Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 7, pp 1693–1709 | Cite as

A consequentialist account of Narveson’s dictum

  • John CusbertEmail author
  • Robyn Kath


In population ethics, Narveson’s dictum states: morality favours making people happy, but is neutral about making happy people. The thought is intuitively appealing; for example, it prohibits creating new people at the expense of those who already exist. However, there are well-known obstacles to accommodating Narveson’s dictum within a standard framework of overall betterness: any attempt to do so violates very plausible formal features of betterness (notably transitivity). Therefore, the prevailing view is that the dictum is off-limits to consequentialists, who are thereby committed to the unsavoury normative consequences of denying it. We argue against the prevailing view, by showing that Narveson’s dictum can be accommodated within “multidimensional” consequentialism. The key move is to deny the normative preeminence of overall betterness, instead taking moral decision-making to rest directly on “respects” of betterness. The multidimensional approach permits a consequentialist account of Narveson’s dictum in which betterness is well-behaved. It also yields a new way to think of the connection between goodness and rightness, thus revealing new terrain in the space of possible moral theories.


Population ethics Axiology Intuition of neutrality Consequentialism 



The authors would like to thank Simon Beard, John Broome, Matthew Clark, Daniel Cohen, Hilary Greaves, Alan Hájek, Michael McDermott, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Teruji Thomas, and audiences at ANU and Oxford for useful discussion.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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