Thursday, January 22, 2009

Utilitarian RULES


I mentioned yesterday seeing property rights as the set of rules generated by an underlying, foundational ethos of utilitarianism, the desire to maximize happiness for all relevant agents.

And since just asking people to wing it and make off-the-cuff predictions about what would increase happiness would likely produce chaos, we rule utilitarians look for rules that, when consistently enforced, seem most likely to yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number — those rules, I would argue, being property rights for the simple reason that they minimize the need to read each other’s minds in order to calculate happiness (something we couldn’t do even if we concluded it was morally necessary, of course, though all government edicts implicitly try).  With property rights and markets, we simply look at what people are really willing to pay for things, their revealed rather than merely proclaimed preferences.

To people who ask “Why utilitarianism as the underlying ethic, though?” I am tempted to say, “Have you got a better idea?” — but experience suggests they’ll say yes, however incorrectly, so let me just say briefly (though this topic could easily consume a whole “Month of Utility” and possibly squelch a month’s worth of utility in the process) that if happiness doesn’t seem like something worth fostering (as most of us know it to be from direct experience of it and by instinct), it’s hard to see why anything else would be.  For any metaphysical set of rules ostensibly put forward as something that demands the sacrifice of human happiness, we are logically capable of asking, “Why — won’t this create misery?”  But no such regress of questions and justifications is necessary or even logically possible with happiness itself.

By comparison to happiness, all the other posited metaphysical yardsticks — whether Commandments taken on faith, rights asserted in the name of the proletariat, or a vision of humanity intuited by Ayn Rand or Kant — are on shaky ground once descended from the metaphysical heavens and attempting to command our allegiance, as would be extraterrestrials who arrived on the Earth and assumed we should obey them in all things because they are so shiny (shiny, to their minds, equaling great).


Now, I realize few people are consciously utilitarian (though most people and creeds crudely fumble in that general direction even if they don’t intend to), so rule utilitarianism, in a slightly recursive fashion, entails actually having to defer to likely audiences’ receptivity regarding various possible utilitarian rules — which is different from just taking a poll (and radically different from simply doing what makes oneself happy, though some smart people who should know better — such as Jonah Goldberg — have accused utilitarians of holding that selfish view).  So rather than simply saying “utility now and junk all other ethical thinking,” we need to espouse those familiar-seeming rules that are most likely to move things in a positive, utile direction in the real world, over the super-long-haul.  To a proper utilitarian, there is nothing gained from “being right” in the rules you espouse if no one listens and a riot breaks out that causes widespread misery instead.

In other words, if espousing social democracy in the twenty-first century were actually the best historical route to the world eventually becoming libertarian and property-respecting in some later phase, I’d espouse social democracy.  In fact, though, I think the way to go is harnessing American individualism, of the responsible and bourgeois kind rather than the kooky-free-spirit kind that leads to getting stoned and trespassing on the bourgeoisie’s lawn.

And one measure of how far we have to travel in popularizing utilitarianism as an ethos, my core mission and moral foundation, is the fact that my damn spellchecker doesn’t even know the word “utilitarians.”  At least not in its plural form.  Sadly, “There can be only one” is not a core rule-utilitarian rule.


bling said...

Why do humans pursue happiness? Surely there are evolutionary reasons. Our survival and reproduction through the course of history were best facilitated by what made us happy. But what if in some situations our survival and reproduction can best be facilitated by sacrificing our happiness? Shouldn’t the ends (propagation of our genes) be more important than the means (pursuit of happiness)?

Todd Seavey said...

I don’t see quite what problem you’re getting at. If you’re asking how it is that people are capable of sacrificing happiness for survival of their genes, that seems like something we’d expect to see evolution produce. If you’re asking how it is that we manage to choose happiness over reproduction, that (like all effects of evolution) is simply a completely unplanned side effect of having evolved brains big enough for strategizing but thus also big enough to second-guess our instincts and manufacture new, more thoughtful aims. If you’re asking some sort of moral question, I don’t see that evolution generates any moral imperatives at all, though it has surely produced some of our moral instincts and intuitions, some more useful moral rubrics than others (some badly in need of second-guessing).

February will be this blog’s “Month of Evolution,” though, so more in just over a week. Tomorrow: some entertainment!

David said...

Are you saying you would NOT be impressed by shiny etraterrestrials?

Todd Seavey said...

Well, I think my two blog entries for 1/23 make it pretty obvious how I have to answer that one.

John Bellettiere said...

I have been trying to understand utilitarianism for some time now and have written down that I think it is. I don’t, however, think it is entirely correct or complete. If you have some time can you please read what I have written and expand my knowledge of the subject a bit. It’s located at

Todd Seavey said...

In my June 2009 entries, I’m writing about rock n’ roll — but give me a week or so and I’ll post a reaction to your June 25 entry as one of my July 2009 entries.