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Empathy and the Limits of Utilitarianism (II)

Empathy and the Limits of Utilitarianism (II)

(p.128) 8 Empathy and the Limits of Utilitarianism (II)
Being Me Being You
Samuel Fleischacker
University of Chicago Press

Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt have proposed that utilitarianism provides us with the common moral currency that every pluralistic society needs for public discourse. This chapter argues that utilitarianism cannot in fact supply such a currency, but Smithian empathy can. The weaknesses of utilitarianism are surveyed, especially its elitist qualities and its inability to spell out, in a plausible yet substantive manner, what counts as “happiness.” Smithian empathy, because it enables us to enter everyone else’s perspective, can give us a much deeper understanding of the human good. Empathy can thus do crucial moral work for us that the utilitarian calculus cannot. This is its deepest moral function. It cannot alone provide us with an adequate moral or political view, but it plays an irreplaceable role in providing the starting points for such views. A procedural common moral currency which defines goods and harms via fair, rational, and empathetic discourse among all citizens—modeled in part on Jürgen Habermas’s discourse ethics—is proposed in place of the utilitarian calculus.

Keywords:   Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, discourse ethics, utilitarianism, Jürgen Habermas, public policy, happiness, empathy

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