Utilitarianism, Socialism and Equality
Utilitarianism is the doctrine that the morally right action is the one that best promotes overall well-being. It faces a family of objections that accuse it of overlooking ‘the separateness of persons’. According to utilitarianism, we are obliged to promote well-being without reference to our own commitments, attachments and projects, except as “one lot amongst others”, as Williams puts it. He holds that this alienates us from our actions, jeopardising autonomy. Relatedly, utilitarianism is indifferent to how well-being is distributed between persons, telling us only to maximise it overall. This seems to neglect the value of equality. I think that using conceptions of autonomy and equality that emphasise the social, rather than the individualist conceptions often assumed by utilitarianism’s critics, might render those values more compatible with utilitarianism.
Most of our commitments, attachments and projects, for example, are not freely chosen, but largely determined by social structures. Railton argues that displaying autonomy may require that we evaluate and are prepared, sometimes, to revise our commitments: the person who takes what society hands them without question lacks autonomy.
‘Relational egalitarians’ such as Anderson point out that what motivates egalitarian political movements is not a concern for distribution so much as a preference for certain social relations. What is important is not that we all enjoy the same utility, but that nobody dominates or exploits another, and that we treat each other as peers. If social relations have a significant effect on well-being – and there is growing empirical evidence that they do – then utilitarianism shares this concern.
In the cases above, utilitarianism seems to conflict with liberal conceptions of autonomy and equality, but accords more with the rendering those values receive in the socialist tradition, which places more weight on the social nature of individuals and the importance of relations over distribution. This is an interesting result: utilitarianism is usually associated with liberal rather than socialist politics.