Sunday, May 11, 2008

Utilitarianism Again

Of the many lists of things to do currently piling up in my life, one of the longer ones is 'Reply to posts on the Visible Hand in Economics'. While I disagree with quite a lot of what I read there, the content is always well written and well argued. And interesting.

But, alas, I speak economics only a little better than Portuguese, which - combined with the substantive nature of much that is blogged there - means that my responses need time; a scarce commodity at present.

Anyhow, a little while ago Matt responded to my post on the problems with utilitarianism*.

It's an interesting post and in the comments below he makes the very worthwhile point that people may actually feel better knowing that they live in a juster world and as such - to some degree - justice can be incorporated in people's utility functions.

In the post itself he makes two points which I don't think are quite right, though**.

1. The first of these is that utilitarianism somehow differs from other political philosophies in that it doesn't involve value judgments (claims that can't be perfectly anchored to deeper claims) about right and wrong. The trouble is that utilitarianism does do this: arguing that we should do what leads to the greatest good is a value judgment just like saying that we should concern ourselves with fairness as it might be reasonably construed behind a veil of ignorance. One of the strengths of utilitarianism is that the value judgment involved seems more intuitively defensible than, say, claims on absolute property rights, but value judgment it remains.

2. Matt suggests that we can mix concerns for justice (equity) with concerns for outcomes (efficiency) in our grand designs. I'm no expert but I just can't think of this - mixing consequentialist and non-consequentialist political philosophy - leading to anything but a philosophical mess. In saying this I'm not making a dig at Matt: in my day to day thinking I do exactly the same; in his ubiquitous first year econ. text book N Gregory Mankiw does it; and, heck, it's throughout our daily political discourse. But I just can't see how the mixture could ever be coherent and consistent.

Maybe I'm wrong and maybe there is a way to soundly mix deontology and consequentialism though. If there is, I'd love to hear it.

* I'm still a utilitarian, remember - just a troubled one.
**And I'm neither an economist nor a philosopher so it may be me that is wrong here of course.

1 comment:

Matt Nolan said...


Great post - I promise to make a reply on the blog at some point, once I have had a little think.

I also have a whole bunch of things I need to catch up on at the moment as well :)