The insanity of utilitarianism…

Our friendly opponents over at Marginal Revolution are good cases in point of the absolute insanity of utilitarian ethical thinking, and the insanity of bean-counting ethics in general…

Tyler asks, following philosopher Alastair Norcross, whether it could ever satisfy a cost-benefit test for one person to die a terrible and tortured death in order to alleviate the headaches of billions of others by one second. Tyler begs off with “a mushy mish-mash of philosophic pluralism, quasi-lexical values” and moral conceit. I will have none of this. The answer, is yes.

The clearest reason to think that we should trade a terrible and tortured death of one in order to alleviate the headaches of billions is that we do this everyday. Coal miners, for example, risk their lives to heat our homes and to generate the electricity that drives this blog. We know that some of them will die horrible deaths but few of us think that we are morally required to give up electricity.

This whackjob would seriously force a person to “die a terrible and tortured death” in order to alleviate people’s headaches for one second. Talk about complete cuckoo. This is where bean-counting with people’s LIVES leads you.

Coal mining is also not a good example: in any sane society, we’d be trying to make their jobs safer, not glorify them as sacrificial lambs. We are “morally required” to not participate in someone’s unwilling death, even if it is for our own interests. The sense of capitalist self-importance (“well, I won’t give up ELECTRICITY for the life of a mere coal miner!”) is insufferable. However good he is as a marginalist economist, he is a horrible human being.

49 thoughts on “The insanity of utilitarianism…

  1. Moorlock May 23, 2010 at 22:44

    But then why haven’t you given up electricity?

  2. Francois Tremblay May 24, 2010 at 00:49

    Why would I give up electricity? People using electricity is not the problem. Coal mining is the problem, and ultimately the capitalist attitude that voluntary transactions are a sufficient ethical cover-up for sacrificing people.

  3. Jad May 24, 2010 at 16:00

    I think I agree with you, and the above quote is definitely ueber-creepy. Putting aside the involuntary execution of people for headache relief or coal delivery, there’s a spectrum of voluntarism, isn’t there? On one end is a desperate work force, dangerous working conditions. On the other is a work force for whom many alternate comfortable job opportunities exist and working conditions are very safe (or pay is extraordinarily high). At what point are ‘we’ no longer sacrificing people for electricity?

  4. Francois Tremblay May 24, 2010 at 23:03

    Fair enough Jad. Yes, obviously there is a spectrum here, it’s not a black and white issue. But I think we can agree that explicitly sacrificing people for a little bit of comfort is evil. That’s really my only point here.

    So, where is the line? In my opinion, the line is drawn when our economy is socialist, that is to say, when the workers establish their own working conditions and have the resources to change them when necessary. At that point, it’s no longer a sacrifice, but assessment of risk. And we can disagree in our assessment of risk.

  5. Db0 May 25, 2010 at 04:43

    Pluralistic fallacies Francois? Really?

  6. Afrique May 25, 2010 at 10:29

    What exactly is it taht you have so much against a Capitalist society?

    Oh, and by the way, i completely disagree with the ill-concieved notion that it is fine to do away with a few for the greater good. The whole concept of the “greater good” combined with ethical altruism is frankly tyrannical, and idiotic. Such collectivist thinking is the bane of humanity.

    But back to my original question. What is it exactly that you have against a system of commerce that is founded on pure voluntary exchange? and i repeat VOLUNTARY?

  7. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 14:49

    Pluralistic fallacy? I looked it up and found nothing about it. Are you just making up words now?

  8. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 14:59

    Afrique, you do know this is an Anarchist blog, right? Why would you read it if you are already against Anarchism? Because despite what some disingenuous people might tell you (and I know what I am talking about, I used to be one, and I was guilty just as much as they are), voluntaryism is not Anarchist, and neither is capitalism.

    “Voluntary” is not a magical key to ethics, and simply positing that something is voluntary does not magically make it ethical. That’s called subjectivism, the belief that thought creates reality. Just like capitalists believe desires create value (somehow, magically), you believe that your agreement creates ethics. But it doesn’t work like that. An unethical action does not magically become ethical because you agree to it.

    Or as you basically pointed out, the “common good” doesn’t make an action ethical. You can’t sacrifice people in its name. And you can’t sacrifice people in the name of agreement either.

  9. NL May 25, 2010 at 17:57

    I tend toward utilitarian ethical thinking, but in the example given I don’t see any way to actually do the bean-counting. It’s not as if we can measure the suffering and say the hours of torture of one person would be 4.5 kilohurts and the billions of 1-second headaches would be 8 megahurts. Even if we could measure the suffering involved, surely the fact that one party dies and the others merely suffer is another incommensurate factor ignored in the example.

  10. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 18:04

    Uuuuh, NL, it’s ALWAYS impossible to “actually do the bean-counting.” Utilitarianism is impossible because it’s impossible to make inter-subjective comparisons.

  11. NL May 25, 2010 at 18:48

    Why do you say it is impossible to make inter-subjective comparisons? We do it all the time.

    “Do you like corn on the cob?”
    * “No, I’ve never enjoyed it much.”
    * “Yes, a little, but it’s better with salt and butter.”
    * “Yes, I love it!”

    Researchers doing cost-utility analysis find high enough intersubjective validity that it can be used it to set healthcare priorities in some state healthcare systems. We’re all different, but we’re not radically different. What’s the alternative? Deducing the practice of medicine from first principles?

  12. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 18:57

    Hang on, what? Your example wasn’t an inter-subjective comparison at all. What were you comparing?

    As for your analysis, I have no idea how it’s done, so I can’t really comment.

    “We’re all different, but we’re not radically different. ”

    A fair point, but I don’t know what that has tom do with the topic. Even if we were made exactly the same, it wouldn’t change the problem of utilitarianism being impossible.

  13. James May 25, 2010 at 19:11

    “Do you like corn on the cob?”
    * “No, I’ve never enjoyed it much.”

    “No, I’ve never enjoyed it much either”

    Who likes it more?

    inter-subjective comparisons are impossible because utility is measured in rankings, not numbers, which can’t be added, subtracted etc.

  14. NL May 25, 2010 at 19:28

    Oh, sorry if it wasn’t clear. The example conversation was of three subjects (in my family) comparing their subjective evaluation of the pleasure they got from eating corn on the cob. Some got more pleasure and some less, and everyone involved seemed to understand that comparison. Similarly, there are the pain charts on hospital walls where patients are asked to point to the face that matches their level of pain. That task not only assumes that intersubjective comparison of pain is reasonable but that it is so stereotypical we can even do it with cartoons.

    If both examples miss the mark entirely, what kind of comparison were you thinking about? Why is utilitarianism, you say, not simply misguided but impossible?

    If we want a new car fleet and expect (not intend), on average over a decade, 5 fatalities with one brand and 1 fatality with another, then it’s not impossible to choose the latter. We can make intersubjective comparisons to measure how much people value different aspects of their lives, and then base decisions on those measurement.

  15. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 19:32

    “Oh, sorry if it wasn’t clear. The example conversation was of three subjects (in my family) comparing their subjective evaluation of the pleasure they got from eating corn on the cob. Some got more pleasure and some less, and everyone involved seemed to understand that comparison.”

    No, there was no comparison there. Each person expressed his own evaluation of his own pleasure. You didn’t actually make a comparison.

    “Similarly, there are the pain charts on hospital walls where patients are asked to point to the face that matches their level of pain. ”

    Once again, where is the comparison? You do know what a comparison is, right? It involves evaluating two or more entities in one or many of their properties. You can’t have a comparison with only one entity.

    “We can make intersubjective comparisons to measure how much people value different aspects of their lives, and then base decisions on those measurement.”

    Fine then, tell us how you do this impossible thing.

  16. NL May 25, 2010 at 19:39

    James, we can find out who likes it more by asking more detailed questions. Lack of evidence is not evidence of impossibility.

    How do we know utility is measure in rankings and not on a scale? If they were on a scale, even if they shifted about on the scale over time, then you would predict the subject could easily rank options when there was a large difference but only rank them with some difficulty when there was a small difference. This is what we observe.

  17. NL May 25, 2010 at 20:00

    Francois, you seem to be using “comparison” in some technical sense that I am unaware of. By the common meaning of the term they are obviously comparisons to say that one person receives more or less pleasure than another, and a third person experiences pain equal to the common estimation of a group of others.

    > Fine then, tell us how you do this impossible thing.

    There’s a whole scientific field devoted to this kind of stuff. Example textbook: http://www.amazon.com/Meta-Analysis-Decision-Analysis-Cost-Effectiveness-Quantitative/dp/0195133641/ref=sr_1_5 It’s easy and intuitive to do roughly and difficult and theory-laden to do precisely–the same is true of measuring mass. You still haven’t given or pointed to any reasons why you think it’s simply impossible, and you’re getting kind of combative.

  18. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 20:04

    “Francois, you seem to be using “comparison” in some technical sense that I am unaware of.”

    No, I am using it in the common sense.

    “By the common meaning of the term they are obviously comparisons to say that one person receives more or less pleasure than another, and a third person experiences pain equal to the common estimation of a group of others.”

    And yet you didn’t do any such thing, at least not yet. Can you do it now?

    “There’s a whole scientific field devoted to this kind of stuff. Example textbook: http://www.amazon.com/Meta-Analysis-Decision-Analysis-Cost-Effectiveness-Quantitative/dp/0195133641/ref=sr_1_5 It’s easy and intuitive to do roughly and difficult and theory-laden to do precisely–the same is true of measuring mass.”

    Uh sure. Give us an example then.

    Also, this book is about meta-analysis. Statistics. No idea what that has to do with inter-subjective comparisons.

    “You still haven’t given or pointed to any reasons why you think it’s simply impossible, and you’re getting kind of combative.”

    You seem to be confusing “asking for evidence” with “being combative.” I am, however, starting to get tired of you, since you keep evading.

  19. Afrique May 25, 2010 at 20:05

    No that was not my aim in argument. That is just exploitation of the worker

    ( BTW, i am an An-Cap)

    But voluntary trade between two parties is somehow the bane of humanity?

  20. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 20:07

    “But voluntary trade between two parties is somehow the bane of humanity?”

    What, you agree with the statement I quoted? Then why are you talking to me? I said I considered it completely unethical and absurd. Why do you think I’d give you the time of day?

    Or are you actually asking me to disprove capitalism? If so, most definitely not. Go in the archives and read what I have to say on the topic, I’m not going to repeat myself.

  21. Afrique May 25, 2010 at 20:12

    ” Why do you think I’d give you the time of day?”

    I love how you completely ignored the question at hand. Now, instead of the Red herrings, how about we denounce the free market in all leninist splendor that is Lib-socism

  22. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 20:15

    I did not “ignore” the question. I don’t even know what the fuck your question is. But if “denouncing libsoc” is what you’re here to do, then just leave.

  23. Afrique May 25, 2010 at 20:19

    Wow. So much for being the rationalist. Congratulations. Stay classy and sophisticated.

  24. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 20:21

    Okay, now you’re just posturing. Get the fuck out.

  25. NL May 25, 2010 at 20:27

    Francois,
    > You seem to be confusing “asking for evidence” with “being combative.” I am, however, starting to get tired of you, since you keep evading.

    Tu quoque. I have given six distinct real-world examples and several theoretical reasons, responded to all your questions, and referenced a standard text directly addressing step-by-step calculations for all the common methods of doing exactly what you say is impossible. You have given zero reasons, zero examples, answered zero questions, and offered nothing so far on these comments, or even in the original post, but strenuous denials.

    Your foray into drama is thus demonstrably false, but fortunately it’s not relevant. I’m still interested should you wish to give even one, teeny-tiny reason why intersubjective comparisons might be impossible.

  26. Francois Tremblay May 25, 2010 at 20:29

    … so you are NOT going to give a single example of a comparison, even though I’ve asked you repeatedly. All right. I guess there’s nothing left to say then. Goodbye.

  27. James May 25, 2010 at 21:46

    “How do we know utility is measure in rankings and not on a scale?”

    Emotions like happiness and sadness do not have any objective unit of value that someone can demonstrate. Any scale will consist of 1st,2nd,3rd…

  28. Db0 May 26, 2010 at 05:18

    Hmm, I thought that was a proper name for it. Another name you might know it as is the hasty generalization fallacy

    • Francois Tremblay May 26, 2010 at 10:44

      Uh okay… thank you for telling us about some random fallacy.

  29. Db0 May 26, 2010 at 10:56

    It’s not some random fallacy. You’ve just called all utilitarianists insane based on what one utilitarian said…

    You have commited said fallacy.

  30. Francois Tremblay May 26, 2010 at 10:58

    And yet, the reasoning used is utilitarian in nature. I agree that not all utilitarians might agree with the quote, but utilitarian bean-counting IS insane. Nothing fallacious about that.

  31. David Gendron May 26, 2010 at 14:02

    Maybe Db0 didn’t appreciate the title. But, in the text, I see nothing about a generalization for all utilitarists.

  32. James May 26, 2010 at 16:46

    DB0, Francois didn’t actually claim this example proves utilitarianism is insane he said it’s a good example of such insanity.

    Besides even if he had it does illustrate one problem with a “greatest happiness for the greatest number” approach to ethics, that attrocities against an individual or minority can be justified if it brings relatively small benefits to a much larger group.

  33. Db0 May 26, 2010 at 17:55

    @James, it depends on how one approaches the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Desire Utilitarianism for example does not suffer from such “bean-counting”

  34. James May 26, 2010 at 18:55

    I don’t much about desire utilitarianism but doesn’t it define “the greatest good” as only including desires that help bring about the achievement of other desires? That’s a little better but it still has a similar problem, that in certain contexts it could be argued the coal miners desire to live thwarts everyone’s desire for electricity.

  35. Db0 May 26, 2010 at 20:34

    Better not to start debating on DU in the comment field of Francois :)

  36. Francois Tremblay May 26, 2010 at 21:51

    Yes, let’s not. If necessary, Db0 can link to an entry of his on the subject, or write one.

  37. James May 27, 2010 at 09:03

    Fair enough. Let’s save it for another time then :)

  38. […] or coal workers, and anyone who says otherwise is a disgusting little sub-human, or an economist, both terms really meaning the same thing) This entry was posted in Links. Bookmark the permalink. ← Homage to Catalonia: […]

  39. […] any number. not even for something we consider “necessary.” It is absolute evil to inflict a terrible death on someone to give billions a bit of well-being, and we are morally required to give up anything that entails such deaths, even if it’s […]

  40. […] Now that’s a “might makes right” argument if I’ve seen one. And this is quite a slippery slope, as well. If you believe that you are justified in inflicting a risk of harm on someone before they are born, then it’s only a hop and a skip to the belief that you are justified in inflicting a risk of harm on people who were born. And indeed, people use all sorts of bizarre intellectual contortions to justify inflicting a risk of harm on other people, such as prostitution, death squads and the horrible deaths of coal miners. […]

  41. […] Not really. We still practice human sacrifice and praise it, but we just do it without the pomp and circumstance. Human sacrifice happens when you know someone will die but you justify it as being for some higher purpose (be it religious, social, economic, or other). Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember this example. […]

  42. The Auricle April 21, 2013 at 01:36

    Relevant:

    “Torture vs. Dust Specks”: http://lesswrong.com/lw/kn/torture_vs_dust_specks/
    Scope Insensitivity bias: http://lesswrong.com/lw/hw/scope_insensitivity/

    There are two ways to approach this:

    1. Subjectively, torture is worse than a headache or speck of dust in the eye. No amount of replication can change this.
    2. “However small the badness of a thing, enough repetition of it can make it arbitrarily awful.”

    But 1. is silly. Imagine two groups of people: G1 is has 100 persons, G2 has only 1. All 101 people have a throat cough. Is it possible treat 100 people in ill-health as though they were no more important than a single person? Obviously not. So the second part of approach 1 is not believable, and we’re led to concede that 2. is proper–which, ultimately, means that utilitarian “bean-picking” is correct.

    If it is not correct, respond to my thought experiment and explain why 100 people with a cough are no more important than only a single person.

    • Francois Tremblay April 21, 2013 at 01:46

      You just made a circular argument. Bean-counting (100 people are more important than 1 person regardless of the suffering) is correct, therefore bean-counting is correct. So what? Thanks for showing you’re an insensitive asshole who doesn’t give a shit about innocent human lives. Die in a fire.

      • The Auricle April 21, 2013 at 03:49

        Please. It is not circular. Two options were presented, yours and mine. I showed yours to be flawed, and that the reasons for its falsity imply the truth of mine. There are definite claims and conclusions for you to dispute: if you do wish to dispute, “respond to my thought experiment and explain why 100 people with a cough are no more important than the cough of a single person.” Ad hominems are fallacious and prove *your* insensitivity. The ball’s in your park. Give it a go :)

        • Francois Tremblay April 21, 2013 at 10:35

          Bean-counting is bean-counting is bean-counting.

  43. […] for the greatest number.” This is the democratic, consequentialist level (that is to say, insanity, although somewhat less insane than the previous levels). It is also the position of human […]

  44. […] of bean-counting callousness, and this is a perfect example of such. I have already pointed out another example which, while not about slavery per se, demonstrates the cruelty of utilitarian moral calculation in […]

  45. […] Utilitarianism may seem like a more likely contender, but it fails to answer the question of why we should choose any given utilitarian standard. Why should we do what brings about the most happiness to the most people, or any other principle? At the end of any such process, we run into the is-ought dichotomy; it is impossible for a utilitarian to rationally justify any such principle. Utilitarianism is illogical and leads to absolutely batshit conclusions. […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: