Utilitarianism and Agency: Adjusting Utility for Responsibility

Chris Mayer, Philosophy, 2020
Thesis advisor: Professor Owen McLeod

How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?

I asked Professor McLeod to serve as my advisor for a number of reasons. For one, I first began developing my topic in correspondence with him. I was also confident that Professor McLeod and I would work well together over a year-long project. Professor McLeod was not only thesis advisor, but also my academic advisor. I had taken two classes with him and had spent significant time in his office hours. As soon as I decided I wanted to pursue my specific topic, it was clear to me that I wanted Professor McLeod to be my advisor. I asked Professor Joseph Shieber to serve on my committee in part because of his expertise in an area that was relevant to the thesis. I had also worked closely with Professor Shieber in three classes and really enjoyed my previous work with him, so I wanted to continue that. For my out-of-department reader, I asked Professor Dennis Johannssen from the German department to serve on my committee. Professor Johannssen was my EXCEL research advisor, and I had greatly enjoyed my collaboration with him. I also valued Professor Johannssen’s diversity of expertise, ranging from philosophy to film studies, which I hoped would push the thesis in unique and interesting directions. I asked Professor McLeod to serve as my advisor in the fall semester of my junior year—a little early, because I was planning on going abroad in the spring—and I asked Professors Shieber and Johannssen at the beginning of the fall semester of my senior year.

When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic? How did you develop your research question?

I began thinking about my thesis in the spring of my sophomore year. A class discussion in Philosophy of Law motivated me to better formulate a frustration I had with the family of moral theories known as utilitarianism. Since I had really enjoyed discussing utilitarianism in Ethics the year prior, I presented the frustration to Professor McLeod, and we began discussing it. He also sent me some material to read to begin to better structure and formulate my thoughts. It became clear rather quickly that this specific frustration I had was recognized but barely discussed in the literature, and I decided that it might present an opportunity to contribute novel research. This opportunity for novelty combined with my passion for the topic were why I chose it for my thesis. Since my thesis began with an objection to utilitarianism—that utilitarianism reaches incorrect conclusions because it treats all of the effects of an action as equally relevant—my research question was fairly straightforward. How best can utilitarianism avoid this objection?

How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?

I began by reading as many papers and book chapters as I could, both about my specific topic and about utilitarianism in general.

Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?

Yes! Professor McLeod was very helpful, and in some of our first meetings he suggested a number of different ways we could structure the end product.

Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?

The literature on my specific topic was sparse at best, so, instead of providing a comprehensive overarching literature review, I wrote two individual chapters in which I evaluated what I took to be the two most natural and best developed ways to address the objection to utilitarianism I presented. This approach charted the available literature, even though the available literature did not address my project specifically.

Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?

Yes, I do—I believe I received a few items. I also corresponded with the library about a few of the sources I needed.

What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?

The lack of an established literature base made it difficult, especially early on, to make headway. An established literature base is sometimes nice between it provides a reference point throughout the work, something that you can point to and say, “This is what I’m responding to.” For my project, I was more responding to the lack of such a literature base. The other difficult part was staying productive over a long period of time. I’m usually the type of person who thinks about a problem for a week or so, and then spends a couple of hours writing intensely. Since a thesis is so much larger in scope, this approach doesn’t really work as well, and I did have to learn how better to parcel my time.

What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?

The ownership I could take over the process was, for me, the most rewarding part of the project. Especially since there was so little out there on my topic, it was easy for me to take pride in not only the project but also the choice of topic. This didn’t just feel like a corner of the literature, this felt like my corner of the literature. That was something I’ve never felt before.

What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?

Professor McLeod provided me with tremendous support. Early on, he helped me piece together the overall structure of the thesis and develop my answer. When it came time to write, Professor McLeod read countless drafts—up to 8(!!) for the longest chapter—and provided me with incredible comments that helped steer the project. Professor McLeod also provided me with welcome support whenever I felt overwhelmed or like I was stuck. He pretty much always knew exactly what was going on and how we could work through it as effectively as possible.

Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?

I did not meet with librarians, although I do wish I had. I heard from quite a few friends who were also writing theses that they found their meetings very helpful.

What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (parents, friends, etc.)?

I relied on my parents and friends mostly. My friends were very willing sounding boards for my ideas. My parents were generous enough to read portions of the thesis to make certain that what I was writing was comprehensible and clear. One of my priorities throughout writing this thesis was to make it as accessible as possible, and my parents very much helped me in (hopefully) achieving that.

Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?

Yes! If it existed, the library found me a copy of it.

Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?

I would have been more productive during winter break, or I would have scaled back some of my extracurricular activities. Writing a thesis is a fantastic experience, but it is certainly a time-consuming one. I would have probably cleared out my schedule to the extent that I could, so that I could focus on thesis.

What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?

Clear out your schedule to the extent that you can. You’ll want to spend a lot of time on your thesis, and, for me at least, it was the most rewarding thing I did my senior year, and certainly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I’d also say that it’s perfectly normal to feel a little overwhelmed at the beginning. Writing a thesis is a long process, but it gets done piece by piece, and you have plenty of support to help you.