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I would have thought Utilitarianism should be viewed as a theory of meta-ethics. This is because, in my view, Utilitarianism addresses the issue of "what is good?" by providing a method (i.e. the Utility function) that lets us evaluate whether one outcome is better than another.

I understand that Utilitarianism may have implications for normative ethics. For example, one could say an act is ethical if it increases Utility. However, at its core, Utilitarianism is simply an approach to answering the meta-ethical question "what is good?".

Why is Utilitarianism generally considered a normative theory?

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  • Good question! Someone likely in authority simply abused their rank. Utilitarianism is similar to democracy where the more votes an an act get the more it is deemed morally correct. This is not normative. Kantian ethics is better to call normative. Normative is not supposed to include emotional consideration. Meta ethics is only about the language used in normative ethics. Utilitarianism is more along the style of applied ethics.
    – Logikal
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 18:48
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    If Utilitarianism is a metaethics theory, then what theory decides any of such utility (function)?... Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 19:24
  • @DoubleKnot, I think that Utilitarianism could be viewed as a "fundamental" theory of ethics in the sense that it is not derived from anything, rather it is simply the fundamental truth. Of course, people disagree on what the Utility function is (and whether it's possible to know what it is). But I view Utilitarianism as the assertion that there exists such a Utility function (regardless of whether we know how to evaluate the function).
    – C.M.O.B.
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 21:17
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    Sounds you're on the right track... Kant's categorical imperative also asserts there exists such a deontology... Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 21:35

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Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory since it is theory about how we ought to act morally speaking. The simplest version says roughly: the morally optimal action is the action which maximizes future wellbeing.

There are various meta-ethical theories on the basis of which one might advance utilitarianism. Historically authors like Bentham and Mill focused on the natural grounding of value in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Sentimentalism/non-cognitivism has been a popular way to cash out this sort of meta-ethical justification of hedonic utilitarianism. However, there remains the added step of turning evaluative judgements (i.e. pleasure is good) into normative judgements (we should do what maximizes pleasure). In this regard, the utilitarian will often try to argue that overall value maximization is morally self-evident. This argument requires a more rationalistic/principlist (as opposed to non-cognitivist) meta-ethical grounding (see for example R. M. Hare). Thus, there is a tension within classic arguments for utilitarianism about which meta-ethical framework best supports the view.

Today, a moral philosopher who argues for a form a utilitarianism may well be neutral about underlying meta-ethics. Instead they are likely to sidestep meta-ethical issues entirely by adopting the shared methodological practices of contemporary normative theorists.

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  • Thank you! Is it fair to say that Bentham and Mill’s philosophy has both a meta-ethical component (pleasure and happiness are good) and a normative component (one should act to increase pleasure and happiness because they are good)? It seems to me that the normative component is merely teleology (i.e. one should act to bring about good results). The aspect essential to Utilitarianism seems to be the meta-ethical claim about the existence of a utility function.
    – C.M.O.B.
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 0:31
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    Normative ethics must be action guiding. Having a theory of value does not automatically tell us how we should act. A crucial aspect of classic utilitarianism is that it tries to maximize happiness. However, there are strong arguments for thinking that the distribution of happiness is also important. There is nothing in the hedonic theory of value to tell us which distributions to prefer.
    – Avi C
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 1:02
  • Another normative issue that is not resolved by the underlying meta-ethical view concerns obligation/duty vs supererogation. If we must all maximize general goodness this places extremely strong moral demands on us. It isn't obvious whether such demands are morally obligatory. The standard maximizing utilitarian thinks we're all obligated to become happiness pumps (there was a wonderful episode about this on the TV show The Good Place).
    – Avi C
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 1:04
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    Btw checkout wikipedia article on Epicurus about hedonism: Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desires: natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and vain and empty... Going beyond these limits produces unnecessary desires, such as the desire for luxury foods...Epicurus advocates a life of hedonistic moderation by reducing desire, thus eliminating the unhappiness caused by unfulfilled desires. Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, and fame...These desires are inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need. They are not natural and are to be shunned. Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 1:11
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    @DoubleKnot, thanks for the quote! I absolutely agree that hedonistic moderation is the best way to live. From this sentence, “Epicurus advocates a life of hedonistic moderation by reducing desire, thus eliminating the unhappiness caused by unfulfilled desires”, it seems to me that Epicurus makes a Utilitarian argument for hedonistic moderation.
    – C.M.O.B.
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 21:44

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