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Agent-Neutrality, Consequentialism, Utilitarianism … A Terminological Note*

  • John Skorupski (a1)

It seems common at the moment to make agent-neutrality a necessary condition of ‘consequentialism” and to hold that deontological ethics are agent-relative. This note argues that both these tendencies regrettably obscure useful terms and distinctions. It concludes by considering what it would be best, now, to mean by ‘utilitarianism” and making a proposal.

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1 See for example Pettit Philip, ed. Consequentialism, Aldershot, 1993, Introduction, pp. xii–xiv; Scheffler Samuel, ed. Consequentialism and its Critics, Oxford, 1988, Introduction, p. 1. Critics of this tendency include Bennett Jonathan, ‘Two Departures from Consequentialism”, Ethics, c (1989), 5466; and John Broome, whose discussion is considered in §8 below. See also McNaughton D. and Bawling P., ‘Agent-relativity and the doing-happening distinction”, Philosophical Studies, lxiii (1991), 167–85.

2 Nagel Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford, 1970, chs. VII and X. Nagel uses the terms ‘objective” (for ‘agent-neutral”) and ‘subjective” (for ‘agent-relative”).

3 Though this is in the spirit of Nagel it makes some changes. The most significant concerns the range of ‘y”. Nagel makes it range over ‘act, event or circumstance” (Nagel , p. 47). For the purposes of my definition, in contrast, the extension of the reason-predicate should strictly be thought of as a set of triples of agent, possible choice-situation for that agent, and possible action-type open to the agent in that situation. However, to avoid over-complication I have suppressed the reference to possible choice situations. Fully spelt out in accordance with the conception of a reason-predicate as having three places, the schema ‘Py → there is reason for x to y”, would become, ‘Pz in choice-situation y → there is reason for x to z in y”. Notice that the value of the agent variable, ‘x”, and choice-situation variable, ‘y”, must be fixed to determine the range of the action-variable, ‘z”.

4 Broome John, Weighing Goods, Equality, Uncertainty and Time, Oxford, 1991, p. 5.

5 Moore G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge, 1903, p. 147.

6 Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson John M., Toronto, 1969, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, x. 246.

7 I discuss this view, and more generally the connections between morality, blame, and punishment in ‘The Definition of Morality”, Ethics: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 35, ed. Griffiths A. Phillips, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 121–44.

8 Compare Thomas Scanlon's discussion of what he calls ‘philosophical utilitarianism” in his ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen Amartya and Williams Bernard, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 103–28.

* I am grateful to John Broome, Roger Crisp, and Berys Gaut for comments on earlier versions of this note.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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