Utilitarianism and Today

The basic idea of utilitarianism, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry, The History of Utilitarianism, is:

Though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good…  one ought to maximize the overall good — that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good.

Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone’s happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else’s good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.

Economics uses utility as a numerical unit of “good” and in general, as far as I can tell, the maximization of utility is the goal (being agnostic and open to different approaches regarding the distribution of that utility among people).  Without putting too much thought into the philosophical implications, one can say that it certainly makes it conducive to be a mathematical study.  And by restricting itself to being a mathematical study (and depending on the situation, restricting itself to being positive (descriptive) instead of normative (value judgment)), it is able to be agnostic about anything.  Mathematically and logically, 1+1=2, but no statement is made on whether what that implies is what we actually want for people.

So… is liberty, the right to do as one wants free from the interference of others, so long as what one wants does no harm to others. (And merely offending the moral sensitivities of others does not count as harm. Especially since others often confuse feelings of repugnance with feelings of moral disapprobation.)

The above famous position on liberalism, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on John Stuart Mill, is probably one sort of ideal that many liberal democracies work towards.  It’s also a position that’s conducive to a mathematical approach. As long as at least one person’s utility increases and every person’s utility doesn’t decrease, an action that causes that would be considered desirable.

\textup{If } \exists \Delta x_{i}>0 \textup{ for some } i\ |\ \Delta x_{j} \geq 0\ \forall\ j \textup{, then action}\ i \textup{ is } \ddot\smile

If there exists an action that would increase the utility of a person such that the utilities of all people don’t decrease, then that action is desirable.

However, this doesn’t say anything about the distribution of utility that we have in our world today.  Not that the below says much about the distribution of utility, but taken from the History of Utilitarianism entry:

Hutcheson was committed to maximization, it seems. However, he insisted on a caveat — that “the dignity or moral importance of persons may compensate numbers.” He added a deontological constraint — that we have a duty to others in virtue of their personhood to accord them fundamental dignity regardless of the numbers of others whose happiness is to be affected by the action in question.

Personally, I think the above is what we have today in times of peace in societies as long as they are not ruled by absolute autocrats.  There is some sort of attempt at utility maximization going on, whoever it might be, wherever it might be, usually almost everyone and everywhere.  But some minimum amount of dignity, or some minimum amount of utility that the society considers is the minimum amount of dignity, is given to a person just by virtue of being a person.  What I mean are things like welfare, shelters for those in need, minimum levels of trust we give to strangers, acquaintances, and family.  This does not say much about the distribution of utility except to say that everyone deserves some minimum level of utility.  However, this does cover an area that Mill’s famous position alone doesn’t cover.  If someone falls into misfortune, Mill’s position only says to not harm that person by your actions.  Francis Hutcheson’s position says that we have a duty to help that person “fundamental dignity,” or in utility-speak, a minimum level of utility.

I am comfortable with this position.  It gives value to the state of simply existing as a human being and it actually matches what we have in reality.  It is agnostic about what that minimum level of utility should be as well as on what a desirable distribution of utility should be.  These things, especially the former, changes as technology develops anyway.  In my opinion, it is good for economics to be agnostic, just like math is agnostic.  In the end, value judgments are the realm of philosophy and politics, and there exists the field of political economy with which positive economics does not rely on.  Math makes economics hard for people though, since math is logic and our ability to do logic depends on our physical make-up (i.e. our neurons, neurochemistry, and general physical health and stability).

Anyway, economics and math are agnostic about the distribution of utility, and a philosophical position (and a value judgment) stated by Hutcheson provides a simple, realistic position from which to start.  Everything beyond that is agnostic.

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