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A quick thought on utilitarianism, non-ideal theory, sweatshops, and distributive justice.

So, I’ve been thinking about utilitarianism and non-ideal theory. Although what I’ve come up with may be quite obvious, I’d be interested in reflections on the thought.

It seems to me that there are times when we might do best (even on utilitarian grounds) not to do what would maximize utility in non-ideal circumstances. Consider an instance in which this point may have practical bite. Some argue against ending child labor because the children we prohibit from working may suffer more for our good intentions. Child prostitution may be their second best option. But that this would be so, holding everything else fixed, does not mean we should not try to end child labor. What it shows is that we should try to end child labor and help educate the children we liberate. If one says that we do not have the resources to do this then we should reply that we can and need to find the resources — that is what justice requires. Even for a utilitarian, there are times when we should not do what might initially seem to maximize utility because doing that will only maximize utility conditional on facts that we can and should change. Perhaps there is reason to worry about doing non-ideal theory in some circumstances. Or, more precisely, that we have to be careful about what kind of non-ideal theory we are doing. Consider another example to support the point. Aid organizations spend a great deal of time and money figuring out how to allocate scarce resources. For instance, the WHO tries to prioritize health interventions to maximize the number of disability adjusted life years (or whatever) that it can save with its resources. But if the global distribution of medical resources is unjust and can be changed, the WHO might better spend its time trying to change the global distribution of medical resources. read more...

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