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Utilitarianism or Prioritarianism?

  • TORBJÖRN TÄNNSJÖ (a1)
Abstract

A simple hedonistic theory allowing for interpersonal comparisons of happiness is taken for granted in this article. The hedonistic theory is used to compare utilitarianism, urging us to maximize the sum total of happiness, with prioritarianism, urging us to maximize a sum total of weighed happiness. It is argued with reference to a few thought experiments that utilitarianism is, intuitively speaking, more plausible than prioritarianism. The problem with prioritarianism surfaces when prudence and morality come apart.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
References
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1 I have defended it in many places, for example in Tännsjö Torbjörn, Hedonistic Utilitarianism (Edinburgh, 1998).

2 See Sidgwick Henry, Methods of Ethics (New York, 1966), p. 127, and Smart J. J. C., ‘Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism: For and Against, ed. Smart J. J. C. and Williams Bernard (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 376, at 22, for views where happy states are conceived of as desirable states. In Sidgwick I think this is just a lapse, and indeed one we had better avoid in the present context.

3 McKerlie Dennis, ‘Dimensions of Equality’, Utilitas 13 (2001), pp. 263–88, at 263 (abstract).

4 Popper Karl, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato (London, 2002), pp. 284–5.

5 Smart R. N., ‘Negative Utilitarianism’, Mind, New Series, 67 (1958), pp. 542–3, at 542.

6 See Tännsjö Torbjörn, From Reasons to Norms (Dordrecht, 2010).

7 I thank an anonymous reviewer for having pressed this point.

8 Rabinowicz Wlodek, ‘Prioritarianism and Uncertainty: On the Interpersonal Addition Theorem and the Priority View’, Exploring Practical Philosophy: From Action to Values, ed. Egonsson Dan, Josefsson Jonas, Petersson Bjorn, Ronnow-Rasmussen Toni and Persson Ingmar (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 139–65.

9 I thank the higher seminar in practical philosophy at Stockholm University, and Frans Svensson in particular, for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article. It was also presented to a conference on hedonism in Oxford in March 2014, where I received further useful comments, in particular from Gustaf Arrhenius, Hilary Greaves and Roger Crisp. Finally, I am extremely grateful for comments from an anonymous reviewer for the journal; they were extraordinarily detailed, clear and constructive. This work was funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.

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