Saturday, July 07, 2007

L&S: From Hypothetical Consent to Utilitarianism

Jan has just declared that he no longer agrees with utilitarianism, though “some misguided people still do.” I am one of those misguided souls, so I predict some intellectual clash. This is good. The last couple of times I’ve taught at an L&S event, the philosopher in the bunch (James Stacey Taylor) was a utilitarian, and there was altogether too little disagreement for my taste.

However, if I understand him correctly, Jan is advocating instead something like the Pareto criterion: for people to have a particular right, the protection of that right must make each person better off than he would be if society did not protect such a right. I think it’s but a step from here to a form of utilitarianism. Why? Because his analysis is already carried out at a hypothetical level – by people imagining different societies, from some initial position that is privileged (in the sense that any change from that position requires universal agreement). But if we’re already talking about hypothetical consent from a hypothetical initial position, then we could even imagine people accepting trade-offs of the following form: “I might turn out to be a person who loses from the protection of right X. But I will more likely turn out to be someone who benefits from protection of right X.” And this is tantamount to the utilitarian position, in which the losses to some are balanced by the greater gains to others.


Jan Narveson said...

This is loose talk, as is so often the case. Utilitarianism is NOT just about utility. As economists point out, everything is a matter of utility to somebodyo; that's pleonastic. We have utilitarianism ONLY when there is cardinal interpersonal measurement AND the claim is that the preferred alternative is preferred BECAUSE it maximizes net utility so conceived.

Social coordination is desirable because from each person's point of view,s it is better for that person, given the situations of others.

Glen Whitman said...

Jan -- This seems too narrow a conception of utilitarianism. The question, I think, is how these interpersonal utility comparisons would be made. I'm suggesting they are made, or could be made, by hypothetically imagining of yourself in many different persons' shoes -- so that you are exposed mentally to all the losses and gains associated with protecting a right (or adopting some other policy).

And it's clear that a right or policy is "better for each person" only in sufficiently abstract circumstances. For sufficiently specific circumstances, there will always be people who do not find themselves better off for the enforcement of a given right or policy. The convicted murderer facing a life sentence has no strong reason to support the law against murder. But once we've abstracted to the point where you don't know -- yet -- whether you'll be one of the winners or one of the losers from a given right or policy, then we're essentially performing a utilitarian calculation.