Scheffler's Agent-Centered Prerogative – a Viable Solution to the Problem of Autonomy in Utilitarianism

Matthew Foust, John Carroll University

Utilitarian moral theories purport to be in favor of maximizing the well-being of all concerned. In accordance with this principle, several of an agent’s values must receive protection while practicing any form of utilitarianism, considering protection of human rights to be conducive to human well-being. Autonomy would seem to be one such value. In utilitarian theory, however, autonomy appears to have its value only in its existence as a means to the greater end of well-being. This observance raises the question of whether or not a utilitarian agent could be robbed of all remnants of his or her autonomy, this removal considered to be in the interest of the agent’s well-being. It is my claim that a viable solution to this problem can be found in a component of one philosopher’s consequentialist theory of morality. I contend that Samuel Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is able to provide utilitarianism with a way to value autonomy such that the conflict between the well-being of an agent and the agent’s autonomy would be rendered impossible.

Many philosophers have written on utilitarianism, directly or indirectly addressing this issue. Bernard Williams and J.L. Mackie consider autonomy to be fatally wounded by utilitarianism. Peter Singer and John Stuart Mill, however, consider autonomy to be merely infringed upon by the justifiable demands of the moral theory. The views of these four philosophers are presented in this paper in order to outline the particular nature of the problem that I claim finds its solution in the conciliatory writing of Scheffler.

Arguing in Utilitarianism: For and Against, that the moral theory presents a significant threat to agent autonomy, Bernard Williams asks the following question, with apparent reservations concerning utilitarianism’s ramifications:

How can a man, as a utilitarian agent, come to regard as one satisfaction among others, and a dispensable one, a project or attitude round which he has built his life, just because someone else’s projects have so structured the causal scene that that is how the utilitarian sum comes out? (116)

It is ridiculous, Williams believes, for any agent to be required to abandon his or her projects simply because utilitarian calculus dictates that maximization of well-being could best be met by doing so. This requirement, Williams continues, is an attack on the agent’s integrity. Williams makes this claim, reasoning that by following utilitarian guidelines of action, the agent actually gives up his or her sense of agency, forcing him or her to be “a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his [or her] own”(116). It seems that for Williams, this surrendering of agency that utilitarianism is responsible for renders the utilitarian agent a kind of slave to his or her system of morality, the agent’s personal convictions and agendas deemed worthless in the eyes of the subjugating utilitarian theory. It is clear that for Williams, utilitarianism makes far too large of an infringement on personal values. By undermining the importance of one’s personal ideals, utilitarianism forces agents to dismiss that which is important to them. A system admitting of such a feature, Williams assures, simply cannot be the best one for any agent.

Holding an entirely different opinion of the alleged autonomy-shunning nature of utilitarianism is Peter Singer. In his Practical Ethics, he argues that utilitarianism entails an “obligation to assist” such that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it” (168). Singer illustrates his claim with the hypothetical situation of his noticing a child drowning in a pond, on the way to his lecture. No one, Singer insists, would deny that he morally ought to save the child’s life, regardless of the potentiality of unfavorable outcomes resulting from doing so, such as his clothes being ruined or his being late for the lecture. If complete agreement to this occurs, then no one should disagree that we morally ought to take steps to prevent other harmful conditions, if we are similarly able to do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. Singer notes that the case of the drowning child is rare, but the case of poverty, to name one example, is not; it is an ongoing problem in the world everyday. If we recognize poverty as a bad thing, and are able to contribute to the minimization of it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, Singer contends that we should. He displays this argument for the obligation to assist in premise form:

  1. If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of

comparable significance, we ought to do it.

  1. Absolute poverty is bad.

  2. There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing

anything of comparable moral significance.

So, C: We ought to prevent some absolute poverty.

Singer does not stop there, conveying a commentary on the act of helping:

We have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty which is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a pond. Not to help would be wrong?Helping is not, as conventionally thought, a charitable act which it is praiseworthy to do, but not wrong to omit; it is something that everyone ought to do. (169)

This statement of Singer’s is a concession to the notion that agents are to be held morally culpable for not preventing bad actions, even if those actions are not those of their own doing. What Williams perceives as an erasing of autonomy is, for Singer, a real obligation to do good (or prevent bad) for others. This requirement, Singer holds, is not at all unreasonable, as it serves as a conclusion to simple, uncontroversial premises that neither consequentialists nor non-consequentialists would have difficulty endorsing.

It seems, however, that John Stuart Mill, a pioneer of utilitarian morality, would contest Singer’s brand of the theory. In speaking of actions done out of utilitarian duty, Mill, in his famous “Utilitarianism,” makes the following statement:

It is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought, to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large. The great majority of good actions are intended, not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up. (118)

The ethically good person, Mill explains, is not required to worry about the projects of those outside his particular concern, “except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights of any one else,” where “rights” are “legitimate and authorized expectations” (118). Although Mill has included an obligation to not violate the rights of other agents, autonomy seems to thrive in his utilitarianism. The requirement of concern for the other is not a strenuous one, as its nature of yielding to those concerns of the individual makes it appear incapable of performing the kind of suffocation that Williams anticipates. Williams, Mill would state, wrongly interprets the motive of utilitarian action as the rule of it. Mill’s allowance for emphasis of the utilitarian agent’s concerns makes Singer’s position appear to be overdemanding, a form of utilitarianism that could best find its appropriateness in a society of saints. Human morality is meant to be a practicable guideline of behavior for humans, and having allayed Williams’ fears about practicality, and humanized Singer’s take on utilitarianism, it seems as if Mill has constructed a system that suits humans well.

Despite the seeming strength of Mill’s theory, J.L. Mackie expresses serious doubt about its ability to function with universalizability in a social setting, the setting in which the vast majority of individuals, especially those concerned about morality, are situated. In his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie criticizes Mill’s utilitarianism as largely impractical, maintaining that the fitness test of a proposed act being its ability to maximize the happiness of all, by first considering the rights of all, is grossly overdemanding and unrealistic. Mackie considers the difficulty of the expectation that all members of a community be directed toward the promotion of the well-being of all, pointing out that “?such total cooperation is out of the question?where the ‘all’ are to be the whole human race, including its future or possible future members, and perhaps all other sentient beings as well” (130). Mackie appears to think that Mill’s system could work, if the world were comprised of just Mill and perhaps a handful of others. The world, however, is comprised of many more human moral agents than that, and as the sample size increases, so does the difficulty of upholding Mill’s utilitarianism. It is impossible, Mackie argues, for an individual to have concern for the well-being of all members of a society, as the sheer volume of “all” is too great to have the capacity to be concerned for.

Elaborating on the nature of human society, Mackie provides another obstacle that he contends that Mill’s utilitarianism must face:

All real societies, and all those which it is of direct practical use to consider, are ones whose members have to a great extent divergent and conflicting purposes, and consequently will not only not be motivated by a desire for the general happiness but also will commonly fail the proposed test of being such as to maximize the general happiness. (130)

Holding that Mill’s utilitarianism is inapplicable to “real” societies, Mackie terms it “the ethics of fantasy” (129). Its principles, Mackie asserts, are not guides to action, but are equivalent to “a fantasy which accompanies actions with which [they are] quite incompatible” (131-32). He explains that Mill’s requirement poses a direct conflict to those agents on which it is imposed, as a vested concern for one’s self is a permanent fixture in the makeup of human nature. With this impetus looming constantly over every human agent, the expectation of human motivation tending toward the general happiness is one that could only be thought to be reasonable in a state of fantasy.

Acknowledging that beneficence does exist, Mackie makes clear that it has nothing to do with a universal concern, but instead with others whom the agent has a particularly special connection with, such as friends or family. Mackie also acknowledges affections of a wider scope, considering those of religious or political nature, for instance, maintaining that these, too, are void of claims about the welfare of “all.” While an agent may express concerns about the welfare of others, as others participate in these categories, this unselfishness is not equivalent to an unflinching concern for “all.” It is, rather, a natural sentiment felt by a human with altruistic regard to those closely tied to him or her.

Upon inspection, Mackie’s claims run into a large problem, namely that their foundation rests upon a gross misconstruing of Mill’s utilitarianism. Mackie’s protests seem to be oriented toward act utilitarianism, though Mill clearly subscribes to rule utilitarianism. The views that Mackie argues against that he has ascribed to Mill are, in fact, opposite to those actually held by Mill. Mill explicitly states that agents are not expected to “fix their minds upon?the world,” and distinctly denies that they must carry motivation for the general happiness, citing preference instead for motivation marked by a desire for the good of “individuals, of which the world is made up” (118).

Despite the error in his attack, Mackie’s observation that societies are comprised of members with divergent and conflicting purposes presents a problem for Mill’s theory. Consider the separate cases of two expedition leaders on journeys with groups of explorers. Both leaders find themselves, along with their groups, five feet from what they recognize to be the most lethal snake in the world. Knowing that the snake is startled and eager to attack, the leaders halt and order their groups to do the same, all the while knowing that it is too late, as whoever is closest to the snake five seconds from now will unavoidably perish. Leader A adopts Mill’s utilitarianism, considering the greatest good for all to be the preservation of the several younger members in his group, rather than his one older life. He orders the group to back away as he steps toward the snake. Leader B adopts Mill’s utilitarianism, considering the greatest good for all to be for the weakest member to become the snake’s next victim. She concludes that if one person must die, it ought to be a particular member of the group who is injured severely, whose depletion of the group’s medicine has proven costly and fruitless. Adhering to Mill’s utilitarianism, she reasons that her potential action would be in accordance with the member’s wishes, and would give the greatest general benefit to the concerned “all,” so she pushes him toward the snake.

The difference in conceived purpose with regard to the sudden and difficult decision the leaders must make gives Mackie’s argument against Mill some substance. Mill’s system is constructed as such that two agents adopting it, while in identical situations, may commit acts of entirely different natures, one agent (Leader A) appearing to be morally better than the other (Leader B), under the microscope of moral conventions. This inconsistency, Mackie would attest, can only be accounted for by Mill’s overly strict demand for a concern of “all.”

The commentaries of Williams and Mackie portray utilitarianism as a harsh system, its requirements stealing from agents the very basic and highly valued commodity of autonomy. Possessing a strikingly different point-of-view, the commentaries of Singer and Mill portray utilitarianism as a soundly practicable system, with the concern for “all” a realistic and unobtrusive demand. These polar positions on the acceptability of utilitarianism on the basis of its treatment of autonomy appear to warrant some sort of compromise, making both pairs of writers able to agree to a notion of acceptability with reference to a utilitarian moral structure. Not purporting to advocate utilitarianism, but rather, consequentialism, a broad category of moral theory of which utilitarianism belongs as a specific type, Samuel Scheffler appears to create this middle ground in his Human Morality.

Scheffler grapples with the issue of demand, holding that accusations of an overly demanding nature pose a significant threat to a proposed normative moral theory’s acceptability. Such conflicts between agent and theory suggest that what a moral theory prescribes as and what an agent feels to be the morally right action can often be at odds with one another. In order to alleviate this problem, Scheffler introduces his notion of an “agent-centered prerogative.” It is my claim that in doing so, Scheffler unveils a viable solution to the problem of autonomy in utilitarianism.

Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is conceived as a cure for the conflict between morality and agent interest, a problem that finds its root in the problem of autonomy. Scheffler points out that the accusation that a moral theory is too demanding is made for one of two reasons. The first reason is that the theory allows for a minimal number of options of morally right behavior. For example, a Kantian agent who has a gun pointed to his head and another placed in his hand is coerced to take the life of a third party – or he will be the one to incur an abrupt demise. There are many possible courses of action he could take, but under his moral theory of choice, no option seems to be void of moral violation. If the agent complies, he commits a moral wrong by killing. If he refuses, he commits a moral wrong by endangering his own life. The second reason that a theory may be accused of being too demanding is that its requirements result in too much cost to the agent. For example, a consequentialist theory that strictly requires each agent to perform only those acts which will bring the greatest good to the greatest number would demand that an agent forgo his desire to pay rent to his landlord at the deadline of 5:00 P.M., so as to avoid his family’s eviction, if presented with the chance to distribute food to hundreds of starving people at exactly the same time. Scheffler realizes that, in cases such as these, morality’s demands seem overbearing. He does believe that morality is deserving of its impersonal aspect, but feels that the most appropriate moral point-of-view is one that is agent-centered, at the heart of which should rest the agent-centered prerogative.

Revealing the nature of the agent-centered prerogative, Scheffler explains that it permits each agent “to devote a certain proportionately greater weight to his or her own projects than would be licensed by an exclusive appeal to an impersonal calculus” (104). By granting more weight to the agent’s own personal outcomes, the agent-centered prerogative lightens the obligation to the “all” that is called for in utilitarian theory. Adding this component to the theory makes it far more readily abided by, as without this adjustment, an agent’s own concerns could quite often “lose out,” under circumstances the likes of which Williams and Mackie describe.

Careful to not discard the notion that moral principles should apply to everyone, Scheffler points out that the agent-centered prerogative does not “apply to me or any other individual in particular; [it] quantif[ies] over everyone and [it] therefore appl[ies] to everyone” (103). Anticipating a possible attack of his idea of a reasonable consequentialist theory as being tantamount to egoism, Scheffler explains that granting more weight to an agent’s own interests than is allowed in common consequentialist theory is not equivalent to granting exclusive emphasis on the agent as the object of morality. Endorsement of the agent-centered prerogative is not a “claim that people are of unequal value or importance in impersonal terms,” nor a “challenge [to the] coherence or validity of impersonal assessments of value” (Scheffler, 107). It merely affirms one’s position that an impersonal code of moral qualification, such as that characterized by utilitarianism, ought not erase the significance of the agent’s personal projects. Support for the agent-centered prerogative is support for a decrease in the (extreme) degree of impersonality that consequentialist theories typically embody, as attested to by Williams and Mackie.

The remarks of Singer and Mill, however, cannot go forgotten. It is, to them, an uncontestable fact that situations arise in which agents are morally obligated to abandon their own projects in order to benefit others. Scheffler insists that acceptance of the agent-centered prerogative does not present an incompatibility with this obligation, explaining that those who would adopt it would “believe that there are indeed circumstances in which one must forgo one’s own projects in order to prevent harm or provide benefit of others” (108). Continuing, he says that they would “not regard moral assessments as simply coinciding with assessments of the agent’s own interests” (108). The extra weight given to the agent’s projects, then, is not so much that the morally right decision in Singer’s example would be for him to ignore the drowning child. No matter how lofty Singer’s ambition might be to keep his clothes from being ruined or be on time for his lecture, the child’s probable ambition to live simply carries more weight, agent-centered prerogative considered. By explaining that agents who adopt the agent-centered prerogative are indeed morally required to maintain an observance for the interests of others, Scheffler dispels the charge of selfishness that Singer or Mill would likely leap to level against his agent-centered prerogative.

Just how much weight does the agent-centered prerogative give to personal projects? In answering this question, Scheffler appears to create a problem for himself, as the weight allotted to the agent’s interests is hazy at best, his most clear description assigning it “a certain proportionately greater weight?than would be licensed by an exclusive appeal to an impersonal calculus” (104). Even if Scheffler could furnish a fixed “amount” of weight to the agent-centered prerogative, he would have the dubious task on his hands of explaining how he arrived at such a determination.

This apparent flaw in Scheffler’s case is, in actuality, a strength that bolsters the fortitude of his argument. Scheffler makes clear that a consequentialist theory ascribing the agent-centered prerogative allows for a level of autonomy somewhere between the smothered, minimal amount that Williams and Mackie identify in utilitarianism, and the exclusively self-concerned free-reigning amount highlighting egoistic theories. For Scheffler to be more specific by placing a precise value to the amount of weight the agent-centered prerogative should carry for all agents, he would have to perform a job marked by arbitrariness and despotism.

Human morality is a complex subject, as it is a divergence of two exceptionally complex topics, humans and morality. Unless Scheffler knows all there is to know about humans and all there is to know about morality, it is impossible for him to declare a specific “amount” of autonomy the official, appropriate amount. If he were so bold to do so, he would perform a groundless, arbitrary act. Another reason that Scheffler is justified in not assigning a specific weight to autonomy in human morality is that if he were to do so, he would be guilty of the despotism that Singer and Mill’s critics view them as embodying in their respective theories. The requirement that the agent-centered prerogative carry “X” weight would establish a uniformity that every moral agent would have to accept. This intrusion on personal interest entirely defeats the notion of an “agent-centered” prerogative. To diminish the haze surrounding the allotment of weight afforded to the agent-centered prerogative is to diminish the very autonomy that the agent-centered prerogative provides. Autonomy dwells in the haze. It survives in the agent’s ability to prescribe the weight of his own prerogative.

The agent-centered prerogative functions as a tool in the hands of each moral agent, used at his or her discretion, when the situation seems to call for it. A carpenter makes a judgment of when a saw is the best tool for his or her task, followed by judgments about what type of saw is best, where to apply the saw, in what manner, and for how long. If mistakes are made about any of these judgments, including the appropriateness of using a saw, the carpenter learns from them, and attempts to ameliorate his or her performance with respect to the saw. The assumption is that the carpenter wishes to be the best carpenter he or she can be, and make the best creation or repair he or she can make. Similarly, the agent-centered prerogative is a tool that the agent can use when he or she sees fit, making judgments about the amount of weight it carries in what situations, at what times, and with what other agents. The moral agent will learn from mistakes made with regard to use of the agent-centered prerogative, and attempt to ameliorate performance with regard to it, as the moral agent wishes to be the most morally good agent possible.

With his agent-centered prerogative, Scheffler has established a positive aspect of a normative moral theory of consequentialism that proves to be beneficial to all agents who observe it. It is the centerpiece to a moderate moral system, including permissions for individuals to pursue their interests, while simultaneously including rules that individuals are obligated to follow. This moral structure, resting in between the most rigid and lax of moralities, commanding moral demands and allowing freedoms both at once, would be of good use imbedded within the utilitarian framework discussed by Williams, Singer, Mill, and Mackie. A utilitarian system requiring the course of action producing the greatest outcome for all, when combined with the preservation of autonomy, as could be supplied by the agent-centered prerogative, would be a largely acceptable moral theory, that would manage to be agent-friendly while exacting observance to moral obligation from its followers. It is apparent that Scheffler’s agent-centered prerogative is indeed a viable solution to the problem of autonomy in utilitarianism.

Works Cited

Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin Books,


Mill, John Stuart. “In Defense of Utilitarianism.” Conduct & Character: Readings

in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. Ed. Mark Timmons. California: Wadsworth

Publishing, 1999.

Scheffler, Samuel. Human Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University

Press, 1979.

Smart, J.J.C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge,

England: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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