A few notes on utilitarianism
By Scott Sumner
As I expected, my post on utilitarianism generated a bit of controversy. In the comment section, konshtok wondered:
what am I missing?
from a utilitarian pov killing one person and using the organs to save the lives of others is the right thing to do, right?
isn’t that enough to make utilitarianism NOT a good basis for morality?
I see several ways of addressing this hypothetical, although I’m not sure any will be convincing:
1. My favorite argument is pragmatic. If we look at actual public policy debates, utilitarianism always gives the right answers, whereas all the alternative moral systems give at least one wrong answer, from my perspective.
2. The hypotheticals where utilitarianism seems to give the wrong answer are based on the fact that our moral intuitions evolved under very different circumstances. For instance, organ transplant was not possible until recently. On the other hand, warfare was already well understood in ancient times. Thus we are willing to force 1000s of young men to die on the beaches of Normandy for the benefit of the folks back home, but we are not willing to require organ transplants that might pass a cost/benefit test. This moral repugnance is based on a sort of cognitive illusion. When we hear about this possibility we instinctively have more fear of being the victim than the beneficiary (would you trust a Neolithic witch doctor?), even though (by assumption) the opposite is more likely. (And here I overlook possible implementation problems, which might be another objection to the hypothetical forced donation policy.)
3. The actual policy debate over organ transplants revolves around two issues. First, should organ markets be allowed? And second, should a dead person be presumed to be a willing donor unless he/she registered with the government that he did not want to be a donor? Here I think utilitarianism gives the right answer. Those two policies are the best solution. One “opportunity cost” of doing forced transplants is not doing the optimal solution.
Being a pragmatist, I don’t believe any theory or moral system is perfect. The real issue is which theories or systems are the most useful. If opponents of utilitarianism are forced to come up with implausible examples involving cognitive illusions to make their point, then that suggests to me that utilitarianism is a quite useful system.
Bryan Caplan points out (correctly) that most utilitarians don’t live up to the ideal. He notes that very few affluent utilitarians give away most of their wealth to poor children. My first reaction is that this also applies to other moral systems, such as Christianity. I’m still waiting to see someone “turn the other cheek.” BTW, that doctrine is far more radical than utilitarianism, far more difficult to implement.
Caplan anticipates this defense and switches to an alternative argument that I don’t quite understand:
Take Bill Dickens. I’ve known Bill for almost a quarter-century. In all these years, I have repeatedly witnessed him spontaneously take unpleasant actions out of a sense of moral duty. I have never witnessed him treat another person badly. Ever.
While Bill Dickens is a man of conscience, he’s also officially a utilitarian or near-utilitarian. How could his extreme scrupulousness possibly discredit his utilitarian philosophy? Simple. Like every other utilitarian, his behavior is wildly at odds with utilitarianism’s demands.
Although Bill gives generously to charity, he consumes far more than he needs to keep working. He skis in Colorado. He goes to GenCon. Bill also clearly prioritizes his contractual obligations above the desperate need of total strangers – even when repeated play is unimportant. If Bill forgot to tip a waiter, he would strive to make amends to the aggrieved waiter – not mail the waiter’s tip to Oxfam.
The upshot: If Bill Dickens told me, “Like most humans, I’m deeply morally flawed. I know utilitarianism is true, but I’m too weak to live by it,” I wouldn’t believe him. Bill is a paragon of decency. If he really believed he morally owed vast sums to the poor, he’d skip GenCon and fork over the money. Since he doesn’t, I infer that despite his official position, utilitarianism seems almost as crazy to him as it does to me. The same goes for every earnest yet non-compliant utilitarian. Utilitarianism doesn’t just go against their interests. It goes against their consciences.
To put the Argument from Conscience conversationally: “You live by your conscience. If you really thought utilitarianism was true, you would live up to it. Yet you don’t. If even scrupulous utilitarians like you don’t take the view seriously, why should anyone else?”
And that, my utilitarian friends, is the Argument from Conscience. The problem isn’t that your doctrine is too good for you. The problem is that you’re too good for your doctrine.
I don’t agree. Bill Dickens sounds like a much better person than me, but I’d think even more highly of Bill Dickens if he gave 90% of his wealth to the poor. The doctrine is fine; it’s people who come up short.
I have two other thoughts on this issue:
Giving money to the poor without distorting incentives is far harder than most people assume, and perhaps even a bit harder than Caplan assumes. Suppose I decide that each year I’ll walk down the streets of Lagos or Karachi handing out $100 bills to children too young to work. It’s quite possible that all of the expected benefits would be soaked up in queuing costs. There’s a famous economic example of a modern company that sets up shop in a poor country, paying above market wages. Poor people move to the city and hang out hoping to get the jobs. The expected benefit of moving is just equal to the salary in the rural sector. The above market salaries at the new company create all sorts of waste in queuing time. Something similar occurs if a popular band sells tickets for below the equilibrium price, and fans spend hours lining up. You can dream up other scenarios for giving away money, but make sure they look at the issue from a rational expectations “timeless perspective.” If you surprise the poor with a gift, what will their friends expect next? This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to set up effective programs for the redistribution of wealth (I favor some redistribution), just that it’s harder than one might imagine.
In general, I believe utilitarianism makes more sense as a guide for public policy than a guide for individual behavior. I don’t believe people are capable of consistently applying utilitarianism in their personal life. It’s too hard. On the other hand I do believe that governments are capable of enacting utilitarian policies, with one notable exception. What is the one sensible policy that asks for an unrealistic amount of sacrifice from the public? It’s an issue that Bryan knows a lot about—open borders.
In a few days I hope to do a post showing that Sweden is much more utilitarian than Britain.