Scott Sumner  

Utilitarianism as a lodestar (Constructive Criticism for Caplan)

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I'm happy to see that Bryan Caplan is planning a new book on poverty, as his forthcoming book on education already looks like it will be a classic. He asked for "constructive criticism" in a recent blog post, so I'll take a stab at it. My basic suggestion is that we need to be very, very careful when evaluating the life choices of people that we have never met. Here's are some items from his PP slides, which I'd like to address:

If there are reasonable steps A could take - or could have taken - to avoid poverty, A is part of the "undeserving poor." Otherwise, the deserving poor. Reasonable steps like:

* Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn't fun.
* Spend your money on food and shelter before cigarettes and cable t.v.
* Use contraception if you can't afford a child.

. . .

In poor countries, responsible behavior at least makes absolute poverty much less likely.

* Global poor spend around 5% of income on alcohol and tobacco, and 10% on festivals. (Banerjee and Duflo 2007; see also Collins et. al, Portfolios of the Poor)
* Journalistic accounts.


Many people take great pleasure from activities that others might view as frivolous. For instance, my father took immense pleasure from smoking, an activity that seems pointless to me. For others, drinking alcohol provides a lot of enjoyment. If I was a poor person, living a life that was bleak in many respects, I might want to set aside a modest portion of my small income for activities that gave me great pleasure.

If I were a poor woman who had a difficult time finding a husband, I still might want to have a child. Perhaps raising that child provides great meaning to the life of an otherwise depressed young woman. Does the child suffer? Maybe, but on balance they'd probably rather grow up poor in America, than not be born at all. I seem to recall that Bryan is very "pro-life" (not in the sense of anti-abortion, but rather in viewing population growth as a good thing.) So if having a child is good for the mother and baby, why criticize the mother?

Does that mean society must provide welfare? Not necessarily, that's a separate issue. I'm just trying to get at the issue of whether we are in any position to evaluate the life choices of people we have never met.

My core premise: blame matters. Blames affects...

* What counts as a "social problem."
* Who's morally obliged to change their behavior.
* Why [who?] should be shamed for failing to change their behavior.


Again, I'm reluctant to "shame" people I have never met, unless they engage in an activity that is clearly anti-social, like robbing a bank. But the decision to smoke or to have children on a very modest income doesn't count in my mind as an activity deserving of shame.

So far my post might seem to take the "liberal" perspective. And in a sense I am a liberal. But I'm not a left liberal. While I don't condemn a poor young woman for having a child, I also don't necessarily view her, or the poor in general, as victims. Sometimes they clearly are victims, say African-Americans operating under Jim Crow laws or the people in North Korea who are impoverished by bad economic policies. And of course lots of poor people are the "victim" of bad luck---say being born with some sort of mental disability. As you move from the US to a country like India, it's more likely that a person would be impoverished by things like natural disasters. In America, people find it easier to bounce back from disasters like a tornado destroying their property, but even here luck plays a role.

So I'm trying to strike a middle position between the "victims and villains" caricatures that dominate the left/right debate in modern America. Don't focus on blame; focus on solutions. As an aside, it's quite possible there are no solutions, although I can think of several policies that seem like no-brainers to me, like ending the war on drugs and deregulating entry into various types of employment. I'm an agnostic on the effectiveness of income transfers, but on balance favor subsidies to low-wage workers.

One other point about life choices. Intellectuals tend to come from one extreme of the time preference distribution. I look forward to retirement, when I'll finally have time to read Proust. I can imagine an unintellectual guy who was the quarterback of his high school football team, and then worked his career as an auto mechanic. Perhaps he visualizes old age as just decrepitude and misery. A walking death. That sort of person might want to pack most of the thrills in their life into their younger years. An intellectual academic might see some of their life choices as shortsighted, but from their perspective it all might make sense.

I certainly don't want to generalize about all poor people, but I'd guess that on average it might make sense for them to have a much shorter time preference than I do. I roll my eyes when I read about the "tragedy" of some former NFL star that has medical problems at age 58. Do they regret playing football? Maybe a few, but I'd guess that there are far more poor people who wish they could have chosen that trade-off, who wish they could have been NFL stars, and lived the glamorous life for a decade when they were young.

Many other smart people accept precisely ONE totally implausible moral truth: Utilitarianism, the view that everyone should always do whatever maximizes aggregate happiness. Utilitarianism also proves too much. Ex:

* Everyone with more resources than he needs to keep working is morally obliged to give 100% of his surplus income away to needier strangers.
* If you can secretly, painlessly murder a homeless person to harvest his organs to save two people, you are morally obliged to murder him.
Every grand moral theory suffers from similarly compelling counter-examples.
The alternative? Build moral theory from simple cases where right and wrong are obvious. ("Micro-ethics.")


I don't always trust our intuitions as to what is right or wrong. At one time it was viewed as obviously immoral to lend money at interest, or insure against the death of one's spouse, or marry someone of a different race, or the same gender. Over time our intuitions can change.

I prefer to rely on utilitarianism. I think Bryan is misled by the term "morally obliged", in his criticism of utilitarianism. It's true that utilitarianism implies that the world would probably be a better place if I gave away most of my fortune to poor peasants in the Third World. And I think that's right. So why don't I? Because I'm selfish, as are many other people not named Mother Theresa. But that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with utilitarian theory; it just tells us that it's hard to be unselfish. (As an analogy, Christians believe that it is very hard to live a sin-free life. But sins are still sins.)

I tend to use utilitarianism for public policy purposes, and fortunately the right public policies require much less self-sacrifice than giving away most of our wealth, at least for the majority of voters in a country. Are there exceptions to this claim? Yes, open borders might be one exception to the rule that the right public policies require only modest self-sacrifice. Thus while I believe the world would be a better place if Switzerland had open borders, I also think it's unrealistic to expect the Swiss to be that unselfish. The messiness of mass immigration from the Third World to Switzerland is simply not something that one should expect voters to accept. (But I wish they would.) In contrast, I would expect the Swiss to provide foreign aid of a few billion dollars each year, if we assume that foreign aid is effective (itself a questionable thesis, on which utilitarianism is silent.)

I think of utilitarianism as a sort of "lodestar" that helps us to steer our culture in the direction of social progress. We don't know what the next "interracial marriage" issue will look like--the next case of a practice that once looked unacceptable but later looks like something that should obviously be allowed. But utilitarianism helps me to make educated guesses as to likely future policy reforms:

1. A market in kidney transplants, to save many thousands of lives each year.

2. Legalizing pot and releasing thousands of innocent men and women from prison.

3. Legalizing the publication of our nation's laws, which are currently protected by absurd copyright rules.

I predict that in the future these policy changes will seem like no-brainers, just as today it seems obvious that lending money at interest is OK. (I wonder what the early Christians would have thought of negative IOR.)

Bryan wants to rely on our moral intuitions, but those are full of cognitive illusions. Our intuition might tell us that it's wrong to sacrifice one life to enhance the pleasure of many others, but we do that when we use vaccines that kill one in a million, to prevent unpleasant but non-fatal conditions. Framing effects throw us off course.

Simple moral examples are also hard to interpret in complex cases. We all agree that stealing is wrong. But does the wrongness come from stealing's lawlessness, or its reduction of total utility (in which case forced income redistribution might be OK), or does stealing's wrongness come from its involuntary nature, in which case forced redistribution is not OK.)

And it does no good to point out that some moral intuitions have passed the test of time, as those moral intuitions that we later abandoned also had passed the test of time for centuries, until we abandoned them. Rather I think it's better to search for policies that make the world a happier place; that's the only fundamental moral principle that seems to have passed the test of time. That should be our lodestar.

HT: Tyler Cowen


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (36 to date)
Thomas writes:

It's true that utilitarianism implies that the world would probably be a better place if I gave away most of my fortune to poor peasants in the Third World.

How do you measure "better"? And don't tell me that you can sum utilities across persons (or even for yourself).

James writes:

"So if having a child is good for the mother and baby, why criticize the mother?"

No need to criticize anyone but this is a change of subject from the question of who is to blame for poverty. If a 17 year old dropout has a child and subsequently wind up in poverty, then either she has contributed to her own poverty or she hasn't. In any case, utilitarianism doesn't answer the question of who is to blame for specific outcomes.

P.S. The existence of blog posts favorable to utilitarianism causes me very terrible anguish, so much that no set of events could transpire within the remaining life of the universe sufficient to offset my suffering. Please quit.

James writes:

"But (implying that we are obligated to be unrealistically generous) doesn't mean there is anything wrong with utilitarian theory."

THe objection is not about apparent hypocrisy of utilitarians. It is about logic, a textbook example of modus tollens:

If utilitarianism is true, then people are obligated to do some act X.
People are not actually obligated to do X.
Therefore utilitarianism is not true.

I'm sure there must be some X which would raise aggregate utility but which you would recognize as not being morally obligatory. I hope you also would accept that modus tollens is a valid argument. Maybe you can save utilitarianism by turning it into "utilitarianism except when you really don't feel like it or think you know better."


Philo writes:

I don't think Bryan is interested in "shaming" anyone. He just wants to identify "social problems," which I take it are problems that it is incumbent upon society *collectively*, *as a unitary whole*, to "solve." His view is that if the poverty of A could easily have been avoided *by A*, the problem of A's poverty is not a *social* problem; we can leave A to "solve" it or not, as s/he sees fit.

You write: "It's true that utilitarianism implies that the world would probably be a better place if I gave away most of my fortune to poor peasants in the Third World." I don't think that's true. You need a lot more premises than *utilitarianism* to get such a conclusion, and I think some of the premises you would be inclined to appeal to are false. But it's hard to tell, because in fact it is very hard to get practical results out of such an abstract theory as utilitarianism: you need a ton of empirical information, which is difficult to acquire.

mbka writes:

Fantastic post Scott. I like the valid reasons for shorter time preference in poorer people especially, and how utility is different for different people. These are very solid economic concepts, and yet, here averages clearly mask how heterogeneous the world really is.

I'd like to add one tangential issue. Personal utility is very often achieved through social means and in the long run. A person may choose a course of action that seems irrational at face value. But this action leads to better social integration and better long term outcomes.

Here is an example from my wife's field work with Ethiopian farmers in the 90s. In her research, the farmers would spend a large part of income for coffee and the coffee ceremony. At the same time, they clearly missed optimal calorie intake values. So they chose coffee over food. Why would they do that? Well, the coffee ceremony is socially important. It builds neighbourly relations and it is quite unthinkable to not be following it if you want to remain a member of good society in the village. And here is the crux. It is much more important to remain a member of society in the long run than to be eating better today. It will be society that gives you opportunities and help when needed, in all of forseeable future. And this applies to all sorts of behavior where people commit seemingly irrational acts to preserve "honor" or "prestige". Social utility in one's entourage is often more important than food or even, another year of schooling. And it is easily overlooked by well meaning strangers from the West.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

James: when Scott talks about "utilitarianism" he doesn't actually mean Utilitarianism with capital U. He means something like: take people's preferences seriously, and do so without weighting people. A combination of moral egalitarianism and moral autonomy.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

A 2014 speech by Governor Rajan of the RBI makes some very perspicacious comments about corruption in politics and why voting for a corrupt politician may be rational for poor folk.

The political equivalent of "but they smoke and drink!"

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Thomas: see my comment to James.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Governor Rajan of the RBI gave a speech "Finance and Opportunity in India" on August 11, 2014 (available online). He makes some perspicacious comments about why it can be rational for poor voters to vote for a corrupt politician.

The political equivalent of the "but they drink and smoke!".

Mike Freimuth writes:

Philo: There's no amount of empirical evidence which can allow you to estimate a function that doesn't actually exist. (Particularly when your model is unaltered by any positive monotonic transformation of that made-up function.)

Lorenzo: That explanation of what Scott means by "utilitarianism" makes no sense to me. I would be interested in a post explaining exactly what he means.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thomas, I mean that the extra happiness that they would get from the money exceeds my loss of happiness.

James, I was objecting to the idea of "shaming" that sort of person.

You said:

"If utilitarianism is true, then people are obligated to do some act X."

I disagree. It would be good if they did X, but they are not obligated to do X.

Philo, You said:

"I don't think Bryan is interested in "shaming" anyone."

That's not the impression I got from the second quote provided.

mbka, Thanks, that's a great example.

Lorenzo and Mike, By "utilitarianism" I mean the view that the desirability of outcomes is judged by how they impact the aggregate sum of happiness. I recognize that happiness cannot be measured precisely (or even defined precisely), but we do the best we can at estimating the impact on total happiness.

Scott Sumner writes:

Lorenzo, Thanks, I liked that Rajan essay.

Brian writes:

Scott,

One of many problems with utilitarianism is that it's not clear that happiness or pleasure (or whatever one associates with utility) is inherently good or desirable. We often make choices to do things that make us unhappy or cause us pain to achieve something we consider better. It's possible to work hard and earn a lot of money and still not be happy. Likewise, athletes can spend years doing brutally difficult things that seriously decrease one's happiness, all for outcomes that provide at best happiness over very short periods of time. Very little worth doing occurs without struggle. Is it obvious that such activities provide net positive happiness? It's not obvious to me. In some sense, happiness can be overrated. It's certainly no reliable basis for a moral system.

A second problem with utilitarianism is the problem with most moral systems--what reason is there for anyone to follow a system that either requires or encourages me to do things for the benefit of others? From an individual perspective, nothing is compelling for me to do except for that which is of benefit to me. That is, only rationality provides a compelling principle for moral behavior. There's no objective way to argue that I should care about the outcomes of others. So what's your basis for arguing that we should act to maximize aggregate happiness?

Levi Russell writes:

Scott,

It's good to see an economist admitting that utilitarianism guides them, even though a lot of people find that particular philosophy abhorrent/incomplete/wrongheaded/etc. It seems to me that it comes out of our reliance on simple models in making policy judgments.

However, I think this paper in the Journal of Institutional Economics does a great job of pointing out the problems with utilitarianism (specifically with regard to policy analysis), and provides coherent advice and alternatives.

Here's the paper:
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10118033

Martin writes:

Brian: "There's no objective way to argue that I should care about the outcomes of others"

There's no objective way to argue that you shouldn't!

James writes:

Scott,

I don't recall Bryan advocating shaming, but you offer no reason to oppose it. For all you know, shaming people for behaviors that lead to poverty might increase utility, especially if the shamers enjoy the act of shaming others.

You wrote "I disagree. It would be good if they did X, but they are not obligated to do X."

You disagree that utilitarianism implies any obligations or ethical musts? The overwhelming majority of utilitarians from Bentham and Mill to Peter Singer understood their own philosophy to imply obligations. Do you contend that they misunderstood their own ideas?

If you disagree with the majority of prominent utilitarians on such a central part of utilitarianism, maybe you should rethink calling yourself a utilitarian.

Lorenzo,

If someone has been using a word in a waythat is contrary to a well known definition, either that person can change their word choice or everyone else can accommodate the person who insists upon the nonstandard usage. I think one of these options is obviously much better than the other.


Mike Freimuth writes:

Brian,

"From an individual perspective, nothing is compelling for me to do except for that which is of benefit to me."

Is that actually true in your case? I feel compelled to do things for the benefit of other people somewhat regularly. If you don't you might be a psycho/sociopath.... At any rate, there's no objective way to argue that anyone should care about anything in particular, it's a normative issue. Rationality won't lead you to the principle. You have to start with some axiom regarding right/wrong, good/evil, desirable/undesirable before you can do anything based on logic/rationality.

I my opinion, Scott has it exactly backward. Utilitarianism is fine as an individual moral principle but it's rubbish for purposes of public policy because the policy implications of it depend entirely on what you imagine people's (purely imaginary) utility functions to be. Or to put it another way: you can argue for or against anything you want. Or to put it still another way: It offers no actual guidance whatsoever. It's just a thing people say to add a thin veneer of intellectualism to whatever seems right to them.

John Jones writes:

Brian, you should follow utilitarianism in public policy because it maximizes private payouts, unless you have special knowledge. E.g. a selfish person would prefer a government that forces everybody to sacrifice 1 life for 2 (v.s. let individuals decide in the situation), assuming that you are are about equally likely to be any person in the situation. Because you're significantly more likely to be one of the two unless you have special knowledge.

This assumption doesnt always hold, but it often is close enough and is what you should do a priori (ie without extra knowledge about my probable place in the distribution). Classically, if you could make a contract at an early point in your development, it would be selfishly rational to have utilitiarian governance for everything.

Since we dont make that agreement until later, we end up with some situations where we selfishly prefer not-quite utilitarian public policy. With the most obvious being morgage the future so that I can get more goodies now, to the detriment of people in the future. E.g. social security and maybe the environment (though too many modern environmental concerns are non-consequentialist and more about appealing to cognitive biases than calculated concern for the future)

Rajat writes:

"Intellectuals tend to come from one extreme of the time preference distribution."

Maybe poor people are poor in part because of a high discount rate. I think Bryan once said that traits like patience are largely genetic, at least in the sense that parenting can't affect them much. In which case, perhaps such people won't respond to incentives to save, etc, in the same way as others. These sorts of human weaknesses seem to be what drives the whole 'nudge' movement. Any thoughts on that Scott? Surely it can find some basis in utilitarianism? More generally, how to reconcile utilitarianism with (classical) liberalism?

Philo writes:

Bryan didn't say he was going to do any of the shaming.

Scott Sumner writes:

Brian, The term "utility" refers to things that we value. It need not be happiness, as you indicate.

You said:

"There's no objective way to argue that I should care about the outcomes of others. So what's your basis for arguing that we should act to maximize aggregate happiness?"

That's true of any value system, there's no objective way to defend any of them.

Thanks Levi.

James, See my reply to Philo, and I'm not opposed to all forms of shaming, just some.

Regarding obligations, I think this is partly a question of semantics. I think all utilitarians would agree that you are not legally obligated to live your life in a way that maximizes total utility. I think all agree that the world would be a better place if you did lead your life in a utilitarian way. Whether you want to refer to the second claim as an "obligation" is just a matter of semantics, with no pragmatic implications. As Rorty said, that with no practical implications has no theoretical implications.

If you want to tell me "Sumner thinks he has an obligation to give a lot of his money to the poor, and he's not doing that." I'd have no problem with that claim. Guilty as charged. It's really hard to be non-selfish.

BTW, is Christianity "discredited" because most Christians don't fulfill all of their moral obligations (to not sin)? Indeed Christianity imposes just as strong an obligation to give money to the poor as utilitarianism.

Rajat, I don't have any big problems with the nudge movement. But I would not blindly accept the notion that having a high discount rate means you have the wrong discount rate. Who's to say which discount rate is "high"?

Philo, I thought that was implied in the comment I quoted, but perhaps I missed the point. It was a bit confusing, and contained (I think) a typo, where he said "Why" instead of who. He'll probably chime in after his vacation. If it was not implied, then I don't understand the point he was making.

And again, I definitely feel like bank robbers should be shamed.

Shane L writes:

There is a growing literature connecting adult behavioural outcomes to adversity in infancy. Much cognitive development occurs in the first weeks and months of life and those who experience chaotic, under-stimulated, abusive or neglectful early lives may struggle to develop the capacity to make good decisions later.

The undeserving poor might, therefore, behave in more positive ways if they had experienced healthier early childhoods. (I also feel like we all have choices and so this line of thinking does trouble me a bit - I'm not sure how linear and causal the relationship between a tough infancy and adult behaviour is. Nevertheless it does give us something to consider: it is harder for people to behave productively as adults when, through no fault of their own, they had bad infancies.)

Nathan W writes:

Perhaps there are better ways to network than smoke, drink and go to festivals. But I'll tell you, if you don't set aside at least some of your money for "frivolous" expenditures, you'd better hope there are immediate opportunities in the local market.

Personally, I believe such barriers slowed down my career progress by at least several years by virtue of the fact that I'd never had any money leftover to go do stuff. People tend to feel kind of awkward when you're always drinking water - some might buy drinks, but eventually you've got three groups: 1) Those who feel to uncomfortable drinking beer knowing that you're only going to drink water, 2) Those who would like to buy you a beer rather than watch you drink water, but really, they'd rather network with someone who can afford their own beer, and 3) Other people with scarce resources and a limited network who don't mind free/cheap activities but who are rarely a source of opportunity.

Steve J writes:

"Everyone with more resources than he needs to keep working is morally obliged to give 100% of his surplus income away to needier strangers"

Not even wrong... Do you need to be an engineer to understand feedback? Understanding the moral system is also an input to the system. Believing we had that oppressive an obligation would greatly lessen total happiness.

Swami writes:

Speaking of feedback, there is an argument to be made that giving utility gratis to non utilitarians incentivizes non utilitarianism and undermines utility. I would argue that if I was a utilitarian (I am not) that I would give to fellow utilitarians with an open borders policy to anyone to become a utilitarian.

James writes:

Scott,

The argument I have been pushing against utilitarianism is not "Utilitarians are hypocrites who fail to live up to their own system, therefore utilitarianism is false." That would be a non sequitur and it would remain a non sequitur if we substitute Christian (or anything else) for utilitarian.

Why are you bringing this up? The argument against utilitarianism that I have been refering to is the one I spelled at at 4:04 on July 10. Your response was to disagree with the first premise, contra nearly every utilitarian philosopher.

I think you are on to something here: By rejecting utilitarianism as most utilitarians understand it, you probably wind up with something more reasonable. Why you insist on calling yourself a utilitarian is another matter.

pyroseed13 writes:

“Again, I'm reluctant to "shame" people I have never met, unless they engage in an activity that is clearly anti-social, like robbing a bank. But the decision to smoke or to have children on a very modest income doesn't count in my mind as an activity deserving of shame.”

Really? I can think of many examples of people who engage in clearly irresponsible behavior that are deserving of shame. Is someone who gets pregnant in high school and then drops out really not deserving of shame? Failure to shame is a license to encourage, and I don’t think there are societal benefits from encouraging that kind of behavior.

“I roll my eyes when I read about the "tragedy" of some former NFL star that has medical problems at age 58. Do they regret playing football? Maybe a few, but I'd guess that there are far more poor people who wish they could have chosen that trade-off, who wish they could have been NFL stars, and lived the glamorous life for a decade when they were young.”

But the problem with this is example is that no one thinks that retired athletes are deserving of special treatment because of the tradeoff they made. From Caplan’s perspective, someone who makes poor decisions and then expects to be compensated from the government is probably not deserving of compensation.

“It's true that utilitarianism implies that the world would probably be a better place if I gave away most of my fortune to poor peasants in the Third World. And I think that's right. So why don't I? Because I'm selfish, as are many other people not named Mother Theresa. But that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with utilitarian theory; it just tells us that it's hard to be unselfish.”

This is a good point and I myself wonder if there are limits to this kind of objection to utilitarianism. What if we just followed a rule of “help the least well off in society without making others significantly worse off?” And deontological theories of morality are just as problematic as utilitarianism. Scott Alexander had an excellent post on that awhile back.

Aleks writes:

Scott writes:
"If you want to tell me "Sumner thinks he has an obligation to give a lot of his money to the poor, and he's not doing that." I'd have no problem with that claim. Guilty as charged. It's really hard to be non-selfish."

I think the crucial part is whether you're *trying* to be non-selfish, i.e. give money to the poor. If you think you should do X but you can't do X, you should stop thinking you should do X because ought implies can. If, on the other hand, you can do X but it is hard for you to do X, then at least you should be trying to do X. Remember: 'Doing X is good' is a value judgment. If you're not trying to do X, you simply don't value doing X so it is wrong for you to say that you think that to do X is good.

Scott Sumner writes:

James, I did respond to your 4:04 comment. Maybe you missed it.

pyroseed13, You said:

"Is someone who gets pregnant in high school and then drops out really not deserving of shame?"

Of course not. BTW, that describes a pretty big proportion of the human race. It's their life, let them live it as they choose.

As far as compensation, it's not a question of what someone "deserves" (which is unknowable) but rather what public policies boost aggregate utility.

pyroseed13 writes:

"Of course not. BTW, that describes a pretty big proportion of the human race. It's their life, let them live it as they choose."

Not really. 30% of the 25% of girls who drop out of high school cite pregnancy and parental concerns. Data is dated but it's certainly not a "big proportion," nor is it small enough to be completely insignificant.

http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/teen-pregnancy-affects-graduation-rates-postcard.aspx

http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/when_girls_dont_graduate.pdf

James writes:

Scott,

"I did respond to your 4:04 comment."

You responded to the comment but failed to address the argument therein. Instead you changed the subject from utilitarianism entails to whatever it is that you believe. If you think these two are the same, you are mistaken.

I referenced my 4:04 comment because you changed the subject yet again to a false analogy with Christianity.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Scott: And how are you going to infer effect on total happiness? By summing people via their revealed preferences perhaps?

J.V. Dubois writes:

I think your intuition about selfishness is right. When one thinks about morality, it is about widening circles. First you think about yourself. Then you think about your family or the closest friends. Then you may think about your community. Some may have expanded this to whole mankind. To complicate things you can add animals there - again in various degree - as for example like in a recent poll where 40% people think they would save their dog before saving a stranger.

I think the secret is to look where morals came from. For me the best explanation is evolutionary theory that sees morals as a special sort of rules of cooperation based on "forgiving tit-for-tat" rule. For humans (and for some animals) it is also mixed with ability to empathize - which is mostly about theory of mind and it helps us discover cheating so that we better know when to forgive and when to punish our fellow humans for noncooperation. Some animals (like dogs) were able to hook into this complex network of human behaviour as a very successful evolutionary adaptation so they now have the most powerful species on earth dealing with their poop.

So I guess I have a very Humean look on morals where the basis of morals is not in rationality but in the sentiment. Rationality may only make acting according to your sentiment in a more effective manner, however it will not "really" tell you what and why to do.

Two points:

1- The author writes "Don't focus on blame; focus on solutions."

But blame is an essential part of diagnosing the problem. And if your diagnosis is wrong, then your "solutions" are unlikely to solve anything, and are more likely to make the problem worse.

2- The author's claim of preeminence of utilitarianism at a large scale is wrong: while utilitarianism yields very useful insights at a small scale, it has obvious flaws on a large scale that make it totally inappropriate as a "lodestar", whereas Caplan's approach of "microethics" works at all scales.
See for instance my post «A Refutation of (Global) "Happiness Maximization"»
http://fare.livejournal.com/168562.html

Michael writes:

James: I think you're conflating "morally obligated" with "forced to do so". I don't have to do what utilitarianism morally obligates me to do, just as I don't have to literally follow the Torah or Koran 100% of the time to be Jewish or Muslim.

I'm an imperfect utilitarian for not donating all of my disposable income, the same as someone who does follow the literal word of the Bible at all times is an imperfect Christian. However, even if that person only *generally* follows a *modern interpretation* of the Bible, that wouldn't negate their Christianity in most people's eyes. Likewise, just because I have some selfishness and refuse the more impractical obligations of utilitarianism doesn't mean I can't use it as a general guide to ethics, which seems to be what Scott means as a "lodestar".

zac writes:

You gave 3 examples of new laws that will represent obvious social progress. To recap, they were: legalizing pot, legalizing organ sales, and legalizing publication of laws.

Interestingly All 3 involve reversing existing laws; rolling back on prior government overreach.

I respect your optimism, but we are generally going in the opposite direction. The fact is every year we get thousands of pages of new laws, rarely reversing old ones. By the time they relinquish control on a few token issues, there will be thousands of more laws for us to fight against

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