Bryan Caplan  

Are Conservatives Less Utilitarian Than Liberals?

Mad About Trade... The Real Meaning of Privilege...
Some utilitarians argue that virtually everyone is a utilitarian; the only difference between people who call themselves utilitarians and those who don't is that the latter won't come out of the closet.  Other utilitarians lament the fact that virtually no one is willing to take utility seriously.  Scott Sumner defends an unusual intermediate position: While almost all liberals are utilitarians, this isn't true of conservatives.  From his "Great Danes" piece:
I don't mean to suggest that conservatives are irrational, or that there is no merit to the (Burkean) conservative suspicion of radical change. If a reform that promises greater aggregate well-being conflicts with religious beliefs and/or tradition (say gay marriage), liberals will be more likely to embrace the reform than conservatives.  Liberals tend to focus more on the practical effects of providing clean needles to drug addicts, or condoms to high school students, whereas conservatives focus more on the "message that society would be sending."
From Sumner's response to my recent critique:
...I can't think of any real world policy disputes facing Congress, now or in the past, where liberals did not take what they saw as the roughly utilitarian position.  And I can see lots of cases where conservatives, dogmatic libertarians, or econ-nuts [Did he mean "eco-nuts"?] took non-utilitarian positions.
Frankly, I'm baffled by Scott's position.  In my view:

1. Liberals often focus on the "message that society would be sending."  Think of all the leftist "race/gender/ poverty/environmental awareness days."  I even know liberal economists who admit that there is little evidence that discrimination has much effect in the labor market, but want to keep it illegal to make a moral statement. 

2. Conservatives often see themselves as defenders of the pragmatic, utilitarian position against leftist wishful thinking.  Ever seen the bumper sticker that says, "Except for slavery, fascism, and communism, what problem has war ever solved?"  I think this perfectly captures the way that many conservatives see the world: There are realists like themselves who admit that "If you want peace, prepare for war," and naive flower children who want to respond to nuclear terrorism with peace signs.

Even gay marriage, one of Scott's favorite examples, isn't convincing.  On his view, we have utilitarian liberals who want to legalize it, and religious conservative who oppose it.  In my view, liberals usually want to legalize gay marriage on human rights grounds, and many conservatives oppose it because they're worried about its consequences - including the consequence of deeply offending most of the population.  How would the typical liberal respond?  My bet: "We shouldn't tailor our policies to suit bigots, no matter how numerous they may be."

Or take abortion.  It seems like utilitarians should say, "A fetus' utility of existing far exceeds the inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy.  If you don't feel like raising the baby, put him up for adoption."  Isn't that virtually equivalent to Mother Teresa's "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish"?  The liberal response isn't to dispute the utilitarian calculus, but to say, "A woman's body, a woman's choice."

I'm willing to believe that either liberals or conservatives are 5 or 10% more utilitarian than the other.  It could go either way.  I see no reason to buy Scott's view that liberalism and utilitarianism are closely correlated, much less near synonyms.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
NZ writes:

It was on Johan Norberg's blog that I first read that in countries where abortion is legal, there tend to be fewer abortions. Are there any utilitarian anti-abortion arguments to defeat this one?

I think (or would like to believe, anyway) that for ideas designed to promote freedoms, arguments used by both conservatives and liberals tend to be utilitarian. Ideas designed to restrict freedoms, meanwhile, tend to rely on arguments that invoke abstract conclusions about morality and rights.

NZ writes:

Whoops, here's the link to that blog entry:

"How Controls Fail"

Daniel writes:

On 1--there's no reason that focusing on the "message that society would be sending" must mean not being a utilitarian. Perhaps the economists you talked to think that sending a message that we don't care about discrimination (by getting rid of workplace discrimination laws) will lead to minorities feeling further alienated from the majority, and will exacerbate social problems like crime, even if it won't have its putative intended effect of directly improving minorities' situation in the labor market.

On 2--presumably Sumner isn't saying that conservatives never engage in utilitarian thinking. On some issues (war is a plausible one), liberals and conservatives both seem to care primarily about consequences (I doubt many anti-war liberals would concede that a given war would create net utility, but still oppose it on principled pacifist grounds), and war is probably one of them.

On gay marriage I think what you say make sense--standard liberal arguments in favor look more rights and equality based than consequence based, though I'm not sure that there's much utilitarian conservative opposition--standard non-elite conservative talking points look more religious and semantic("marriage is between a man and a woman") than utilitarian.

On abortion, it's far from clear that what you say makes sense by utilitarian lights. First, a lot of utilitarians think that average utility, not total utility, is what we should be maximizing. So even if abortion leads to fewer kids overall, that'd be OK by utilitarian lights.

But if what you do care about is total utility, it's still not clear that gains to fetuses means that banning abortion is utility maximizing. After all, somebody who doesn't get an abortion (who would've wanted one) may often end up just substituting an earlier birth for one she would've had later. If you also assume that kids that mothers would've preferred to abort will often be less happy than kids that were wanted, then the tradeoff might involve a few more kids with legal abortion, but less happy kids on the whole. Also, one of the main arguments liberals appeal to in the abortion debate is the very utilitarian argument about illegal, back-alley abortions. While you're right that some of the liberal opposition to banning abortion is non-utilitarian in nature, it's wrong to say that they're clearly taking a position inconsistent with utilitarianism.

IWantCookieNow writes:

If liberals were truly utilitarian, they would favor LOWER taxes, at least in most European countries. :-)

I also don't buy the "liberalism = utilitarianism" equation, although it is not as unpopular as you seem to think. I've been told that my being utilitarian means that I endorse an ideology (Communism), that has killed millions of people...


William writes:


[I]n countries where abortion is legal, there tend to be fewer abortions. Are there any utilitarian anti-abortion arguments to defeat this one?

What are we to make of this? That the demand curve for abortions slopes upward?

Bob Smith writes:

It's only true if you define utilitarianism in a meaningless way. Most government interventions are not justified on a strict Kaldor-Hicks efficiency basis, but liberals support them anyway for moral/ethical reasons. Well, if liberals' moral/ethical values count as utility, then so do the values of conservatives.

Blackadder writes:

It was on Johan Norberg's blog that I first read that in countries where abortion is legal, there tend to be fewer abortions. Are there any utilitarian anti-abortion arguments to defeat this one?

That might be a decisive utilitarian argument if it were true. But it's not.

William's comment about upward sloping demand curves is apt. The idea that the demand for abortion goes down if you lower the cost (read: penalties) is a fantasy.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I agree - the fact that both sides are doing fundamentally utilitarian calculus doesn't mean they always come up with the same answer. I'm sure liberals would have counter-arguments to every single anti-utilitarian point you make. Like the gay marriage thing? Of COURSE that's a utilitarian argument. The benefits homosexuals gain from not being treated like second class citizens far exceeds the losses associated with a homophobe's mental anguish over it. The fact that it's a human right doesn't change the utilitarian calculus that makes those rights desirable for homosexuals.

To be clear - by disagreeing with you I'm not making Sumner's argument that liberals are the real utilitarians. I'm just making the argument that both sides have a fundamental utilitarianism - they are not divided by that so much as by the answers they come up with.

Overall, I'm confused by people who vigorously attack or defend utilitarianism. To me, utilitarianism is a rule of thumb and an important consideration. I don't see it as a viable encompassing philosophy, and I'd argue that nobody uses it like a viable encompassing philosophy - they use it as a rule of thumb, and some use it as such more so than others.

Gary Chartioer writes:

It seems to me that one take on the back-and-forth here is that utilitarianism doesn't yield real answers to moral problems. Both liberals and conservatives can invoke utilitarian considerations in support of their positions,but this isn't primarily, in most cases, because they make testable predictions that differ, but because they actually weight and combine outcomes differently. That means that a utilitarian rationale can be made available for almost any moral conclusion.

That doesn't apply, of course, to the sort of utilitarianism Richard Posner has defended: here, the maximand is monetary wealth. That's not an unclear, ill-defined outcome; but almost no one, including Posner, now regards it as a plausible moral theory, since there are clearly things that are valuable to us the value of which isn't captured by their market value. Once, however, this sort of tidy theory (like that of the early utilitarians, which seemed to be concerned with the maximizing of pleasant psychic states) is recognized as reductionist, the utilitarian seems to be in a pickle: what is it that's supposed to be maximized?

Given that there are lots of different, incommensurable dimensions of human welfare, the notion that they might be combined into a uniform maximand just isn't very plausible. And that means that there's no content to the notion of "overall utility"; there are only (what amount to) rationalizations, appeals to the particular consequences the would-be utilitarian regards as especially relevant or especially likely to weigh in favor of her or his preferred policy choice.

So it seems to me that a proponent of traditional just-war theory (the pacficist is a red herring here) needn't challenge the prosecution of or participation in a given war on the basis that it maximizes utility but that it's still objectionable on moral grounds (though this would hardly be an incoherent or silly thing to say); rather, she or he could perfectly well deny that the war, any war, or any other event maximized overall utility because the notion of overall utility lacked content.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Gary -
Great thoughts. I agree. The other option is to think about moral positions as a sort of asymptotic or infinite argument in a utility function. I think there are ways like that to clean up utilitarian theory, but in practice it still bumps up against the brick wall that people value things differently and make these calculations differently. It can be consistent, interesting, and useless or inconsistent, uninspiring, and useful. Neither of those options seem to be anything to get particularly emotional about to me :)

Steven H. Noble writes:

I always thought you can usually arrive at a liberal conclusions when you over-weigh the direct or desired outcomes of a policy and you arrive at conservative conclusion when you over-weigh the indirect or undesired outcomes.

Eg. the direct outcome of not going to war is no war now, but the indirect outcome is a larger war sometime down the road. Or with needle exchanges the desired consequence is less spread of disease but the undesired consequence is addicts are more likely to continue their drug use.

Scott Sumner writes:

I don't mean the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' to mean "left wing" and "right wing."
Lots of liberals like Wilson, FDR, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton fought wars for basically the utilitarian reasons you cite. Indeed there is even a term for them "liberal internationalist."

I agree that almost all real world liberals hold at least a few non-liberal views, and said so in the paper. No one perfectly fits the mold. Race is such a highly charged issue in America that even if there were liberal economists who saw empirical evidence that anti-discrimination laws don't work, they would be reluctant to advocate the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights act. So that doesn't surprise me. I consider myself liberal and yet I hold a few non-utilitarian views.

But I have also noticed that lots of those "conservatives" who have reasonable views on economics, are actually not conservatives at all, they are classical liberals.

Not everyone on the left is a liberal. If they want a Chinese-style Cultural Revolution to be launched at any cost to eliminate all rascism, sexism and pollution, I consider them fanatics, not liberals. If they sincerely believe that reasonable consciousness-raising can make for a better world, then however misguided, they are utilitarians.

In my paper I mentioned somewhere that liberals have a blind spot about average vs. total utility. In practice I think they try to maximize average utility, which is inconsistent with the most common definition of utilitarianism. Liberals are split on abortion, it all depends on whether the fetus' utility "counts" in one's calculations.

For me the bottom line is how do we think about disparate ideologies like classical liberalism, socialist liberalism, and neoliberalism. I think the best way of uniting them is with utilitarianism. Jonathan Haidt has carefully studied the attitudes of various groups, and reaches a slightly different conclusion. He says liberals mostly care about utility and fairness, whereas conservatives have a much more balanced preference for 5 values, including utility and fairness and three others.

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