Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Bernard Williams, John Rawls, and Philippa Foot did a lot over the last half of the twentieth century to make utilitarianism a shady philosophical neighborhood to hang out in, but they’re all dead now. Peter Singer has a review in the TLS (not available online) of Derek Parfit’s new and long-anticipated book (in two volumes and 1400+ pages), On What Matters, which Singer writes is “the most significant work in ethics since Sidgwick’s masterpiece [The Methods of Ethics] was published in 1873.” (Really? More important than On the Genealogy of Morals or A Theory of Justice?) Parfit, so far as I can tell, holds an idiosyncratic version of utilitarianism that is a convergence of modern moral theories ("climbing the same mountain on different sides"). I’ve also been having an exchange over at the Catholic Moral Theology blog with Charlie Camosy about the conference at Oxford on Singer and Christian ethics that Rob Vischer posted about earlier. Suffice to say I think Charlie and I have a disagreement about whether and to what extent there are deep and ineliminable contradictions between consequentialist moral theories (including utilitarianism) and Christian ethics, but to quote Foot: “no decision is more important for practical ethics than that by which we come to embrace or reject utilitarianism.”


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Whether there are deep conflicts between consequentialism and Christian ethics is something I'd gladly leave to others to decide, but it is worth noting that there didn't seem to be a deep conflict to many people for a long time. The book that, I think, was most responsible for making Utilitarianism something like the national moral philosophy of England, for example, wasn't by Mill or Bentham or Sidgwick, but was William Paley's _The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy_, which was used as a text at Oxford and Cambridge for many years, including in the training of future Anglican priests, and was a prime example of theological utilitarianism. (This is the same Paley best known today for his version of the design argument attacked by Richard Dawkins.) John Austin, the legal philosopher and contemporary of Bentham and Mill (not to be confused w/ J.L. Austin, the ordinary language philosopher) also developed and defended a version of theological utilitarianism in _The Providence of Jurisprudence Determined_. It seems perfectly possible to me that Paley and Austin were wrong as to the compatibility of Christianity and utilitarianism, but an explicitly "compatibilist" view was quite common for a long time.

Posted by: Matt | May 28, 2011 10:12:17 PM

I happen to think that a Christian holding public office in a democratic polity will have to engage in utilitarian or consequentialist reasoning as a guide to public policy making, which does not necessarily entail abandoning any principles or values deemed essential to most renderings of "Christian ethics." And thus this can be done by way of avoiding both Machiavellian "dirty hands and the rationalizations of Realpolitik. As Robert Goodin reminds us,

"Public policy-making takes place under some very special circumstances and and operates through some very special instruments. These special conditions pose special opportunities and special hazards. They also impose special constraints, not only on the form of utilitarianism that public policy-makers can adopt but also on what alternatives to that utilitarianism they can reasonably be expected to contemplate."

Goodin points out that in this case utilitarianism "looks distinctly credible, in a way it might not for private individuals in guiding their personal conduct."

It strikes me as a kind of hubris to think that a Christian ethic might not learn something from utilitarianism, and do so in a way that doesn't envisage this simply as a choice between overarching and competing ethical theories or ways of life:

"When promulgating policies, public officials must respond to typical conditions and common circumstances. Policies by their nature, cannot be case-by-case affairs. In choosing general rules to govern a wide range of circumstances, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the greatest happiness can be be realized by systematically violating people's rights, liberties or integrity--or even, come to that, by systematically contravening the Ten Commandments. The rules that maximize utility over the long haul and over the broad range of applications are also rules that broadly conform to the deontologist's demands."

Well, read the book for the full argument: Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (1995).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 28, 2011 11:24:31 PM

Thanks for the post, Mike.

Every generation we're told somebody has finally made good on a modern moral theory and every time the same problems reassert themselves. Singer's reference to Sidgwick is a telling one in many ways. How has utilitarianism advanced beyond Sidgwick's conclusions? Sidgwick candidly laid out the unresolved problems in any utilitarian theory and those difficulties, so far as I can tell, remain. Some of those same problems were explained in Parfit's own work, "Reasons and Persons," which is something like a work of bizarre genius.

As for utilitarianism and religion: for whatever reason, Sidgwick saw no tension between his utilitarianism and some of the wackier versions of Victorian spirituality. Maybe that's interesting, maybe it's not.

Posted by: Matthew | May 29, 2011 12:43:14 PM