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  • Utility Monsters and the Distribution of Dharmas:A Reply to Charles Goodman
  • Vishnu Sridharan (bio)

In both the Consequences of Compassion and his response to my article, Goodman outlines a consequentialist theory that is both coherent and, in many ways, compelling. One can imagine that out of a concern toward—as Goodman puts it—“the impersonal events which fill the world” (Goodman 2009, p. 6), we will accept “momentary experiences as the morally significant units” (p. 186), and our actions will aim to promote the existence of “good dharmas.” However, as this brief reply argues, Goodman’s equating of a consequentialism focused on good dharmas to a consequentialism focused on individual well-being is unjustified, and, as a consequence, the textual evidence he presents does not support his consequentialist view. Thus, if we are seeking an ethical theory that is truly aligned with Buddhism’s rejection of the conventional self, we will need to turn to particularism.

First, Goodman’s argument equating the ultimate reality of “good dharmas” to the conventional reality of “individual well-being” is invalid. Specifically, while Goodman’s articulation of a consequentialism based on moderate reductionism works on both the conventional and ultimate levels, his attempt to translate extreme reductionism into conventional-speak misses the mark.

As articulated by Goodman, conversation at the ultimate level must eschew talk of “selves.” More specifically, the only things that exist ultimately in the Abhidharma view are “fleeting entities that are constantly appearing and disappearing in accordance with causal laws” (2009, p. 11), or, put otherwise, “simple, momentary, localized things, interrelated by a web of causal connections” (p. 149). Since at the ultimate level all that exists are fleeting entities, our groupings and categorization of these entities is purely conventional. As Herbert Guenther phrases this point, “since no experience occurs more than once and all repeated experiences actually are only analogous occurrences, it follows that a ‘thing’ or material substance can only be said to be a series of events interpreted as a thing, having no more substantiality than any other series of events we may arbitrarily single out” (Guenther 1976, pp. 144–145; emphasis added).

With this in mind, Goodman’s articulation of consequentialism under extreme reduction makes no reference to conventional selves, simply stating that our actions ought to aim to promote the existence of “good dharmas” in the world. At this point, however, he makes the leap to claiming, in his response to my original comment in this issue, that we can translate talk at the ultimate level of promoting the existence of good dharmas to talk at the conventional level of “maximizing the welfare of sentient beings in an aggregative way.” Goodman justifies this move by saying that “at [End Page 650] the conventional level, we call a series of closely causally interrelated mental and physical events ‘a sentient being,’” so “when more and better good dharmas arise within one of these series, we can say at the conventional level that the sentient being in question is enjoying a higher degree of well-being.” Stated otherwise, since good dharmas benefit those who experience them, per Goodman, promoting good dharmas is basically the same as maximizing the well-being of the individuals involved.

Why is this a problem? The problem, which consequentialists have been wrestling with for decades, is that talk of “good dharmas” or “beneficial mental states” is analytically different from talk of “individual well-being.” Probably the most famous philosopher to draw attention to this challenge is Robert Nozick in his analysis of utilitarianism (a particular type of consequentialism). Nozick writes:

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility. … Utilitarianism is notoriously inept with decisions where the number of persons is at issue.

(1974, p. 41).

Nozick points out, in other words, that any theory that seeks to maximize the amount of utility in the world will be at the mercy of “utility monsters,” and as such will be unable to guarantee...


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