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Actual Preferences, Actual People

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009

Extract

Maximizing want-satisfaction per se is a relatively unattractive aspiration, for it seems to assume that wants are somehow disembodied entities with independent moral claims all of their own. Actually, of course, they are possessed by particular people. What preference-utilitarians should be concerned with is how people's lives go—the fulfilment of their projects and the satisfaction of their desires. In an old-fashioned way of talking, it is happy people rather than happiness per se that utilitarians should be striving to produce.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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References

1 By, in both cases, first making the potential actual: first actually instilling the preference, in the former case; first giving birth to the person, in the latter.

2 Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, pp. 381–91Google Scholar. It is to this argument to which Barry, Brian alludes in ‘Utilitarianism and Preference Change’, Uilitas, i (1989), 281.Google Scholar

3 That is Barry's solution. Insisting that we should maximize ‘average’ rather than ‘sum total utility’ is another way, albeit a rather more arbitrary one since there seems to be no reason to prefer the average to the sum-total approach except to avoid disadvantaging extant individuals in this way.

4 Barry attributes this proposal to Rawls, J., ‘Social Unity and Primary Goods’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, A. and Williams, B., Cambridge, 1982, pp. 159–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar. He could as well have cited Taylor, C., ‘Responsibility for Self’, Identities of Persons, ed. Rorty, A., Berkeley, 1976, pp. 281300Google Scholar. While both are anxious that people take responsibility for shaping their own preferences, neither is particularly utilitarian in the standards he would propose for their doing so.

5 Barry, , 280.Google Scholar

6 The term is from Elster, J., ‘Utilitarianism and the Genesis of Wants’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, pp. 219–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in Elster, , Sour Grapes, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 109–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 In much the same way, cheating is less satisfying (although of course materially it is no less lucrative) than is winning fair and square.

8 Elaborated by, inter alia: Williams, B., Moral Luck, Cambridge, 1981CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge, Mass., 1981, pp. 403–51Google Scholar; and Wollheim, R., The Thread of Life, Cambridge, 1984.Google Scholar

9 Barry, , 282, emphasis added.Google Scholar

10 Barry, , 282.Google Scholar

11 Elster, , Sour Grapes, pp. 43108.Google Scholar

12 Goodin, R. E., Political Theory and Public Policy, Chicago, 1982, pp. 3956Google Scholar, building on Sen, A., ‘A Note on Tinbergen on the Optimum Rate of Saving’, Economic Journal, lxvii (1957), 745–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 Ibid, and Goodin, , ‘Liberalism and the Best Judge Principle’, Political Studies, xxxviii (1990), 181–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 It is familiar in contemporary moral philosophy as Rawls, John's ‘Aristotelian Principle’Google Scholar; see A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass., 1971, pp. 424–33.Google Scholar

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