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‘Utilitarianism and the Social Nature of Persons’. Awarded 28th February 2023. Examined by Jonathan Wolff and Mike Otsuka. Supervised by Véronique Munoz-Dardé, Joe Horton, Ulrike Heuer, Han van Wietmarschen, and Peter Railton.
This thesis defends utilitarianism: the view that as far as morality goes, one ought to choose the option which will result in the most overall well-being. Utilitarianism is widely rejected by philosophers today, largely because of a number of influential objections. In this thesis I deal with three of them. Each is found in Bernard Williams’s ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’ (1973). The first is the Integrity Objection, an intervention that has been influential whilst being subject to a wide variety of interpretations. In Chapter Two I give my interpretation of Williams’s Integrity objection; in Chapter Three I discuss one common response to it, and in Chapters Four and Five I give my own defence of utilitarianism against it. In Chapter Six I discuss a second objection: the problem of pre-emption. This problem is also found in Williams, but has received greater attention through the work of other authors in recent years. It suggests that utilitarianism is unable to deal with some of the modern world’s most pressing moral problems, and raises an internal tension between the twin utilitarian aims of making a difference and achieving the best outcomes. In Chapter Seven I discuss a third objection: that utilitarianism is insufficiently egalitarian. I find this claim to be unwarranted, in light of recent social science and philosophy. My responses to Williams’s objections draw upon resources from the socialist tradition – in particular, that tradition’s emphasis on the importance of social connections between individuals. Socialists have often been hostile to utilitarianism, in part for socialist-inflected versions of Williams’s objections. Thus, in responding to these objections I aim to demonstrate that socialist thought contains the means to defuse not only mainstream philosophy’s rejection of utilitarianism but also its own, and thus to re-open the possibilities for a productive engagement between the two traditions.
Peer-reviewed papers (single-authored)
‘Inefficacy, Pre-emption and Structural Injustice’, forthcoming, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. I argue that the phenomenon of pre-emption raises a problem for act-consequentialism, and connect this with the literature on structural injustice.
‘Against Commitment’, 2022, Philosophical Studies, 179 (12), pp. 3511–3534. I defend utilitarianism against Bernard Williams’s charge that it is incompatible with commitment, by drawing on socialist thought to argue that commitment, as he conceives it, is unattractive for socially connected beings.
‘Is act-consequentialism self-effacing?’, 2021, Analysis, 81(4), pp. 718-726. I investigate whether act-consequentialism tells individuals not to accept act-consequentialism, separating this from the question of whether it would make things go better if we, collectively, did not accept it.
‘Surveillance Capitalism: a Marx-inspired account’, 2021, Philosophy, 96(3), pp. 359-385. Drawing on, but going beyond, the work of Shoshana Zuboff, I suggest that Karl Marx’s analysis of the relations between industrial capitalists and workers is closely analogous to the relations between surveillance capitalists (Google, Facebook, and so on) and users. Winner of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Essay Prize. Draft version here.
‘Repugnance and Perfection’, 2020, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 48(3), pp. 262-284. ‘Perfectionism’ – a special concern with the best things in life – is often said to be incompatible with Derek Parfit’s ‘repugnant conclusion’. I show that perfectionism is in fact compatible with it, though not with a subtly different claim, and critically evaluate Parfit’s last two papers on the subject, which appeal to perfectionism in order to avoid the repugnant conclusion.
Peer-reviewed papers (co-authored)
‘What Should We Agree on about the Repugnant Conclusion?’, 2021, Utilitas, 33(4), pp. 379-383. Twenty-nine authors – including me – state our agreement that the fact that a theory implies Derek Parfit’s ‘repugnant conclusion’ is not an adequate reason to reject it.
‘The Ethics of Strikes’, What To Do About Now, 26 June 2022. I argue that workers ought to have the right to strike, ought to use it, and that considering norms around striking sheds light on some questions about the nature of morality.
‘Society’s to Blame: Banks, Structures and Climate Change’. What To Do About Now, 22 May 2022. I ask whether regarding climate change as a structural injustice absolves particular agents – such as banks who finance fossil fuel extraction. I conclude that whlist they may do nothing morally wrong, they are still liable to direct action and punitive policy as a means of altering structural incentives.
‘Why We Can’t Quit Facebook – and What To Do About It’, Justice Everywhere, 18 October 2021. I ask why it is so difficult for us to leave social media, even when we understand its problems – concluding we must break the social media companies’ grip on our need for social life.
‘Empathy, Sympathy and Solidarity’, What To Do About Now, 23 October 2020. An argument (using Hume) against the idea that we should expect world leaders’ personal experiences of coronavirus to care more about their populations, and for the value of solidarity, as opposed to empathy, in politics.
‘Resisting Surveillance Capitalism’, New Socialist, 25 August 2020. A critical review, from a Marxist perspective, of Shoshana Zuboff’s book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’.
‘Statues, Philosophy, and Charitable Intepretation’, What To Do About Now, 12 June 2020. A response to CM Lim’s article ‘Vandalizing Tainted Commemorations’, involving some thoughts on how the use of the principle of charity can help and hinder philosophical engagement with real world politics.
‘Is it wrong to be a lockdown hypocrite?’, What To Do About Now, 6 May 2020. A defence of the position that it is sometimes permissible for individuals to breach lockdown regulations, and for those same individuals to blame politicians and officials who do so.
‘Should governments prioritise lives, or the economy?’, What To Do About Now, 18 April 2020. An investigation into the choice that the Covid-19 pandemic is often said to pose, involving some thoughts on what ‘the economy’ is.
‘Capitalism and the Very Long Term’, Understanding Value X, University of Sheffield, 14 July 2021. I argue that capitalism has a tendency to undervalue the very far future, and therefore that those effective altruists who are attracted to ‘longtermism’ should consider embracing anticapitalism.
‘Is consequentialism self-effacing, or merely collectively self-defeating?’, London Graduate Philosophy Conference, 4 June 2020. I argue that even if our accepting consequentialism would preclude us from having meaningful lives, consequentialism may still not be self-effacing – though it would be collectively self-defeating.
‘Surveillance Capitalism: a Marx-inspired account’, Amsterdam Graduate Conference in Political Theory, 29 May 2020. I argue that surveillance capitalist firms – such as Facebook and Google – interact with users in a way analagous to the interaction between industrial capitalists and workers described by Karl Marx.
Work in Progress (may be available on request)
- ‘Utilitarianism is a Form of Egalitarianism’. I argue that utilitarianism shares the concerns of egalitarians for equal distributions of wealth and an end to hierarchical social relations, and further that there is no good reason not to consider it a form of egalitarianism.
- ‘Capitalism and the Very Long Term’. I argue that capitalism has a tendency to undervalue the very far future, and therefore that those effective altruists who are attracted to ‘longtermism’ should consider embracing anticapitalism.
- ‘Longtermism and Group Morality’. Longtermists believe that the most morally important effects of our actions lie in the far future, I argue that this is more plausible for large groups than for individuals, with the implication that longtermists should give greater consideration to radical reform.
- ‘Impartiality Without Alienation’. I argue that embracing an impartial morality such as utilitarianism need not be alienating, given the connections we have with others in a globalised economy.
- ‘Collective Impact and the Problem of Mixed Optimality’. Many pressing issues involve situations in which some set of actions has bad consequences, though each action in the set makes no difference to what happens, or even makes things go better than they otherwise would. I raise a problem for several recent attempts to formulate moral theories to cope with these cases.
My Masters dissertation, on Williams’s ‘integrity objection’ to utilitarianism, is available here.