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Updates to utilitarianism.net

Back in July, I mentioned our new introduction to population ethics.  Since then, I've also added a chapter on Theories of Well-being, and -- brand new as of today -- Arguments for Utilitarianism.I'm inclined to think the best case for utilitarianism stems from simply reflecting on what fundamentally matters (and one who doesn't find the utilitarian answer here intuitively compelling is unlikely to be much moved by any other argument in support of the view).  But I'm also pretty moved by the charge against non-consequentialist views that they are steeped in status quo bias, so I was pleased to be able to make that case here.  (I don't recall seeing the point discussed so much elsewhere -- it strikes me as unduly neglected.)The other big news today is that we're kicking off a new series of Guest Essays with an excellent article by Jeff Sebo on 'Utilitarianism and Nonhuman Animals':This essay advances three broad claims about utilitarianism and nonhuman animals. First, utilitarianism plausibly implies that all vertebrates and many invertebrates morally matter, but that some of these animals might matter more than others. Second, utilitarianism plausibly implies that we should attempt to both promote animal welfare and respect animal rights in practice. Third, utilitarianism plausibly implies that we should prioritize farmed and wild animals at present, and that we should work to support them in a variety of ways.Enjoy!  (And maybe [More]

Agency as a Force for Good

One fundamental reason for favouring consequentialism is the basic teleological intuition that the primary purpose of agency is to realize preferable outcomes.  If you have a choice between a better state of affairs and a worse one, it's very natural to think that the better state of affairs would be the better option to choose.A slightly different way to put it is that if it would be good for something to happen, then it would be good to choose for it to happen.  Our agency is itself part of the natural world, after all, and while it is distinctive in being subject to moral evaluation -- misdirected exercises of agency may be wicked in a way that unfortunately directed lightning strikes are not -- it's far from clear why this should transform an otherwise desirable outcome into an undesirable one.  There's nothing obviously misdirected (let alone "wicked") about straightforwardly aiming at the good, after all.Consequentialism thus fits with an appealing conception of agency as a force for good in the world. Left to its own devices, the world might just as easily drift into bad outcomes as good ones, but through our choices, we moral agents may deliberately steer it along better paths.This suggests to me a (possibly new?) argument for consequentialism.  For it seems a real cost to non-consequentialist views that they must give up this view of agency as a force for good.  Instead, on non-consequentialist views, it could well [More]

Discounting Illicit Benefits

In 'The Means and the Good' (Analysis, forthcoming) Matthew Oliver argues that pluralist consequentialists can accommodate intuitions against using others as a means, on the model of how they can accommodate intuitions about desert:Just as it is bad for Emily to benefit from a stolen manuscript, it is bad for anyone to benefit from the use of another’s body or resources as a means. We can call this impersonal badness an impersonal-use-cost. As with a stolen manuscript, good results that are produced by using another person’s body or resources are heavily offset by an accompanying impersonal-use-cost.By, in effect, discounting illicit benefits, we get the result that killing one to save five does more harm than good.  But we also get the result that killing one to prevent five others from each killing one to save five likewise does more harm than good.  (I think the most natural way to understand this is not to regard the second-order killing as in itself extra bad; the killing is just as intrinsically bad as any other death, the problem is instead that any good that would follow from it -- including the prevention of other wrongful killings -- gets massively discounted.)It's a clever and interesting view!  But it seems really vulnerable to my argument against constraints, namely, that it unacceptably devalues the lives of the innocent victims who might be rescued.  Once an innocent person has been killed in an (even wrongful) attempt to save [More]

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