Utilitarian Foundations

  • Fred Feldman
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series in Philosophy book series (PSSP, volume 35)


There is a magnificent old idea according to which the concept of obligation can be understood by appeal to the concepts of possibility and goodness. Roughly, the idea is that something is obligatory if and only if it is the best of the possibilities. This idea appears in very simple guise in the popular maxim that “you ought to do the best you can”. Classic act utilitarianism is perhaps the most famous theoretical development of the idea. On that view, the possibilities are taken to be the actions open to some person on some occasion, and the goodness of each is taken to be its “hedonic utility” — the amount of pleasure it would produce if performed, minus the amount of pain it would produce if performed. In standard terminology, the view is that a person morally ought to perform an act if and only if none of its alternatives has as great a hedonic utility as it has.


High Utility Moral Obligation Normative Concept Successive Dose Saturday Morning 
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Notes to Chapter 1

  1. 1a.
    The classic statements of utilitarinaism may be found in Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)Google Scholar
  2. 1b.
    and Mill’s Utilitarianism (1865).Google Scholar
  3. 1c.
    Moore’s utilitarianism is developed in Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903) andGoogle Scholar
  4. 1d.
    Moore’s Ethics (London: Oxford University Press, 1912)Google Scholar
  5. 1e.
    J. J. C. Smart’s An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1961) contains a clear exposition and defense.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    I first encountered this puzzle in Harold Zellner’s paper, ‘The Inconsistency of Utilitarianism,’ presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, Boston, December 27–29, 1972. An Abstract of the paper appears in The Journal of Philosophy LXIX, 19 (October 26, 1972), 676.Google Scholar
  7. 3a.
    Hector-Neri Castañeda, ‘A Problem for Utilitarianism,’ Analysis 28 (1968), 141–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 3b.
    Castañeda’s paper provoked several replies, including: Harold Zellner, ‘Utilitarianism and Derived Obligation,’ Analysis 32 (1972), 124–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 3c.
    Fred Westphal, ‘Utilitarianism and Conjunctive Acts: A Reply to Professor Castañeda,’ Analysis 32 (1972), 82–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 3d.
    R. E. Bales, ‘Utilitarianism, Overall Obligatoriness and Deontic Logic,’ Analysis 32 (1972), 203–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 3e.
    Lars Bergström, ‘Utilitarianism and Deontic Logic,’ Analysis 29 (1968), 43–44. Castañeda responded to Westphal and Bergström in his ‘On the Problem of Formulating a Coherent Act-Utilitarianism,’ Analysis 32 (1972), 118–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 4.
    The concept of the “devilish machine” is derived from Lennart Ǻqvist, ‘Improved Formulations of Act Utilitarianism,’ Noûs 3 (1969), 299–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 5.
    For a detailed account of this approach, see Lars Bergström, The Alternatives and Consequences of Action (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1966). Bergström has discussed this approach in several papers, including: ‘Alternatives and Utilitarianism,’ Theoria 34 (1968), 163–170; ‘Utilitarianism and Alternative Actions,’ Noûs 5 (1971), 237–252; and ‘On the Formulation and Application of Utilitarianism,’ Noûs 10 (1976), 121–144. Bergström’s approach is discussed at length in a critical review by R. E. Bales, in Theoria 40 (1974), 35–57.Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    Mainly because it is so simple, I have used Robert Stalnaker’s account of subjunctive conditionals. See his ‘A Theory of Conditionals,’ in Studies in Logical Theory ed. by Nicholas Rescher, American Philosophical Quarterly Monograph Series: Number 2 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), pp. 98–112. Where it really matters, I guess I prefer David Lewis’ view. See his Counterfactuals, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    A case relevantly similar to this one, but more amusing than it, is discussed by Ǻqvist in ‘Improved Formulations of Act Utilitarianism,’ Noûs 3 (1969), 318—321.Google Scholar
  16. 8a.
    See, for example, G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), pp. 77–81.Google Scholar
  17. 8b.
    Several useful papers on this topic are mentioned by Dan Brock in ‘Recent Work in Utilitarianism,’ American Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1973), 242–243.Google Scholar
  18. 8c.
    Some attacks on qualitative hedonism are evaluated in Norman O. Dahl, ‘Is Mill’s Hedonism Inconsistent?,’ in Studies in Ethics, ed. by Nicholas Rescher, American Philosophical Quarterly Monograph Series: Number 7 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973), pp. 37–54.Google Scholar
  19. 9.
    G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 117, 21ff. See also Moore’s Ethics (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), pp. 24–25 and his Philosphical Studies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922), pp. 253–275.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fred Feldman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Massachusetts at AmherstUSA

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