The Moral Opacity of Utilitarianism

16 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2000

Date Written: 1999


The guiding utilitarian idea (GUI) is that "the final ground of moral assessment ... must lie in effects on people's well-being" (or welfare). The GUI calls (in some sense) for welfare to be promoted as much as possible. It is natural to suppose that act utilitarianism (AU) is the most faithful moral expression of the GUI, for AU requires one to promote welfare as much as possible.

This paper first reviews the reasons we have to doubt that assumption--reasons to believe that conforming our behavior to AU does not guarantee that we shall maximize welfare. The question arises whether there is a better interpretation of utilitarianism--a better representative within moral theory of the GUI. This paper suggests that welfare would be better promoted by conformity to a "multiple-influence" principle, which refers directly to more than one factor (to, e.g., rules and behavioral dispositions as well as acts). As we have no clear idea of what such a principle would be like, it follows that utilitarianism is morally opaque.

The paper concludes by suggesting that utilitarianism is not merely opaque but morally ambiguous, as there is no determinate criterion for identifying the moral principle that best represents the GUI.

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Lyons, David Barry, The Moral Opacity of Utilitarianism (1999). Available at SSRN: or

David Barry Lyons (Contact Author)

Boston University ( email )

745 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-358-3622 (Phone)
617-353-3077 (Fax)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics