Response to Response’s to Bentham’s Utilitarianism

The topic we’re currently on is utilitarianism, so here’s one that I wrote for yesterday’s reading.

Nozick, Robert. “The Experience Machine.” Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, 1974. 118-119.

Parfit, Derek, “What makes Someone’s Life Go Best?” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

In his excerpt, Derek Parfit provides several alternative theories to utilitarian hedonism on how to make value judgments. While I found the arguments and examples interesting, I was also somewhat confused by the importance of them. Notably, I find that the alternative theories don’t fit utilitarianism. The main principle of utilitarianism is that we are driven by pains and pleasures that we can actually experience, and Parfit notes that Success Theory accounts for events after an individual’s death, which have no connection to worldly pains or pleasures. Moreover, these events certainly don’t affect our actions (unless people really roll over in their graves). The Objective List Theory I find generally even less compelling, perhaps only because people are different. In assigning absolute values to actions, this theory avoids the preferences that actually impact our behavior.

My main concern with these two alternate theories is that they don’t seem to form a normative philosophy. While they might give compelling reasons for specific examples, I don’t think they are entirely coherent or applicable to how we should live. Parfit points out flaws with the Bentham/Mills style hedonism, yet he doesn’t seem to fully propose an alternative that works better. In the final part of the excerpt, he suggests that “what is best for people is a composite.” So far, he has already proposed a variety of situations in which the various theories best fit our intuitions on morality, and my assumption would be that the composite is an amalgam of these theories, each with a limited domain over the issues they best address. How they fit together in an understandable manner seems like the most interesting question to follow from the reading.

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