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Critics of utilitarianism usually rule out interpersonal aggregation. Many of them (e.g. Rawls, Nozick, and Nagel) appeal to the notion of the separateness of persons. According to them, we should rule out aggregation because aggregative principles do not take the separateness of persons seriously. This is a very familiar claim in moral and political philosophy. But I did not understand this claim. I now know why I did not understand it: Either (a) this claim is a truism or (b) it does not make sense.

My claim in this paper is very modest. The idea of the separateness of person does not necessarily lead us to non-aggregative principles. The ground for rejecting aggregation must be something else. I first discuss the view that we should reject aggregation because aggregation violates the separateness of persons, and raise two objections to this view. Then, I suggest another interpretation: The idea of the separateness of persons is concerned with the justifiability/acceptability of moral principles. Even if this interpretation is correct, the separateness of persons, I will argue, does not rule out aggregation. Finally, I will briefly consider the scope of Scanlon’s individualist restriction, which is supposed to make his contractualism non-aggregative. The idea of the separateness of persons does not quite add up. You can find the paper here. Comments very welcome.


  1. 1. Posted by Jussi Suikkanen | October 22, 2007 9:58 am

    Great Stuff Iwao. As someone who is slightly averse to aggregating interpersonally(and maximizing and many other things people take for granted), I do have few quick comments.

    I wasn’t sure I got a clear idea about what aggregation is supposed to be. You say that it consists of four basic properties: Unit-comparability, Impatiality, Responsiveness, and Continuity. I’m not sure these catch what aggregation is. As a non-aggregator (that sounds cool!) I can easily accept (and I do) Unit-comparability, Impartiality, and Responsiveness as they are defined. So, they cannot be defining features of aggregation. Continuity on the other hand is something I couldn’t accept but that seems to me to be a consequence or an implication of aggregation rather than what aggregation consists of. Surely the account of nature of aggregation must say something about summing benefits and burdens up interpersonally!

    I’ve always taken the separateness of persons objection to be at its best when it is taken in an epistemic way. We start from outcomes that are good and bad for different individuals. The aggregator wants to add these pluses and minuses up for a sum that represents how good the outcomes are for the whole world – for Williams’s ‘World Agent’. As I read aggregators, each one of them seems to use a different function to add the individial benefits up. Is some of them right? We would have an answer to this question if we could access the standpoint of the world for whom the lives of the different individuals are one’s own lives. But, we cannot do that because of the separateness of our lives. We cannot see what it would be like if many lives were ours – we can only place the benefits and burdens to individual lives like our own. Anyway, I love the section of Williams in Ethics and Limits of Philosophy where this is argued.

    About the Scanlon section. So, the point is that accepting the individualist restriction does not mean that the non-rejectable principles will be non-aggregative. Does this hold even when the individualist restriction is taken not only to say that the rejections must come from individual standpoints but also be based on personal but generic reasons? Also, as a contractualist, I wouldn’t probably be worried if I can hold onto the individualist restriction. It’s not that I want non-aggregative principles as a result but rather principles that match our moral intuitions. I tried to do this in my ‘What We Owe to Many’ paper in Social Theory and Practice. But, I’m not sure if I ended up with aggregating or non-aggregating principles.

  2. 2. Posted by Gerald Lang | October 24, 2007 4:15 pm

    I liked this paper a lot, Iwao. Let me make just two very quick comments on it for now.

    Once or twice you mentioned a constrained, minimum-guaranteeing brand of aggregative theory (specifically, at p. 13, where you’re talking about Rawls, and at p. 16, where you’re talking about Scanlon). You did this, no doubt, to broaden the appeal of aggregation. But I don’t see how this bolted-on minimum-guaranteeing feature can be delivered within aggregative resources alone. It comes from non-aggregative thinking, doesn’t it?

  3. 3. Posted by Gerald Lang | October 24, 2007 4:17 pm

    In fact, this was just one comment, not two! Still, I’d like your ideas on it.

  4. 4. Posted by Iwao Hirose | October 30, 2007 5:27 pm

    Many thanks for your comments, Jussi and Gerald. First of all, I should stress the following point: Critics of utilitarianism do not want to include any aggregative elements in their proposed moral theory. Average utilitarianism with a guanteed minimum includes aggregation, although it is constrained by the concern towards people below the threshold. And Jussi’s version of contractualism does not rule out aggregation, but merely constrains it in some cases.

    Now, I move to Jussi’s interpretation of the separateness of persons. Jussi intreprets it in the way that Williams provided in the famous section of his ELP. I must confess I do not understand Williams’s point at all. (Everytime I read that section of ELP, I have the exactly same feeling that I have when I watch the last scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). I simply do not understand what, if any, would follow from that beautiful, grand and imaginative section. But, for the sake of argument, suppose that I am clever enough to understand it and agree with Williams. Then, it would be the case that Rawls would not take the separateness of persons seriously on this interpretation. This is not surprising, because Williams’s point is broader than Rawls’s. But, this interpretation does not seem to capture what critics of utilitarianism have in mind.

  5. 5. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 30, 2007 7:55 pm

    Hi Iwao, thanks for your excellent paper! Just a quick comment on something you said in response to Gerald and Jussi:

    Critics of utilitarianism do not want to include any aggregative elements in their proposed moral theory.

    As you know, I have argued elsewhere that this may be true for some critics of utilitarianism, but it need not be true for all of them. In particular, I proposed that a critic of utilitarianism can accept some forms of aggregation as long as this critic does not hold the view that aggregation is the only thing that matters all the time.

    If this is right, the fact that a critic of utilitarianism accepts some forms of aggregation need not entail, as you seem to suggest, that the critic can no longer criticize utilitarianism.

  6. 6. Posted by Thom Brooks | November 9, 2007 4:08 pm

    I simply wanted to let Iwao know I’ve finally read the paper. I am greatly impressed. I think the paper is very well argued and my only advice would be to seek publication immediately. Amazing work that really makes an advance to the debate.

    How’s that for a response?

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