The Standing of Utilitarianism

[This is a translation of a post previously published on my Swedish blog, April 2016]

Recently I have been trying to assess the standing of utilitarianism in normative research and in ethical discourse in society in general. This is not a very easy task. I, myself, am a political scientist (“political theorist”) and, thus, not connected to the same institutional framework as the philosophers, even though the research that I do and that philosophers do very often overlap.

Within the subdiscipline political theory it seems fairly obvious that utilitarianism is as good as dead, and that it has been in that state for a long time. Many textbooks in political theory discuss utilitarianism very briefly and repeat the same objections to it that have been raised for decades (and which can be refuted quite easily by utilitarians). When one turns to the most common academic journals in political theory it is also easy to notice how rare it is that someone is arguing from a utilitarian perspective.

Thus, when it comes to political theory I believe I can plausibly conclude that utilitarianism is rather unpopular. When it comes to fields like “pure” moral philosophy, applied ethics etc., my conclusion will become less clear. Some (qualified) people seem to think that utilitarianism still has a strong position in these disciplines (see, e.g., “utilitarianism” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Moreover, I recently read a book (by Anne Maclean) which claimed – and lamented – that bioethics (i.e., ethical research concerning moral choices in light of modern technology, medicine etc.) is virtually dominated by utilitarianism (or at least that this was the case in the 1990s, when Maclean’s book appeared).

Now, If it is the case that utilitarianism still has a strong standing within moral philosophy (unlike in political theory), then one has to say that professional philosophers have done a bad job in spreading this doctrine to people outside academia. My impression is that when a utilitarian philosopher gets the chance to talk in regular media (in Sweden it is usually Torbjörn Tännsjö, internationally it is often Peter Singer) they seem to encounter at least as much criticism as assent.

Perhaps it is really the case that although utilitarianism has during certain periods been somewhat popular among normative researchers, it has never been very popular among ordinary people. But if this is true, the reason for this is probably not that people have found another moral theory that is more coherent than utilitarianism; it is, rather, the case that people in general do not care very much about endorsing a coherent or “logically” satisfying moral theory. They mix elements from utilitarianism (most people seem to care about consequences at least in some cases) with other ideas as they see fit. And this way of “philosophizing” has spread to academia. The academics who reject utilitarianism often seem not to do it because they have found a theory that to a higher degree satisfies the demands for argumentative stringency which one should be able to demand from a “scientist”.

Anyway, it is a shame that the rejection of the moral theory that I believe has the least theoretical problems – hedonistic utilitarianism – is often based on rather loose objections, with the aid of counterarguments which are quite easy to respond to, and (which is probably more important) which are made from moral perspectives that would hardly survive the same kind of scrutiny that utilitarianism is usually subjected to. Other moral theories (at least those that are in fashion at the moment) do, in other words, receive a milder treatment when it comes to the amount of objections one is expected to be able to handle in order to claim that one has a defensible theory. A Rawlsian perspective, for instance, is usually considered as less problematic than a utilitarian perspective, even though the writings of Rawls can be demolished quite well by most philosophy undergraduates.

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