Utilitarianism and Some of Its Critics: On Some Alternative ‘Incomplete’ Theories of, and Approaches to, Morality and Justice

Qizilbash, Mozaffar (2016). 'Utilitarianism and Some of Its Critics: On Some Alternative 'Incomplete' Theories of, and Approaches to, Morality and Justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In his celebrated A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that one reason that utilitarianism had remained dominant was that its critics had not advanced a well-worked out alternative. His theory of justice ('justice as fairness') began as an attempt to advance an 'incomplete' alternative, which did not cover the whole of morality, but only that part concerned with justice. Rawls' view is 'incomplete' as a view of morality inasmuch as it is restricted in scope. Yet in his later work Rawls gave up on developing a moral theory (called 'rightness as fairness') and clarifies that his theory is a political rather than moral doctrine, and sees utilitarianism as an instance of the latter. In this form Rawls' theory is not a genuine alternative to utilitarianism. Amartyta Sen's work is also seen as advancing a potential alternative to utilitarianism. Yet Sen does not go beyond articulating a general defence of (non-welfarist) consequentialism (which is compatible with many moral theories) to provide a 'complete' moral theory. His views are 'incomplete' in at least two ways: they do not generate a complete 'at least as good as' relation (evaluative incompleteness); and they leave space for people to further fill in his views in different ways (open-endedness).  The chief reason for leaving his views 'incomplete' in these ways is to allow for democratic deliberation and public reasoning about evaluative matters. This is an important reason why Sen leaves his various 'approaches' - such as the capability approach to the currency or justice and development, and the comparative approach to justice - 'incomplete'. Yet his views are not 'incomplete' in the sense that Rawls' views are. Furthermore, the various 'approaches' that Sen advances are best seen as articulating through contrast with some dominant paradigm (such as some influential view of well-being or justice) rather than an 'incomplete' theory of morality or justice in itself (even though Sen does sometimes use the terms 'approach' and 'theory' interchangeably, notably in his work on justice). In combination, his several 'approaches' to justice, human rights, the quality of life, objectivity and so on, may nonetheless be seen as constituting the building blocks of a theory. Martha Nussbaum's later version of the 'capabilities approach' (in Frontiers of Justice) is nonetheless, like Rawls' later work articulated as a theory of justice, which like Rawls' theory is restricted in scope and a political rather than moral doctrine. While this version of the 'capabilities approach' is undertood as a theory of the same type as Rawls' theory of justice it is nonetheless also 'incomplete' in at least one sense which Sen's approach is: it is open-ended about various issues. I argue that in the development of various 'incomplete' (non-utilitarian) theories or approaches, there needs to be greater clarity about the different ways in which various 'approaches' and 'theories' are 'incomplete', and about what one means by an 'approach'. In the absence of such clarity there may be considerable confusion about what is meant by the 'capability' or 'capabilities' approach or the ways in which an approach may be 'incomplete'.

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