With my first post as an official member of BHL, I’ll take a big picture approach and briefly explain why I think utilitarianism should be attractive to bleeding heart libertarians. There have already been several excellent discussions of utilitarianism on BHL (see here, here, and here for instance) and I’d like to contribute my two cents.

As most of you probably know, utilitarianism is the moral theory that tells us that maximizing utility is the right thing to do. There are different ways of understanding what exactly “utility” is, but I’ll go with preference satisfaction. I should say up front that I don’t have settled convictions about whether utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, but I’d say I’m less persuaded than most by the standard objections to utilitarianism.

So, why utilitarianism? One standard way of determining whether you should accept a moral principle is by seeing whether it can make sense of the particular moral judgments that you accept. Utilitarianism fits quite nicely with many of the judgments that bleeding heart libertarians endorse:

1.     Consequences Are What Ultimately Matter, Not Intentions. Utilitarianism cares only about the consequences of institutions, not the intentions of their designers and participants. If a law intended to help the poor actually harms them, utilitarianism would oppose it. On the other hand, if self-interested activity serves the public interest via the invisible hand of the market, utilitarianism would support it.

2.     (Anti) Paternalism. Utilitarianism explains why the state has no business interfering with the private acts of informed and consenting adults. It doesn’t recognize any perfectionist standard that would justify prohibiting acts that satisfy the preferences of those involved.

 3.     Social Justice. The distinctive feature of bleeding heart libertarianism is its claim that economic institutions should prioritize the alleviation of poverty. Utilitarianism agrees: utilitarian institutions will prioritize gains to the poor because of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. An extra dollar is worth more to the person who earns $1 a day than to the person who earns $1,000 dollars a day. (Which institutions do the best job of alleviating poverty is an empirical question on which utilitarianism takes no stand.)

4.     Basic Income: The sort of redistribution that best satisfies utilitarian standards is probably something like a guaranteed minimum income or a negative income tax rather than the in-kind provision of goods like healthcare or education. Information problems are going to make it very hard for governments to determine the utility-maximizing allocation of resources. What if I prefer $5000 worth of healthcare and $3000 worth of education, whereas you prefer $3000 worth of healthcare and $5000 worth of education? It’s better to just allocate $8000 worth of cash to each of us and let us buy the goods we want on the market.

5.     Open Borders. Utilitarianism gives equal weight to the happiness of all persons, so the happiness of people living outside of our borders matters just as much as the happiness of people living inside of our borders. Utilitarianism would therefore reject nationalist arguments for immigration restriction and recommend opening America’s borders to immigrants.

Why, then, do so many libertarian philosophers (and philosophers in general) reject utilitarianism? There are plenty of objections, but I’ll focus on what’s probably the most common one: the separateness of persons.

Matt and Kevin have each explained the separateness of persons objection to utilitarianism  before (here and here). The basic idea is that utilitarianism only cares about maximizing welfare; it doesn’t matter how it’s distributed. But it should: you have goals and projects that shouldn’t be sacrificed simply because your sacrifice provides even greater gains to others. Maybe you’re justified in cutting off your gangrenous arm to save your life, but society isn’t one big body such that we can dispose of one part to benefit the rest. We aren’t morally permitted to harvest Bob’s organs to save the lives of Catherine and Daniel.

Rawls is probably the most famous proponent of the separateness objection to utilitarianism and he thinks the solution is to endorse something like a mutual acceptability condition: coercive institutions have to be justifiable to everyone. And since those people made worse off by the state are the people who have the least reason to accept it, the state should make the worst off as well off as possible. Thus, we arrive at the difference principle which tells us to maximize the income of society’s poorest.

The problem is, the difference principle can violate the separateness of persons too. As Rawls himself notes, the difference principle implies that a single penny ought to be distributed to the poorest person or class even if everyone else in society (including people who might be very poor in absolute terms) must forgo billions of dollars to provide that penny. Not only is this implication extremely counterintuitive, it violates the separateness of all persons outside of the poorest class: they are required to make enormous sacrifices to their own life projects to provide that penny, the very projects that the separateness of persons is meant to prize and protect.

A Rawlsian could of course depart from Rawls and reject the difference principle. Maybe we should privilege, but not maximize, the well-being of the worst off. At some point, gains to the worse off can be outweighed by gains to the better off. But now we’re back to utilitarianism, which, as we’ve seen, preferentially allocates income to the poor because of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. So despite their differences in principle, utilitarianism and Rawlsianism could be very similar in practice.

For the record, Rawls’s own reply to the counterexample is that it’s unrealistic. He’s right, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If we’re discussing what is realistic rather that what is possible, then the utilitarian is back on solid ground. While it is possible for utilitarianism to recommend organ harvesting, hospitals that expropriate organs would not contribute to a happy and peaceful society in the real world.

Utilitarianism has much to recommend it to bleeding heart libertarians. Worries about the separateness of persons shouldn’t convince you otherwise.

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  • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

    A nice post, Chris, with lots to talk about. For now, I’ll just focus in on one of the many issues you raise.

    You claim that utilitarianism “explains why the state has no business interfering with the private acts of informed and consenting adults.” This struck me as a surprising thing to say. I would have thought that of all the “big three” moral theories – deontology, and virtue ethics being the other two – utilitarianism is in the weakest position to oppose paternalism. Kant, of course, was strongly anti-paternalist. And at least on conceptions of virtue that place heavy weight on the self-directedness of virtuous activity, virtue ethics takes a very similar line.

    But for the utilitarian, what matters is my happiness, or my preference satisfaction, not my choice. And so when my happiness can better be promoted by overriding my choice, utilitarianism seems to require that we do so. So, in principle at least, the door seems open to seatbelt laws, various forms of drug regulation, regulations or bans on prostitution and so on. Sure, maybe in some cases the costs of such paternalistic intervention will outweigh the benefits. But for the utilitarian, that’s what it always comes down to – comparison of costs and benefits. The fact that you choose to act in a certain way, perhaps regardless of the long-term costs and benefits, doesn’t count.

    This seems to me to be a pretty weak ground for objecting to paternalism.

    • Chris Freiman

      Hi Matt,

      I think that utilitarianism will not have an in-principle objection to “weak paternalism” but it will have one to perfectionist paternalism that enforces an objective conception of a person’s good. As for weak paternalism, I’m pretty sympathetic to Mill’s two major objections: (1) a person typically has the best information about what is in her own interests and (2) a person typically has the strongest incentive to promote what is in her own interests. There are certainly exceptions to this rule but it is going to be hard to govern on the basis of these exceptions.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Why? If the goal is utility-maximization, and people are mistaken about their own well-being, then preference-satisfaction can easily be unutilitarian. E.g., the heroin addict wants more heroin, but then becomes gravely ill/destitute/etc. That’s preference-satisfaction but not utility-mazimization.

        • Bongstar420

          They do not have long term goals and are generally nihilist’s. It is in the utilitarian’s interest to allow these people to consume themselves into oblivion without producing children. Addiction problems precede the existence of a drug and are entirely genetically mediated.

      • michael

        I wonder what you make of Mill’s view of higher and lower pleasures? It’s been a while since my last phil class but I remember the basic idea being that reading books or viewing “great” art is objectively more valuable and welfare enhancing than, say, getting drunk or having sex? Do you accept Mill’s view and if so does that not argue, from a utilitarian perspective, in favor of steering, coercively if necessary, people in the direction of the “higher” pleasures, assuming its practical?

        • Bongstar420

          The delineation is “arbitrary” from our perspective and cannot be defined in an objective way (that people could agree on). This notion has existed and been promoted by the “elites” for a very long time; it is self serving BS (the definition of higher or better pleasure is dependent on who is the alpha in society).

          • michael

            I’m pretty sympathetic to this. But what do you say to people who reply “Oh so you think Tolstoy is no more valuable than Archie comics then?”

          • Bongstar420

            The value in Tolstoy is not entertainment. If it was exclusively entertainment, then they would be equal. I actually agree with the elites that I am unhappy with on many things. I just disagree with how they characterize it (I’ve found pleasures that are more utilitarian then any opera or literature- its called chemistry and horticulture).

            Anyways, if we are going to make a utility comparisons of entertainment in the higher vs lower sense, I’d say that Stargate SG-1 (or Star Trek to a lesser degree) rates above Tolstoy and Archie. The series shows a broader set of possibilities, and elucidates some long standing problems in society. So, now maybe the statement about how it appears as arbitrary does not mean that it is. I am far more comfortable with the author of Stargate SG-1 being rich vs the author of Archie. I should mention that the Stargate series is only better according to my notion. Some people seem to think large, diverse populations of empowered, intelligent, educated, space faring beings would be bad.

      • Bongstar420

        (1) is false (2) is true but not functional based on (1). The claim that “a person typically has the best information about what is in her own interests” assumes a certain level of intelligence, education, and objectivity that does not seem to exist in average humans. People are ill-equipped to know what their interests are or how they should pursue them.

    • Theresa Klein

      Point 2 only works IF you define “utility” as “preference satisfaction”.
      Plenty of utilitarians do not define it that way. They are not interested in satisfying the preferences of smokers. They are interested in making smokers healthier.

      • Bongstar420

        I’m interested in satisfying the preferences of the maximum amount of people to the maximum degree possible. Seeing as how the people who are most against smoking rely on misrepresenting objective facts (which they would not do if they had a good case outside of “I don’t like smokers”), I do not find smokers on the “negative” side of the equation (meaning they get no support and are otherwise officially marginalized). Smoking need not be banned outright from indoor facilities to satisfy non-smokers unless those non-smokers are like religious people and they need everyone to participate with it in order to “feel” OK about it. All that needs to happen is labeling standards. Both markets can be satisfied with some decent labeling standards.

        I don’t smoke tobacco btw. It smells bad, tastes bad, and makes me feel sick. I rarely take issue with other smokers aside from their littering in public or areas that are not strictly for their occupancy.

  • Joshua Reagan

    I consider myself to be a libertarian consequentialist so I loved this post. But I have a question: what is your rebuttal to Robert Nozick’s ‘utility monster’?

    • Chris Freiman

      The utility monster is a tough one. I haven’t thought too much about it, but my initial response is that there really isn’t a difference between this objection and the standard “sacrifice of the few for the many” objection to utilitarianism. In both cases the utilitarian has to dig in their heels and say that we ought to go with 10 utiles over 9 regardless of how they are distributed. Now, this isn’t to say that utilitarians shouldn’t worry about the utility monster (they should worry about it) but rather that I’m not sure it poses a special problem.

      • michael

        Welcome, welcome. As a moral pluralist (it’s what all the cool kids believe in), I certainly think utilitarian considerations should factor in the case for libertarianism and indeed do factor in very nicely. But there is of course a difference between saying utility should be a factor and the factor. I’m not quite sure how “hardcore” a utilitarian you are, but it seems to me that the hardcore utilitarian has to accept a lot of clearly repugnant things. For example: gang rape. Yes rape is a horrifying thing for its victims but if ten men get absolutely ecstatic pleasure for raping a women it’s conceivable that their pleasure outweighs the women’s suffering. Do we not then have to say that gang rape is A-Okay if we’re really utilitarian’s?

        • Bongstar420

          No. It promotes a social structure that results in anti-progress since people like that suck at being productive or considerate (necessary for productivity). Isn’t there more utility in a healthy, fertile female vs a few mentally ill males? And if watching that gang rape makes me feel like murdering them, why does it serve the rapists utility outside of immediate sexual satisfaction? If I am worth more then they are combined (I am productive and cooperate with other productive people), why shouln’t I find pleasure in their demise? How is a gang rape serving greater utility than for the rapists? Refer to my post about sadistic pedophiles. It is a better example of the “utilitarians dilemma” since it assumes benefit to a far larger group of people who are not the offenders.
          Oh, you didn’t include as to whether the woman enjoyed it? A small population of women like being raped- some of them don’t even realize it or are otherwise psychically disturbed by the fact that it made them orgasm. I believe they would be rapists if they were to have inherited the Y chromosome.

          • michael

            No one enjoys being raped for “real” obviously. The minute you enjoy it and want it’s no longer really rape right? Rough sex or “play rape” (an uncomfortable term perhaps) seems more accurate. Interesting points here though. Thanks for the response.

          • Bongstar420

            They apparently have orgasm while being consciously repulsed. Which one indicates their actual desire, the orgasm or what they say they want? I seriuosly doubt a lesbian is going to have an orgasm during a heterosexual rape scene, but that is yet to be seen (the study I saw did nothing to elucidate any further information than the victim experienced orgasm, was disturbed by the orgasm, and experienced additional distress as a consequence).

            Here’s another, much more begin example. I found that it is not uncommon for an infant to cause the mother to orgasm while breast feeding. I told this to the first female I was able to converse with at work the next day. She was a new mother. She was as offended by that finding of fact as if I was accusing her of being a pedophile though I never said that she was having orgasms from breast feeding, just that it was not uncommon for women to be surprised by the experience (now I’d bet she was because she was so offended by the notion).

      • Bongstar420

        I look at it like this. We have a genius that invents and runs all kinds of things that improve the lives of others according to their preferences (hundreds of millions of people). This person is also a sadistic pedophile who requires 1 child per year to justify their contribution. Is this a utilitarians dilemma? I don’t think so. For one, there is a very good chance that many of those hundreds of millions of people could generate the exact same contribution (and probably more) without any requirements of satisfying their sadistic pedophilia (because they are not that way). That removes the necessity for sacrificing the children in the first place which is a 10 vs 9 scenario. Additionally, sadistic pedophiles are likely to desire a world with less restrictions on their desires since they deserve their pay for being so great. It follows that they will promote access to their rewards and that the 1 child per year requirement will last only as long as it “has to.” Another aspect is that the population will mirror the top guy, so it will increase the amount of sadistic pedophilia happening with out intervention. The sadistic pedophile will seek total dominion over the population as an extension of their predisposition for absolute power over another which would diminish people’s problem solving capacity. There are additional reasons, but I cannot see how a purely philosophical position could be constructed about “goods” and “bads.” The only reason I find pedophila to be “bad” is because it produces less functional people who have more social problems and demonstrably lower IQ’s vs average people.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Hi Chris:
    Thanks for the post, and welcome (officially) to BHL. As you note, there are many objections to utilitarianism, but my comment here relates only to one. You say: “If we’re discussing what is realistic rather that what is possible, then the utilitarian is back on solid ground. While it is possible for utilitarianism to recommend organ harvesting, hospitals that expropriate organs would not contribute to a happy and peaceful society in the real world.” The problem is that in many cases, I think utilitarianism “recommends” nothing, because it is indeterminate. Or, its recommendation is inconsistent with libertarian values.

    Take, for example, the minimum wage. I think the mainstream economic view is that it benefits those who have their wages increased, but costs other people the opportunity for employment. The overall effect on the economy is highly controversial. What is the utilitarian recommendation here? Whatever your answer, what about the right of people to freely contract, even if there is an economic cost.

    Another example: what is the utilitarian recommendation on abortion. The calculations on this issue seem impossibly complex. For instance, how do you purport to measure the utilitarian value of lives not led.
    What about health and safety regulations? I could add a dozen more examples. The problem is that tools of social science are crude and imprecise, and I believe there will quite frequently be plausible utilitarian arguments on both sides of these questions. On the other hand, a rights-based approach seems more often yield clear and unambiguous answers. E.g. the minimum wage is ruled out because it is inconsistent with freedom of contract.

    • Chris Freiman

      I’m not sure if this is a satisfying response, but indeterminacy wouldn’t militate against utilitarianism in principle, only in practice. So if we really think that maximizing utility is what we should be doing, then often we won’t know with a high degree of certainty what we ought to be doing in particular cases. That said, I think at the level of institutional design we know enough to be pretty confident in things like the frequency and severity of market failure v. government failure, such that we can establish presumptions in favor of certain institutional arrangements relative to others.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        Thanks for the reply. Your first sentence is certainly true, but you will forgive me if I dissent from the idea that “maximizing utility is what we should be doing.” Furthermore, you say, “One standard way of determining whether you should accept a moral principle is by seeing whether it can make sense of the particular moral judgments that you accept.” But if utilitarianism is indeterminate at the practical level, how does one first make “practical moral judgments”?

        Finally, I believe that even the last sentence is too optimistic. Libertarians will certainly grant you this presumption (myself included), but egalitarians will not. So, I am afraid this solution just escalates the indeterminacy objection to a higher level of abstraction. You will be arguing with the Krugmans and Stiglitzes forever. I grant you that rights-based libertarians may also be arguing with egalitarians for an equally long time, but I think here it is at least possible to identify the source of the disagreement, i.e. the different foundational values we start with (like autonomy vs. equality). Then people are at least in a position to choose a political philosophy in line with these values.

        • Bongstar420

          Good reasons for why we wont see these systems in practice?

  • Kevin Vallier

    Welcome, welcome, welcome! It’s about time you joined us! A Rawlsy question:

    I’m less happy with the “separateness of persons” objection to utilitarianism that Rawls advanced, but it was more of an assertion of a widespread worry than an objection. The lengthy arguments against utilitarianism were the two comparisons with the two principles of justice, namely the comparisons with the principle of average utility and restricted utility.

    Now, both arguments involve either really implausible principles like maximin or a bunch of hand-waiving, but even here I’m not so satisfied, as the strategy seems to me question-begging. Of course, no utilitarian worth her salt (besides Harsanyi, I guess .. and maybe Smart?) is going to think that whether utilitarian principles of justice are correct depends on whether parties to the original position would accept them!

    This leads to my question: do you see the form of utilitarianism you’re recommending here as ultimately foundational, that is, a principle that would compete with Rawls’s broader contractualist framework? Or as a principle derived far enough downstream that you wouldn’t want to say that there’s a tension between having broadly contractualist commitments and ending up endorsing utilitarian principles?

    I ask for two reasons. 1. I want to know how corrupt you’ve become since graduate school. 2. I think if you go the second route, you can answer a lot of common objections to utilitarianism. You’re pretty much just left with publicity and calculation problems.

    • Chris Freiman

      Hey Kevin,

      Is it too evasive to say that I’m agnostic? I think that Harsanyi’s stuff about choice in the OP is extremely compelling and I’m still not sure why Rawlsian contractualist types don’t end up with utilitarianism. Rawls of course excludes knowledge of probabilities, which makes utilitarianism a shakier choice, but unless we are antecedently convinced of the falsity of utilitarianism (as Rawls might have been), I don’t see the reason for excluding them. My hunch (and at this stage it is still a hunch, I’m not confident enough to go full utilitarian) is simply that utilitarianism is the principle we’ll arrive at once we have achieved reflective equilibrium. We have a bunch of pretheoretical beliefs about morality at different levels of generality and once we have rendered them all consistent, we are left with utilitarianism.

  • Dshapiro

    Hi Chris. Welcome to the blog! A couple of points, most of which I strongly suspect you agree with, but worth making nevertheless: 1. BHL agree that consequences are quite important, but some are not consequentialists, because they don’t think consequences are the only thing that ultimately matters. 2. Even if one is a consequentialist, one could reject Utilitarianism, because it is insufficiently pluralistic in its account of ultimate or intrinsic value. 3. The question of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth is more complex that it might appear to be. David Schmidtz discusses this in his wonderful piece “Diminishing Marginal Utility.”
    Daniel Shapiro

    • Chris Freiman

      Thanks! And yep, I agree with all of your points.

  • carlmilsted

    Basic income guarantee + open borders = national bankruptcy, unless you restrict the basic income to native citizens. $8000/year is a LOT of money for the median Sub Saharan African. It would be far cheaper to grant them a basic income grant over there, with the grant scaled down to local cost of living. Even this would be enormously expensive.

  • Theresa Klein

    And since those people made worse off by the state are the people who have the least reason to accept it, the state should make the worst off as well off as possible. Thus, we arrive at the difference principle which tells us to maximize the income of society’s poorest.

    Is that really an accurate description of the difference principle? Because I think I spot a pretty glaring weakness. The poorest people in society aren’t necessarily made worse off by the state. Thus the logic that because they are harmed by the state the state should maximize their welfare doesn’t follow. In order for that logic to work, you would have to say that the state should maximize the welfare of those who are most harmed by the state, regardless of their economic status. That group of people may not be identical to the poorest people in society.

    • http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~rmuldoon Ryan Muldoon

      The difference principle is for the basic structure of society. So the ‘worst off’ are just the worst off under a particular basic structure. Whether it is the state or just the market as the culprit for making people worst-off is irrelevant. The idea behind the formulation of the difference principle is just that, to justify a particular basic structure of society, you have to show the people who are worst off under that system that they are made as well off as the worst off can be. (My language is finicky there because under different basic structures, it might be a different group at the bottom.) The difference principle relies on the idea that inequalities are only justified by means of making the worst-off best-off. This is directly formulated to make it rational for the worst off to be willing to endorse the basic structure. (It’s also worth noting that ‘worst off’ and ‘best off’ aren’t done in terms of utility, it’s in terms of their access to primary goods, which includes things like political and social rights and recognition, not just money.)

      Rawls doesn’t take himself to be engaging in a project of whether the state has a right to exist, nor is he trying to address the skeptic. He’s not worried about people being harmed by the state as a separate entity from the basic structure of society (which includes things like markets and our property rights regimes and whatnot). He’s articulating principles by which everyone in society can accept the basic structure because it’s what rational agents would assent to behind the veil of ignorance. It’s the best deal that the worst-off can get.

      • Theresa Klein

        Same problem. Regardless of which system you pick, the reason the worst off people are worst off (or the best off people are best off) may not be *caused by* the system in question. The group at the bottom might be the same people no matter how you organize society.

        For example, the worst off people in society might well be the mentally disabled and mentally ill. They are the worst off for reasons that have nothing to do with which economic system we choose, and will be worst off regardless of which one we pick. In fact, their condition might be improved, relative to a total anarchy, in many systems.

        This is directly formulated to make it rational for the worst off to be willing to endorse the basic structure.

        If the condition of the worst off is even slightly improved relative to a default condition, why would they be unwilling to endorse the basic structure? Why does it have to be the absolute best off they can possibly be for them to endorse it?
        Second, there are other people in society besides the “worst off” who might be harmed by the system. Why would THEY choose to endorse a system that makes them worse off than they would be without it? Why would the “best off” people endorse a system that is detrimental to THEIR well-being?

        • http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~rmuldoon Ryan Muldoon

          I recommend you read Rawls if you’d like the answer. There’s a reason that the book is fairly long and full of footnotes – I doubt that my couple paragraph summaries are going to do it justice. He’s going to agree with you that it’s possible that the worst off will remain more or less the same group of people across different basic structures. But it’s not a guarantee. Recall that this isn’t meant to justify the decision to move from anarchy to a state. This is meant to pick a particular basic structure. The condition that they are made as well off as they can be made is to ensure that the advantaged in society are not getting said advantage on the backs of the worst-off. Rawls starts with the assumption that the default justification is for equality, and the point is exploring when inequalities can be endorsed by everyone. The best off can’t effectively ‘go Galt’ or whatever because they are embedded in a system of social cooperation, and their relative status in part depends on those worse-off than them continuing to endorse the basic structure that provides them with the privileges that they have. For those in between the two extremes, Rawls relies on what he calls the chaining principle. Perhaps most importantly, though, the best off also choose this system when they are behind the thick veil of ignorance. They do not know their position in society, nor the distribution of positions, etc. They pick the basic structure with the belief that they could end up anywhere in society. It is only after we select the principles of justice that structure the basic structure of society that we find out our position in it. The point of doing this is to ensure that we’re acting from moral considerations in our choice of the basic structure (which is again why the difference principle focuses on the worst off). By knowing where we’d be in society, Rawls argues that we’d just be acting out of self-interest, and using power to extract primary goods from those who are worse-off.

          Again, though, Rawls has a long and detailed argument. I encourage you to read it. He was also a really smart philosopher. You’re not going to find a fatal flaw in his reasoning from a couple quick summaries from third parties. I myself am not a Rawlsian, but it’s not a stupid or irrational position. It’s extremely well-developed and carefully considered.

          • Bongstar420

            “By knowing where we’d be in society, Rawls argues that we’d just be
            acting out of self-interest, and using power to extract primary goods
            from those who are worse-off.”

            I do not know who Rawls is (I Googled him, immediate fail- associated with a religious institution), but I do not see how this is not the case or could possibly be otherwise (less the knowing since that is not %100 possible).

            I will pay attention to philosophers when they leave their offices and enter the laboratory. I’ve always found it strange that philosophers seem to think they can generate solution’s with out exercising empiricism and naturalism. But, hey. I’m just some moron

  • ThaomasH

    If your kind of utilitarianism justifies transfers to those with low grounds of declining marginal utility doe it also justify progressive taxation to pay for those transfers as well as any other acceptable public expenditure?

    • Bongstar420

      Ignoring the time frame differential for the sake of easily identifiable figures, who is deserving of being rich: Donald Trump or Albert Einstein? Why would it be wrong to sequester Trumps assets and distribute them to actual productive people who are more intelligent and knowledgeable then him. Why is it right for Einestein to have been a clerk to lesser beings? Why is it right for Trump to expect superior beings to be at his beck and command? How would libertarianism change this?

  • michael

    Ron Bailey of Reason magazine had a great challenge to utilitarianism when he interviewed Peter Singer. It was something along the lines of “If allowing academic philosophers to be tortured constantly until they died would bring about more happiness on net would you be for it?” and Singer actually said yes! You’ve got to give the man points for consistency on that.

    • Bongstar420

      You do not find it suspect that Bailey had to use a non-sequitur example? Why not use a real world example instead of trying to trick the guy into looking like he is a self serving utilitarian rather than a generalist (because self serving folk like to play gotcha games).

      I would have given the same answer with little reflection. A real utilitarian has to self sacrifice if they are insufferable douche bags (hence the lack of popularity with general utilitarianism).

  • Aaron Michelson

    The biggest objection I have to utilitarianism is that utility isn’t actually a thing. People make choices when presented with alternatives, and in that way can be said to have preferences. While “utility” may be a useful shorthand for describing complicated mental and emotional processes that lead up to individuals making choices, it is a mistake to confuse that shorthand for a real thing that exists. When you attempt to apply the metaphor of “utility” to compare preferences across individuals, you end up with nonsense.

    We might ask the question “does Alice like ice cream more than Bernard likes pizza?”. In utilitarian terms, Alice’s ice cream experience provides her with some level of “utility” which can be said to be either higher or lower than the “utility” that Bernard gets from pizza. We of course cannot know the answer to this question, but that is not because of limitation in our measurement system (an epistemological problem); the problem is that the question is nonsense (a metaphysical problem). Alice’s preferences are composed of her mental states – they are not made of the same stuff as Bernard’s preferences and cannot be coherently thought of as having a magnitude.

    Regarding preference satisfaction as an alternate formulation of utilitarianism: it attempts to dodge the utility comparison problems, but cannot do so while remaining meaningful. If you are going to make any decisions that affect satisfy one person’s preferences while denying another person’s (and you must, or you cannot deal with the simple “desire to murder” vs. “desire to not be murdered” scenario) you have to have some means for comparing and calculating how much each person’s preferences are worth.

    • Bongstar420

      Pizza and ice cream are independent factors outside of the experiencer. Neither has greater utility with respect to likability. Pizza is only better (not in the context you established) because it has more nutrients including the same ones as ice cream. The agents preference for one over another is not where the greatest utility is and does not necessitate an either or scenerio. The fact is both should be available for multiple reasons, one of which is people’s taste for it.

      Do you think it would have served humans better utility to not have domesticated fire? (this is choice dependent utility)

      Would our ancestors tails serve utility to us? (this is probably not choice dependent utility though it could be)

      Why is colorblindness uncommon? Is it because color vision does not serve omnivores with utility? (this is definitely not choice dependent utility since women cannot see “colorblindness” any other way then his lower capacity to hunt, gather, and invent).

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I have always thought of myself as sort of a pragmatist, or utilitarian. I take exception to your number 5 however, I do not see open borders as a natural outcome of utilitarian thought. There are so many other factors to contend with beyond just the bug-a-boo of “nationalism”.

    • michael

      I don’t see why nationalism is a bugaboo. It has caused enormous harm and is sharply at odds with libertarian individualism.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        I call it a bug a boo because it is the reason (along with racism) commonly ascribed to those who want a managed immigration policy when in fact there are numerous other reasons.

        • michael

          There are arguments against open borders or even further closed borders that do not depend on racism or nationalism, no doubt. But there’s also no doubt that racism and nationalism are big factors, more than later than the former I think. Think of how often you hear “We gotta put Americans first.”

        • Bongstar420

          Nope. Our evolutionary history is why those things, including nationalism, exist. You go find me an area that has different tribes (“noncivilized”) that do not ever have wars of any kind including symbolic ones that do not have racist like behaviors and are generally completely benevolent towards immigration. I grant you it is possible, and I have heard of situations similarly described in some aspects, but all people generally have these impulses to some degree. They are not learned responses. In fact, you can teach people to be anti-racist and there is still a portion of the population that will experience measurable anxiety in response (like increased cortisol levels) to a substantially different outsider.

      • Bongstar420

        Nationalism is the result of the fact that we evolved as tribalists. It is the same game on a larger scale

  • Aeon Skoble

    It’s not clear why utilitarianism is more conducive to social justice (BHL or otherwise). If, empirically, it turned out that keeping some small segment less-well-off made the overall better off, utilitarians would have to support it. Indeed, I’m not sure you can even use a concept like “social justice” and also be utilitarian: the former seems implicitly deontological, an end-state to be desired for its own sake, regardless of how aggregate utility gets calculated.

    • Chris Freiman

      But any non-lexical priority (e.g., non-lexical prioritarianism or sufficientarianism) view implies that sufficiently large gains to the better off can outweigh benefits to the worse off. You could follow Rawls and assign lexical priority to gains to the worst off but then you have the counterexample about the penny I mention in the post.

      • Bongstar420

        If the well off are “better,” why are there so few of them?

    • Bongstar420

      So there is not utility in segregating and marginalizing pedophiles (who as a group are generally lower performers)? How is that not social justice?

  • Aeon Skoble

    “The sort of redistribution that best satisfies utilitarian standards is probably something like a guaranteed minimum income or a negative income tax rather than the in-kind provision of goods like healthcare or education”
    This assumes that wealth redistribution is a goal. How do we know this? It’s probably true that IF we have to have coecive redistributivism, a UBI would be better than what we have now, but what’s the justification for saying we must have coercive redistributivism? Because it’s required to maximize utility? How do you measure the disutility of the person being coerced?

    • Chris Freiman

      A utilitarian would certainly regard the desirability of redistribution as an empirical issue. If it turns out that it does more harm than good, then utilitarianism would oppose it. (I don’t think that there is a special problem regarding the measurement of the disutility of the person being coerced–you might have general worries about how to measure utility though.)

    • Bongstar420

      Education seems to be require for a functioning democracy. Non-democratic systems seem require uneducated populations to function, hence the lack of popular support for universal education amongst those who desire position above others by non-genetic comparative advantages. How many dictators argue that their minions ought to have the as good of an education as them?

  • Bongstar420

    Now this is something I can bring myself to not cringe over!

  • Milton Friedman

    you still haven’t told us how to make interpersonal utility comparisons. this is big.

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