Utilitarianism and the Personal Perspective
New pages on the Alienation and Special Obligations objections
The Alienation Objection
Utilitarianism threatens to alienate us from our personal concerns, insofar as it directs us to adopt the “point of view of the universe”—a perspective from which our personal concerns carry no special weight or significance. Imagine a hospital visitor coldly telling their friend, “I’m not visiting out of personal concern. I simply calculated that I could do more good here trying to cheer you up, since the soup kitchen is already fully staffed today.” Far from being morally exemplary, this sounds like the reasoning of someone whose moral attitudes have become detached from all that matters. They chase after value, but always at a distance.
We consider two ways utilitarians might respond to this alienation objection. The sophisticated utilitarian strategy recommends adopting motivations other than explicitly utilitarian ones. (Utilitarianism does not advise adopting the point of view of the universe if doing so would have bad effects!) But that route threatens Stockerian ‘moral schizophrenia’. The subsumption strategy instead argues that direct concern for particular goods or individuals can be subsumed within straightforwardly utilitarian motivations:
The key idea here is that overall well-being only matters because each particular individual matters. So while utilitarians may speak, in abbreviated fashion, of wanting to promote overall well-being, this is just a way of summarizing a vast array of specific desires for the well-being of each particular individual. And while we have most reason to do what will best promote overall well-being, the particular reasons we have for so acting will instead stem from the particular individuals whose interests are thereby protected or advanced.
We may thus secure the desired result that the correct moral reason to visit your friend in the hospital is that doing so would cheer him up. If some alternative action would better promote overall well-being, then that means that you would have stronger moral reasons to help those other individuals instead. But in either case, you may be properly motivated by direct concern for the affected individuals, rather than being driven by anything so abstract as the “general good”.
We conclude that by suitably combining the two strategies—insisting upon the subsumption of genuine intrinsic goods, together with a sophisticated approach to merely instrumental goods—utilitarians may be able to offer a full response to the alienation objection.
The Special Obligations Objection
Some object that utilitarianism is too starkly impartial. Our response to this objection begins by exploring the ways in which utilitarianism allows room for partiality in practice. For example:
Robert Goodin suggests a utilitarian-friendly conception of special obligations as distributed general duties. That is, the moral goal of providing care to children (generally) may be best pursued through the delegation of special obligations to individual parents and guardians, rather than by having everyone attempt to meddle in everyone else’s upbringing. While this model seems to make good sense of special obligations, it strikingly does not justify wanton disregard for others. If it becomes clear that some children (for instance, orphans or refugees) are not being provided for, or that others are being abused by their parents or guardians, the full weight of their moral status—as no less important, in principle, than our own children—compels us to seek a remedy for their situation. And that is, arguably, just as it should be.
We go on to discuss “blameless wrongdoing”, Parfit’s Parent’s Dilemma, and the difficulty of specifying a non-arbitrary degree of permissible partiality.
Overall, I think it’s a lot easier to make sense of partiality as a feature of our surface-level moral code, rather than as anything built into the fundamental moral goals. And utilitarianism seems to capture this perspective nicely.