Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice

Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice

Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice

Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice

Synopsis

This compelling book advances utilitarianism as the basis for a viable public philosophy, effectively rebutting the common charge that, as moral doctrine, utilitarian thought permits cruel acts, justifies unfair distribution of wealth, and demands too much of moral agents. James Wood Bailey defends utilitarianism through novel use of game theory insights regarding feasible equilibria and evolutionary stability, elaborating a sophisticated account of institutions that real-world utilitarians would want to foster. If utilitarianism seems in principle to dictate that we make each and every choice such that it leads to the best consequences overall, game theory emphasizes that no choice has consequences in isolation, but only in conjunction with many other choices of other agents. Viewing institutions as equilibria in complex games, Bailey negotiates the paradox of individual responsibilities, arguing that if individuals within institutions have specific responsibilities they cannot get from the principle of utility alone, the utility principle nevertheless holds great value in that it allows us to identify morally desirable institutions. Far from recommending cruel acts, utilitarianism, understood this way, actually runs congruent to our basic moral intuitions. A provocative attempt to support the practical use of utilitarian ethics in a world of conflicting interests and competing moral agents, Bailey's book employs the work of social scientists to tackle problems traditionally given abstract philosophical attention. Vividly illustrating its theory with concrete moral dilemmas and taking seriously our moral common sense, Utilitarianism, Institutions, and Justice is an accessible, groundbreaking work that will richly reward students and scholars of political science, political economy, and philosophy.

Excerpt

I did not know it at the time, but I was well on my way to becoming a utilitarian when, as a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student, I first heard an intemperate debate between a group of free-speech advocates and a group of feminists over the legal regulation of pornography. What was remarkable about this debate was not just the wide gulf between factual premises that separated the two groups but also the relative insensitivity each expressed toward the moral concerns of the other. The free-speech advocates were willing to concede, at least arguendo, that pornography might have negative consequences for the behavior of at least some people but that a supposed right of free expression required us to live with these consequences. The feminists were willing to concede, in considering questions of public policy, that any strong program for regulating pornography would be expensive and intrusive, but they were unwilling to concede that these costs ought to be a barrier to such a legal regime. Surely, I thought, all costs should matter. The end of moral rights should be to secure a decent existence for human beings, not to allow some to run roughshod over others.

If I had to summarize the doctrine of utilitarianism in one sentence, it would be as follows: the imposition of a cost can only be justified by the avoidance of a greater cost, and all costs matter equally. It does not matter whether the cost is immediately observable or it exists only in the form of an opportunity foregone. And what is more, it does not matter on whom the cost may fall. Man or woman, rich or poor, fellow countryman or foreigner, quick or yet unborn, the burdens of life on each count the same. Utilitarianism tells us to do the best we can, with utter impartiality. As such, it is a powerful engine both for justifying and for criticizing the way we live. Small wonder that it should hold such an attraction for a young political theorist.

But striving for the best leads to both a problem and a paradox. The problem has two branches. A system of ethics that tells us to achieve the best at once permits too much and demands too much. Achieving the best overall outcome can mean imposing very large costs on some people, and this is something many of us find intuitively . . .

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