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Derek Bowman

I wonder if the original questioner can say more about what the difficulty is. They say "And this is despite the fact that many of my students are sympathetic to consequentialist considerations."

So is the problem getting students take seriously the consequentialist element in utilitarianism, or the (classical) utilitarian view of pleasure or happiness as the relevant good to be produced?

I've had a number of students who find utilitarianism so initially obvious that they're surprised that there could be any objections. I remember having a similar reaction in my first undergraduate ethics class. Isn't morality about doing good in the world? So doesn't it make sense that the moral thing to do is whatever produces the most good?

What kind of resistances do students raise? Are they already strongly committed a competing moral theory?

I also wonder how longstanding this problem is. Different classes have different personalities (or group-level personality dynamics), which means that what works sometimes doesn't work others.

recent grad

Hi Derek,

OP here. My central observations are as follows.

1) They'll often (though not always) have the intuitions about specific cases that the utilitarian wants them to have.

2) But when it comes to building a general theory out of those intuitions, there is no support among them. This isn't necessary because they're against general theories. On the contrary, they can be quite enthusiastic about some general theories.

3) They seem to be entirely unmoved by any version of utilitarianism which maximizes happiness on a morally-neutral conception of happiness. That is, they seem to think that the happiness of the immoral shouldn't get included in the calculus.

In sum, insofar as they are attracted to a general consequentialist normative theory, it's either some kind of consequentialism concerned with producing morally good consequences or some kind of threshold utilitarianism.


Recent grad - I am curious if you teach at a school that has a fairly low acceptance rate? It sounds like that to me. And your students seem to have completely reasonable reactions. Not many philosophers are sympathetic to classic utilitarianism -if they are sympathetic it is only with the qualifications that you noted, which are reasonable. I am curious why you think something is going wrong? I don't think you need to motivate your students to accept every view - just to understand it and the objections. And it seems to me your students are doing this just fine.

Sam Duncan

Start Trek is very good with utilitarianism. There's of course the famous bit in Wrath of Khan about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. And the DS9 episode "In the Pale Moon Light" is all about the conflict between integrity and utilitarian considerations.

Recent grad

Hi Amanda,

My school doesn't have a particularly low acceptance rate. But I take your point. If they're being reasonable, however, why am I teaching a view that isn't really a live option for anyone in the room? Just as a foil? I feel like there's got to be something better to teach in the place of utilitarianism but which still captures a plausible version of consequentialism. Suggestions are welcome.


I teach it not because it is reasonable, but because:

1. It is simple. And hence a great introduction to just what a philosophical theory amounts to. In intro classes ,many students do not understand this.

2. Similar to one, it is great to introduce students to examples, counter-examples, etc.

3. Peter Singer is a great writer, clarity wise, and I like my students reading his writing for that purpose. Also, I can show videos of Singer to get debates started.

4.It is a big part of the history of philosophy, and many "reasonable" views can be derived from the extreme (unreasonable) classical form.

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