Utility Isn't Everything
By Bryan Caplan
Scott Sumner is one of the great monetary thinkers of our age. But the news isn’t all good – he’s also a utilitarian.
I am frankly mystified by the enduring popularity of a moral theory subject to so many simple but devastating counter-examples. My best guess is that people stick with utilitarianism because competing moral theories seem even more ridiculous. But the main reason that competing moral theories seem even more ridiculous is that utilitarians only consider ridiculous alternatives! In particular, if you question utilitarians’ view that only utility matters, they assume that you believe that utility doesn’t matter at all. And if you grant that utility matters at all, they assume that you believe that utility is all that matters.
Scott provides an excellent example of what I’m talking about in Appendix B of his “Great Danes” paper:
My view of liberal values is probably a minority view, as I think most would want to augment utilitarian concerns with some sort of concept of “fairness” or “human rights”. Let’s consider four possible principles that might be viewed as “rights”; liberty, private behavior by consenting adults, free speech, and non-traditional marriages. We have already seen where liberals are willing to discard the right to liberty–the military draft in a “just war.” “Consensual private behavior” won’t work either–as liberals often support vice laws on utilitarian grounds–as with highly addictive drugs like heroin. And liberals often oppose free speech in areas such as commerce and hate speech. Finally, liberals do tend to support gay marriage, but not based on any abstract principle that one should be able to marry whomever one chooses–as most liberals oppose legalizing incest and polygamy. What do all four of these cases have in common? I would argue that utilitarianism is at work in all four cases. Liberals will easily discard any abstract “human right” if they think it that we can improve aggregate utility by restricting freedom. [emphasis mine]
If I were a liberal, my one-word response would be “Easily?!?!” My longer response would be: “We do not discard human rights merely because we think we can ‘improve aggregate utility.’ Human rights aren’t absolutes; we are willing to discard them if the consequences would be terrible. But we are willing to give up a lot of utility in order to protect these rights. Heck, we’re even willing to lose elections over gay marriage, even though we know that compromising on this one issue would allow us to mitigate a whole array of Republican evils.”
Of course, as a libertarian I reject many of liberals’ favorite “rights,” and think that their utility calculators are woefully inaccurate. But I’d still accept the basic structure of the reply I just sketched on their behalf: Utility matters, but it’s far from the only thing that matters.