Is utilitarianism WEIRD?
By Scott Sumner
I suspect it is, at least in the sense of WEIRD as a now trendy acronym for western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.
One criticism of utilitarianism is that it implies that we should value the welfare of far away people just as much as we value the welfare of our own family and friends. This, it is argued, goes against human nature.
I agree that it goes against human nature, but I don’t believe that makes it a bad idea. If someone insults me, my human nature is to punch him in the face. Throughout most of history, in most parts of the world, that’s exactly how many people would respond. If they were aristocrats, they might challenge them to a duel.
In rich societies we have tended to move past fighting duels over insults. We’ve risen above out natural instincts, at least in some respects.
Razib Khan recently made this observation:
In The WEIRDest People in the World Harvard’s Joe Henrich makes the argument that the Western Christian Church’s destruction of extended family networks led to the rise of the West. I won’t recapitulate the argument which I’ve outlined elsewhere. But the idea is rather persuasive.
Before proceeding, let’s stop for a moment and consider just how weird this theory is. Many conservatives (not all) hold the following two beliefs:
1. Strong family values are the bedrock of western civilization.
2. Western civilization is superior to most or all other cultures.
Wouldn’t it be surprising if the success of western civilization were based on the rejection of strong family values?
In many parts of the world you are expected to offer a job to a cousin over a slightly better qualified stranger. Many of those countries have higher levels of corruption than rich western nations. And this is not just about Europe vs. non-white countries. Sicily has stronger extended family networks than Sweden, and is less prosperous. So one can make similar distinctions even within Western Europe.
The claim that each person’s wellbeing is equally important is a truly radical idea. Conservatives upset about my dismissal of “family values” might take some solace in the thought that this radical idea may have come from Christianity. In contrast, utilitarianism is often viewed as a sort of bloodless, secular worldview—almost inhuman. But if the WEIRD hypothesis is correct, then perhaps society can to some extent overcome its natural instincts, and move at least some distance down the road toward valuing everyone’s wellbeing equally.
To be sure, some bias toward family and close friends might be optimal from even a utilitarian perspective, as we are social animals. Babies come into the world defenseless, and hence a strong nuclear family is a useful institution. Perhaps in prehistoric times a strong extended family was useful to survival, but in modern WEIRD societies there’s no great benefit to extended kinship networks, beyond the nuclear family. It’s all about balance, and how that balance changes as society evolves and becomes more urban and specialized.
I have not yet read Joe Henrich’s new book, but for those whom have I pose this question. Is it possible that at least a part of the claim that western societies have become WEIRD another way of saying that western societies have become increasingly utilitarian? That is, do we increasingly view everyone’s welfare as equally important?
Now I’ll go out on a limb with one further thought—admittedly wildly speculative. What if Christianity led to utilitarianism, and utilitarianism led to the rejection of certain non-utilitarian ideas in the Bible? (Stoning adulterers, prejudice against gays, usury is bad, etc.) This is analogous to the view that capitalism leads to prosperity, which leads to social liberalism, which leads to a rejection of the Protestant work ethic that supposedly led to capitalism. As I said, all wildly speculative.