3 Problems with Utilitarianism

They are: of knowledge, love, and power. The problem of knowledge has already been dealt with:

Act-utilitarianism suffers from the crushing objection that “total happiness” is spread over billions of people for a million years in the future. What do I know of such things?

The problem of love is as follows. In order to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, I have to will or desire that good. But that good, though maximized overall, is imparted into individuals. I thereby will good to those individuals, which is the definition of love. Thus, utilitarianism requires me to love people; moreover not any specific person by mankind as a whole. What kind of love is that?

It is clear that even the most outgoing person will have only a few “dear friends” whom he loves with a full-bodied love of friendship. Everyone else is a stranger to him, capable of eliciting only general “disinterested benevolence.” Again, what is the nature of this love? Consider Mises’ understanding of the proper emotions of the economist: Subjectivism, he says

takes the ultimate ends chosen by acting man as data, it is entirely neutral with regard to them, and it refrains from passing any value judgments. …

If Eudaemonism says happiness, if Utilitarianism and economics say utility, we must interpret these terms in a subjectivistic way as that which acting man aims at because it is desirable in his eyes. …

At the same time it is in this subjectivism that the objectivity of our science lies. Because it is subjectivistic and takes the value judgments of acting man as ultimate data not open to any further critical examination, it is itself above all strife of parties and factions, it is indifferent to the conflicts of all schools of dogmatism and ethical doctrines, it is free from valuations and preconceived ideas and judgments, it is universally valid and absolutely and plainly human. (HA, 21-2)

In short, an economist and now any utilitarian in regard to an arbitrary stranger proclaim:

I will to you those goods that you will to yourself. Whatever it is you want, perhaps as long as it’s not criminal or especially vicious, I also desire for you, and I even root for your success from a distance.

But when interpreted so broadly and innocuously, utilitarian love ceases to have any action-guiding clout or imperative. It devolves into “I enjoy watching people strive and seek their happiness; I cheer when they find it, and grieve when they, sometimes tragically, fail; but that is all part of the work and way of the world. For each good desired by a person, call him Smith, there is already someone, namely Smith, who is pursuing it single-mindedly. I have nothing to add to this; the greatest good is already being promoted without my assistance. The world works; all is well with it; I am content; though, like all others, I, too, seek my own happiness.” If one is content, where is the motivation to thrust himself into action to start maximizing overall good?

Suppose now that I were for some reason motivated to promote greatest overall good. What exactly am I supposed to do according to utilitarianism? I mean, do I help people? To do their jobs, say? Do I approach a random janitor cleaning up in a corporate building after hours and say, “Hey dude, I want to help you vacuum the floor. I don’t actually care about you, but helping you will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and I am commanded to do this.” Isn’t this more than a little absurd?

More plausibly, I might need to do Catholic works of mercy: feed the hungry, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, etc. If utilitarianism demands that these be done unto utter exhaustion, then it is an awfully ambitious doctrine. No Catholic saint probably measured up to an ideal that rigorous. The fact then that there are no actual utilitarians in the world should give pause to those who advocate utilitarianism.

Further, regarding “helping,” I cannot forsake my own life and become a tool of others who will use me, quite selfishly, to pursue their own aims. I am a man, not a robot or slave whose purpose it is to serve its owners. I cannot disappear as a person and turn myself into an appendage of other people. Imagine if everybody was this sort of a helper; then everyone would be an instrument for others; and no one would have a life or his own goals or interests. There would be no one whose goals could be furthered by help from others, because everyone would be just a helper to others. Utilitarianism seems self-refuting.

This is the problem of power. We can see that all 3 problems are rather severe and undermine classical utilitarianism. As I have suggested, utilitarianism rightly understood is defensible, however.

Instability of Classical Rule Utilitarianism

The intuitive point is that a society in which everyone is a rule-utilitarian in the classical sense may be preferable to a society in which everyone is an act-utilitarian, but no individual has any control over the moral views of other people.

To illustrate, let’s consider the formulaic “good” done by a person expressed in utils. To keep the analogy with the standard prisoner’s dilemma, let us postulate a heavenly reward due to an individual proportional to the good he does.

Society is RU Society is AU
I am RU I) 5 III) 1
I am AU II) 10 IV) 2

Case I. If everyone is RU, with each person following the rules of common morality, things are fairly decent and happy, and I, along with everyone else, produce 5 utils of overall happiness and gain the same as the reward.

Case II. However, I can do still better in the same case, if I change my stance to AU. For everyone will still act predictably, yet I, assisted by superior cleverness in calculating the consequences of my actions and being unbound by secondary rules, will be able, through deft maneuvering and seizing opportunities to do good in surprising ways, to create (and hence earn) a greater amount of total happiness, in this case, 10.

Case III. If, however, everyone else is an AU, then my sticking to rules is highly unwise. If I stupidly and blindly abide by moral rules, while everybody is breaking them whenever they feel doing so yields better results, then the rules in my case cease to be utilitarian at all. They become a hindrance; obeying them may even lead to pain and suffering. 1 util is optimistic.

Case IV. If everyone, both me and everyone else, is an AU, in the resulting chaos, due to the unpredictability of everyone’s behavior (in the realistic situation of bounded rationality), it will be hard to know what to do, though I am still in a better position than in the previous case. It’s sink or swim; hopefully, I’ll swim and do 2 utils worth of good.

We can now see that “I am AU” dominates “I am RU”: II > I, and IV > III; that is, regardless of what society is like in its ethics (and I have no control over that), I can do more good and garner for myself a greater reward by being an act utilitarian.

But: every member of society thinks this way. Hence, everyone will end up an act utilitarian, and everyone will produce 2 utils of happiness, as opposed to the superior case of everyone’s being a rule utilitarian and producing 5 utils.

Thus, a society of rule utilitarians is unstable and will inevitably devolve into a society of act utilitarians, losing overall happiness as a result. Utilitarianism then fails to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, contrary to its intent even in practice.

Utilitarianism Works for Nature Not Just Charity

Geoffrey Thomas wonders about utilitarianism: “… there is no obvious ground on which your valuings give me a reason for acting. Why should I value your valuings being satisfied? But utilitarian morality as a social institution requires us precisely to value one another’s valuings in such a way as to promote the general welfare.”

Well, Smith should value Jones’ “valuings” if Smith happens to love Jones. Charity unites the wills, such that the lovers’ spiritual hearts indwell in each other. As I write in my book, “It is a good piece of advice that if you love a friend, then give without further thought: the profit to the beloved is your profit. And if you are loved, then take without fearing that you will need to repay the favor: your profit is the profit of the lover, as well.” (SAtK, I, 38)

But utilitarianism does not require love in order to be serviceable when rightly understood. It can work full well in a society of mutually disinterested persons.

Again, utilitarianism is a guide not to the individual citizen but to the legislator. Harmonizing an individual’s search for his own profits with the welfare of society at large maximizes utility, so far as any reasonable calculation showcases. Let the laws be such that, on the one hand, no man is prevented from discovering and traveling to a position in which he can best serve society; and on the other hand, social cooperation serves each individual better and better with time. Enacting such a regime is then the task of a wise utilitarian.

There is perhaps a simpler way to think about it. In a big world where labor is scarcer than land, with moderate overall scarcity of gifts of nature, people produce and exchange their goods. But any economic exchange benefits both parties, whereas any political violent expropriation and confiscation necessarily harms one party. If we continue to disallow interpersonal utility comparisons (assumed by our mutual disinterestedness), then only the former unequivocally increases utility. Such society should be built that encourages production and mutually beneficial trade, in particular, laissez-faire capitalism.

Whether we are dealing with a small society (in which immoral behavior is immediately irrational) or large society (where the connection is less obvious if still solid), we let people worry about and pursue their own good rather than the impossible general welfare, and entrust this latter to the care of judges and lawmakers.

Non-Arbitrary Virtues Are Consistent with Human Diversity

John H. Riker suggests that “for Aristotle all good persons are alike…; Aristotle’s ethics cannot respond to issues of diversity — cannot respond to different groups of people valuing genuinely different forms of life,” especially given “the radical individualism of modernity in which the singularity of each person is affirmed.” (Why It Is Good to Be Good, 5)

This is scarcely a problem for my system in which virtue is explicitly set off against on the one hand nature and on the other hand narrow happiness.

As a result, when asked, “What’s your poison?” nothing prevents St. Smith from saying “I study and collect butterflies”; St. Jones, “I am a Vegas high roller” (gambling as such is not a sin in Catholicism); and St. Robinson, “I love airplanes and flying them.”

Their saintly character — through which they are indeed somewhat, though hardly 100%, alike — is compatible with an immense variety of ways of pursuing narrow happiness, as well as of the environment including people around them in which this pursuit proceeds.

How Ethics Depends on Ideology

We don’t have or bother speculating about any ethical rules or precepts for how masters should treat their slaves, because living in a capitalist society, we do not consider master-slave relations to be legitimate. An attempt to enslave (such as by kidnapping a person and keeping him in a hole on one’s property) is a crime and that’s all there is to it.

In this sense, ethics depends upon ideology understood as “a doctrine of the mutual relationship among the members of society.” (Mises, Liberalism, 192)

Murdering Redheads: Solution

This could actually be an exam question in an Intro to Ethics course. The answer is that, on the contrary, it is a reason precisely not to murder redheads.

This is because pleasure after an act is performed increases both its merit and demerit. If you feed the hungry and feel happy afterwards, then by that very fact your holiness is increased. If you murder someone and feel happy afterwards, then, since you rejoice in evil done, this time the happiness increases your guilt and corrupts you still further.

So, if indeed “general happiness” in a community increases after it cleanses all the redheads by murdering them, then this fact intensifies the hair colorists’ guilt, and so more punishment is by justice due to them to counteract and negate the alleged happiness.

Vertical Splitting

This means in psychology that “the only way one can both retain a sense of self-worth and engage in the immoral activity is to split off the part of himself that carries his self-image from the part that is performing the action. When persons engage in vertical splitting they are conscious of what they are doing but disavow its reality or its wrongness.” (Riker, 100)

In Summa Against the Keynesians, I make this conflict the centerpiece of the virtue trinity formation, i.e., when a person does not approve of what he enjoys and does not enjoy what he approves of. In the book it may be expressed in a somewhat formulaic manner, but then it is an economics not psychology treatise.

Therefore, when a personality grounds the pursuit of happiness, it must be that one strives for all and only those ends which he morally approves of.

Vertical Splitting and Time

Following St. Thomas, we can construct a very fast and loose hierarchy of life-forms.

At the bottom are single-celled organisms that merely “live.”

On the next level are plants who possess only the “nutritive” or “vegetative” soul; they “grow.” Moreover, such organisms are multicellular and sport different organs.

Then there are animals like oysters that have senses but are immobile.

Then we have higher animals who “transcend space,” i.e., who can move about, like parrots and lions.

Up at the very top, we have humans who as rational animals transcend both space and time, i.e., are 4-dimensional, operating in all 4 periods, past, present, future, and timelessness.

To quote from my book,

… seeking narrow happiness by a vicious person is nugatory. For if later on in life Smith decides to “become a better person,” whatever exactly that entails for him, then he may have to reject, abandon, and purge those very desires that he struggled so valiantly to satisfy, making all his previous efforts entirely vain.

In other words, suppose Smith once felt that drinking himself into a stupor and wallowing in his own filth like a pig was a fine way of living. Then he wakes up and tries to pull himself together. Here’s the thing: recalling his past pleasures will not be a happy experience for Smith but rather full of shame and pain. The pleasures will be despised, and Smith will want to forget his past. It’s as if his past is condemned, and his very life thereby shortened.

Such will be the fate of all people without a coherent self.

Ethics: Character, Self, & Other Definitions

Character = a harmonious union of a number of well-defined and known virtues: courage, prudence, humility, magnanimity, modesty, justice, etc.

Self = a collection and solidification of permanent pleasures, interests, loves, projects, and life’s works.

Personality = character + self = the virtue trinity.

Persona = social roles, such as one’s job, public accomplishments, objects of pride.

Character is built, self is discovered.

It may be asked, if one (though not the overriding) purpose of life is soul-making, why would not God create us with perfect character and full self-knowledge? Because the process of character-building and self-discovery is everlasting. There is no such thing as a fully completed human soul. Might as well start at zero.

Id = desire (potency) / enjoyment (act) in the narrow happiness trinity.
Ego = intellect + power in the happiness trinity.
Superego = demands of natural law in the nature trinity and self-imposed ideals in the virtue trinity.

Personality grounds pursuit of happiness, because one seeks the happiness made proper to himself by his self. These pleasures will not be undone in the future. But both virtue and happiness trinities are in a flux, at the very least in constant development. So they may be aligned well at t1 and misaligned later at t2. Ideally, the process of harmonizing pursuit of 1st-order pleasures with development of personality (and in addition with improvement in nature such as learning to love) is always proceeding and effective.

The key advantage of getting a self is that without it, commitments to long-term projects are problematic, because of the spiritual chaos in one’s heart. It makes no sense for me to embark upon complex and long endeavors, if today I like X, tomorrow I dislike X. I begin a task and abandon it only a little later. I’m a “quitter.” So my pleasures are of a primitive kind capable of being immediately satisfied: food, sex, games, and the like.

Moreover, while a long-term goal is being achieved, all one does is pay the costs of it. The revenues lie far in the future. A person without a self, even if he resolved to see a project to its end, may find the present pain unjustified by the future pleasure and again, quit.

Development of self is organic, as change-amidst-permanence, so there is always a core self, even if it grows more interesting and complex with time.