December 9, 2021

Rebuilding the tarnished image of utilitarianism

Oxford’s Uehiro Centre wants to show its saintly side

How utilitarian are you? Leading bioethicists at Oxford University, including Julian Savulescu, have published a nine-question survey which allows you to identify whether “You’re not very utilitarian at all.” or whether “You might be Peter Singer”. )Click here to take the survey at the Practical Ethics blog.)

The team at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre developed the survey, which is called “the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale”, in part, to help restore the badly dinted image of utilitarian thinking amongst ordinary people (although the proportion of those who have opinions on utilitarianism tout court is likely to be very small).

The philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill has come in for a battering in recent years. It is associated with university assignment about “trolley problems” which involve killing people tied to railway tracks, with psychopaths and Macchiavellian thinking. The Oxford team admits in an article published in the journal Psychological Review that:

Utilitarianism tells us to impartially maximize the aggregate well-being of everyone—and that we must severely harm or even kill innocent people if doing so is needed to achieve this overarching moral ideal.

This seems rather harsh, not to say inhuman, to the protesters at some of Peter Singer’s public lectures. As Savulescu reports, John Paul II’s devastating put-down was: “Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

 However, in recent years, Singer has been promoting another face to utilitarianism: “impartial beneficence”, which leads to “effective altruism”.

In a blog post on Practical Ethics, Savulescu draws upon the traditional language of Christian morality to describe the positive altruistic core at the heart of his philosophy:

There are two other features of utilitarianism that are often neglected. First, it compels us to do as much good as we can in the world—a much more positively oriented aim—while treating each of us in exactly the same way. So when I ask, “What is the right thing for me to do?”, my own wellbeing counts no more (or less) than anyone else’s. So, if I could give a kidney and save someone else’s life without putting my own life at equal or greater risk, I should give a kidney. This is very demanding. And if I do it, admirable—maybe saintly.

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effective altruism
julian savulescu
utilitarianism