|Jörg Schroth||Distributive Justice and Welfarism in Utilitarianism|
Distributive Justice and Welfarism in Utilitarianism
Inquiry 51 (2008), S. 123-46.
II. Utilitarianism as a Good-based Moral Theory
III. Three Reasons for Excluding Distributive Justice from the Utilitarian Theory of the Good
IV. The Derivation of the Right from the Good
V. The Priority of the Good over the Right
VI. Welfarism and Distributive Justice
VII. Maximization and Distributive Justice
VIII. Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice
Distributive Justice and Welfarism in Utilitarianism
In this paper I argue for the following conclusions:
It has always been a forceful objection against utilitarianism that it cannot account for distributive justice: it aims at the maximization of the sum total of the good and is indifferent to its pattern of distribution. Most utilitarians have taken this objection seriously and have expended considerable effort to expel it. But what exactly is it that prevents utilitarianism from taking account of distributive justice? What components of utilitarianism conflict with considerations of justice? Do the arguments for utilitarianism actually entail the indifference to distributive justice?1 In this paper I argue that they do not. The main claims I defend in support of this conclusion are the following: (i) The usual account of utilitarianism as good-based, insofar as the good has priority over the right and the utilitarian principle of the right is derived from principles of the good, is misguided. Principles of the right cannot be derived from principles of the good. In particular, since welfarism is a theory of the good, principles of the right cannot be derived from welfarism. (ii) Principles of distributive justice are principles of the right, not principles of the good. (iii) If, therefore, distributive justice belongs to the theory of the right and not to the theory of the good, it is perfectly compatible with the three main components of utilitarianism: welfarism, consequentialism and maximization.2 Consequently, the usual arguments for utilitarianism which infer the maximization of welfare – disregarding its pattern of distribution – from welfarism, consequentialism and maximization are invalid.
If this conclusion is accepted, the case for utilitarianism is much weakened.3 Because the usual arguments for utilitarianism do not entail the disregard of distributive justice, and we can combine the concern for distributive justice with utilitarianism’s most plausible components, distribution-insensitive utilitarianism cannot be taken as the default option. Rather, we can opt for distribution-sensitive consequentialism instead of distribution-insensitive utilitarianism, even if we subscribe to welfarism, consequentialism and maximization. Since we have strong intuitions about distributive justice, distribution-sensitive consequentialism is more attractive than distribution-insensitive utilitarianism. Excluding distributive justice needs more arguments than including it.
Let us start with L. W. Sumner’s characterization of utilitarianism and consequentialism. According to Sumner (1987, 167) consequentialist theories are “good-based” because their “basic principles are all principles of the good”. This entails that principles of the good cannot (because they are basic) rest on any deeper principles of the right, and that any principles of the right must be derived from principles of the good (because these are the only basic principles). This, in turn, guarantees the priority of the good over the right, which has two dimensions:
(1) a theory’s principles of the good presuppose no antecedent principles of the right; and (2) the right is then construed as that which promotes or produces the good. (Sumner 1987, 167)
The priority of the good follows from or is equivalent to Sumner’s basic assumption that “the ultimate point of ethics is to make the world a better place”:
Suppose that the ultimate point of ethics is to make the world a better place. If it is, we must face the question: better in what respect? If the good is prior to the right – that is, if the rationale for all requirements of the right is that they serve to further the good in one way or another – then what is this good? (Sumner 1992, 1)
These assumptions about the point of morality and the priority of the good are not tied to consequentialism and can be shared, e. g., by natural law theorists as well. The feature that separates consequentialism from other good-based theories is that it is “not merely good-based but also goal-based”: Consequentialists “are committed to the pursuit of some synoptic or global goal” (Sumner 1987, 167f.) which consists of
(1) some set of basic, ultimate, objective, agent-neutral goods; (2) some operation for combining these separate goods into a single global value; and (3) some function which specifies how this value is to be promoted. (Sumner 1987, 172)
Whereas the first component is shared by all good-based theories (or by all theories that affirm the priority of the good), the second and third component mark out consequentialist theories. Combining the separate values into one global value in the second component can be done in a variety of ways:
Once again consequentialists have a number of options available. Because it has been favoured by utilitarians, the most familiar operation in the consequentialist tradition is arithmetic addition or aggregation. But consequentialists can also choose operations which are wholly or partially distributive: an equal distribution of goods across individuals, or a pattern which attends solely to the minimum individual share, or an operation which is sensitive to both aggregative and distributive factors, or whatever. (Sumner 1987, 171)
The third component, finally, tells us what to do with the global value and here the most familiar options are maximizing and satisficing (Sumner 1987, 171f.). Utilitarianism can now be defined as a consequentialist theory that specifies the three consequentialist components as welfarist, aggregative and maximizing.
What does this account of utilitarianism and consequentialism imply regarding distributive justice? On the assumption that justice is a good and therefore a component of the theory of the good (rather than of the theory of the right) we can distinguish three reasons for not including justice in the utilitarian theory of the good. The first two depend on the further assumption that justice is a moral good (in contrast to non-moral goods like pleasure or well-being).4
1. The first reason is a consequence of Sumner’s approach to justifying moral theories. His guiding idea is that we start moral theorizing by asking what the point of moral requirements is and then assume that their only reasonable point is the promotion of the good. Since we started without presupposing any moral beliefs and, therefore, have yet no conception of the moral good, the good that morality is supposed to promote can only be the non-moral good. If the only moral consideration is that moral requirements should promote the good, the good cannot include moral goods, because identifying and justifying moral goods would presuppose further moral considerations (which are not available given this method of justification).
2. This line of reasoning naturally leads to the priority of the good, according to which a theory’s basic principles of the good do not presuppose any antecedent principles of the right. Since the moral good is not defined independently from the right and thus presupposes antecedent principles of the right, the priority of the good excludes moral goods from the theory of the good. Any moral theory, then, that subscribes to the priority of the good cannot include moral goods in its theory of the good.5
If distributive justice is a moral good, these two reasons prevent it from being included in the utilitarian theory of the good.
3. A third reason for excluding justice, which does not rely on assumptions about the goal of morality and the distinction between the moral and the non-moral good, lies in accepting a theory of the good that does not include justice as an intrinsic good. If, e. g., a moral theory adopts a welfarist theory of the good, according to which well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically good, there is no place left for justice as a further good besides well-being.
Whereas the first two reasons follow from a particular structure of justification and exclude justice because it is a moral good, the third reason results from accepting a particular theory of the good and excludes justice because it is, according to this theory, no intrinsic good at all.6 All three reasons for excluding justice depend on the assumption that considerations of justice belong to the theory of the good. However, as I will argue below, this assumption is unwarranted. Justice should not be regarded as a good, but as a principle of the right. If justice is construed as a principle of the right, the three reasons for excluding justice from the theory of the good no longer apply. The question then becomes whether there are any reasons for excluding distributive justice from the utilitarian theory of the right. The answer to this question may seem obvious: the utilitarian principle of the right is a maximizing principle, and maximization excludes distributive justice. But, as we will see, there need not be any conflict between maximization and distributive justice.
One reason for excluding distributive justice from the utilitarian theory of the right might be Sumner’s basic assumption that the point of morality is the promotion of the good. Since promotion of the good is most plausibly interpreted as the maximization of the good (rather than its just distribution), this assumption naturally leads to the utilitarian theory of the right as the maximization of the good and its disregard for considerations of justice. The reason for affirming the promotion of the good as the only goal of morality might stem from utilitarianism’s adherence to welfarism. If it is agreed that well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable then what else could one reasonably do than to promote it? If this is taken as an argument from welfarism to the maximization of well-being it presupposes that we can derive principles of the right from principles of the good. That principles of the right can be derived from principles of the good is indeed claimed by Sumner, who holds that some moral theories, notably utilitarianism and consequentialism, are good-based insofar as their only basic principles are principles of the good, from which principles of the right must be derived.7 Against this idea of good-based theories I will now argue that it is not possible to derive principles of the right from principles of the good. This entails, firstly, that principles of the good cannot be the only basic principles and good-based theories are therefore impossible, and, secondly, that one cannot derive the requirement to maximize well-being from welfarism.
The commonplace that in consequentialist theories the right is derived from the good, can be interpreted in two different ways:
(a) The rightness of actions is derived from the goodness of their outcomes.
These two interpretations differ in the following respects: (b) concerns principles of the right and their justification, (a) concerns the rightness of actions8 and depends on the content of a theory’s principles of the right. (a) can be true without (b) being true, i. e., (a) does not imply (b). In consequentialist theories (a) is true and (b) is false, or so I will argue.
(a) is, in a sense, uncontroversial. According to the consequentialist principle of the right, the rightness of actions is a function of the goodness of their outcomes: An action is right if and only if there is no other available action with a better outcome. The rightness of actions is thus determined only by the goodness of their outcomes. In this sense – the complete determination of the rightness of actions by the goodness of their outcomes – one may say that the rightness of actions is derived from the good.9 But, of course, the rightness of actions can be derived from the goodness of their outcomes only if one accepts a principle of the right which allows this derivation in the first place. Consider the following example:
(1) The right is the maximization of well-being.
The derivation of the right action a from the goodness of its outcome in (2) and (3) is valid only with premise (1), which is a consequentialist (more precisely, a utilitarian) principle of the right. Thus, the derivation of the rightness of actions from the goodness of their outcomes follows from a principle of the right, and not from a principle of the good. Interpretation (a) of the claim that in consequentialist theories the right is derived from the good, merely spells out a consequence of consequentialism’s principle of the right. But from this nothing whatsoever follows as to whether the consequentialist principle of the right itself is or can be derived from principles of the good, i. e. whether interpretation (b) is true and whether consequentialism is good-based. Whereas interpretation (a) is concerned with the relationship between (1), (2) and (3), interpretation (b) is concerned only with (1) and its derivation or justification. The derivation of (3) from (1) and (2), and the derivation of (1) are two different matters, the former having no implications for the latter. Consequently, interpretation (a) does in no way support the claim that consequentialism is good-based, but is completely irrelevant as regards that claim.
The crucial question, then, is whether (b) is true, i. e. whether the consequentialist principle of the right is or can be derived from principles of the good. Several considerations undermine the truth of (b).
A theory of the good (like welfarism) tells us what things are intrinsic goods, but it does not tell us how we should act with regard to these goods. We could maximize the good, achieve a satisfactory level of the good, distribute it equally, give some priority to the worst off, and so on. Theories that tell us how to act with regard to the good are theories of rationality and theories of the right. Neither kind of theory is derivable from the theory of the good or does in any way depend on it. It is not possible to derive a principle of rationality or a principle of the right from a theory of the good. Rather, these principles have to be justified independently from the theory of the good and then applied to it. If, e. g., we think that well-being is the only intrinsic good we cannot derive therefrom that we ought to maximize well-being (or distribute it equally, etc.) without presupposing a theory of the right. Consider the following example:
(4) Well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. (Principle of the good)
To claim that principles of the right can be derived from principles of the good is to claim that (5) or (6) can be derived from (4). But it is obvious that neither (5) nor (6) follows from (4). (4) provides no reason at all for assuming (5) or (6). (5) is as basic a principle as (4). (4) is a basic principle of the good while (5) is a basic principle of the right. Every moral theory needs both kinds of basic principles and none of them is derivable from the other. Instead of saying, like Sumner, that consequentialism is good-based one might as well say it is right-based: the basic principle of consequentialism is that the right consists in the maximization of the good, and this is a principle of the right and not a principle of the good. But, of course, the argument against the idea of good-based theories would also apply against right-based theories: principles of the non-moral good cannot be derived from principles of the right and therefore no theory can be right-based in the sense that principles of the right are the only basic principles. The only conceivable right-based theory would be a moral theory whose principles of the right make no reference at all to the non-moral good. Thus, consequentialism is neither good-based nor right-based, since neither can principles of the right be derived from principles of the good, nor can principles of the good be derived from principles of the right.
Consider now the following modification of the above example:
(4) Well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable.
The priniciple of the good (4) can be combined with (5’) just as well as with (5). Though these principles of the right cannot both be true, either one can be held together with (4). But it doesn’t make sense to hold that two incompatible principles (5 and 5’) can both be derived from (4). The idea that principles of the right can be derived from principles of the good suggests, if “derived” is not used in some unusual sense, that there is some non-arbitrary way to move or argue from principles of the good to principles of the right. But such a connection is belied by the fact that there are many principles of the right which are compatible with any theory of the good. This is admitted by Sumner who claims that even though the right can be derived from the good, the good “does not dictate how the right is to be derived from it”, and that therefore welfarism is compatible with many different principles of the right.10 But in what sense, then, can the right be derived from the good?11
There are further arguments against the derivation of the right from the good:
– The utilitarian theory of the good is a theory of the non-moral good. But how could a theory of the non-moral good possibly determine which moral principle of the right is true? How could a moral theory (utilitarianism) be derived from a non-moral theory?
– Not all consequentialists who agree on the consequentialist principle of the right agree on the principles of the good. This suggests that the reasons for subscribing to the consequentialist principle of the right do not depend on principles of the good: They do not depend on substantial principles of the good, because adherents of different substantial principles of the good subscribe to the same principle of the right. The consequentialist principle of the right could, then, at most be derived from a formal conception of the good, i. e. from the very concept of the good. This would amount to the obviously implausible claim that the concept of the good entails that the good ought to be maximized. This claim is implausible because it has the implausible consequence that non-consequentialists do not understand the concept of the good.
– According to Pettit (1991, 230), the theory of the right, which is a component of every moral theory, is “about what individual and institutional agents should do by way of responding to valuable properties”. The two ways of responding to valuable properties are to promote them or to respect them. The first is, according to Pettit, the consequentialist response, the second the deontological response. If the first response is taken to be an instance of the derivation of principles of the right from principles of the good, then so must the second response. But then principles of the right would be derived from principles of the good not only in consequentialist theories, but also in deontological theories, and deontological and consequentialist theories would both be good-based.12
– Finally, and perphaps most revealing, no utilitarian or consequentialist actually has derived the principle of the right from principles of the good. This is, e. g., certainly true of the philosophers Chappell and Crisp mention in their Routledge Encyclopedia article: Hare claimed to have derived utilitarianism from the universalizability and prescriptivity of moral judgements, while Sidgwick offered an intuitionistic justification. The one who comes closest to deriving the utilitarian principle of the right from principles of the good is Mill. According to Chappell and Crisp (p. 555), his “proof of utilitarianism” has three stages:
“1 Happiness is desirable.
But, if these stages prove anything, they prove the truth of hedonism, not the truth of utilitarianism. They do not even mention a principle of the right and prove only a principle of the non-moral good, but no principle of the right, and, a fortiori, do not prove utiliarianism.13
I conclude that principles of the right cannot be derived from principles of the good. That consequentialists and utilitarians derive their principles of the right from principles of the good is a myth. Those who claim that the right can be derived from the good, and take this to mean that the principle of the right can be derived from principles of the good mistake the derivation of right actions, once the principle of the right is given, for the derivation of the very principle of the right, i. e. they mistake interpretation (a) for interpretation (b) or illictly infer the latter from the former. Utilitarianism and consequentialism are not good-based, because no moral theory can be good-based (in Sumner’s sense).14
Closely connected with the derivation of the right from the good and with good-basedness is the priority of the good over the right, which is generally regarded as an essential property of utilitarianism, and which Sumner thinks is guaranteed by the good-basedness of a theory. Does the impossibility of good-based theories entail the impossibility of the priority of the good? As quoted above, the priority of the good has two dimensions: (1) A theory’s principles of the good presuppose no antecedent principles of the right, (2) the right is construed as that which promotes or produces the good. This conception of the priority of the good does not entail good-basedness: The second condition of the priority of the good may be taken as a basic principle of the right in which case a theory would not be good-based. Therefore, the impossibility of good-based theories does not rule out theories that give priority to the good over the right.
But what, if anything, is to be made of the slogan that the good has priority over the right? The second condition of the priority of the good is merely a different way of expressing Sumner’s basic assumption that the goal of morality is the promotion of the good. If that is the only goal of morality or the only principle of the right, it follows (as shown above) that the good to be promoted can only be the non-moral good and that the principles of the good do not presuppose any antecedent principles of the right – which is the first condition of the priority of the good. The priority of the good, then, states nothing more than Sumner’s basic assumption about the goal of morality and one of its consequences, which means that the priority of the good is only as plausible as Sumner’s basic assumption about the goal of morality.
But why or in what sense does the assumption that the goal of morality is the promotion of the good amount to the priority of the good over the right? What does it mean that the good is prior to the right? The two defining conditions of the priority of the good state typical properties of utilitarianism, but they do not explain anything and give us no idea of what kind of priority the good is supposed to have. One explanation is ruled out by the arguments above: the priority of the good cannot mean that principles of the right are derived from the good. What else could it mean?
According to Gerald Gaus the priority of the good means that knowledge of the good must be prior to knowledge of the right:
The basic thought [regarding the priority of the good] is that since teleologists characterize the right as maximizing the good, for a teleologist knowledge of the good must be prior to knowledge of the right. Because deontological theorists reject teleology, they also must reject the priority of the good to the right. (Gaus 2001, 32)15
This thought is not convincing and might as well be turned on its head: One might have as a conception of the right the thought that the right consists in the maximization of the good, without as yet knowing what the good is.16 It is only because one begins with this conception of the right, that one then theorizes about the good and tries to find out what is intrinsically good. Knowledge of the good need not precede knowledge of the right, but, on the contrary, is necessary only because of a particular conception of the right. The same is true of moral considerations in particular situations: if one wants to know what one ought to do in a given situation, one must first entertain a conception of the right. Only if in this conception the right refers somehow to the good, must one then think about the good. It is only because they have construed the right as the maximization of the good, that utilitarians need to know what the good in a given situation consists in.
Of course, one cannot know what one ought to do in a given situation without knowledge of the good. But if that is what is meant with the priority of the good, then it is no special feature of utilitarianism. In this sense every moral theory that gives some consideration to the consequences of actions and therefore to the good needs knowledge of the good to determine what is the right thing to do in a particular situation. Ross’s prima facie duty of beneficence, e. g., can only be fulfilled if one knows what things are good and therefore beneficent. So even in deontological theories knowledge of the good is necessary to find out what is right.
These considerations invalidate yet another view of the priority of the good:
For all forms of consequentialism the good is logically prior to the right, as no criterion of right action can be laid down until a conception of the good is specified. (Scarre 1996, 10)
Consequentialism is defined by its criterion of right action, viz. that the right action consists in maximizing the good. Different forms of consequentialism share this criterion of right action without sharing the same conception of the good. Thus, it is possible to lay down a criterion of right action without specifying a conception of the good. Of course, this criterion can only be applied together with a conception of the good, but this, again, is true of almost every moral theory and merely shows that both parts of a moral theory are necessary to determine the rightness of acts. A theory of the good without a theory of the right is as incomplete as a theory of the right without a theory of the good. If the consequentialist criterion does not count as a criterion of right action as long as no conception of the good is specified, then neither does Ross’s catalogue of prima facie duties, because it too needs a conception of the good and without it is as incomplete as consequentialism. The only difference in this respect between consequentialism and Ross’s deontological theory is the extent to which right actions are determined by the good: in consequentialist theories right actions are fully determined by the good, whereas in Ross’s theory there are other factors besides the good which determine rightness. This dependence of the right on the good concerns right actions, not principles of the right: the rightness of actions is dependent on the good, but that the rightness of actions depends in this way on the good is due to the principles of the right which themselves do not depend on principles of the good. As argued above, the dependence of right actions on the good does not imply that principles of the right depend on principles of the good in the sense that they need to be derived from principles of the good. Rather, both kinds of principles must be justified independently and do not depend on each other for their justification. Therefore, neither principle is in any way prior to the other. Whether we should accept principles of the right that take the right to be entirely dependent or not entirely dependent on the good does not depend on and cannot be derived from the theory of the good.
As should be clear from these considerations, the supposed priority of the good in utilitarianism is intimately connected with the claim that the right can be derived from the good and is untenable for much the same reasons.
The arguments so far showed: (i) The good is not prior to the right in any sense that makes it a special characteristic of utilitarianism which is not present in non-utilitarian (and non-consequentialist) theories.17 (ii) Since the right cannot be derived from the good one cannot argue solely from principles of the good to principles of the right, but must assume at least one principle of the right.18 Principles of the good, therefore, cannot be the only basic principles in any moral theory. Applied to welfarism, the conclusion to draw is obvious: Welfarism cannot provide reasons in favour of utilitarianism or the claim that the only goal of morality is the promotion of well-being, because as a theory of the good it cannot determine the content of a theory of the right.19
But, of course, welfarism is not irrelevant to the theory of the right. What welfarism implies is that the only good that can be morally relevant is well-being. No other good can play any role in moral considerations and only those consequences of actions that affect the well-being of people can be morally relevant. But, although welfarism does imply that only well-being can be a morally relevant good, it does not imply anything about what we ought to do with this good. Welfarism does dictate neither that we ought to maximize well-being nor that we ought to distribute it (or rather the means to it) justly.20 Welfarism implies only so much for moral theories: Those moral requirements (like, e. g., the duty of beneficence) which in one way or another refer to the good must refer to well-being and must not refer to anything else besides well-being. Yet, in which way they refer to well-being and whether there may be some requirements that do not at all refer to well-being can only be decided by the theory of the right and not by welfarism. To repeat, welfarism’s only consequence for the theory of the right is this: if principles of the right refer in some way to the good, then insofar as they do so they must refer to well-being and only to it. Whether (some or all) principles of the right should refer to the good and, if so, in which way, is left open by welfarism.21
One might object that by aiming at the just distribution of well-being instead of its maximization one takes into account something else besides well-being, some other good, viz. distributive justice, and thus violates the welfarist assumption that well-being is the only intrinsic good. This common objection is mistaken because distributive justice is not a good but belongs to the theory of the right.22 Just distribution of the good is a way of behaving with regard to the good just like maximizing the sum total of the good or maximizing the good of the worst off person. Just distribution, maximizing the sum total of the good and maximizing the good of the worst off person are operations on the good and not themselves goods. This is obvious and undisputed with regard to Rawls’s difference principle and the utilitarian principle of maximization: Rawls’s difference principle is part of his principles of justice which clearly make up his theory of the right and not his theory of the good. Likewise, the maximization of the sum total of the good is utilitarianism’s principle of the right and not part of its theory of the good. Why then should the just distribution of the good not belong to the theory of the right and instead be regarded as a good? If just distribution is taken as a good (and therefore as incompatible with welfarism), then, by the same token, the maximization of the sum total of the good must also be taken as a good. There is no difference between just distribution and maximization of the sum total in this respect. If it is claimed that the just distribution of well-being introduces another good besides well-being one may as well reply that maximization of the sum total of the good takes into account something else besides well-being, namely its amount or its maximization. The maximization of well-being is on a par with the just distribution of well-being: both are moral requirements that tell us how we ought to act with regard to well-being, their only difference being that one requirement aims at the total amount of well-being, the other at its just distribution. Just distribution of well-being and maximization of the sum total of well-being are either both compatible or both incompatible with welfarism. If well-being is a good, something must be done with it, and just distribution and maximization of the sum total are two possible ways of acting with regard to well-being.
The structural similarity of the principles of just distribution and maximization of the sum total of the good also comes out in Sumner’s account of utilitarianism. Both principles belong to his second component of the consequentialist goal which specifies “some operation for combining these separate goods into a single global value” (Sumner 1987, 172).23 Thus both principles operate on the good which has been identified in the first component (the theory of the good) as well-being. Sumner’s talk of a global value might suggest that his second component belongs to the theory of the good rather than to the theory of the right. But speaking of a global value is misleading. The second component is not about a global value but about what one ought to do in cases where the personal good of more than one person is concerned: ought we to maximize the sum total of the individual personal goods or ought we rather to give everyone an equal share of them? These are questions about what is the right thing to do and not about some global value over and above the personal goods specified in the theory of the good. What is important is that all the principles in Sumner’s second component (like the principle of maximizing the sum total, the principle of equal distribution, Rawls’s difference principle) belong to a different component than the theory of the personal good to which welfarism belongs. Therefore, either all those principles are compatible with welfarism or none of them is.
It is a mistake to think that the ranking of states of affairs from best to worst is part of the theory of the good. States of affairs can be ranked from different points of view and according to different criteria. In devising a moral theory we are asking what the best state of affairs from the moral point of view is, and no theory of the non-moral good (like welfarism) can answer that question. Whether we think that the best state of affairs from the moral point of view is the one with the most just distribution of well-being or the one with the greatest amount of well-being depends on our theory of the right. This can, again, be seen by considering Rawls’s difference principle. Although this principle is clearly a principle of the right we can use it to rank states of affairs. To illustrate my point, consider the following two tables, the first showing how much well-being persons P1 to P4 enjoy in the states of affairs S1 to S6, the second showing different rankings of these states of affairs:
Welfarism entails no ranking of states of affairs and allows us only to draw the first table. The determination of the best state of affairs in the second table goes beyond welfarism and depends on whether we judge from a non-moral or moral point of view and, if the latter, which theory of the right we adopt. Adherents of classical utilitarianism, average utilitarianism, egalitarianism or the difference principle could all be welfarists and hold that well-being is the only intrinsic good.
Whether my arguments for distributive justice as a principle of the right are convincing, is, of course, for the reader to decide. But the opposite view which regards distributive justice as a good is often put forward without any argument at all – as if it were obvious that distributive justice must be conceived as a good. In a recent article, for instance, Robert Shaver writes that “the argument for maximizing may be straightforward; anything other than maximizing seems to require admission of some other good.” (Shaver 2004, 250) Or consider how Nils Holtug contrasts outcome utilitarianism with outcome welfare egalitarianism:
Why would it be strange “to deny that equality has intrinsic value according to outcome welfare egalitarianism”? After all, one can describe outcome welfare egalitarianism (OE) exactly analogous to outcome utilitarianism (OU):
OU: “Outcome utilitarians hold that nothing but benefits has intrinsic value and then claim that the larger the sum of such value, the better.”
OE: Outcome welfare egalitarians hold that nothing but benefits has intrinsic value and then claim the more equal the distribution of such value, the better.
I cannot see why the second description should be strange and the first one not. One must accord intrinsic value to anything other than well-being either in both theories or in neither of them.
The preceding section may have conveyed the impression that one has to choose between distributive justice and maximization. But this impression would be mistaken as it fails to distinguish between two forms of maximization, which are both used to describe utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can be expressed as requiring (a) or (b):
(a) One ought to maximize the good.
(b) One ought to bring about the best state of affairs.
Both requirements are forms of maximization, but they need not amount to the same thing. (a) conjoined with welfarism entails that one ought to maximize well-being and there is no room left for distributive justice. But (b) conjoined with welfarism does not entail that we ought to maximize well-being, i. e. bring about the state of affairs with the greatest amount of well-being. Even if well-being is the only intrinsically valuable good the best state of affairs might nevertheless be the one in which this good is distributed justly. Maximization requires that we bring about the best state of affairs but it does not tell us what the best state of affairs is.24 Thus, even if one holds that rationality requires maximization one need not be committed to maximizing the sum total of well-being, since rationality requires only that we bring about the best state of affairs.25 There is therefore no conflict between distributive justice and a commitment to the rationality of maximization.
The conclusions drawn so far can now be applied to William H. Shaw’s argument for utilitarianism. The argument is chosen as an exemplar of arguments that present utilitarianism as a natural consequence of a few intuitively plausible assumptions. My point in analyzing this argument is to demonstrate that even if we accept the assumptions on which utilitarianism is supposed to rest, utilitarianism still does not follow.
According to Shaw utilitarianism’s “guiding impulse” is that
human well-being or happiness is what really matters and, accordingly, the promotion of well-being is what morality is, or ought to be, all about. (Shaw 1999, 2)
Shaw adduces two “fundamental ideas that underlie utilitarianism” or two “core ethical ideas” which are the “foundation of utilitarianism”:
first, that the results of our actions are the key to their moral evaluation, and second, that one should assess and compare those results in terms of the happiness or unhappiness they cause (or, more broadly, in terms of their impact on people’s well-being). (Shaw 1999, 2)
It is not entirely clear how these ideas go together as an argument for utilitarianism. But maybe the reasoning is as follows:
(1) Well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable. (Welfarism)
This argument does not succeed in establishing utilitarianism – even if one accepts its premises (1), (3) and (5),26 i. e., even if one accepts welfarism, consequentialism and maximization, utilitarianism still does not follow.
Shaw’s claim (2) that “morality is ultimately or fundamentally about the promotion of well-being” leads to utilitarianism only if it means that the promotion of well-being is the only goal of morality. This claim however is not self-evident or even plausible (in contrast to the claim that the promotion of well-being is one goal of morality). It is as much in need of justification as utilitarianism itself and cannot function as a basic intuition on which to rest utilitarianism. But the most promising reason for (2) – welfarism – is in fact no reason at all. Welfarism is compatible with a variety of moral theories and cannot lend additional support to (2): one can easily accept welfarism and reject (2). Thus, even if conjoined with welfarism Shaw’s claim is of no help in establishing utilitarianism. (2) is implausible, taken by itself, and cannot be backed up by (1).
But Shaw’s argument for utilitarianism need not rely on (2). It is not clear whether this claim plays any role in his argument, for he might as well be taken to infer utilitarianism from welfarism together with consequentialism and maximization. Is this inference valid? Are we committed to utilitarianism if we accept welfarism (1), consequentialism (3) and maximization (5)? I don’t think so.
From welfarism and consequentialism Shaw infers (4) that “one should assess and compare those results [of actions] in terms of the happiness or unhappiness they cause (or, more broadly, in terms of their impact on people’s well-being)”. This inference is valid but means only that no other good besides well-being is morally relevant: moral rules or principles and moral considerations about what one ought to do must not take into account any other good besides well-being. However, these moral considerations do not require the maximization of well-being but might instead require its equal distribution. As a consequence, the (validly inferred) claim that “one should assess and compare those results [of actions] in terms of the happiness or unhappiness they cause” (4) does not yet establish utilitarianism because it does not yet establish that we ought to maximize well-being or that the best state of affairs is the one with the highest amount of well-being. What if we conjoin (4) with maximization such that “an action is right if and only if it brings about the best outcome the agent could have brought about” (5)? Does this entail that we “we should act so as to bring about as much well-being as possible” (6), which, of course, is utilitarianism? No. Everything depends on what the best outcome is. If we require the maximization of well-being then the best outcome is the one with maximum well-being. If we require the equal distribution of well-being, then the best outcome is the one with the most equal distribution. So far neither of these requirements follows from Shaw’s argument and the preceding discussion showed that both criteria for the best state of affairs are compatible with welfarism. Therefore, if utilitarianism wasn’t established before, it won’t be established by adding this further claim about maximization: We can maximize by bringing about the best state of affairs which, in turn, can be specified as the state of affairs with the most just distribution.
I conclude that Shaw’s argument, as convincing as it looks at first sight, does not succeed in establishing utilitarianism. One may accept every premise of his argument without accepting its conclusion.27 To establish utilitarianism the following additional premise is needed:
(5.1) The best outcome is the state of affairs with the greatest amount of well-being.28
It is this claim that marks out utilitarianism and distinguishes it from distribution-sensitive forms of consequentialism. But it is precisely this claim which is not entailed and therefore not justified by Shaw’s argument. Instead of (5.1) one might as well add different additional premises, e. g.:
(5.2) The best outcome is the state of affairs with the most equal distribution of well-being.
(5.1) and (5.2) are two incompatible moral beliefs (or intuitions) and, so far as Shaw’s argument goes, neither of them can claim greater plausibility than the other. One reason often given in support of (5.1) is the plausible-sounding thought that more of a good is better than less:
Although hedonism does not entail sum-ranking, it is plausible that if pleasure and the absence of pain is the sole ultimate value, then since more of it is better than less, the value of states of affairs should be determined by the amount of happiness they contain. (Scanlon 2001, 40)
Yet, that more is better than less is plausible only if the good of one person is concerned and questions of distribution do not arise. It is certainly plausible that, if well-being is the only good, then for each person it is better to be more well off than to be less well off. But the plausibility of this thought does not carry over to cases where the good of more than one person is concerned. One might agree that it is better for one person to be more well off than less and still think that a state of affairs with the highest amount of well-being is not the best state of affairs if the well-being is distributed unjustly. The slogan “more is better than less” may explain the force of the levelling-down objection against egalitarianism and may rule out a strict egalitarian view. But it does not rule out distribution-sensitive consequentialism or an egalitarian view that also gives weight to the amount of good to be distributed.
The main conclusions of this paper are:
1. The widely shared belief that in utilitarianism and consequentialism the good has priority over the right is false. There is no plausible account of the priority of the good which would make this claim true.
2. The widely shared claim that in utilitarianism and consequentialism the right is derived from the good is false. There is no plausible account of the derivation of the right from the good which would make this claim true.
3. Those most plausible components of utilitarianism that are used to present it as an intuitively compelling moral theory – welfarism, consequentialism and maximization –, do not in fact support utilitarianism because they do not establish that the best state of affairs is the one with the highest sum total of the non-moral good and therefore do not establish that we ought to bring about this state of affairs, i. e. maximize the sum total of the non-moral good. These components cannot determine which state of affairs is the best and therefore leave it entirely open whether one should opt for distribution-insensitive utilitarianism or a distribution-sensitive welfarist consequentialism. Since this is left open, it is not the case that distribution-insensitive utilitarianism is the default option and every deviation from it towards a more just distribution needs to be defended against utilitarianism. Rather, in light of our moral intuitions and the persistence of the objection from justice against utilitarianism, it seems to be the other way round, that distribution-sensitivity is the default option and any deviation from it bears the burden of proof. One needs more arguments to exclude distributive justice than to include it. The arguments usually put forward in favour of utilitarianism should therefore be better used to support a disbribution-sensitive consequentialism.29
1 A peculiar thing about utilitarianism is that there are very few arguments for it. This is reflected in Chappell and Crisp’s entry on utilitarianism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In their introductory overview they claim that there “have been many arguments for utilitarianism”, but then they mention only three: Mill’s and Hare’s arguments, on which few, if any, contemporary utilitarians rely, and the appeal to intuition: “To many, utilitarianism has just seemed, taken by itself, reasonable – so reasonable, indeed, that any attempt to prove it would probably rest on premises less secure than the conclusion.” (Chappell/Crisp 1998, 555) Much more usual than to argue for utilitarianism is to simply state the theory and then defend it against objections from its opponents.
2 This paper is concerned with the relationship between the theory of the good and the theory of the right and I will argue that there is no conflict between the main components of utilitarianism and distributive justice if the latter is regarded as a principle of the right. I therefore do not discuss attempts to answer the objection from justice against utilitarianism by modifying the utilitarian theory of the good (and abandoning welfarism), as, for instance, Fred Feldman (1995) does.
3 One might have expected that the case for utilitarianism is strengthened rather than weakened if its main components do not rule out distributive justice. But in this paper I always speak of utilitarianism in its classical sense which requires the maximization of the good irrespective of its pattern of distribution. In this sense utilitarianism is not at all plausible if my arguments succeed. My arguments then weaken the case for utilitarianism and strengthen the case for distribution-sensitive theories, which it is now common practice to refer to as consequentialist theories.
4 I cannot argue here for the distinction between the moral and the non-moral good. It is a intuitively plausible distinction which I take for granted, and which underlies most accounts of utilitarianism and consequentialism. See, e. g., how Darwall begins his characterization of consequentialism:
Consequentialism begins with the idea that there are values that are prior to morality. Even if there were no moral right and wrong, some things would still be good and others bad. The pain and suffering caused by a cataclysmic earthquake, for example, are bad things, regardless of any relation to vice or misconduct. They are bad things to happen, bad states of the world. […] Both the agent-relative and the agent-neutral disvalue of pain are independent of morality, […] so both are called “nonmoral.” […] A fundamental tenet on which all consequentialist moral theories agree is that the moral rightness and wrongness of acts is determined by the nonmoral value of relevant consequences. (Darwall 2003, 1f.)
5 Even if (some) moral goods can be identified and justified independently from the right, they cannot be identified and justified independently from any moral considerations. Thus, even if there is a difference between depending on moral conceptions and depending on conceptions of the right, moral goods certainly depend on moral conceptions and are therefore excluded from the utilitarian theory of the good in virtue of the first reason.
6 If justice is a moral good, the first two reasons imply that the utilitarian theory of the good cannot include justice as an intrinsic good. But, beginning with a theory of the good, there might be reasons for denying that justice is an intrinsic good, which are independent of the first two reasons.
7 Not everyone who thinks of utilitarianism as good-based employs the notion of a derivation of the right from the good. But even those who do not explicitly use this seemingly strong notion must nevertheless assume that such a derivation is possible if utilitarianism is to be good-based. John Broome, e. g., holds a form of good-basedness when he claims that according to teleological theories
the concern for good amounts to the whole of ethics, not just a part. How we should live our lives, these theories say, and how we should act on each particular occasion, are determined entirely by the pursuit of good. Once we know what is good, or more exactly what is better than what, we shall know the right way to live and the right way to act. (Broome 1991, 2)
Since Broome does not abandon talk of the right he must assume that the right can be derived from the good. A perhaps even stronger form of good-basedness is expressed in Thomson’s claim that “according to Consequentialism, the concept ‘ought’ reduces to the concept ‘good’.” (Thomson 2001, 16)
8 One may instead say that (a) concerns the justification of particular jugements about the rightness of actions.
9 This is one essential difference between consequentialist and non-consequentialist theories. In non-consequentialist theories the right cannot be derived from the goodness of outcomes, because the goodnees of outcomes is only one morally relevant factor among others and is not sufficient to determine the rightness of actions.
10 Cf. Sumner 1996, 199f.:
[...] in reminding ourselves how little welfarism determines of the structure of a moral theory: while it tells us wherein the good consists, it does not dictate how the right is to be derived from it. One possibility, of course, is consequentialist or, more narrowly, utilitarian, where all welfare gains and losses are counted in calculating the optimal overall balance. Utilitarians have tended to include even sadistic enjoyments, relying on the injury that sadists inflict on their victims to ensure that their practices will be condemned. Whether or not that is the way to go is a question we need not here decide, since welfarism leaves other directions open as well, including the option of ruling the deliberate infliction of harm on others impermissible in principle, whatever its overall welfare payoff. An ethical framework with this deontological structure is still welfarist, since it admits nothing but welfare to its theory of the good. It simply addresses the moral problem raised by evil appetites elsewhere, in its account of the right. In general, this seems the appropriate way to deal with it, rather than by launching a pre-emptive strike at the deeper level of the good.
11 The non-derivability of the right from the good does not imply that the good imposes no restrictions on the theory of the right. A theory of the right which requires the destruction of the good may be ruled out as being incompatible with the very concept of the good. But this relation between the right and the good does not weaken the claim that the right is not derivable from the good: Even if the concept of the good rules out some theories of the right, there is still no way to positively derive some specific theory of the right from the good.
12 But, of course, here the point made above, applies again: How could two incompatible moral theories both be derived from the same principles of the good?
13 It is amazing how often discussions of Mill’s proof of utilitarianism are confined to his proof of hedonism, with the moral requirement to maximize happiness never being mentioned, let alone justified.
14 One might say that utilitarianism and consequentialism are good-based because interpretation (a) is true of them. This can readily be admitted, but must not be confused with Sumner’s sense of good-basedness.
15 “Knowledge of the right/good” might be taken as “knowledge of the concept of the right/good” or “knowledge of a conception of the right/good”. One interpretation of the priority of the good might be that the good is prior to the right because the concept of the right presupposes (knowledge of) the concept of the good, but the concept of the good does not presuppose (knowledge of) the concept of the right. I believe that view is wrong because the concept of the right presupposes only concepts like “(morally) obligatory”, “permitted”, “forbidden”. Apart from that, on this interpretation, the priority of the good would not distinguish teleological from non-teleological theories, unless one wants to claim that both kinds of theories employ different concepts of the right (rather than different conceptions of the right). A second interpretation of the priority of the good might be that a reference to the good is included in every conception of the right, whereas a reference to the right is not included in every conception of the good. This might be true, but again would not distinguish teleological from non-teleological theories.
16 This point is also made in Roger Crisp’s entry on deontology in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:
[Utilitarianism] can suggest that the right is indeed prior to the good, in the sense that utilitarians can state that it is right to maximize the good, whatever the good turns out to be. (Crisp 1995, 188)
17 The good may be prior in the harmless senses mentioned in note 15.
18 The same conclusion is reached by James Griffin:
No one could plausibly claim that the right is derivable solely from the good. One would have to claim, instead, that it is derivable from the good through some function interpreting the requirement of equal respect: maximizing, achieving a satisfactory level, equalizing, and so on. No form of consequentialism yields any judgments of moral right without the aid of some conception of equal respect. But a conception of equal respect is, on the face of it, an abstract moral view, a high-level principle of right. It would seem, therefore, that no form of consequentialism can derive the right except from the good plus at least one key element of the right. (Griffin 1992, pp. 126f.)
19 Two remarks are in order here:
In sum, a person ought to do a thing if and only if the world will be better if he does it than if he does any of the other things it is open to him to do at the time. [...]
20 Cf. Sumner (1996, 222): “[w]elfarism does not itself imply any ethical goal, either aggregative or distributive; a fortiori, it does not imply equality of welfare as such a goal.” Of course, by the same reason it does not imply maximization of welfare as such a goal either.
21 Of course, a moral theory whose principles of the right do not at all refer to the good would be highly implausible. But, this is an intuition about the theory of the right and not about the theory of the good.
22 It is, of course, beyond the scope of this paper to go into the details of different conceptions of distriubitve justice. I am concerned here only with the question whether distribution-sensitivity is indeed ruled out by welfarism and maximization.
24 This accords well with Sumner’s account of utilitarianism: the second component of the consequentialist goal specifies the criteria for identifying the best state of affairs and the third component then requires maximization by bringing about the best state of affairs (instead of, say, satisficing by bringing about a good enough state of affairs).
25 From the rational point of view (b) is certainly more rational than (a) because (b) is more comprehensive. (The best state of affairs ist the best state of affairs all things considered.)
26 Note that (3), the consequentialist principle of the right, is introduced as a separate premise and not derived from the theory of the good.
27 The only claim non-utilitarians cannot accept is (2). But this claim, if interpreted in a way that supports utilitarianism, has nothing to recommend itself. (5.1) corresponds to what Sen (1979, 464) has called outcome utilitarianism.
28 I thank an anonymous referee for her/his detailed and helpful comments. Work on this paper was supported by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft).
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