Population Control: “Preference Adjustment”

Suppose there is a primitive culture that values children a lot. For example, large families are afforded admiration and respect. HRE the civilized come in and inform them of the global warming issue and tell them of their newfound moral duty to check their procreation. There will be resistance of all kinds. Perhaps by “preference adjustment” HRE mean attempts to change the culture in order to bring the people in line, such as through their “sub-rational” means. In that case I guess it’s not so bad.

Limitations of Pure Utilitarianism

In an early article, Robert Murphy objects to the adequacy of utilitarianism:

The fundamental problem with utilitarianism is this: Despite a succession of ingenious proponents, its advocates have yet to explain why the individual should behave morally. The fact that we are all better off if we all behave morally is utterly true and utterly irrelevant. (Such an argument violates the cherished Austrian precepts of marginalism and individualism.)

The truly difficult moral issues resemble the familiar Prisoner’s Dilemma; regardless of everyone else’s behavior, the individual does better by exploiting others.

It is true that a society suffering from widespread theft would be intolerable, even from a thief’s point of view, but any individual robbery has very little impact on the overall level of crime.

The focus of utilitarianism is social. A pure utilitarian has little to say to any individual on why he should not be a thief. But he does recommend a social policy of catching and punishing thieves. (According to pure utilitarianism, then, one would not want exploit others, because he risks being caught and fined or imprisoned.) The utilitarian idea is to structure the incentives of the legal system to minimize the total amount of violence people (including the state) inflict on one another. Utilitarianism counsels rewarding and encouraging good deeds and discouraging behavior that harms social cooperation. And that’s it! It thus addresses itself to society and its agent, the state.

Murphy goes on:

Moreover, if everyone agreed with Yeager and other utilitarians that it were foolish to sacrifice oneself in these rare instances, an element of doubt would arise in all social interactions.

Although pangs of conscience might be a wonderful evolutionary byproduct, it would be in the interest of everyone to steel himself against such “irrational” feelings (while still behaving in accordance with them under normal circumstances).

One’s very life might one day depend on it.

Here there is a truth-digging game going on between society and individuals. Individual soldiers will want to hide their cowardice and merely pretend to be willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause (thereby getting paid for doing no work), while society has an incentive to detect their cheating and punish them for it or at least refuse to hire them. Utilitarianism thus addresses itself not to the soldier contemplating whether to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but to the general choosing the soldiers who, in his estimation, are most likely to follow orders even unto death.

It does not say to the soldier: “Sacrifice yourself.” Rather, it says to the general: “Pick self-sacrificing soldiers.” And it is an empirically true statement that people do not always behave selfishly, carefully hiding their egoism until the time comes when they are put to the test, and then to everyone’s consternation they up and do their own thing. Sometimes society wins; other times individuals win (perhaps unjustly and wickedly) at the expense of society.

A soldier may indeed be directed to sacrifice himself but not by utilitarianism but by the contract he must have signed with the military before going off to war. He is duty-bound to act as his contract stipulates, including sacrifice himself in certain situations.


Utilitarianism seems to rob the words good and bad of their specifically ethical character. The utilitarian cannot make a distinction between guilt and simple error. The person who robs a bank to achieve happiness has made a mistake in qualitatively the same sense as a person who overcooks a steak.

Once again, we don’t care about whether the robber acted virtuously or not. All that pure utilitarianism commands is that the police try to deter and minimize bank robberies as much as possible consistent with other goals. The rule according to which robberies go unpunished results in an unhappy society, despite the benefits to the robbers.

Even individual robbers have an interest in society being tough on crimes. Weak-willed robbers will be deterred and steered into productive occupations, both benefiting society and perhaps saving their souls. Especially competent robbers will still get away with their crimes but will enjoy diminished competition and a productive society, so they can actually spend their ill-gotten money. The losers of a regime that efficiently prosecutes robbers will be the stupid criminals who are neither deterred by the law nor evade detection and capture. But their misery is a utilitarian price we pay for a happy society overall.

Now it is true that utilitarianism ignores the obvious point that the robber commits an injustice. This is not a failure of this ethical theory but merely its limitation. Other theories will need to be brought to bear to complement utilitarianism.

It follows that “we as a society” must calibrate the legal system and other methods of apportioning praise and blame so as to promote general happiness. As David Friedman writes, contrasting the economic approach to law with other approaches, “An economist points out that if the punishments for armed robbery and for armed robbery plus murder are the same, the additional punishment for the murder is zero — and asks whether you really want to make it in the interest of the robbers to murder their victims.” (Law’s Order, 8)

As to the fate of the robber’s eternal soul utilitarianism is silent.

Pure utilitarianism teaches people how to attain their goals (which may include the goals of others toward whom they feel benevolent).

On the level of the individual, utilitarianism collapses into the virtue of prudence-in-act. (Of course, utilitarianism does not lose its character as social even here, because this is merely a limiting case wherein the society consists of a single individual.)

On the level of society, it also teaches people how to hinder the goals of those whose actions would destroy social cooperation if left unchecked. A utilitarian thus seeks to educate the public about the actual means to their actual ends, enhance their practical wisdom.

In the final analysis, utilitarianism attempts to spread the virtue of prudence far and wide. That does not mean there are no other crucial virtues, such as justice, that would be dealt with by other ethical theories. Utilitarianism is not worthless, merely incomplete.

Killing Animals Is Morally Permissible

Humans are enjoined to make each other happy, including by cooperating in accordance with the deliverances of economics; religion enlivened by the grace of God goes further and teaches that they ought to have charity for each other.

Now murder is a black sacrament of either (1) hatred or (2) madness, which is why it is forbidden.

Certainly, hatred for fellow man is a ticket to hell.

Assuredly, we also ought not to hate animals or take pleasure in their suffering. Even mosquitoes, though enemies of mankind to be exterminated en masse, should not be hated but killed dispassionately. But when cows are slaughtered, it’s pretty clear the farmers are not being sadists, so condition (~1), absence of hatred, is fulfilled.

But a man who kills another man even without any hatred in his heart (such as when Elmer murders his grandfather for the inheritance) still is a monster for failing to recognize a creature who benefits rather than harms him while alive for what it is. All humans are useful to each other according to natural law (and their mutual usefulness happens to be maximized under laissez-faire). To fail to grasp a fact so basic is to be insane.

(I am saying of course that the proposition “murder is wrong” can be rigorously proven by reducing something like a Crusoe-Friday relationship to pure self-interest. I do not mean that in daily life people decide whom to kill and whom to spare by calculating which of their fellows are useful to them at any given moment and which are not.)

But a cow is not useful to a man in the same manner that a fellow man is useful to him. Hence, the reasons why it is (even naturally without grace) rational to abstain from murder do not apply to killing a cow for its meat. Condition (~2), sanity, is also present.

Nor does it seem that more pain and suffering are created when animals are slain by humans, such as instantly by an electric shock, than when they are killed by predators or die from disease or by being slowly eaten alive in old age.

Consequently, it seems permissible by natural morality to kill animals for food, etc.

See also: Animal Are Fully at Our Mercy.

Landsburg’s Take on Some Utilitarian Dilemmas

Our author is a fanatical consequentialist, saying for example, “I’d cheerfully cut off the ears of a small child to cure malaria.” (155) Fortunately, there is an interesting method to his madness. For example, he considers “the Headache Problem”:

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person? (161)

The first question is: would you as one of the headache sufferers personally be willing to enter into a compact with others likewise afflicted to have one of you randomly sacrificed to the headache god in order to cure everyone’s headache immediately? But that depends on whether other people, too, agree to enter this compact. If only I and no one else agrees, the probability of me dying is 100%. If only 1 other person out of the 1 billion agrees, then I have a 50% chance of dying for the sake of curing our headaches.

What’s the “rational” decision here? In the absence of coordinated decision-making, I may think it’s too risky to agree. But everyone else is in the same position I am. So everyone reasons similarly and declines to enter the compact.

On the other hand, if my decision “determines” everyone’s, I may as well say “yes” and magically, everyone will agree, too.

Alternatively, it may be agreed that the compact will come to be in force only if no fewer than 100 million people enter it. In any case, such a compact, when entered into or refused voluntarily, does not seem to me to be morally problematic.

Second, what Landsburg in fact is proposing is that we make him a benevolent despot and force everyone to enter. Even if the answer to first question is “no agreement,” he judges that government coercion can in this case produce superior results for the following reason:

First, virtually nobody will pay a dollar to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death. (We know this, for example, from studies of willingness to pay for auto safety devices.)

Second, most people — at least in the developed world, where I will assume all of this is taking place — would happily pay a dollar to cure a headache. (I don’t actually know this, but it seems probable.)

Third, this tells me that most people think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death.

So if I can replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death, I’ve done you a favor. And I can do precisely this by killing a headache sufferer at random. (161-2)

Landsburg seems to be able to avoid the charge that he is illicitly weighing utilities interpersonally by saying that he is straightforwardly respecting our own preferences and is simply helping us overcome some coordination problem. And if the answer to the first question is “everyone agrees,” then there is no need even for that.

In other words, Landsburg, upon making some plausible assumptions, is initiating a Pareto-superior move, i.e., getting every member of the compact from a worse to better situation unanimously.

At the same time, the answer “yes, it is Ok” to the original question seems somewhat morally controversial. It may be because no man can be a benevolent despot capable to maximizing total utility, and we all understand that and refuse to do an obvious injustice such as killing an innocent person for the sake of an unknown outcome. Again, however, Landsburg’s reasoning that the outcome is easily known seems persuasive.

Note that by joining the compact, I impose nothing on other people. I bear the full costs — the chance of dying by being randomly picked to be sacrificed to the headache god — myself, yet benefit all other headache sufferers by lowering their probability of dying in like manner. After all, the more people enter the compact, the smaller the probability of each person’s getting unlucky. Thus, my entering is a socially virtuous act which again suggests that there is nothing morally problematic about such a compact.

If the answer to the headache problem is that it is Ok to execute the killing, then replace

“1 billion headache-sufferers-for-an-hour” with “all the children sick with malaria now or in the future”; and replace

“killing one innocent person with the headache” with “cutting off the ears of one child with malaria.” Then a fortiori (i.e., for an even stronger reason), it is fully permissible to get cutting.

The only issue is whether Landsburg would still cut off the ears even of a child who is not (nor ever will be) sick with malaria; or, which is the same thing, whether he would sacrifice a person who does not have the headache. For such a child / person would obviously not agree to enter the compact of his own free will. The “economic” logic would then break down, and his rights would be straightforwardly violated. Then Landsburg could indeed be accused of playing God, as in weighing lives or at least utilities interpersonally against each other yet without the essentially divine ability to do so competently.

Natural vs. Christian Morality

The main natural deontological precept says: “Do not hate your fellow man or through that hatred, injure him unjustly.”

Thus, do not murder or steal.

The natural consequentialist precept says: “Do not, through your actions, make things on the whole worse.”

Thus, don’t be a welfarite, develop your talents, contribute to society within the free market as a productive member thereof (and be compensated accordingly), have the correct libertarian ideology and strive to harmonize private individual initiative and the common good.

Do not make society regret that you were born.

The main Christian deontological precept says: “Love your fellow man and do good to him, both through that love and so that your love may increase.”

Thus, feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, and perform other works of mercy.

The Christian consequentialist precept says: “Improve the world by leaving something after yourself; produce more than you consume.”

Thus, give to charity, raise good children, deepen and teach libertarianism, save souls.

Morality: Case of the Reluctant Superman

Suppose that Metropolis is in grave danger of being totally destroyed, say by a meteorite careening down toward it from space. For whatever reason, Superman refuses to save it. I am in a position credibly to tell him: “You son of a bitch! Either you save the city or I’ll kill Lois Lane.” Am I justified / permitted / required to do that?

For natural morality, we must assume that I do not love the citizens of Metropolis with any special love as myself. It is admitted, however, that I may prefer the city spared so that society and the free market are not damaged and production is not curtailed, which would make me, as a participant in the economy, somewhat poorer.

Natural deontology forbids me to coerce Superman, because I am not allowed to commit an injustice for any personal gain.

Natural utilitarianism enjoins me not to make things worse, but it does not command me to make them better. Therefore, I am not required to bring about the great good of the salvation of Metropolis. I am permitted to walk away with indifference. I am not responsible for the threat to the city, and I am not anyone’s keeper.

Deontology then prohibits coercing Superman, and consequentialism does not require me to coerce him. On the whole, coercion is not permitted, and I ought to let the city perish.

Christian deontology similarly forbids unjust coercion, such as threatening an innocent girl with death, in fact even more stringently, since we contrast with hatred not benign indifference but love.

But Christian utilitarianism now bids me to create good, to improve the world, and in particular to avert great evils. Saving Metropolis certainly qualifies as a huge work of mercy. I am now morally required to force the reluctant Superman to act.

The two approaches seriously conflict with each other. To resolve the conflict, we may invoke threshold deontology. Again, it seems to me that each person needs to establish his own personal thresholds upon some serious reflection and soul-searching and then act accordingly with single-minded confidence. In this case, for me, the greater good brought about is high above the threshold for coercing Superman. Consequentialism takes over, and on the whole, Christian morality compels me to threaten Lois Lane.

Double Effect: Trolley vs. Evil Colonel

In the simple 5 (track A)-vs.-1 (track B) trolley case, if I steer the trolley on the track with the 1 man (Jones), his death is in no way a means to the salvation of the 5. Thus, my action is best described as steering the trolley not onto B but away from A; the death of Jones is unfortunate, but is foreseen though not intended. If Jones were able to break free of his bonds and escape in time, so much the better; then all 6 men would be saved.

Further, the good outweighs the bad (since 5 > 1); and Jones’ libertarian rights are not violated. These 3 criteria make my decision morally licit.

Now let’s look at the evil colonel case. Unlike the situation with Jones in the previous case, if one of the 10 men I am motivated to shoot dodges the bullet, I’d have to shoot him again. The death of group 1 is a definite means to saving group 2. Hence double effect prohibits it.

There is another problem with utilitarianism in the colonel case: adopting this theory ends up enslaving us to evil men. Anyone will be able to say, “Do this evil, or I will do something even worse,” and utilitarianism would seem to command us to obey.

We might say, I feel the colonel’s demonic presence; he is laughing at my predicament which he engineered, mocking me, saying that I am damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I don’t want to satisfy him, make the devil happy. This is a reason to abstain from killing.

But if this situation arose on its own, not having been maliciously contrived, then my decision is to that extent easier.

The 3 criteria are jointly sufficient to justify an action; but they need not be necessary. So, killing the 10 even without satisfying double effect may be permissible, but the case is much less clear-cut.