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Everybody hates utilitarianism

Neel Krishnaswami points out that we all hate it… or do we?

It’s true. Everybody hates utilitarianism. The Left hates it(1), The Right hates it(2), Libertarians hate it(3), and Adriana Cronin(4) hates it.

And we all hate it for good reason, too. It sounds so reasonable –“maximize the total happiness of society”. But it leads to such stupid conclusions. That small-town America is justified in banning Lady Chatterley’s Lover, because it offends more Baptists than turns on smut-addicted book-lovers.(5). Oops; there goes freedom of speech. That proper social policy involves enslaving 5% of the population to grow opium to keep the other 95% in a drug-induced delirium. Utility must be maximized. And finally, in a mathematical coup de grace, economists armed with the Generalized Axiom of Revealed Preference have shown that individual utility functions are not commensurable. This means we can’t even define “total happiness” in a sensible fashion, because one individual’s utility function is not on the same scale as anyone else’s.

But. (You knew that a “but” was coming, didn’t you?)

Utilitarian arguments are the only arguments I have known to successfully convince anyone across ideological boundaries. No libertarian rights-based argument I have ever constructed has ever convinced my social democrat (and outright socialist) friends of anything at all. Nor have I ever seen a libertarian react to a plea for social justice with anything other than tired sighs. But start wonking out with per-capita GDPs, life expectancies, crime rates, and accident figures, and suddenly bystanders start paying attention.

A concrete example. A couple of years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine about third world poverty. He complained that the government should do something about it. I pointed out that indeed the government did do something about poverty: mainly, it caused it. He regarded my objections to large-scale government intervention as the usual quixotic libertarianism until I offered the example of microcredit programs as an example of how to bootstrap a market and improve the lot of the poor(6). At this point my friend got really excited, because now he had a concrete charity to try and send money to.

It wasn’t a rights-based argument about why government intervention is harmful that energized him: it was a concrete, utilitarian example (and an avenue for positive action). What he cared about was people not going hungry. He also knew that in political debate, people tend to use abstractions to paper over the difficulties in their program(7). Most notorious are various leftists’ use of euphemism to justify things like the Cultural Revolution, but it’s a universal sin. He, like anyone with healthy political antibodies, narrows his eyes when vague slogans — whether “worker’s paradise”, “but it’s for the children” or even “spontaneous order” — enter the discussion. So any attempt to convince my friend had to get past his suspicion that the political jargon was just bafflegab aimed at preserving the status quo.

This is why utilitarian arguments are so useful. Focusing single-mindedly on making actual individuals better off enables one to avoid getting (correctly) killed by the “that’s ideological bullshit” reaction. A political philosophy beyond utilitarianism is essential to avoid absurdity, but concrete utilitarian arguments are essential both to convince others and to keep ourselves honest.

(1)= Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. The best attempt ever to offer a solid theoretical grounding for the social democratic program. Amartya Sen smashed it with a brief, elegant article that identified a critical algebra error in the setup. Oops.
(2)= Kass, Leon R. The Ethics of Human Cloning. Yes, this Luddite idiot is the chair of the US Bioethics Commission. It is to weep.
(3)= Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Of course you know about this.
(4)= Cronin, Adriana.“EU and e-commerce, or does Bad plus Good equal a greater Good?”, Samizdata.net March 14, 2002
(5)= Sen, Amartya. “On the Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal”. This man is depressingly smart.
(6)= see http://www.villagebanking.org/home.php3
(7)= Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language“. Yeah, he’s every conservative’s favorite socialist and every socialist’s favorite conservative, but what can you do?

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