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Agent-Neutrality, Consequentialism, Utilitarianism … A Terminological Note*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


It seems common at the moment to make agent-neutrality a necessary condition of ‘consequentialism” and to hold that deontological ethics are agent-relative. This note argues that both these tendencies regrettably obscure useful terms and distinctions. It concludes by considering what it would be best, now, to mean by ‘utilitarianism” and making a proposal.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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I am grateful to John Broome, Roger Crisp, and Berys Gaut for comments on earlier versions of this note.


1 See for example Pettit, Philip, ed. Consequentialism, Aldershot, 1993, Introduction, pp. xii–xivGoogle Scholar; Scheffler, Samuel, ed. Consequentialism and its Critics, Oxford, 1988, Introduction, p. 1Google Scholar. Critics of this tendency include Bennett, Jonathan, ‘Two Departures from Consequentialism”, Ethics, c (1989), 5466CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and John Broome, whose discussion is considered in §8 below. See also McNaughton, D. and Bawling, P., ‘Agent-relativity and the doing-happening distinction”, Philosophical Studies, lxiii (1991), 167–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Nagel, Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford, 1970Google Scholar, chs. VII and X. Nagel, uses the terms ‘objective” (for ‘agent-neutral”) and ‘subjective” (for ‘agent-relative”).Google Scholar

3 Though this is in the spirit of Nagel it makes some changes. The most significant concerns the range of ‘y”. Nagel, makes it range over ‘act, event or circumstance”Google Scholar (Nagel, , p. 47Google Scholar). For the purposes of my definition, in contrast, the extension of the reason-predicate should strictly be thought of as a set of triples of agent, possible choice-situation for that agent, and possible action-type open to the agent in that situation. However, to avoid over-complication I have suppressed the reference to possible choice situations. Fully spelt out in accordance with the conception of a reason-predicate as having three places, the schema ‘Py → there is reason for x to y”, would become, ‘Pz in choice-situation y → there is reason for x to z in y”. Notice that the value of the agent variable, ‘x”, and choice-situation variable, ‘y”, must be fixed to determine the range of the action-variable, ‘z”.

4 Broome, John, Weighing Goods, Equality, Uncertainty and Time, Oxford, 1991, p. 5.Google Scholar

5 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge, 1903, p. 147.Google Scholar

6 Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1969Google Scholar, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, x. 246.Google Scholar

7 I discuss this view, and more generally the connections between morality, blame, and punishment in ‘The Definition of Morality”, Ethics: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 35, ed. Griffiths, A. Phillips, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 121–44.Google Scholar

8 Compare Thomas Scanlon's discussion of what he calls ‘philosophical utilitarianism” in his ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 103–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar