More on utilitarianism
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.