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Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 15, No.

3, 1998

Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'?


abstract Act-utilitarianism is often criticised as an unreasonably demanding moral philosophy that commits agents to a life of ceaseless and depersonalizing do-gooding. In this essay I argue in Sidgwickian vein that the strenuousness of act-utilitarianism has been greatly exaggerated, and that the practical demands of the doctrine in the contemporary world are closer to those of commonsense morality than such critics as Derek Parfit and Brad Hooker allow.

I Act-utilitarianism (henceforth `AU') holds that an action is right if and only if it can reasonably be expected to produce at least as much utility as any alternative feasible action. Such a doctrine, as many writers have noted, seems to commit moral agents to a life of unremitting do-gooding in which all their private projects, commitments and relationships are subordinated to the goal of maximizing the public good. Responses to the apparent strenuousness of AU morality vary. A few philosophers think that AU is right to be so demanding. They point out that it is of the essence of morality to require us to take an impartial view of our own and other people's good and not to seek our own advantage simply because it is our own. Once this impartiality requirement is combined with the prima facie plausible principle that we should always promote the good as fully as possible, then AU is the consequence. These authors conclude that the problem is not with AU for demanding too much from agents but with other moral theories for demanding too little [1]. But many philosophers have seen things differently. For instance, Mackie holds that even if AU is construed as `supplying not the motive but only a test of right actions' (so that the AU agent is not required constantly to keep in mind the maximizing goal), it remains unreasonable to judge the morality of individuals' actions by their propensity to maximize the general good [2]. Some simply deny that our moral obligations are as extensive as AU would have us believe. Thus Narveson suggests that I am not duty-bound to save a starving man from starvation unless his plight is the result of my previous activities; if it is not, then I may choose to help him if I wish, but no blame attaches to me if I refuse [3]. AU is also said to fail to take seriously the psychology of real people. No one, it is claimed, can care about the interests of total strangers as keenly as he does about his own and those of his nearest and dearest, for actual lives are driven by a variety of private and personal concerns that make them worth living from their subjects' point of view. So no real agent is likely to act in a way that fully satisfies the AU criterion and AU is an impractical philosophy for agents whose actions `will not only not be motivated by a desire for the general happiness but also will commonly fail the proposed test of being
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I shall argue. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to our basic moral values and less to our selfish desires we would find the needs of the suffering more motivating than we normally # Society for Applied Philosophy. there are psychological limits to the extent to which real human beings can assume the role of utility maximizers. comparatively well off. or at least no more. not very. self-disregarding moral fanatics with a hyperbolical sense of duty. Similar utility calculations can be made concerning an agent's disposal of his time and labour. projects. But it is not psychologically impossible for most of us. so onerous as to be an unliveable. I shall contend. If we spent less on luxuries for ourselves and our families and donated the money instead to organizations like Oxfam and UNICEF.260 G. aren't we duty-bound to send what we can after satisfying our own essential needs? Thomas Carson suggests that American professionals could afford to give half their income to charitable causes and still remain. Take a single statistic. AU is a fairly demanding philosophy. but not. or fit only for aliens or archangels. Oughtn't they to feel guilty about their meanness? Peter Singer has famously argued that the affluent should transfer wealth to the poor until they have reduced themselves to the level of marginal utility [7]. In the world as it is (and is likely to remain). cited in Peter Unger's recent clarion-call to charitable action Living High and Letting Die: in each of the last thirty years over 10 million children in the developing world have died of readily preventable diseases [5]. One might certainly suppose it to be an AU principle that (in Brandt's words) `a given individual should give of his own income so much that if he gives more. Shouldn't AU agents do their best to prevent these preventable deaths? If our money would help save the lives and alleviate the hardships of children and adults in poor countries. yet very few give of their plenitude more than a few percent [6].' AU is nothing better than the `ethics of fantasy' [4]. to give a kinder reception to AU. and agents who measure up to it need not be characterless. Many people in the world are worse off than those of us who live in the affluent West. if we try. Middle-class citizens of countries like the USA and Britain have a far higher material standard of living than most people in the Third World. commitments and relationships. Scarre such as to maximize the general happiness. if this means divesting themselves wholly or largely of their special interests.' AU requires me to give up my evenings to these kindly activities' [9]. Of course. 1998 . soul-destroying morality for human beings. energy and resources and to broaden the scope of our practical concern. than the benefit to him of not giving more' [8]. Thus Shelly Kagan asserts that since `the pleasure [I] could bring in an evening visiting the elderly or the sick quite outweighs the mild entertainment I find in the movies.' As no one claims that common-sense morality is fantastical. II Much of the debate about the demandingness of AU has focused on the question of charitable action. How just is this indictment? In my opinion. Indeed. living by the AU standard requires less moral athleticism than conventional wisdom supposes. the benefit to the (optimal) recipient will be less. to become more generous than we are with our time. utility would seem to be much more effectively promoted. not only is AU not the `ethics of fantasy' but in practice its demands are not so far removed from those made of us by that pre-theoretical form of morality that philosophers engagingly ascribe to `common sense. by world standards. it is therefore time.

and from developing and pursuing their own cultural and recreational tastes. Mill and Sidgwick suggested that effective optimization. In his view the `specialized affections' we have for our family and friends are the source of much more happiness. the most effective benevolence is that which is stimulated by close personal relationships. in fact. if fully-fledged sainthood is impossible. The more an agent abstains from any other than universal concerns. AU's critics assert that AU implies that each time we act in a less than optimific way we are not merely falling short of a saintly ideal but committing a positive fault. Even if we cannot be moral saints. He is the husband who fails to buy flowers for his wife's birthday. he tends to do less at home than more `self-centred' people. procured by the self-sacrifice of each. if the negation is really felt to be a sacrifice. Yet when this happens his pleasure will be seriously tempered by uneasiness of conscience. Sidgwick also feared that over-lavish charity would encourage idleness and improvidence among the beneficiaries (he shared the orthodox Victorian view that people should be made to stand on their own two feet). Sidgwick claimed that no one would be motivated to enhance another's utility if he were not allowed to enhance his own. is the sticking-point. actually requires it. In # Society for Applied Philosophy. moderate our tastes for expensive luxury items and send the money saved to charity instead. so if AU issues a self-denying ordinance. Whatever good he may do abroad. it simply obstructs its own objective. then it fails to observe the principle that ` ``ought'' implies ``can'' '. to live our own lives. we can at least be more philanthropical than most of us are. the father who refuses a toy to his own child while children in Africa are hungry. he will condemn himself for following interests that are pettily personal. the less fulfilling his life will be for him. for many people. the cause of utility. If AU requires moral sainthood. To his family. Mill proposed that `the notion of a happiness for all. 1998 . the selfless optimizer appears as cold. It is scarcely the ethics of fantasy to hold that we could. Since our capacities for doing good are finite. Saints lack the satisfactions which ordinary people derive from their intimate relationships. remote. This idea is grounded on a realistic appraisal of the psychological facts. they are also unlikely to spread much sweetness and light to people around them. While utilitarianism sometimes requires a degree of self-sacrifice in the service of others. to ourselves and to them. is a contradiction' [11]. and this. But is it really true that to obey AU's maximizing injunction we would have to strip ourselves of our personal concerns (or put them more or less permanently on ice) and dedicate ourselves heart and soul to helping the neediest people we can find? There is a powerful tradition of utilitarian writing that holds otherwise. However. from creating themselves as distinctive individuals. Likewise.Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'? 261 do [10]. by disappointing conventional expectations he may even do harm. far from forbidding the pursuit of private projects and commitments. moreover. friends. than could ever flow from the mere `watery kindness' we feel for the rest of the world. Slaves of duty are not only doubtfully happy themselves. colleagues and acquaintances. unloving. The saint's only real pleasure in life comes from his sense of doing his duty. rather than promote. and therefore should. we lose a major opportunity to enhance the world's utility. He thought that by forgetting. Sidgwick reminds us that `even Common Sense morality seems to bid me ``love my neighbour as myself'' ' and put myself out for him. Admittedly. or neglecting. The abandonment of the private spaces in which individuals naturally live and move and have their being promises to hinder. cheerless and (paradoxically) narrow-minded. we have a more accurate idea of the needs of the people we love than of those of perfect strangers [12]. the aspirant saint will sometimes succumb to the lure of more private and individual concerns.

just as much as AU. so that they may have a decent chance for decent lives' [16]. if we genuinely valued human lives. III We might be inclined to agree with Mill that if everyone lost. If this is right. their selfconcern and their special affections for their families and friends.262 G. Sidgwick maintains that it is wrong to see utilitarianism as much more demanding than common-sense morality. In Unger's view. utilitarianism. The upshot of Sidgwick's two claims is that both AU and common-sense morality enjoin us to promote happiness and relieve misery beyond the limits of our own private spheres. we know quite enough about their needs if we know that they are starving or sick. but not to the extent that we relinquish those spheres. Within this sphere he will work vigorously and efficiently for his own happiness and for that of people who are dear to him. we pretend that our ordinary morality is a quite undemanding affair which permits us to live in a largely selfish way. But if we took our own values seriously. (Nor is it much of a problem. we would be far more active in alleviating human suffering. The maximization of utility is not impeded but facilitated by our seeking. or put aside. Charity may not end at home. That is a good reason for utilitarians to approve and # Society for Applied Philosophy.' turns out to be no more demanding than the morality of `Common Sense' [13]. but on a Sidgwickian perspective there are sound maximizing reasons for letting it begin there. first and foremost. he stresses how essential it is to an individual's happiness that he construct for himself a private sphere of projects and relationships that give shape and meaning to his life. While Sidgwick would have found Unger's account of our moral obligations overstated. Unger has recently argued that the basic values that we all profess (whether utilitarians or not) properly require us to do `a lot for other innocent folks in need. then. Scarre practice. we would recognize this for the evasion it really is. as we claim to. prescribes what Kant termed a `practical love' of my neighbour [15]. Secondly. Sidgwick believes that someone whose interests are all (so to speak) centrifugal loses his best opportunity to contribute to the happiness of the world. that we do not know them as individuals and are ignorant of their detailed conceptions of the good. our own good and that of our loved ones [14]. Even if AU does not demand sainthood. First. AU still enjoins us to help them when that is the most optimific thing we can do. Sidgwick makes two important and plausible points. he would have approved its implication that `common-sense morality' is no less exigent than AU. then it will condemn me for allowing my neighbour to starve when I could save him. Sidgwick's rather complacent view of the limits of our moral obligations from a utilitarian perspective is admittedly open to question. it may reasonably be thought to demand more than a little self-sacrifice on behalf of people outside our immediate social circle. Common-sense morality. then AU should not only tolerate but should positively encourage us to develop such private spheres. the net quantity of utility in the world would decline. If the latter bids me to `love my neighbour as myself' (as Sidgwick thinks it `seems' to).) But despite his slightly grudging attitude to charity. In a similar vein to Sidgwick's. 1998 . though it enjoins the agent to `consider all other happiness as equally important as his own. as Sidgwick seems to think. Like Mill. Whether our kindness to suffering people in the Third World is `watery' or not.

Hooker. But since there is little likelihood that the majority of people are going to change their patterns of concern. and cause my other strong desires to become comparatively weaker. 1998 . Although Hooker claims to borrow from Parfit's `matchless discussion' of these issues [22]. in fact. I think we should dispute the Parfit/Hooker view of the implications of this fact. . family. I could then do more to relieve `the enormous suffering in the world' and `devote more of my time and energy to helping the most needy' [19]. . inequality and other things which make outcomes bad. it is not clear why he thinks that AU requires from me the `elimination of . If I lost my strong affections. say) became. Even if most people are not impartial do-gooders of the kind that Parfit and Hooker envisage. so that I can be a pure do-gooder [17]. it could be improved right now if I became one. I can create more happiness by being a pure dogooder [23]. It may therefore make the outcome better if I avoid close personal ties. AU will be a personally expensive morality for those who take it seriously [20]. purely impartial do-gooders. # Society for Applied Philosophy. and so long as the burden of need remains great and few other agents are prepared to share it. Therefore.Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'? 263 promote such concern and affections. if some people (ourselves. Why should I become a more effective optimizing agent by assuming the impartial standpoint. on AU thinking. for his part. as Hooker seems to suggest. is that people normally do more to make both themselves and others happy when they are inspired by affection rather than by the mere `watery kindness' of impartial benevolence. the question arises whether it would not be a good thing.' it would be better for me not to be one but to act according to my special concerns instead Ð presumably because my pure do-gooding would be superfluous in a world of pure dogooders. In Parfit's view: Much of this suffering I could fairly easily prevent. As things are now. Derek Parfit and Brad Hooker think that the answer to this question is yes.' This is true but irrelevant. and friends' [21]. the world contains much suffering. But if the reason why it would be a loss. eliminating all favouritism in their dealings with others. concedes that it would be regrettable if everyone in the world lost their strong affections. my special concern for myself. Both writers admit the utility-value of personal relationships and Hooker in particular emphasizes how considerable the loss would be if `strong affections' disappeared from the world. where I would create more happiness by pursuing more individual concerns. if people in general do not? Hooker notes that I could lose my special concerns without jeopardizing those of the `vast majority. not concern themselves with non-existent hypothetical situations. or sought to become. But is this last claim really true? Several points militate against it. But he suggests that `only I and the comparatively tiny circle of people with whom I am connected would lose if my strong affections were eliminated' [18]. Even if the world would not be improved by everyone becoming a selfless do-gooder. I should strive to become a do-gooder of this sort. according to AU. and I could in many other ways do much to make the outcome better. it does not follow that AU demands from me radical self-abnegation. Parfit says that if everyone else were a `pure do-gooder. While it is true that AU tells us to act so as to optimize outcomes given what other agents are doing. AU agents must take the world as they find it. of this kind. If I lost my special concerns I would lose exactly the same potential for optimizing action which is apparently what Hooker thinks justifies the possession by the majority of such concerns. As the world is not. Parfit's main point actually seems to be a different one.

if you believe that your children will benefit from the sacrifices you make. like beliefs. It would be the psychology of fantasy to suggest that I can abolish or reduce my personal concerns by a simple act of will. Without strong affections. I do well to set my sights on a lower goal than moral sainthood. but they understandably doubt your sincerity. or to die for your country. not only at the prospect of the Spartan regimen ahead but because they think you no longer love them. and in the actual world other parents do not # Society for Applied Philosophy. to those we care about most deeply. therefore. but they are poorly off in comparison with their peers.) The children are naturally disappointed and upset. If I want to maximize utility. Of course. in essential respects. take trips to the seaside and cinema and are patently loved by their parents. You therefore tell your children that while you will go on supplying their bare necessities.264 G. We care about people beyond those in our immediate circles of concern once we grasp that they are similar. however. will be better spent on serving the needs of people who are worse off than they are. They may remain materially better off than children in a Bombay slum or an Indonesian sweat-shop. It is far from clear. you will no longer provide them with any special luxuries or treats. by withdrawing myself from situations that stimulate them [25]. It is the intimate and affectionate relationships we have with a few other people that teach us what human beings are like. For normal agents. even if this were psychologically possible (which is doubtful) it is unlikely that it would lead to a maximization of utility. one would lead a bleak and joyless life and find it hard to preserve a sense of the value of other lives. If you persist with your scheme. the people with the strongest motive to work energetically for the general good are not impartial altruists but those whose stake in society is greatest.e. it is a matter of common experience that the most energetic and efficient do-gooders are seldom people who have put aside (or who are capable of putting aside) their special affections. Parfit and Hooker may therefore have in mind more indirect means of losing my affections or desires.g. 1998 . who have nice clothes and toys. that you aspire to be an impartial do-gooder. your children's life will become a hard and unenviable one. Feelings. You try to talk them out of their suspicion. and why they matter. that AU should be read as requiring us to lump everyone together in a single circle of concern. To lose all one's strong affections would be a deeply alienating experience. Human existence would seem a sorry. However. if other parents in your community behaved as you do. are not directly subject to the will and I can no more decide that I shall no longer love Jane than I can decide to believe that I am a better philosopher than Kant. Parfit and Hooker tell me that in order to become a pure do-gooder. Consequently the best do-gooders (i. e. believing with Parfit and Hooker that general utility will be enhanced if there are a few people of your sort around. (Your money and time. you explain. the ones that do the most good) are unlikely to be the pure do-gooders. It is easier to pay your taxes. (ii) Pure do-gooders will seriously damage their own dependants. Imagine. productive rather of misanthropy than of altruism. pointless affair to someone whose personal experience of it was so empty. your children would have less reason to feel neglected and envious of their peers. I should eliminate my strong affections and `cause my other strong desires to become comparatively weaker' [24]. caring deeply for a select number of people is a stimulus to socially beneficial action rather than a distraction from it. Individuals flourish best when the societies they live in do. But AU (as Hooker reminds us) must take the world as it finds it. consequently. Scarre (i) Those who have no strong affections rarely care much about the general good.

in thinking about our obligations to people in the developing world. we should not blithely assume that people who live in economically less prosperous societies than our own must necessarily be less happy than we are ourselves. Like Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. It enhances our self-respect to be the major satisfiers of our desires. Among the necessary conditions of self-respect is the sense of being responsible for the basic directions that one's life is taking Ð of being both script-writer and star of one's own show. nor the number of agents helping to relieve it be as small. (iii) Pure do-gooders rush foolishly in where wiser angels fear to tread. you are actually making the world a worse and not a better place. I shall therefore contend in the final section of this paper that an adequate form of AU needs to incorporate a suitably pluralistic view of welfare and life-styles. I have argued elsewhere. as many philosophers have supposed. might think these observations irrelevant to the issue of whether AU is overly demanding. (Aid agencies term this the `CNN factor. Moreover. Utilitarianism. and we particularly resent it when they seek to impose on us their own conception of the good.') Usually the hard problem is not to raise money but to get essential resources quickly to the right people in the right place. IV Hooker rightly remarks that we can nowadays help disaster victims at the other side of the world just by `picking up the telephone and giving a credit card number to someone at a highly effective charity such as Oxfam' [27]. who busied herself with charities while her family went to ruin. your attempt to maximize utility will be a failure. does not enjoin us to become agents of that kind. Even if you manage to bear the manifest distress of your children with the fortitude of a Stoic. since with so much genuine hardship in the world there will always be plenty for the AU agent to do without becoming an interfering busybody. and here individuals are seldom # Society for Applied Philosophy. Yet I shall argue in the next section that the amount of suffering in the world which can effectively be alleviated by the actions of individual agents may not be as great. Your radical departure from the social and natural norms deprives your dependants of far more than merely material benefits. Appeals for emergency aid attract generous support from large numbers of people whose hearts are touched by pictures of tragedy beamed into their homes. Unless you are quite outstandingly effective at using the money and energy withdrawn from your children to promote utility elsewhere. AU. But modern technology not only enables us to relieve suffering in far-off places by lifting the phone: it also alerts millions across the globe to the occurrence of natural or man-made disasters almost as soon as they happen. and even where others could satisfy our wants more effectively than we can. needs to pay heed to the great importance of self-respect among the ingredients of the good life [26]. properly understood. however. we dislike being beholden to them for things which we can do for ourselves.Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'? 265 act as you do. Some. We tend to look on others' good-natured attempts to enhance our welfare as unwarranted intrusions. The famine victim whose life is saved by a charitable donation will not accuse his benefactor of unreasonable paternalism. 1998 . the correctness of your utility calculation is open to question. for large quantities of material goods may not be essential for a flourishing life. The last thing that any of us want is to be subject to the wellmeant attentions of a pure do-gooder who seizes every opportunity to make even marginal `improvements' to the quality of our lives.

) Only national governments. even in a famine-stricken zone.' He reminds us that a `more ample perspective on world hunger' must include `socioeconomic development as part of the cure' [28]. the World Bank and the IMF can make significant progress in the face of such deep-seated obstacles Ð not you and I. . 1998 . but such organisations make their impact by channelling the moderate efforts of the many rather than the heroic efforts of the few. (The same goes for the preventable deaths of children. We can sometimes help a good cause by joining a pressure group like Amnesty International or Greenpeace which bring the force of public opinion to bear on oppressive governments or exploitative companies. . with the result that women and girls are chronically malnourished. are debarred from sharing it [29]. disease # Society for Applied Philosophy. for one reason or another. etc. Raising the relatively small amount of money needed to save them would not be difficult. economic. Often. for all our telephones. infrastructural and other standing difficulties which impede communities' efforts to attain a reasonable standard of life. Benevolent governments and charitable agencies accordingly focus their expertise and resources on supplying needy people with the basic wherewithal (raw materials. the difficulty is that too many people. there are always many other charitable people to share the burden with him. complacency. David Crocker has criticized philosophers for being too `preoccupied . overheating. there is not much that most of us can do about it. The long-term advantages of such `development aid' are evident.' Certainly our overcrowded. their income is no longer subject to the whims and vagaries of donors. much of the suffering in the world is caused not by cataclysmic events like droughts and earthquakes but by political. and such international institutions as the United Nations. Frequently. (In some societies the best food goes to the men and boys even in times of plenty.) to become self-sustaining. But development should be more than merely sustainable: it should make the world a genuinely better place. To ensure that it does. credit cards and good intentions. education and training. cited by Unger as an international scandal. we must interrogate very carefully the models and ideals that we employ in our strategic planning. they provide their members with a satisfying sense of being in control of their own fates. Self-sustaining communities are wealth-generating rather than wealth-consuming. Scarre able to assist. So an AU agent does not need to give his all when such catastrophes occur. It is a commonplace of modern thinking about aid that the most effective way of assisting poor communities in the `developing' world is to help them to help themselves. as well as economic and infrastructural improvements and fairer international trading practices. tools and equipment. polluted planet cannot stand much more `development' of the sort it has undergone in the last few decades. with the task of justifying aid to distant peoples' and evincing `scant interest in institutional and practical issues.266 G. ignorance and an unwillingness to disturb familiar patterns of life. Of course. environmental. there is sufficient food to feed everybody. what retards development is not lack of money but the existence of vested interests. While dependence on hand-outs is never calculated to enhance a community's self-esteem. Beating malnutrition. development aid at least contains within itself the seeds of its own redundancy.) Solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition calls for changes in local habits and attitudes. The real problem is the stubborn persistence of the economic and social conditions within which children sicken and die. in fact. Yet if a country is governed by an evil military junta or crippled by its burden of international debt. Another contemporary commonplace about aid is that the development it facilitates should be `sustainable. cheap credit.

But this assumption (which may reflect in part the too-great influence which economics-generated conceptions of well-being have had on the literature of utilitarianism) has only to be made explicit for its baselessness to become apparent [32]. 1998 . human beings have enough of their needs and interests in common for at least some such judgements to be well-founded. We should # Society for Applied Philosophy. such as good sanitation and health-care. we should be aiming for? We need to be careful how we answer this. No doubt we would find it hard to give up the familiar comforts and opportunities of modern living. While there is room for debate about the conditions under which cross-cultural judgements are valid. (On the other hand. despise Western comforts and softness and proudly maintain the religious and social traditions of their race. Suppose that by showering riches on the Masai we caused them to abandon their age-old habits and adopt something closer to a Western lifestyle. lifepreserving measures such as better medicine can lead to destructive population explosions unless they are accompanied by strenuous efforts at birth-control [31]. they will be boons for the Masai too. If these things are boons for us. have dramatically increased our holdings of crucial `primary goods' Ð `things that every rational man is presumed to want' [30]. While we pay lip-service to the idea of pluralism.) Yet many discussions of utilitarianism seem to assume without argument that we fail in our moral duty to people like the Masai unless we share with them the things which we find essential to our own. my argument turns on the weaker claim that it is wrong to presume that our own way of living is so much better than all the rest that AU morality compels us to adopt it as a universal standard of wellbeing. a television set.Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'? 267 and economic exploitation are obviously laudable aims. we find it hard in practice to divest ourselves of the belief that our Western way of life is immensely superior to all the rest. (We can reasonably criticize. a washing machine. as AU agents. a 9-to-5 job and six weeks' paid holiday a year. or that one may never criticise one cultural tradition from the vantage-point of another. highly materialistic form of the good life. The world is immeasurably enriched by containing a variety of lifestyles. encouraging them to share our own expensive tastes and aspirations Ð particularly if these are mostly doomed to be frustrated? V The average British householder has a car.) Rather. Certain aspects of modern living. but we need to have a clear concept of the kind of societies we are trying to foster once the more egregious evils have been removed. But we should stop and reflect in a cool hour whether this is actually what the maximization of utility requires. Masai tribespeople in East Africa live in adobe huts without electricity or running water. Are the Masai less `well-off' (in an ethically significant sense) than we are? Is our conception of the good life clearly superior to theirs? We need to be very sure that it is before we risk disturbing the traditional Masai pattern of life. Is that what. the harsh and repressive treatment of women in many societies [33]. Note that I am not claiming that all human lifestyles are equal in value. for instance. Hence our disposition to see charity in terms of reducing our own holdings of material goods in order that Third World people should have more. spend their days herding their cattle. but it does not follow that those who have never had them are living less well than we are. Do we really serve people well by inducting them into the consumer society.

Mackie (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth.. Bernard Williams (1985) Ethics and the # Society for Applied Philosophy. the best utilitarian reason why we in the West should reduce our material expectations is not that this will leave more goods available for other people. Once we arrive at a better understanding of the nature of maximizing moral agency. pt. R. NOTES [1] See.* * I am grateful to Martin Hughes. 130. the `ethics of fantasy'? No.. 130. 129. Peter Singer (1979) Famine. Hare (1981) Moral Thinking (Oxford. S. p. not extravagantly. AU is much nearer to `common sense' morality than its opponents contend. UK. as so many different `experiments in living' [34]. [3] Jan Narveson (1993) Moral Matters (Peterborough. Richard Taylor and an anonymous referee for the Journal of Applied Philosophy for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. then.. [4] Mackie op.268 G. as a way of promoting happiness. and `the conduct approved by Common Sense has a general resemblance to that which Utilitarianism would prescribe' [35]. environmental degradation and asset-stripping. p. the benefits of our lifestyle are associated with too many serious and probably insoluble problems. even psychologically impossible doctrine running diametrically opposite to our normal moral intuitions. For a small selection of the many philosophers who have questioned the psychological possibility of AU. 3rd ed. Broadview Press). University of Durham. indeed the price we pay to sustain our contemporary style of life Ð global warming. Critics of AU therefore exaggerate the sacrifices that the theory requires from moral agents. AU permits. M. moderate and fulfillable. Clinging on to one's luxuries while people starved would be poor behaviour from any ethical perspective other than egoism. Geoffrey Scarre. Scarre regard these. There is no universal correlation between a high material standard of living and happiness. pp. see Mackie op. but that our model of well-being is untenable in the long term. 6. because as I have tried to show. 2. there are many reasons for regarding as a caricature the picture of AU as an unreasonably demanding. But such a demand is hardly unique to AU. It would be an enormous loss to collective human experience if the present galloping westernisation finally drove out all the alternatives.) Moral Problems. we can see the demands of AU to be reasonable. Durham DH1 3HN.' the dissolution of family ties. (New York. 50 Old Elvet. cit. the unremitting noise and gridlocked traffic of our city streets Ð suggests that ours may turn out to have been one of the less successful experiments in forms of life. affluence. Shelly Kagan (1989) The Limits of Morality (Oxford. Is AU. contenting ourselves with less in order that they can have more. the ever more hectic pace of daily life. ch. Clarendon Press). 1998 . Penguin). the `rat-race. 143. cit. in the spirit of J. [2] J. Properly considered. Clarendon Press). The entitlement to live in a private space is an entitlement to live adequately. and morality in James Rachels (ed. and of the exigencies of the world in which utilitarian agents operate. and indeed encourages. In fact. It is very doubtful whether the way to maximize utility is to share our `advantages' with our fellow-inhabitants of the planet. us to pursue our private concerns in our own private spaces. the urban alienation. Ontario. e. Mill and Isaiah Berlin. Department of Philosophy.g. Not that AU allows us to be morally lazy Ð it forbids us to ignore all external concerns and its maximizing and impartial character entails that we must be prepared to sacrifice our individual interests for the sake of the general good. Harper & Row). L.

pp. 77. W.. p. to my mind cogently. Mill (1865) Auguste Comte and positivism in Essays on Ethics. ch. pp. Richard B. 18±19. Values.). Kagan. 275±6. n. justifying the permission on the grounds that not granting it would impede the maximization of the general utility. 118. and Morality. and Morality (Cambridge. 1. 1998 . Brandt (1979) A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford. Ibid. R. Fontana). Singer op.. 21. J. with some of them favouring quite vigorous charitable action. pp. People in the beneficiary's culture may. The equilibrium point thus reached may not be the point of strict economic equality if wealth is less crucial to happiness in the beneficiary's society than it is in the benefactor's. # Society for Applied Philosophy. Robson (ed. Beck (tr. passim. if we sincerely believed that our values implied that we should increase our charitable activity. Collected Works. Scheffler contrasts it with what he calls the `liberation strategy. Cambridge University Press). 10 (Toronto: Toronto University Press. utilitarianism and self-sacrifice. cit. the AU ideal. 8. Clarendon Press).Is Act-Utilitarianism the `Ethics of Fantasy'? 269 [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] Limits of Philosophy (London. Cambridge University Press). ch. This is denied not only by Carson but also by Singer and Unger. Brandt (1996) Facts. 30. For fuller discussion of both strategies see my (1996) Utilitarianism (London. Carson (1991) A note on Hooker's `Rule consequentialism'. p. or a limitation of. by Carson (op. Mind. Sidgwick op. Unger op. 222±3. p. p. Utilitas. Derek Parfit (1984) Reasons and Persons (Oxford. The claim that an eligible utility-maximizing rule of charitable giving must be in reflective equilibrium with our moral intuitions is plausible enough. Routledge). vol. 99. for instance. 3. 268.). M. Goodin (1995) Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge. Hooker's view that RU is intrinsically less demanding than AU has been questioned. It permits individuals space to pursue their own projects and concerns. Such a state of affairs is conceivable. 1969). Utilitas. The liberation strategy clearly involves a departure from. be less materialistic than the citizens of the USA or Britain. p. b) that they will (therefore) be psychologically much easier to act on than the more demanding AU principle. pp. Religion and Society.' which allows `agents to devote energy and attention to their projects and commitments out of proportion to the value from an impersonal point of view of their doing so' (op. 431. 338. contradiction would be avoided if. Mind. Hackett.. Immanuel Kant (1969) Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Brad Hooker (1991) Brink. 3. 430±9. ÐÐ (1996) Facts. everyone benefited more from others' self-sacrifices than he suffered by his own. (At the very least. Clarendon Press]. on `Libertarianism'). though unlikely. Perhaps he tells marvellous jokes! `But then he ought to think beyond the immediate problem: he probably needs to replenish his supply of amusing remarks by absenting himself from the sickroom and seeking some entertainment for himself. Thomas L. Martin Hughes has commented (private communication) that Kagan would need to be sure that he is such a welcome visitor in the sickroom that something better than `mild entertainment' results from his presence. utilitarianism and selfsacrifice. Henry Sidgwick (1874) The Methods of Ethics (Indianapolis. our intuitions may turn out to be inconsistent. p. cit.. Brad Hooker (1990) Rule consequentialism. ch. p. cit. S. ÐÐ (1991) Brink. J. p. Macmillan). pp. cit... 222. Oxford University Press). cit.) (New York and London. 1981). This Sidgwickian line has been termed the `maximization strategy' by Scheffler (see Samuel Scheffler [1982] The Rejection of Consequentialism [Oxford. Mill's point is not quite correctly stated. Peter Unger (1996) Living High and Letting Die (New York and Oxford. 4± 5. 62). His advocacy of RU appears to rest principally on two contentions about the kind of rules that a reasonable RU will enjoin us to act on: a) that those rules will accord with our fairly unexacting moral intuitions about charitable giving. 100.) Moreover. 3). Ibid. 1.' This matches a suggestion of Peter Unger's: and note that Unger is not writing from a specifically utilitarian position (see Unger op. Values. Richard B. cit. cit. 276. 12. Kagan op. Kagan. E. but it is highly disputable whether those instuitions are as undemanding as Hooker alleges. Ibid. in a world of wholly altruistic individuals. it should not be impossible (though it might be painful) to bring our behaviour closer in line with our values: so Hooker's claim that AU is psychologically unrealistic is likewise open to question. Strictly speaking. Hooker himself proposes that we should abandon AU in favour of Rule Utilitarianism. L. p. p.. p. Oxford University Press).

the danger is that exposure to the (meretricious?) charm of the goods of consumerist society will undermine their traditional culture. 609. 1967). [29] Crocker op. op. Mill (1859) On Liberty in Essays on Politics and Society.. felt only by human societies.. cit. educational and economic arrangements to give them access to these will clearly be a delicate business. 62. J. Oxford University Press).). [32] I am sympathetic to a point made by Martin Hughes. 269. p. Scarre [23] Parfit op. cit. capability. Blackwell). 30. ch. of course. Robson (ed. and development in Hugh Lafollette (ed. 1998 . [34] J. S. 468. cit.000 chimpanzees have recently died in the forests of Gabon owing to increased logging activities driven by human population increase. that fairness demands that the Masai are not shut out from material benefits. [35] Sidgwick. pp. Oxford University Press). Entering a monastery. Routledge & Kegan Paul]. [33] As Mary Midgley has remarked. 606. M. [30] John Rawls (1972) A Theory of Justice (Oxford. is an ineligible choice for a do-gooder.. AU should consider the welfare of all sentient creatures. 38±9). there are enough `shared moral compass-bearings' between different societies for it to be `possible for us to praise and learn from other cultures.. 613. [25] But not just any form of withdrawal will do. cit. ibid. # Society for Applied Philosophy. op. Establishing the political. [24] Parfit. [28] David A. p. Crocker (1997) Hunger. Collected Works. and also to accept the criticisms which outsiders pass on our own culture' (Mary Midgley [1984] Wickedness [London. p. vol. [26] See Scarre op.) Ethics in Practice (Oxford. [27] Brad Hooker. pp. 18 (Toronto. [31] The destructive effects of overpopulation are not. p. for instance.270 G. Sir Isaiah Berlin (1969) John Stuart Mill and the ends of life in Four Essays on Liberty (London. Toronto University Press. if they want them.. cit. On the day I write this (27 February 1998) The Times reports that 20. 7. p. not just that of humans.