Virtues for Real-World Utilitarians

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In this paper, we argue that utilitarians who try to act on utilitarianism in the real world face many psychological obstacles, ranging from selfishness to moral biases to limits to epistemic and instrumental rationality. To overcome the most important of these obstacles, utilitarians need to cultivate a number of virtues. We argue that utilitarians should prioritize six virtues.

  • Moderate altruism—to set aside some of their resources for others.

  • Moral expansiveness—to care about distant beneficiaries.

  • Effectiveness-focus—to prioritize the most effective interventions.

  • Truth-seeking—to overcome epistemic biases to find those effective interventions.

  • Collaborativeness—to engage in fruitful collaboration with other utilitarians, as well as non-utilitarians.

  • Determination—to consistently act on utilitarian principles with persistence and deliberation

In addition, we argue that utilitarians should normally not engage in harm for the greater good, but should stick to common sense norms such as norms against lying and stealing.

So in our view, real-world utilitarianism converges with common sense morality in some respects. Utilitarians should follow common sense norms and should not feel that they have to sacrifice almost all of their resources for others, in contrast to what it might seem at first glance.

But in other ways, real-world utilitarianism diverges from common sense morality. Because some opportunities to do good are so much more effective than others, utilitarians should cultivate virtues that allow them to take those opportunities, such as effectiveness-focus and moral expansiveness. Those virtues are not emphasized by common sense morality.

Some of our suggested virtues are commonly associated with utilitarianism. Moral expansiveness is maybe the clearest example. By contrast, virtues such as truth-seeking, collaborativeness, and determination do not tend to be associated with utilitarianism, and are not conceptually tied to it. But empirically, it just turns out that they are very important in order to maximize utilitarian impact in the real world.