Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Utility of Utilitarianism


My friend Katie Surrence made a bunch of clever science-themed foods for the holidays, including “string theory beans” and “primordial soup,” to be consumed on a “Night of Hypothesis-Testing.” Some might think it fitting that she also rejects utilitarianism as involving insufficiently quantifiable claims — much the same reason for rejecting it given by LB Deyo years ago in his public debate against me on the topic, and by Chuck Blake, who voted against me that night.

But few people are as satisfied as LB that mere Nietzschean assertion of our existing values and preferences will somehow maintain a stable ethical culture over time, and fewer still are willing to bite the bullet and, like Chuck, dismiss moral and political claims altogether as so much hot air, turning their attention exclusively to material measurement. More often, people substitute for utility (the effort to maximize happiness) some set of ostensibly intuited or metaphysical oughts, whether they call them rights, imperatives, egalitarian principles, or divine decrees that we should follow…just because. Is that less mystical? I believe that for Katie herself the intuited principles (admittedly subjective and voluntarily adhered to, she would say) would include some socialist and feminist rules (rather than, say, a resigned acceptance of tradition in the absence of quantifiable alternatives), though I don’t wish to oversimplify.

I would concur with the utility-doubters if the epistemological problem — how can we measure people’s happiness levels without telepathy? — were the end of the story. But the greater audacity of claiming metaphysical oughts is precisely why all ethical thinkers should be utilitarians — and the epistemological problem of there being no telepathy is precisely why utilitarians should all be…libertarians (of some sort, at least). By leaving individuals free to act on their own preferences, we at least create the possibility that they will continually act to increase their own happiness even if we can’t measure the results.

The alternative is to trust whoever is physically coercing people to gauge the victims’ happiness. That seems unlikely to work out well — and that gives you some idea why I’ll be defending property rights as essential to liberty and happiness next month on this blog. (Whether those arguments will even persuade my anti-utilitarian girlfriend Helen — or would impress her fellow paleocons, like the ones we saw at Taki Theodoracopulos’ paleo party pad last night — remains to be seen.)

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