Over on my substack, I ask: how might utilitarian-leaning philosophers seek to do more good through their work?

There's recently been some skeptical discussion of the value of utilitarianism here on the forum. Philosophers have long been fascinated by the idea that the view might be self-effacing. But I don't think such a negative verdict is empirically supported. Utilitarians and utilitarian-influenced individuals (from Bentham, Mill, and Singer, to Toby Ord, Will MacAskill, and Sam Bankman-Fried) have demonstrably done immense good -- not least in giving rise to EA itself.  What utilitarian-influenced figures have done comparable harm? (And how many non-utilitarian philosophers have done better?)

Given this track record, I think our credences should strongly favour the view that utilitarianism is a force for good in the world, and that shifting more people in a utilitarian direction would, on current margins, generally be a good thing. (Though, as I note in my linked post, the general public isn't necessarily interested in moral theory, so in many contexts I think it'd make more sense to advocate for a more limited view--such as beneficentrism--rather than for full-blown utilitarianism.)

If this is correct, it's worth asking what utilitarian-leaning philosophers can do, as moral philosophers, to advance utilitarianism as a force for good in the world.  I call this endeavour the beneficence project.

Thinking constructively

My post then steps through four potential branches for such a Beneficence Project:

  • Pure research to better develop and test the details of the utilitarian worldview.
  • Persuasively-oriented research, to better communicate to fellow academics the theory’s virtues and responses to objections.
  • General outreach, to students and the general public.
  • Targeted outreach, to policymakers and policy-adjacent academics (e.g. in the public health community).

Pure research

This will likely be the most intrinsically appealing “cause area” for my fellow philosophers, as it involves doing just what we tend to most enjoy anyway. And I think it is important! I’m a big fan of even the most impractical pure philosophy (so long as it’s genuinely philosophically interesting). But even putting aside the purely intellectual value, I would expect (high quality) pure research in ethics to have significant long-run instrumental value by contributing to our collective understanding of moral (and decision) theory. It’s important to test and develop the best ideas of both utilitarianism and its most promising competitors, to give us a better chance of accurately discerning what’s really important and true.

Persuasively-oriented research

This category isn’t wholly distinct from the first one, but involves some degree of deliberately addressing one’s work to non-utilitarians (in contrast to purely “internal” debates between utilitarians of subtly different stripes). Much of my own work falls under this category. I’m interested in developing the strongest, most broadly persuasive case for a (mostly) utilitarian approach to ethics. Three projects I’m currently most excited about [and will discuss more in future posts on my substack]:

  • A paper developing a ‘New Paradox of Deontology’.
  • A paper arguing that importance, rather than permissibility, should be considered the central concept of normative ethics.
  • My book project on Bleeding Heart Consequentialism, which develops a sympathetic picture of the beneficent agent, to finally put to rest the awful caricature of the “cold and calculating” consequentialist agent.

I’d love to hear from others doing work in this same vein!

The potential instrumental value I see emerging from this sort of work is greater sympathy for (broadly) utilitarian ethics within the academy, which is important because an academic consensus has a tendency to eventually “trickle down” to society at large (both through the teaching of undergraduates / professional masters students, and via quotes in the media or other “public philosophy” contributions from our academic colleagues).

General outreach

Here I think it makes an important difference whether we’re targeting philosophy students or the general public. For philosophy students, I think it makes sense to talk about moral theory, and hence utilitarianism, since this is stuff they’re going to be taught about anyway. To this end, I’m really proud of the work we’re doing on utilitarianism.net to present the theory in a clear, accessible, and sympathetic way.

(I think there’s a lot of value to producing high-quality teaching materials that make it easier for professors to teach important topics well. I’d also encourage other philosophers to check out EA syllabi—such as my recent syllabus on Effective Altruism and Longtermism—and consider teaching a similar course if they think it looks interesting.)

For the general public, it’s less clear that moral theory per se is worth talking about. The practically important part of utilitarianism is just its beneficentrism (which may also be shared by any other decent view). It’s not as though we really want to encourage anyone to go around pushing people in front of trolleys. So in many contexts, I expect it would make a lot more sense to promote effective altruism rather than utilitarianism.

Targeted outreach

Likewise for policy influence, I think what we really want to promote is not utilitarianism per se, but just a beneficence-focused ethic. (See: Theory-Driven Applied Ethics.) You don’t have to be a utilitarian to think that passing a cost-benefit analysis is at least a necessary condition for justifying restrictive medical policies, for example.

So I’d be keen to see a lot more NY Times op-eds and other elite-focused communications that explicitly foreground beneficence or doing the most good as key considerations that should guide policy choice and analysis.

Another promising avenue for (longer-term) positive influence in this area would be though producing better teaching materials specifically in applied ethics for “professional” masters students (in public policy, bioethics, etc.). As the pandemic made clear, something has gone terribly wrong with how the public health community (for example) thinks about ethics and policy evaluation. I’m not sufficiently familiar with how they got to this point to be well-positioned to prescribe solutions, but “better teaching materials in applied ethics” seems like a promising first step, at any rate (though much would then depend upon securing uptake from the relevant teachers). I welcome others’ thoughts and proposals.

Conclusion

I think utilitarian philosophy can be useful, both for encouraging more beneficent behaviour in general, and for encouraging better public policies in particular. Within the academy, there’s much to be done to develop and rehabilitate utilitarian moral theory, which is unjustly maligned in many quarters. Outside of the academy, encouraging a more beneficence-focused moral perspective could do even more good. Putting this all together suggests plenty of room for sympathetic philosophers to contribute to a Beneficence Project that explicitly seeks to use utilitarianism for good.

Comments / suggestions on this project conception would be most welcome! (How would you prioritize between the various project branches identified above? Do any strike you as potentially or likely counterproductive? What good ideas have I missed?)

For any moral philosophers in the audience: please also get in touch if you might be interested in contributing to (some aspect of) the project yourself. (It’s always helpful to find more potential collaborators! The more people doing good things, the better, in my view…)

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