Utilitarianism

Crudely put, utilitarianism is the thesis that one world is better than another if it contains greater total welfare. This theory of distribution has been much criticised. But it received a major boost in Harsanyi’s 1955 utilitarian theorem.

Harsanyi’s theorem seems to mainly be about expected utility theory. But this makes it subject to versions of some of the traditional criticisms, particularly in the assumptions it makes about welfare comparisons. But joint work with Kalle Mikkola and Teru Thomas provides a reply.

Alternatives

It is common for moral philosophers to describe their own views about distribution in terms of what they see as the problems of utilitarianism. For this project to work well, it has to use the most plausible version of utilitarianism. But philosophers often choose straw man versions.

I have been using my favored account of utilitarianism to provide such a contrastive account of the alternatives. This work focuses on egalitarianism, the priority view, contractualism, personal and impersonal value, and various kinds of threshold views.

Future Projects

My early work in normative ethics took a broadly rule utilitarian or contractualist approach. I am now skeptical about rule-based approaches. But I see the topic as one aspect of a vast range of problems at the intersection of ethics and social epistemology that I wish to explore further.

One of the main difficulties is that different people have different beliefs, information, and evidence, along with perhaps faulty beliefs about each others beliefs, information, and evidence. Rule utilitarians seem to solve this challenging problem by pretending it isn’t one; what should the rest of us think?