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Saints, Heroes and Utilitarians

  • Christopher New (a1)


When a normative moral theory collides with our beliefs, we must change either our beliefs or our theory. It is not always clear which we should change; but it is clear that we must change something. I shall consider two collisions between utilitarianism and what we believe, or are supposed to believe. About the first collision, I am going to say that the belief is false and that therefore there is no call to change utilitarianism. About the second, I am going to say that if the belief is true, utilitarianism cannot be changed to accommodate it; I shall leave it open, though, whether the belief is true. The two collisions are related, though different. They both concern the utilitarian thesis about self-sacrifice.



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1 ‘Saints and Heroes’, In Moral Concepts, ed. Feinberg, Joel, O.U.P., 1969, pp. 6073. I take Urmson as my target, but there are many philosophers who think like him—e.g. Ladd, John T., Structure of a Moral Code (Cambridge, Mass., 1957); Feinberg, Joel, ‘Supererogation and Rules’, Ethics, LXXI, 1961, pp. 276288; Chisholm, R. M., ‘Supererogation and Offence’, Ratio, V, 1963, pp. 114; Burchill, L. M., ‘In Defence of Saints and Heroes’, Philosophy, LX, 1965, pp. 152157. The lone modern dissenter seems to be Chopra, Yogendra, ‘Professor Urmson on Saints and Heroes’, Philosophy, XXXVIII, 1963, pp. 160166. I take Urmson as my target, partly because he rests his case, not solely on what our alleged moral beliefs are, but also on why he thinks such beliefs are right; partly because, like him, I am interested in the implication of this problem for utilitarianism in particular.

2 Op. cit., pp. 6872. Yogendra Chopra (op. cit.) has argued against Urmson too, but his position depends on an untenable use of the word ‘duty’ as ‘that which is morally required or desirable’ (my italics) and on an appeal to ‘our moral vocabulary’ which another appeal to it, made for the opposite purpose, by L. M. Burchill (op. cit.), shows to be indecisive. It has to be realized that our moral vocabulary may be both misleading and inconsistent.

3 As in ‘Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive Officiously to keep alive.’ (A. H. Clough)

4 Yogendra Chopra has made this point (op. cit.)

5 L. M. Burchill (op. cit.)

6 Essential Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Lerner, Max (Bantam), p. 199.

7 Op. cit., p. 209. Notice the slide from ‘sum total of happiness’ to ‘happiness of others’ in these two sentences.

8 Distinctions between rule and act, ideal and hedonistic utilitarianism can be ignored here, for the objection lies against any form of utilitarianism whatsoever. What I say here and hereafter is phrased in hedonistic, act-utilitarian terms, but ideal and rule-utilitarians can rephrase it all to fit their views. The objection will still lie. Few utilitarians have noticed it, however, of whom Sidgwick is one (Methods of Ethics, p. 432). While he recognizes the problem, though, he does not see it clearly and leaves it suggestively unresolved.

9 Op. cit., p. 204.

10 Cp. Mill, , op. cit., p. 194.

11 The ancestor of this argument may be recognized in Medlin, B.'s ‘Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 35, 1957, pp. 111118. Medlin argues in fact that egoism is inconsistent and then claims (correctly, I believe) that a similar argument can be put against altruism (pp. 115–117). I do not agree with his argument as it stands, though. It rests on a view about the meaning of moral language which I would not care to support and attributes a view to the egoist which he need not in fact hold. The egoist need not avow, as part of his principle, that he wants everyone ‘to come out on top’ (p. 115). He is committed, rather, by endorsing the principle, to endorsing mutually exclusive actions when each is in a different agent's interests.

12 A point which escaped Eric Mack in his otherwise careful defence of egoism in ‘Egoism and Rights’, Personalist, Winter, 1973, pp. 533. He writes ‘there is nothing inconsistent in saying that Bravo ought to act in a certain way and Alpha ought to prevent Bravo's action—many game situations inspire such recommendations’ (p. n). But nothing rational can inspire the endorsement of both Bravo's action and the prevention of his action—which is what the defender of the principle of egoism must endorse. Mack confuses what the coach can consistently recommend Alpha and Bravo each separately to do in order to win with what the umpire can consistently will to take place on the playing field. The upholder of egoism (or altruism) is in the position of the umpire, not the coach. (See further, for discussions of egoism, the articles cited by Mack, footnote 1.)


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