Bryan Caplan has a recent post that is critical of utilitarianism:

One argument against utilitarianism is that no one actually follows it. I call this the Argument from Hypocrisy.

(Bryan’s objection is almost equally true of Christianity. “Turn the other cheek”.  Seriously?)

I’m not sure if utilitarians are hypocrites, and even if they are, that fact has no bearing on the question of whether utilitarianism is true (i.e. useful.)

A utilitarian like me would say that the world would be a better place if everyone acted in such a way as to boost aggregate happiness. It’s not always easy to know exactly what actions would accomplish this goal, but it’s plausible (as Bryan assumes) that the utilitarian ideal calls for more charitable giving than actually occurs. (Due to incentive effects, the optimal amount of giving is difficult to estimate.)

If a utilitarian like me gives less than the optimal amount, Bryan counts that as evidence against utilitarianism and in favor of hypocrisy. I’m not so sure.

Suppose I claimed that eating fewer desserts would lead to better health. Then someone spots me wolfing down a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Here are two questions:

1. Does that observation disprove my claim that consuming less ice cream would benefit one’s health?
2. Does it make me a hypocrite?

My answers are no, and probably not.

My eating habits have almost no bearing on the truth status of the claim that ice cream is bad for you.

Hypocrisy is harder to define. If I scolded my daughter for eating ice cream, then my own consumption might be considered hypocrisy. But if I simply observed that eating less ice cream would boost each person’s health, including mine, I don’t see the hypocrisy.  My dad (a smoker) used to say that smoking is bad for one’s health.  Was he a hypocrite?

I believe the world would be a better place if many people, including me, gave more to charity. Bryan counts the lack of sufficient charitable giving by utilitarians as evidence of the wrongness of utilitarianism; I count it as evidence that people like me are selfish. I see selfishness as being a far more plausible interpretation of the evidence, as compared to “charity is not actually a good thing”. (BTW, I’d like to believe that I’m wrong, that the world would not be a better place if I gave more money to starving kids in a poor country—then I’d feel less guilt.)

A better objection, though, is that even highly scrupulous utilitarians don’t comply with their stated principles; I call this the Argument from Conscience. In Governing Least, Moller powerfully develops a parallel objection: While utilitarians often urge self-sacrifice, they rarely preach other-sacrifice. But given their principles, they totally should!

If I’m right that selfishness is the problem, then we should not be preaching an unrealistic level of altruism to others.  Doing so would lead to accusations of hypocrisy.  Instead, we should praise those who go out of their way to help others, say by donating a kidney to a stranger.  I’m certainly not going to scold someone for not doing something that I’ve never done (kidney donation), but I’d be happy to praise an acquaintance that engaged in this sort of unusually altruistic act.

Bryan’s post also considers the issue of violating rights, in order to achieve a utilitarian goal (Bryan is quoting Moller):

The only views left on the table at this point are precisely those that are willing to contemplate that, at least in some circumstances, rubbing out Grandma and stealing from our children is the right thing to do. The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it.

This is where “rules utilitarianism” is so important.  It may be the case that the world would be better off without white supremacists marching through your community, but because we cannot trust governments to decide where to draw the line we have decided that it is better to have a blanket policy of free speech, precisely for utilitarian reasons. Similarly, while stealing money from an affluent acquaintance and redistributing this money to the poor might be beneficial in a particular case, a world where this was frequently done would be much less happy, as interpersonal relations would fall apart.  Love is what binds people together.

Similarly, there are very good reasons for making theft from strangers illegal, even where the recipient of the funds would enjoy them more than the victim.  Indeed I recall Gary Becker once arguing that the real cost of theft is not the money stolen (that’s just redistribution), it’s the resources employed to prevent theft from occurring.

My debates over utilitarianism often go like this:

Critic:  Utilitarianism implies people should do X in situation Y.  That would lead to a nightmarish society.

Me:  You are not thinking holistically enough.  You need to go beyond the direct effect of doing X, and consider the broader ramifications on society.  Activities that create a “nightmarish society” are almost certainly not creating a happier society.  For instance, if hedonism leaves one with a sickness in one’s soul, then it’s not making you happy, is it?  So stop blaming utilitarianism for bad ideas.

Critic:  But if you define utilitarianism that broadly, then it’s little more than a tautology.

Me:  You are thinking about it in the wrong way.  Utilitarianism shouldn’t be seen as a guide to living; it is a guide to public policy.  You wouldn’t use a snow shovel to sip a cup of soup; you’d choose a delicate spoon.  Don’t use utilitarianism as a guide to day-to-day life; it’s too blunt an instrument.  Instead, see good films and read good literature (including religion, if you are so inclined).

Utilitarianism should be used to advocate drug legalization, carbon taxes, ending occupational licensing, more immigration, less zoning, NGDP level targeting, school choice, and a 1000 other public policy reforms.  That’s what it’s for.  Maybe someday we’ll find a better goal for public policy than “maximizing aggregate happiness”, but so far we have not done so.