I have been a classic utilitarian for about 30 years now and am seen in my academic work as an extreme version of the genre. I did my Phd on the topic. I do not merely say that governments should make policy for the benefit of the wellbeing of the population, but have spent years in the weeds of government bureaucracies to help them figure out how to do it. I just published the first real Handbook on that subject, almost 500 pages long, which is already heavily used as a reference work by the UK bureaucracy. I set up and still co-organise the World Wellbeing Panel, dedicated to finding out what the wellbeing experts around the world think is the policy and behaviour that optimises wellbeing. After that effort, I feel I co-own the term utilitarianism and am allowed to say some unusual things about it.
Mainly, I think most philosophical discussions of utilitarianism – for or against – are irrelevant to decision making in this world. My own take on what utilitarianism is about and why one should be one differs from most takes I read on the subject. Let’s go over the three crucial issues.
Idea 1: a utilitarian in his/her own life pursues the wellbeing of humanity.
You hear a lot that a utilitarian should be the ultimate do-gooder in his or her private life. The effective altruist bunch are like this.
Well, I certainly am no angel of that type. Utilitarianism is the decision criterion I advocate as a decision-making principle for society, which is not the same as my personal decision criterion. So I want society to adopt the rule to save the whole population of Boston over any random person in the world. But if that random person is my wife and I would have to personally choose, then it is just bad luck for Boston.
Also, like anybody else, I do not make decisions solely on the basis of a calm considered calculus. If an adult hits my child in my presence, my first reaction is to hit back hard and wonder later about the calculus of utility that might or might not rationalise it. Afterwards, I would feel nothing but pride that I defended my child in the moment itself, not even needing the pretence that it was somehow utilitarian as well. That is healthy normal behaviour and an outcome of quicker systems of decision making than considered action.
Indeed, no one is as rational, as consistent, or as observant as a ‘utilitarian in private life’ would have to be if you took the principle as an actual command. It simply can’t be done. The strain of observing and analysing the world as it is, a necessary ingredient for deciding what is optimal, would already be far too much for anyone to achieve. We humans are not capable of observing reality or ourselves as we truly are, no matter how much we try. We are not the type of animal that could be a totally truthful decider.
Importantly, I have the same reaction to all other systems of ethics I read about, like liberalism, Christian ethics, situational ethics, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They are just as impossible to actually be in both a procedural sense and a human sense. Most of them for instance include the idea that one should start with seeing the world as it is, which I regard as a complete impossibility for anyone to achieve more than to a very faint degree. So, for instance, anyone swearing to speak ‘the whole truth’ is simply engaging in a lie. Also, like utilitarianism, the other ‘systems of ethics’ require a super-human psychology.
So what does it then mean to be an avowed utilitarian? Principally, it means one professes utilitarianism as the preferred system of ethics for society, and that one uses whatever political power one has towards that idea. One advocates it, votes accordingly, and in representative roles tries to decide accordingly.
So I premarily regard any avowed system of ethics as a public stance, a kind of political clothing. I see all such ‘philosophies’ as attributes of societies in which people are supposed to have public stances, hence societies in which some kind of public clothing is deemed important. I don’t think hunter gatherer society, in which humans lived for most of evolution, was like that at all: then humans lived with their friends and family their whole life, so there was no-one to have a public versus private stance towards. To have an ethical stance at all is playing along with a game societies demand some of us play. As a result, I look in bemusement at people who stolidly claim their system of ethics has something timeless about it, as if I am watching an actor who doesn’t realise she is in a play. I find the question why some people latch on to a particular ethical story much deeper than the story itself.
Idea 2: a utilitarian government calculates all effects of all possible actions for a population from now till ever, choosing the one with the highest sum of ‘utils’.
This one is particularly important because it goes to the heart of my own academic work and the way in which utilitarianism is depicted in many textbooks. The picture painted is that of a super-calculator working out all effects of all possible actions over time, choosing the action that has the highest sum of outcomes. Economic journals are full of such fantasies.
No-one has actually ever done this, could ever do this, or should be trusted with the power to do this. Hence the central problem with the claim is that it involves a god of sorts, namely someone or some single unit with the actual ability to make these impossibly complex calculations and then the power to decide on such a basis. That whole depiction falls apart on many counts.
For one, the depiction, if taken to its logical consequences, requires the possibility of making all relevant decisions about the far future at one supreme moment in time at which in essence all future decisions of everyone else get set in stone. The problem is not so much that there are uncertainties, but much more importantly that the future has no say in anything: all those yet to be born or everyone yet to change their minds has their futures set in stone by this mythical utilitarian optimiser that sets everything involving the future on an optimal setting. That is undemocratic, impossible, megalomaniac, and all the rest of it. There is a hidden vision of an omnipotent god in that depiction.
Second is the fantastic amount of knowledge needed, invariably depicted as a kind of rational centre on top of a more automatic measuring and obeying population. There is the assumption of unlimited intelligence, zero costs of information, and absolute unquestioning loyalty in that description. Even as a stylised description that one finds in economic textbooks, it is the stylised vision of extreme fascism, with the hyper-intelligent expert on top. It is a horrifying image when one reflects on it, dismissive about the agency and limitations of humanity.
I have a similar problem with nearly all other systems of ethics that yield some decision about the far future of humanity based on zero costs of information and computation, combined with implicit total obedience: it is pure hubris and a power fantasy to engage in that type of view of ethics. It is neither possible not ethical at all to give oneself, or anyone else, that actual power in reality. Surely one can do better, as fantasies go.
I know that some people then try to rescue the argument by saying one should see the depiction as an ‘in principle goal’ or a ‘unanimous agreement by humanity if they could all live at this moment and think just like me’ point of view, but that is really just a higher level power fantasy. Consider the elements of this kind of ‘the whole of humanity choosing from the veil of ignorance’ fantasy.
In what imagined world does it makes sense to speak of the whole of humanity from now till the infinite future as being present to agree to some set of principles or future actions? It slips in very weird notions of humanity. As if humanity remains the same species over time. As if real cultural disagreements can be overcome by the right argument. As if people in their actual lives could be represented by themselves at some particular moment, locking all other selves into obedience. As if people have or could be a kind of all-understanding presence capable of grand decisions about their whole lives. Etc.
So from start to finish, the whole notion of timeless ethics and decisions made for the whole of humanity over time is preposterous, requiring some god-like entity somewhere in the depiction. In that sense, Thomas of Aquinas was quite right: any notion of choosing the ‘Good’ begets a god-like entity somewhere in the argument.
I knew all this 30 years ago but I am still a utilitarian, so what does that then mean? What decision scenario do I have in mind for utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism as a public stance to me means that the wellbeing of the population should be the joint goal of those with some power over what a group does to try to make decisions on the basis of how decisions will work out for the sum of utils of that whole group. That means utilitarianism is what I advocate as the joint responsibility of those with some group power, a joint quest. So when asked what is good for society, I myself respond in keeping to that quest with the answer that I personally believe would lead to the highest utils. I accept that it is impossible for anyone to know what the ‘optimal’ decision truly is, but take the essence of practical utilitarianism to run with what one thinks is the optimal decision anyway. One runs with what one thinks is best until one discovers something even better after which one should run with that. In that sense I am a practising utilitarian, willing to be counted.
Note that the means of ‘trying’ can be varied and do not actually need a computation except in rare circumstances. After all, families can pursue the wellbeing of a family without anyone measuring those utils openly. They use theories, implicit measures, introspection, conversations, and other methods to tell them what is good for the family as a whole.
So trying also allows for the possibility that in many cases people have no idea what would be good for the utils of some group and that they apply various heuristics for which they have no better justification at that moment than ‘well, this seems to have worked out in the past’. It thus allows for a whole environment in which lots of people make decisions on the basis of lots of rules, habits, and guesses which lack a utilitarian calculus. A utilitarian tries in important cases to make some reasoned guess as to whether or not the laws and customs in place are moving in roughly the right direction from a utility point of view, nudging the system towards better customs and laws if that then is required. Numbers and formulas can certainly help, but not always. Indeed, not all that often.
Crucially, it is not utilitarian at all to presume that to try and openly measure and calculate everything is necessarily the best in all decision circumstances. That is a control fantasy that falls apart as soon as one realises there are costs to gathering information and analysing anything. Indeed, it is downright uneconomic to envisage a utilitarianism without costs of information and calculation. It slips in a good with a zero price.
Pragmatic utilitarianism is thus about trying to move the dial of decision making somewhat towards the notion that the overall goal is the utils of society and that ‘we’ have choices to make that either help or hinder that goal. How to help and what the best strategy is, is then not up to some central god-like character, but the joint quest of many, requiring lots of rules of thumb that hopefully become better.
This stance also brings very different requirements for what a utilitarian should be spending time on. They should, in my opinion, spend far less time wondering about the perfect measure for a util and far more about the decision system that is there and that needs improving. In effect, I accuse most utilitarians of not caring at all about the utils of the population because they want to sit on cloud cookoo and waste their time dreaming of perfect systems in which effort and measurement is costless, with all power bundled in their hands. That is not utilitarianism but a form of narcissism.
Over time, pragmatic utilitarians thus need to learn such things as to whether in fact the system is better off without any open calculations at all, or whether it is better off with lots of local deciders determining their own use for numbers. Hence I can easily imagine a society of with lots of utilitarian policy Mandarins but with no calculations or powerful centres at all.
Why did I then spend years of my life trying to figure out how to do calculations and adjust government decision making systems? Because my judgment at the time was that in the society I found myself in, that was a sensible way forward, ie that enough big mistakes were made right now that would be avoided with more knowledge of reasonable measures somewhere in the system. I did not advocate things any classic utilitarian would recognise as 100% what any utilitarian had in mind, but I hope many will see why I think my suggestions are improvements upon the current system towards the joint goal.
This then brings us to the third idea.
Idea 3: a utilitarian deeply believes in the foundational assumptions, such as a deep convictions on the equal innate value of all humans.
There are many variations of this claim, but they all boil down to the notion that people are utilitarians because they ‘in their soul’ believe strongly in something. They have axioms or convictions.
I have always found such arguments extremely weird, bizarre even. As if any of us believe anything deeply in our souls. Laughable. Asking me to fully sign up to axioms is like asking me to join the ‘pantomime of deep convictions’.
Myself, I am more or less a utilitarian by accident.
I first became a utilitarian 30 years ago, when confronted with the different ethical systems around me, largely out of mental laziness. It sort of seemed right to me and I liked the fact that utilitarianism allowed me to have lots of strong opinions on lots of topics without needing to put in much effort to rationalise them. Utilitarianism was intellectually very easy for me and I felt I was supposed to have a system of ethics. I can pretend I had utilitarian convictions at that time, but my truly deep convictions at that age (around 20) were confined to sex.
Over the years, it mainly kept feeling right to me. The story that people were equal fit my culture that celebrated democratic values, and I liked the mythology of rational choice. It was the system that fit my education and how decision making in my society was depicted to me. As a result it seemed to be the long-run winning view to me, even more so because so many people were always bitching about it. I reasoned that the philosophy everyone loves to hate must be the one that everyone actually believes will win in the long run. I definitely wanted to be with the long-run winning team.
I think I also liked the god-view implicit in how utilitarianism was described to me at that time, ie the idea that I could decide everything for the whole of humanity. For their own benefit, of course. And yes, you might say that that is not a noble motivation, but, well, guilty as charged: young men will dream of power, one way or the other!
Over time, I started to see it more and more as a means of relating to people, just like any clothes make one part of a club. As a recognised ‘philosophy’ my efforts towards making utilitarianism a reality made it possible to relate to many others with similar quests. It also in my own mind allowed me to feel I was being the ‘good shepherd’ that my family wanted me to be. It furthermore allowed me to feel connected to thinkers and populations long dead or yet to come. It is a pleasant feeling to have that sense of recognition with others in time and place on the basis of what one works towards, even if the words used are different. I thus still wear the utilitarian clothes gladly and rejoice in meeting others wearing the same gowns.
Indeed, many of the people I regard as ‘the most utilitarian’ don’t think of themselves like that at all, including pastors and parents just looking after their local flock. I for instance see many sex-workers who get pleasure out of pleasing and connecting with their clients as a kind of ultimate applied utilitarians, bringing more total utils to the population than most supposedly dedicated effective altruists I know.
So, my sales pitch to all you non-decided seekers of some ethical clothing out there: become a pragmatic utilitarian. It’s good fun, easy, winning, and gets you around.