Utilitarianism Is Not an Ethic!

Utilitarianism traditionally understood is a moral doctrine that bids one to act in such a way as to maximize total happiness if it’s act-utilitarianism, or at least to act according to those rules the recognition of which promotes total happiness if it’s rule-utilitarianism.

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?

Evil can come out of good, and good out of evil in a bewildering variety of ways. No man is God, capable of calculating the consequences of his actions perfectly.

Moreover, at every moment for each person there is presumably a single best thing he can do. Failure to do that one best thing is then immoral. But then individual liberty disappears 100%. There is no such thing as choice of pleasures, if the best action can be objectively determined (such as by some impartial observer).

Then there is the difficulty comparing utilities intersubjectively.

Rule-utilitarianism (RU) seems more plausible at first glace, but further digging shows it to be worthless.

The first problem with RU is that no moral proposition, such as “murder is wrong” can be proved by showing that it’s contrary to the precepts of rule-utilitarianism. (Recall my proof of self-ownership, e.g.:

  1. Why Mises Rejected Natural Law;
  2. Natural Law: Main Commandment.

Where am I weighing lives or pleasures against each other?)

The second problem is that the laws informing any actual society do not command anyone to do anything. They do not compel any specific action to be performed.

Even the “you shall not do X” type injunctions are not demanded of the individual but take the form “if you do X, then you will be punished.”

Consider now a society with private property and a free market. We all agree that this society is, if not the happiest of all, then at least grows in happiness faster than any other. This society says, for example: “Anyone can become a successful entrepreneur.” But it merely provides incentives to people to become entrepreneurs! It does not say: “You, Henry Ford, ought to become an entrepreneur.” The utilitarianism for a community consists in so structuring property rights and incentives as to make it attractive for people to contribute to society. Utilitarianism commands not an entrepreneur but a voter to create a society in which an individual’s creative initiative is harmonized with the common good. Then the voter sits back and watches the theater of the world unfold its play. The laws and incentives, having been set up, await people to be affected by them.

Utilitarianism has no advice to give to Henry Ford as to his choice of vocation.

RU then is not a moral doctrine, because a moral doctrine prescribes duties to individual human beings, yet the RU-moralist’s job is done as soon as the correct laws (such as those made with good will and full awareness of economics) are in place; these laws modify the citizens’ behavior; who then yang-act while affected by the yin-laws in quantitatively unfathomable ways.

In addition, classical RU seems to hold that maximum total happiness is fixed. If we are good people, then we’ll squeeze the most out of the “world resources” or some such thing. This is the neoclassical economistic delusion that focuses solely on the equilibrating part of the market process. In fact, under free markets, there prevails constant and utterly unpredictable improvement in total consumer happiness. It’s therefore not overall happiness that we need to maximize but the speed at which overall happiness increases. This, however, too, can be attempted only on the level of general laws that foster economic progress without compelling any specific action on anyone’s part.

Utilitarianism then cannot reasonably demand that entrepreneur Smith act (either generally or in any specific way) to maximize total happiness; it can only demand that congressman Jones make such laws that Smith and his fellow market actors are gently steered into acting for the sake of society while pursuing their own self-interest.

Utilitarianism As a Path to God

Classical utilitarianism demands that one act in such a way as to produce the best consequences on the whole. Unfortunately, “on the whole” means for all human beings who live now and will live in the future until the end of time. Call this the “till kingdom come” requirement or TKC. Obviously, utilitarianism thusly understood is an impossible ideal. I will now prove that this is precisely what makes it so useful.

Logically, there are 4 possibilities for any human action: one does

  1. good; and good will come out in TKC;
  2. good; and evil will come out;
  3. evil; and good will come out;
  4. evil; and evil will come out.

Clearly, (4) is utterly wrong.

But so is (3) from the actor’s point of view: as I pointed out, if one does evil, yet good comes out of it in TKC, then it is shame to him, and glory to God. But, one shall reason, “God already has enough glory, and I, very little; surely, it will not diminish God’s greatness if I take a little of it for myself even at His expense.”

It follows that it is only rational to do good. But one is powerless to ensure or even know in this life that (1) will come to pass as opposed to (2). But the only way to inner peace is to hold that there is such thing as divine providence that will make sure that doing what seems good immediately will also produce good in TKC. Otherwise, man is not only a tragic figure who acts blindly without knowledge or prudence but a contemptible, disgusting one. For example, how can the doing of good be rewarded if it yields evil on the whole in TKC? Such a thing may be forgiven, but it cannot be praised or glorified.

If God loves His children, then He has to, lest those children suffer ignominy and be branded worthless fools, harmonize plausible basic calculations of common morality and remote consequences of following it all the way up to TKC.

Atheism or even deism which deny divine providence then sabotage the moral enterprise, as deists cannot be sure that their doing good is of any value in the TKC.

Deists then may be “good people” who do not kick dogs, but they can never be sure that abstaining from kicking a particular dog is not a terrible mistake.

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.

White Superiority Is Not “Privilege”

It is probably true that white people are blessed by nature to be born smarter and with greater potential and nurseries of virtues than non-whites such as blacks. Moreover, these greater IQ and natural endowments have resulted — by being present in their parents, too — in their being born into good families and good countries that improve their nurture, as well.

However, these greater abilities, powers, capacities about them are “privileges” only if whites fail to use them for the sake of society and the greater good or, worse, turn them into crime. (Thus, a white criminal will be far more sophisticated than a black one.) If, on the contrary, white people contribute to society to the full extent their natural talents permit, then their being compensated accordingly is in no wise a privilege.

Instead, the superiority of the white race is a social asset that belongs to all members of society including blacks. Good genes and functional families are not something whose benefits accrue to their possessor only but rather are held in trust by society and, through the working out of the market process, benefit humanity as a whole.

A privilege is underserved; if white people earn their money and status honestly, such as especially under laissez-faire, then the fruits of their labors, though indeed unequal with the fruits of labor of black people, benefit society at large including blacks and are to that extent inoffensive. Thus, blacks have profited tremendously from the civilization created by white people around whom these very blacks congregate.

How preposterous that blacks took the white man’s burden — “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Lk 12:48) — and turned it into a “privilege”!

White “Privilege” Is Utilitarian

In the post below I deliberately use utilitarian language to hark back to Mises’

Ownership of the means of production is not a privilege, but a social liability. Capitalists and landowners are compelled to employ their property for the best possible satisfaction of the consumers. (HA, 311)

As a corollary, ownership not only of physical capital is this sort of a liability but of human capital (including IQ, skills, education, etc.), as well.

Other people’s high IQ in a free market economy works to my advantage, even if I personally am irredeemably stupid.

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.