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Why Utilitarians Have Become Conservative

In Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy, he makes an interesting observation about utilitarianism, but proposes what I think is a wrong explanation for it. The observation is that while utilitarianism began as a radical progressive philosophy, its modern day defenders are quite conservative. And indeed, Bentham was a noted prison reformer who endorsed (albeit quietly) animal rights and gay rights, while Mill was a proto-feminist. On the other hand, it can be embarassing to read R.M. Hare's insistences that his version of utilitarianism can't possibly conflict with common sense morality. (On the other hand, Hare's most noted follower, Peter Singer, is the one contemporary utilitarian that Kymlicka admits to be radical -- though of course there's debate on whether all of his radicalism is progressive. Sidgwick, meanwhile, shows up fairly early in the theory's development yet insists on utilitarianism's consonance with all common sense judgments.)

Kymlicka's explanation is that utilitarianism clearly mandated radical consequences in its original environment (the 19th century), but that reformers have now gone as far left as utilitarianism can uncontroversially take them. Utilitarianism's progressiveness, he says, is most clear and compelling when the masses are oppressed by a small elite, the paradigm case being the denial of political rights to the lower classes. But today's big questions revolve around protecting the interests of minorities (such as Latin@s or gays), and it's less clear that utilitarianism would favor them over the majorities that enjoy oppressing them.

I think Kymlicka's historical progress explanation is wrong on two counts. First, I think utilitarian considerations do weigh clearly in favor of the equality of oppressed minorities, though anti-utilitarians don't always see it because they are so troubled by the theoreticaly possibility that, given the right implausible circumstances, utilitarianism might justify some oppression. More directly devastating to Kymlicka's perspective, however, is the fact that only a conservative could claim that the battles fought by the early utilitarians are won. While the poor have a measure of formal political equality today, it is still widely (and in my view, correctly) held that modern capitalism is not utility-maximizing, but rather unfairly advantages a small elite at the expense of the masses. It is likewise difficult to argue that the modern gender system -- despite the attainment of Mill's goal of women's suffrage -- might be close to maximizing utility. (Indeed, when we take into consideration the way patriarchy hurts non-alpha-male men, gender issues become a case of a small elite oppressing the masses). And even a cursory look at the contemporary penal system would provide no end of motivation for a modern-day Bentham.

To really see why modern utilitarian philosophers so often come off as conservative, we need look no further than the earlier part of Kymlicka's own chapter. There, he takes the standard angle (among others) in criticizing utilitarianism -- he proposes a variety of scenarios in which a strict utilitarian analysis leads to consequences at odds with common sense morality. Such critiques have put utilitarians on the defensive, leading them to expend much energy appeasing their critics by devising explanations for why the common-sense act really would be mandated by utilitarianism. It's a bit funny to announce that you can't accept a theory because its consequences aren't conservative enough, and then -- when offered a version of the theory that meets your demands -- to turn around and attack it for being too conservative. There is still a criticiam to be made of writers like Hare who go to great lengths to avoid biting any bullets (but also of writers like Singer who go out of their way to, with much fanfare, scarf down bowls of bullet soup). But that criticism has to acknowledge a key source of contemporary utilitarianism's anti-radicalism. It's not utilitarianism's political success, but rather its experience of badgering by intuitionist critics like Kymlicka, that explains its contemporary bent toward conservatism.


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