even when it costs us pleasure.

So we can summarise the discussion of this section by saying that as a separate goal from the pursuit of mental welfare, intellectual capacity may not be of intrinsic value, however, as a requirement of, or aspect of life more basic than, morality, intellectual capacity seems more likely to be of intrinsic value.

What does this discussion imply for my conclusion that pure utilitarianism should be pursued without intrinsic egalitarianism? As I have stated above, this conclusion can extend to non-hedonistic forms of utilitarianism, so we can resort to an ideal utilitarianism that consists of a hybrid of the pursuit of mental welfare with the pursuit of intellectual capacity. We will then, of course, have to suffer from the arbitrariness and lack of elegance that tends to afflict hybrid theories, at least from the point of view of my reductionist approach. Whether we take the ideal or straight hedonistic utilitarian option, this discussion seems to give us no particular reason, however, to reconsider our rejection of intrinsic egalitarianism, neither does it offer us an alternative to our conclusion.

4.4 Chapter Conclusion

In this chapter we have dealt with two common criticisms of utilitarianism, and therefore my conclusions in Chapter 2: the anti-reductionist and anti-hedonistic views. Firstly, I concluded that while moral scepticism is impossible to refute, those who endorse particularism and refuse to adopt reductionist ethical theories are umpiring between these different principles anyway, in practice if not in theory.

Secondly, and lastly, I concluded that stripped of its instrumental value, the pursuit of knowledge, understanding etc. may not be of intrinsic value. The importance of knowledge etc. in meta-ethics remains a problem for the utilitarian however, although it does not suggest a viable alternative.


In this dissertation we have reached the conclusion that utilitarianism is egalitarian enough on its own without having to be combined with intrinsic egalitarian theories, and we have defended this conclusion against a range of criticisms.

After looking at a variety of versions of the two theories, we concluded that the hedonistic version of utilitarianism is the most plausible and easiest to analyse. We also settled on the hedonistic version of egalitarianism on the same grounds, although ultimately all forms of intrinsic egalitarianism were dismissed. We identified three major objections to egalitarianism of outcome pursued alone. These were The Levelling Down Objection, temporal problems and dilemmas about how to measure equality. For utilitarianism pursued alone we identified one: The Exploitation Objection.

We then rejected three different hybrid versions of the two theories. These were the simple hybrid theory, the sufficiency view, and prioritarianism. We found prioritarianism to be the best of the three, successfully dealing with The Levelling Down Objection, The Exploitation Objection and the temporal problems and difficulties of measurement associated with egalitarianism. However, we found that it adds an unnecessary arbitrary extra value to suffering, on top of pure utilitarianism’s very high but non-arbitrary value.

We then extended this conclusion to most forms of utilitarianism, with the exception of the rule form. We also speculated that egalitarian policies may well continue in practice under pure utilitarianism as instruments towards a sustainable and therefore mental welfare-rich future.

In the second half of the dissertation we defended our conclusion against potential criticism. In Chapter 3 we discussed rights-based criticisms and in Chapter 4, two other wider criticisms, namely the argument against grand reductionist views and the “contented pigs” argument.

All rights-based arguments that were discussed seem to run into to catastrophic scenarios such as that of the Itchy Nose. We saw both strong and maximin versions of the anti-aggregation view dismissed by the Itchy Nose Argument. We then saw the intuitively appealing prohibition on murder being dismissed by similar catastrophic cases, and likewise for the position against paternalism and “playing God”. We also saw that even Rawls and Nozick appear to have a glimmer of respect for consequentialism and catastrophic scenarios.

In the final chapter, with regard to arguments against the alleged excessive reductionism of utilitarianism I concluded, with Mill, that conflicting principles need an “umpire” to decide between them. However, moral scepticism, I concede, remains a problem for utilitarianism and all ethical theories.

Finally, with regard to the “contented pigs” argument, my conclusion was that most of the value of knowledge, understanding etc. can be explained by the hedonistic utilitarian as amounting to instrumental value towards creating happiness. Stripped of this, it is far from clear that knowledge, intelligence etc. is of positive moral value. I then looked into meta-ethical arguments for knowledge, understanding etc. conceding, however that they do have force against utilitarianism, although they do not point us to an alternative.

Two areas of speculation in this dissertation seem to suggest further thought. Firstly the discussion at the end of Chapter 2 about the forms that instrumental egalitarianism might take, and secondly the suggestion that we should “hedge our bets” and have doubt about utilitarianism, or perhaps any ethical theory that we happen to endorse. Further arguments in the first area might cause us to endorse or reject egalitarianism on utilitarian grounds. Further arguments in the second area might cast greater doubt on utilitarianism. I hope that this discussion has proved to be interesting, persuasive and thought-provoking.


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