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  Book Title:   Utilitarianism As a Public Philosophy  
Author:  Robert E. Goodin
Published:  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995
Price:  $80.00 (hardcover), $29.99 (softcover)
Pages:  352
Reviewer:  Leland B. Yeager
Affiliation:   Auburn University
This book review appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of The Independent Review

Robert Goodin is a political philosopher at the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University. Here he pulls together seventeen previously published articles, slightly edited. A new introduction carries the same title as the book.

Goodin tackles a great variety of questions. When is it desirable to take account of other people’s motives, and one’s own? How are duties and responsibilities to be distinguished? Do intentions or do results count more heavily in the ethical appraisal of actions? Is it better to satisfy whatever desires people may currently happen to have or, in case of divergence, to serve their genuine interests? Do some desires deserve less respect in public policy than others—should preferences be “laundered”? How are rewards and liabilities to be apportioned when the shares of credit or blame of the different persons responsible for some outcome add up to more or less than 100 percent? What determines whether “heroic measures” in desperate medical cases—experimental measures with slight prospects of success—are morally justified? What conceptions of “compensation” for harm or misfortune may usefully be distinguished? What philosophical considerations bear on various features of the welfare state? Is “the best way of satisfying unmet needs…to cause those who are relatively more needy to have more of the needed resource…[or] rather to cause others to have less of it”? (The latter may be correct, says Goodin; then follows a quotation from Rousseau. He notes, furthermore, that in some cases “the strategy of wantonly destroying the resources of the rich, Pol Pot style, might turn out to be the socially preferred strategy” [pp. 244, 249].) To weaken competition in the consumption of status goods, should Australia tax French champagne or outright ban importing it? What is the case for granting a basic income to all individuals, no questions asked? As Philippe Van Parijs put that question, what are the reasons “why surfers should be fed”? “What is so special about our fellow countrymen?” Why is unilateral nuclear disarmament morally obligatory? What international ethical considerations bear on the environmental “crisis”? (Goodin seems particularly worried about the ozone layer.)

Hypothetical cases get spun out at length, illustrating a philosophical style that seems in vogue these days. Goodin offers few new facts that relate to the issues he discusses, but he does display cleverness in mustering arguments in support of his intuitions. Some readers, including even me in a certain mood, may be charmed by these separate exercises in philosophical acumen.

More nearly central to the topic suggested by the book’s title is a chapter on “The state as a moral agent,” as well as scattered other passages criticizing libertarianism as Goodin understands it and urging government activism instead. Considerations that might excuse people from performing certain duties individually count for recognizing and performing those duties collectively. A coordination problem, as well as shirking by free riders, may frustrate voluntary collective action, thereby keeping even people who want to perform their duties from doing so. State coercion then may be justified to overcome this frustration, this impasse. The questions I have listed suggest how broad a range of activities Goodin would assign to the state.

Still closer to a central theme is Goodin’s introductory chapter (and related passages elsewhere). Whatever objections may count against utilitarianism as a personal ethical philosophy, these hardly discredit utilitarianism as a philosophy for government officials. For them, dealing with aggregates and averages is appropriate. Goodin does not say, however, that public officials may properly do whatever they think likely to maximize utility on a case-by-case basis. They, like private persons, should adhere not to act utilitarianism but to a rules or indirect utilitarianism, a version concerned with principles, rules, institutions, attitudes, and even character traits.

Speaking of public officials, I wonder how familiar Goodin is with the teachings of the Public Choice school. Not very familiar, to judge from page 129. There he writes that “public officials take a longer time horizon than do individuals planning their own private lives” and that

    Being judged by voters in the longer term and in a more general way for their superintendence of the citizenry’s interests, representatives can do for the people what is truly in their interests but which they would find it psychologically difficult to do for themselves. Being ultimately democratically accountable, they would be unable to do too much that was not in the citizenry’s longer-term and more general interests, otherwise they would not win reelection.

Goodin cites nothing by James Buchanan and only one of Gordon Tullock’s lesser-known articles.

It is not entirely clear to me why Goodin considers utilitarianism less acceptable as a private than as a public philosophy. Neither in the private nor in the public sphere does a sound moral philosophy call for case-by-case attempts to maximize some supposed aggregate utility. Instead it emphasizes rules, principles, attitudes, and character traits. I wonder whether Goodin recognizes the distinction, urged by R. M. Hare and other philosophers, between two levels of moral philosophizing. On the applied level, people are expected to heed certain ethical precepts almost as absolutes. On the reflective level, philosophers and others in a properly detached mood assess just what precepts should be rejected or chosen for application in everyday life.

And what is the grounding of suitable precepts? This is the central question of so-called metaethics. Libertarian theorists, among others, pay much attention to it. Are ethical principles, including those invoked in policy discussions, most coherently grounded in duty in the style of Immanuel Kant, in natural or individual rights taken almost as axiomatic, in some sort of fundamental if tacit social contract, or in utility in some sense? Goodin does allude to these rival approaches, but he does not squarely discuss them and reject all but his own particular brand of utilitarianism. (He does duly recognize that utilitarianism comes in numerous varieties. I myself think that all sound arguments about public and personal policy, and especially the principles they appeal to, are at bottom utilitarian; yet Goodin does not show why, or even try to. I would hate to have the brand of utilitarianism that I accept associated with and judged by Goodin’s discussion.)

Goodin is less concerned with grounding than with application of his own ethical notions to particular cases and policy issues. Indeed, I get the impression that his book and its title are mainly just an umbrella to cover his diverse musings. Admittedly, though, it is unfair of me to complain of Goodin’s writing his own book rather than what I expected from its title when agreeing to review it.

Goodin’s writing in some of the chapters is verbose and repetitious. Organization suffers from fragmentation of the discussion between main text and footnotes. Readers can be grateful, anyway, that the notes appear at the bottom of the individual pages rather than, inconveniently, at the ends of chapters or of the whole book.


Buy Utilitarianism As a Public Philosophy at Amazon.com for $80.00 (hardcover)

Buy Utilitarianism As a Public Philosophy at Amazon.com for $29.99 (softcover)




Volume 2 Number 1
Summer 1997

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