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More on utilitarianism

May 17th, 2003

There are a couple of things I really like about blogging compared to academic writing. The first is that the relatively terse nature of blogs means that you can take a firm position, without the thicket of qualifications and citations that are needed in academic writing. The other is that the usual boundaries between disciplines and between academics and non-academics are broken down. So I get to see how, for example, sociologists, legal philosophers and businesspeople react to arguments that would normally be confined to economists.

The responses to my short post on utilitarianism illustrated this

There are a couple of things I really like about blogging compared to academic writing. The first is that the relatively terse nature of blogs means that you can take a firm position, without the thicket of qualifications and citations that are needed in academic writing. The other is that the usual boundaries between disciplines and between academics and non-academics are broken down. So I get to see how, for example, sociologists, legal philosophers and businesspeople react to arguments that would normally be confined to economists. And conversely I can wander on to their turf and react to their ideas.

Most of the reaction to my post on utilitarianism were not concerned with what I said about utilitarianism itself but with my throwaway assertions that,

In its role as a democratic public philosophy, utilitarianism lacks serious competitors. Ideas proposed as alternatives are usually jerry-built modifications of ideas about individual ethics that don’t scale up to the public sphere

This got a sharp reaction from Gary Sauer-Thompson of philosophy.com and Lawrence Solum of Legal Theory Blog, both of whom noted that this was just the kind of thing an economist would say. Solum observes

The gap between the assessment of utilitarianism in moral and political philosophy and its assessment in economics seems to be almost as large as ever, despite Sen’s heroic efforts.

A closely related point was made in email by Brian Weatherson who attributed to Simon Blackburn the aphorism that

utilitarianism is the right morality for politicians, Kantianism (rule-following) the right morality for judges and virtue ethics the right morality for teachers.

From my perspective, this seems pretty much spot-on, and as an economist, I think of public philosophy as being concerned with the activities of politicians (and bureaucrats) rather than, say, those of judges or teachers.

At a day-to-day level, the core business of governments is taxing and spending, and as far as issues of this kind are concerned, utilitarianism and its variants really are the only game in town. The same applies to broader questions of public policy like the choice between public and private ownership or the desirability of regulation. In this context, Gary is wrong when he says (emphasis added)

What John Quiggan (sic) shoudl be saying is that that utilitarianism is the hegemonic public philosophy for the neo-liberal state in Australia.

On the contrary, utilitarianism has always been the dominant Australian public philosophy, even more so for the social-democratic era of the postwar boom than it is today (when utilitarian arguments for free-market policies fail, as they often do, neoliberals sometimes fall back on natural rights claims about property).

Of course, economists pay lots of attention to rights, especially property rights. But these are policy instruments, to be adopted when they produce desirable consequences according to the utilitarian criterion or some generalization of that criterion. From this perspective at least, Blackburn’s view about judges is basically a reflection of a rule-utilitarian principle that it’s the job of judges to uphold rights and they should do that job regardless of the consequences in particular cases.

Another distinguishing feature of economists is that we tend to attach more weight to mathematical than to verbal arguments. Lawyers go very much in the opposite direction. This can be seen in Solum’s response to my claim that Rawls’ theory is just utilitarianism with a highly risk-averse utility function. He says this claim was refuted decades ago, in Rawls Theory of Justice and elsewhere. Certainly Rawls has a lot of arguments to support his claim that the maximin property is coming from something other than risk aversion. But when you formalise it as a social welfare function, the Rawlsian criterion is just a polar case of utilitarianism. This is the way in which economists generally treat it.

More generally, the definition of utilitarianism I put forward encompasses not only Rawls but a wide range of welfarist viewpoints – roughly speaking, anything that can be represented by a social welfare function.

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  1. May 18th, 2003 at 09:16 | #1

    Not really a comment, John. Rather, a response (as requested) from an anthropologist to let you know I’ve found your new site :)

  2. May 18th, 2003 at 10:43 | #2

    >>On the contrary, utilitarianism has always been the dominant Australian public philosophy, even more so for the social-democratic era of the postwar boom than it is today (when utilitarian arguments for free-market policies fail, as they often do, neoliberals sometimes fall back on natural rights claims about property

  3. May 18th, 2003 at 10:53 | #3

    Also agreed about Rawls. Rawls is the far superior political philosopher to Nozick as he captures the mathematical essence of how one should do political philosophy with the veil of ignorance test and demonstrates its underlying commonality with utilitarianism (which is why I tend to classify social contract theories as a form of utilitarianism – it’s not so much that such contracts exist in real life as the fact that you talk about how rational maximising individuals in a condition of ignorance would like to pick particular institutional features to attain their objectives. Hayek’s discussion of the role of rules and custom as a way of accomodating our ignorance about multiple purposes etc is also in this vein). He arrives at his results because of the extreme risk aversion but the general framework can be adapted by both wings of the liberal-utilitarian family. Against this the opponents of utilitarian can really offer nothing more than question-begging metaphysical assertions about ‘rights’, ‘volk’, ‘values’, whatever.

  4. May 18th, 2003 at 15:52 | #4

    “…the relatively terse nature of blogs means that you can take a firm position…”

    That rings a warning bell. In computers I have found that sometimes people advertise a feature in documentation as “…can do X…”, e.g. “…can use a mouse…”. When this happens, I have found that if you change “can” to “must” throughout, if the text remains factually correct, the feature isn’t user friendly after all – it’s Procrustean. Even if 90% of people use mice 90% of the time, for instance, that kind of GUI is user unfriendly.

    So also I was minded to wonder about your comment just there; IS it really an advantage? If so, in which circumstances and how well defined and easily assessed are those? Discuss, in an essay short enough for a blog reply.

  5. cs
    May 18th, 2003 at 18:55 | #5

    But John, and I guess Jason, by enfolding ‘rule-consequentialism’ in with ‘act-consequentialism’, are you not at risk of winning the argument by sending it into tautology? Is not Australian politics riven precisely by divisions along these lines, which would mean your definition tends not so much to reveal, but to cover up the truth that there are two games in town.

    I note that Hugh Collins, who has traced the material history of Benthamism in Australia, posited his thesis (ie Australia is a distinctively Benthamite society) in contradistinction to a society which accepted that certain human rights are ‘natural’ (ie universal). Moreover, the bracketing of the social-contract philosophers with act-consequentialists as all being utilitarians together also seems to me to foreclose on what was precisely John Rawls’ mission to open up (a fairly recent essay on Rawls’ position by Martha Nussbaum is here).

    In short, everything you say seems watertight, but I’m left saying: so what?

  6. John
    May 18th, 2003 at 23:17 | #6

    cs, the definition was meant to prepare the way for a look at act-consequentialist vs rule-consequentialist approaches to questions such as the invasion of Iraq. However, the responses have diverted me temporarily from this.

  7. cs
    May 19th, 2003 at 01:32 | #7

    Fair enough John, but I’m just a little mystified by the route (and whether or not bundling these important divisions up under the ‘utilitarianism’ umbrella complicates more than it clarifies). Ok, I’ll be patient.

  8. May 24th, 2003 at 21:52 | #8

    Hi John,

    Another sort of sharp reply for you here.

    You seem like a decent enough fellow, so let me apologize for any overly testy comments made within in advance–but this is my *discipline* you’re talking about! And it’s one that doesn’t even have an ironically self-depreciating nickname like “the dismal science” to make us feel better about practicing it.

    Best,

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