Contractarian ethics and Harsanyi’s two justifications of utilitarianism

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 12 (1):24-47 (2013)
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Harsanyi defends utilitarianism by means of an axiomatic proof and by what he calls the 'equiprobability model'. Both justifications of utilitarianism aim to show that utilitarian ethics can be derived from Bayesian rationality and some weak moral constraints on the reasoning of rational agents. I argue that, from the perspective of Bayesian agents, one of these constraints, the impersonality constraint, is not weak at all if its meaning is made precise, and that generally, it even contradicts individual rational agency. Without the impersonality constraint, Harsanyi's two justifications of utilitarianism on the grounds of Bayesian rationality fail. As an alternative, I develop a contractarian framework that is compatible with individual rational agency and Harsanyi's central assumptions, and that allows the derivation of moral conclusions on the grounds of Bayesian rationality. The developed framework offers a novel justification of contractarian ethics and may best be described as a combined version of Harsanyi's equiprobability model and Rawls's original position.



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Michael Moehler
Virginia Tech

Citations of this work

The Rawls–Harsanyi Dispute: A Moral Point of View.Michael Moehler - 2018 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 99 (1):82-99.
Rational Cooperation and the Nash Bargaining Solution.Michael Moehler - 2015 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (3):577-594.
Orthodox Rational Choice Contractarianism: Before and After Gauthier.Michael Moehler - 2016 - Politics, Philosophy and Economics 15 (2):113-131.
Integrated Moral Agency and the Practical Phenomenon of Moral Diversity.Michael Moehler - 2021 - Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 14 (2):53-77.

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References found in this work

What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition.John Rawls - 1999 - Harvard University Press.
The idea of justice.Amartya Sen - 2009 - Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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