Wednesday, June 17, 2015


As I mentioned in my last post, I have a gut affinity towards utilitarianism, but am confused about the details and not at all up to speed on philosophy in general. Part of my confusion comes from witnessing, and not being sure what to make of, the divide between moral libertarians and utilitarian libertarians. The former group is the one that believes in the inherent value of liberty regardless of the consequences, and the latter group believes in liberty because of the consequences.

The strange thing is that there is a great deal of opposition to utilitarianism among the moral libertarians (for example, Saint-Paul). It seems to me that the root of the opposition is a desire to discredit the philosophy so tightly linked to the argument for redistribution of wealth.[1] I suspect at least a few of the logical arguments against it are designed ex post to support that goal, which doesn't make them wrong, but justifies additional suspicion.

Basically, over time I've concluded that my heart is a moral libertarian and my brain is a utilitarian libertarian[2], and boy isn't it lucky that the conclusions coincide so well. But the more I think about it the less conflict I think there is and the more I just think utilitarianism is not very useful except at the broad gut-level analysis I employ it as.[3]

So back up - where does my affinity towards both utilitarianism and liberty come from?

Utilitarianism: I know this is something I care about because a) it's just obvious to want to maximize well-being, and b) in my daily life, I hate inefficiencies and frequently incur personal costs to get rid of them. I'm pretty sure my boyfriend is the only one who has ever accused me of being a generous person, but when he does it's always for things like driving out of my way to drop people off rather than letting them all pay extra money to spend hours on buses, or for organizing collective actions when I'm pretty sure a valuable public good won't be provided if I don't personally step up to the plate. My best friend can also confirm my inclination to meddle when I see people doing things inefficiently...

Libertarianism: I do not like being told what to do. That's pretty much the sum of it. Obviously that was only the initial root of it, and as a kid I formulated a value for liberty in tandem with a value for personal responsibility, and in college as an economics student I added onto that a belief system about the economy and larger-scale political issues. But fundamentally, I'll admit it, it comes down to a really, really strong desire to live and let live.

If I were unique in this desire and if markets didn't work they way they do, that would be a tough spot to be in. I personally value liberty for its utility to me, and if the rest of the world was happier being tightly regulated, I would have to just make peace with that[4]. But I don't think there's a conflict. No one likes being told what to do, even if they don't care as strongly as I do. Liberty inherently provides an enormous deal of utility! And luckily, liberty also allows for decisions that aggregate into much, much richer societies. Seems like a pretty utilitarian perspective to me.[5]

So what's the problem with utilitarianism? If I can use utilitarianism to support by libertarian view with as much conviction as someone can use it to support their enormous-welfare-state preferences, that's a bad sign. The argument becomes a (mostly, see [3] again) empirical question (which is where the field of economics comes in). But that's also kind of a good thing - if we can admit that we have common ground in wishing the world well, we can move on from the philosophy to the empirics.

I don't think that the practical difficulty of interpersonal utility comparisons and the prediction of the utility implications of various policies is a challenge to the principle of utilitarianism. If it's pretty obvious that I make my friends better off by organizing a carpool, it can be equally obvious that mutually-agreeable trades makes people better off. Difficulty in distinguishing shades of gray doesn't mean that the ends of the spectrum aren't black and white, or that we shouldn't try.

I started this saying I'm confused and uninformed on the whole topic, which is true but diminishingly so, so please tell me where I'm wrong :)

With spectacular timing, while I've been writing this in my head the last few days until I had a chance to actually type it, Tyler CowenScott Sumner and Bryan Caplan have relevant posts with which I mostly agree. I think. (There may be others in the thread that I've forgotten; apologies. And one of those is from 2010 but I just read it, I'm not sure how.)


[1] I believe that was the original motivation Bentham had for defining it, right? Or is that another biased simplification by moral libertarians that I shouldn't have taken at face value?

[2] Frequently also referred to as a bleeding heart libertarian, but I don't much like that phrase.

[3] I also know barely anything about Austrian economics but I think this is also one of their main points, that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible and therefore mainstream economics is invalid etc. I definitely don't go that far. Interpersonal utility comparisons are in principle impossible but a rough approximation is feasible, credible, ubiquitous, inevitable, and useful. See Tyler's link above.

[4] Similarly, I'm against public finding for radio and tv and arts despite the fact I personally greatly benefit from those subsidies. My unusual preferences don't give me the right to be subsidized.

[5] There are systematic differences you see between utilitarian and moral libertarians resulting from this acceptance of utilitarianism; accordingly, I'm perfectly fine with a minimal social safety net and policies that improve clearly failing markets.


Anonymous said...


I'd like to offer a few answers to questions you're posing, or comments to your post, or whatever comes to mind...

The classical (at least to my understanding) moral argument for liberty is that liberty is a precondition for morality in general. Liberty is about having meaningful choices, having the ability to act within some sphere of autonomy, having sovereignty of at least a bounded sort. And morality is about answering the question "what ought I do?", in some form or another. So a person without liberty is also a person unconfronted by morality. This was the basis of the classical argument against slavery: denial of liberty denied morality.

Anyway, the foundational argument against utilitarianism is that it makes a calculation out of something that seems inherently non-quantitative. Consider, for instance, Roman spectacles, where prisoners and slaves and whatnot were fed to beasts or otherwise brutalized for public enjoyment. Does the propriety or impropriety of such spectacles really depend on how large the stadium was, i.e. how many were entertained by the suffering of the few? Doesn't reducing the matter to a calculation miss the point, misrepresenting the nature of right and wrong? A pure utilitarian seems to have to hope that the numbers add up to the instinctively correct answer. And a mere libertarian seems mostly to have arguments about why people shouldn't be imprisoned or enslaved, but rather fewer arguments about how they should be treated if in fact they are properly detained (e.g. for a heinous crime).

You claim that "it's just obvious to want to maximize well-being", but that misses the point, I think. Sure, ceteris paribus, maximize away, why not? But the test of commitment to utilitarianism comes when maximization can only be accomplished by violating something else. When maximization can only be accomplished by coercive means, is it still obviously right? Note, maximization can still be desired, but morality is about more than what we want. It is about right and wrong, permitted and forbidden and mandatory, etc.

Utilitarianism can still be useful for each of us in deciding what we want to do in moral situations (e.g. your going out of your way for your friends), but such personal utilitarianism presupposes your liberty - it is utilitarianism that you choose to deploy in morally meaningful situations that you find yourself in, to guide you in your personal choices. That is utilitarianism of strictly limited utility. It doesn't rise to the level of requiring liberty, or of addressing free societies vs socialist ones, redistribution and welfare states, etc.

BTW, are you persuaded that economics really is an empirical field, rather than a normative one? For instance, if real people routinely violated Gresham's law, would you conclude that Gresham's law is incorrect, or would you conclude that the people don't understand what they should do?

Vera L. te Velde said...

Thanks for your reply! Good food for thought. I've heard of this dilemma between free will and morality put forth as a problem we would have to deal with (or do have to deal with) when concluding that choices are not actually free, but hadn't heard of it as an argument for granting freedom. That's interesting, because while it makes sense it doesn't seem to get you very far; moral choice requires liberty to make that choice but not absolute liberty, so if your goal is to push a libertarian agenda on those grounds you'd have to argue that choices in each context would benefit from individual moral calculation, which seems like a not-very-generalizeable mess. Maybe that's why I haven't heard it, although more likely I'm just philosophically uninformed.

In comments elsewhere (facebook) I've also encountered this uncomfortability with the fungibility of different valuable things as a fundamental objection to libertarianism, although I don't feel like there's a problem with that conceptually (practically yes, hence saying that it's not particularly useful beyond a broad gut level). If things like liberty, life satisfaction, dignity, etc were not fungible we would be unable to make choices that trade them off. But we do make such choices, even if we don't like them. The value of human life so greatly dwarfs the utility of watching people fight to the death that the Roman analogy is only effective on a scale that's too hrad to imagine to be enlightening. But think of cockfighting or something - I personally think cockfighting is abhorrent on any scale but I bet that between me and the people who think animals are a 100% write-off in utility calculations there are people who think cockfighting should only be done if you have a big enough audience, not in a wasteful bloodbath put on by one guy in his backyard. So no, I don't see the conceptual problem there. Someone else mentioned the utility monster objection, which similarly I don't see as a problem - such a utility monster either doesn't exist, or already exists (humans eating animals), proving that if the balance of utilities *actually* comes out in favor of extinguishing an "invaluable" asset such as life or dignity, we don't actually have qualms about doing so. (Of course people differ in how much value they put on those things and therefore some are vegetarian or hunters or whatever.)

So in sum, my response to all of your points except the last paragraph boils down to variations on a theme: liberty is valuable and that value is the utility you use to compare it to other more tangible forms of utility when making calculations that trade off these things. It's hard to put numbers on these things, but the fact it's extremely difficult to pinpoint a number doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

On your last question, this is a whole other debate but one that I have strong opinions on so I'll respond now and maybe blog more later - yes I *absolutely* think economics is an empirical science. The jump from empirics to normative statements is abnormally small in economics, and normative questions *motivate* the empirical questions we pay attention to, but when it comes down to doing the research, that is purely a positive (empirical) pursuit. In your particular example, if I saw people routinely violating gresham's law I would conclude that it's not a very useful model of behavior. Which assumption the model rests on is at fault, however, would need to be figured out - are people maximizing something different from what we assume they're maximizing? Or are they failing to effectively maximize? The normative interpretation of such a model is that *if* you care about what a model assumes you care about, you should do what the model says is the optimal behavior. You see how the positive and normative are so close together that it's easy to mistake positive science for normative assertions...

Vera L. te Velde said...

Ack, I should proofread. 2nd paragraph should read "fundamental objection to utilitarianism", not libertarianism.

Xerographica said...

The problem with utilitarianism is that it fails to clarify. Sure, taking from the rich and giving to the poor can increase utility. But... if it also decreases productivity... then sooner, rather than later, it will result in a net loss of utility.

A minimum wage can increase utility... but it certainly results in an inefficient allocation of labor...which decreases productivity which results in a net loss of utility.

Workplace regulations ostensibly created to protect workers can increase utility. But, they also function as barriers to entry... which means a smaller supply of employers. A smaller supply of employers means that workers are beggars that can't be choosers... which results in a net loss of utility.