Scott Sumner  

Primitive cultures need a dose of utilitarianism

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In this post I will discuss two primitive cultures, the Sudanese and the Americans. I will argue that both need to adopt a utilitarian ethical framework. Let's start with the Sudan.

In the Sudan, female genital mutilation is a common practice. A western visitor to the Sudan might make the following argument:

"Yes, your culture views this practice as very important, related to deeply held beliefs about purity and the female body. But from a practical point of view it is harmful. It can result in pain, as well as severe medical problems and even loss of life. You should abandon this practice."

Now consider this recent passage from the New York Review of Books:

Calabresi's most plausible example of a merit good involves bodily organs. The law forbids people to buy and sell kidneys, and one reason does involve inequality: it's gruesome to think of poor people walking around with fewer organs because rich people have made them an offer they can't refuse.
The rich/poor distinction is a red herring. Under the current system, the rich are far more likely to receive kidney transplants than the poor. If a market were created, virtually all Americans who needed kidneys would get them, both rich and poor, because it's much cheaper for medical providers/insurers/Medicaid to pay for a transplant, than to take care of someone who needs a transplant.

The real concern is that selling an organ is morally repugnant. The human body is sacred, not a commodity to be bought and sold. So how might a visitor from Iran react to America's cultural views on the body? (In Iran, kidneys can be sold, and there is no shortage. In America, many thousands die each year because of our kidney market prohibition). Perhaps an Iranian would respond as follows:

"Yes, your culture views the human body as scared, and organ sales violate your deeply held beliefs about purity. But from a practical point of view this prohibition is harmful. It can result in pain, as well as severe medical problems and even loss of life. You should abandon this prohibition."

I believe that these two primitive cultures, the Sudanese and the Americans, could learn a lot from reading Jeremy Bentham, and also from studying Iranian cultural practices.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Philo writes:

A textbook example of effective blogging. Kudos!

Andrew_FL writes:

The conclusion of this article-that a repugnant ideology like utilitarianism should be adopted by Americans and Sudanese, does not follow from the presented argument at all. A complete non sequitur.

That one evil ideology permits/prohibits something bad/good is not an argument in favor of any evil ideology that happens to prohibit the bad thing and permit the good thing.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Female genital mutilation is a (female) mechanism to raise the social value of sex by reducing its supply.

One of the reason why I like using economic analysis, is the discipline of looking for underlying rationality.

Which includes looking from outside: love the Iranian example.

Ben H. writes:

Of course, exactly what policy utilitarianism demands would seem to be a matter of personal taste. One could just as well claim that, from a utilitarian perspective, having person A profit greatly from the transfer of a kidney from person A to person B is non-optimal. Yes, the kidney "belonged" to person A, and so person A had a "right" to compensation; but that is a rights-based perspective that would seem to have no place in a utilitarian framework, which should be purely consequentialist. Instead, a utilitarian-minded society should simply take the kidney from A by force and give it to B; the benefit to B clearly vastly outweighs the harm to A, after all, and there is no reason to think that the utility of money to A is greater than the utility of money to B, so a transfer of money from B to A is not called for. One could complain that a society in which kidneys are taken from people by force is an unpleasant society that people would dislike (i.e., low utility); but this would simply seem to indicate that insufficient pro-utilitarianism brainwashing has occurred. Really, A ought to give up their kidney to B without compensation, in recognition that that leads to an increase in total utility; and the highest-utility form for a society would be one in which everyone would be so indoctrinated into utilitarianism that that would in fact be everyone's free choice.

Note this is not what I advocate at all – quite the opposite. But this is why I'm not a utilitarian. The decisions as to what is and is not high-utility seem pretty arbitrary to me, and seem, in the end, to be motivated by underlying rights-based beliefs.

Ben H. writes:

Oh, and to follow up: it also seems like a utilitarian could easily defend female genital mutilation. Just talk about the utility of having stable, solid traditions; of placing religion at the center of a society; of a social structure underpinned by stable, traditional gender roles; of keeping sexual urges in check as they are destabilizing and cause unhappiness; and on and on. Advocates of FGM make all these arguments and more, and they believe them, and they are arguments about the *utility* of FGM. And who are you to say they're wrong? You each have your own ledgers totting up the benefits and harms caused by FGM – but you get different answers. So who decides?

Again, I am not an advocate of FGM – quite the opposite. But I think the convincing arguments against it come from a rights-based perspective.

Bob Knaus writes:

Zach Weinersmith provides helpful commentary

Scott Sumner writes:

Thanks Philo and Lorenzo.

Ben, I believe that utilitarianism gives more reliable answers than a rights based approach. For instance, how does a rights based approach tell us when a military draft is justified? How about a mandatory tax on income or consumption or land? How about when cigarette smoking should be banned in public buildings?

As for "just as easily argue", I think you are confusing "could also argue" with "Just as easily". What you suggest is a very difficult argument to make.

Maurizio writes:

It should be said that the same result could be achieved with a non-utilitarian philosophy called "liberalism".

The United States is a "primitive culture" based on one piece of legislation?

So what is not a "primitive culture?"

mbka writes:


Female genital mutilation is a (female) mechanism to raise the social value of sex by reducing its supply.

Their points on social mechanisms is well taken, yes it is well known that women have a large role in maintaining the practice, and yes, women do a lot of the shaming of other women's sexuality, and yes, for competitive reasons. That said, how, pray tell, does genital mutilation reduce the supply of sex? How does it even reduce female sexual desire? Quite the contrary, the desire stays intact while the means to satisfy it are damaged. Or does anybody believe that female desire originates in the clitoris? This is just bizarre. What they show is that women do social shaming on other women in terms of FGM and behavior but the related thinking is just confused.

Jarrod writes:

Norms are weird.

Ben H. writes:


"Ben, I believe that utilitarianism gives more reliable answers than a rights based approach. For instance, how does a rights based approach tell us when a military draft is justified? How about a mandatory tax on income or consumption or land? How about when cigarette smoking should be banned in public buildings?"

When is a military draft justified? Never; people have the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies. If there is a sufficiently good reason for military action, people will volunteer. If they don't, then apparently the reason for military action is not, in fact, sufficiently good.

A mandatory tax on income or consumption or land, yes, that's a tough one, agreed (unless one takes the extreme libertarian position that mandatory taxes are never justified). I used to find the social-contract way of handling this to be a lame cop-out, but as I've aged, it has become more convincing to me over time; it has started to feel more true to me that people do generally agree to be a part of a society, and agree to make some personal sacrifices in order to receive the benefits that entails. But I agree it's problematic. (I don't see that it's really any less problematic for a utilitarian, though, since you have to do the same weighing of the benefits brought by the society versus the harm done by taking money from people by force.)

When cigarette smoking should be banned in public buildings? Always; others do not have the right to pollute shared airspace and give others cancer for their own recreation and/or addiction.

So two out of three seem quite easy, and one seems equally hard in both frameworks, to me. No?

But more generally, I feel like you haven't really addressed the objections I raised squarely in my original comment. Perhaps a comments thread is not the best place to do so; but I'd love to see a blog post from you on the topic at some point. Anyway, I always enjoy reading your posts (thanks!), but am unlikely to see followup comments here since I don't seem to get notified of them (it just occurred to me to check back this morning to see whether you'd replied). So, my apologies if I now drop the conversational ball. :->

The Original CC writes:
Under the current system, the rich are far more likely to receive kidney transplants than the poor.
Why? I never knew this.
James writes:


You frequently recommend utilitarianism but I wonder if you are serious in thinking that utilitarianism would change anyone's conclusions. Nearly everyone, utilitarian or not, believes that their ethical positions would produce the best results, even if they chose those positions for reasons related to tradition or religion. If they became utilitarians tomorrow, their reasons would change but their conclusions would not.

When you ask when a "military draft" is justified, you are adding information that a utilitarian would have no reason to consider, specifically, that it is a government and not Al Quaeda or the Crips or IBM forcing people to go to war. The question for utilitarian is when is it justified for some people to force other people to go to war. If it happens that the people doing the forcing call themselves a government that doesn't change a thing.

I understand some people might think the "hurdle rate" in the cost benefit calculus should be lower when it is a government doing the conscripting than when it is some other party doing the conscripting. Whether that is right or wrong, it is not utilitarianism.

Scott Sumner writes:

Ben, I have to disagree on two points. In the case of cigarette smoking I strongly disagree. Indeed your argument for banning cigarette smoking in public buildings would imply that driving a car should also be banned. I think you might want to rethink your natural rights approach.

I also disagree on the military draft. I don't think that policy has ever been justified at any point during my life. But I can imagine a circumstance where it is justified.

I've addressed some of your other points in previous posts on utilitarianism. My basic argument is that opponents often prey on cognitive illusions. They say "What if clearly obnoxious policy X raised total utility" but in all the cases they cite it's a policy that would almost certainly lower total utility---that's why it's obnoxious! But yes, in principle I favor any public policy that would boost aggregate utility, i.e. that would make the world a happier place.

Original, It's complicated, but I seem to recall that the rich are more sophisticated at traveling around the US and getting on many different lists, and they also can travel to foreign countries where there is a black market in kidneys. Any determined billionaire can get a kidney if they want it. And studies show that affluent Americans in general are much more likely to receive kidneys than poorer Americans. The gap is huge.

James, I'm not sure everyone would agree with you on utilitarianism. Religious fundamentalists often argue that the best society is not a happy society, but rather one where people live according to the word of God. That may mean the banning of parties, dancing, music, drinking, etc. If it makes people lass happy, they don't care.

The Original CC writes:

Thanks, Scott. Makes sense. (And good post!)

Ravi Smith writes:

Americans and Sudanese can doubtlessly learn a lot from reading Bentham. Yet, I find it difficult to imagine most Americans becoming utilitarian. Fortunately, an idealistic mentality combined with decentralization often has similar outcomes. Think of assisted suicide. It was first adopted in Oregon, and then has spread to several other states (including Colorado this election). All adopting states are close to Oregon (except Vermont). Experience is better at changing minds than reason.

James writes:


People who oppose drinking and dancing for religious reasons always seem to believe that abstaining from drinking, dancing and the like will make the abstainer happier in the long run. These people are too few to influence public opinion or policy anyway.

Can you name a single person who endorses any ethical conclusion, religious or not, while conceding that people would be happier with their choices if they rejected that conclusion?

Kenny writes:

Are you claiming that nothing is sacred? If not, then how are you measuring or calculating the utility of something sacred?

To me at least, it seems like 'sacred' is a strategy for signaling that one refuses to negotiate on some point, e.g. free speech.

As other commenters have pointed out, utilitarianism doesn't seem to do any real work in your argument. What you're really claiming some people 'need' to do is abandon the things they hold sacred; by being willing to trade them off against other (non-sacred) considerations.

I'm with you tho! Mostly! But appealing to utilitarianism fails in this case.

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