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Welfarism and Utilitarianism: A Rehabilitation*

  • Yew-Kwang Ng (a1)

Utilitarianism seems to be going out of fashion, amidst increasing concerns for issues of freedom, equality, and justice. At least, anti-utilitarian and non-utilitarian moral philosophers have been very active. This paper is a very modest attempt to defend utilitarianism in particular and welfarism (i.e., general utilitarianism or utilitarianism without the sum-ranking aspect) in general. Section I provides an axiomatic defence of welfarism and utilitarianism. Section II discusses the divergences between individual preferences and individual welfares and argues in favour of welfare utilitarianism. Section III criticizes some non-utilitarian principles, including knowledge as intrinsically good, rights-based ethics, and Rawls's second principle. Section IV argues that most objections to welfarism are probably based on the confusion of non-ultimate considerations with basic values. This is discussed with reference to some recent philosophical writings which abound with such confusion. Section V argues that the acceptance of utilitarianism may be facilitated by the distinction between ideal morality and self-interest which also resolves the dilemma of average versus total utility maximization in optimal population theory.

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Y. K. Ng , ‘Some Broader Issues in Social Welfare’, in P. K. Pattanaik and M. Salles eds., Social Choice and Welfare, Amsterdam, 1983.

M. Allais and O. Hagen , The Expected Utility Hypothesis and the Allais Paradox, Dordrecht, 1979

J. Harsanyi , Essays on Ethics, Social Behaviour and Scientific Explanation, Dordrecht, 1976

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