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Gerald F. Gaus on Utilitarian Liberalism - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 105
Utilitarian Liberalism/Gaus: Utilitarian moral theories hold that we can possess knowledge of both the good and the right; pace Rawls, these are not matters of ‘reasonable pluralism’. The most straightforward versions of utilitarianism maintain that the good is either pleasure, happiness or preference satisfaction, and the right is the overall maximization of the good.
Bentham: Bentham, interestingly, did not think that the principle of utility could be proven; he did, though, contend that it could not reasonably be denied (1987(1): ch. 11, s. 11). Any reasonable person would see that pleasure is the ultimate end: consequently the principle of utility was beyond reasonable dispute. Whether or not the principle of utility could be established by reason was and is, though, a matter of dispute.
Mill: Mill, famously, advanced a proof (1963c(2): ch. 4).
SidgwickVsMill: Sidgwick, in contrast, insists that basic intuitions must be drawn upon in any argument for utilitarianism; in the end, Sidgwick appeared to accept that one could be an egoist and yet not irrational (1962(3): 418–22).
Gaus I 106
Whether utilitarianism underwrites liberal politics and economics (...) turns on economic theory, public choice, theories of institutional design (Goodin, 1996)(4), and so on. In that sense liberal utilitarianism is indeed a partially comprehensive theory, with various theories of economics and politics being part of the case for liberal utilitarianism. >Markets/McCulloch, >Markets/Utilitarianism.
Many philosophers are apt to reject liberal utilitarianism just because it turns on empirical claims; these anti-utilitarians often advance fanciful ‘what if’ examples, showing that under strange circumstances, utilitarianism might lead to strange results. In contrast, utilitarians typically have high confidence in these theories, and see no reason to suppose that our theory of political right should be independent of our best empirical theories of economics and politics (Goodin, 1982)(5). >Utilitarianism/Gaus, >Utilitarianism/Chapman.


1. Bentham, Jeremy (1987) Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
2. Mill, John Stuart (1963c) Utilitarianism. In J. M. Robson, ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, vol. X, 203–59.
3. Sidgwick, Henry (1962) The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4. Goodin, Robert E., ed. (1996) The Theory of Institutional Design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Goodin, Robert E. (1982) Political Theory and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Gaus, Gerald F. 2004. „The Diversity of Comprehensive Liberalisms.“ In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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