Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In defense of utilitarianism


Every so often, an article pops up on the left or right of the spectrum that claims to debunk Utilitarianism. I've seen it from left-wing people who claim that any cost-benefit analysis is bunk because the underlying philosophy is reprehensible, or from right-wingers who claim that a utilitarian world would feature, almost literally, the strong eating the weak, or a justification of the Nietzchean √úbermensch, or both. The most recent examples for me were two articles in The Economist (only one of which is free to read) that highlighted how supposed "utilitarians" psychologically resembled psychopaths.

Critiques like this tend to send me into a nerd rage. They attack a weak, philosophically indefensible form of Utilitarianism, while ignoring the stronger and more prevalent form that underlies the moral justification of all laws.


Fundamentally, when most people think of utilitarianism, they sum it up with the phrase, "the greatest good for the greatest number." While that is succinct, the complete system of decision making must also include agency. If the actor is the individual, then the system of philosophy is called act utilitarianism, in that every action is judged by the actor based on that actor's information and preferences.

When people try to critique utilitarianism, they tend to assume that all utilitarian philosophy is centered upon act utilitarianism. However, this leads to obviously ridiculous outcomes. An act utilitarian would consider it not only beneficial but morally right to take candy from a baby if he or she felt that the baby would derive less enjoyment from it. Such situations also lead to the common criticism that utilitarianism ultimately leads to the √úbermensch. And for act utilitarianism, I would agree.

However, when you change the actor in a utilitarian system to society in general, or to the government, then suddenly you have a very different system. The hypothetical situation critique of act utilitarianism is generalized to the body of people as a whole. You then have a system called rule utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism can be summarized as "An action is morally right if and only if the action, followed as a general rule in society, will produce a net good for society."

It should be obvious how this underpins the moral justification for laws. It also trivially resolves many of the hypotheticals used to supposedly debunk "utilitarianism." For example, the rule utilitarian acknowledges that stealing from children is bad, even though in some situations the benefit might be greater, because if such behavior were allowed the consequences for society as a whole would be worse. For the hypothetical in which you can kill one man to save five, the rule utilitarian must consider both the impact of the individual action and the impact of allowing such behavior on society as a whole. In the case where allowing such behavior is guaranteed to produce a social benefit in every case, it is morally correct, and not at all inconsistent, to both kill the one man to save five and then lock up the actor for murder.

By far my favorite example to draw a distinction between the systems comes from the book Lost Horizon, in which the main character must decide to either stay and preserve Shangri-La, the earthly paradise, and abandon his duty as a diplomat for a country on the brink of an apocalyptic war, or return to his work and leave Shangri-La to be lost. Although it is a hard decision and the act utilitarian perspective is appealing, the rule utilitarian - and legal - perspective is that the main character should return to duty, because rules that maximize social utility do not dissolve even in the face of incredible exceptions.

It bugs me that people persist in not bothering to even make the essential distinction, or even cover rule utilitiarian perspectives even though act utilitarianism is a clearly philosophically inferior system, both in terms of defensibility and in terms of useability. Rule utilitarianism allows us to morally evaluate a law for which it is impossible to calculate monetary costs and benefits - quite apart from being the origin of the very idea of cost-benefit analysis itself.

There are legitimate criticisms of rule utilitarianism that do not get aired, mostly because they require more logic than the average reader can muster. The best one I can think of is that the usefulness of the system as a personal philosophy is limited because the number of rules is finite, and therefore rule utilitarianism reduces to act utilitarianism in specific cases not covered by the rules. Other criticisms include the difficulty in evaluating what constitutes a "good," and the more esoteric argument that if a rule is made for every situation (with exceptions and sub-rules clarifying details) then the system essentially reduces to act utilitarianism.

For these reasons, particularly the first, rule utilitarianism is not my personal philosophy, inasmuch as I even have one. But none of these criticisms apply to rule utilitarianism as a moral justification for the imposition and enforcement of laws on a society - and it is on that basis that we should continue to defend the system from its poorly thought-out detractors.

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