Utilitarianism

Edited by Anthony Skelton (University of Western Ontario)
About this topic
Summary Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine according to which an agent's action is right in so far as it produces at least as much surplus welfare for the aggregate of sentient beings as any other action the agent could have performed in her situation. Its most important and influential proponents include John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Derek Parfit, Shelly Kagan, and Julia Driver, each of whom provides the view with a unique formulation and defence. Utilitarianism forms the basis of much moral reasoning about practical moral problems, especially in the work of R. M. Hare, Peter Singer, Laura Purdy, and Julian Savulescu. It has a rich and detailed history. The view thrived in the nineteenth century. Critics of the view contend that it cannot accommodate our intuitions about the moral importance of justice and individual rights, that it is too demanding and that its commitment to impartiality alienates us from certain of the most important human relationships (e.g., friendship). It serves as an important rival to all forms of deontology on the one hand and to the ethics of virtue on the other.
Key works Historically important defences of utilitarianism are found in Mill 1863 and in Sidgwick 1901. Historically important objections to the view are found in Carritt 1947, McCloskey 1965, Rawls ms, Smart & Williams 1973, and Stocker 1976. Influential replies to these and other objections are located in Hare 1981, Parfit 1984, Railton 1984, Sumner 1987, Kagan 1989, Ashford 2000 and Mason 1998.
Introductions The very best introduction to utilitarianism is found in Shaw 1999. Useful discussions of the view appear in Moore 1965, Ewing 1953, Driver 2011, and in the papers in Sen & Williams 1982 and Scheffler 1988. Eggleston & Miller 2014 contains some helpful introductory essays on the history and the philosophy of utilitarianism. Driver 2010 and Schneewind 1977 provide useful accounts of utilitarianism's history. Singer 1979 and Purdy 1996 give one an indication of the practical implications of utilitarian moral reasoning.
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  1. “What is the Difference Between Your Subset Objection to Rawls on Utilitarianism and T.H. Irwin’s Commentary?”.Terence Rajivan Edward - manuscript
    T.H. Irwin’s stimulating commentary on John Rawls anticipates but does not make “the subset objection to Rawls.” This term of mine is potentially misleading, but Irwin’s commentary is more so: I argue that relevant parts involve dubious commitments.
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  2. Utilitarianism as an Exercise of Suspicion?Ernst Wolff - 2022 - European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 14 (1).
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  3. Multiple Moralities: A Game-Theoretic Examination of Indirect Utilitarianism.Paul Studtmann & Shyam Gouri-Suresh - manuscript
    In this paper, we provide a game-theoretic examination of indirect utilitarianism by comparing the expected payoffs of attempts to apply a deontological principle and a utilitarian principle within the context of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). Although many of the best-known utilitarians and consequentialists have accepted some indirect form of their respective views, the results in this paper suggest that they have been overly quick to dismiss altogether the benefits of directly enacting utilitarian principles. We show that for infallible moral agents, (...)
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  4. Utilitarianism on the Front Lines: COVID-19, Public Ethics, and the "Hidden Assumption" Problem.Charles Shaw - forthcoming - Ethics and Bioethics (in Central Europe).
    How should we think of the preferences of citizens? Whereas self-optimal policy is relatively straightforward to produce, socially optimal policy often requires a more detailed examination. In this paper, we identify an issue that has received far too little attention in welfarist modelling of public policy, which we name the "hidden assumptions" problem. Hidden assumptions can be deceptive because they are not expressed explicitly and the social planner (e.g. a policy maker, a regulator, a legislator) may not give them the (...)
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  5. A Test of ‘Utilitarianism for Animals, Kantianism for People’.David Wendler - 2021 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 18 (5):473-499.
    Many people believe that animals possess moral status, but human beings possess higher moral status than animals. To try to identify a theoretical basis for this view, Robert Nozick proposed Utilitarianism for Animals, Kantianism for People. The present manuscript evaluates Nozick’s proposal by identifying the tradeoffs in welfare that it permits in medical research with animals and assessing whether those tradeoffs are indeed permissible. This analysis suggests that at least some deontological side constraints apply to the treatment of sentient animals, (...)
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  6. Samuel Fleischacker, Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy. [REVIEW]Getty L. Lustila - 2022 - Society 59 (2):213-215.
    With Being Me Being You, Samuel Fleischacker provides a reconstruction and defense of Adam Smith’s account of empathy, and the role it plays in building moral consensus, motivating moral behavior, and correcting our biases, prejudices, and tendency to demonize one another. He sees this book as an intervention in recent debates about the role that empathy plays in our morality. For some, such as Paul Bloom, Joshua Greene, Jesse Prinz, and others, empathy, or our capacity for fellow-feeling, tends to misguide (...)
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  7. Does Utilitarianism Need a Rethink? Review of Louis Narens and Brian Skyrms' The Pursuit of Happiness.Heather Browning & Walter Veit - forthcoming - Journal of Economic Methodology:1-5.
    Philosophers have typically shown high confidence in their evaluations of Utilitarianism, whether as an endorsement or a disparagement. Rarely, however, has much effort been spent on investigating...
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  8. Utilitarianism in the Early American Republic.James E. Crimmins - 2021 - Routledge.
    In Utilitarianism in the Early American Republic James E. Crimmins provides a fresh perspective on the history of antebellum American political thought. Based on a broad-ranging study of the dissemination and reception of utilitarian ideas in the areas of constitutional politics, law education, law reform, moral theory and political economy, Crimmins illustrates the complexities of the place of utilitarianism in the intellectual ferment of the times, in both its secular and religious forms, intersection with other doctrines, and practical outcomes. The (...)
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  9. Economic Justice and Liberty: The Social Philosophy in John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.Huei-Chun Su - 2013 - Routledge.
    This new book reopens the debate on theories of justice between utilitarian theorists and scholars from other camps. John Rawls' 1971 publication of A Theory of Justice put forward a devastating challenge to the long-established dominance of utilitarianism within political and moral philosophy, and until now no satisfactory and comprehensive utilitarian reply has yet been put forward. By expounding John Stuart Mill's system of knowledge and by reconstructing his utilitarianism, Huei-chun Su offers a fresh and comprehensive analysis of Mill's moral (...)
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  10. Plato, Utilitarianism and Education.Robin Barrow - 1975 - Routledge.
    Argues that Plato's views as expounded in the "Republic" indicate that he was a utilitarian. This book also argues that utilitarianism is the only acceptable ethical theory, and that these conclusions have significant repercussions for education.
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  11. Routledge Revivals: The Greatest Happiness Principle (1986): An Examination of Utilitarianism.Lanny O. Ebenstein - 1991 - Routledge.
    First published in 1991, The Greatest Happiness Principle traces the history of the theory of utility, starting with the Bible, and running through Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. It goes on to discuss the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in detail, commenting on the latter's view of the Christianity of his day and his optimal socialist society. The book argues that the key theory of utility is fundamentally concerned with happiness, stating that happiness has largely been left (...)
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  12. Utility, Predictability, and Rights: Bentham’s Utilitarianism and Constitutional Entitlements.Francesco Ferraro - 2022 - Ratio Juris 35 (1):38-54.
    Ratio Juris, Volume 35, Issue 1, Page 38-54, March 2022.
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  13. Desert-Adjusted Utilitarianism, People, and Animals.Jean-Paul Vessel - 2021 - Environmental Ethics 43 (4):355-377.
    Recent decades have witnessed a surge in philosophical attention to the moral standing of non-human animals. Kantians, Neo-Kantians, utilitarians, and radical animal rights theorists have staked their claims in the literature. Here Fred Feldman’s desert-adjusted utilitarianism is introduced into the fray. After canvassing the prominent competitors in the dialectic, a conception of an overall moral ranking consonant with desert-adjusted utilitarianism is developed. Then the conception’s implications regarding the particular locations of individual people and animals in such rankings across various scenarios (...)
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  14. Trolleys, Triage and Covid-19: The Role of Psychological Realism in Sacrificial Dilemmas.Markus Kneer & Ivar R. Hannikainen - 2022 - Cognition and Emotion 36 (1):137-153.
    At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline medical professionals at intensive care units around the world faced gruesome decisions about how to ration life-saving medical resources. These events provided a unique lens through which to understand how the public reasons about real-world dilemmas involving trade-offs between human lives. In three studies (total N = 2298), we examined people’s moral attitudes toward the triage of acute coronavirus patients, and found elevated support for utilitarian triage policies. These utilitarian tendencies did not (...)
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  15. From Utilitarianism to Paternalism: When Behavioral Economics Meets Moral Philosophy.Cyril Hédoin - 2015 - Revue de Philosophie Économique 2:73-106.
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  16. Ethics of U.S. Government Policy Responses to the COVID‐19 Pandemic: A Utilitarianism Perspective.Terri L. Herron & Timothy Manuel - 2022 - Business and Society Review 127 (S1):343-367.
    Business and Society Review, Volume 127, Issue S1, Page 343-367, Spring 2022.
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  17. Desert-Adjusted Utilitarianism, People, and Animals in Advance.Jean-Paul Vessel - forthcoming - Environmental Ethics.
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  18. Nietzsche's Critique of Utilitarianism.Jonny Anomaly - 2005 - Journal of Nietzsche Studies 29 (1):1-15.
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  19. Mill, Socialism, and Utilitarianism: On Helen McCabe’s John Stuart Mill, Socialist.Christopher Woodard - forthcoming - History of European Ideas:1-3.
  20. Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls: Against Hayward's “Utility Cascades”.Ryan Doody - forthcoming - Utilitas:1-8.
    In his article “Utility Cascades”, Max Khan Hayward argues that act-utilitarians should sometimes either ignore evidence about the effectiveness of their actions or fail to apportion their support to an action's effectiveness. His conclusions are said to have particular significance for the effective altruism movement, which centers seeking and being guided by evidence. Hayward's argument is that act-utilitarians are vulnerable to succumbing to “utility cascades”, that these cascades function to frustrate the ultimate goals of act-utilitarians, and that one apposite way (...)
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  21. Education, Democracy and Representation in John Stuart Mill's Political Philosophy.Corrado Morricone - 2016 - Dissertation, Durham University
    This thesis is concerned with John Stuart Mill’s democratic theory. In chapter I, I examine the relations between political philosophy and political theory and science before providing a detailed outline of the aims of the dissertation. In chapter II, I argue that in order to reconcile the concepts of progress and equality within a utilitarian theory, a Millian political system needs to devise institutions that promote general happiness, protect individual autonomy, safeguard society from mediocrity. Chapter III discusses what different authors (...)
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  22. Africa’s Development Crisis and the Limits of Popper’s Negative Utilitarianism.Adeolu Oluwaseyi Oyekan - 2021 - In Oseni Taiwo Afisi (ed.), Karl Popper and Africa: Knowledge, Politics and Development. Springer. pp. 43-56.
    The extent of Africa’s developmental challenges conspicuously manifests themselves in the poor living standards of most of its people. Poverty, low literacy and life expectancy rate, hunger and poor sanitary environment are some of the features that characterize life in a region widely acclaimed as most backward in the world today. How best should states in the kind of situation most of Africa has found itself react? What areas of life deserve or require the involvement of the state, and to (...)
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  23. Bentham’s Public Utilitarianism and Its Jurisprudential Significance.Dan Priel - 2022 - Ratio Juris 34 (4).
    Ratio Juris, Volume 34, Issue 4, Page 415-437, December 2021.
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  24. Bentham’s Public Utilitarianism and Its Jurisprudential Significance.Dan Priel - 2021 - Ratio Juris 34 (4):415-437.
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  25. Critique of Bentham's Utilitarianism.Irfan Ajvazi - 2022 - Tesla Academy 1:10.
    Over time, the actions of mankind have been the victim of two vague labels, right and wrong. The criteria for these labels are not clearly defined, but they still seem to be the standard by which the actions of man are judged. There are some people that abide by a deontological view when it comes to judging the nature of actions; the deontological view holds that it is a person's intention that makes an action right or wrong. On the other (...)
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  26. Aumentare la felicità come unico dovere. [REVIEW]Armando Massarenti - 2001 - Il Sole 24 Ore 146 (22 Aprile):VIII.
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  27. Jeremy BENTHAM, Deontologia, a cura di S. Cremaschi, La Nuova Italia-Rcs Scuola, Firenze, 2000. [REVIEW]Jlenia Quartarone - 2001 - Segni E Comprensione 15 (n. 44):157-179.
  28. Distributive Theories of Justice: From Utilitarianism and Back.Dmitry V. Balashov - 2021 - Антиномии 21 (3):7-29.
    For half a century, the problem of justice has been one of the most controversial and debated in Western academic science. For the Anglo-American tradition, the starting point for controversy about distributive justice can be considered 1971, when the philosopher John Rawls published work The Theory of Justice. This book made a revolution, on the one hand, provoking a large-scale discussion on the question of what fair principles should be used in our society, and, on the other hand, finally brought (...)
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  29. Mill's Principle of Utility: Origins, Proof, and Implications: Revised and Enlarged Edition.Necip Fikri Alican - 2022 - Leiden and Boston: Brill.
    Mill’s Principle of Utility: Origins, Proof, and Implications (Leiden: Brill, 2022) is a scholarly monograph on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism with a particular emphasis on his proof of the principle of utility. Originally published as Mill’s Principle of Utility: A Defense of John Stuart Mill’s Notorious Proof (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1994), the present volume is a revised and enlarged edition with additional material, tighter arguments, crisper discussions, and updated references. The initiative is still principally an analysis, interpretation, and defense of (...)
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  30. On the Uneasy Alliance Between Moral Bioenhancement and Utilitarianism.Karolina Kudlek - 2022 - Wiley: Bioethics 36 (2):210-217.
    Moral bioenhancement (MBE) is often associated with a consequentialist, especially utilitarian, framework, owing to its capacity to prevent great harm and motivate acts in accordance with basic moral principles such us universal impartial altruism or benevolence. However, it remains unclear whether we could de facto justify MBE on utilitarian grounds. This article examines whether there is a plausible utilitarian case for MBE and what the obstacles for justifying MBE on utilitarian grounds could be. More specifically, it explores the relationship between (...)
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  31. Measuring Impartial Beneficence: A Kantian Perspective on the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale.Emilian Mihailov - forthcoming - Review of Philosophy and Psychology:1-16.
    To capture genuine utilitarian tendencies, developed the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale based on two subscales, which measure the commitment to impartial beneficence and the willingness to cause harm for the greater good. In this article, I argue that the impartial beneficence subscale, which breaks ground with previous research on utilitarian moral psychology, does not distinctively measure utilitarian moral judgment. I argue that Kantian ethics captures the all-encompassing impartial concern for the well-being of all human beings. The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale draws, in (...)
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  32. ‘Utilitarianism for Animals: Deontology for People’ and the Doing/Allowing Distinction.Fiona Woollard - 2021 - Philosophical Studies 1.
    It is tempting to think that zebras, goats, lions, and similar animals matter morally, but not in quite the same way people do. This might lead us to adopt a hybrid view of animal ethics such as ‘Utilitarianism for Animals; Deontology for People’. One of the core commitments of deontology is the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing (DDA): the view that doing harm is harder to justify than allowing harm. I explore how this core tenant of deontology applies to non-person, (...)
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  33. From Utilitarianism to Prioritarianism – an Empathy-Based Internalist Foundation of Welfare Ethics.Christoph Lumer - 2021 - In Michael Schefczyk & Christoph Schmidt-Petri (eds.), Utility, Progress, Technology. Karlsruhe, Germany: KIT Scientific Publishing. pp. 139-151.
    The article develops an internalist justification of welfare ethics based on empathy. It takes up Hume’s and Schopenhauer’s internalistic (but not consistently developed) justification approach via empathy, but tries to solve three of their problems: 1. the varying strength of empathy depending on the proximity to the object of empathy, 2. the unclear metaethical foundation, 3. the absence of a quantitative model of empathy strength. 1. As a solution to the first problem, the article proposes to limit the foundation of (...)
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  34. Moral Bioenhancements and the Future of Utilitarianism.Francisco Lara - 2021 - Ethics and Bioethics (in Central Europe) 11 (3-4):217-230.
    Utilitarianism has been able to respond to many of the objections raised against it by undertaking a major revision of its theory. Basically, this consisted of recognising that its early normative propositions were only viable for agents very different from flesh-and-blood humans. They then deduced that, given human limitations, it was most useful for everyone if moral agents did not behave as utilitarians and habitually followed certain rules. Important recent advances in neurotechnology suggest that some of these human limitations can (...)
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  35. Does Utilitarianism Need a Rethink? Review of Louis Narens and Brian Skyrms' The Pursuit of Happiness.Heather Browning & Walter Veit - forthcoming - Tandf: Journal of Economic Methodology:1-5.
  36. Prioritarianism in Health-Care: Resisting the Reduction to Utilitarianism.Massimo Reichlin - 2021 - Diametros 18 (69):20-32.
    Tännsjö’s book Setting Health-Care Priorities defends the view that there are three main normative theories in the domain of distributive justice, and that these theories are both highly plausible in themselves, and practically convergent in their normative conclusions. All three theories point to a somewhat radical departure from the present distribution of medical resources: in particular, they suggest redirecting resources from marginal life extension to the care of mentally ill patients. In this paper I wish to argue, firstly, that prioritarianism (...)
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  37. Some Problems Encountered in Sidgwick's Utilitarianism.Paul Chester Killam - unknown
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  38. バーナード・ウィリアムズの功利主義批判再考 (Bernard Williams’ Critique of Utilitarianism Reconsidered).Kazuki Watanabe - 2021 - Japanese Student Research Notes of Philosophy of Science 4:17-25.
    This research discusses Bernard Williams' critique of utilitarianism. I will address Williams' well-known “Integrity Objection” and clarify where his main issue with utilitarianism lies. Through this, I will demonstrate that the separation of the two viewpoints – the “inside viewpoint” and the “impartial viewpoint” - is the issue, as the utilitarian impartial viewpoint does not capture the value of ethical deliberations based on our inside viewpoint in which we presuppose our personal projects. Furthermore, I will argue that this interpretation enables (...)
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  39. Trolleys, Triage and Covid-19: The Role of Psychological Realism in Sacrificial Dilemmas.Markus Kneer & Ivar R. Hannikainen - 2021 - Cognition and Emotion 8.
    At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline medical professionals at intensive care units around the world faced gruesome decisions about how to ration life-saving medical resources. These events provided a unique lens through which to understand how the public reasons about real-world dilemmas involving trade-offs between human lives. In three studies (total N = 2298), we examined people’s moral attitudes toward triage of acute coronavirus patients, and found elevated support for utilitarian triage policies. These utilitarian tendencies did not stem (...)
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  40. 80,000 Hours for the Common Good: A Thomistic Appraisal of Effective Altruism.Ryan Miller - forthcoming - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.
    Effective Altruism is a rapidly growing and influential contemporary philosophical movement committed to updating utilitarianism in both theory and practice. The movement focuses on identifying urgent but neglected causes and inspiring supererogatory giving to meet the need. It also tries to build a broader coalition by adopting a more ecumenical approach to ethics which recognizes a wide range of values and moral constraints. These interesting developments distinguish Effective Altruism from the utilitarianism of the past in ways that invite cooperation and (...)
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  41. Two Pessimisms in Mill.Joshua Fox - 2021 - Utilitas 33 (4):442-457.
    Mill defines utilitarianism as the combination of a “theory of life” and a moral claim: only pleasure and freedom from pain are desirable as ends, and the promotion of happiness is the sole goal of moral action. So defined, utilitarianism is open to ad hominem pessimistic objection: a “theory of life” which entails the impossibility of happiness fits poorly with a morality centered on its promotion. The first two challenges Mill confronts in Utilitarianism share this pessimistic structure. Interestingly, however, these (...)
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  42. The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy.Jeremy R. Garrett (ed.) - 2012 - Mit Press.
    A balanced, accessible discussion of whether and on what grounds animal research can be ethically justified.
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  43. Religion and Two-Level Utilitarianism in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments.Steven O. Falco - unknown
    The questions concerning Adam Smith’s religious views and his purported support for utilitarianism have each generated a substantial literature. In this thesis, I propose a response to the first of these problems which I believe also helps resolve the second one. First, I argue that Smith’s references to God in The Theory of Moral Sentiments reflect his sincere theological commitments, not merely his account of the psychology of religious belief or his attempt to avoid charges of atheism. I then show (...)
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  44. Frege’s Puzzle and the Ex Ante Pareto Principle.Anna Mahtani - 2021 - Philosophical Studies 178 (6):2077-2100.
    The ex ante Pareto principle has an intuitive pull, and it has been a principle of central importance since Harsanyi’s defence of utilitarianism. The principle has been used to criticize and refine a range of positions in welfare economics, including egalitarianism and prioritarianism. But this principle faces a serious problem. I have argued elsewhere :303-323 2017) that the concept of ex ante Pareto superiority is not well defined, because its application in a choice situation concerning a fixed population can depend (...)
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  45. Calibrating Variable-Value Population Ethics.Dean Spears & H. Orri Stefansson - manuscript
    Variable-Value axiologies propose solutions to the challenges of population ethics. These views avoid Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion, while satisfying some weak instances of the Mere Addition principle (for example, at small population sizes). We apply calibration methods to Variable-Value views while assuming: first, some very weak instances of Mere Addition, and, second, some plausible empirical assumptions about the size and welfare of the intertemporal world population. We find that Variable-Value views imply conclusions that should seem repugnant to anyone who opposes Total (...)
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  46. Dominance Criteria for Critical-Level Generalized Utilitarianism.Alain Trannoy & John A. Weymark - 2008 - In Kaushik Basu & Ravi Kanbur (eds.), Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen: Volume I: Ethics, Welfare, and Measurement. Oxford University Press.
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  47. Contractualism and Utilitarianism.T. M. Scanlon - 1998 - In James Rachels (ed.), Ethical Theory 2: Theories About How We Should Live. Oxford University Press.
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  48. History and Historiography in Classical Utilitarianism, 1800–1865.Callum Barrell - 2021 - Cambridge University Press.
    This first comprehensive account of the utilitarians' historical thought intellectually resituates their conceptions of philosophy and politics, at a time when the past acquired new significances as both a means and object of study. Drawing on published and unpublished writings - and set against the intellectual backdrops of Scottish philosophical history, German and French historicism, romanticism, positivism, and the rise of social science and scientific history - Callum Barrell recovers the depth with which Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, George Grote, and (...)
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  49. Aggregation Without Interpersonal Comparisons of Well‐Being.Jacob M. Nebel - forthcoming - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
    This paper is about the role of interpersonal comparisons in Harsanyi's aggregation theorem. Harsanyi interpreted his theorem to show that a broadly utilitarian theory of distribution must be true even if there are no interpersonal comparisons of well-being. How is this possible? The orthodox view is that it is not. Some argue that the interpersonal comparability of well-being is hidden in Harsanyi's premises. Others argue that it is a surprising conclusion of Harsanyi's theorem, which is not presupposed by any one (...)
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  50. Mill’s Proof and the Guise of the Good.Francesco Orsi - 2021 - Philosophical Explorations 24 (1):93-105.
    The guise of the good doctrine is the view that whatever we desire, we desire it under the guise of the good, i.e. it appears good to us in some way. In this paper I first clarify the role that the doctrine of the guise of the good plays in the first step of J. S. Mill’s proof of the principle of utility (in which he shows that one’s happiness is desirable as an end). Then I provide textual evidence in (...)
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