Useful Explanation of Preference Utilitarianism

Hopefully this will be helpful to those of you revising Moral Philosophy when considering Peter Singer:

A related position rests on the claim that what is good is desire satisfaction or the fulfillment of preferences; and what is bad is the frustration of desires or preferences. What is desired or preferred is usually not a sensation but is, rather, a state of affairs, such as having a friend or accomplishing a goal. If a person desires or prefers to have true friends and true accomplishments and not to be deluded, then hooking this person up to the experience machine need not maximize desire satisfaction. Utilitarians who adopt this theory of value can then claim that an agent morally ought to do an act if and only if that act maximizes desire satisfaction or preference fulfillment, regardless of whether the act causes sensations of pleasure. This position is usually described as preference utilitarianism.

Preference utilitarianism is often criticized on the grounds that some preferences are misinformed, crazy, horrendous, or trivial. I might prefer to drink the liquid in a glass because I think that it is beer, though it really is acid. Or I might prefer to die merely because I am clinically depressed. Or I might prefer to torture children. Or I might prefer to spend my life learning to write as small as possible. In all such cases, opponents of preference utilitarianism can deny that what I prefer is really good. Preference utilitarians can respond by limiting the preferences that make something good, such as by referring to informed desires that do not disappear after therapy (Brandt 1979). However, it is not clear that such qualifications can solve all of the problems for a preference theory of value without making the theory circular by depending on substantive assumptions about which preferences are for good things.

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Help with difficult Kant Readings…

Updated: Even more detail….

This is really a bit of an experiment, and it’s not finished… It’s basically the specified Kant readings with some commentary for anyone that’s finding it all a bit hard to follow… please comment if it’s useful.

If I get enough positive feedback I’ll go through and do the Nozick and Utilitarianism readings too…

Click on the image to download the pdf file.

Higher Philosophy Revision Help

Kant Summary:

(for a video of the complete click here)

Classic Utilitarianism Summary:

Look at more recent articulations of utilitarianism too….

Remember the information/headings here are to serve as a reminder, you need to be able to explain all the terms and ideas to pass well… Make sure you know criticisms and strengths of each position and make sure you are able to apply the to any given situation; Practice this.

For example:

In peep show Mark’s ex-fiancé buys him driving lessons so he can drive her to the hospital to have his baby. Unfortunately Mark decides not go to these lessons and three months later receives the phone call asking him to act as chauffeur. Sophie is staying at a country house three hours from the hospital and the taxi operator says she has no spare cars for a similar length of time. Should Mark drive to get her? Discuss with reference to consequentialism and Kantian ethics. [If you want to see what happens it’s on youtube… :)]

If you have enough time, click here and look at the sample paper for the new Moral Philosophy arrangements. Read the marking scheme.

Joint H Philosophy Class 23 Sept 10

The Philosophy Bites podcast is available to download here

Answer the following questions in your notes. Leave space for corrections.

1 What are the two components of Utilitarianism described here?
2 What does hedonistic mean (look this up, a precise definition is important)?
3 How does Bentham understand happiness & unhappiness? Where does Roger Crisp suggest this idea comes from?
4 How did Bentham calculate pleasure?
5 What does RC say is different about Mill and how does this affect his philosophy? Mention Wordsworth.
6 Try and come up with a contemporary analogy to replace Socrates and the pig.
i. What is this analogy a reaction against in Mill?
ii. Think carefully about the notion Mill is suggesting. Do you agree? Give (real life) reasons.
7 What are Higher and Lower Order Pleasures? What’s the difference?
8 Do you agree with NW that human sexual pleasures should be classed as lower order? Keywords: rape, kissing, procreation, animal +.
9 Is Mill still a hedonist?
10 Think about what is meant by the phrase ‘partiality to the self’. Can you think of any traditions you have studied previously that this sits particularly well with/sits is direct contrasts to?
11 Why is utilitarianism so hard to criticise?
12 How does Peter Singer develop the utilitarian principle? Find out a little about him (when, what, where etc.).

The Prozium World: Utilitarian Dream or Nightmare?

This is the opening scene from 2002 film Equlibrium. As (now) experts in Bentham’s moral philosophy you are equipped to engage with many of the issues the film raises.

Would you take prozium? Why?

Would you want to live in Libria (this is sightly different question)? Why why not?

What would Bentham have said, do you think (answer with support from the core texts)?

S4 Cover work – Moral Philosophy Recap

This clip shows a Captain in the British Navy in the Second World War. He is forced to make a difficult decision. As part of a convoy containing many ships he must decide whether to drop depth charges killing some allied sailors who are known to many of his on crew. To decide to save these men would be to risk the lives of every other seaman in the convoy…


1. Why is the Captain’s decision so difficult?

2. Why do you think the Captain makes the decision he did? Was he right?

3. What sort of moral philosophy is underlying this action? Why?

4. What do you think Kant would have claimed was the right thing to do (think duty, moral absolutes, universalisability)?

5. What ‘Duties’ are involved in this decision? Do they conflict?

Watch the second clip:


1. Is the Captain a murderer? Why/why not?

2. Does the action become more or less ‘right’ if the U-boat was not where they though it was? Explain your answer.

3. Do you find Kant’s approach or that of the Utilitarian more satisfactory in this case? Why?

4. What is moral luck? How does it fit in with this situation?

5. The Captains of the other ships recommend he drink away his ‘thoughts’. How did you feel when you heard them suggest this? What role does your conscience play in determining what is ‘right’?