From the comments, on the inevitability of utilitarian judgments

Mario Rizzo writes:

Tyler, please. You should have taken my course this past semester. Benthamite reasons. Bentham is a total mess. One commentator said that Benthamite utilitarianism is a philosophy that tells you what to do when you have the data that you cannot obtain. This is it in a nutshell.

I very often agree with Mario and even here I think I agree with Mario, though Mario doesn't think he agrees with me.

To be sure, I am not a Benthamite utilitarian, if only because I believe rights should sometimes trump utilitarian recommendations.  Furthermore, schema for making interpersonal comparisons involve value judgments, which means the Benthamite calculation is never purely descriptive but rather contains significant elements of other, non-Benthamite moral theories. 

That said, Benthamite reasoning is hard to escape.  Everyone relies on it when making decisions in everyday life, whether it be voting on a job candidate or buying one car rather than another or putting a bus line on one road rather than another.  Even a lot of the arguments for following rules rely on an ultimate Benthamite judgment about good vs. bad consequences.

The fact that one might be wrong in any particular estimation — always the case — doesn't change the need to make a final judgment.  "Benthamite" makes it sounds more scientistic than it needs to be, since Bentham had some unusual views, but still an assessment needs to be made.

Mario offers an instructive comment: "Bentham is a total mess."  Is this an aesthetic critique, or is the suggestion that following Benthamite maxims won't lead to utility-positive results?  If the latter, which is what I suspect, Mario is himself a Benthamite broadly speaking and in that sense we (at least partially) agree.  

Maybe you're a preference utilitarian, but when it comes to aggregation, or how you interpret "veil of ignorance" results, you're still going to rely on utilitarian constructs to do a lot of the final work in the theory.  If your imaginary people are behind a veil of ignorance, they've got to estimate the cardinal utilities (broadly interpreted) associated with different results.  You're just shifting the cardinal comparison to a different place, away from the theorist (supposedly) and into the hands of the veiled ones.

Benthamite reasoning is inescapable, though it is a big mistake to make cardinal utility the only relevant value.  We're all pluralists now, but cardinal utility should be a major part of the relevant pluralist bundle.


My impression is that the errors of utilitarian thinking have more to do with trying to quantify things that are not really measurable, in order to supplant our aesthetic judgments about reality (and what we want it to look like) with something that would in principle be more rigorous. This is the kind of mindset that reads Maimonides saying 'it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.', and rather than accept this as a guiding aesthetic principle regarding just outcomes, asks exactly how many acquittals of the guilty are required to balance the scale with one innocent death.

Is "shifting the cardinal comparison to a different place" an aesthetic act?

Benthamite Utilitarianism doesn't only suffer from the measurability problem. It also suffers from the predicability problem. For it to work, we have to know that decision A will lead to outcome B. Unfortunately, too few decisions involve such certainty.

This statement from above contains both the measurability and predictability problems:

"Benthamite utilitarianism is a philosophy that tells you what to do when you have the data that you cannot obtain"

But I agree with Tyler that it's virtually unavoidable.

I am happy that Tyler picked up on my comment. I appreciate his remarks above.

Well, I guess we need to be a little more precise about our terms. Let me say at the outset that I am a consequentialist in moral theory. I would call myself a rule consequentialist. I believe that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends upon the consequences of the rule that subsumes it. I say this to capture the spirit of where I am coming from. I am quite fond of David Hume as an example of how I approach matters.

I think of a Benthamite utilitarian as an *act* utilitarian who thinks exclusively of maximizing a measure of social happiness where each individual counts only for one (no one's happiness is any more important than anyone else's). So measuring happiness and comparing it across individuals is very important. I also believe, as Rawls did, that (Benthamite) utilitarians do not worry about the distribution of happiness, just its maximization. So if social happiness is to be maximized by making some people totally wretched, that is okay.

It is also to be noted that John Stuart Mill questioned the homogeneity of "happiness" and distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. This greatly complicates the maximization process.

Now quite apart from the desirability of this, I believe that in most cases the application of such a standard is fraught with grave measurement difficulties. So that in practice the Benthamite can't do what he claims to do or wants to do.

In fact, Bentham himself was often much better than some of his followers. At times he said willingness to pay is the best measure of happiness. And he opposed large-scale redistribution of wealth on largely supply-side grounds. All of this avoids having to make any precise cardinal measurement of happiness. (I should also note that Bentham himself was an anti-paternalist, unlike some of his followers.)

It is probably the case that Bentham was not a pure Benthamite utilitarian.

I prefer simply to lay out general consequences of actions and policies and compare them (as Mises did) with the consequences that the advocates desire. Normally, that makes minced meat of the policies. I also prefer to stress simply the benefits of social cooperation which leaves it to individuals how much to value "happiness" or even how to define it.

How often do we really make personal decisions on the basis on the maximization of happiness? In some ways we always do because the word happiness is so elastic.

How often do we as policy analysts make recommendations on the basis of social happiness where interpersonal comparisons of happiness, pleasure, well-being are taken seriously (that is, measured seriously)? I don't think very often. I don't see such studies.

When Prof. Rizzo banishes his critics, is that Benthamite utilitarianism, consequentialist reasoning, or cardinal utility?

Sarkozy: "Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face."
Tyler Cowen: “What about Batman? Count of Monte Cristo?†

They weren’t exactly exemplary “citizens†; at best, exceptional ones.

Monte Cristo didn’t cover his face that much†Š—†Šhe’s incognito, which is quite different. And†Šhe practically had his own island, outside the practical control of any government, payed no income taxes on his exceptional resources, and applied his own brand of justice, even though he was apparently rich enough that he could have compelled the official law of the land to “go on the right track†.

Batman†Š—†ŠI’m not an expert, but he was quite often outside the law. And I don’t mean just being framed or hounded by corrupt officials; he did illegal stuff all the time. He might have had an excellent morality and been an exemplary human being, but not a citizen.

Also, they’re both imaginary. The same suspension of disbelief that allows one to accept hidden treasures and bat caves will also allow for their incorruptibility, but in real life I’d be extremely wary of ridiculously wealthy people taking justice in their own hands. At the very least, I wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about defending their right to conceal themselves while doing it.

What I believe is, if social happiness is to be maximized by making some people totally wretched, that is okay. You don't have to appeal to individual utilities, because veil of ignorance reasoning appeals not to utilities but to primary goods.

The preview feature let me see why my comment was phrased to be very funny and make my point in the exact reverse of the way I intended. I typed in the Capsha and sent it through anyway, since even unintentional humor is good, and you all know what I mean anyway.

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