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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Utilitarianism’s Missing Dimensions

Erik Parens
Originally published on January 3, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

Missing the “Impartial Beneficence” Dimension of Utilitarianism

In a word, the Oxfordians argue that, whereas utilitarianism in fact has two key dimensions, the Harvardians have been calling attention to only one. A significant portion of the new paper is devoted to explicating a new scale they have created—the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale—which can be used to measure how utilitarian someone is or, more precisely, how closely a person’s moral decision-making tendencies approximate classical (act) utilitarianism. The measure is based on how much one agrees with statements such as, “If the only way to save another person’s life during an emergency is to sacrifice one’s own leg, then one is morally required to make this sacrifice,” and “It is morally right to harm an innocent person if harming them is a necessary means to helping several other innocent people.”

According to the Oxfordians, while utilitarianism is a unified theory, its two dimensions push in opposite directions. The first, positive dimension of utilitarianism is “impartial beneficence.” It demands that human beings adopt “the point of view of the universe,” from which none of us is worth more than another. This dimension of utilitarianism requires self-sacrifice. Once we see that children on the other side of the planet are no less valuable than our own, we grasp our obligation to sacrifice for those others as we would for our own. Those of us who have more than we need to flourish have an obligation to give up some small part of our abundance to promote the well-being of those who don’t have what they need.

The Oxfordians dub the second, negative dimension of utilitarianism “instrumental harm,” because it demands that we be willing to sacrifice some innocent others if doing so is necessary to promote the greater good. So, we should be willing to sacrifice the well-being of one person if, in exchange, we can secure the well-being of a larger number of others. This is of course where the trolleys come in.

The article is here.
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