July 2, 2006

The Problems and Limitations of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is often called the foundation of modern economics. It is the belief that human beings try to maximize their utility (happiness), and that good social policy aims to maximize the sum of individual utilities. This idea is central to most economic analysis, notably cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, this sort of analysis presents problems that are rarely discussed in economic and political circles.

We all know, for example, that there are things we are forbidden to do to other people regardless of whether the loss of that person’s utility would be made up by increases in other people’s utility. A modern-day Robin Hood might increase society’s total utility, but theft is both legally and morally wrong. To imagine an extreme case, we could certainly increase overall utility if we infected a small population of humans with AIDS and studied them in labs; this would greatly increase our knowledge of the disease, but it would be morally abhorrent. War is one activity where we do explicitly trade off the death of innocents to achieve some “greater good” (and hide what we’re doing behind euphemisms like “collateral damage”).

I suggest that when cost-benefit analysis is used as a public policy tool, we often engage in actions that are in many ways equivalent: actions which meet the “benefit” goal, but which cross the divide into morally slippery areas.

For example, when new coal power plants are built the benefit (cheap electricity for large numbers of people) is weighed against the costs (for one, a certain number of premature deaths due to particulate pollution). The fact that these deaths are statistical makes it easy for us to accept the trade-off. But what if we could identify the people who were going to suffer and die because of each new power plant, and then had to ask ourselves whether it was alright to go ahead and build it? It would obviously be much more difficult and morally problematic.

In addition, utilitarianism is incapable of differentiating the root sources of utility. For example, some people may get utility from viewing beautiful scenery while others get it from performing sadistic acts. In the value-free world of utility theory, utility is utility no matter what it comes from. This is troubling since we clearly need to differentiate between the sources of happiness: in any sensible moral calculus, deriving pleasure from harming others cannot be equivalent to getting pleasure from helping others.

When it comes to the environment, utilitarianism runs into even greater problems. Humans are the sole deciders of what has value: paradoxically, any intrinsic value for non-humans can only be granted by humans. So if a hunter gains utility by killing an animal, or a person by eating that animal’s meat, cost-benefit analysis gives no weight at all to the animal’s interests (unless of course human beings choose to, and sometimes we care enough to do so.)

The notion that only human interests count is not based on reason or any ethical system. Taking this position is essentially no different than claiming that only one nation has value, or one religion: it is an arbitrary dividing line in a world of millions of types of living entities, many of which are animals, many of which are highly intelligent and social creatures with a great capacity for pleasure and pain. (As a side note, advances in genetics are making it harder than ever to support arguments based on a “unique species” claim. It now appears likely that a male monkey has more genetic similarity to a male human than a male human has to a female human.)

I was moved to consider this issue because of the renewed interest in whaling by Japan, Norway, and Iceland (a topic I specifically addressed in last week’s Voices). Some people in these countries (very few) desire to eat whale meat, and believe that this desire supersedes the right to life of some of the most highly evolved creatures on the planet. The fact that whales can be harvested “sustainably” points once again to the problematic nature of utilitarian doctrine. We could probably kill thousands upon thousands of all types of whales, dolphins, turtles, elephants, rhinos, lions, and tigers and not wipe out an entire species, but does our desire to eat these animals or kill them for sport entirely negate their right to exist?

The point is not that we should scrap utilitarianism or its accompanying cost-benefit analyis; we do need to be able, in some way, to calculate benefits and costs in the public policy arena. But I would argue that there are some actions that are wrong in and of themselves, and not subject to any utilitarian calculus. (Or perhaps that the utilitarian calculus should be extended to non-humans as well.)

The sooner that we think more broadly about the interests of animals and the environment, the sooner we might come to realize that many of our actions today are immoral and should be stopped: regardless of whether they or sustainable or not, regardless of whether they pass a cost-benefit analysis based solely on our wants and desires.

Jason Scorse