Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert: Essays in Moral Philosophy.
Cambridge Studies in Philosophy.
New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ix + 220 pp. $54.95, $17.95 paper.
Our most basic moral intuition, according to Feldman, is simply stated: we ought to do the best we can. And, according to him, it is this intuition that underlies the utilitarian doctrine. However, Feldman thinks that it is no easy task to develop a theory that adequately expresses this intuition. Indeed, he thinks that many philosophers `have vigorously defended ``utilitarianism'' without succeeding in formulating the doctrine precisely' (p. 13). He describes debating the merits of utilitarianism before it is adequately formulated as `Rambo philosophy' (p. 13), and says that `we have a duty to see our theoretical targets clearly before we pull our argumentative triggers' (p. 13).
This collection of ten essays reflects Feldman's continuing effort to provide the details needed to develop the utilitarian intuition into a defensible theory. The essays have all been previously published (the earliest in 1974; the latest in 1997), but Feldman has newly written an introduction for the collection as a whole, and separate introductions for each of the essays.
Considered individually, the essays are of a very high quality. They set out the problems they deal with in an exceptionally clear way, and the conclusions reached are always well defended. Considered as a whole, the collection is equally impressive. It demonstrates the difficulty of developing an adequate formulation of the utilitarian doctrine, makes considerable progress towards providing such a formulation, and provides a plausible case for thinking that utilitarianism, when carefully formulated, can take on board many of the objections that have been raised against it. In addition, the introductions to the collection and essays are very valuable. In them, Feldman not only summarizes the articles, but also explains how his position has developed and changed over time. Even opponents of utilitarianism should agree that Feldman succeeds in making the utilitarian target much clearer and much more interesting. There is no Rambo philosophy here.
The essays are grouped into three sections, roughly connected by topic. The first section of four essays concerns the formulation and nature of utilitarianism. The most important essay of this group (essay 1) argues that taking actions as the alternatives with which utilitarianism is concerned renders utilitarianism inconsistent, and, instead, the alternatives should be taken to be possible life histories. Feldman also argues that simple (act) utilitarianism and general (rule) utilitarianism are not equivalent (essay 2). The next essay of this section (essay 3) argues that morality cannot best be understood as a strategy for the beneficial coordination of the behaviour of the members of a society, as a situation in which everyone does what is morally required may not lead to the best results. Although this is surely correct, it might have been good if Feldman had considered the view that morality, as a system of coordination, is imperfect, yet the best available strategy. The last essay of this section (essay 4) argues that the plausibility of motive utilitarianism (the view that motives, not actions, are the appropriate objects of utilitarian evaluation) rests on the previously rejected view, that actions, rather than life histories, are the alternatives with which utilitarianism should be concerned.
Hedonism, as an account of what is good, is the topic of the second section of three essays. In the first essay of this section (essay 5), Feldman advocates hedonistic pluralism, the view that distinct types of experiences can be pleasures. He also proposes the view that all pleasures are explained in terms of having a particular type of propositional attitude, i.e., something is a pleasure when we are pleased at its occurrence. According to this view, even sensory pleasures are explained in terms of propositional pleasures. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that Feldman doesn't discuss the plausible view that some animals experience pleasure, but don't have propositional attitudes. In the other essays of this section he discusses how a Millian distinction between higher and lower pleasures might work (essay 6) and revisits the propositional account of pleasures (essay 7).
The third group of essays, concerning problems for utilitarianism raised by considerations of justice, is, perhaps, the most interesting. Certainly, this is the section that will most engage with current concerns about utilitarianism. These essays should interest both the advocates of utilitarianism, and its opponents. The basic idea Feldman advances (essay 8) is that how good or bad a person's experience is depends on the degree to which the person deserves that experience. So, for example, he says that `[p]ositive desert enhances the intrinsic goodness of pleasure' (p. 163) and `[n]egative desert mitigates the intrinsic badness of pain' (p. 167). In the following essay (essay 9), he considers some questions concerning the relationship between desert and justice. In the final essay of the collection (essay 10) Feldman argues that Parfit's `repugnant conclusion' can be overcome by taking into consideration his view about the relationship between goodness and desert. According to Feldman, the repugnant conclusion is that we ought to bring it about that there are more and more people until doing so will make the world worse than it otherwise would be, which, supposedly, would result in the existence of an enormous number of people, each with a bare modicum of good experiences. Feldman's response is that each person deserves a certain minimum level of good experiences, and satisfying this minimum would require limiting the total number of people, thus avoiding the repugnant conclusion.
There are two views of Feldman's that I take to be ground-breaking, and which, in themselves, make the articles comprising the collection worth studying. The first is his account of the appropriate objects of utilitarian evaluation: life histories rather than actions. Here he has certainly got things right. Perhaps this view is no longer novel and is widely accepted, but it is, in part, Feldman's work that has made it so widely accepted. The second is the view that the value of a person's experience depends on the degree to which that person deserves it. His work concerning this topic is more recent, less technical, and, to my mind, much less persuasive.
Remember that Feldman's basic idea is that desert affects value, e.g., the less someone deserves something good, the less value results from that person's having it; and the more someone deserves something good, the more value results from that person's having it. The difficulty for a utilitarian is to explain desert in non-utilitarian terms. E.g., why wouldn't a utilitarian say that someone deserves something just in case it makes the world a better place if he or she gets it? That is, why isn't desert founded on utility? I think that Feldman fudges this question. He says that he `will not be able to provide any analysis of the concept of desert' (p. 161). He also says that he takes `desert' to be a primitive (p. 161). But this won't do. Utilitarianism is standardly thought to be the normative view that defines the right in terms of the good. On standard utilitarian accounts, the notion of the good is taken to be the single basic normative notion. This is utilitarianism's beauty. (Perhaps also its fault.) Feldman, however, does not take the good to be the only basic normative notion. The notion of desert, a normative notion if any is, is at least equally basic: how good something is, for Feldman, depends on the degree to which it is deserved. Such a move leads to deontology.
To his credit, Feldman says that his view `may be seen as a sort of hybrid of consequentialism and deontology' (p. 14). It seems to me that the divide between utilitarianism and deontology ought to be broken down. It is not unreasonable to think that individually the two views are barren. The attempt to reconcile consequentialism and deontology is a strength of Feldman's view. It also makes less plausible Feldman's claim that utilitarianism is the best expression of the intuition that we ought to do the best we can. In any case, it surely makes the collection of even more interest.
CHRIST CHURCH, OXFORD ROBERT L. FRAZIER