QED Working Paper Number
1385

Utilitarianism can be misplaced or ambiguous. As a prescription for individual behaviour, the injunction to seek the greatest good for the greatest number is misplaced because there remains a domain of life where, within the bounds of law and custom, one is free to act as selfishly or as altruistically as one pleases. As a criterion for responsible government, it is ambiguous because there is no universally-recognized perception of the greatest good; people have different perceptions which can only be reconciled by compromise or by voting. The greatest number must be of citizens alive today, but governments may be vicariously concerned about people in other countries or yet to be born, in so far as citizens today have such concerns and are prepared to sacrifice for the benefit of others. The greatest good for the greatest number has no rival as a criterion for government, but it is vague nonetheless. Utilitarian ambiguity is inherited in any attempt to combine the ordinary measure of economic growth with changes in the distribution of income on a common scale.

Author(s)
Dan Usher
JEL Codes
E31
E31
O40
Keywords
utilitarianism
voting
redistribution
Working Paper