Monday 18 May 2009

Utilitarianism and meddlesome preferences

Brad suggests that utilitarianism has no way of sorting out how to deal with meddlesome preferences:
Liberals and libertarians need to think very carefully about the kinds of preferences/harms should be considered valid policy concerns. The are obvious cases: I wrong you when kick you in the shin, but not when I wear clothes you find distasteful. It seems that this is so even when you have a very high tolerance for shin pain and a low tolerance for fashion crimes, and the harm/disutility is equal in each case. Most people find it reasonable that people have a presumptive right not to be physically attacked, but no such right not to be visually offended by poor taste. There is a large grey area in between these two cases. Utilitarianism as a moral theory is incapable of considering this question, or even admitting that it is a problem. This, more than anything else, is why I am not a utilitarian. The Mill of On Liberty was not a utilitarian in this respect either. On some readings, not even the Mill of Utilitarianism was really a utilitarian.

I'll disagree. Buchanan and Stubblebine provide a very nice framework for thinking about the problem. Sure, the offense I feel when I see someone in a Che Guevara t-shirt is real. And it can be viewed as an external harm imposed upon me just as my wearing my Hayek t-shirt may impose similar harms on others. But the fact of an external effect isn't sufficient to make it policy relevant. Rather, the externality has to be Pareto-relevant: my willingness to pay to avoid seeing Che t-shirts has to be higher than the other guy's willingness to pay to wear the shirt. If the aggregate sum of all willingness-to-pay-weighted distaste caused by Che shirts is higher than the aggregate sum of all willingness-to-pay-weighted pleasure caused by the wearing of such shirts, then a ban could be efficient. Of course, we have no way of extracting that kind of information about preferences outside of market transactions. But in principle there's no conflict with utilitarianism: it's just the generalized problem of the absence of reliable hedonometers.

In some cases we can draw reasonable conclusions though. In the absence of regulations forbidding or mandating the practice, we'd expect that evidence that a bus company allows smelly people on the bus to be evidence that the money-weighted preferences of those imposed-upon aren't high enough to overcome the transactions costs of enforcing a "no smelly people" rule and the losses to the smelly people. Otherwise, the bus company could earn higher profits by banning smelly folks from the bus and charging a higher ticket price for the better service. Similarly, if a grocery store bans entry of customers wearing neo-nazi t-shirts, they must reckon such bans are worth the effort of enforcement and the lost custom from skinheads. In both cases, the common third party (bus service, grocery store) transforms all into internalities.

In general, for externalities the magnitude of which or the enforcement costs of which are very difficult to ascertain apriori, a rule allowing property owners to make the call is most efficient: Coase operates. Where it's pretty likely to weigh one way or the other and transactions costs among all affected parties are likely to be very high, blanket bans or blanket allowances may be more efficient. I'm certainly not saying that such an approach positively explains the pattern of regulation anywhere in the world; rather that such an approach is consistent with utilitarianism.


  1. I wasn't meaning to suggest that utilitarianism is in any sense inconsistent, but rather that it's a poor moral theory. A ban on Che t-shirts could well be efficient and utility-maximising, but I'd maintain that it's wrong. I'm all for side payments and genuine Pareto improvements, but I don't see Kaldor-Hicks efficiency as necessarily leading to just outcomes.

    I suspect we differ at the level of moral intuitions. I'm with Caplan contra Hanson on the liberty/efficiency debate. Do you think the holocaust would have good if there were more Nazis?

  2. It's just semantics then. I read you as saying that utilitarianism couldn't handle the problem within its own system rather than that such handling produced results you deemed undesirable.

    "Most people find it reasonable that people have a presumptive right not to be physically attacked, but no such right not to be visually offended by poor taste. There is a large grey area in between these two cases. Utilitarianism as a moral theory is incapable of considering this question, or even admitting that it is a problem."

    I wasn't trying to weigh in on the merits of the utilitarian solution but rather that it does provide an answer.

    I tend to lean Caplan on the liberty/efficiency question; I thought the question was on feasibility rather than desirability. I haven't yet decided whether 'tis better to lean utilitarian with libertarian side constraints or the other way round. I like liberty; I like efficiency. I wouldn't advocate kidnapping the homeless guy and stealing his organs to save 10 other lives: while perhaps efficient, it would violate liberty too much (same in the Nazi example); I similarly wouldn't oppose mandatory quarantine in the event of an ebola outbreak: it would violate rights, but it would violate efficiency too much to stand on rights in that case.

    Call me a squishy pluralist :>

  3. Yep, just semantics. I wasn't meaning that the question causes utilitarianism logical problems, but that it deals with it far too easily by saying it's not a problem at all.

    I have the same views on kidnapping the homeless and quarantining the ebola-ridden.

  4. I might be risking extra-super-duper semantics here, but why *wouldn't* you say that rights are something you value and that that's a part of your utility function and you're still a utilitarian? (If utilitarians can value family, why not liberty too?)

    An honest question: it seems to me this characterization is wrong, but I couldn't tell you why.

  5. Ryan: I think the issue is that utilitarians are committed to reducing all the different things we value (rights, family, pleasure) to the single (not necessarily measurable) value of utility. If two people, A and B have the same level of utility to begin with and some action on the part of A would increase his utility by X utils and reduce B's by X-1 utils (which would include his indignation at having his rights violated), the utilitarian is bound to say that the action is a good thing, regardless of what it is.

    I think non-aggregate utilitarians might be able to deny that a trillion Nazis would have justified the holocaust by saying that lots of small gains do not morally trump one large loss, even if quantitatively larger. I don't think any form of utilitarianism can say that one particularly passionate religious bigot beating up a gay guy is wrong even when the bigot gets more utility than the gay guy loses.

  6. Brad: you can salvage utilitarianism in the latter case by saying that the aggregate distaste experienced by onlookers coupled with increased fear that "i might be beaten up next; who knows what this guy will do" can trump. It's a bit of a hack job - can square damned near anything with utilitarianism with that kind of trick.

  7. Ryan: rights are something I value, sure. And abolition of my rights is something that someone else values. The problem is less for the individual and more for the social rule.

  8. Eric: the utilitarian can claim that's the case in a particular instance, but they must admit that an action would be morally good if it maximized welfare. It's not hard to construct hypotheticals in which this is the case. Say the bigot kills the gay away from prying eyes and hides his crime so well that nobody else ever finds out the murder has been committed. Or else, everyone else hates gays aswell and is glad to see him dead.

    You can square just about any concrete situation by representing utilities in certain ways, but there are many plausible utility distributions that can't be squared.

  9. In other words, to square utilitarianism with our moral intuitions you'd need to unreasonably claim that every time utility and intuition apparently clashes, the utilitarian calculus just happens to resolve the apparent conflict.

  10. Yup -- that's why I said "a bit of a hack job"