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.

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