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The Self-other Asymmetry and Act-utilitarianism

  • Clay Splawn (a1)

The self-other asymmetry is a prominent and important feature of common-sense morality. It is also a feature that does not find a home in standard versions of act-utilitarianism. Theodore Sider has attempted to make a place for it by constructing a novel version of utilitarianism that incorporates the asymmetry into its framework. So far as I know, it is the best attempt to bring the two together. I argue, however, that Sider's ingenious attempt fails. I also offer a diagnosis that explains why no theory that remains recognizably act-utilitarian can successfully incorporate the asymmetry.

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1 Assume that there are no other consequences (pleasant or painful) except the ones mentioned.

2 Though this argument is targeted against a simple version of hedonic act-utilitarianism, it should be clear that an exactly analogous argument would work against versions of act-utilitarianism with different axiological foundations. The hedonism made explicit here makes things easier to describe, but is irrelevant to the main point of criticism.

3 Sider Theodore, ‘Asymmetry and Self-Sacrifice’, Philosophical Studies, lxx (1993).

4 The philosopher responsible for bringing the feature to light is Michael Slote. Slote, though, thinks that the self-other asymmetry is really a problem for common-sense morality, and not necessarily for act-utilitarianism. See his Morality and Self-Other Asymmetry’, Journal of Philosophy, lxxvi (1984).

5 Sider, 121.

6 Sider, 117.

7 Sider, 126–8.

8 Sider, 128.

9 It might help some to see this more formally, where ‘>s’ is short for ‘ranks higher in the S-ranking than’: a1 >s a2 =df (i) HU(a2) and (ii) HUMinusS(a1)<HUMinusS(a2).

10 ‘Hedons’ denotes units of pleasure, and ‘dolors’ denotes units of pain.

11 The notion of ‘making an alternative wrong’ is one that I shall return to later.

12 We could fix things by developing some sort of ‘second-order’ ranking that puts all the alternatives that are outranked at least once in the lowest category, and all the alter-natives that are not outranked in the highest. In that way, we would have those that are morally permissible at the top (or, if there is only one alternative at the top, morally obligatory).

13 Sider, 130.

14 Like his discussion of the moral axioms that SOU upholds on pp. 130 f.

15 Sider himself seems to make a closely related claim: ‘SOU's stand on the self-other asymmetry: one is permitted to forgo one's own pleasure’ (131).

16 In correspondence.

17 I have made a few modifications to fit the specific case presented here.

18 I say ‘Virtually’ because, for example, certain versions of satisflcing utilitarianism do not uphold the principle either. I suppose that it is controversial whether those theories really deserve the utilitarian name in the first place.

19 I am grateful to Fred Feldman, Ted Sider and Brad Hooker for helpful comments and criticism. I am especially indebted to Jean-Paul Vessel for ideas and long conversations. Thanks also to Robert Noggle(chair) and Elizabeth Ashford (commentator) for serving on a panel at the Utilitarianism 2000 conference where the paper was discussed.

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