Utilitarianism and the Social Nature of Persons

Dissertation, University College London (2023)
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This thesis defends utilitarianism: the view that as far as morality goes, one ought to choose the option which will result in the most overall well-being. Utilitarianism is widely rejected by philosophers today, largely because of a number of influential objections. In this thesis I deal with three of them. Each is found in Bernard Williams’s ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’ (1973). The first is the Integrity Objection, an intervention that has been influential whilst being subject to a wide variety of interpretations. In Chapter Two I give my interpretation of Williams’s Integrity objection; in Chapter Three I discuss one common response to it, and in Chapters Four and Five I give my own defence of utilitarianism against it. In Chapter Six I discuss a second objection: the problem of pre-emption. This problem is also found in Williams, but has received greater attention through the work of other authors in recent years. It suggests that utilitarianism is unable to deal with some of the modern world’s most pressing moral problems, and raises an internal tension between the twin utilitarian aims of making a difference and achieving the best outcomes. In Chapter Seven I discuss a third objection: that utilitarianism is insufficiently egalitarian. I find this claim to be unwarranted, in light of recent social science and philosophy. My responses to Williams’s objections draw upon resources from the socialist tradition – in particular, that tradition’s emphasis on the importance of social connections between individuals. Socialists have often been hostile to utilitarianism, in part for socialist-inflected versions of Williams’s objections. Thus, in responding to these objections I aim to demonstrate that socialist thought contains the means to defuse not only mainstream philosophy’s rejection of utilitarianism but also its own, and thus to re-open the possibilities for a productive engagement between the two traditions.



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Nikhil Venkatesh
London School of Economics

References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Group agency: the possibility, design, and status of corporate agents.Christian List & Philip Pettit - 2011 - New York: Oxford University Press. Edited by Philip Pettit.

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