Posted by: CJ | April 28, 2009

Utilitarianism, Economics

Utilitarianism, at least based on sites like Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong, seem centered around making morality into a science. In some sense this is accomplished by positing that true morality consists of reducing suffering, and then thinking hard and extremely rationally about the implications of that axiom. Because of this I often think of a quote about macroeconomics I saw on a Robert Waldmann post:

Perhaps part of the problem we face in macroeconomics today is that a substantial part of the “macro” wing of free market economists really think that new classical macroeconomics is “true” because simple and formalistically complete models fit their notion of what is scientific.

I think that critique applies to utilitarianism as well, and it’s unclear to me that anyone on the utilitarian websites have responded to it. Most utilitarians seem to view the dependence on complex overly-rational reasoning processes as a feature rather than a bug.

I wish I knew if any utilitarians had responded to this sort of idea. At least it seems that challenges to the science of economics are challenges to utilitarianism as well. Very fundamental challenges that shouldn’t merely be waved away by saying, “well, what else are we supposed to do?”



  1. Hmm…

    The “dependence on complex overly-rational reasoning processes” is, in fact, a feature, isn’t it? If we care about truth, including moral truth, and if rationality is the best way to get at truth…

    Of course, you could be a moral sense theorist and think that we have direct intuitive/emotional grasp on the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. In this case, utilitarianism’s (like kantianism’s) “dependence on complex overly-rational reasoning processes” is a bug, but not because of the complex-over-rationality, but because that complex-over-rationality happens not to be the way to get at the truth.

    Another line of defense of the complex over-rationality is that it makes it possible in principle to get an answer to all moral questions.

    Certainly the potential, or, I should say, the ambition, to give determinate and rational answers to moral questions could be seen as a feature. (After all, what good is a morality that can’t be applied?) It’s hard to come up with an argument for seeing it as a bug, unless, perhaps, you view dealing with moral uncertainty as an essential and valuable trait of humanness.

    That should be separated from the question of whether utilitarianism fails to achieve that ambition. Many (myself included) think the answer there is pretty clearly “yes,” because of things like the probably insurmountable difficulties with interpersonal utility comparisons (barring special cases like pareto superiority). But, does any other theory do better?

    I happen to think utilitarianism is wrong, but not for those reasons.

  2. I need to think about your comment more to give a sensible response, but have you written up somewhere why you do think utilitarianism is wrong?

  3. I think utilitarianism is wrong for a variety of reasons. A quick run-down:

    – Utilitarianism has a bad teleology. Uh, I’d better unpack this. Ethical theories can broadly be divided into teleological, deontological, and virtue theories. Teleological theories are all about promoting some end. Deontological theories are all about rules. Virtue theories are all about character states. (This is a GROTESQUE AND CRIMINAL OVERSIMPLIFICATION and if any of my professors saw this they’d shoot me.) The end that utilitarianism is supposed to promote is, depending on which utilitarian you believe, pleasure (old utilitarians like Bentham) or preference-satisfaction (most economists). But there’s precious little good reason to think that pleasure or preference-satisfaction are worthy ends for moral theory.

    – Rawls famously has said that utilitarianism “fails to pay due regard to the separateness of persons,” by which he means that it unreasonably allows the well-being of one person to be traded off for the greater well-being of another. I find this pretty much convincing.

    – I’ve also made some objections to utilitarianism in some overcoming bias posts of my own, which I can’t track down right now but which are probably googlable.

  4. Ok, here’s the sense in which I think “complex overly-rational reasoning processes” is a bug. That’s because such an approach is almost certainly useless.

    There are basically three routes for constructing very mathematical models of anything. But they all have serious problems when dealing with inherently complex systems and questions.

    You make a simple model, not simple in the sense that it’s just simple math but simple in the sense that there are strong assumptions in the model. The strong assumptions make such a model foolish.

    Or you could try some very complex model. But these sorts of models are intractable, so you can’t really test them. Belief that they give a good morality is purely a matter of untestable faith. (This seems to be what Eliezer Yudkowsky is a fan of, and why he wants strong AI’s.)

    Or there’s a middle route, where you use a mix of intuition and simple models. Maybe dressing up the intuition as extremely rational thoughts. Regardless how it’s done, this sort of modeling tells more about the modeler’s ethics and morality than about what anyone should do.

    None of these objections are novel. It’s part of the reason why studying complex systems, as in biology, is still very difficult and not producing particularly wonderful results. But I really do think complex overly-rational models should have some success in the physical sciences first, before they start getting thrown around in philosophical debates.

  5. […] Wonderful Post, Anti-utilitarianism edition Not mine, but Paul Gowder’s. In a previous post on here I asked Paul if he’d written down anywhere his objections to utilitarianism. In […]

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