Moral Philosophy: We Have a Winner

Whether you like it or not, moral philosophy has long been dominated by the struggle between two “schools”: utilitarianism (or consequentialism more generally) versus deontology, with figures such as Singer, Bentham and Mill on one side, and Kant, Nagel, Scanlon, Kamm and others on the other side. Virtue ethicists (such as Aristotle, Foot and MacIntyre) are vocal but marginal.

A quick look at the use of words in the New York Times reveals that utilitarianism is and always has been the most popular school:

utilitarianism vs deontology

(The number for “deontology” are so low that the line isn’t even visible). If we add “virtue” – which is misleading because this word, contrary to the two others, is also used in non-philosophical talk – then we see that it’s becoming steadily less popular:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

Not a good sign for the prospects of virtue ethics. Almost exactly the same trends are visible in Google’s Ngrams:

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

utilitarianism vs deontology vs virtue ethics

The preponderance of utilitarianism is also evident from studies on trolley problems in which most test subjects prefer to sacrifice one in order to save many others (only small minorities prefer an absolute interpretation of the “don’t kill” rule). My guess is that the prominence of economists in public debate has something to do with the good fortune of utilitarianism.

Now, maybe the imbalance between utilitarianism and deontology is less pronounced among “professional” philosophers rather than the general public. I’ve tried to look for studies about the relative popularity of either school among philosophers but couldn’t find anything. Help?

A final, more normative than descriptive question: which type of ethics should people who care about human rights prefer? Not an easy one. I tried some answers here, here, here and here.

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