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Consequentialism and Respect: Two Strategies for Justifying Act Utilitarianism

  • Ben Eggleston (a1)


Most arguments in support of act utilitarianism are elaborations of one of two basic strategies. One is the consequentialist strategy. This strategy relies on the consequentialist premise that an act is right if and only if it produces the best possible consequences and the welfarist premise that the value of a state of affairs is entirely determined by its overall amount of well-being. The other strategy is based on the idea of treating individuals respectfully and resolving conflicts among individuals in whatever way best conforms to that idea. Although both of these strategies can be used to argue for the principle of act utilitarianism, they are significantly different from each other, and these differences cause them to have different strengths and weaknesses. It emerges that which argumentative strategy is chosen by a proponent of act utilitarianism has a large impact on which virtues her view has and which objections it is vulnerable to.


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1 The next three sections draw heavily from Eggleston, Ben, ‘Act Utilitarianism’, The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism, ed. Eggleston, Ben and Miller, Dale E. (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 125–45, at 132–5. As I indicate there, my division of the arguments into these two kinds, along with some of the examples I cite, is indebted to Kymlicka, Will, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 2002), pp. 32–7. (I cannot warrant, however, that he would agree with my elaborations of the two strategies or my comparative assessment of them.) These two kinds of arguments are also noted briefly in Crisp, Roger, ‘Utilitarianism and the Life of Virtue’, The Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1992), pp. 139–60, at 139–40.

2 For a thorough discussion of welfarism and an influential critique of it, particularly with a view to its use in utilitarianism, see Sen, Amartya, ‘Utilitarianism and Welfarism’, The Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979), pp. 463–89, esp. pp. 471–89.

3 Such a view is discussed at length in Dworkin, Ronald, ‘What Is Equality? Part I: Equality of Welfare’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981), pp. 185246.

4 This thought is similar to John Rawls's difference principle (Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA, 1971), pp. 7583). This thought is developed differently in prioritarianism, a cousin of utilitarianism for which the most-discussed source is Derek Parfit, ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio 10 (1997), pp. 202–21. See, as well, Dennis McKerlie, ‘Equality and Priority’, Utilitas 6 (1994), pp. 25–42.

5 See Sen, ‘Utilitarianism and Welfarism’, pp. 468–71. Also see the discussion of sum-ranking welfarism in Bykvist, Krister, ‘Utilitarianism in the Twentieth Century’, The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism, ed. Eggleston, Ben and E., Dale Miller (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 103–24, at 106–13.

6 Mill, John Stuart, ‘Bentham’, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson, J. M., 33 vols (Toronto, 1963–91), vol. X, pp. 75115, at 111. Mill may or may not have been an act utilitarian; for discussion, see Brink, David, ‘Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 edn.), ed. Edward N. Zalta, <>, esp. sect. 2: ‘Mill's Utilitarianism’. See also Eggleston, Ben, ‘Mill's Moral Standard’, A Companion to Mill, ed. Macleod, Christopher and Miller, Dale E. (Malden, 2014), pp. 358–73.

7 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907), p. 382.

8 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, revised edn., ed. Baldwin, Thomas (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 197 and 78. Moore seems not to have been an act utilitarian, as defined above, since he seems not to have held that well-being is the only good. See Hurka, Thomas, ‘Moore's Moral Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 edn.), ed. Edward N. Zalta, <>, esp. sect. 4: ‘The Ideal’. But he was nonetheless a writer in the utilitarian tradition, and he is often given the courtesy of inclusion via the term ‘ideal utilitarianism’. See Julia Driver, ‘The History of Utilitarianism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 edn.), ed. Edward N. Zalta, <>, esp. sect. 4: ‘Ideal Utilitarianism’.

9 Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 197.

10 See, for example, Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard, ‘Introduction’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen and Williams (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 121, at 3–4; and the excellent overview in Scarre, Geoffrey, Utilitarianism (London, 1996), pp. 424. For similar textbook passages, see Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 9th edn. (New York, 2019), p. 118; Shafer-Landau, Russ, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 4th edn. (New York, 2018), pp. 120–4; and Timmons, Mark, Moral Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Lanham, 2013), pp. 112–14.

11 Early visible examples of this trend include Sheffler, Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford, 1982); Railton, Peter, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984), pp. 134–71; and Pettit, Philip, ‘Consequentialism’, A Companion to Ethics, ed. Singer, Peter (Oxford, 1991), pp. 230–40.

12 Peter Railton reflects on the disparate notions of respect that he sees as underlying deontology and consequentialism and concludes ‘Which notion takes “respect for persons” more seriously? There may be no non-question-begging answer’ (Railton, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, p. 163 n. 32).

13 On the topic of additivity and other approaches, seminal works include Taurek, John M., ‘Should the Numbers Count?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), pp. 293316; and Parfit, Derek, ‘Innumerate Ethics’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 7 (1978), pp. 285301. Recent articles attending thoroughly to the pertinent literature include Saunders, Ben, ‘A Defence of Weighted Lotteries in Life Saving Cases’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (2009), pp. 279–90; and Cohen, Yishai, ‘Don't Count on Taurek: Vindicating the Case for the Numbers Counting’, Res Publica 20 (2014), pp. 245–61.

14 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Robson, J. M., 33 vols. (Toronto, 1963–91), vol. X, pp. 203–59, at 257.

15 Bentham, Jeremy, Rationale of Judicial Evidence, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Bowring, John, vols. VI–VII (Edinburgh, 1838–43), vol. VII, p. 334.

16 Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 218.

17 Harsanyi, John C., ‘Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility’, The Journal of Political Economy 63 (1955), pp. 309–21, at 315. Also see his ‘Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 39–62, at 44–8.

18 Hare, R. M., ‘The Structure of Ethics and Morals’, Essays in Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1989), pp. 175–90, at 187. Also see his Sorting out Ethics (Oxford, 1997), p. 145, where he echoes Bentham's dictum almost verbatim. Hare explores the affinities between his approach and Kant's in his ‘Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?’ (Sorting Out Ethics, ch. 8).

19 Binmore, Ken, ‘A Theory of Political Legitimacy’, Economics, Values, and Organization, ed. Ben-Ner, Avner and Putterman, Louis (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 101–32, at 112 and 113.

20 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3rd edn. (Cambridge, 2011), p. xii.

21 Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 10.

22 Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 14.

23 See, for example, Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna de and Singer, Peter, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics (Oxford, 2014).

24 Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 293.

25 Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 294.

26 See, for example, Sen and Williams, ‘Introduction’, p. 4; Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights, rev. edn. (Berkeley, 2004), pp. 205–6, 208–9, 248–50 and 302–3; Nussbaum, Martha C., Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA, 2011), p. 160; and Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 106.

27 Chappell, Richard Yetter, ‘Value Receptacles’, Noûs 49 (2015), pp. 322–32. All references to this article are to p. 328.

28 This is based on Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 123–4.

29 This is derived, very loosely, from Sen's story of ‘three children and the flute’ as presented in Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 12–15.

30 Pettit, ‘Consequentialism’, p. 238.

31 This seems to be assumed, for example, in Christopher Miles Coope's suggestion that since Mill was not a consequentialist, he was not a utilitarian. See his ‘Was Mill a Utilitarian?’, Utilitas 10 (1998), pp. 33–67, at 33.

32 The possibility of a non-consequentialist form of act utilitarianism might appear to have been anticipated by Jacobson, Daniel, ‘Utilitarianism without Consequentialism: The Case of John Stuart Mill’, The Philosophical Review 117 (2008), pp. 159–91. But the utilitarianism that Jacobson attributes to Mill is, he admits, ‘highly unorthodox’ (p. 160 and p. 191); it's a utilitarianism denying that ‘everyone's happiness counts in exactly the same way when it comes to evaluating acts as right and wrong’ (p. 168; see also p. 178). One might regard this denial as incompatible with utilitarianism, but Jacobson holds that because ‘utilitarianism was a movement in the history of ideas … that appellation must be understood broadly enough to include the views of’ Bentham and Mill’ (p. 164). Jacobson does not claim to show, as I do, that an orthodox form of utilitarianism is not necessarily consequentialist.

33 I would like to thank Dale Miller, two anonymous referees, and my colleagues at the University of Kansas for helpful comments on, and discussion of, an earlier version of this article.

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