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Utilitarianism and Anti-Utilitarianism

Abstract: This paper presents the different utilitarian approaches to ethics. It stresses the influence of utilitarianism in economics in general and in welfare economics in particular. The key idea of the paper to explain the evolution from classical utilitarianism to preferences utilitarianism and towards post-welfarist approaches is the following. Utility is defined normatively and positively. This generates some serious tensions. Utilitarianism needs to evolve to go beyond this ethical tension. Another idea defended in this paper is that the solutions developed by utilitarianism to solve the ethical issue eventually reinforces operational problems. This raises a legitimacy issue as whether the intervention of utilitarian economists in public decision are likely to be normatively transparent.
Topics: Utilitarianism (63%), Welfarism (55%), Hedonism (52%), Preference (51%)

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Utilitarianism and anti-utilitarianism
Antoinette Baujard
November 8, 2013
This paper presents the different utilitarian approaches to ethics.
It stresses the influence of utilitarianism in economics in general and i n
welfare economics in particular. The key idea of the paper to explain
the evolution from classical utilitarianism to preferences utilitarian-
ism and towards pos t -welfarist app r oaches is the following. Utility is
defined normatively and positively. This generates some serious ten-
sions. Utilitarianism needs to evolve to go beyond this ethical tension.
Another idea defende d in this paper is that the solutions developed
by utilitarianism to solve the ethical issue eventual l y reinforces oper-
ational problems. This raises a legitimac y issue as whether the in-
tervention of ut il i t ar ian economists in public decision are likely to be
normatively transparent.
JEL Codes: A13,A33,B10,B2, D63
Key-words: Utilitarianism, Welfarism, Hedonism, Preference, Utility
While there is wide variation in utilit ari an approaches to ethics, they
are united by their endorsement of the following general principle: the
morally right action is judged through the goodness of its outcomes
To be published in Gil bert Faccarello and Heinz Kurz Eds. Handbook of the His-
tory of Economic Analysis, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham (U.K.), Vol.3:
Developments in major fields of economics
GATE L-SE, Universit´e de Lyon, Lyon, F-69007 France; CNRS, GATE Lyon Saint-
Etienne, Ecully, F-69130, Franc e; and Universit´e Jean Monnet, Saint-Etienne, F-42000,
France. Contact: antoinet t e .b au jar d @u n iv -s t -et i e nn e. f r, (33) +4 77 42 13 61.

for society, and, conversely, what is good for society is based on what
is good for individuals.
Utilitarianism, as a family of philosophical theories, has been the
most powerful and pervasive approach in the development of eco-
nomics since the marginalist revolution. Utilitarianism was developed
in the 18th century and then fully articulated in the 19th, designed
to do good to the world not from the point of view of the Christian
church or any religion, but rather from a secular point of view based
on rational thought. It was conceived as a way to think about the legal
system, and to improve it, on the basis of a single coherent rational
and acceptable principle, that of the utility princip l e. It hence may b e
used to think about the constitution, about civil and penal laws, and,
last but not least, any kind of policy judgment whether economic or
social. Economics has endorsed some import ant aspects of utilitari-
anism ever since the 18th century. In particular, welfare economics,
and hence virtually every public policy recommendation for mulated
by economists, has for years been influenced by utilitarianism in some
manner, albeit not always explicitly recognized. The efforts to get
away from utilitarianism may even explain aspects of the evolution of
welfare economics (See Bau j ard 2012).
Utilitarianism is not only a moral and political philosophy, how-
ever; it is also a philosophy of action. As an ethical theory, it sets
down what individuals should do to improve their own situation , and
what should be done by every individual and by the collectivity to im-
prove collective welfare. As a theory of action, utilitarianism claims
that individuals seek to promote their own utility, such that utility ap-
pears as both an explanation of and a guide for human action. Noti ce
that utilitarianism is sometimes claimed to be rooted in a consider-
ation of strictly sel sh actions, with no at t e ntion paid to the utility
of others: but this is merely an exaggerated cari cat u r e of the th eor y.
Being motivated by one’s own pleasure does not require that this plea-
sure be exclusively se lf -or i ented. There certainly exist extra-regarding
pleasures, fu n ct i oni n g as t r ul y mot i vati n g fact or s, such that seeking
one’s own self-interest does not imply that one disregard the fate of
others. The ideational evolution in the utilitarian philosophy of ac-
tion is exactly parallel to that in utilitarian moral philosophy. In the
classical versions of utilitarianism, pleasure guides human actions, as
a psychological hedonistic law would suggest. The theory has then
move d away from hedonism to consider that the psychological law at
stake is the se ar ch for the satisf act i on of preferences, no matter what

these preferences are made of , and no matter what their substantive
cause. We have resolved not to discuss other aspects of the utilitar-
ianist philosophy of action in this paper, in so far as this is closely
connected to standard ration al choice t h eor y as u sed in ec onom ics:
we refer the interested reader to decision theory and the associated
heterodox literature.
As a way of setting out the diversity of utilitari an approaches,
this chapter has chosen the fol lowing as a key idea. Utility has a
plural nature: it i s both positive and normative, and it is normat i ve
not only for every individual, but normative al so for the collectivity.
This plurality generates tensions. The effort to reconcile these tensions
explains the diversity of utilitarian doctri ne s as well as the ir evolution,
both within classical utilitarian theorie s an d cont emporary theories,
and even the development from hedonist utilitarianism to preference
Classical utilitarianism mostly retained a hedonistic interpretation
of u t il i ty. It is a doctrine that, in its standard 19th century f or mula-
tion, meant the promotion of the greatest happi ne ss for the greatest
number (Section 1). Contemporary utilitarian is m can be defined as
the comb i nat i on of act consequentialism, welfarism, and a principle
of sum-ranking (Sen 1979c). Consequentialism imp l i es t h at an act ion
is moral if and only if the social outcome of the resulting state of
the world is good. Welfarism is the principle th at the goodness of an
outcome dep en ds solely on individual utilities and on no other infor-
mation. Sum-ranking says that the appropriate method of aggregation
is to add individual utilities. Contemporary approaches in utilitari-
anism develop r efi ne ments of preference s utili t ar ian i sm (Sect ion 2).
There are also a wide range of anti-utilitarian theories, which do not
in general que s ti on the premiss that more goodness is better than less,
but rather question the ethical implications of monism—the exclusive
focus on utility as opposed to other values—, the priority of goodness
over fairness, or the democratic failures of utilitarianism. In the eco-
nomics literature, the alternative to utilitarianism is often su pposed
to be represented by the Rawlsian theory, as generally encapsulated
in the famous Bentham–Rawls opposit ion . Rawls has indeed been im-
portant in making it acceptable to call into question the assertion of
an all-powerful and uncontested utilitarianism. There now exists a
diversity of critiques and alternatives to utilitarianism (S ect i on 3).

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