Utilitarianism for me, but not for thee?

The older I get, the more convinced I am that utilitarianism is the best value system.  What do I mean by best?  I mean the one that, if used correctly, leads to the happiest society.  But would it be used correctly?  Or would it be abused?  Bryan Caplan has a post suggesting the latter.

Here’s the problem I see with utilitarianism.  The world is full of cognitive illusions.  One of the most powerful sets of illusions is the left-liberal view that big government can solve many of society’s problems.  Just to be clear, I do think that government can solve a few problems (such as pollution and excessive inequality), but only a few.  Even though I have the same (utilitarian) value system as left-liberals, my policy preferences differ because my University of Chicago education showed me all the unintended consequences of government intervention.  Thus I can use my utilitarian value system without ending up on The Road to Serfdom.

Most left-liberals lack a University of Chicago education.  For them, the contemplation of all the societal problems that can be solved with big government is akin to playing with matches.  Quite dangerous.

So if that’s the world we live in, what’s the best solution?

1. Stick with utilitarianism, and try to spread the Chicago gospel.

2. Replace utilitarianism with a sort of natural rights libertarianism, which while not actually correct, will lead to better outcomes, even by utilitarian standards.  Spread the Ron Paul gospel.

You might notice that this is similar to the age old philosophical question of whether religion is a useful way of making society more ethical, even if based on a myth.

I believe there are good arguments on both sides of this issue, but in the end I opt for utilitarianism.  We might be able to temporarily indoctrinate some young people with books by Ayn Rand, but in the long run I think we need pragmatic arguments for a free society, if we are to convince the class of educated intellectuals who play such an important role in policymaking.

I recognize that utilitarianism is playing with fire — I just don’t see any better options.


Tags:

 
 
 

53 Responses to “Utilitarianism for me, but not for thee?”

  1. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    9. December 2016 at 10:58

    How about a philosophy of cognitive illusion avoidance, a.k.a, pragmatism?

    Alternately, there’s selfish capitalism mixed with fear of God. Or, nowadays, fear of Trumpenfuhrer tweets.

  2. Gravatar of Nathan Taylor Nathan Taylor
    9. December 2016 at 11:17

    I agree with Bryan Caplan. I would put it this way: the utilitarianism GPS inevitably selects driving down the road to serfdom. This is not a bug in utilitarianism, or user err someone might correct by proper education. It’s fundamentally baked in.

    No doubt you’ve read Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society. Likely many times. Hayek’s defense of markets is ultimately one of markets as an emergent way to discover knowledge. So Communism must inevitably seek to control more and more of the economy to make central planning work. This is not a bug. It’s an inevitable feature. Communism has despotism baked in.

    Likewise, utiliatariaism asks us to know and *plan for* the consequences of our actions into the deep future. The deep future is a place of hugely contingent complexity. Even betting/prediction markets (say, for NGDP targeting, to take a random example) can only tell us so much.

    I would say all purely idealist philosophies collapse into despotism in the end, as they must enforce a plan upon a far too contingent world. So in this sense utilitarianism and communism both can be critiqued in Hayekian fashion.

    One alternative of course is a more Burkean or pragmatic conservatism. People must conform to norms which we inherit and use without fully knowing why. That’s fine. Follow those norms, embed then into law as history dictates. Then use your utopian philosophy (socialism, utilitarianism, libertarianism, whatever) to gain insights and ideas. Then try them out! But pragmatically, testing for results along the way. Then adopting more widely what works. And ditching what doesn’t.

    So that’s my two cents. Caplan is correct. Utiliatarianism is a wonderful analysis tool, not a governing philosophy. If used as such, your gps will inevitably lead you down the road the serfdom.

  3. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    9. December 2016 at 12:00

    How would you know what the right, best, maximum utility is? Utility seems to be highly subjective, ever-changing. If utilitarianism would work then communism would work as well but it doesn’t.

  4. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    9. December 2016 at 12:01

    The older I get the more I become convined that Utilitarianism is a flawed, dangerous, and socially destructive ethic.

    1. STOP trying to define happiness for everyone, either directly or by proxy of majority dictatorship. Happiness is a highly complex experience that THE INDIVIDUAL and only the individual can truly learn, seek, and experience. Happiness is not forced on people from without, not from do gooder dictators calling themselves philanthropists or from economics bloggers or from “messengers of the majority”. It is an individual subjective experience determined by the individual for him or herself. This at the very least requires the individual to not be aggressor against. Aggression is by its nature unwanted and undesired force which is intended to prevent the individual from determining their own utility, in favor of the aggressor’s utility.

    2. Utilitarianism was designed and promoted by statist intellectuals and socialists who wanted to abolish other people’s individual liberty. Period. End of story. The crocodile tears shed today over “potential abuse” by states, totally misses the mark. It is by design intended for states as a tool of social engineering. Sacrifice individuals for the sake of some lofty, “higher”, ideal. Utilitarianism is imposed from without, it is the only way it can be positively practiced by a given individual in their place in the world, and that is in itself an action of people abusing other people. Seemingly paradoxically, but the actual way to live in a world with maximum individual happiness, the only kind of happiness there is, is in the first place, when the holistic, aggregate, “social” happiness activity is absent, not intended, avoided. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. When people stop trying to make others happy, and instead respect others to make themselves happy, and provide them help that is asked for, and not robbing Peter to pay Paul, that has the unintended result of all people being individually maximally happy.

    3. Utilitarianism would advocate for the murder of all redheads or people between the ages of 56-57 or people taller than 6’5 in cold blood if most other people were made maximally happy by doing so, happy defined in the framework of utilitarianism of course.. There is no protection for the individual. Sacrificial lambs to the slaughterhouse of violence and coercion.

    4. It is literally undefinable. One person is robbed of $10 million, and ten other people are given $1 million each for free. INNUMERATE pundits believe that there can be utility additions and subtractions at the aggregate level to come up with some non-existence aggregate utility change.

  5. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    9. December 2016 at 12:10

    Good post. Speaking of books by Ayn Rand, I read the Fountainhead in high school and really enjoyed it so I thought I’d try Atlas Shrugged and see what all the hype is about. Good lord, it’s basically unreadable. The first quarter was fine and made some good points (calling the far left “looters” was particularly good) but somewhere around the midpoint, it became clear that the villains were impossible caricatures and that the idealist John Galters are actually idealogues who’ve created a Maoist gated community where the brightest of the bright run backyard smelters and trade in gold. Plus, there’s that hundred-page speech that felt like running a marathon…

  6. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    9. December 2016 at 12:12

    “Most left-liberals lack a University of Chicago education.  For them, the contemplation of all the societal problems that can be solved with big government is akin to playing with matches.  Quite dangerous.”

    Yeah, silly left-liberals who didn’t get taught that humans are too stupid to handle their own money production and distribution in a free market, and need big government MONETARY MONOPOLY, which is akin to playing with napalm. Incredibly dangerous.

    You can also be brainwashed at the University of Chicago into believing that big government has absolutely nothing to do the government having a money printing machine and enforcing taxes and enforcing debt collections in the paper that is spewed out. At Chicago, you will be told myths like big government is only the fault of non-Chicagoite liberals. I mean, can’t we all agree that giving a money printing press to a person who does X for a living, will not in the slightest, no way, increase the scope and extent of X? It would be conspiratorial crazy talk to think otherwise, right?

  7. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    9. December 2016 at 12:25

    “natural rights libertarianism, which while not actually correct”

    Explain

  8. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    9. December 2016 at 12:49

    Scott, you might like this short video on “The Repugnant Conclusion”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqBl50TREHU
    Julia is a utilitarian too. I’m not sure that’s the video of her’s I was originally looking for, but it’s similar.

  9. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    9. December 2016 at 13:53

    If you set out to maximize utility you are making the mistake that utility can be quantified. It can be ordered, but not actually quantified.

    We can say that U(x) > U(y) >U(z), that is x is preferable to y which is preferable to z…. but we cannot say U(x) = 2U(y). x would make me twice as happy as y.

    And we cannot objectively compare your utility to my utility. I can say, “it will make me happier to have $1000 than it would make you less un-happy to lose $1000, therefore I am taking your money.” And there is no way to say whether that statement is true or false.

    So, while it is nice to say that you are utilitarian, but there is no action that can be (or cannot be) justified on utilitarian grounds.

  10. Gravatar of Jg Jg
    9. December 2016 at 13:54

    The most fundamental of natural laws – avoid evil.

    Utilitarianism permis evil. Scott – stop playing God.

    And the truth exists. If there is no truth, then raping a child is morally acceptable.

    I will pray for your soul even if you believe you don’t have a soul.

  11. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    9. December 2016 at 14:20

    Scott,
    Just to understand your view of utilitarianism…. If by taking 1 util from you, society could give 2 utils to me without any other consequences, would that be desirable under your view of utilitarianism?

    Oh and one other questions, when you talk about inequality… are you talking about inequality of income? or wealth? or consumption? or utility?

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. December 2016 at 14:33

    Steve, Yes, I’m a pragmatist.

    Nathan, Not sure I followed any of that. Utilitarianism is the view that public policy should make us happy. Do you think “despotism” would make us happy? And how do you explain that the most utilitarian countries tend to be the freest?

    Randomize, I can’t comment, because I haven’t read either—they don’t seem like the sort of books I’d like. I did see the movie made out of the Fountainhead, FWIW.

    Doug, You said:

    “If you set out to maximize utility you are making the mistake that utility can be quantified.”

    Umm, no I’m not.

    Jg, You said:

    “I will pray for your soul even if you believe you don’t have a soul.”

    I don’t believe that prayers work, or that I have a soul. But go ahead, it can’t hurt.

    dtoh, Yes, it would be desirable. But I’m not going to do it, as I’m a selfish bastard.

    Consumption inequality. I don’t care at all about wealth or income or utility inelasticity.

  13. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    9. December 2016 at 14:43

    Scott,

    Good post. I’m more utilitarian the older I get too.

  14. Gravatar of JG JG
    9. December 2016 at 14:58

    Scott – if one of your children was gravely ill, I guarantee you would pray for divine intervention.

  15. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    9. December 2016 at 15:14

    For utilitarianism to work, there has to be an apriori agreement on boundaries. A meat-eater sees a boundary between human and food species (e.g. pig) that a vegetarian does not see. An ISIL imam sees a boundary between muslim and non-muslim that a humanist or Catholic does not see. A pro-choice voter sees a distinction between the unborn and born that a pro-lifer doesn’t.

  16. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    9. December 2016 at 15:47

    “The older I get, the more convinced I am that utilitarianism is the best value system.” Since your standard for judgment is maximizing the happiness of society, you have already presupposed utilitarianism. The question you are addressing is: what ethical system should a utilitarian publicly advocate and promote? Personally, I don’t worry much about that, since my public pronouncements have so little influence. But let me suggest that, even for an opinion-leader such as you, honesty is the best policy: if you are a utilitarian, don’t pretend to be anything else. Lying to people–trying to get them to believe something you don’t yourself believe–will have all sorts of bad consequences.

    As for big government, like you I applaud its success in reducing inequality. The biggest inequality I see is between us and people living at other times: those who lived long ago were much worse off then we are, and those who will live in the far future will probably be much better off. There’s nothing anyone can do about the inequality between us and past people, but effective measures can be taken–and are being taken–to “level down” future people, by retarding economic growth, which is what drives inequality across time. Big government is, indeed, doing wonderful work in this regard!

  17. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    9. December 2016 at 16:10

    Scott, you said,

    “Yes, it would be desirable. But I’m not going to do it, as I’m a selfish bastard.”

    I don’t believe you…. about why you wouldn’t do it. I don’t think you would do it even if it were you taking the utils from me.

    Not robbing Peter to pay Paul is common sense morality. But you’re stuck and can’t admit it because you’ve painted yourself into a logically inescapable corner with your arguments about utilitarianism and trade.:-)

  18. Gravatar of B Cole B Cole
    9. December 2016 at 16:47

    I believe we are here on Earth to sacrifice for something higher or bigger than ourselves, be at patriotism, religion, or the free enterprise system as carefully defined and circumscribed by the ruling class.

  19. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    9. December 2016 at 19:23


    For utilitarianism to work, there has to be an apriori agreement on boundaries.

    I think there has to be an a priori agreement on rules. And then utilitarianism can be used to challenge those rules (or in other words: for shifting the boundaries), mostly on a case by case basis.

  20. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    9. December 2016 at 20:34

    To JG @14:58

    I have prayed that you will understand how disgusting that comment was. I hope it works.

  21. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    9. December 2016 at 21:12

    B Cole:

    “I believe we are here on Earth to sacrifice for something higher or bigger than ourselves, be at patriotism, religion, or the free enterprise system as carefully defined and circumscribed by the ruling class.”

    Secularized leftist religion, aka neoMarxism.

  22. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    9. December 2016 at 22:13

    I think this is a great post – one of your best non-monetary posts.

    You say “Here’s the problem I see with utilitarianism. The world is full of cognitive illusions. One of the most powerful sets of illusions is the left-liberal view that big government can solve many of society’s problems.”

    and in the comments:

    “Utilitarianism is the view that public policy should make us happy.”

    I agree. But I see your point as a bigger problem with utilitarianism than you seem to (Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you). Those cognitive illusions are the whole ballgame. Let’s say we agree that public policy should make us happy, but we don’t agree on which policies make us happy. I think all basketball managers agree that their job is to help their team win games, but they disagree with what strategies with achieve that goal. It’s not wrong for a manager to believe that, but it’s not very useful.

    Similarly, most people believe their favored policies will lead to grater happiness. I’ve never heard someone argue that we should implement some policy because it will make people miserable. Every person I know who favors legalized drugs does so because they believe prohibition hurts more people through punishment and the illicit trafficking than the damage drugs themselves do. Every person I know who favors banning drugs does so because they believe drug users hurt themselves and others more than the damage done by prohibition. One side is wrong, but that has nothing to do with utilitarianism.

    So my verdict is utilitarianism is not bad or harmful, but has very little utility (Yes, I did that).

  23. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    9. December 2016 at 22:48

    Tom Brown,

    you beat me to mentioning the repugnant conclusion. Though ultimately, this only becomes a problem if one takes utilitarianism to excruciatingly detailed, logically consistent conclusions. I believe that all systems of thought lead to unresolvable issues when you do this. Therefore, we should always use several modes of thought, not just one, and never follow anything down the rabbit hole of pure logic if it doesn’t seem to make sense in the wider context. I know this is preaching inconsistency, but that’s the point.

    For some perspective, Tarski’s undefinability theorem claims that no formal system is able to formally represent its own truth. It is an expansion of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. For me this means that whatever philosophy you use, you need some semantic (meaningful) grounding outside that system. If you don’t have that, all is lost. You will just follow whichever logical system you subscribe to, until it becomes so detached from the reality it was originally meant to model that it leads to absurd conclusions. So this to all hairsplitters!

  24. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    9. December 2016 at 23:09

    @Christian List
    I’m not sure agreeing on the rules is enough. The Hindus, Jainists, and Christians all have the same rule: do not kill and eat sacred creatures. But they define the group of sacred creatures differently.
    Tribal members, nationalists and globalists may all agree that all people in the group should be equal before the law, but they disagree on who is in the group.
    The abortion doctor and the nun agree that thou shall not kill a person, but they disagree on who is a person.

  25. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    10. December 2016 at 00:12

    mbka,

    You’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it than I have. Do you have other examples from other “systems of thought?”

    Julia responds to comments/emails/tweets. You might leave her one. I’d be curious what she says.

  26. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    10. December 2016 at 03:07

    I think any attempt to apply any consistent moral philosophy (like utilitarianism) is doomed, since our moral intuition will prevent us. Our moral intuition is actually what drives our behaviour, it’s why we care about moral philosophy in the first place. But where does the moral intuition come from? It’s programming in the brain that regulates our behaviour arrived at through evolutionary processes. Just as wolves or tigers protect and do not eat their young due to programs in their brains, we have developed programs or modules which modulate our behaviour. But of course this program is not designed with a particular moral philosophy, it’s a kludge of axioms that evolution found useful to aid cooperation in humans, increasing their survival. Any moral system that clashes with this kludge will “feel” wrong – you won’t be able to consistently murder baby Hitler even if your moral philosophy demands it, if your genetic program prevents it.

    This is a separate point from the knowledge problem inherent in utilitarianism – if, as Daniel Gilbert very persuasively argues, that we don’t even know what makes ourselves happy, then how can we know what will make other people happy, or at least less sad? Especially years into the future? If we could re-program our brains to work according to utilitarianism what would this program look like anyway?

  27. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    10. December 2016 at 03:08

    Tom Brown,

    to me there are two separate issues, one is about what your system of thought wants to achieve, the other is about whether its internal mechanics are suited to the goal. And, the two intersect. I’ll write in a more conversational tone which will surely bring out the trolls proving me illogical etc but please bear with me, my point is always to not miss the forest for the trees, and to not miss the point of a philosophy because of its mechanics.

    A nice example of the tension between a system’s goals, externally provided, and its merciless logic, internally provided, is utilitarianism carried to the extreme in Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion. On one hand, utilitarianism is meant to maximize aggregate utility. Common sense says there is nothing wrong with that, it seems like a laudable goal. But now we encode this in a merciless logical system and let this system do its work and we realize that utility maximization can, and I stress “can”, not “must”, lead to the repugnant conclusion. Is utilitarianism therefore “wrong”, well not really, it is just a guideline, an imperfect algorithmic means to a normative end, and the normative goal, common-sense happiness for most people, cannot be provided by utilitarianism’s mechanics. Utilitarianism is just a means. So if utilitarianism goes off track from the end goal, because of its mechanics, you have to correct it by calibrating it every once in a while for absurdities. Such absurdities may be produced because, see Tarski, utilitarianism cannot, and cannot be expected, to provide its own meaning, and correct itself. It will just churn on and on until someone says, stop, this is not what we meant by maximizing utility. But “this is not what we meant” comes from outside utilitarianism, it is a meaning not encoded in it. It comes from people, not from the logic of utilitarianism.

    Empirically and in my observation, systems that are too pure usually have issues of this kind, where the system left to its own devices achieves about the opposite of the original intent. Egalitarian communism cannot function without a strong hierarchy that keeps everyone … equal (except the unequal ruling elite that has now become necessary). Free range libertarianism can devolve into two distinct options, a kind of homesteading-cum-anarchy where individual freedom is maximised on paper but severely restricted in practice because you won’t be able to exercise much freedom in this world of to-be-expected constant civil strife. Or, you realize that libertarianism only functions with laws and government and police and prisons and some social policy… which will work best, in my opinion, for general utility and average freedom too [and I presume Scott is talking about such a world]. But it won’t count much for for libertarian purists because now on paper, individual liberty is not maximised.

    My point is that we need a world where several systems of thought are used. Any single logically consistent system will end up with mercilessly “logical” conclusions that cannot satisfy the complex goal settings we have as humans. That is because, Tarski again, goals and meanings must be provided from outside the system. The system, any system, cannot provide them. We need some maximising of liberty, some maximizing of utility, some considerations of equality, all based on a compromise of common sense and humanity, none really “provably” “right”. Ideally we’ll have freely competing administrative units, you may even call them “countries”, where different compromises are tried out and people can vote with their feet and go where they think it is best – that’s the best revealed preferences indicator for utility actually maximised. We should not make a single, incomplete, narrow minded system determine all action. Purists and hairsplitters will hate this, but this is what I believe.

  28. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    10. December 2016 at 04:00

    Major Freedom:

    I may be a neoMarxist in terms of analysis (what is a neoMarxist, anyway?) but I am not a leftist.

    I consistently argue for elimination of property zoning, the decriminalization of push-cart vending and truck-vending, the delicensing of lawyers and other professions, the elimination of the vast panoply of rural subsidies, the elimination of the even vaster machine-politics-patronage “national security” system (especially the VA), the food-stamp program and many more items.

    Marxist medicine is poison.

    However, I do find vulgar Marxist analysis gets about 90% right in deciphering US politics and macroeconomics.

    Perhaps you disagree with that. Perhaps you think our two political parties have ideologies they apply consistently. That the wealthy believe in free-enterprise, and wants badly to un-zone their neighborhoods for high-rise condo developments. And farmers yearn to be free of the USDA. Former uniformed employees of the federalized military want to get rid of the VA and stand on their own two feet.

    I posit Marxist analysis is very valid.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. December 2016 at 06:41

    JG, No I would not, I’d spend my time looking for solutions that actually might work.

    Philo, You said:

    “if you are a utilitarian, don’t pretend to be anything else. Lying to people–trying to get them to believe something you don’t yourself believe–will have all sorts of bad consequences.”

    That’s exactly the point of my post.

    dtoh, You are wrong, I favor government policies that “rob Peter to pay Paul” I’m not a natural rights libertarian. Do I favor actual (lawless) robbery? No, for utilitarian reasons I think these things should be done lawfully.

    Negation, My article entitled “The Great Danes” is my argument for the utility of utilitarianism.

    ChrisA, You said:

    “I think any attempt to apply any consistent moral philosophy (like utilitarianism) is doomed, since our moral intuition will prevent us.”

    Our moral intuitions are becoming increasing utilitarian (gay marriage is an example), as I discuss in The Great Danes.

    mbka, I don’t agree on the repugnant conclusions argument against utilitarianism. I’ll do a post that rebuts that view, either here or at Econlog.

  30. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    10. December 2016 at 07:10

    Scott,

    I am curious about what you’ll say about the repugnant conclusion. In the meanwhile, I don’t think it’s a particularly good argument against utilitarianism either, nor are trolley problems for that matter. All these are carefully crafted extreme cases trying to find an “algorithmic” solution instead of going back to the original purpose of the thought models in point. That at least was the point I was trying to make.

    One line of thought that I believe does have a good case against government-sponsored utilitarianism are the voting paradoxes and intransitivity of preferences. And even this can be solved by reducing the scope of government and by letting the markets sort out the preferences.

  31. Gravatar of Nathan Taylor Nathan Taylor
    10. December 2016 at 07:40

    Scott – thanks for responding with: “Not sure I followed any of that. Utilitarianism is the view that public policy should make us happy. Do you think “despotism” would make us happy? And how do you explain that the most utilitarian countries tend to be the freest?”

    It’s all so clear inside my own head! :)

    Let me try one more time. I think we mostly agree. But the distinction I’m trying to draw is utilitarianism as analysis tool for policy (which we both strongly favor, and countries which govern that way are richer and freer) versus utilitarianism as overall governing principal (which I take you favor, or at least are less scared of than I am).

    Utilitarianism as *governing principal* means doing whatever makes people happy, yes, but into some indefinite future for all time. Taking into account discount rates, population growth, and if you are all in, risks of stuff like AGI paper clip computers killing all humans. So a pragmatic and humble utilitarianism is perfectly fine, and compatible with a Burkean caution on rapid change. So I think that’s your view. But as a pure governing principal, utilitarianism means you can do absolutely anything. There are no norms or laws which stop any action. If the paper clip AGI might come, or if global warming might kill the earth, or whatever. And it’s not just catastrophic risks, like batman/superman. Catastrophic risks just makes the point clear. Take a lessor risk like you think science says abortions are bad for everyone, or the other way, and you are convinced the science says abortions are fine up to and including just after childbirth. So infanticide is overall good for human happiness. So….make a law! In fact, no reason not to shoot bad people if on balance that’s ok. So human nature being what it is, and humans not being omniscient gods, in practice a pure utilitarianism must devolve into a technocratic arms race on policy, where the best and brightest have free reign. They have become as gods, with no limits on their ambition. And this becomes the norm for the governing group. Historical example: progressive from the early 1900s all supported eugenics, and this is extremely hard (I would say impossible, but conceded probably that’s too far) to argue against from a utilitarian far future point of view. That’s exactly why it was so popular with Woodrow Wilson. Morals and norms and history don’t constrain progressive utilitarians, forcing caution. Now you can push back and say, well, this kind of caution is also what a *true* utilitarian would do. And maybe in some utopian world this might be so. But real people respond to technocratic power by doing the normal thing, taking their own group and furthering their aims. So maybe now you say, well, the system is perfect but the people are not. Fine. But communism made that same claim of course. Utilitarianism is obviously as bad as communism of course. That’s absurd. But nonetheless I stand by the parallel in terms of power/temptation/technocratic despotism. And think a Hayekian critique applies to both.

    Anyway, FWIW, hopefully at least the gist of why I fear utilitarianism tends to despotism is clear. I suspect if we disagree, it’s about the definition of the term “utilitarianism”. Likely mine is mistaken, or perhaps your version is pragmatic enough to avoid this. But hopefully at least my point is clear.

    I’m sure my fear is original in any way of course. Just trying to make my point (hopefully) clear. Thanks for engaging.

  32. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    10. December 2016 at 07:51

    Thanks, I just read your Great Danes post – it is very good.

    I think what you call the commonsense worldview is what we usually refer to as populism, and the economistic worldview is the elite, educated view. There are right wing and left wing populists, and there are right wing and left wing elites.

    I’m not sure “elites” is even the best term – it probably should be “informed”. Populism is generally what you get with the commonsense view of about 5 seconds of thought. The informed view is what you get when you actually think about issues. So the elite view leads to greater happiness than the populist view. That’s why deliberative democracy is superior to direct democracy.

  33. Gravatar of Nathan Taylor Nathan Taylor
    10. December 2016 at 07:55

    Sorry. Just realized one more point on current politics might make this more clear. Imagine that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were only constrained by utilitarian arguments. On global warming. Standing up for white working class versus other identity groups. On who won the election. On crony capitalism. On gay marriage. On which companies to bail out, and which to let fail. That’s all they had to argue, just what’s best for happiness of Americans, to make America great again.

    With this as the only governing principal to constrain our leaders, do we get civil war, and then despotism? Or happy maximization? Where we all desperately love our meritocratic big brother goldman sachs utilitarian overlords?

  34. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    10. December 2016 at 10:15

    @Nathan Taylor
    I enjoyed your comments. If aggregate happiness is maximized by having meritocratic big brother Goldman Sachs utilitarian overlords, why would it be immoral to try to prevent that type of system from arising? And, is taking your own group and furthering your aims necessarily a bad thing? It might lead to slavery but it also might lead you to form a trade consortium. If it led you to make war on your different colored neighbors that might also lead you to suffer death and destruction and guilt thereby reducing your happiness and triggering a corrective action.
    If history did not show that we were capable of or prone to corrective actions I would worry more about your fears. My guess is that you don’t want a Goldman Sachs overlord because you value your independence and you know history well enough to know that oligarchies lead to misery. I think you have to assume that the majority of the rest of us learning agents in this system with you have different goals, different pleasure feedback loops and have been taught using different examples to believe that we would cherish our Goldman Sachs overlords.

  35. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. December 2016 at 13:11

    @Carl

    I’m not sure agreeing on the rules is enough. The Hindus, Jainists, and Christians all have the same rule: do not kill and eat sacred creatures. But they define the group of sacred creatures differently.

    So in other words it’s not the same rule…

    That’s not the point anyway I think we wandered of the topic. The question was which “moral navigation system” is the best, wasn’t it.

    I think most people here basically agree on the same thing: Utilitarianism is the best navigational systems but it needs (deontological) rules of thumb as basis, like “you shall not kill” for example.

    Rules of thumb that existed before utilitarianism and cannot necessarily be derived from utilitarianism alone.

    What I wanted to express in the discussion with you was exactly that: We need a strong basis that is maintained by “rules of thumb”. Rules that have been established over millennia. Utilitarianism comes into play only “at the margin”, at the boundaries, for example when people want to question the rules of thumb.

  36. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    10. December 2016 at 15:04

    @Christian List
    “So in other words it’s not the same rule…”
    Apparently for a comment section on utilitarianism to work, there has to be an apriori agreement on what constitutes the boundary of a rule. Does it include the data set or just the algorithm?

    I think your rules of thumb with utilitarianism at the margins can be incorporated into and explained by a purely utilitarian approach if you just assume a utilitarian algorithm that gives greater weight to past experience (i.e. to building up and living by the rules of thumb learned from experience) than to present variance (anything new and different that needs to be figured out using the utilitarian feedback loop).

    As to wandering off topic: there’s a good chance I have. Nevertheless, I think questions of who should be in the group whose utils are being maximized is a critical and divisive one since it affects questions of immigration policy, wealth distribution, abortion policy, foreign intervention and so forth.

  37. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    10. December 2016 at 22:15

    Sumner wrote:

    “I favor government policies that “rob Peter to pay Paul” I’m not a natural rights libertarian. Do I favor actual (lawless) robbery? No, for utilitarian reasons I think these things should be done lawfully.”

    In other words, theft of property is immoral for people who are not wearing government badges, but moral for people who are wearing government badges.

    Suppose Peter resists the theft against the men wearing badges? Suppose Peter resists and defends against the threats and harassment against his person and property, like for like, equal defensive force against offensive force?

    The only way that what you are saying can hold practical relevance, is if the men with badges are justified in eventually shooting and killing Peter if Peter puts up enough defense against the theft. In other words, your ethic, if we can even call it that, holds that it is morally justified for men with badges to murder people who resist theft of their property, but it is not morally justified for men without badges to murder people who resist theft of their property.

    In other words, your “ethic” is not a consistent ethic that applies to mankind as such. You are not actually espousing a human ethic. You are in fact espousing one set of ethics for one group of people, and a different, indeed opposite ethic, for another group of people. Murder, theft, aggression in general, is both moral and immoral at the same time, depending on whether the aggressors are wearing government badges.

  38. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    10. December 2016 at 22:51

    Benjamin Cole:

    “I may be a neoMarxist in terms of analysis (what is a neoMarxist, anyway?)…”

    NeoMarxism is just a basic term that refers to orthodox Marxism as the foundation but with enough changes and deviations so as to be a distinct ideology.

    “Marxist medicine is poison.”

    The reason why Marxist medicine is poison is the same reason why Marxist analysis is a misdiagnosis.

    “However, I do find vulgar Marxist analysis gets about 90% right in deciphering US politics and macroeconomics.”

    That is because 90% of vulgar Marxism is an a priori theory used to understand politics and macroeconomics. If you wear rose tinted glasses, everything will look rose colored.

    There are much better, and quite different, a priori theories that not only are consistent with empirical human history, but do not suffer from the fallacies and contradictions as Marxism.

    “Perhaps you disagree with that. Perhaps you think our two political parties have ideologies they apply consistently. That the wealthy believe in free-enterprise, and wants badly to un-zone their neighborhoods for high-rise condo developments. And farmers yearn to be free of the USDA. Former uniformed employees of the federalized military want to get rid of the VA and stand on their own two feet.”

    Perhaps what you imagine as a significantly different alternative to Marxism, is still within your same overall worldview, with modest adjustments around the fringes.

    The historical association between (some, not all) wealthy people, and governments, is not only not unique to Marxism, but predates it by like, thousands of years. Even Ayn Rand wrote that the first socialist oligarchs were capitalists who lobbied the state.

    Free market advocates like myself do not predict or expect that people will suddenly become moral angels once their bank account reaches a certain dollar figure. Indeed, a lot of us think that states should not exist to be bought off by anyone.

    The idea that wealthy people somehow tend to prefer a free market is just a silly straw man reactionary vulgarism cooked up in anti-Rand-cult cults and circles, designed to spoil the well for all wealthy people as such, and to justify progressive taxation and heavy regulation of “big business”. Strangely, these folks see greed, greed, greed everywhere among the wealthy elite, but very little among the political elite. It is as if political greed, power greed, is more noble or more righteous, or at least less evil, than “economic” greed.

    “I posit Marxist analysis is very valid.”

    I posit that Marxist analysis has been so thoroughly refuted both historically and theoretically (see Robert Tucker’s “Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx”, and Bohm-Bawerk’s “Karl Marx and the Close of his System”, and Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism”) that, in combination with information being available on the Internet, there is absolutely no good excuse whatsoever for anyone to believe in it.

  39. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    11. December 2016 at 00:32

    mbka,

    Thanks for that detailed response!

  40. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    11. December 2016 at 01:12

    Utilitarianism isn’t even a value system; it’s a framework for value systems.

  41. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. December 2016 at 08:00

    mbka, Regarding voting paradoxes, I’d pick the system that produces the greatest happiness.

    Nathan, I think you are saying that utilitarianism can lead people to make bad decisions. I agree. I just don’t see anything better.

    Negation, I would add that on many issues even the elite hold common sense views, as I think most elites support minimum wage laws and capital taxation.

    At SSRN I have a longer article on the Great Danes thesis

    Carl, You said:

    “If aggregate happiness is maximized by having meritocratic big brother Goldman Sachs utilitarian overlords”

    More likely direct democracy produces happiness, as in Switzerland. Wisdom of crowds.

  42. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    11. December 2016 at 08:19

    Putin takes a hands on approach to maximize utility:
    https://twitter.com/yashar/status/807379933941170176

  43. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    11. December 2016 at 13:22

    Sumner,

    I think you are saying that utilitarianism can lead people to make bad decisions. I agree. I just don’t see anything better.

    How about that very value system you are appealing to when you claim it can lead to bad decisions? In other words, where you are getting the idea of a decision being “bad” at all, even though it is “good” in utilitarianism?

    If that standard is not to be trusted or made relevant, why do you even think of it at all, and why communicate to your readers that an outcome is “bad” on the basis of it?

    What exactly is being written here? A defense of utilitarianism as a standard, or a contrived attempt to hide and cover your real standard?

  44. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    11. December 2016 at 13:27

    Perhaps the title of this post should have been:

    Utilitarianism for thee, but not for me?

  45. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    11. December 2016 at 23:05

    @ssumner
    Actually, I was responding to Nathan Taylor’s question about Goldman Sachs overlords. That said, your response about Switzerland segues nicely into my question about scale on your follow up post on utilitarianism.
    And I feel my non sequitur writing resources are getting spread a little thin having to cover two posts on the same subject simultaneously. I’ll probably need to concentrate my talents on your other post going forward.

  46. Gravatar of Student Student
    12. December 2016 at 04:11

    Any political arrangement from monarchy to communism works when people treat others as they would want to be treated. The problem isn’t a system. It’s that people can be such greedy selfish assholes. The problem isn’t the system it’s us and our individual actions.

    The kingdom of god is like unto leaven…

  47. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. December 2016 at 08:55

    Tom, Trump wishes he were that powerful. Fortunately he is not.

    Student, No, the problem with communism is the system.

  48. Gravatar of Student Student
    12. December 2016 at 10:05

    Look communism doesn’t work. We have plenty of evidence of this. But why? Because people are inherently self-interested. If people were perfectly altruistic (we certainly are not) communism may well work. The problem with it is that it completely fails in the face of actual human nature.

    I know you are not religious, or Christian, or gasp… catholic… but if you were to attempt to insitutionalize the Jesus movement into a political system, it would seem to be some kind of monarchical version of communism.

    It would also be Pareto Optimal with any innovation being a Pareto Improvment. The Christian conception of heaven sounds more like communism than anything else. Further, they sure seem to be advocating that people attempt some sort of communist utopia here on earth. It is pretty funny given christians (of most flavors) disdain for it. I find that pretty funny.

    Here is Paul in 1 Cor 8 as an example:

    And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

    8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

    10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

    13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

  49. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. December 2016 at 09:02

    Student, You said:

    “Look communism doesn’t work. We have plenty of evidence of this. But why? Because people are inherently self-interested. If people were perfectly altruistic (we certainly are not) communism may well work. The problem with it is that it completely fails in the face of actual human nature.”

    Maybe it would work better, but there’s still the problem of how to allocate resources under communism. It’s not clear to me that altruism solves the the problem of how many apples to produce.

  50. Gravatar of Student Student
    13. December 2016 at 11:44

    Fair point. I don’t know, maybe as many as one can produce. The question of how many apples to produce vis a vis corn would be a difficult one.

    I think it is worth pointing out that our current system allocates an equal share of abundance to the set including Trump, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian as it does to the bottom 90% of people.

    Seems rather strange to take distribution of abundance as best as a matter of faith.

  51. Gravatar of Student Student
    13. December 2016 at 11:45

    *… take that …

  52. Gravatar of Student Student
    13. December 2016 at 11:55

    One last thing… if our human nature wasn’t the issue, couldn’t we operate our current system as and still arrive at Paul’s “equality” through the altruism he seems to have been encouraging? Way off topic at this point so I will shut up and move on now, haha.

  53. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. December 2016 at 12:14

    Student, You said:

    “Seems rather strange to take distribution of abundance as best as a matter of faith.”

    It would, if that were my view.

Leave a Reply