Garett Jones  

If I Were a Global Utilitarian...

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Kidphobia: Decadent, or Just M... Global Utilitarianism and Airp...
...I'd probably push for an incredibly stringent anti-hijacker policy.  After all, the last time a few individuals hijacked U.S. planes, it genuinely caused a war in Afghanistan and substantially raised the probability of a war in Iraq.  Massive loss of civilian life in both countries as a result.  

If I were a citizenist, by contrast, I would place less weight on the overseas loss of life, but I'd at least worry a lot about the deaths and injuries sustained by U.S. military forces and U.S. contractors caused by a successful hijacking.  

As we learned in the Fall of 2001, attacks upon U.S. soil have global externalities.  Perhaps there's a Myth of the Rational Voter explanation for why those externalities exist, but the precise explanation is irrelevant: Good utilitarians take all the side effects of an action into account--rational or otherwise.  

So: A global utilitarian wouldn't place much weight on how air travelers felt about the inconveniences of airport security, would she? 

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
M writes:

I'm a utilitarian, and I think you're right.

The main problem with the TSA is that all their invasive, annoying stuff... doesn't even prevent terrorists. Repeated tests show that MOST contraband like weapons, bomb materials, go through security.

With the right incentive system / allowing private sector competition and rewarding contractors who score best, we'd probably have a safer and nicer system.

RPLong writes:

I'm not sure about that last question. Steven Landsburg, for example, poses the following problem in his book, The Big Questions (I paraphrase):

Suppose you have a choice between killing one human being or giving every human being on Earth a headache.

Landsburg suggests that the utilitarian solution is to kill the one guy. That single loss of individual utility easily compensates - in Landsburg's view, anyway - for the widespread malaise of a headache felt by the entire global population.

Even if Landsburg's argument doesn't win you over, I think the thrust of the argument is at least sufficient to cast doubt on the airport security issue. Can we REALLY say that we capture more utility by preventing one terrorist attack at the expense of subjecting the entire air-travelling population to onerous searches, groping, interrogations, and in some cases much worse?

Even by pure utilitarian standards, I don't think it's cut-and-dry.

John Thacker writes:

A society where average voters were concerned about the inconveniences of air security and willing to make the tradeoff about terrorist risk would be, I think, one less likely to go to war. The relevant views are correlated, and for casual and philosophical reasons.

Your arguments is certainly a very solid one for a utilitarian thinker not being willing to overcome clear majority opinion in favor of overly strict security regulations, if it might decrease the risk of war somewhat. I do concede that there is a difference between policies that do no good and policies that are very inefficient.

It is not, I believe, a sufficient reason for utilitarian thinkers to avoid attempting to persuade others about the futility of such policies.

As another question, do you find it plausible that excessive and inefficient security policies could make war more likely? If security policies are seen as insufficient, then the populace might be satisfied with blaming security policies alone; if security policies are thought to be as strong as possible, then voters might be more likely to insist upon war without the scapegoat of the airlines and airports and security. If this is true, then utilitarian thinkers should still be reluctant to support security policies that provide only a small (or no) decrease in terrorist risk compared to their cost and perceived expected benefit.

SC Brown writes:

If one places a utilitarian value on human freedom, then it is not obvious that a global utilitarian wouldn't care about how air travelers felt about invasive security screening.

John Thacker writes:

At some point I think that there would be a tipping point. A truly "incredibly stringent anti-hijacker policy" would completely ban foreign travel, I think. And, in response to your next concern, global communications. But I'm sure that you do realize that it's not a binary choice but one of degrees.

Still, I think that Americans might as likely to respond with war when non-hijacking bombings are performed, so you must support similar security everywhere groups of people gather, including large buildings. Surely, as Bryan noted, you can't rely on the fact that terrorists have been reluctant to target non-jet planes, considering that your opposition to the effectiveness of profiling rests upon terrorist flexibility. I, for one, agree with you about terrorist flexibility, but it's for that reason that I see excessive airport security as useless since terrorists will merely attack other vulnerabilities.

John Thacker writes:

Just as your argument against profiling, it makes little sense to purely have an "incredibly stringent anti-hijacker policy," Garett. So can we conclude that you are in fact calling for an "incredibly stringent anti-terrorist policy" involving detailed searches and metal detectors in all large buildings and places where people gather?

Garett Jones writes:

@M: Totally right, private sector security would attempt to be less annoying since they want to please customers---but I've intentionally dodged the "government does stuff badly" issue since it's so obvious. Private sector would try to use more monitoring-at-a-distance technology that would *feel* less intrusive even if it's more intrusive (security cameras everywhere, for instance).

@John: I'm not calling for anything. For real: I'm sticking to if-then reasoning on purpose.

Daublin writes:

I think the global utilitarian would go the other way.

A utilitarian will count lives in numbers, and observe that 9/11 only killed 3000 people. Moreover, 9/11 relied on surprise, which is no longer present, so it is unlikely that an attempt in the future would kill so many; at best it would ground a single plane, and more likely it would result in 5-10 casualties within the plane itself.

Most any significant anti-hijacking response is going to lower utility by more than the amount gained by saving lives. The anti-hijacking responses just affect so very many people, over and over again.

Ted Levy writes:

"If I Were a Global Utilitarian...I'd probably push for an incredibly stringent anti-hijacker policy. After all, the last time a few individuals hijacked U.S. planes, it genuinely caused a war in Afghanistan and substantially raised the probability of a war in Iraq. Massive loss of civilian life in both countries as a result."

Garrett, why does the following argument not work (or does it)?

"If I Were a Christian Global Utilitarian...I'd probably push for an incredibly stringent punishment policy of public crucifixion. After all, one of the last times an individual was so punished, it genuinely caused a wonderful, new religion to form and substantially raised the probability of achieving eternal salvation. Massive improvement in the condition of man's soul was a result (albeit it also with massive loss of civilian life during that Crusade matter...)"

My take: It doesn't seem to work as an argument, even for Christians, because 1) it doesn't take into the account the likelihood that the one being crucified is actually the Son of God, just as the TSA doesn't seem to take into account the likelihood that the ones being sexually manhandled in public are actually terrorists, 2) it doesn't take into account the costs associated with crucifying a lot of innocent non Son-of-God people, just as the TSA seems unmoved by costs, 3) there is no accounting for the socially damaging secondary gains of giving people power to crucify others, just as there is no accounting for the petty thefts and major indignities TSA employees seem to gain pleasure and material benefit from imposing on travelers...

Steve Sailer writes:

The Bush Administration's grand strategy of invite the world, invade the world, in hock to the world didn't really work out, did it?

PrometheeFeu writes:

"After all, the last time a few individuals hijacked U.S. planes, it genuinely caused a war in Afghanistan and substantially raised the probability of a war in Iraq."

First, it is plain wrong. There were specific people who made the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not as though 9/11 forced their hands. There were numerous alternatives to this kind of full-scale war including a more limited sort of retaliation, or even just nothing.

Second, the last time somebody successfully smuggled a bomb aboard a US airplane, that person achieved nothing except burn his genitals. Aircrafts have been targets of acts of terrorism in the past and war does not usually result. Take for example the Lockerbie bombing. No war. There is little evidence that a future 9/11-style event would result in another war.

Third, terrorist attacks (succesful or not) are extremely rare events. There have been numerous easy-to-exploit holes in TSA security and yet, terrorists don't appear to be lining up to take advantage of said-holes. The only reasonable conclusion is that there are just not that many terrorists who are at all interested in blowing up or hijacking US aircrafts. Furthermore, there are numerous other targets such as malls, buses, trains, festivals which provide terrorists with opportunities for mass killing. This is evidenced by such events occurring in other countries. And yet, no terrorist activity is to be found. The only reasonable conclusion is that there just aren't that many people who have both the means and the desire to commit acts of terrorism.

In conclusion, draconian airport security doesn't help because there is virtually no problem to be solved.

Glen writes:

Yeah, but nobody's a truly global utilitarian. No one.

John David Galt writes:

The notion that the 9/11 attacks "caused" the war in Afghanistan (and therefore the US government could not have helped overreacting) is ridiculous to the point of unreason.

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