Utilitarianism is Occasionally Useful

Let’s assume we’ve dismissed utilitarianism and deontology as useful ethical frameworks in our daily lives. Should we forget about them entirely? I don’t think so. Although life isn’t made up of one decision after another – it’s more complicated than that – there are still the occasional decisions to make. When we’re choosing which charity to give to, for instance, or which policy to implement in our anarchist collective bowling league, it’s hard to see how empathy alone is helpful.

In these cases we should definitely weigh the consequences of our actions against each other, keeping in mind that there are certain blurry deontological lines we shouldn’t cross. The resources of modern ethics are, of course, going to be helpful here: we should try to satisfy people’s preferences instead of just ‘making them happy’, and so on.

What we should avoid is bringing utilitarianism into our personal lives, or checking each action we make against a laundry list of deontological restrictions and permissions. When we make a decision that has to do with the public sphere – and I’m tempted to say we should make ‘decisions’ as little as possible – we may have to fall back on the shoddy generalizations of post-Enlightenment ethics.


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