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Iain King is a British writer. According to one 2012 book, he has "Never been conventional. He spent a year busking around Europe – playing the guitar standing on his head…. he helped introduce a new currency into Kosovo and worked alongside soldiers on the battlefront in Afghanistan… he also found time to write a philosophy book." [1] Elsewhere he is described as "an erudite academic… a UK Cambridge philosopher and colleague of Simon Blackburn " [2]. In 2007, CNN described him as an ‘author and planner’ [3]. He is a former fellow of Cambridge University, UK. [4]


King is most notable for his 2008 book [5], ‘How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time – Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong’ [6], which tries to amend utilitarianism to save it from its many criticisms, and in the process generates a new moral philosophy. The book is taught in some British university courses on ethics, and the British Liberal Democrats have highlighted King’s work, suggesting it provides ‘a reason to try to do what is right’ [7]


King’s Re-Working of Utilitarianism

King accepts seven commonly cited flaws with utilitarianism [8]. These are:

  1. It can be self-defeating
  2. It only considers future consequences, ignoring important events in the past
  3. It places decision-making authority in questionable hands
  4. It doesn’t discriminate fairly between people
  5. Individual concerns are sacrificed to the group interest when we pursue the ‘best consequences’
  6. Promises, fairness and telling the truth are down-graded by the ‘best consequences’
  7. Utilitarianism doesn’t offer any clear rules.

He attributes these flaws to a ‘more fundamental problem’ with utilitarianism: ‘the basic reason for following it is ‘hollow’ [9], and he attacks John Stuart Mill’s proof of Utilitarianism as ‘not logic at all’ [10].

King then makes adjustments to utilitarianism so that these criticisms no longer apply. He starts by re-working Pascal’s Wager, to say we should all seek value in life (because if there is no value to be found, then it doesn’t matter what we do, so we might as well seek value). Then he uses several arguments (which he calls ‘proofs’ [11]) to argue that seeking value requires empathising with others and accepting certain obligations, and that this in turn leads to a fundamental principle of ethics, the Help Principle – ‘Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you’.[12] He then applies this Help Principle to a range of philosophical puzzles, and derives principles for several areas, including promises, romance, lying, human rights, the fair distribution of resources, social choice theory and legal positivism.[13]. This method, he claims, addresses the seven problems with traditional utilitarianism, offering a credible ‘quasi-utilitarianism’ in its place. [14]

King’s work has been criticised because, like utilitarianism and quasi-realism, his system still tries to derive an ‘objective morality from subjective valuations’. [15]

References

  1. Quote from page 5-6 of ‘How to Find Interesting Work’ by Roman Krznaric, 2012, ISBN 978-1447202288
  2. Quote from page 85-86 of ‘An Enlightened Philosophy: Can an Atheist Believe Anything?’ by Geoff Crocker, 2010, ISBN 978-1846944246
  3. CNN interview - official transcript of interview, December 2007[[1]]
  4. Continuum Books author page[[2]]
  5. Page 6 of 'How to Be a Philosopher’, by Gary Cox, 2010, ISBN 978-1441144782]
  6. How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, 2008, ISBN 978-1847063472
  7. Cited by Continuum Books, 'How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right all the time, bottom of page [[3]]
  8. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 90, ISBN 978-1847063472
  9. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 31, ISBN 978-1847063472
  10. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 32, ISBN 978-1847063472
  11. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 6, ISBN 978-1847063472
  12. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 78, ISBN 978-1847063472
  13. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 226, ISBN 978-1847063472
  14. ‘How to Make Good Decisions and be Right All the Time’, p 177, ISBN 978-1847063472
  15. Page 85-86 of ‘An Enlightened Philosophy: Can an Atheist Believe Anything?’ by Geoff Crocker, 2010, ISBN 978-1846944246
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