Argument for “Redistribution” from “Marginal Utility”

Huemer writes:

There is a simple and well-known argument that antipoverty programs are overall beneficial: antipoverty programs redistribute money from wealthier people to poorer people. According to the well-known principle of diminishing marginal utility of money, a given quantity of money will usually give more benefit to a poorer person than to a wealthier person… (150)

This is entirely false, and I refute this argument adequately in my book. Let me cut-and-past it again here.

The confusion between wealth and income may be the basis of a fallacious argument for progressive taxation from utility analysis. It is argued that a rich man benefits less from a marginal dollar than a poor man. To rob the former of $1,000 would be harming him less than so to rob to latter.

Now the argument is unscientific for two reasons: first, it depends on interpersonal comparisons of utility; second, it neglects the utility to people of money. We might argue that a rich person is rich precisely because he attaches higher utility to money and has devoted more effort to obtaining it.

Even if we let these slide, however, the argument works for wealth, i.e., if we expropriate and distribute existing fortunes.

It leads to the opposite conclusion, namely, regressive taxation, in the case of income.

For a rich man presumably benefits “little” from an extra $1,000 of money income added to his net worth, and a poor man benefits “a lot.” Surely, a panhandler on the street will glow with joy upon receiving one grand; the same amount will leave a modern-day Croesus unperturbed. In order to equalize these marginal utilities, we would need to take away most of the poor man’s wage and leave most of the rich man’s in his hands.

Progressive income taxation does not equalize total utilities, because “net worth” and “rate of increase of net worth via an income stream” are completely different variables; and it does not equalize marginal utilities for the reasons just stated. Hence, the argument fails.

But “redistributive” taxation is almost never on wealth but usually on income. In fact then, there is no utilitarian argument for looting anyone from “diminishing marginal utility.”

Note that in this case, there is no difference between the “humanitarian” and “egalitarian” approaches. (148-9) This is because this argument, if it were sensible, would insist that total utility is maximized precisely when everyone’s net worths are equal.

Welfare State vs. Drowning Child

I describe and analyze the Drowning Child case in the previous post. Huemer proceeds to make the following distinctions between that and welfare statism which he dubs “Charity Mugging”:

a) In the Charity Mugging, the problem you seek to address is a chronic social condition, whereas in the Drowning Child, the problem is an acute emergency. …

b) In the Drowning Child case, one can easily and quickly solve the problem, whereas in the Charity Mugging case, one can realistically hope only to alleviate the problem.

c) In the Drowning Child case, the coercion required to address the problem is a one-time intervention, whereas in the Charity Mugging, it is an ongoing program of coercion. (155)

He adds in a footnote that Peter Unger objects to (a) that the only difference is that the victims of a “chronic problem” “have been suffering for a longer time; but this surely cannot lessen the reasons for helping victims of chronic problems.” (156n)

As it happens, I discuss this problem in my book. The requisite passages are below.


Utilitarians like Peter Unger who harp on our alleged duties to the poor in faraway lands fail to grasp the details of their own moral theory. For the demands of utilitarianism are hierarchical. At the base lies the prescription to make a society (or the world as a whole) as efficient as possible. There are very few truly needy in rich and successful societies.

The second tier is private charity, voluntarily discharged duties to help the poor, the widows and orphans, the church, and suchlike. The reason why there is a lexicographical priority is that it is worse than useless to throw charitable donations into a society that cannot but remain poor because of its abhorrence of capitalism. First, the citizens must learn economics and cooperate according to its teachings. Only then, with respect to abandoned infants, the incapacitated, and so on, will charity play its indispensable role. One must first teach the vast majority to fish and give fish only to those who cannot produce.

A reply to Unger’s Living High and Letting Die then is that unless the poor countries put themselves together and on their own eliminate poverty for the general population, flooding them with foreign aid or charitable donations is futile. If we want to help, then we should send them economics teachers who will explain to them what’s what. Only once laissez-faire capitalism is accepted and implemented, and the standard of living is rising rapidly, will it make sense to care for the sick, the dying, and so on. When the masses are dying from hunger or live on the brink of starvation or barely subsisting, there can be no talk about helping the few deserving poor, because everyone is poor.

Again, what “they” need is not charity but a solid grounding in economics and libertarianism. It is contrary to utilitarianism for the failed nations to leech off the successful ones: must not “they” cooperate with “us” honestly? Paying people for not producing diminishes overall wealth and happiness. Unger postulates second-tier duties to “us,” while forgetting about first-tier duties to “them.” If it is objected that they cannot in principle help themselves, then I reply that in that case, they for all intents and purposes are not human, and we have no duty to feed them, just as we have no duty to feed wild animals.

I agree that it is a scandal that many people in Third World countries are malnourished. But “we” are not responsible for that. Left-liberals, for all their coercive “compassion,” think that the Africans, etc. are an embarrassment to humanity. In a way, they are right: it is their flaws that cause their poverty. That does not mean that we should be treating them as subhumans who (we have decided) cannot take care of themselves.

Not only does acting on our alleged second-tier duties tempt them to violate their first-tier duties, but if the latter were fulfilled, then the former might disappear entirely, because the givers, “we,” in Unger’s cases, are too far away which violates the subsidiary principle which may have some authority even for a utilitarian. Why should an American help the beggars in Africa and not someone closer to them by location, kinship, language, etc.? It should not be a “burden” to be a “white man.” …

The third tier is paternalism. If everything fails, and a person’s powers incline to evil, then those powers must be temporarily taken away, until such time when he will learn to use them responsibly.

Thus, taking what seems to me everything in account, utilitarianism is promoted by (1) a social system of efficient laws which create such incentives as to make individual profit and the good of society (or common good) to harmonize with each other, i.e., making society prudent; (2) teaching people how to succeed in their personal undertakings, i.e., making individuals prudent within that prudent society; and (3) prescribing certain limited, imperfect in the Kantian sense, and voluntarily discharged duties, such as helping the poor or donating to the church, that redistribute resources within the social values scale (insofar as love of friendship entails merging of the values scales of the lovers) to satisfy the most urgent needs, i.e., remedying situations in which the prudence of an individual fails through no fault of his own (essentially bad luck). (SAtK, I, 42)


Regarding (a), it is plain that the chronic problem of the poor’s poverty is a normal, settled, and expected state of affairs. An acute emergency on the contrary is a significant disturbance in the regular course of life. Moreover, the poor bear full responsibility for their contemptible (allegedly chronic) poverty and remain the very people who must through their own efforts lift themselves up. An acute emergency is different in that without further details we assume that the drowning child is in grave danger to his life through no fault of his own. For example, the situation would be relevantly different if we knew that the same child insisted on drowning himself anew every day.

In addition, “poverty” is not the same as an imminent threat to life. As I argue in a brief discussion of rescues, “Even if a person is seriously disabled and has no one who loves him to care for him, a charitable organization is by the nature of its mission not obligated to do more than sustain his physical life. It is not required to feed him pomegranate juice.”

This brings us to point (b).

What explains the fact that the Starving African Adults continue having Starving African Children? Are they crazy? Are they really animals? Regardless, feeding the Starving Children through “charity” will soon enough result in more of them. Surely, the givers would be perfectly justified in this case in imposing strict population control measures upon the Africans up to and including mass sterilizations. But this sort of treatment is inhuman according to natural morality and disgusting according to Christian morality. Whites and blacks are, after all, members of the same species. The extreme separation between the human whites and subhuman blacks cannot be sustained in the longer run. “Charity” does nothing to narrow the gap in dignity and honor between the races.

Thus, feeding a Starving Child indeed “alleviates” the problem and only for a few hours. The child appears to have no parents who will care for him, or if he does, then they, too, are starving. The entire operation is a massive exercise in futility.

Point (c) follows.

Unger claims that utilitarianism commands “us” to enslave ourselves — and our posterity — for the rest of our lives to foreign wretches, to some insatiable maw that devours resources without even bothering to utter “thanks.” “We” must allegedly sacrifice our own lives and ends to serve the dark Starving African demon-god. I think any reasonable man will reject this outrageous demand. Nor does utilitarianism mandate or recommend it.

In short, the welfare state is nonsense.

Argument for God from “Charity”

Observation reveals three kinds of people in the world: subhumans, the wild and lawless type, who are below nature; natural men who generally heed the natural law and abstain from committing heinous crimes; and supermen or “Christian saints” who are above nature.

If this classification is correct, and Christian charity and works of mercy are not natural to man, then we must ask how the saints are lifted above their nature.

Now charity unites the human race into one. It stands to reason that the cause of charity in men’s hearts seeks to achieve this kind of unity and moreover not just directly between humans but also through itself, as indeed a vine unites the branches. This cause is called God which we conclude loves mankind and wills that we do, too.

This argument, unfortunately, would be completely unpersuasive to natural men, because the very judgment that saints are superior to the unregenerated arises from an infusion of grace.

Thus, Henry Hazlitt writes confidently: “the ethics of the Old Testament, explicit and implied, are not a reliable guide to conduct for twentieth-century man.” (Foundations of Morality, 350) He quotes Morris Cohen: “there is not a single loathsome human practice that has not at some time or other been regarded as a religious duty. I have already mentioned the breaking of promises to heretics. But assassination and thuggery…, sacred prostitution (in Babylonia and India), diverse forms of self-torture, and the verminous uncleanliness of saints like Thomas a Becket, have all been part of religion.” (345)

This indictment suggests that natural men are incapable of distinguishing between subhumans and supermen. To them, both are filthy and even insane. It’s not that subhumans are beasts, and supermen are gods; but both are beasts.

Regarding the “ethics of the New Testament,” Hazlitt writes:

We can, in large part, command our actions; but we cannot command our feelings.

We cannot love all our fellow men simply because we think we ought to.

Love for a few (usually members of our immediate family),

affection and friendship for some,

initial goodwill toward a wider circle,

and the attempt constantly to discourage and suppress within ourselves incipient anger, resentment, jealousy, envy, and hatred, are the most that all but a very small number of us seem to be able to achieve. (350)

Obviously Hazlitt contradicts himself here: if we can “suppress hatred,” thereby straightforwardly “commanding feelings,” then perhaps we can cultivate charity, too. In fact, there is a reliable way to do the latter which consists in adhering to Christian justice, i.e., performing positive works of mercy, and not merely negatively abstaining from evil deeds.

Hazlitt raises a further question: “Are some of the ideals of Jesus’ teaching practicable? Would the life of the individual, or would the lives of the mass of mankind, be more satisfactory or less satisfactory if we tried literally to follow some of these precepts?” (351)

Let me answer within Hazlitt’s own utilitarianism. Charity makes the beloved another self. As a result, it makes possible genuine interpersonal utility comparisons. Hence a man can willingly optimize the distribution of goods toward maximum narrow happiness by sacrificing his own lesser good for the beloved’s greater good. Divine grace then increases human happiness at least in this rather shallow sense.

Kreeft argues: “Most of us, whatever our religious faith, or lack of it, can recognize that in the life of someone like Francis of Assisi human nature is operating the right way, the way it ought to operate.” (Handbook, 75) If that is true, then the argument pulls through. But I think Kreeft may be too optimistic and is mistaking grace for nature. Take Hume, for example:

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues;

for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose;

neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society;

neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment?

We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.

We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.

Or take Jerry Seinfeld: “that’s the true spirit of Christmas: people being helped by people other than me.”

Hence it may be false that, as Kreeft maintains, “You need not be a theist to see that St. Francis’ life was admirable, but you do need to be a theist to see why.” Ungraced nature produces only befuddlement regarding and contempt for the Christian saints.

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.