Negative Utilitarianism

  • J. J. C. Smart
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 117)


One of John Watkins’s many notable contributions to philosophy is his paper ‘Negative Utilitarianism’, which is the second part of a symposium of that title, the other symposiast being H.B. Action.1 Both symposiasts consider and reject a form of utilitarianism that had been extracted by my brother Ninian Smart from some remarks in Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies.2 However the interpretative principle of charity should prevent us from interpreting Popper as a negative utilitarian in my brother’s sense: as my brother indeed remarks, if Popper did have the negative utilitarian principle as a fundamental axiom of his ethics, he also had at least two other principles as well. Certainly if Popper had been a negative utilitarian at all he would have been a singularly muddle headed one.


Moral Psychology Reflective Equilibrium Innocent Person Sentient Creature Classical Utilitarianism 
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  1. 1a.
    H.B. Acton, ‘Negative Utilitarianism, I’, and J.W.N. Watkins, ‘Negative Utilitarianism, II’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 37 (1963), 83–94Google Scholar
  2. 1b.
  3. 2a.
    R.N. Smart, ‘Negative Utilitarianism’, Mind, 67 (1958), 542–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 2b.
    He refers to K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2nd Ed. revised, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, vol. 1, chap. 5, n. 6(2) and chap. 9, n.2.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Op. cit., p. 86.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Sidgwick remarks that “…any particular existing moral rule, though not the ideally best for existing men under existing circumstances, may yet be the best that they can be got to obey”, Methods of Ethics, 7th Edition with a Foreword by John Rawls, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981, p. 469. Sidgwick also points out that “on Utilitarian principles, it might be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly”, ibid. p. 489.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Oxford University Press, 1973. See pp. 20–1.Google Scholar
  8. 6a.
    On observation conditionals see W.V. Quine, Theories and Things, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 26Google Scholar
  9. 6b.
    pp. 70–1.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    The word ‘telish’ was introduced by John Rawls. See his Two Concepts of Rules’, Philosophical Review, 64 (1955), 3–32.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    On this point see also J.J.C. Smart, ‘The Methods of Ethics and the Methods of Science’, Journal of Philosophy, 62 (1965), 334–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 10.
    See J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, 1973, pp. 98–9.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Cambridge University Press, 1967, See especially Chapter 17.Google Scholar
  14. 12a.
    In my paper ‘Utilitarianism and Punishment’, given at the International Conference on Justice in Punishment, Jerusalem, March 27–31, 1988. See also J.J.C. Smart, ‘Benevolence as an Over-Riding Attitude’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 55 (1977), 127–35,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 12b.
    reprinted in U.C. Smart, Essays Metaphysical and Moral, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    On this question see Sidgwick, op. cit. pp. 418–9, and Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, especially Part 3.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    See J.J.C. Smart, ‘Distributive Justice and Utilitarianism’, in John Arthur and William H. Shaw (Eds.), Justice and Economic Distribution, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978, reprinted in J.J.C. Smart, Essays Metaphysical and Moral, op. cit. Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Acton, op. cit. p. 84.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    Watkins, op. cit. p. 96.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    But see Monro, op. cit. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. J. C. Smart
    • 1
  1. 1.Australian National UniversityAustralia

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