Utilitarianism: Common, Intuitive, Flexible

Summary: I argue that utilitarianism is a good basis for morality and highlight some properties which might help skeptics be more comfortable with utilitarian approaches to ethics.

Utilitarianism is often an attractive approach to ethics for more math-oriented thinkers. At the surface, it seems to put fuzzy questions of right and wrong into a precise formalism, and give clear and consistent answers to hard questions. But, in and of itself, this isn’t a good justification for an ethical theory. Additionally, these properties also make a lot of people skeptical of utilitarianism because they make it seem robotic, unable to handle nuance or complexity. Additionally, how many people do you know who follow utilitarian thinking in real life? I want to try and convince people who are skeptical of utilitarianism by highlighting the fact that utilitarian thinking is quite common individually, is used subconsciously to make personal decisions, and is flexible enough to fit many different intuitions about ethics.

How many people are utilitarians? Just looking at responses to the trolly problem, 90% of people are willing to choose to save 5 people and sacrifice one person. But this is a relatively simple example which favors utilitarian thinking. Instead, a survey over different scenarios would provide better evidence. The paper “The Intuitive Greater Good: Testing the Corrective Dual Process Model of Moral Cognition” (PDF, Journal) examines whether people will naturally use a deontological response and then correct to a utilitarian response with more thought. Surprisingly, they find that many respondents don’t correct their initial response at all. About half start with an intuitive utilitarian response and stick to it even after further deliberation. After further deliberation, on average 60% of respondents chose the utilitarian answer to several moral dilemmas. Looking at consequentialism more generally, this survey finds that about 60% of people side with consequentialist statements over statements which emphasize natural rights or religion when considering morality in the abstract. Of course, the evidence here isn’t perfect, but overall, it suggests that utilitarian thinking is actually quite common in the general population and can be just as intuitive as other forms of ethics.

It is one thing to act like a utilitarian in the lab, but how many people actually live in accordance with utilitarianism? Aside from Zell Kravinsky, few people seem to make choices like a utilitarian would. But I argue that we weigh costs and benefits between individuals every day. For example, when choosing where to eat with a group of friends, people will say things like “I’m happy as long as the restaurant has a Caesar Salad” or “I don’t feel like eating Thai food tonight, maybe pizza?”. Collectively, the group will make a decision by balancing the needs of each person, to make sure the group is happy with the choice. This way of thinking is quite natural, and by examining your own social interactions, you will notice how much time people spend inferring each others needs and making choices which balance between different constraints. Utilitarian thinking is well suited for making choices like these. On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine a deontological system for picking the best restaurant!

Hopefully, highlighting the fact that utilitarianism is common individually, and used often in social situations helps ease people into the idea of utilitarian ethics. But just because this approach can be used to pick dinner doesn’t make it a good candidate for an ethical theory. I want to sidestep the debate about which ethical theory is “best” for now and focus on the diversity within utilitarianism. I believe that utilitarianism is broad enough to encompass many different moral intuitions, allowing almost all moral debate to occur between different types of utilitarianism. Ideally, this will simplify many debates and clarify the fundamental differences which drive moral disagreements.

Let’s start with a simple example. Can utilitarianism handle inequality? Typically, the happiness of rich and poor people are treated the same under utilitarianism, despite the systematic disadvantages the poor person might face. Let’s look at the social welfare function typically used to make decisions in utilitarian ethics:

\sum\limits_{j=1}^k a_{j}*u_{j}

Where the sum is over all people under consideration, a_{j} denotes the weight we give to each person, and u_{j} denotes the utility for that person. Oftentimes, all the weights are set to one here, opening up the issue that inequalities are not addressed within utilitarianism. But this doesn’t need to be the case! We can set the weights higher for people who are poor or disadvantaged in other ways, and lower for wealthy or traditionally advantaged people. In this way, within a purely utilitarian system, inequalities can be addressed. In theory, the weights can be adjusted in the opposite direction favoring only the rich (by increasing a_{j} for rich people). Alternatively, by setting the weights so that only a single person has non-zero a_{j} we would have an “ethical system” which only cares about the needs of a single person!

The previous example demonstrates that utilitarian ethics is not a monolith. It contains a broad spectrum of different approaches which can encompass a variety of moral intuitions. Inequality is a simple example, but in the future, I hope to show how utilitarianism can be used to discuss more nebulous concepts like justice or virtue.

It might be argued that the fact that utilitarianism is flexible makes it less trustworthy as an ethical theory. For example, couldn’t the social welfare function be changed to turn an egalitarian society into a dictatorship? Here, it is important to note that the debate about which social welfare function to use comes before any decisions are actually made. Once a social welfare function is chosen, it should not be changed. In this way, different moralities can be “baked in” to an agreed upon form of utilitarianism which, once chosen, gives consistent and clear answers to problems in social choice. The central question now becomes: which social welfare function should a group choose to make decisions? I will offer my own answer to this question in future posts.

%d bloggers like this: