Why Peter Singer Abandoned Preference Utilitarianism

An Extract from Episode 34, The Peter Singer Interview (Part I) - click here for the full interview.

Transcribed by Emily Rose Ogland

Jack: It is rare that philosophers maintain the same views throughout their lives. Is there any significant philosophical view that you held early on in your career that you then went on to abandon? 

(5:15) Professor Singer: Yes, there are a couple. For much of my career as a philosopher, I thought that there was no objective truth in ethics. I was what you might call a non-cognitivist, which holds that ethical judgments are not statements of knowledge. And over the last … well, perhaps it was a gradual process… but more decisively over the last five or ten years, I’ve come to the view that there is objective truth in ethics, and that I had been previously mistaken about that. I’ve also changed my views about the form of utilitarianism that I hold. I used to think – and this is somewhat related, actually, to the change I just mentioned – that the form of utilitarianism that I hold, and which we ought to uphold, is based on maximizing the satisfaction of preferences that people have and minimizing the thwarting of their preferences. But I now take a view that is more like the classical utilitarians, that it is a matter of maximizing the surplus of happiness over suffering. 

Jack: Oh my, well, we’ll talk about this in Part I – we’ll want to get your reasoning behind that, and why that move took place. But we’ll carry on with these introductory questions for a moment.

Phoebe: So, another question: now, you mentioned this briefly just in our introductory questions, but this is a question prompted by listener Tyler Robinson: earlier in your career, you subscribed to preference utilitarianism, but went on to adopt a form of hedonistic utilitarianism. I was just wondering if you could give us a sort of brief run-down on what these two schools of thought are, and why you abandoned the former for the latter?

(18:05) Professor Singer: Right, I think I’ve already mentioned what the two schools are: one of them says that we ought to maximize the preferences that beings have, and minimize the thwarting of their preferences. The other says that we ought to maximize the surplus of pleasure over pain, or happiness over suffering. Very often, these two things will go in the same way – I mean, if someone is inflicting pain on you, you probably have a very strong preference for the pain to stop, and, equally, you will have a preference, no doubt, to enjoy pleasurable experiences. But there may be preferences that you have which don’t affect your consciousness  – an obvious one might be a preference for something to happen after you are dead, and that can’t affect your happiness. But preference utilitarians typically have said that that should be given some weight, whereas hedonistic utilitarians have said that it shouldn’t, or not in itself. There are cases where you have preferences while you are alive, which may or may not be satisfied, but which you may never know about – again, preference utilitarians think that they count, and hedonistic utilitarians don’t. So there are some differences between the views.

And the second part of the question was about why I changed my mind on this. It was related, to some extent, to the other change that I mentioned earlier, regarding the view that ethics can convey judgments that are objectively true or false. When I became a preference utilitarian, I was thinking more in the mould of the thought of Professor R.M. Hare, who was a professor of modern philosophy at Oxford when I was a graduate student there. His view was that there are no objective truths in ethics and that we can prescribe certain things – prescriptions are like imperatives, or like saying that we think that something should happen or should be done. He thought that what distinguished an ethical judgment from other kinds of imperatives was that we were prepared to universalize it, that we were prepared to say that it should apply even if we were not in the same situation that we are. For instance, in one of his famous examples, he would say that a Nazi who thinks that Jews should be killed would have to accept this prescription even if someone found his birth papers, which showed that he was also Jewish, then he would have to prescribe that he should be killed. And of course, most Nazis would never have done that. So to make an ethical judgement, you would have to prescribe it universally. I had held that view, and on the basis of that view, universalizing preferences is really the only thing that you can do; all of the other judgements that you might make turn out to be your own preferences. They can’t be judgements about what is objectively true; they have to be your own preferences which you are prepared to universalize. 

Once I was persuaded that there can be objective truths in ethics, then other positions were possible, and I felt then that some of the weaknesses or difficulties of preference utilitarianism that had long troubled me were actually so serious that the classical hedonistic view was a better one. Some of those difficulties, for example, were questions about preferences we should count: is it the preferences that you actually have, even if you are very angry and your momentary preference is to strike somebody in a rage? Or is it the preferences that you would have if you were to sit down and think calmly over what you want? Is it preferences that you have if you are adequately informed, or preferences that you have when you are in a state of ignorance? So, there are a variety of different issues, and I can’t go into all of them here, but I think that there are problems with describing the preferences. There is even a question over whether there is a real value in satisfying a basic preference that seems completely pointless. I’ll give you one example: John Rawls talks about somebody who’s ultimate preference is to count the number of blades of grass in a lawn. It’s not that that will make him really happy if he does it, and he’s not ignorant or misinformed – it’s just that that is what he wants to do. Should we really think that that is an important preference to satisfy? Now, I think that we shouldn’t.