Scott Sumner  

A few notes on utilitarianism

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As I expected, my post on utilitarianism generated a bit of controversy. In the comment section, konshtok wondered:

what am I missing?

from a utilitarian pov killing one person and using the organs to save the lives of others is the right thing to do, right?

isn't that enough to make utilitarianism NOT a good basis for morality?


I see several ways of addressing this hypothetical, although I'm not sure any will be convincing:

1. My favorite argument is pragmatic. If we look at actual public policy debates, utilitarianism always gives the right answers, whereas all the alternative moral systems give at least one wrong answer, from my perspective.

2. The hypotheticals where utilitarianism seems to give the wrong answer are based on the fact that our moral intuitions evolved under very different circumstances. For instance, organ transplant was not possible until recently. On the other hand, warfare was already well understood in ancient times. Thus we are willing to force 1000s of young men to die on the beaches of Normandy for the benefit of the folks back home, but we are not willing to require organ transplants that might pass a cost/benefit test. This moral repugnance is based on a sort of cognitive illusion. When we hear about this possibility we instinctively have more fear of being the victim than the beneficiary (would you trust a Neolithic witch doctor?), even though (by assumption) the opposite is more likely. (And here I overlook possible implementation problems, which might be another objection to the hypothetical forced donation policy.)

3. The actual policy debate over organ transplants revolves around two issues. First, should organ markets be allowed? And second, should a dead person be presumed to be a willing donor unless he/she registered with the government that he did not want to be a donor? Here I think utilitarianism gives the right answer. Those two policies are the best solution. One "opportunity cost" of doing forced transplants is not doing the optimal solution.

Being a pragmatist, I don't believe any theory or moral system is perfect. The real issue is which theories or systems are the most useful. If opponents of utilitarianism are forced to come up with implausible examples involving cognitive illusions to make their point, then that suggests to me that utilitarianism is a quite useful system.

Bryan Caplan points out (correctly) that most utilitarians don't live up to the ideal. He notes that very few affluent utilitarians give away most of their wealth to poor children. My first reaction is that this also applies to other moral systems, such as Christianity. I'm still waiting to see someone "turn the other cheek." BTW, that doctrine is far more radical than utilitarianism, far more difficult to implement.

Caplan anticipates this defense and switches to an alternative argument that I don't quite understand:

Take Bill Dickens. I've known Bill for almost a quarter-century. In all these years, I have repeatedly witnessed him spontaneously take unpleasant actions out of a sense of moral duty. I have never witnessed him treat another person badly. Ever.

While Bill Dickens is a man of conscience, he's also officially a utilitarian or near-utilitarian. How could his extreme scrupulousness possibly discredit his utilitarian philosophy? Simple. Like every other utilitarian, his behavior is wildly at odds with utilitarianism's demands.

Although Bill gives generously to charity, he consumes far more than he needs to keep working. He skis in Colorado. He goes to GenCon. Bill also clearly prioritizes his contractual obligations above the desperate need of total strangers - even when repeated play is unimportant. If Bill forgot to tip a waiter, he would strive to make amends to the aggrieved waiter - not mail the waiter's tip to Oxfam.

The upshot: If Bill Dickens told me, "Like most humans, I'm deeply morally flawed. I know utilitarianism is true, but I'm too weak to live by it," I wouldn't believe him. Bill is a paragon of decency. If he really believed he morally owed vast sums to the poor, he'd skip GenCon and fork over the money. Since he doesn't, I infer that despite his official position, utilitarianism seems almost as crazy to him as it does to me. The same goes for every earnest yet non-compliant utilitarian. Utilitarianism doesn't just go against their interests. It goes against their consciences.

To put the Argument from Conscience conversationally: "You live by your conscience. If you really thought utilitarianism was true, you would live up to it. Yet you don't. If even scrupulous utilitarians like you don't take the view seriously, why should anyone else?"

And that, my utilitarian friends, is the Argument from Conscience. The problem isn't that your doctrine is too good for you. The problem is that you're too good for your doctrine.


I don't agree. Bill Dickens sounds like a much better person than me, but I'd think even more highly of Bill Dickens if he gave 90% of his wealth to the poor. The doctrine is fine; it's people who come up short.

I have two other thoughts on this issue:

Giving money to the poor without distorting incentives is far harder than most people assume, and perhaps even a bit harder than Caplan assumes. Suppose I decide that each year I'll walk down the streets of Lagos or Karachi handing out $100 bills to children too young to work. It's quite possible that all of the expected benefits would be soaked up in queuing costs. There's a famous economic example of a modern company that sets up shop in a poor country, paying above market wages. Poor people move to the city and hang out hoping to get the jobs. The expected benefit of moving is just equal to the salary in the rural sector. The above market salaries at the new company create all sorts of waste in queuing time. Something similar occurs if a popular band sells tickets for below the equilibrium price, and fans spend hours lining up. You can dream up other scenarios for giving away money, but make sure they look at the issue from a rational expectations "timeless perspective." If you surprise the poor with a gift, what will their friends expect next? This isn't to say that it's impossible to set up effective programs for the redistribution of wealth (I favor some redistribution), just that it's harder than one might imagine.

In general, I believe utilitarianism makes more sense as a guide for public policy than a guide for individual behavior. I don't believe people are capable of consistently applying utilitarianism in their personal life. It's too hard. On the other hand I do believe that governments are capable of enacting utilitarian policies, with one notable exception. What is the one sensible policy that asks for an unrealistic amount of sacrifice from the public? It's an issue that Bryan knows a lot about---open borders.

In a few days I hope to do a post showing that Sweden is much more utilitarian than Britain.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Don Geddis writes:

Isn't the "personally fallible utilitarian" problem easy to resolve? It seems to me that most people are selfish, and would really prefer a rule of "I'm the king, and get whatever I want". But then rationally, they realize that everyone else feels the same way, and if we all adopt the selfish perspective, then we just get constant crime and warfare.

So the "enlightened" moral thinker, looks for a rule that all could apply equally, as though we decide behind Rawls's Veil of Ignorance. That's the only form of a moral rule that you even have a hope of convincing other people to follow as well.

But when it comes to individual behavior, especially in your private life, surely people actually prefer to be selfish. I don't see this as somehow a "moral failing". Solving a "how should I personally act?" moral question, is simply a different question from "how should we, as a joint, communal society, all choose to act together?"

That's why utilitarianism is appropriate for public policy debates, but not necessarily to criticize individual private behavior. In private, we simply value ourselves far more than we value others. But that's a non-starter for a public policy position, so utilitarianism is the next best thing to "I get to be the king."

Dave Smith writes:

You have never seen anyone "turn the other cheek?"

Chris Koresko writes:

Scott Sumner: My favorite argument is pragmatic. If we look at actual public policy debates, utilitarianism always gives the right answers, whereas all the alternative moral systems give at least one wrong answer, from my perspective.

Confirmation bias.

Ak Mike writes:

Prof. Sumner - don't you see the paradox in your first point? When you say that utilitarianism gives the right answers, that means that you are evaluating the utilitarian answers by some other, and more important ethical system. You aren't really a utilitarian, but just someone who thinks that utilitarianism is useful in coming up with policies that match well the real ethical policies.

BarryV writes:

You completely invalidate your argument against turn the other cheek with this comment:

"The doctrine is fine; it's people who come up short."

Not only that, you've seen many many people turn the other cheek, you're just not aware.

"Hey everyone, I'm not going to punch that idiot in the face" is not something you hear every day.

Daniel Fountain writes:

I don't understand why utilitarian arguments seem to be holding a premise that one person's utility/happiness/etc. is just as good as another person's utility.

This seems to ignore the secondary utility effects of making certain individuals happy. Making a woman who is isolated on an island happier has no secondary effects. Making a mother with young children happier more than likely has positive secondary utilitarian effects. Then tertiary and quaternary effects and so on.

This in turn raises the bigger question, does anyone have enough information to do a cost/benefit on all possible uses of "spare" capital? Isn't that why we use markets in the first place, to ration scarce resources to their best (utility maximizing) use?

MichaelT writes:

Even with a market for organs, people would still not donate a heart or lung because you would die and not receive the benefit of the market transaction. In this instance, there would still be a need for forced organ transplants from a utilitarian perspective. In this case, the utilitarian would probably try to find the person whose death would provide the most utility to society, and would probably settle on violent criminals. And if there were not enough of those to satisfy demand, then someone who is either unemployed or working a menial job who is not very interesting or entertaining will do. This would especially be the case if the person needing the transplant were a nobel laureate or a brilliant artist. Scott and other utilitarians may or may not be fine with this, but I am left disturbed by the thought of forcibly removing someones most basic property rights in their body.

Julien Couvreur writes:

1. So you do support killing innocent people to harvest their organs?

2. Arguing from that your instincts are correct, but others' are wrong is dangerous. My instinct is that forcing 1000 young people to their deaths is wrong (just like murdering a person for his/her organs). This is not going to advance the discussion much.

3. This point is irrelevant. The question was not about harvesting organs from a dead person, but killing a person to harvest his organs.


Regarding your concluding paragraph, you may want to elaborate why utilitarianism works for public policy but not individuals. The angels of government can make un-biased decisions, while we poor mortals can't?

What I suspect is happening is that because government is itself violating rights (specifically property rights) then utilitarianism seem fine. If we're going to have serial murderers, I might agree that I would rather have them be utilitarians. The larger evil obscures the other.
Similarly when you accept that government as a good and moral institution, then cost/benefit might indeed probably the best way to decide.

For any government to take action, it has to make aggregate calculations. Individual preferences and subjective valuations are out of reach (and interpersonal comparisons are unscientific), it has to treat people as uniform pawns and aggregate numbers. So by nature it denies the individual. Once this dangerous step is taken, any method of calculation is more or less fair game.

Tiago writes:

How is it that open borders require sacrifices - unrealistic or otherwise?

Sam writes:

"In general, I believe utilitarianism makes more sense as a guide for public policy than a guide for individual behavior."

This is the key point. Utilitarianism is a "far" sort of moral theory, and applied to public policy it means you are appropriately using a 'far' conceptual schema on a 'far' problem. People are alright with utilitarianism once the harms of a net good are attenuated from their source.

Capitalism is a good system because it produces huge net goods in terms of global outcomes (far mode morality) in a way that is consistent with human autonomy and procedural justice (near mode morality). The simple truth is that character based morality like virtue ethics can co-exist with outcome based morality like utilitarianism because they're about two different things.

See this table I made for a break-down. I take exception with Scott's notion of "cognitive illusion". In my view the problem is more to do with misapplication of the proper conceptual scheme. Near for near, far for far. For example, the paternalist or family model of the state is applying a near instinct on a far problem. Most of Bryan's critiques rest on exploiting a similar moral gestalt.

Indeed, trying to live as an utilitarian makes no sense, because its states of affairs that matter, not your little piece of the action. Saying individuals ought act as utilitarians is therefore a fallacy of composition.

Thomas writes:

I gather from what you've said thus far that you believe in an aggregate utility function. Which means that if someone were to gain a great amount of pleasure by cutting off your arms and legs, while enuring that you don't die -- and if his gain in pleasure were to outweigh your pain and suffering -- that would be all right with you.

Daniel writes:

I'm sympathetic to what you say here, but I don't think you're getting Brian's point.

I take it Brian's point is that it's not that Bill Dickens fails to live up to the dictates of his conscience (that's true for everybody, and so it's no surprise that it's true for self-professed utilitarians). It's that his conscience isn't even really pushing him in utilitarian directions. That is, he feels guiltier about breaking promises than about failing to donate to highly efficient charities.

I do think you have available a response, and it's basically the same one you offer to the organ-donation hypothetical; nobody has really internalized utilitarianism. Even Peter Singer, I'm sure, hasn't gotten to the point where his gut reactions, (e.g., dispositions to feel guilty) line up with his professed views. As I understand Bryan, he's basically identifying "convictions" or "conscience" with what you feel guilty for failing to do. If that's how we do things, then he's right that nobody is a utilitarian, by conviction. But I think, from what you say, you should reject that way of identifying someone's convictions.

Chris writes:
I don't believe people are capable of consistently applying utilitarianism in their personal life. It's too hard.

Why is it that it's "too hard"? One reason Bernard Williams argued that it's "too hard" was that utilitarianism forces us to give up most of what is meaningful about life: close relationships, personal projects, etc., which will always fall short when balanced against global happiness maximizing considerations (as Bryan Caplan shows in his "argument from conscience").

On the other hand I do believe that governments are capable of enacting utilitarian policies

I'm not sure that abandoning utilitarianism as actual, lived morality and removing it to the government level necessarily solves these issues. It again runs into a host of problems (forget your attachments to friends, family, community, etc. once more as we find the best use of your resources toward the goal of global happiness maximization).

I do get the attraction of utilitarianism. The most happiness for the most people? Who can be against that-- end results matter. When the rubber hits the road, however, I think utilitarianism, like any other ideology, encounters serious problems.

Brian writes:

"If we look at actual public policy debates, utilitarianism always gives the right answers, whereas all the alternative moral systems give at least one wrong answer, from my perspective."

Scott,

A few examples might help here for us to evaluate your claim. Also, on what basis are you determining right and wrong answers?

Consequentialism seems like a reasonable approach to morality in general, but utilitarianism, as a specific example, has some problems. Some of those problems have been mentioned by others, but I will mention a few more.

First, standard utilitarianism, which associates pleasure with utility and which you seem to follow, is not based on a broad enough criterion. While it's true that pleasure is often associated with advantageous things and pain with disadvantageous, the connection is not always valid. For example, the pleasure of eating helps us survive, but it also can lead to the disadvantage of overeating, obesity, and early death. Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are at best crude heuristics for determining good and bad behaviour.

Second, utilitarianism suffers from a serious infinite-horizon problem. That is, because it doesn't distinguish one person's utility from another, one is required to act with equal fervor for all. This is one of Bryan's points, of course. But your argument that utilitarianism is better left for public policy still founders on this horizon problem. Shouldn't each government, by utilitarian standards, work equally hard for ALL people, not simply its own? A particularly acute aspect of the horizon problem is that none of us can really know the utility of anyone besides ourselves. That makes the utilitarian standard of morality nearly indeterminate, whether at the individual or the state level.

Third, utilitarianism suffers from the same problem as many moral schemes, namely convincing people that it's worthwhile. Any moral system carries costs to the individual, so any rational actor will look for the personal benefits to outweigh the costs and ask "What's in it for me?" For example, what's the point of maximizing worldwide utility by my actions? What's in it for ME? Indeed, any moral system that does not have a net benefit for every person individually would seem to be unworkable.

Name writes:

The idea of disregarding a moral philosophy simply because you can construct scenarios where you intuitively disagree with said philosophy is strange. Is there a possible moral theory where you can't do that? Do people really expect their instinctive moral intuitions to be correct for every possible scenario? If so, there is no point to reasoning about morality in the first place. But it doesn't take much reflection to realize our intuitions do not form a coherent theory.

Also, maybe another way of stating the case for "pragmatic utilitarianism" is this: We recognize that some of our moral intuitions must be wrong, just as our intuitions with anything can be wrong. For instance, the trolley problem shows that my moral intuitions aren't very consistent. Likewise, it still feels intuitively wrong that planes can fly. We can evaluate our intuitions in both cases and try to figure out which are wrong and why. However, we are able to test our intuitions about flight much more rigorously than we can test our moral intuitions. So while analysis leads me to conclusions (utilitarianism is true and planes can fly) at odds with my intuitions, it makes sense to have much more confidence about the unintuitive conclusions we come to about planes than about morality. And in response to that varying degree of justified confidence, it's reasonable to use utilitiarianism (or whatever one finds to be the most reasonable moral theory) to push only part way against our intuitions rather than all the way. For example, pushing the guy in the trolley problem feels fairly unintuitive, and harvesting organs from a random person feels extremely unintuitive, such that one's confidence in utilitarianism may justify overriding their intuitions in the first case but not the second.

Name writes:

Thomas, RE: "I gather from what you've said thus far that you believe in an aggregate utility function. Which means that if someone were to gain a great amount of pleasure by cutting off your arms and legs, while ensuring that you don't die -- and if his gain in pleasure were to outweigh your pain and suffering -- that would be all right with you."

Don't you think the main reason that sounds so wrong is because, in reality, it would clearly not lead to greater aggregate utility?

Chris, RE: "utilitarianism forces us to give up most of what is meaningful about life: close relationships, personal projects, etc., which will always fall short when balanced against global happiness maximizing considerations"

If those things are important to our well-being and/or preferences, then they are part of "utility".

Brian, RE: "standard utilitarianism, which associates pleasure with utility and which you seem to follow, is not based on a broad enough criterion... the pleasure of eating helps us survive, but it also can lead to the disadvantage of overeating, obesity, and early death"

That only means the long term effects of overeating also have to be included in the overall impact on utility. Most utilitarians would view "pleasure" as an oversimplification of utility.

vikingvista writes:

"I'd think even more highly of Bill Dickens if he gave 90% of his wealth to the poor."

Why? Is this ceteris paribus, or does it include the consequences that you would expect as an economist? But even then, why? Do you think giving 90% of his wealth to the poor would really have some significant or lasting effect on other people's utility compared to how he would use it if he did not give it to the poor? If Bill Dickens got 10000 times the pleasure from slot machines that he gets from giving to charity, would you think more highly of him if he gambled away 90% of his wealth?

It seems your utilitarianism is not a fundamental ethic, but rather a decision rule for applying your fundamental ethics (like altruism). But then it doesn't seem correct to call you a utilitarian, but rather an altruist (or whatever the underlying ethic is).

Christopher Chang writes:

Scott is being a better utilitarian than he consciously realizes--by placing some value on future human lives, rather than just currently existing ones. There are of course nontrivial population ethics questions concerning *how* one should value future human lives, and they can drive reasonable people to arrive at differing conclusions re: what policies are best. But the idea that one might want to assign positive value to future lives should not be controversial.

Giving 90% of your money to today's poor can be expected to be a terrible decision *by almost any utilitarian standard*, compared to allocating that money in a way that will have more efficiently compounding positive effects on the future's otherwise-poor. The only real exception is if you're convinced humanity won't last another century regardless of what you do, in which case it may make sense to "cash out" and ignore ROI.

Greg G writes:

Some commenters are reacting as if Scott is claiming that utilitarianism is a foolproof ethical system. He is making a much more modest claim than that.

He is simply claiming, on pragmatic grounds, that it is a more useful heuristic for public policy than other ethical systems.

Scott Sumner writes:

Don, That's basically my view, although I'd say people are a mixture of selfish and altruistic.

Dave and Barry, Not once in 58 years. I don't think most people understand what the phrase means. It means much more than refrain from violence.

Chris, Not really, because I started with my policy views and later realized they were utilitarian.

Ak, Think of it as the flip side of those who say utilitarianism is obviously wrong, due to a particular scenario that is obviously bad. I'm saying there are none of those obviously bad outcomes for the utilitarian solution to real world policy debates.

But I also think the system seems very logical--maximize happiness!

Daniel, You said;

"This seems to ignore the secondary utility effects of making certain individuals happy. Making a woman who is isolated on an island happier has no secondary effects. Making a mother with young children happier more than likely has positive secondary utilitarian effects."

Utilitarianism takes those secondary effects into account.

Michael, I don't agree, hearts can be harvested from people who died of natural causes.

Julien,

1. No.

2. I have the same gut instincts as other people.

You said:

"The angels of government can make un-biased decisions, while we poor mortals can't?"

Not at all. Utilitarianism is what public policy should shoot for. It will fall short, much more in some places than others. The fact that some governments are far more utilitarian that others is very important.

Your final comments provide good reason why we need to keep government so small that you can "drown it in a bathtub." Good utilitarian reasons.

Tiago, Crowding, cultural change. Think Switzerland with open borders.

Sam, I'd say the problem is that it is much harder for an individual to figure out what sort of behavior is utilitarian, than a government. (And it's really hard for either.)

Scott Sumner writes:

Thomas, No, because I'm selfish. But I do believe it would make the world a happier place, as do you!!

Seriously, I addressed that issue in my previous post.

Daniel, I understood that. I can't speak for Bill Dickens, but I do feel guilty that I don't donate more money to the poor. Not hugely guilty, but at least a little bit. I feel the world would be a better place if I donated more.

Chris, You said:

"One reason Bernard Williams argued that it's "too hard" was that utilitarianism forces us to give up most of what is meaningful about life: close relationships, personal projects, etc."

I strongly disagree with this point. It's clearly wrong. Giving up a close relationship with a spouse, child or friend will cost much more happiness for you and the other person, than it will gain for strangers. The world is not a zero sum game, and close relationships are positive sum.

You said:

"I do get the attraction of utilitarianism. The most happiness for the most people? Who can be against that-- end results matter. When the rubber hits the road,"

That's right, who can be against that? If you think utilitarianism requires bad outcomes like forcing people to give up close relationships, you've probably misinterpreted utilitarianism. Lots of arguments against utilitarianism amount to claims that it would lead to a miserable dystopia. LOL.

Brian, I certainly agree that pleasure isn't the only thing that yields positive utils.

And interpersonal comparisons are difficult, which is why it is sensible for our Constitution to give everyone equal rights. It's sort of a best guess, when utility is impossible to measure.

I'll post on public policy soon.

Name, Good comment.

Vikingvista, I actually do take your point very seriously. I was playing along with Bryan's assumption that giving money to the poor makes the world a happier place, in aggregate. But as I said that is more difficult to do than one would expect, and thus it is possible that Bill would get more utility from the money, as you say.

Christopher and Greg, Good points.

PS. A note to everyone. Great philosophers often argue that if you want to be happy, don't aim for happiness, pursue some other objective. I think it's quite possible that if governments want to maximize aggregate happiness, they should not try to apply utilitarianism on a case by case basis, but rather should adopt some other shortcut, like natural rights.

ChrisA writes:

Scott - I don't think you are actually a utilitarian at all. First you admit that you don't follow utility maximization in your own personal decision making. Your last comment says that quite likely Governments should not follow this rule. And you have never dealt with any of the standard practical objections to utilitarianism (which are many), and as I said in my comment on your last post, a moral philosophy is merely a work of art if it cannot be applied practically.

Let's use as an example global warming. Where is the utilitarian function that tells us what the right course of action? How does this function weight the impacts on those yet to be born versus the ones already existing? Even if we were all admitted utilitarians we could continue to debate this for ever. It is no guide to decision making.

eccentric-opinion writes:

I think there's a strong case for consequentialism in general, but there are problems when you try to argue for utilitarianism in particular. The common arguments against it are unpersuasive, though - for example, when it comes to issues like the utility monster, the utilitarian can simply bite the bullet and say, "Yes, if such a monster existed, we should give everything we have to it". A stronger argument against utilitarianism is that it's insufficiently motivating - someone who doesn't accept world utility maximization cannot be persuaded to adopt it, and can say something like "Why should I give up the pursuit of my own ends to promote the fulfillment of everybody's ends?" I've never heard a utilitarian give an adequate answer to the question. The utilitarian could have a moral intuition that people should promote the general good, but people can have a wide variety of mutually exclusive moral intuitions, and there's no real way of resolving the conflicts without abandoning intuitionism altogether. I think the most persuasive approach is that to derive ideal laws and policy from people seeking to fulfill their own ends, i.e. contractarianism (as in Hobbes).

As the philosopher Jan Narveson said in The Libertarian Idea, "The attraction of utilitarianism as a moral theory stems from an extension of the theory of individual practical reason to the case of society at large, as if society were a sort of super-individual. And that is illegitimate, since society is not a sort of super-individual, but simply a whole lot of individuals, each with his or her own diverse reasons."

Greg Heslop writes:
"If opponents of utilitarianism are forced to come up with implausible examples involving cognitive illusions to make their point, then that suggests to me that utilitarianism is a quite useful system."

I think this is rather unfair of the critics of utilitarianism. Many counterexamples are not very implausible at all. Indeed, I have always had the impression that philosphers vary their hypotheticals a great deal so as to gain familiarity with them and thereby perhaps expose their own biases. Some variations are more extreme than others. Maybe extreme examples are presented more frequently, I don't know.

For instance, homosexuals are a very small fraction of the population and are also quite unpopular in certain parts (Uganda and Russia come to mind; historically negative attitudes to homosexuals have of course been far more common). One does not have to imagine death camps to make points against utilitarianism - would additional taxes be justified so as to compensate the heterosexual majorities for "putting up with them" (or perhaps discourage the activity)? More lenient sentences for crimes against gays than for crimes against others? These things are plainly not extreme or implausible at all, yet they paint an ugly picture of utilitiarinism as a guide for public policy. There are many additional hypotheticals which are similarly close to the real world: For example, should tax rates be higher for folks who have chosen not to donate their organs if they die?

Using introspection, it also remains easy enough to come up with examples which argue against utilitarianism. Imagining lifetimes with set amounts of utility but different distributions is one class of such examples. If one is not indifferent to the distribution of utility, then other things may matter a great deal more than does utility. Should public policy maximize my utility anyway, even if I don't want it to be maximized?

J.V. Dubois writes:

Here I am on Scott's side. As was written elsewhere, inventing artificial situations that rely on moral intuition to make utilitarianism look "bad" does not go deep enough.

First, you can invent other artificial scenarios. Like that every year a race of aliens comes to Earth and demands that one baby is sacrificed or they will kill million babies at random. Suppose this goes on for hundreds of years, humans are helpless and cannot even dream fighting aliens or persuading them to change their demands. I am sure that what Scott said would happen - people would intuitively embrace some sort of policy that prevents this outcome because there would be millions of outraged families that got their children killed for no reason pushing for this policy.

Another example may be as with the one in the article Scott linked previously. When you have this kind of "forced transplantation" stories that do not concern humans but other species - like monkeys - people are willing to behave much more pragmatically.

I believe that it is as Scott says: once people realize that utilitarian outcome is more likely to benefit them then to hurt them (which is basically definition of what utilitariansim is) then they support policies that bring about that outcome.

So when it comes to a single question if sacrificing one person to save more other persons is "moral" I would go with "yes" - but conditional on the fact that saving those people would be the only consequence of this decision. It is a completely different matter to ask if this is a sensible policy that can be applied in practice without actually lowering utility thanks to other effects.

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