Friday, December 03, 2021


An updated version of this post is now available at Good Thoughts.

Philosophical discussion of utilitarianism understandably focuses on its most controversial features: its rejection of deontic constraints and the "demandingness" of impartial maximizing.  But in fact almost all of the important practical implications of utilitarianism stem from a much weaker feature, one that I think probably ought to be shared by every sensible moral view.  It's just the claim that it's really important to help others.  As Peter Singer and other effective altruists have long argued, we're able to do extraordinary amounts of good for others very easily (e.g. just by donating 10% of our income to the most effective charities), and this is very much worth doing.

It'd be helpful to have a snappy name for this view, which assigns (non-exclusive) central moral importance to beneficence.  So let's coin the following:

Beneficentrism: The view that promoting the general welfare is deeply important.

Clearly, you don't have to be a utilitarian to accept beneficentrism. You could accept deontic constraints. You could accept any number of supplemental non-welfarist values (as long as they don't implausibly swamp the importance of welfare). You could accept any number of views about partiality and/or priority.  You can reject 'maximizing' accounts of obligation in favour of views that leave room for supererogation.  You just need to appreciate that the numbers count, such that immensely helping others is immensely important.

Once you accept this very basic claim, it seems that you should probably be pretty enthusiastic about effective altruism. Not making any claims about "obligation" here, but just in terms of fittingness: we should care about what's important, and effective altruism basically just is the attempt to put beneficentrism into practice, i.e. to act upon what we've just agreed is deeply important. (Of course, you might have any number of empirical disagreements with other effective altruists about how best to achieve this goal.  Nothing here commits you to agreeing with them about such details.  I just mean that you ought to be enthusiastic about the basic project.)

Beneficentrism strikes me as impossible to deny while retaining basic moral decency. (Cf. Stalin's "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.")  Does anyone disagree?  Devil's advocates are welcome to comment.

Even if theoretically very tame, beneficentrism strikes me as an immensely important claim in practice, just because most people don't really seem to treat promoting the general welfare as an especially important goal.  Utilitarians do, of course, and are massively over-represented in the effective altruism movement as a result.  But why don't more non-utilitarians give more weight to the importance of impartial beneficence?  I don't understand it.  (Comments welcome on this point, too.)

I guess one possibility is that the standard ideology of "obligations", "permissions", etc., encourages people to focus on meeting the bare baseline of moral adequacy.   (Didn't murder anyone today, hooray!) But I think that's a bad ideology.  We shouldn't just care about avoiding wrongdoing (indeed, I don't think we should precisely care about that at all).  We should care about what's important.

So I'd like to invite everyone, whatever your moral-theoretical persuasion, to explicitly consider what you think is truly important, and whether beneficentrism might be a part of the answer.

And if you're then enthusiastic (as I hope you might be) about making beneficence a more central aspect of your life, maybe consider the Giving What We Can pledge?

1 comment:

  1. Given a limited budget of how much time/energy one can (or is going to) put into things other than oneself, perhaps other values may "crowd out" beneficence?

    It seems like some people find it important to prevent or punish oppression and to honor the oppressed and/or heroes. (U.S. left and right wings perhaps have different takes on these somewhat shared ideas). People seem to think preventing harm caused by a person is higher priority than preventing harm caused by natural forces or accidents (granted this may sometimes be more cost-efficient). Perhaps we view harm as especially bad when perpetrated by someone of our group or traceable to our responsibility e.g. a cop acting as a representative of our society. Harm against someone in our group is also typically viewed as more important; arguably this is sort of partiality/loyalty is bad, but most people disagree.

    Returning to the oppression versus misfortune thing, it's almost as though people want to say you ought to save person A in the following situation even if that rock is slightly larger/faster [explained next]. Example Situation: persons A, B, and C are standing near you ("person D"). Person C throws a rock at person A and another rock simultaneously falls from the sky towards person B but thrown by no one. Given your quick reflexes and handy wooden shield, you have the opportunity to deflect exactly one of the rocks thereby saving either A or B from injury but not both. Not a great example, but the idea is that oppression is worse than misfortune, even when evaluated from a third-party perspective.

    I meant to read "effective justice", but haven't gotten to it.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.