Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dueling with the Visible Hand (utilitarianism edition)

Over at TVHE Matt has replied to my reply to his reply to my post on the trouble with utilitarianism.

I'll keep my reply brief for two reasons:

1. I am a utilitarian myself and the last thing I want to do is construct an argument so good it convinces me; then I'd have to go find a new political philosophy, which would be a real chore :)

2. I don't want to scare off my tiny readership - and I'm worried that arguments about arcane political philosophy may well do this...

Ok - here we go:

Starting with the good news: both Matt and I agree that utilitarianism is no different from other political philosophies insomuch as that it ultimately makes claims that can't be anchored perfectly to something deeper (appeals to value-judgements, I guess). Matt, however, thinks that utilitarianism provides more transparency in dealing with value judgments. I'm not so sure: I think we could appeal to Rawlsian liberalism, or the libertarianism of Robert Nozick with equal transparency.

I also agree with Matt that people will feel better about chicken pies they buy than they will about those they steal. As I said in my second post, incorporating our preferences for justice into people's utility functions is perfectly sensible.

Where we seem to differ is that Matt believes we can combine consequentialist and non-consequentialist beliefs into one overarching philosophical model. I understand the appeal; most of us do this in our day to day philosophising (we support some things because they improve people's lives, others because they seem fair). But, at least to my non-philosopher mind - in terms of constructing sound and rigorous frameworks for weighing policy and economic choices, the two ways of arguing what is right are completely incompatible.

This, I think, is our fundamental disagreement. And going back to my original post, the fact that justice can't be brought into the picture (except as rules in rule utilitarianism or as something that make us happier) leaves me uncomfortable in this unjust world of ours.

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