The Universe Has No Point of View: John Dewey’s Naturalized Utilitarianism

16 Pages Posted: 24 May 2024

See all articles by Frederic R. Kellogg

Frederic R. Kellogg

George Washington University; Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE)

Date Written: May 23, 2024


Instead of the global universal maximization principle of classical utilitarianism that Henry Sidgwick called “the point of view of the universe,” John Dewey viewed welfare as guided by a local, problem oriented, agonistic preference adjustment principle. Dewey recognizes multiple possible observation points relating to a vast number of specific social problems, each also (at any given moment) coming in a succession of possible viewpoints, in which considerations of utility are transformed in stages by disputatious inquiry. Rather than utilitarianism’s synchronic question “What does the universe (at some given moment) recognize as the greatest happiness of the greatest number?” Dewey’s diachronic question is the granular inquiry, “What might the universe recognize as the optimum utility balance in each of its ongoing problems when they are resolved?” The universe cannot know or often guess the outcomes, as current (and opposing) preferences and utilities must be revised for specific problems to be resolved.
I argue first that Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics (1874) contains a deep inconsistency in defending the synchronic omniscient viewpoint strictly as a corrective to common-sense morality; second, Dewey’s naturalized account of the origin of rules reveals the defects of Sidgwick’s synchronic rule consequentialism, and resolves Brad Hooker’s rule-extension problem; and third, game theory, which Harsanyi and others have employed to account for change within a classical utilitarian context, assumes preferences as rigid over time, whereas they must adjust for a natural and workable utilitarian world. Moreover, inclusive input is necessary to avoid the complaint of Bernard Williams that classical utilitarianism implies an authoritarian world. Underlying Williams’s concern is Kenneth Arrow’s 1951 General Possibility Theorem, a famous (and unrefuted) demonstration that only dictatorship can order any domain of diverse individual preferences.

Keywords: utilitarianism, Henry Sidgwick, John Dewey, pragmatism, Kenneth Arrow, Brad Hooker, Bernard Williams, game theory, rule-extension

Suggested Citation

Kellogg, Frederic R., The Universe Has No Point of View: John Dewey’s Naturalized Utilitarianism (May 23, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

Frederic R. Kellogg (Contact Author)

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE) ( email )

Cidade Universitária
Cidade Universitária, Pernambuco 50670-901

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