Pandemics, we have discovered, bring an immediate and urgent focus to moral questions we thought we would have our whole lives to answer. As a result, we now find ourselves under siege from attention merchants, each vaunting their own moral perspective on this unique crisis and condemning the views of others as misguided and dangerous.
Amidst all the uncertainty, we may find clarity in our philosophy textbooks with a modern revival of classical utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is a moral framework that says we should try to do the most good that we can, typically by maximizing happiness or the fulfillment of preferences of everyone affected.
In a sense, this obviously doesn’t need a grand revival. Grains of utilitarian thinking are present throughout good government. Any time an analyst “crunches the numbers” to decide which policy would most benefit the public, it hearkens to the objective maximization of utility.
In fact, the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics went to three researchers, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer, who spearheaded the use of experimental evidence to alleviate global poverty as effectively as possible, a quintessential application of utilitarian thinking. Those researchers were an inspiration for the modern effective altruism movement—an approach to good-maximization closely related to utilitarianism.
These economists work on incremental change, such as micro-loans for the world’s poorest people or fortified food with essential nutrients to improve health. We’re talking about reliable, consistent ways to do a lot of good.
But the utilitarian framework also lends itself to big, metaformative projects that tackle moral issues at a global scale. For example, some utilitarians focus on risks from dangerous technologies. They try to prevent global catastrophes from nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, or — more relevant than ever — bioengineered pathogens that could prove at least as dangerous as SARS-CoV-2.