Before starting, consult the Writing Basics and Logic Basics handout attached.
6 Pages, MLA format. More detailed instruction in Writing Basics.
Prompt: In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick claims that the minimal state can arise without violating anyone’s rights. Explain the process by which Nozick thinks the minimal state would arise from the state of nature and assess his claim that this process will violate no one’s rights.
Book: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ESwghRg75P3edwLS…Draft of 1-6-17
David O. Brink; UCSD
In writing a philosophy paper, do not simply state your beliefs or report the beliefs of others.
You should make claims about an issue and support your claims with arguments. When you
present your view, consider what might plausibly be said against it. When you criticize
someone else’s views, consider how that person might reasonably reply to your objection.
1. Choose a paper topic that you find interesting.
2. It can sometimes be helpful to read recommended readings. But for shorter papers this is
usually not necessary. An excellent paper can be written on the basis of a careful and
thoughtful reading of the required material and class discussion.
3. In trying to understand a philosopher’s views, it is often useful to write a summary or
outline of his or her arguments for yourself.
4. Review your lecture notes and handouts.
5. Determine the structure of your paper in advance. Make an outline that organizes the
various issues and arguments you want to discuss into an intelligent and coherent whole.
6. If possible, write your paper in two drafts. After writing your first draft, set it aside for a
while, then read it through and make revisions of substance, spelling, grammar, and
punctuation. You may want to discuss your draft with your TA or instructor.
1. Unless directed otherwise, your paper should be double-spaced with 1” margins on all sides
and set in a legible 12-point font, such as Times New Roman or Cambria.
2. Most papers have a simple tripartite structure: (1) tell your readers what you’re going to
tell them, (2) tell them, and (3) tell them what you told them. The bulk of the paper should
be devoted to (2). (1), also known as the introduction, and (3), also known as the
conclusion, should function as bookends.
3. Make the introduction brief. Explain the issues that you are going to discuss and the
position that you are going to defend. Avoid banal phrases and filler (e.g. “Topic x has been
a great mystery and source of controversy since the dawn of mankind.”).
4. Make sure the paper has direction. Your claims should all be relevant and consistent and
should support your position. Consider obvious alternatives and objections to your position
or argument. You needn’t pretend to be certain at every point, but, if you are uncertain, give
reasons for being uncertain.
5. It is generally best to assume that your reader is an intelligent person who has read fairly
little philosophy but has read the material in question. Avoid unnecessary jargon and
explain most technical terms and concepts.
6. Write simple, direct sentences. Whenever possible, use the active voice. Avoid pretentious
or banal phrases and personal references or apologies, such as “I feel” or “of course, it’s only
a matter of opinion”. Also avoid vague phrases, such as “x involves/connects up
with/relates to y”. Explain what is related to what and what the relationship is.
7. Do not quote unnecessarily. Unless you are discussing a difficult or central passage, where
quotation is appropriate, paraphrase is more appropriate and better demonstrates your
grasp of the material.
8. If you quote or paraphrase closely, use some standard form of reference to document your
source. You should refer your readers to passages in the texts you are discussing even when
you are not quoting directly.
9. Use some standard citation format. One such format is to give full publication details in a
footnote when you first refer to a given work. If you are going to make further reference to
that work, you might indicate in that first footnote that further references to this work will
be included parenthetically in the text. And then further references should observe this
rule. Alternatively, you might append a Bibliography or Works Cited page at the end of your
paper that gives full publication details for all the works to which you refer or on which you
draw. If so, then all references in the body of the text could be parenthetical references
employing author and title or author and year of publication.
10. Document your intellectual debts to internet sources as you should any other primary or
11. Your professor’s notes and handouts should be treated like any other secondary source and
should not be quoted or paraphrased without proper attribution.
12. When you are finished, proofread your paper for coherence of argument, grammar,
punctuation, and spelling. It pays to correct errors of this kind.
13. Feel free to consult with your TA or instructor about how to write a philosophy paper. You
could also consult a general manual of style, such as W. Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements
14. Finally, a reminder about plagiarism. (a) Plagiarism involves borrowing the work (ideas or
words) of another and representing them as one’s own without giving proper credit to one’s
source. It can, but need not, involve intentional wrongdoing. (b) Plagiarism is a violation of
UCSD policy governing academic integrity. Students are responsible for knowing and
conforming to this policy (http://www-senate.ucsd.edu/manual/appendices/app2.htm).
(c) I take plagiarism very seriously. (d) Students found to have plagiarized work will
automatically fail the assignment and the course and will be turned over to the appropriate
college disciplinary body. (e) Plagiarism is often easy to detect.
David O. Brink; UCSD
Draft of 1-6-17
Much of philosophy is concerned with the evaluation of arguments. You will often find it helpful both in
thinking about issues and in writing papers to reconstruct and formalize the arguments that you are discussing
into premises and conclusions and to assess them systematically. The following concepts and examples may
help you evaluate arguments.
An argument is a set of statements one of which ¾ the conclusion ¾ is supposed to be supported in some way
by the others ¾ the premises. Arguments are of two basic kinds: deductive or deductively valid arguments and
Deductively valid arguments are of two kinds: merely valid and sound arguments.
Valid arguments are arguments such that if their premises were true, then their conclusions would have
to be true. In other words, they are arguments such that it is impossible that their premises should all
be true and their conclusions false.
A sound argument is a valid argument all of whose premises are true.
Truth is a property of premises or statements, not arguments. Validity is a property of arguments, not premises
or statements. Soundness, like validity, is a property of arguments, not premises or statements.
In philosophy, it is often possible to find or construct arguments that purport to be sound (i.e. valid arguments
with true premises). When you come across such an argument with an apparently implausible conclusion, you
have reason to believe that something has gone wrong somewhere. But be sure to explain where things have
gone wrong. In most debates, one can divide critical responses into two main kinds ¾ Oh Yeah? and So What?
The So What? response concedes the conclusion in question, if only for the sake of argument, but denies
that the conclusion has the consequences or significance that its proponents allege.
The Oh Yeah? response challenges the cogency of the argument in support of the conclusion. One can
challenge the soundness of an argument by challenging either the truth of its premises or the validity of
its inferences (or both).
Non-deductive arguments are those arguments that are not deductively valid. The set of non-deductive
arguments includes, but is not exhausted by, fallacious arguments (i.e. arguments that purport to be deductively
valid, but fail), inductive arguments, arguments by analogy, and arguments to the best explanation. There are
both good and bad non-deductive arguments. What the exact criteria are for good non-deductive arguments is a
matter of controversy.
1. All persons are mortal.
2. Socrates is a person.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
1. All pigs can fly.
2. Socrates is a pig.
3. Therefore, Socrates can fly.
1. All dogs are mortal.
2. Spot is a dog.
3. Therefore, Spot will die by the age of 25.
1. This urn contains 999 red balls and one black ball.
2. Therefore, the first ball picked from this urn will be red.
1. Those tracks outside the chicken coop were made either by a dog or by a wolf.
2. No one has ever seen a wolf this far south.
3. Therefore, those tracks were made by a dog.
1. Justice in the state requires rule by the rational class.
2. Therefore, justice in the soul requires rule by the rational part of the soul.
It’s reasonable to do things that are beneficial.
Exercise is beneficial.
Hence, exercise is reasonable.
Charitable contributions are beneficial.
Hence, it’s reasonable to make charitable contributions.
The value that an action would produce provides reason to perform it.
The more value an action would produce, the more reason there is to perform it.
The right thing to do is the action that one has most or strongest reason to perform.
Hence, the right thing to do is the action that would produce the most value.
1. The value that an action would produce provides reason to perform it.
2. The more value an action would produce, the more reason there is to perform it.
3. The best thing to do is the action that would produce the most value.
1. If Socrates corrupts the youth, he does so either willingly or unwillingly.
2. If he does so unwillingly, he ought to be privately educated so as not to corrupt.
3. If he does so willingly, he ought to be punished.
4. Anyone who corrupts willingly harms those whom he corrupts.
5. Anyone willingly harmed is likely to harm his harmer.
6. No one willingly risks harm.
7. Therefore, no one willingly corrupts anyone.
8. Therefore, Socrates does not willing corrupt anyone.
9. Therefore, if Socrates corrupts, he corrupts unwillingly.
10. Therefore, if Socrates corrupts, he ought to be privately educated so as not to corrupt.
All things come to be from their opposites.
Hence, death comes to be from life.
Hence, this life came from a previous death.
Hence, that previous death came from a previous life.
Hence, there is an eternal recurrence that assures my persistence beyond death.
Draft of 1-17-20
PHIL 28: Ethics & Society II
UCSD; Winter 2020
Topic: Liberalism and Justice
Professor David O. Brink
Handout #1: Consequentialism, Utilitarianism, and Higher Pleasures
Consequentialism is a kind of moral theory that assesses things — actions, persons, policies, and institutions
— by the value of their consequences. Utilitarians are consequentialists with a welfarist theory of value, who
focus on welfare, well-being, or happiness as the relevant consequence. Consequentialists and, hence,
utilitarians claim that we should promote — in one formulation, maximize — the good. John Rawls (19212002) says that classical utilitarianism defines the right in terms of the good, claiming that the right thing to
do is to maximize the good.1 Similarly, Robert Nozick (1938-2002) understands utilitarianism as the claim
that it is one’s duty to promote the good.2
There are theoretical choices to be made within the consequentialist and utilitarian traditions,
especially about how to understand value and the function from value to duty or obligation. We will explore
the conceptual resources of utilitarianism by focusing on the contributions of John Stuart Mill (1806-73). But
it may help to begin with a systematic, rather than an historical, introduction.
Different conceptions of utilitarianism result from different conceptions of happiness or well-being.
Some interpret happiness in subjective terms as consisting in or depending importantly upon the person’s
contingent and variable psychological states. For instance, hedonism claims that happiness consists in
pleasure and the absence of pain. Pleasure might be thought of as a qualitatively homogenous mental state
or sensation, varying primarily in intensity and duration, or, alternatively, as any mental state or sensation
that one wants to continue and will, other things being equal, take steps to prolong. Similarly, pain might be
thought of as a qualitatively homogeneous mental state or sensation or, alternatively, as any mental state or
sensation that one dislikes and will, other things being equal, take steps to discontinue. Others construe
happiness as consisting in the satisfaction of actual or informed or idealized desire. Still others conceive of
happiness or welfare in more objective terms as consisting in perfection (e.g. the realization of one’s essential
capacities) or some list of objective goods (e.g. knowledge, achievement, friendship).
Objective List Utilitarianism
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971) §5.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 28-33.
These distinctions turn on the evaluative assumptions one incorporates into consequentialism and
utilitarianism. Subjective theories of value have the virtue of accommodating a kind of pluralism about value
that recognizes different kinds of activities and lives as valuable. But they go beyond pluralism and embrace
content-neutrality about the good insofar as they recognize no inherent constraints on the content of good
lives. It’s less clear that content-neutrality is correct.
Extreme subjectivism about value, such as hedonism, claims that the good consists in mental states
alone. But we might doubt this. Consider the case of the Deluded Schoolboy.3 A lonely and miserable
schoolboy develops an all-consuming desire to be the most popular boy in school. His classmates, who
despise him, orchestrate a cruel hoax to stage a mock contest in which he is elected the most popular boy in
school. Deceived by the hoax, the boy is euphoric. But noting how his euphoria rests on false beliefs, we are
unlikely to judge his state good. Indeed, we might think that the boy’s contentment makes his state more
Or, consider Nozick’s discussion of the Experience Machine, which gives people whatever experiences
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you
desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel
you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you
would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine
for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? [Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42]
The answer, as Nozick notes, seems clearly to be No, at least in part because, as Nozick also notes, one wants
to be a certain kind of person and do certain sorts of things and not merely have experiences as if one were
such a person, doing such things. Indeed, we typically value the experiences we do only because we believe
them to have been produced by the activities and relationships that we value independently. This thought
experiment suggests that a valuable life involves certain character traits, the exercise of certain capacities,
and the possession of certain relationships to others and the world and, hence, that value cannot consist in
states or experiences alone.
These examples do not threaten moderate subjectivism, such as the desire-satisfaction view, which
claims that what is valuable depends upon, but need not consist in, one’s psychological states. Though the
schoolboy and the client of the experience machine are (ex hypothesi) satisfied, neither has his desires
satisfied. For the schoolboy wants to be popular and not merely seem popular, and the client has desires to
be a certain sort of person and do certain sorts of things.
We might notice something a little odd about the desire-satisfaction or preference-satisfaction view
of an individual’s well-being or happiness. For that view places no constraints on the content of a person’s
desires. Some of my desires will be self-regarding, but others not. I may desire that world hunger end, that
a vaccine for AIDS be discovered, or that my boyhood hockey rival fail in life. Satisfying the first two desires
may be good, and we may wonder about the value of satisfying the last. But it’s not clear that satisfying any
of them is good for me. The unrestricted desire-satisfaction view seems to conflate what interests me and
what is in my interest or, alternatively, what I value and what is valuable for me.
However, let us set this worry aside in order to concentrate on another. We sometimes judge that
people who are satisfying their deepest desires nonetheless lead impoverished lives, because their desires
are for unimportant or inappropriate things. Consider the situation in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia Brave New
World. Deltas and Epsilons form the working classes who are genetically engineered and psychologically
programmed to acquiesce in and indeed embrace intellectually and emotionally limited lives that are
liberally seasoned with mood altering drugs. Deltas and Epsilons lead contented lives precisely because they
are satisfying their chief desires. They’ve got what they want. It’s their desires that are frightening. This is
the problem of adaptive preferences.
Or consider the dedicated lint collector, who had many talents, but dedicated himself (successfully)
to collecting lint. Surely, we would not wish that our children be dedicated lint collectors, even successful
See Richard Kraut, “Two Conceptions of Happiness” Philosophical Review 88 (1979): 167-97.
ones. While a certain amount of realism in one’s ambitions and desires is sometimes a good thing, we do not
(in general) increase the value of our lives by lowering our sights, even if by doing so we increase the
frequency of our successes.
These considerations suggest a plausible test for a conception of what is good for a person — the
personal good. We can conceive of the personal good as that which we have reason to want in itself for
someone for whom we care for their own sakes. We might call this the rational concern test.4 A special case
of the rational concern test is the crib test.5 Standing by the side of my baby’s crib and contemplating her
future life, I ask whether proposed intrinsic goods are things that I would wish for her for her own sake.
More generally, because a good life is the life that is good in itself for the one who lives it, we can test
conceptions of the personal good by asking whether I would want a life like that for anyone insofar as I care
about that person for her own sake.
Welfarists believe that happiness or welfare is what matters, because it is what passes the rational
concern or crib test. But our reservations about subjectivism suggest that subjectivist conceptions of welfare
or happiness do not pass the crib test. These reservations might make us look more favorably on objective
conceptions of welfare or happiness. Objective conceptions could certainly explain our reservations about
subjectivism. But are they more plausible?
Another set of distinctions within consequentialism and utilitarianism are orthogonal to these. They
concern not the good but the relation between the good and the right (e.g. duty).
Some conceptions of consequentialism and utilitarianism are direct; they assess whatever it is they
assess (e.g. actions) in terms of the value of its consequences. The standard example of direct utilitarianism
is act utilitarianism, which says that one is morally obligated to perform that action, among the available
options, that produces the most happiness (or an action whose consequences for human happiness are at
least as good as any other action available to the agent). Some conceptions of utilitarianism are indirect,
making the moral assessment of something depend not on its utility but on its conformity to rules or motives
that have good or optimal consequences. A standard form of indirect utilitarianism is rule utilitarianism,
which says that one is morally obligated to conform one’s behavior to rules that have optimal acceptance
value, relative to other possible rules.
(e.g. act utilitarianism)
(e.g. rule utilitarianism)
There is controversy over whether Mill is a direct or indirect utilitarian. Some have interpreted him as an
act utilitarian, some as a rule utilitarian, and some as an indirect utilitarian who identifies duty with conduct
whose omission it is useful to blame.
MILL AND THE PHILOSOPHICAL RADICALS
John Stuart Mill was raised in the tradition of Philosophical Radicalism, made famous by Jeremy
Bentham (1748-1832), John Austin (1790-1859), and his father James Mill (1773-1836), which applied
utilitarian principles in a self-conscious and systematic way to issues of institutional design and social
reform. Utilitarianism was a progressive doctrine historically, because it is universal in scope — insisting that
See, e.g., Stephen Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
See Fred Feldman, Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).
everyone’s happiness matters — and because its conception of impartiality is egalitarian – insisting that
everyone’s happiness matters equally. As such, the Radicals’ application of utilitarian principles to social
institutions tended to challenge traditional institutions of class and privilege. For instance, the Radicals
appealed to utilitarianism to defend democratic reforms, extending to franchise to previously
As he documents in his Autobiography, Mill was groomed from birth by his father to become the
ultimate Victorian intellectual and utilitarian reformer. As part of this apprenticeship, Mill was exposed to an
extremely demanding education, shaped by utilitarian principles. He began Greek at the age of three. He had
read considerable Greek and Latin history, poetry, and philosophy by the age eight. At the age of eleven he
helped edit his father’s History of India. At the age of thirteen he began a systematic study of political
economy. While Mill followed the strict intellectual regimen laid down by his father for many years, he
suffered a profound intellectual and emotional crisis in the period 1826-1830. His recovery was assisted by
friendships he formed with Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Coleridge, who introduced him to ideas and texts
from the Romantic and Conservative traditions.
Though Mill never renounced the liberal and utilitarian tradition and mission that he inherited from
his father, his mental crisis and recovery greatly influenced his interpretation of this tradition. He became
critical of the moral psychology of Bentham and his father and of some of the social theory underlying their
plans for reform. It’s arguable that Mill tends to downplay the significance of his innovations and to
underestimate the intellectual discontinuities between himself and his father. One of Mill’s most significant
disagreements with the other Radicals is over the nature of happiness.
Bentham was a hedonistic act utilitarian, claiming that the right action, institution, or policy was the
one that maximized total pleasure for all affected. As a hedonist, Bentham held that pleasure and pain are
the only intrinsically valuable things, the only things good in themselves. Other things — actions, institutions,
and policies — can have only extrinsic or instrumental value insofar as they causally produce pleasure or pain,
and the extent of their value is directly proportional to the amount of net pleasure that they produce.
Bentham was a quantitative hedonist — he thought that the quantity of pleasure that something produces is
a direct function of the number, intensity, and duration of pleasures produced.6
MILL’S PROPORTIONALITY DOCTRINE
In Chapter II of Utilitarianism (1861) Mill explains the essentials of utilitarianism, beginning with its
The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle”
holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to
produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by
unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. [II 2]
The first sentence of the Proportionality Doctrine seems to be a statement of act utilitarianism, and the
second sentence seems to be a statement of a hedonistic conception of happiness. However, Mill goes on to
say that “much more requires to be said” to give a clear sense of utilitarianism, in particular, about the “ideas
of pleasure and pain” (II 2).
6 For a fuller discussion of
Benthamite utilitarianism, see David O. Brink, Mill’s Progressive Principles (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 2013), ch. 1.
7 The definitive edition of Mill’s writings is Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 33 volumes, ed. J. Robson (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1965-91). To facilitate common reference among readers using different editions of Mill’s
most popular works — for instance, Utilitarianism (U) and On Liberty (OL) — I will refer to those works using natural
divisions in his texts, such as chapter, section, and/or paragraph. I will refer to any other works by Mill using volume
and page number in his Collected Works.
MILL’S HIGHER PLEASURES DOCTRINE
Much of Chapter II involves clarifying and defending utilitarian essentials, as set out in the
Proportionality Doctrine. In response to the worry that happiness is fit only for swine (II 3), Mill defends the
superiority of higher pleasures (e.g. poetry) to lower pleasures (e.g. push-pin). With apparent reference to
Bentham, he claims that utilitarians can defend the extrinsic superiority of the higher pleasures. However,
Mill wants to put the superiority of higher pleasures on a more secure footing and claim that they are
intrinsically superior to lower pleasures (II 4).
In defending the intrinsic superiority of higher pleasures, Mill links them with the preferences of a
If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more
valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one
possible answer. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so
far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount
of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is
capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far
outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. [II 5]
Here, Mill claims that competent judges have a categorical preference for higher pleasures and that higher
pleasures are not just intrinsically more valuable than lower ones but discontinuously so. In this way, Mill
defends qualitative hedonism, rather than Benthamite quantitative hedonism.
SUBJECTIVE AND OBJECTIVE PLEASURES
Subjective pleasures are pleasurable mental states or sensations. Subjective pleasures may be
distinguished by their phenomenal quality or feel, or they may be distinguished by their functional profile —
for instance, as mental states or sensations that the subject likes and would, other things being equal, take
steps to prolong. Objective pleasures are non-mental items, such as actions, activities, and pursuits that can
and often do cause subjective pleasure. The bartender asks me “What’s your pleasure?” or I say “hockey is
my greatest pleasure” — these are objective pleasures. This distinction invites the question whether higher
pleasures are subjective or objective pleasures.
PROBLEMS FOR HEDONISM ABOUT HIGHER PLEASURES
Previous Philosophical Radicals, such as Bentham, were hedonists and presumably understood
pleasures to be subjective pleasures, at least for purposes of formulating hedonism. Is this how we should
If we understand higher pleasures as subjective pleasures, they are presumably subjective pleasures
with highbrow causes. But this raises some potential problems for understanding Mill’s higher pleasures
doctrine. Mill appears to reject Bentham’s quantitative hedonism. However, if higher pleasures are better
than lower ones, but not because they are more pleasurable, how can the higher pleasures doctrine be
squared with hedonism, since it seems to deny that the magnitude of pleasure is directly proportional to its
quantity? Perhaps Mill’s claim is that there are two factors affecting the magnitude of a pleasure: its quantity
— as determined by its intensity and duration — and its quality or kind. But why should differences in the
causes of pleasure affect the magnitude of pleasure produced?
Also, how does this interpretation of the higher pleasures doctrine make sense of Mill’s contrast
between happiness and contentment or satisfaction? After explaining higher pleasures in terms of the
categorical preferences of competent judges and insisting that competent judges would not trade any amount
of lower pleasures for higher pleasures, he claims that this preference sacrifices contentment or satisfaction,
but not happiness.
Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness — that the superior
being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior — confounds two very
different ideas, of happiness, and content. … It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig
satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. [II 6]
Mill does not say that the preference of competent judges is for one kind of contentment over another or that
Socrates has more contentment than the pig or fool by virtue of enjoying a different kind of contentment.
Instead, he contrasts happiness and contentment and implies that Socrates is happier than the fool, even if
Also, various features of Mill’s discussion suggest that he is discussing objective, rather than
subjective, pleasures. For instance, in the second part of the proof of the principle of utility in Chapter IV
Mill counts music, virtue, and health as pleasures (IV 5). These are objective pleasures. Elsewhere in his
discussion of higher pleasures in Chapter II, Mill equates a person’s pleasures with his “indulgences” (II 7)
and with his “mode of existence” (II 8). Here too he seems to be discussing lifestyles and pursuits, which
would be objective pleasures. Mill claims to be arguing that what the quantitative hedonist finds extrinsically
more valuable is also intrinsically more valuable (II 4, 7). But what the quantitative hedonist defends as
extrinsically more valuable are complex activities and pursuits, such as writing or reading poetry, not mental
states. Because Mill claims that these very same things are intrinsically, and not just extrinsically, more
valuable, his higher pleasures would appear to be intellectual activities and pursuits, rather than mental
states. In paragraphs 4-8 Mill links the preferences of competent judges and the greater value of the objects
of their preferences. But among the things Mill thinks competent judges would prefer are activities and
pursuits. And, in particular, in commenting on the passage quoted above (II 5), Mill writes
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of
appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which
employs their higher faculties. [II 6, emphasis added]
He also claims that happiness includes “many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the
active over the passive …” (II 12). Whereas activities and pursuits can be passive or active, it is not clear if
pleasures themselves could be passive or active.
Insofar as Mill’s higher pleasures doctrine concerns objective pleasures, it appears anti-hedonistic
for two reasons. First, he claims that the intellectual pursuits have value out of proportion to the amount of
contentment or pleasure (the mental state) that they produce. This would contradict the hedonist claim that
the extrinsic value of an activity is proportional to the amount of pleasure it produces. Second, Mill claims
that these activities are intrinsically more valuable than the lower pursuits (II 7). But the traditional hedonist
claims that the mental state of pleasure is the one and only intrinsic good; activities can have only extrinsic
value, and no activity can be intrinsically more valuable than another.
Finally, consider Mill’s explanation of the fact that competent judges prefer activities that exercise
their rational capacities by appeal to their sense of dignity.
We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness [on the part of a competent judge ever
to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence] … but its most appropriate appellation is a
sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no
means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties …. [II 6]
In claiming that it is the dignity of a life in which the higher capacities are exercised and the competent judge’s
sense of her own dignity that explains her preference for those activities, Mill implies that her preferences
reflect judgments about the value that these activities have independently of their being the object of desire
or the source of pleasure. We take pleasure in these activities because we recognize their value; they are not
valuable because they are pleasurable.
MILL AS PERFECTIONIST
If Mill’s higher pleasures are objective, rather than subjective, pleasures, he seems not to be a
hedonist. Happiness consists principally in the exercise of our higher faculties. We can see the possibility of
reading Mill as a kind of perfectionist about happiness who claims that happiness consists in a kind of selfrealization involving the proper exercise of those capacities essential to our nature as rational beings. As we
will see, this perfectionist conception of happiness fits central claims Mill makes in On Liberty (1859). For
instance, early in On Liberty he describes the utilitarian foundation of his defense of individual liberties but
insists that “it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a
progressive being” (I 11). Moreover, in the course of defending rights to liberties, Mill champions the value
“experiments in living” in which each person is allowed to determine for herself her best plan of life, provided
that her plans don’t harm others.
A good human life is one that exercises one’s higher capacities, and a person’s higher capacities
include her deliberative capacities, in particular, capacities to form, revise, assess, select, and implement her
own plan of life.
He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other
faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials
for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold his
deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part
of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is
possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these
things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? (III 4)
Here, Mill makes clear the importance of the development and exercise of deliberative capacities in a life that
is fit for progressive beings.
QUESTIONS ABOUT PERFECTIONISM ABOUT HAPPINESS
A perfectionist conception of happiness is potentially controversial, both as an interpretive matter
— that is, as an interpretation of Mill’s texts — and as a systematic or substantive proposal. We have
explained some reasons to take it seriously as an interpretive claim. Here, we might briefly consider it as a
The Experience Machine and Higher Pleasures. Do Nozick’s claims about the experience machine show
that Mill’s claims about happiness are mistaken? One might think so, because Nozick’s doubts about the
experience machine do raise problems for the traditional hedonist.
1. Traditional hedonism claims that pleasurable experience is the one and only intrinsic good.
2. Doubts about the experience machine show that the good does not consist in experiences alone.
3. Hence, doubts about the experience machine show that hedonism is false.
This is a valid argument that we have some reason to think is sound.8 But it does not refute Mill’s higher
pleasures doctrine, because that doctrine is not hedonistic. In particular, Mill thinks that the exercise of
higher faculties has superior value, independently of causing (subjective) pleasure. So Mill does not think
that happiness consists entirely of experiences.
Perfectionism about Happiness? One can be a perfectionist about the good, but can one be a
perfectionist about happiness? Isn’t happiness essentially subjective? To assess this claim, we need to
distinguish two common assumptions about happiness.
1. Happiness is subjective.
2. Happiness matters.
Happiness is subjective if and only if (iff) it consists in or depends on the subject’s psychological states.
Classical hedonism and desire-satisfaction conceptions of happiness are subjective in this sense, though in
different ways Happiness matters iff it passes the rational concern and crib tests — that is, if what one wants
for someone for whom one cares for her own sake is her happiness.
However, these two assumptions about happiness are in tension. Subjective conceptions of
happiness should lead us to doubt that happiness is what matters, as we might conclude from the case of the
For explanations of soundness and validity, please see the Logic Basics handout on the Canvas website.
Deluded Schoolboy, Nozick’s discussion of the experience machine, and Mill’s contrast between Socrates and
a contented pig.
What should we conclude? We could treat the idea that happiness is subjective as fixed point and
conclude so much the worse for happiness, replacing the utilitarian appeal to happiness with a more
objective concept, such as well-being or the personal good. Alternatively, we could hold fixed the idea that
happiness is what matters and reject the assumption that happiness must be subjective. Here, we would
distinguish between apparent and genuine happiness; whereas apparent happiness may be subjective, true
happiness is not. This is the route the perfectionist about happiness should take, and it is the route that Mill
seems to take.
Perfectionism and Pluralism. Even if Mill agrees with Nozick in rejecting hedonism and we can
coherently understand Mill’s perfectionism as a conception of happiness, isn’t it implausibly elitist? One
source of the appeal of subjectivism about happiness is its recognition that happiness can come in many
forms. Because people’s preferences and plans vary, they can take pleasure in different activities, and
different activities will satisfy their desires. So happiness, according to subjective conceptions, is pluralistic.
By contrast, more objective conceptions of happiness, such as perfectionism, may seem to deny this kind of
pluralism, precisely because they say that there is some one conception of a good or happy life, the value of
which is independent of what people want or find pleasing. Can only the subjectivist embrace pluralism
about happiness? If so, this might be a legitimate worry about perfectionism.
However, an objective conception of happiness can be pluralist. The details depend on the form the
objective conception takes. Some objective conceptions conceive of happiness in terms of a list of disparate
intrinsic goods, such as knowledge, achievement, and friendship. Activities and lives could combine these
goods in different ratios, yielding the result that lives structured in different ways could contain equivalent
or comparable value. For a perfectionist, such as Mill, who understands the primary ingredient in a happy
life to be the cultivation and exercise of capacities for practical deliberation, happiness can be as multifarious
as practical reason can be. Shallow and undemanding lives will not be especially happy lives. But many
different lifestyles will exemplify practical reason. For instance, the artisan who makes important decisions
about the organization of her craft and the production and distribution of her product exercises a form of
deliberative control within her life comparable to that exercised by the intellectual or artist. Recognition of
this diversity is part of what explains Mill’s insistence in On Liberty on the value of experiments in living.
Such experiments show Mill’s recognition of pluralism. So there is reason to doubt that Mill thinks that
pluralism is the exclusive province of subjective conceptions of happiness. Perfectionists must be
discriminating but need not be elitists.
Moreover, it matters how one justifies pluralism. There is an important sense in which subjective
conceptions of happiness are not just pluralist but relativist. The classical hedonist thinks that pleasure is
good independently of whether anyone recognizes this fact or not. In this sense, hedonism is an objective
conception of happiness. But the hedonist also thinks that what makes something good for someone depends
entirely on her contingent and variable psychology. In this sense, the classical hedonist recognizes no
restrictions on what might be good for someone. Similarly, desire-satisfaction theories of happiness make
happiness depend on a person’s contingent and variable desires. So both forms of subjectivism are in a
certain sense content-neutral, placing no substantive constraints on what might contribute to a person’s
happiness. But we saw that this kind of content-neutrality is problematic. Most of us are not prepared to
judge that there are no substantive constraints on happiness. If we assume that happiness is what matters,
then we have doubts about whether shallow and undemanding lives could be happy ones for people with a
normal range of talents and capacities. So it is a vice of subjective conceptions insofar as they derive their
commitment to pluralism from the more extreme and unsustainable commitment to content-neutrality. It is
a virtue of objective conceptions, such as perfectionism, that they can defend pluralism without the
unsustainable commitment to content-neutrality.
Draft of 1-17-20
PHIL 28: Ethics & Society II
UCSD; Winter 2020
Topic: Liberalism and Justice
Professor David O. Brink
Handout #2: Utilitarianism, Rights, and Justice
How plausible is utilitarianism? In assessing the adequacy of utilitarianism we should try to gauge
just how good a fit it produces with familiar and attractive moral precepts. Despite its historically
progressive character, utilitarianism is a controversial moral doctrine precisely because it may seem
to fit poorly with some of our deepest moral convictions. In particular, there are three main kinds of
worries about the adequacy of utilitarianism that we should consider.
1. Is utilitarianism too demanding? Utilitarianism’s requirement to perform the action with the
best total consequences is in many situations very demanding, apparently requiring
significant personal sacrifice. Many people assume that they ought to have moral options or
prerogatives to devote concern to themselves, loved ones, and friends (associates) out of
proportion to the impersonal value of doing so.
2. Rights? Even if utilitarianism can embrace some rules as good rules of thumb (e.g. honesty is
the best policy), it implies that the permissibility of breaking the rule always depends on its
consequences and cannot rule out the possibility that it might be best in some circumstances
to violate the rule. But many people think that morality contains categorical moral
prohibitions or constraints that shouldn’t be broken even to promote good consequences.
Chief among these constraints are individual rights that defeat appeals to collective goals.
3. Justice: Utilitarianism wants to promote total happiness, but doesn’t seem to have any
intrinsic concern with how this total is distributed. It may seem that we should care about
how well-being is distributed in a community and that we ought to resist maximizing wellbeing in ways that would be unjust.
ACCOMMODATION AND REFORM
Ever since Bentham and Mill introduced utilitarianism, people have worried that
utilitarianism gives the wrong moral results in some cases. Traditionally, utilitarians have responded
to these worries in one of two ways.
Accommodation: deny that utilitarianism really does have the counter-intuitive implications
Reform: admit that utilitarianism has counter-intuitive implications but argue that this is a
case where it would be reasonable to revise one’s prior moral intuitions.
Of course, there’s nothing sacred about our intuitions. We have inherited many of them uncritically,
some may be subject to bias, and there’s no reason to believe that they are all consistent or fit into a
coherent framework. But still, there’s no good reason to revise just for the sake of revision. We need
some reason to engage in reform. Perhaps there could be an argument from first principles. But first
principles are themselves justified by how well they subsume and explain moral precepts and
judgments that we find independently compelling.
That suggests a more subtle relation between the strategies of Accommodation and Reform.
Perfect accommodation is probably impossible if only because there is no reason to assume that our
current moral convictions are complete, consistent, and coherent. So any principled accommodation
of our moral beliefs is likely to extend and revise our current moral outlook in some ways. Similarly,
if a moral principle implied complete and total revision of our current moral views, we’d want to
know why we should go in for that. That would likely look more like a change of subject matter than
an attractive moral theory. So most reform has to be partial. We might agree that a principled
account of all of our moral beliefs is impossible and agree to revise some of our moral beliefs to make
them cohere with a principle that subsumes and explains other parts of our current moral outlook.
If so, reform is like the hole in a doughnut, made possible by surrounding substance of
accommodation. However, to say that reform must be partial is not to say that it cannot be significant.
How revisionary a principled moral theory might be is not something we can decide in advance of
looking at the principle, its degree of accommodation, and the nature of its reforms.
THE SEPARATENESS OF PERSONS, RIGHTS, AND JUSTICE
Later, we will return to the issues of whether utilitarianism is too demanding and we need to
recognize options to do less than the best (Handout #3). Here, we’ll focus on whether utilitarianism
has trouble accommodating rights and justice. Many philosophers think that there is a tension
between utility, on the one hand, and rights and justice, on the other hand. In Mill’s day, intuitionists,
such as William Whewell, thought that justice and rights were distinct from beneficence and nonderivatively justified. Nowadays, many moral and political philosophers think that rights and justice
constrain utility. Both Rawls and Nozick contributed importantly to this conventional wisdom about
the tension between utility, rights, and justice.
Critics of utilitarianism often focus on its aggregative character — the fact that it takes
everyone’s interests into account, weighs them equally, and balances benefits to some against harms
to others, where necessary, so as to produce the best overall outcome. In A Theory of Justice Rawls
famously criticized utilitarianism’s aggregative character for ignoring the separateness of persons in
the course of defending his own liberal egalitarian conception of justice. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Nozick likewise criticized utilitarianism’s troubles with the separateness of persons in the process of
defending his own libertarian entitlement theory of justice. Both Rawls and Nozick think that these
problems reflect utilitarianism’s failure to respect individual rights and the demands of distributive
justice. Their agreement is all the more striking because they hold such divergent conceptions of
rights and justice.
To understand this concern with the separateness of persons, it will help to consider a
familiar analogy between prudential aggregation and utilitarian aggregation. Prudence is temporally
neutral and assigns no intrinsic significance to when a benefit or burden occurs within a person’s life.
It says that we should balance benefits and harms, where necessary, among different stages in a
person’s life and pursue the action or policy that promotes her overall good best. Utilitarianism is
interpersonally neutral; it assigns no intrinsic significance to whom a benefit or burden befalls. Just
as temporal neutrality requires intrapersonal balancing, so too person neutrality requires
interpersonal balancing. It requires that benefits to some be balanced against harms to others, if
necessary, to produce the best interpersonal outcome overall. Utilitarianism’s person neutrality thus
effects a kind of interpersonal balancing akin to the intrapersonal balancing that prudence’s temporal
However, Rawls claims that this sort of interpersonal balancing is unacceptable because it
ignores the separateness of persons.
This view of social cooperation [utilitarianism’s] is the consequence of extending to society
the principle of choice for one man [i.e. prudence], and then, to make this extension work,
conflating all persons into one …. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction
between persons. [TJ: 27]
Nozick agrees. They accept prudence’s intrapersonal balancing but reject utilitarianism’s
Why accept intrapersonal balancing, but not interpersonal balancing? Nozick explains the
asymmetry between intrapersonal balancing and interpersonal balancing by appeal to the
separateness of persons and the significance of compensation.
compensated, but interpersonal balancing is not.
Intrapersonal balancing is
Individually, we each sometimes choose to undergo some pain or sacrifice for a greater
benefit or to avoid a greater harm. … Why not, similarly, hold that some persons have to bear
some costs that benefit other persons more? But there is no social entity with a good that
undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. … 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 …. [ASU: 32-33].
Whereas balancing benefits and harms is acceptable within a life, balancing benefits and harms across
lives appears unacceptable. In the intrapersonal case, benefactor and beneficiary are the same
person, so compensation is automatic. In the interpersonal case, benefactor and beneficiary are
different people; unless the beneficiary reciprocates in some way, the benefactor’s sacrifice will not
be compensated. Whereas intrapersonal compensation is automatic, interpersonal compensation is
not. This fact about compensation appears to rationalize intrapersonal neutrality without
rationalizing interpersonal neutrality.
Rawls thinks that utilitarianism’s problems with the separateness of persons is symptomatic
of its indifference to considerations of individual rights.
[W]e distinguish as a matter of principle between the claims of liberty and right on the one
hand and the desirability of increasing aggregate social welfare on the other; … we give a
certain priority, if not absolute weight, to the former. Each member of society is thought to
have an inviolability founded on justice or, as some say, natural right, which even the welfare
of everyone else cannot override. Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made
right by the greater good shared by others. The reasoning which balances the gains and
losses of different persons as if they were one person is excluded. Therefore in a just society
the basic liberties are taken for granted and the rights secured by justice are not subject to
political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests. [TJ: 27-28].
Similarly, Nozick contrasts goal-based moral theories with constraint-based theories and insists on
understanding rights as side-constraints on pursuit of good consequences, rather than as especially
important goals (ASU: 28-33).
Should we accept the separateness of persons objection to utilitarianism? We might worry
that it proves too much. The objection accepts intrapersonal aggregation and balancing but rejects
interpersonal aggregation and balancing, because whereas there is automatic intrapersonal
compensation for sacrifice, interpersonal compensation is not automatic. In this way, the objection
seems to assume that compensation is both necessary and sufficient for demands for sacrifice to be
legitimate. The sufficiency claim is what rationalizes the intrapersonal balancing that prudence
requires, and the necessity claim is what undermines the sort of interpersonal balancing that
1. Sacrifice is legitimate just in case it is compensated.
2. Hence, intrapersonal temporal neutrality is required by the sufficiency of compensation
for sacrifice; because beneficiary and benefactor are the same in the intrapersonal case,
sacrifice is automatically compensated.
3. Hence, the necessity of compensation for sacrifice blocks interpersonal neutrality;
because benefactor and beneficiary are distinct in the interpersonal case, sacrifices are
not automatically compensated.
But the assumption about legitimate sacrifice in (1) is potentially problematic.
One measure of the extremity of the compensation requirement is that it would preclude any
uncompensated duties to others. In particular, it implies that it would be impermissible to ask one
person to make or even risk a very small sacrifice for the sake of enormous benefits to others. Duties
of easy rescue in which one can save others from serious harm at little or no cost or risk to oneself
would violate the necessity claim. This is reason to reject the compensation requirement and the
separateness of persons objection to utilitarianism.
Another measure of the extremity of the compensation requirement is that Rawls’s own
Difference Principle — permitting only those inequalities that are to the greatest benefit of the least
advantaged — may require the better-off to make uncompensated sacrifices on behalf of the worseoff. Perhaps not all sacrifices require compensation. But which ones do and which ones don’t? Can
the sacrifices Rawls wants to allow be permitted without permitting those that utilitarianism allows?
MILL ON JUSTICE AND RIGHTS
Many philosophers think that there is a tension between utility, on the one hand, and rights
and justice, on the other hand. In Mill’s day, intuitionists, such as William Whewell, thought that
justice and rights were distinct from beneficence and non-derivatively justified. Nowadays, as we
have seen, some moral and political philosophers, such as Rawls and Nozick, think that rights and
justice constrain the pursuit of good consequences.
In response to these worries, utilitarians need to decide between strategies of
accommodation and reform. On this issue, Bentham was a reformer, claiming that talk of natural
rights was “nonsense on stilts.” But Mill’s response is one of accommodation, because he wants to
give these deontic notions of rights and justice a utilitarian foundation. In Chapter V of Utilitarianism
he argues that justice and rights are derivatively justified by the way that they contribute to
happiness. In On Liberty Mill insists that his liberal arguments depend on rights that have utilitarian
It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from
the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate
appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the
permanent interests of man as a progressive being. [OL I 11].
In reconstructing Mill’s claims about rights and justice, we need to ask if he succeeds in providing
them with a plausible utilitarian foundation. We can only hope to reach a verdict on this issue after
we have examined Mill’s defense of liberal principles and liberal rights in On Liberty. But we can
begin to address the issue by seeing how he defends utilitarianism’s account of justice and rights
within Utilitarianism. To understand and assess Mill’s claims about rights and justice, we need to
distinguish two kinds of issues — (1) What rights do we have? and (2) What are rights? Though they
may prove to be connected, these issues are distinct.
WHAT RIGHTS DO WE HAVE?
A full answer to the question which rights we have is not possible yet and must await an
analysis of Mill’s liberal claims in On Liberty. But we can and should make some preliminary
comments here. In On Liberty Mill defends rights to basic liberties. In particular, he focuses on three
kinds of liberties (I 12).
Liberties of thought and expression
Liberties of tastes, pursuits, and life-plans
Liberties of association
He appears to defend rights to these liberties, unless restrictions on these liberties are necessary to
prevent harm to others.
In addition to recognizing rights to basic liberties, Mill recognizes rights to equal opportunity.
In The Subjection of Women (1869) Mill defends sexual equality in various ways. He defends a
woman’s right to vote and hold political office; he criticizes Victorian marriage law by defending the
rights of wives right over the bodies, to divorce, to custody of children, and to control the financial
assets they brought to marriage; and he defends women’s right to work outside the home. Mill
defends sexual equality as a matter of right and justice by appeal to equality of opportunity.
For, what is the peculiar character of the modern world — the difference which chiefly
distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself, from those of times
long past? It is that human beings are no longer born into their place in life, and chained
down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their
faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them
most desirable. [CW XXI: 272–73]
These are some aspects of Mill’s claims about the substance of rights and justice. He links
justice with respecting individual rights, and chief among the individual rights Mill recognizes are
rights to basic liberties and rights to equality of opportunity. No doubt, Mill recognizes other rights
as well if only because more specific rights may be derived from these. For instance, Mill can and
does derive a right to education as a condition of self-determination and equality of opportunity. But
rights to basic liberties and equality of opportunity seem especially fundamental for Mill. That is not
to say that they are non-derivative. As we have seen, Mill thinks that they can be given a utilitarian
foundation, and he explains their importance to the individuals whose rights they are in terms of
their role in self-governance and the exercise of our higher deliberative faculties.
WHAT ARE RIGHTS?
Having said something about which rights Mill thinks we have, we can now turn to what he
thinks rights are. Here, we need to understand Mill’s account of the logic of rights and justice, in
particular, the way in which they are related to each other and to duty. This account is complicated
by the fact that Mill appears committed to more than once conception of duty. Though Mill clearly
thinks of duty and obligation in terms of actions that in some way promote happiness, he embraces
incompatible ideas about exactly how duty is grounded in utility. In particular, he is ambivalent
between direct and indirect utilitarian conceptions of duty.
A direct utilitarian makes the assessment of things depend on the value of their consequences
for happiness. So a direct utilitarian assessment of actions would be the act utilitarian claim that an
act is right or obligatory insofar as its consequences for happiness are at least as good as any
alternative action available to the agent. Mill suggests this sort of direct utilitarian assessment of
actions in his famous Proportionality Doctrine.
The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness
principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness;
wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure
and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. [U II 2]
Similarly, in other passages Mill makes the direct utilitarian claim that acts are right in virtue of their
utility. In the opening paragraph of Chapter II, he tells us that utilitarians are “those who stand up
for utility as the test of right and wrong” (II 1). Later in that chapter, he says that utilitarianism
requires that “utility or happiness [be] considered as the directive rule of human conduct” (II 9). Still
later in Chapter II, he describes utilitarianism as a “standard of what is right in conduct” (II 17). Even
Chapter V, which will eventually introduce some indirect elements, begins with Mill asserting that
utilitarianism is “the doctrine that utility or happiness is the criterion of right and wrong” (V I).
By contrast, an indirect utilitarian assesses something not by the value of its consequences
but by its relation to something else that is then assessed by its consequences for happiness. So, for
instance, the most familiar form of indirect utilitarianism is rule utilitarianism, which claims that an
act is obligatory or right insofar as it conforms to a rule whose acceptance value for happiness is at
least as good as any alternative rule available to the agent.
Mill is sometimes read as a rule utilitarian. The main rationale for this reading is the
importance he attaches to secondary principles in moral reasoning. He defends the utilitarian’s
appeal to various moral precepts as secondary principles, such as veracity, fidelity, and fair play (II
24-25). He thinks that optimal secondary principles satisfy two conditions.
1. Employing the principle generally but imperfectly leads to optimal results.
2. One cannot in general reliably discriminate whether or, if so, when adherence to the principle
would produce suboptimal results.
When these two conditions are met, Mill believes, agents should follow these principles automatically
and uncritically most of the time. In these cases, agents consult only secondary principles; they do
not use them as heuristics in a utility calculation. They have genuine deliberative autonomy. But to
say this is not to say that agents should never consult the utilitarian first principle or assess the
acceptance value of secondary principles. They should periodically step back and review, as best
they can, whether the principle continues to satisfy conditions (1) and (2). Also, they should set aside
these secondary principles and make direct appeal to the principle of utility in unusual cases in which
it is especially clear that the effects of adhering to the principle would be significantly, and not just
marginally, suboptimal, and in cases in which secondary principles, each of which has a utilitarian
justification, conflict (II 19, 24-25).
Whether Mill’s claims about the importance of secondary principles imply rule utilitarianism
depends, in part, on whether he wants to define right action in terms of the best set of secondary
principles or whether they are just a generally reliable way of doing what is in fact best and right. If
he defines right action in terms of conformity with principles with optimal acceptance value, then he
is a rule utilitarian. But if the right action is the best action, and secondary principles are just a
reliable (though imperfect) way of identifying what is best, then Mill is an act utilitarian. An adequate
discussion of this issue is not possible here, but a case can be made that Mill’s main claims about the
importance of secondary principles can be squared with his act utilitarian commitments.1
In Chapter V of Utilitarianism Mill replies to worries that utilitarianism cannot accommodate
justice and rights by defending an indirect utilitarian conception of duty that links duty and sanctions.
For the truth is, that the idea of penal sanction, which is the essence of law, enters not only
into the conception of injustice, but into that of any kind of wrong. We do not call anything
wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for
doing it – if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the
reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction
between morality and simple expediency. [V 14]
See Brink, Mill’s Progressive Principles, ch. 4.
Here Mill defines wrongness and, by implication, duty, not directly in terms of the nature of the action
or its consequences but indirectly in terms of appropriate responses to it. He appears to believe that
one is under an obligation or duty to do something just in case failure to do it is wrong and that an
action is wrong just in case some kind of external or internal sanction — legal punishment, social
censure, or self-reproach — ought to be applied to its performance.
Sanctions determine when conduct is wrong, which allows Mill to say that an act is one’s duty
just in case its omission would be appropriate to sanction. In this way, the sanction test distinguishes
duty from expediency (V 14, 15). Not all suboptimal or inexpedient acts are wrong, only those in
which one ought to apply some sort of sanction (at least, self-reproach) to them.
Justice is a proper part of duty. Justice involves duties that are perfect duties — that is, duties
that are correlated with rights (V 15).
Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which
some individual person can claim from us as a matter of right. [V 15]
An act is unjust just in case it is wrong and violates someone’s rights (V 23). Someone has a right just
in case she has a claim that society ought to protect by force of law or public opinion.
When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect
him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion. If
he has what we consider a sufficient claim, on whatever account, to have something
guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it. If we desire to prove that
anything does not belong to him by right, we think this is done as soon as it is admitted that
society ought not to take measures for securing it to him, but should leave it to chance, or to
his own exertions. [V 24]
Notice that these relationships among duty, justice, and rights do not yet introduce any utilitarian
elements. But Mill does think that whether sanctions ought to be applied to an action — and hence
whether it is wrong — and whether society ought to enforce an individual’s claim — and hence
whether she has a right — both depend upon the utility or expediency of doing so (V 25). He does
not say precisely what standard of expediency he has in mind. To fix ideas, let us assume that the
relevant standard is optimality: something is one’s duty just in case it is optimal to sanction its
omission, and something is one’s right just in case it is optimal for society to enforce one’s claim to
Because this account of duty defines the rightness and wrongness of an act, not in terms of its
utility, as act utilitarianism does, but in terms of the utility of applying sanctions to the conduct, it is
an indirect form of utilitarianism. Because justice is a species of duty, it inherits this indirect
character.2 Because it makes various deontic categories depend upon the utility of sanctioning
responses, we might call this conception of duty, justice, and rights sanction utilitarianism.
MILL’S THREE CONCEPTIONS OF RIGHTS
Sanction utilitarianism provides an indirect utilitarian conception of rights and justice. But
this is only one conception of rights that Mill operates with. We might compare it with two other
conceptions to which he is attracted.
For discussion, see David Lyons, “Mill’s Theory of Morality” reprinted in Lyons, Rights, Welfare, and Mill’s
Moral Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).
THE SANCTION THEORY OF RIGHTS
Mill links justice and rights – claims of justice are claims of individual right. According to the
sanction theory, rights and, hence, justice are individual claims that it is useful to protect and enforce.
Central among these rights are rights to basic liberties and to the conditions necessary for or
conducive to equality of opportunity. Does the sanction theory provide a good reconciliation of rights
and justice with utility?
For one thing, the sanction theory of rights inherits a problem from the sanction theory of
duty. Sanction utilitarianism is a hybrid of indirect and direct elements. For while it provides an
indirect utilitarian theory of duty, which applies to any kind of conduct, the account it provides of
when sanctions should be applied to conduct is direct — it depends upon the consequences of
applying sanctions. Because imposing sanctions is itself a form of conduct, the direct and indirect
elements of sanction utilitarianism conflict. The general indirect criterion is incompatible with the
direct criterion for applying sanctions.
1. Any act is right iff it is optimal to apply sanctions to its omission (the indirect claim).
2. Applying sanctions is right iff doing so is optimal (the direct claim).
This inconsistency in the sanction theory of duty infects the sanction theory of rights.
1. X has a right to Y iff society ought to protect X’s claim to Y from interference (the first part of
the sanction theory of rights).
2. Society ought to protect X’s claim to Y from interference iff doing so is optimal (the direct
part of the sanction theory of rights).
3. Society ought to protect X’s claim to Y from interference iff it would be optimal to blame
society for failing to do so (the indirect sanction theory of duty).
(2) and (3) are inconsistent. One could respond by decoupling the sanction theory of rights from the
sanction theory of duty. (2) is only problematic when conjoined with the sanction theory of duty.
One could maintain the sanction theory of rights by rejecting the sanction theory of duty and
accepting a direct utilitarian conception of duty.
But the sanction theory of rights has problems of its own. The sanction theory of rights treats
the desirability of social enforcement as constitutive of the idea of a right. But this seems to get things
backward. It is because we have rights that society ought to enforce them; it is not that we have rights
to whatever society ought to enforce. The desirability of social enforcement seems consequential on
the existence of the right.
This is even clearer, because there are some claims that society ought to enforce that are not
rights. Among the things that society ought to recognize and protect are both rights and privileges.
The exact line between rights and privileges is not always clear. But we recognize the distinction in
claiming that some interests and opportunities that the state ought to protect are not ones that can
be claimed as a matter of right. Perhaps a driver’s license, access to public transportation, or certain
income tax credits are best understood as privileges, rather than rights. The intuitive idea with
privileges is that though there are good reasons for the state to recognize and protect them, they are
not things that can be claimed as a matter of individual right or entitlement. This shows that the
usefulness of social enforcement cannot be constitutive of a right, because otherwise privileges
would be rights. But it also underscores the idea that even with rights, the desirability of social
enforcement is consequential on, and so not constitutive of, the existence of the right.
RIGHTS AS IMPORTANT SECONDARY PRINCIPLES
Though the sanction theory of rights is the conception Mill introduces when he is explicitly
defining rights in Chapter V of Utilitarianism, he has the resources for other conceptions of rights that
do not presuppose indirect utilitarianism. As we have seen, in On Liberty Mill recognizes rights but
only such rights as can be given a utilitarian grounding (I 11). That means that rights must be
subordinate to the utilitarian first principle, and that suggests that Mill regards rights as especially
important secondary principles. On this conception, rights are rules that insulate or protect an
individual’s interest or liberty from certain kinds of interference and that make no direct reference
to the good consequences of insulation. We should observe such rules more or less uncritically and
set them aside only when adherence to them is clearly suboptimal or in cases of conflicts among such
rules (rights). In such exceptional cases, we should make direct appeal to the principle of utility.
Why should we regulate our conduct by such rules? Because doing so is generally but
imperfectly optimal, and because we are unable to discriminate for cases in which deviation from the
rules is suboptimal without deviating from them in other cases in which it is not. Why should we
believe that there are interests or liberties that are generally but imperfectly optimal to protect?
Mill’s answer is that some interests and liberties play a more fundamental role in human happiness
While I dispute the pretensions of any theory which sets up an imaginary standard of justice
not grounded on utility, I account the justice which is grounded on utility to be the chief part,
and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality. Justice is a name for
certain classes of moral rules which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly,
and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life;
and the notion which we have found to be of the essence of the idea of justice — that of a right
residing in an individual — implies and testifies to this more binding obligation. [U V 32; cf.
V 33, 37-38 ]
Like other goods that are, as a class, especially valuable, Mill thinks that we should make them the
object of secondary principles that regulate our deliberations and reasoning.
The special importance of the interests protected by rights suggests that Mill might claim not
simply that rights are secondary principles but further that rights are especially stringent secondary
principles. For we can assess the stringency of any moral claim by the number of other claims it
defeats when they conflict. The reasons generated by secondary principles tend to defeat ordinary
pro tanto reasons for action, which explains the stringency of secondary rules in relation to ordinary
pro tanto reasons. But we might also recognize that some secondary principles tend to defeat others
in cases of conflict, which makes the first sort of secondary principles more stringent than the second.
Mill presumably thinks that these more stringent secondary rules concern security and other
necessary conditions for exercising our higher capacities. One version of the secondary principle
conception of rights would identify rights with especially stringent secondary principles. However,
there will be conflicts among rights of comparable stringency, and these must be resolved by direct
appeal to utility.
RIGHTS AS PRE-EMINENT GOODS
In explaining the secondary principle conception of rights, we saw that Mill explains why it is
generally but imperfectly optimal to protect some interests and liberties by claiming that some
interests and liberties play an especially fundamental role in human happiness. But this claim
suggests a distinct conception of rights, as protections of pre-eminent goods. This conception of
rights rests on Mill’s assumptions about happiness and the role of individual rights to basic interests
and liberties in securing happiness.
On this reading, it is crucial that Mill’s conception of happiness is a pluralistic one in which
some elements of happiness trump or dominate others. We know that Mill accepts a conception of
happiness that insists on the superiority of activities that exercise our higher faculties for practical
deliberation and self-governance. Indeed, in the higher pleasures doctrine Mill insists that such
pursuits are discontinuously better than mere contentment. But then we can see how superior goods
trump lesser goods. Claims to liberties and opportunities that are necessary for or highly conducive
to such higher-order goods would also trump the promotion of lesser goods. On this view, honoring
rights is normally the way to promote utility because the goods rights protect are higher-order goods.
But the presumption in favor of honoring rights must be abandoned when rights conflict. Some suits
trump others, but within the trump suit, the higher value card wins. So too, when rights conflict, the
conflict should be resolved by determining which resolution better promotes utility.
Draft of 1-22-20
PHIL 28: Ethics & Society II
UCSD; Winter 2020
Topic: Liberalism and Justice
Professor David O. Brink
Handout #3: Utilitarianism, Demands, and Options
So far, we have discussed Mill’s conception of utilitarianism, stressing his perfectionist conception of
happiness, and the resources he has to reconcile utility, rights, and justice by providing a utilitarian
foundation of rights. We turn now to discuss worries that utilitarianism is too demanding. In many
situations, it seems that utilitarianism’s requirement to perform the action with the best total
consequences may require significant personal sacrifice on the part of some for the sake of others.
We can bring out this demandingness worry in a couple of ways. First, utilitarianism will
tend to favor roughly equal distributions of resources, because of the principle of diminishing
marginal utility, which claims that as a person increases her consumption of a given resource the
marginal utility of additional units of that resource tends to decrease. Because of the diminishing
marginal utility, a more equal distribution of resources is likely to produce greater total utility or
happiness. But in a world of significant inequality, the demands of equality on the better-off may be
significant, requiring significant sacrifices from even the moderately well-off. Second, utilitarianism
insists that everyone’s happiness matters and that everyone’s happiness matters equally. But this
equality of concern seems inconsistent with the sort of special concern that each of us has for herself
and those near and dear to her — her associates.
Against utilitarian demands, many people assume that they ought to be able to have the
option or prerogative to devote concern to themselves, loved ones, and associates out of proportion
to the impersonal value of doing so. We want to examine and assess the worry that utilitarianism is
Though this is a concern about utilitarianism, it is also a concern for any moral theory that
recognizes a duty of beneficence — that is, a duty to promote the good. Some theories treat
beneficence as one kind of duty or virtue among others. In effect, utilitarianism says that beneficence
is the only duty or virtue. But any theory that recognizes a duty of beneficence should understand its
In Chapter II of Utilitarianism Mill addresses issues about the demands of utilitarianism and,
in particular, the worry that it is too demanding.
The objectors to utilitarianism cannot always be charged with representing it in a
discreditable light. On the contrary, those among them who entertain anything like a just idea
of its disinterested character, sometimes find fault with its standard as being too high for
humanity. [II 19]
As we noted before, utilitarians can respond to criticisms by urging either accommodation or reform.
Mill’s reply to this demandingness worry is clearly accommodationist. This is where he tells us that
utilitarianism is a standard of right conduct but does not require the motive of disinterested
benevolence. He goes on to claim that only a few, who are in a position of public trust, must assume
an impartial concern for all. The rest of us, he claims, are justified most of the time in focusing on
ourselves and a small group of associates.
The multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue: the
occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an
extended scale, in other words, to be a public benefactor, are but exceptional; and on these
occasions alone is he called on to consider public utility; in every other case, private utility,
the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to. [II 19]
In effect, Mill is claiming that most of us need concern ourselves only with private or local utility, not
public or total utility.
Though Mill is clearly defending accommodation here, his rationale for accommodation is
less clear. He does say that utilitarianism is a standard and not a decision procedure or a set of
motives. But that doesn’t explain why the utilitarian standard should not say it is our duty to set
aside our own projects and those of loved ones and direct our resources to needy strangers in places
where they could do more good.
Perhaps Mill has in mind the sort of rationale for utilitarian accommodation that another
British utilitarian Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) develops in The Methods of Ethics (432-39).1 Sidgwick
reconciles utilitarianism with special concern for oneself and one’s associates on three grounds.
1. The Psychological and Evaluative Claim: Special concern for oneself and one’s associates is
natural and so conducive to happiness.
2. The Epistemic Claim: All else being equal, an agent is better situated to know what will
promote the happiness of himself and associates than strangers.
3. The Causal Claim: All else being equal, an agent is better positioned causally to promote the
happiness of himself and associates than strangers.
But it’s not clear how (1) helps. Suppose the question is whether I should provide non-essential or
luxury goods to myself or my children or instead devote those resources to famine relief so as to
preserve the lives of needy children in third world countries. Suppose we agree with Sidgwick that
family affections are an important source of happiness. Presumably family affection is at stake on
both sides of the choice — bonds between me and mine and bonds between the parents of needy
children and those needy children. It’s not clear how appealing to the value of family affection
insulates my concern for my children from demands to help other people’s children.
What about (2) and (3)? If these epistemic and causal claims were plausible, that would
provide a defense of special concern. But are they? Perhaps this sort of utilitarian accommodation
was tenable in nineteenth century Britain, but technological development and globalization have
certainly affected the plausibility of these epistemic and causal assumptions. It may still be true that
I’m better positioned to buy a suitable birthday present for a friend than for a stranger. But it doesn’t
take familiarity with the tastes of others to know that they need good nutrition to survive and lead a
healthy life and that food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and education are good for those living in
poverty. Whatever was true in the nineteenth century, the delivery of relief aid has become much
more efficient. In these circumstances, it seems that the comparatively affluent would make a much
greater contribution to total happiness by devoting all their discretionary income to famine relief.
And what is true today of our duties to needy strangers in far-away places was presumably true in
the nineteenth century of duties to needy strangers in one’s midst.
This is essentially Peter Singer’s position in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972). There
he embraces and passionately defends utilitarian reform. In particular, he claims that those living in
comparatively affluent countries whose own basic needs have been met have a duty to forego nonessential goods for themselves and their children and instead contribute these resources to famine
relief and other forms of aid in developing countries. In making this claim, he self-consciously aims
Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: MacMillan, 1907).
to challenge ordinary (affluent) assumptions about the difference between duty and charity. His
argument, he says, has two premises.
1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, medical care, and education are widespread
and are very bad things.
2. One should prevent bad things from happening provided one does not have to sacrifice
anything of comparable (moral) importance.
3. Hence, everyone should give aid to the point where the cost to them of their beneficence
equals or exceeds the magnitude of the benefits they confer.
Premise (1) is hard to dispute. Singer concentrates on (2) and defends it by appeal to our intuitions
about simple duties to rescue.
Simple Rescue. I am walking in an otherwise deserted square on my way to a meeting of modest
importance. I come upon a fountain with a child, face down, drowning in the water. I can rescue
the child and the only cost is that my suit gets wet and I am late for my meeting.
In recognizing that I should rescue, Singer says, I seem to be employing some principle like (2).
One might hope that the revision in ordinary assumptions about duties of aid need not be too
great, because one might think that if everyone were to comply with his duties of mutual aid, the
amount of sacrifice that each would have to make to prevent suffering and death would be
comparatively modest. But Singer thinks we can’t take too much comfort in this thought, because he
thinks that our duties in situations when others are not doing their share — partial compliance —
are different than in situations in which everyone is doing his share — full compliance. As long as the
actual world is one of partial compliance, the duties of each will be much greater, requiring much
greater sacrifice. Each person’s duty of aid is the difference between the total amount of need (the
sum of individual needs) and the total value of actual contributions.
A’s share of aid = Total Need – Total Contributions
If we abstract from differences in the size of individual contributions, assuming that each contributor
makes the same-sized contribution, then each person’s potential share of the aid burden is the total
amount of need divided by the number of people who will in fact contribute.
A’s share of aid
Total Need (= sum of individual needs)
Number of Contributors
The upper limit on the duty of aid is fixed by efficiency — the agent is no longer obligated to give aid
when the cost of doing so for the agent exceeds the benefits conferred on others. The amount of aid
owed will reduce as the number of aid providers grows (the denominator increases), but it will grow
as total needs grows (the numerator increases) and as the number of aid providers shrinks (the
In the article, Singer is concerned with the removal of death and suffering, and (2) is
formulated in terms of the prevention of death and suffering. So duties of aid are limited only by the
extent of suffering and the degree of compliance with duties of aid. If all suffering and death can be
prevented by full compliance with moderate duties of aid, and there is full complicance, then
individual demands will be modest. But Singer tells us he is attracted to (2), because he is a
utilitarian. But then he should be concerned about providing others with goods, as well as preventing
death and harm. He should be attracted to the following claim, in addition to (2).
(2*) One should provide benefits to others provided one doesn’t have to sacrifice anything of
comparable (moral) importance.
But then duties of aid are not exhausted when others have been lifted out of worst-case poverty.
One should give aid to improve their lives further, provided that one is not giving up something
comparable. In other words, generalizing the aid problem in this way will increase total need and
so increase the numerator in the aid equation, thereby increasing the size of potential duties of aid
for individuals. If so, then it’s hard to see how duties of aid would be exhausted before reaching the
point of global equality.
No doubt, many of us in affluent societies do not take duties to aid seriously enough. Perhaps
everyone above some suitable poverty line should tithe, giving 10% of her income to aid. Or perhaps
it should be progressive, representing a larger percentage of one’s income the further one is above
the poverty line. But many will think that a doctrine of mutual aid that requires sacrifice until the
point of marginal utility is too draconian. It seems inconsistent with familiar patterns of special
concern for oneself and for one’s associates that is out of proportion to their impersonal value.
Singer thinks we should draw this revisionary conclusion. But many would view the
extremity of Singer’s conclusion as a reductio ad absurdum of his utilitarian premises. One person’s
modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens.
In “The Demands of Beneficence” (1993) Liam Murphy seeks to introduce principled
limitations on the demands of beneficence so as to avoid Singer’s highly revisionary conclusions.
Murphy’s motivation is accommodationist. He is impressed by the fact that under conditions of full
compliance comparatively modest individual contributions from the affluent would eliminate most
need (he does not address duties of aid to improve the disadvantaged once we have brought them
out of poverty). The only reason individuals are required to sacrifice more than this is the lack of full
compliance. But it seems unfair, he thinks, to require me to give more than I would have to if you
were doing your part just because you refuse to do your part. So Murphy suggests that the demands
of beneficence should be limited by a fair shares condition: no one should have to give more than her
fair share, which is determined by the share that would be necessary for her to bear in conditions of
full compliance. So Murphy accepts the following claim about beneficence.
Fairness requires that the individual demands of beneficence under conditions of partial
compliance cannot exceed the demands of beneficence under conditions of full compliance.
He calls this the Cooperative Principle (280), because it reflects the demands of beneficence that
would be agreed to if we approached our duties as a cooperative project. We can appreciate
Murphy’s point by thinking of morality as an ex ante contract. It would be unreasonable and unfair
to propose that one do less than one’s fair share or that others do more than their fair share.
Of course, the actual demands made by the Cooperative Principle depend on how extensive
and severe poverty is and how many people are comparatively affluent. But it is clear that this
principle of beneficence is less demanding than Singer’s act utilitarian principle, and even if the level
of beneficence it required was revisionary, it seems plausible that it would still be compatible with
some forms of special concern for oneself and one’s associates.
It’s worth noting that Murphy’s principle of beneficence is an indirect consequentialist
principle, because it makes the nature and limits of beneficence depend not on the consequences of
the agent’s action in the actual circumstances but rather on the consequences of a rule for giving
under circumstances of full compliance. Murphy’s principle of beneficence stands to Singer’s
principle much as rule utilitarianism stands to act utilitarianism.
Singer considers and rejects a view like Murphy’s that limits people’s duties of aid in actual
circumstances of partial compliance by how much would be required from them in counterfactual
or hypothetical circumstances of full compliance (para. 9). He simply says what matters is the actual
situation, not a hypothetical situation. To see why, consider the application of Murphy’s principle
to the Simple Rescue and a variation on that case.
Double Rescue. You and I are walking in an otherwise deserted square on our way to a
meeting of modest importance. We come upon a fountain with two children, face down,
drowning in the water. The only cost to either of us of rescuing is getting our suits wet and
being late for our appointment. However, one of us won’t in fact rescue, because it’s
inconvenient or we don’t like children.
According to Murphy’s principle, we are both under duties of rescue, and we each have the duty to
rescue one and no more than one, because our fair shares under full compliance would be one rescue
each. But suppose I won’t rescue, because I don’t want to get my suit wet and miss my appointment
or because I don’t like children. Is it true that my noncompliance does not affect your obligations?
Surely, you would not have discharged your duty to aid by rescuing one child and saying that’s all
you are obligated to do. Surely, one’s duties are determined by actual circumstances and
consequences and not just hypothetical ones. In this respect, Singer’s more revisionary conclusion
seems more defensible than Murphy’s more accommodationist one.
Does this mean that we have to agree with Singer that we each have a duty to aid whose only
limit is the point at which the costs of our beneficence exceed the benefits we confer on others?
Singer’s second premise says that I should prevent bad things provided I don’t have to give
up anything of comparable importance. But this seems to make me into a locus for improving the
world that is forced upon me by other people’s lives and choices over which I have no control. That’s
an extreme claim. Singer supports it by appeal to the need to rescue in the Simple Rescue case. But,
of course, the extreme claim does not stop at Simple Rescue. Simple Rescue and even Double Rescue
are easily integrated into a normal life involving special concern for myself and my associates. But
now consider another scenario.
Recurrent Rescue. I am walking in an otherwise deserted square on my way to a meeting of
modest importance. I come upon a fountain with a child, face down, drowning in the water.
I can rescue the child and the only cost is that my suit gets wet and I am late for my meeting.
However, no sooner do I rescue this child than I encounter a second child needing rescuing …
and a third, and a fourth, etc.
Recurrent Rescue is a much more realistic model or metaphor for the assessment of utilitarian
demands for aid than the case of Simple Rescue. Do you really have an obligation until the point at
which you yourself need rescue?
That seems unreasonable. It seems reasonable that we can sensibly deny limitless duties.
What’s unclear is where to draw the line. Here Murphy’s idea about that full compliance might set
an upper limit on what would otherwise be limitless duties has some appeal. His proposal for a
ceiling on duties of aid has more plausibility when applied to recurrent or unlimited duties than when
applied to discrete or limited duties.
The cost of fulfilling utilitarian duties of aid or beneficence appears to be the sort of special
concern for ourselves and associates that comes naturally to us and that most of us value. But then
one might suppose that one has either duties or at least options to cultivate and express special
concern for ourselves and those near and dear that is out of proportion to their impersonal value.
These would be other kinds of moral considerations that could compete with or even trump the sort
of cost-benefit assessment of sacrifice that utilitarianism demands.
If so, how should we respond to Singer’s argument? We are recognizing moral considerations
independent of cost-benefit analysis. It depends on how we understand Singer’s second premise. He
formulates it as necessitating aid if the benefit conferred exceeds the cost to the agent. But in
assessing costs, are we only supposed to consider welfare costs or can we include moral costs in
terms of foregone duties or options? If we do not moralize the cost-benefit analysis, then Singer’s
argument is valid, but we may well want to reject his cost-benefit premise. He can make that premise
more plausible by moralizing the cost-benefit analysis, but then the argument is invalid — (3) does
not in fact follow from (2). Singer’s official position would seem to require moralizing the costbenefit analysis, because he requires as a condition of aid that the agent not sacrifice “anything of
comparable moral importance” (emphasis added). If so, we should say that the revisionary
conclusion about aid does not follow from his moral principle.
BENEFICENCE AS AN IMPERFECT DUTY
That doesn’t mean that the extreme position about aid is wrong, only that Singer’s argument
for it is not sound. Is there a less extreme position than the utilitarian one? Presumably, it would be
a doctrine of aid that was compatible with special concern for oneself and those near and dear.
Some philosophers distinguish between perfect and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are owed
on each and every occasion when they present themselves. For instance, duties not to harm others
(e.g. murder or rape) are presumably perfect duties. But some duties are imperfect — they involve
recurring situations in which agents are expected to be responsive to moral considerations
sometimes but have considerable discretion about when to be responsive and how responsive to be.
Charity or a…
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