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Friday, February 18, 2022

Measuring Impartial Beneficence: A Kantian Perspective on the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Mihailov, E. (2022). 


To capture genuine utilitarian tendencies, (Kahane et al., Psychological Review 125:131, 2018) developed the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (OUS) based on two subscales, which measure the commitment to impartial beneficence and the willingness to cause harm for the greater good. In this article, I argue that the impartial beneficence subscale, which breaks ground with previous research on utilitarian moral psychology, does not distinctively measure utilitarian moral judgment. I argue that Kantian ethics captures the all-encompassing impartial concern for the well-being of all human beings. The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale draws, in fact, a point of division that places Kantian and utilitarian theories on the same track. I suggest that the impartial beneficence subscale needs to be significantly revised in order to capture distinctively utilitarian judgments. Additionally, I propose that psychological research should focus on exploring multiple sources of the phenomenon of impartial beneficence without categorizing it as exclusively utilitarian.


The narrow focus of psychological research on sacrificial harm contributes to a Machiavellian picture of utilitarianism. By developing the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, Kahane and his colleagues have shown how important it is for the study of moral judgment to include the inspiring ideal of impartial concern. However, this significant contribution goes beyond the utilitarian/deontological divide. We learn to divide moral theories depending on whether they are, at the root, either Kantian or utilitarian. Kant famously denounced lying, even if it would save someone’s life, whereas utilitarianism accepts transgression of moral rules if it maximizes the greater good. However, in regard to promoting the ideal of impartial beneficence, Kantian ethics and utilitarianism overlap because both theories contributed to the Enlightenment project of moral reform. In Kantian ethics, the very concepts of duty and moral community are interpreted in radically impartial and cosmopolitan terms. Thus, a fruitful area for future research opens on exploring the diverse psychological sources of impartial beneficence.