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When Utilitarians Should Be Virtue Theorists

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 June 2007

New York


The contrast typically made between utilitarianism and virtue theory is overdrawn. Utilitarianism is a universal emulator: it implies that we should lie, cheat, steal, even appropriate Aristotle, when that is what brings about the best outcomes. In some cases and in some worlds it is best for us to focus as precisely as possible on individual acts. In other cases and worlds it is best for us to be concerned with character traits. Global environmental change leads to concerns about character because the best results will be produced by generally uncoupling my behavior from that of others. Thus, in this case and in this world, utilitarians should be virtue theorists.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 While ‘global environmental change’ may seem a clumsy or misleading expression, it has come to be the standard way of referring to this cluster of problems in the scientific and policy literatures; see e.g. the website for The Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change ( For an overview of these problems see The World Resources Institute, The United Nations Environment Programme and The World Bank, World Resources 2000–2001 (New York, 2000), also available on the web at

2 Some would modify this list of the reigning moral theories by adding or substituting contractualism or virtue ethics.

3 Creating the Kingdom of Ends (New York, 1996), p. 300.

4 Korsgaard, Creating, p. 275. Cf. Annette Baier who thinks that contemporary moral philosophers have not yet escaped the clutches of Kant (Postures of the Mind (Minneapolis, 1985), p. 235).

5 However Korsgaard does briefly discuss the moral status of plants and animals in The Sources of Normativity (New York, 1996), ch. 4, and she extensively discusses Kantian views of animals in her University of Michigan Tanner Lecture, ‘Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals’, Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 25, ed. Grethe B. Peterson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), pp. 77--110.

6 See for example the work of Onora O'Neill collected in her Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (New York, 1989). Korsgaard tries to overcome the interiority of the theory by focusing on ‘how we should relate to one another’ as the subject matter of morality (Creating, p. 275).

7 There are interpretations of Kant, perhaps most notably that of R. M. Hare (see e.g. Freedom and Reason (Oxford, 1965)), which emphasize the idea of universalizability and de-emphasize the notion of the good will. This is not the reading of Kant with which I am concerned here, in part because it has become less influential in recent years, but also because (at least in this respect) it blurs the distinction between Kantianism and utilitarianism.

8 This is quite clear in the work of David Gauthier and Jan Narveson, for example. For an early discussion of these problems see my ‘Rational Egoism and Animal Rights’, Environmental Ethics 3 (1981).

9 Although there are many differences and disagreements among them, and some would reject the charge of conservatism, I associate this view with British philosophers such as Jonathan Dancy and Stuart Hampshire, and American philosophers such as Susan Wolf.

10 Anti-revisionists come in different stripes, but for one version see the introduction to Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, 1990); on the second point, see Susan, Wolf, ‘Moral Saints’, Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982), esp. p. 422Google Scholar. For a utilitarian response to such claims, see Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (Buffalo, 1995).

11 On the environmental consequences of American reproductive behavior, see Charles, A. S. Hall, Gil Pontius, R. Jr, Lisa, Coleman and Jae-Young, Ko, ‘The Environmental Consequences of Having a Baby in the United States’, Wild Earth 5 (1995)Google Scholar.

12 There is room for drawing various subtle distinctions here. Jürgen Habermas claims that ‘[h]uman responsibility for plants and for preservation of whole species cannot be derived from duties of interaction, and thus cannot be morally [sic] justified’, but goes on to say that ‘there are good ethical reasons [sic] that speak in favor of the protection of plants and species’. See his Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, 1993), p. 111.

13 For further discussion of deontology and the role of intentions in shaping moral constraints, see Nancy (Ann) Davis, ‘Contemporary Deontology’, Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford, 1991), and the references cited therein.

14 I hope it is clear that my intention thus far has been only to show that, on a first approximation, in comparison with its rivals, utilitarianism appears well positioned to address the problem, and in this regard is worthy of detailed investigation. I do not mean to suggest that alternative approaches, however resourceful, are totally incapable of providing interesting responses to our problem.

15 For such criticisms see Callicott, J. Baird, ‘Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair’, Environmental Ethics 2 (1980)Google Scholar; Holmes Rolston III, ‘Respect for Life: Counting what Singer Finds of no Account’, Singer and his Critics, ed. Dale Jamieson (Oxford, 1999); Eric Katz, Nature as Subject (Lanham, 1997); John, Rodman, ‘The Liberation of Nature’, Inquiry 20 (1977)Google Scholar; and Mark, Sagoff, ‘Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Bad Marriage, Quick Divorce’, Osgood Hall Law Journal 22 (1984)Google Scholar.

16 Cf. Korsgaard, who insightfully writes that ‘[u]sually the “standard objections” that one school of thought raises against another are question-begging in deep and disguised ways’ (Creating, p. xiii).

17 In characterizing utilitarianism in this way, I chime with Liam Murphy (Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (New York, 2000), p. 6) rather than with Shelly Kagan who uses the term ‘consequentialism’ for what I call utilitarianism; see his discussion in Normative Ethics (Boulder, 1998). For further discussion of these terms, see my ‘Consequentialism’, in ‘Ethics and Values’, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), ed. R. Elliot, developed under the auspices of the UNESCO (Oxford, 2002), available on the web at See also my Ethics and the Environment: An introduction (Cambridge, in press), ch. 4.

18 Indeed it may not even be the first step. Utilitarianism may imply that utilitarianism should be an ‘esoteric morality’. Whether or not it has this implication depends on facts about particular people and societies. For discussion of esoteric morality see Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907), p. 490; and Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (New York, 1984), pt. 1 (esp. ch. 1).

19 For the most recent, authoritative and systematic account of the consequences of climate change, see Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability, ed. James J. McCarthy, Osvaldo F. Canziani, Neil A. Leary, David J. Dokken and Kasey S. White (New York, 2001), and the updates found on the web at See also my ‘The Epistemology of Climate Change: Some Morals for Managers’, Society and Natural Resources 4 (1991).

20 On this general issue see Jonathan Glover, ‘“It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It”’, Applied Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (New York, 1986); and Parfit, Reasons, ch. 3.

21 It should be obvious that I am using ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘asceticism’ as technical terms; a full-blooded analysis of these concepts would reveal richer and more subtle conditions for application than what is suggested by the text.

22 Since such a strategy may well involve the construction and inculcation of norms, I believe that nothing I say here is inconsistent with Philip Pettit's discussion of norms as responses to collective action problems in part III of his Rules, Reasons, and Norms (Oxford, 2002). One way of relating our accounts would be to say that the account that I develop is a (relatively) thick description of what utilitarian agents would have to be like in order for relevant norms to emerge and to reduce their own contributions to the problem. Although my focus is primarily on individual agents, the argument generalizes to all similarly situated utilitarian agents. Moreover, I believe that the importance of individual agents in addressing collective action problems is not fully appreciated by many theorists (see sect. 19 for further discussion).

23 I discuss this objection further in sect. 19.

24 For further argument to this conclusion see Donald Regan, Utilitarianism and Cooperation (New York, 1980).

25 While the virtues, as I understand them here, are non-calculative generators of behavior, their exercise does not exclude deliberation. I am indebted to Steve Gardiner and Jerrold Katz for helpful discussion of these points.

26 For some important discussions of these points see Regan, Utilitarianism; Allan, F. Gibbard, ‘Rule Utilitarianism: Merely an Illusory Alternative?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 43 (1965)Google Scholar; Robert, M. Adams, ‘Motive Utilitarianism’, Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976)Google Scholar; and Peter, Railton, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984)Google Scholar.

27 Some may feel the pull of this example, but find it out of the question that a life without friends could be utility-maximizing. But if we assume that utility-maximizing behavior is frequently associated with acting on agent-neutral reasons, then it is not difficult to see why strong personal relationships might lead us to act in less than optimific ways. Of course, even if this is true there is no question that many of us here and now would do worse by abandoning our friends and setting ourselves up as rootless cosmopolitan utility-maximizers. For a recent discussion of some of these issues, see Elizabeth, Ashford, ‘Utilitarianism, Integrity, and Partiality’, The Journal of Philosophy 97 (2000)Google Scholar.

28 My quarrel here is not with those who have distinguished act- from rule-utilitarianism as part of an investigation of the varieties of utilitarianism, but rather with the way in which this distinction has subsequently been canonized and then read back into the tradition. For an excellent study in the former spirit see David Lyons, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford, 1965).

29 For a contrary view see Henry R. West, An Introduction to Mill's Utilitarian Ethics (New York, 2004). But see also Fred Berger, Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Berkeley, 1984).

30 Cf. Michael Slote's discussion of Bentham in ‘Utilitarian Virtue’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy Volume XIII Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, ed. P. French, T. Uehling Jr and H. Wettstein (Notre Dame, 1988).

31 Onora O'Neill has written insightfully about this in the context of Kantian ethics (Constructions, ch. 9). See also Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (New York, 1979), pp. 263–7.

32 In unpublished work I have tried to develop a perspective on the purposes of moral theorizing that I believe are implicit in the tradition of consequentialist moral philosophy. I discuss these ideas under the rubric ‘naturalized moral theory’. For the beginnings of such an account see my ‘Method and Moral Theory’, Companion, ed. P. Singer.

33 This distinction between global and local utilitarianism derives from the felicitous distinction between global and local consequentialism drawn by Philip Pettit and Michael Smith, who argue persuasively for the superiority of the global view in their ‘Global Consequentialism’, in Morality, Rules, and Consequences: A Critical Reader, ed. B. Hooker, E. Mason and D. Miller (Edinburgh, 2000). See also Shelly Kagan's ‘Evaluative Focal Points’ in the same volume.

34 Parfit, Reasons, p. 25.

35 For the first view see Christopher Kutz, Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age (New York, 2000), p. 11; for the second, Murphy, Moral Demands, p. 96 (note, however, that Murphy's remark is in the context of a larger investigation of an individual's moral duty of beneficence under conditions of partial compliance). Other approaches to collective or shared intentions advocate revising our conceptions of agents or of intending, rather than focusing on the content of intentions. For example, John Searle holds that jointly intentional action can only be explained by postulating an irreducible form of intending that he calls ‘we-intending’ (in his Intentionality (Cambridge, 1983), ch. 3); for discussion see Kutz, Complicity, ch. 3.

36 Christopher McMahon (in his Collective Rationality and Collective Reasoning (New York, 2001)) tells us that the solution to prisoners’ dilemmas (a class of problems closely related to our problem) is to treat them as pure coordination problems. However, in prisoners’ dilemmas each agent is better off defecting whatever other agents do while this is not the case in pure coordination problems. Since prisoners’ dilemmas have a different structure than pure coordination problems, clear, convincing motivation is needed for why we should view them in the way that McMahon suggests, and some account needs to be provided of what agents would have to be like in order to act in the preferred way. In the absence of such accounts, this gambit seems merely to change the subject. For further discussion, see Gerald Gaus, ‘Once More Unto the Breach, My Dear Friends, Once More’, Philosophical Studies 116 (2003); and Michael Weber, ‘The Reason to Contribute to Cooperative Schemes’, in the same issue. My brief remarks in this paragraph are not meant to minimize the contributions of McMahon, Kutz and others, but only to suggest that more detailed work needs to be done.

37 Julia, Driver, Uneasy Virtue (New York, 2001), p. 108Google Scholar.

38 Here I agree with Rosalind, Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999)Google Scholar, pt. 2. Driver also discusses the relations between the virtues and the emotions, but I am not clear what her considered view is on this matter.

39 Cf. Robert Frank who has argued that emotions promote self-interest by solving commitment problems, in his Passions within Reason (New York, 1988).

40 However, not all non-calculative generators of action count as virtues. Some are too trivial, others are vices, and still others would be too far from the traditional notion of a virtue even for me to call virtues.

41 James Griffin, Value Judgement: Improving Our Ethical Beliefs (New York, 1996), p. 113; see also Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York, 1992). For a more relaxed view about what counts as virtue ethics see Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (New York, 1993).

42 An objection to virtue theory that is beginning to gain currency draws on results from social psychology that show that contextual factors are stronger predictors of behavior than facts about individual character. For such objections, see Gilbert Harman, ‘Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error’, reprinted in his Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 2000); and John, Doris, ‘Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics’, NOUS 32 (1998)Google Scholar, and his Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (New York, 2002). Because I am not committed to any particular account of the virtues, much less to one that makes them radically internal to agents rather than relative to contexts, I do not believe that this objection threatens the claims that I advance here.

43 Bernard Williams fastens onto a somewhat similar point in his critique of Hare's ‘two-level’ theory (see his ‘The Structure of Hare's Theory’, Hare and Critics, ed. D. Seanor and N. Fotion (Oxford, 1988)). But while Williams emphasizes the psychological untenability of living simultaneously at both the ‘intuitive’ and ‘critical’ levels, my criticism is specifically aimed at someone who rests content with rules of thumb when she is committed to the view that morality requires her to do what is best.

44 There is quite a lot more to be said about progressive consequentialism. I say a little more in ‘Consequentialism’, and Robert Elliot discusses this view under the rubric ‘improving Consequentialism’ in his Faking Nature (New York, 1997).

45 Let us assume that in this case the benefits and harms do not cross domains: the benefits of Peter attending the meeting attach only to famine relief and the harms of my driving are confined to their contribution to global environmental change.

46 Such problems are much discussed in the economics literature under the rubric of ‘optimal stopping rules’. See, for example, G. J. Stigler's classic, ‘The Economics of Information’, Journal of Political Economy 69 (1961).

47 There are ways of trying to revive the second argument by casting it in probabilistic terms, but I cannot consider that possibility here. My understanding of a range of such cases has benefited greatly from discussions with Scott (Drew) Schroeder.

48 The locus classicus for this image of Nero is Gibbon, but recent scholarship suggests that Nero has been maligned: that he neither set the fires, nor was indifferent to the destruction they caused. See Miriam T. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (London, 1984).

49 R. M. Hare makes a similar argument with respect to slavery; see his ‘What is Wrong with Slavery’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 8 (1979).

50 Here I break with Christopher Kutz (Complicity, pp. 124–32) who rejects what he calls ‘consequentialism’ for failing to explain why it is wrong to participate in a bad practice whose occurrence is overdetermined. For an alternative view to Kutz's, see Frank Jackson, ‘Group Morality’, Metaphysics and Morality: Essays in Honour of J. J. C. Smart, ed. Philip Pettit, Richard Sylvan and Jean Norman (Oxford, 1987). Intuitions about overdetermination cases seem to run in different ways, depending on particular cases and how they are described; a full treatment of this problem is beyond the aspirations of this article. I have benefited here from reading unpublished work by Dan Moller.

51 This question is similar to one many of us may face in our future (or, arguably, face now): what should you do knowing that, in some specified amount of time, you will surely die? And, of course, we should not be too confident that the question from my youth may not yet again become relevant.

52 This objection echoes a remark of C. S. Lewis to the effect that if one is about to be swept over a waterfall one does not have to sing praises to the river gods.

53 This latter objection to utilitarianism was a constant theme in the work of Bernard Williams and has stimulated an enormous literature. To begin at the beginning with the famous case of Jim and the Indians, see his ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, 1973). For an unusually insightful discussion of the ‘demandingness’ objection see Murphy, Moral Demands, chs. 2–3.

54 See Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 501–6.

55 Contrary to what one might think reading the newspapers, relationships between subjective reports of well-being and economic measures (such as per capita GDP) are equivocal and complex. An easy way into these issues is through the home page of Ed Diener, one of the leading researchers in the study of subjective well-being (

56 One way of developing this thought in a decision-theoretic context would be to follow Alexander Schuessler (in his A Logic of Expressive Choice (Princeton, 2000)) in distinguishing the ‘expressive’ from the ‘outcome’ value of a choice. This distinction may also help explain our intuitions in cases of overdetermined harms (mentioned in n. 50). The deepest general philosophical discussion of these issues that I know is Thomas, Hill Jr, ‘Symbolic Protest and Calculated Silence’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1979)Google Scholar. However, Hill focuses mostly on obviously malevolent acts and practices rather than the apparently innocent ones implicated in global environmental change.

57 David Lyons discusses a similar point when he talks about the ‘moral opacity’ and ‘moral ambiguity’ of utilitarianism (in ‘The Moral Opacity of Utilitarianism’, Morality, ed. Hooker et al.), though I'm not certain exactly what conclusion he wants to draw from his discussion.

58 Jon Elster has extensively discussed the analogy between individual and collective pre-commitment and restraint, most recently in his Ulysses Unbound (New York, 2000).

59 James Griffin points out (Value Judgement, p. 106), that the problem of calculation returns here to haunt us, since in order to identify virtues it appears that we need to be able to determine exactly which character traits are utility-promoting. To some extent this is a problem that will have to be faced by any theory that takes both character and consequences seriously.

60 A full account of the ideal utilitarian agent facing our problem would have to find a place for vices as well, as I was reminded by Corliss Swain. Indeed, it is plausible to suppose that vices such as greed would be as important in explaining and motivating behavior as the virtues that I mention here.

61 For a start on the literature of green virtue theory, see Ronald L. Sandler, Character and the Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (New York, 2007); Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro (eds.), Environmental Virtue Ethics (New York, 2005); and Louke van Wensveen, Dirty Virtues: The Emergence of Ecological Virtue Ethics (Amherst, 1999).

62 Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (New York, 1992), p. 138.

63 In his ‘Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving the Natural Environment’, Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy, ed. Lori Gruen and Dale Jamieson (New York, 1994).

64 Hill, ‘Ideals’, p. 108.

65 Cooperativeness would be another important characteristic of agents who could successfully address our problem (as well as collective action problems generally). Surprisingly, this characteristic appears to be neglected by both ancient and modern writers on the virtues (Hume may be an exception). Perhaps a virtue of cooperativeness is a candidate for creation, or perhaps, though not itself a virtue, cooperativeness would be expressed by those who have a particular constellation of virtues. For discussion of the importance of cooperativeness to morality, see Robert A. Hinde, Why Good is Good: The Sources of Morality (London, 2002).

66 There is a growing literature on this topic. See, for example, David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (West Hartford, 1995).

67 Roger Crisp reaches a similar conclusion in ‘Utilitarianism and the Life of Virtue’, Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1992).

68 Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Utilitarianism Reconsidered conference in New Orleans LA; the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University; the Sub-faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford; the Center for Values and Social Policy at the University of Colorado; the Australasian Association of Philosophy meeting in Sydney; the International Conference on Applied Ethics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Minnesota Monthly Moral Philosophy Meeting; the Philosophy Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and the Department of Philosophy at Yale University. I am deeply grateful for all of the interesting discussion provided by these audiences. I thank especially David Copp, Roger Crisp and James Griffin for helpful comments. The origin of this article goes back many years to a conversation with Barbara Herman about the scope and domain of morality; while nothing I say here will settle the differences between us that were expressed that afternoon, I want to thank her for causing me to think so long and hard about this problem.