Human Welfare

Paul Seabright

‘It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness: poverty and wealth have both failed,’ says Kin Hubbard’s creation Abe Martin. Since the pursuit of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ has proved so perplexingly difficult in practice, discussion of the philosophical foundations of utilitarianism can easily appear to be otiose. Sometimes it seems obvious that the pursuit of general welfare is what morality and public policy must be all about now that the theological underpinnings of traditional morality have crumbled, and a waste of time to argue over that when the technical obstacles are so pressing. At other times the very elusiveness of welfare, happiness and related notions can make it seem equally obvious that the whole enterprise is shot through with hubris.

And yet utilitarianism continues to provide an inexhaustible talking-point for philosophers, as well as those with professionally grubbier knees, such as economists, whose policy prescriptions frequently rest on theories that bear resemblance – in varying degrees – to its currently popular versions. Even Bernard Williams, who ten years ago incautiously expressed the hope that ‘the day cannot be too far off when we hear no more of it,’ has bowed to the inevitable and edited, with Amartya Sen, this substantial collection of essays by philosophers and economists. And although the title and the balance of the contributors’ sympathies might lead one to suspect a last psychotic attempt to kill the theory off for good, its overall effect is to leave one with the impression that many of the important issues raised by utilitarianism are only just beginning to be explored.

In spite of the Science Fiction resonances of the title, the contributors to Utilitarianism and Beyond with one or two exceptions concentrate on re-surveying territory previously charted (sometimes by themselves), rather than on setting off for the unknown. But the territory now looks much broader – and more full of pitfalls – than it did even ten years ago, and is more or less unrecognisable as the terrain explored by Bentham and Mill. The view that utility consists in pleasure and the absence of pain, or even (G.E. Moore’s view) in the presence of mental states of intrinsic worth, has very much fallen from prominence. Utility as now conceived is grounded firmly in the fulfilment of desires, and the dispute among utilitarians is chiefly about how that is to be understood. Sophisticated utilitarianism, like sophisticated architecture, incorporates split-level design; complex theories of multi-level desires have been developed. The links between utilitarianism and theories of rights and justice have been explored. And the gleaming technology of social choice theory, decision theory and the economics of information has been put to work (though the formal apparatus is kept discreetly in the background for most of this book).

The fact that utilitarianism can now appear in a variety of sophisticated guises makes it hard to know exactly what it consists in. How far are we justified in refining it before it ceases to be properly called utilitarianism at all? This is not a terminological quibble, but a question about whether utilitarianism represents a distinctive way of thinking about morality. All the contributors implicitly agree that it does, but many of them take the nature of its distinctiveness for granted, which can be confusing since they do not seem to agree on what it is. The main exception is the editors’ own introduction, which tackles this crucial question directly, and also provides a valuable brief survey of most of the main areas of contention in the subject as a whole. ‘Utilitarianism,’ Sen and Williams remind us, ‘can be regarded as the intersection between two different kinds of theories.’ Consequentialism is the theory that ‘actions are to be chosen on the basis of states of affairs which are their consequences’; welfarism is the theory that states of affairs derive value from ‘welfare, satisfaction, or people getting what they prefer ... Utilitarianism is thus a species of welfarist consequentialism – that particular form of it which requires simply adding up individual welfares or utilities.’

So far so familiar. But how elastic can this definition be made? Clearly much hangs on the way welfare is conceived. The editors discuss three devices they claim to be characteristic, to varying degrees, of utilitarianism. These are reduction: ‘the device of regarding all interests, ideals, aspirations and desires as on the same level, and all representable as preferences’; idealisation: the use, not of individuals’ actual preferences, but of cleaned-up versions (those corrected for faulty information, for instance, or purged, as John Harsanyi requires, of ‘sadism, envy, resentment or malice’). Finally there is abstraction: the tendency to ignore as of secondary importance the practical application of the theory, particularly by asuming that the preferences on which utilitarianism operates are in some way both given and known independently of the process of utilitarian action itself.

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