Can utilitarianism be distributive? Maximization and distribution as criteria in managerial decisions

Business Ethics Quarterly 17 (4):593-611 (2007)
Utilitarianism is commonly defined in very different ways, sometimes in a single text. There is wide agreement that it mandates maximizing some kind of good, but many formulations also require a pattern of distribution. The most common of these take utilitarianism to characterize right acts as those that achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This paper shows important ambiguities in this formulation and contrasts it (on any plausible interpretation of it) withthe kinds of utilitarian views actually defended by major proponents of utilitarianism. The aim is not to defend any of these views but to formulate them in a way that facilitates using them—or, more likely, some revised version suggested by the paper—in guiding decisions in business. The analysis provided here should also facilitate appraisal of utilitarianism, contribute to clarity in discussions of business ethics, and suggest a range of ethical standards that merit consideration for certain kinds of decision. If the results of the analysis are correct, a distributive reading of utilitarianism is at best misleading as a representation of itscentral thrust; it should not be described as the view that ethics calls for achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number”; and, understood as its major proponents take it, utilitarianism differs more from Kantian ethics than distributive readings imply and is more difficult to defend than it appears to be when viewed as intrinsically distributive
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DOI 10.5840/beq20071741
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