Are Conservatives Less Utilitarian Than Liberals?
By Bryan Caplan
Some utilitarians argue that virtually everyone is a utilitarian; the only difference between people who call themselves utilitarians and those who don’t is that the latter won’t come out of the closet. Other utilitarians lament the fact that virtually no one is willing to take utility seriously. Scott Sumner defends an unusual intermediate position: While almost all liberals are utilitarians, this isn’t true of conservatives. From his “Great Danes” piece:
I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives are irrational, or that there is no merit to the (Burkean) conservative suspicion of radical change. If a reform that promises greater aggregate well-being conflicts with religious beliefs and/or tradition (say gay marriage), liberals will be more likely to embrace the reform than conservatives. Liberals tend to focus more on the practical effects of providing clean needles to drug addicts, or condoms to high school students, whereas conservatives focus more on the “message that society would be sending.”
From Sumner’s response to my recent critique:
…I can’t think of any real world policy disputes facing Congress, now or
in the past, where liberals did not take what they saw as the roughly
utilitarian position. And I can see lots of cases where conservatives,
dogmatic libertarians, or econ-nuts [Did he mean “eco-nuts”?] took non-utilitarian positions.
Frankly, I’m baffled by Scott’s position. In my view:
1. Liberals often focus on the “message that society would be sending.” Think of all the leftist “race/gender/ poverty/environmental awareness days.” I even know liberal economists who admit that there is little evidence that discrimination has much effect in the labor market, but want to keep it illegal to make a moral statement.
2. Conservatives often see themselves as defenders of the pragmatic, utilitarian position against leftist wishful thinking. Ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Except for slavery, fascism, and communism, what problem has war ever solved?” I think this perfectly captures the way that many conservatives see the world: There are realists like themselves who admit that “If you want peace, prepare for war,” and naive flower children who want to respond to nuclear terrorism with peace signs.
Even gay marriage, one of Scott’s favorite examples, isn’t convincing. On his view, we have utilitarian liberals who want to legalize it, and religious conservative who oppose it. In my view, liberals usually want to legalize gay marriage on human rights grounds, and many conservatives oppose it because they’re worried about its consequences – including the consequence of deeply offending most of the population. How would the typical liberal respond? My bet: “We shouldn’t tailor our policies to suit bigots, no matter how numerous they may be.”
Or take abortion. It seems like utilitarians should say, “A fetus’ utility of existing far exceeds the inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy. If you don’t feel like raising the baby, put him up for adoption.” Isn’t that virtually equivalent to Mother Teresa’s “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish”? The liberal response isn’t to dispute the utilitarian calculus, but to say, “A woman’s body, a woman’s choice.”
I’m willing to believe that either liberals or conservatives are 5 or 10% more utilitarian than the other. It could go either way. I see no reason to buy Scott’s view that liberalism and utilitarianism are closely correlated, much less near synonyms.