The best online introduction to utilitarian moral theory
Over the past year, I’ve been working a lot on expanding utilitarianism.net—an open-access website that offers:
A textbook introduction to utilitarianism that is clear and accessible, yet philosophically sophisticated—perfect for use in undergraduate teaching.
Guest essays from leading experts on more specific topics related to utilitarianism.
Supplemental resources, including a study guide to Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’.
And more to come…
I obviously think utilitarianism.net is great. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Prominent ethicists, from Anthony Appiah to Peter Singer, have generously endorsed the website. I’ll just quote Philip Pettit’s blurb here, as an especially concise example:
“This is the perfect introduction to utilitarianism: comprehensive, critical and accessible as a basis for classroom discussion or public debate.”
— Prof. Philip Pettit (Princeton / ANU)
Our core chapters cover:
The first couple of chapters should prove useful as background reading to give students the basic idea of what utilitarianism is about, and the different forms it can take. If you’ve ever wanted a concise explanation of the myriad varieties of utilitarianism, our second chapter has you covered.
Chapter 3 aims to bring out the appeal of utilitarianism, which often gets short shrift in other sources. Sometimes people present the view as motivated primarily by simplicity. We strive to present a more substantive case for utilitarian principles, while also highlighting key challenges for rival views.
The middle chapters (4 & 5) go into greater depth on issues that are often overlooked, despite being important for non-utilitarians too. I’m especially excited about the population ethics chapter: it’s a notoriously thorny topic, but we’ve tried to make it as accessible as possible while accurately portraying the lay of the land, and even introducing some cutting-edge innovations from the recent literature. (See our discussion of ‘value blur’ for critical range theories, and how this might be adapted by person-affecting views to escape some classic objections.)
The practical ethics chapter emphasizes utilitarianism’s focus on expanding the moral circle across geography, species, and even time; yielding cosmopolitanism, anti-speciesism, and longtermism, respectively. We also stress the utilitarian basis for respecting commonsense moral norms. Sometimes other sources present utilitarianism as though it were all about pushing people in front of trolleys, but that doesn’t give an accurate sense of the real-life implications of utilitarianism (or what utilitarian reformers are actually concerned about). We think this chapter does a better job in that respect.
Chapter 7 is quite distinctive. It maintains this practical focus, and asks what aspects of utilitarian theory could be relaxed whilst maintaining its most important practical implications. (The answer turns out to be: quite a lot! The most crucial thing is arguably just aggregation: recognizing that the numbers count, so that helping more matters more.)
Finally, our mammoth objections chapter contains seven sub-chapters (with more to come in future), any of which could be easily pulled into existing syllabi. Whether your class is discussing rights violations, demandingness, or special obligations, consider assigning our corresponding page to show your students the kinds of responses that are available to sophisticated defenders of the view. (I’m especially partial to our page on the alienation objection, which combines distinct elements from the existing literature in an original—and, I think, especially compelling—way.)
So far, we’ve published three fantastic guest essays:
Utilitarianism and Nonhuman Animals by Jeff Sebo
Virtues for Real-World Utilitarians by Stefan Schubert & Lucius Caviola
Buddhism and Utilitarianism by Calvin Baker
I think these are ideal introductions to their respective topics, and more are in the works! Keep an eye out for John Broome on climate change, Jeff McMahan on the harm of death, and many more…
Other supplemental materials
We offer an in-depth study guide to Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ that should prove useful for the ~gazillion classes that assign this text. More study guides are planned for the coming year (feel free to post a comment with any requests!).
Our utilitarian thinkers page introduces important historical utilitarians (and utilitarian-adjacent thinkers). I especially recommend checking out Patrick Connolly’s wonderful introduction to Susanna Newcome—a neglected pre-Bentham utilitarian who held that “A good being… is, one who wills and promotes the happiness of all mankind, as much as is in his power,” and also advocated for animal welfare.
Finally, our page on Acting on Utilitarianism introduces the Effective Altruism movement (which should appeal to utilitarians, and many others besides), and explores how anyone especially keen to apply utilitarianism in practice might go about doing so—including through charitable giving, career choice, and outreach / movement building. While this might fit in a class on practical ethics or contemporary moral problems, we mostly anticipate this page being read in a more self-directed manner, by any who are especially keen to learn more about current explicit efforts to improve the world (in an impartial, cause-neutral way).
We’re continuing to expand our content, especially guest essays, study guides, and objections. I’m currently working through some helpful suggestions for polishing our existing content. And we’re also starting to think about whether different kinds of content (e.g. video mini-lessons on basic concepts, or podcast interviews on cutting-edge research, etc.) could add significant value. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how we could further improve the site, please feel free to comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, if you agree that this is a valuable resource, please share widely!