Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Utilitarian Fallacy

Utilitarianism has a big flaw that most utilitarians I know gloss over. Just to clarify, though, I’m talking about universal or objective utilitarianism. The kind that is used to make public policy decisions, not the personal form of utilitarianism. You’ll see why in a second.

The whole point of utilitarianism is to maximise total utility, that is, “the most good for the most people.” Or, at least, some version of that. The goal is to increase the total good in the world. The flaw I’m talking about is the lack of an objective standard against which to measure.

It’s certainly a noble sounding objective, one that many people quote as their personal philosophy without having the ability to actually achieve it. Or, more truthfully, know they’ve achieved it. Two utilitarians looking at the same decision could have vastly different opinions of which path to take, both citing “the common good” as their goal, and it’s not possible to know which one, if any, is right. Consider this small example:

You have been asked to go to a movie with some friends. They have narrowed down the choice of movies to two and you get to be the tie breaker. The question is, how can you know which movie is the best choice without actually seeing both movies? The fact is, you can’t. Instead you make a best guess based on a number of heuristics (who directed it, who stars in it, which trailer was better, which seems like it would fit the group’s mood).

That’s a very simple example. Consider the complexities as the choice becomes larger. Should a firm lay off some workers? There are many factors to consider. Will the company survive long enough if they don’t? Is it better for the business to go under so other businesses can hire their workers? Would it be better to cut everyone’s salary? Which workers?

Some utilitarians may claim (and some actually have) that they can indeed measure these things and make the best decision for everyone involved. They’re wrong. What they can do is measure a couple of pieces of it. It’s the equivalent of looking for your lost wallet under the lamp post because the light is better. The reason that the decision cannot properly be measured is because the full cost and benefit will come in the future based upon factors which are themselves unknown. Utility measurement is about predicting the future, and none of us can do that.

That said, you can apply utilitarianism at the personal level, in your own decisions. When you, yourself, bear the costs or reap the rewards of a decision, then you have a fighting chance of making the right ones. We all make mistakes in our choices, but in the aggregate we do make more good choices than bad. Not only is there an incentive to make better decisions, but we have much less to measure.

It’s because of this that I think the true goal of utilitarianism (increasing total good) is served best when everyone looks after their own utility. In other words, individual freedom is actually the pinnacle of the utilitarian ideal. It’s not perfect, mind you, but it’s the best that finite humans can achieve.

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