The Futility of Utility

By Brian Snyder

Science, including social science, cannot be normative. That is, it cannot tell us how we should act. It can predict the consequences of our actions, but should questions are ethical questions. Science is an epistemology—the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge—for studying observable phenomena. As such, it can describe behavior, but it cannot prescribe behavior.

Prescribing behavior, whether personal behavior or public policy, requires ethics, another branch of philosophy. There are two basic ethical systems we rely on: deontological and utilitarian. Deontological ethics are rule-based. An action is right or wrong based on if it follows some rule. Among philosophers, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is the most famous example of a deontological ethic, but such ethics have ancient origins. “Thou shall not kill” is a deontological ethic as is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The alternative is utilitarianism, developed formally by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, although it also flowed from older roots in Greek hedonism. Utilitarianism is consequentialist; there are no rules that demarcate right from wrong, but instead the rightness of an action depends on the consequences of the action. And, in utilitarianism, the consequences are judged by whether they increase the aggregate utility of a people. Utility itself has proven a tricky thing to define, but we might consider it happiness or pleasure. Thus, to a utilitarian, a thing is right if it increases the pleasure (or decreases the pain) of a population.

Economics, including steady state economics, is built on a utilitarian foundation. The goal of neoclassical economic analysis is to maximize aggregate utility (subject to some rather subjective assumptions). Since neoclassical economics largely equates utility with consumption, the predictable result is that the best way to increase utility is to increase consumption. Perhaps just as worryingly, most economists are unaware of the ethical assumptions entailed by utilitarianism. That is, they advocate for policies that maximize utility, without any regard to whether: a) anyone should want to maximize the thing they call utility, or; b) anyone should want to maximize utility, however defined.

Herman Daly and John Cobb addressed the first of these questions by redefining utility in For the Common Good. Daly and Cobb argued that neoclassical economics starts with a flawed image of humanity called Homo economicus. Homo economicus is entirely self-centered and cannot derive utility from another’s happiness. Further, Homo economicus’ happiness is almost entirely dependent on the abundance of its possessions, its appetite for which is insatiable. This is no one’s ideal of humanity. Yet economists then build models to try to figure out how to get Homo economicus more of what he or she wants. But that process can only get us to a more deeply flawed humanity. By starting with the wrong definition of utility, we end up with a twisted economics.

Daly and Cobb proposed a new utility. They argued that utility was a group-level phenomenon that was more complex than just the sum of its parts. My happiness depends on your happiness and does so in complex ways, and so a policy that seeks to maximize each individuals’ utility, without understanding that humans are social inter-dependent creatures (as the neoclassical definition does) is doomed to fail. Daly and Cobb’s utility concept fit better with who humans are and who we should be, yet Daly and Cobb remained utilitarian. The purpose of their writing was to offer a better utility, not dismantle utilitarianism.

Machiavelli (utilitarianism)

Cognitive psychology tests reveal that those who score highly for utilitarianism also score highly for Machiavellianism. (Image: CC0, Credit: Santi di Tito)

But humans are not utilitarian. Or at least most of us aren’t much of the time. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the deontological-utilitarian spectrum using different frameworks for different ethical dilemmas. And those of us who most clearly are utilitarian tend to be psychopaths. Go ahead. Click that link. Or this one. Or even this one. What you will find are cognitive psychology studies over the past decade that have evaluated where people fall on a deontological-to-utilitarian spectrum. In general, they provide respondents with a series of moral dilemmas that have different responses for a utilitarian and a deontologist and give these same people personality tests. What they find is that people who score highly for ratings of utilitarianism also score highly for the “dark triad” personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy.

Of course, humans devised these two ethical systems, and humans derived these measures of personality. So, what these studies mean is that people who score highly for utilitarianism also tend to score highly for traits that we typically describe as unethical.

This is not to imply that economists are psychopaths, nor even that we should scrap utilitarianism altogether. The studies mentioned above generally evaluated utilitarianism using “high-stakes” ethical dilemmas (e.g., saving people from an oncoming train) which aren’t identical to the sorts of ethical dilemmas faced by normative economists (e.g., setting marginal tax rates). But they may nonetheless lead us to wonder if utilitarianism should be the primary basis for our public policy and if we couldn’t build an economics, even a steady-state economics, on deontological, rather than utilitarian, footing.

A Steady State Deontology

The best part of quarantine is catching up on my Netflix queue. But the second-best part is catching up on my reading. Among the books I’ve been reading is Tenacious Solidarity by Walter Brueggemann. In many ways Brueggemann echoes the themes Daly and Cobb explored, but where Daly and Cobb started from an economic, utilitarian worldview, Brueggemann, a theologian, starts from an exegetic one. To Brueggemann, biblical history, and its secular echo, is a struggle between techne and metis. Techne is totalist, technological, quantifiable, and economic. It maximizes efficiency. It uses power and war. Metis is small, inefficient, qualitative and low tech. A craftswoman is metis; a factory is techne. Isiah and Jesus are metis, Solomon and Caesar are techne. Techne extracts from the poor and gives to the rich. Whether or not Caesar can increase the efficiency of production and thus raise “utility” becomes an expression of the totalist power of an intrinsically evil state. To Brueggemann, techne is wrong and disordered; metis is human-scaled and right. Thus, the rightness or wrongness of an act does not depend on its consequences but on its nature.

Moses

Moses and the Ten Commandments: Sweeping deontology across three major religions. (Image: CC0 1.0, Credit: Gustave Doré)

Brueggemann, like the biblical tradition more generally, is not utilitarian but deontological. Adultery is wrong, regardless of the utility consequences among its participants. Violence is wrong. Greed is wrong. It does not matter whether or not enough violence can increase the net utility of society (e.g. the Pax Romana), it remains wrong. Nor does it matter if greed can be used to motivate an efficient market, it still remains wrong.

Since the advent of utilitarianism, we have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the sort of language that describes acts as right or wrong, especially because they remind us of an antiquated religious worldview that used the same language to serve its own ends. Utilitarianism fit well in our secularizing culture because it provided an ethic that matched, not who we wanted to be, but who we already were. It did not appeal to the better angels of our nature. It required nothing from us other than that which we already were predisposed to do.

But Brueggemann’s exegesis requires a great deal from us. It requires us to change who we want to be. Yet this is exactly where an ethic motivating political economy should start. It should start with the people that we should want to be, rather than the people we are. Certainly, the descriptive science must deal with the people we are, but the prescriptive science must ask about the people we aspire to become.

Can A Steady State Be Deontological?

Absolutely, although like utilitarianism, deontology could just as easily lead to growth mania. It is “which” deontology that matters. Bruggeman makes a compelling case that the deontology of the Hebrew scriptures is steady statish, although he doesn’t use those words. I tend to think that Jesus’s teachings against greed could lead to a similar deontological steady-state ethic.

But many people are uncomfortable with religious deontology, and with good historical reason. The church has labeled homosexuality “intrinsically disordered,” and this is a deontological statement just like “love your enemies.” So, perhaps some skepticism of religious deontology is warranted.

Perhaps the better question for our secular culture is, “can we craft a secular deontological ethic?” Again, I think we can, and I think Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative offers a glimpse forward. The categorical imperative, which is entirely secular, requires you to act in a way such that by your action you would create a universal law. In other words, Kant asks us to act such that whatever we do today would be how all people, everywhere and forever, acted. Note, deontology transcends time; whatever applies to me today will apply to people 1000 years from now. Note also that logical contradictions are fatal flaws to any proposed action. Thus, if we propose “it is permissible to steal” as a categorical imperative, it would fail due to contradiction. To say it is permissible to steal implies the existence of private property, but if theft was permissible, in essence there would be no private property.

Given this, ask yourself how much of resource X you would use, if by your use you set a moral law that would be followed by everyone? If you use less of X than you need to survive, you, and thus all other people, would die. This results in a contradiction because if there were no people to use resource X, there would be no categorical imperative regarding its use. But if you use more than you need, then you have set a precedent by which X is rapidly depleted. Again, this creates a contradiction, because if there is no resource X, then there is no maxim by which to partition it. The answer, then, is to use as little of X as required to maintain your life at the standard all people can maintain indefinitely. That is, the solution is to use resource X sustainably.

Does it Matter?

The way we think about our ethics matters, but the way we talk about our ethics matters just as much. I worry that our emphasis on economic utilitarianism may not connect with the vast majority of people who mix utilitarian and deontological systems for making ethical choices. I wonder if many of these people think in terms of right and wrong, reflecting the lessons they learned in kindergarten and Sunday school, and that if the best way to connect to such people is via similar language. Greed is wrong. Growth is wrong. Sharing is good. Sustainability is good. It is simple, maybe simplistic, and it is not intended to be a replacement for the utilitarianism, but a complement.

For the past hundred years, our public policy has been dominated by utilitarianism, at least concerning the economy and the environment. Given that this period has given us climate change, acid rain, Minamata disease, Bhopal, Chernobyl, DDT, dioxins, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, a hole in the ozone layer, the depletion of marine fisheries and freshwater aquifers, soil loss, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, perhaps it is time to try something else? Perhaps even an ethical system that isn’t known to be associated with psychopathy?


blankBrian F. Snyder is an assistant professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University and CASSE’s LSU Chapter director.

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9 replies
  1. Brian Cady
    Brian Cady says:

    Nice work by Brian Snyder! I especially like the idea of complementing utilitarian ethics with Kantian/deontological ethics, instead of just replacing one with the other. I think Marxism, in theory, in striving for better, less self-interested people, continues Monotheistic traditions of individual aspiration toward collective norms( Someone else wrote this somewhere), and both the history of theocracies and of Marxism, compared to Western neoliberal current history, demonstrate that either extreme, utilitarian or deontological, may yield worse results than a combination. But H.T. Odum’s perspective that each society is a dissipative structure, whose structure is dependent on a certain amount of energy flow, sheds light on the cost of complexity in ethics. In other words, maintaining a complex ethical system (say combining utilitarian and deontological ethics) costs some measure of the sunlight incident on a social-and-ecological system. What do you think?

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    • Brian Snyder
      Brian Snyder says:

      Hi Brian, thanks for your comment! Hmm, the point about Odum is a good one and honestly I am not sure. If ethics are information, then yes I think you are right. Information is a form of emergy and so more complex information (and more complex ethics) would require more emergy. But, I am not 100% sure that ethics are always information dense. Utilitarian ethics might be, because they require information to understand the utility trade offs, but I am not sure about the information in deontological ethics. If they are truly objective and sort of hard-wired in, then maybe they aren’t information? TLDR, I don’t know, but it is worth thinking about!

      Reply
  2. Scott Haley
    Scott Haley says:

    Great essay, Professor Synder. Kudos! While religious deontology certainly has had its moments, I see the Judeo-Christian ethic in relation to population & the ecosphere as follows: go forth and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. [From Genesis] Of course, who knows if that passage was translated or interpreted correctly.

    Then, too, in the 13th century “The Church” rejected the suggestion of St. Francis that animals and Nature should be treated as sacred. I believe that’s one reason we have what we have today, even among nonreligious folks. Too many people (especially neoliberals:) appear to think Nature is nice, but not really important or necessary.

    So, Kant – yes. Secularism – yes. Religion – maybe just a bit. As a Buddhist, I believe the Middle Way is best… in everything.

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  3. Arthur Noll
    Arthur Noll says:

    I see we are a social creature who lives by teamwork. We all have the naked body to experiment with our independence of a social group. Teams can be more or less food energy efficient at getting what is needed. Food energy returned on food energy invested, EROEI, as Prof. Hall observed. Clothes and shelter require food energy to make or find, and they slow down excessive energy loss or gain from the body. Reproduction requires more food energy and shelter to be returned. Food EROEI defines life and death, it has to be a high enough ratio for people to live and reproduce. Lower ratios are physically and instinctively uncomfortable, you are on a treadmill with barely enough time to rest. You are close to slipping under the minimum ratio needed and being on the path to death with a ratio that is too low. Having a high ratio is instinctively good. However, a high ratio can come with using resources at unsustainable rates, which can lead to a dangerously low ratio in the future. We have been doing this, with the idea that we can find whatever we want when we want it. This is not a scientifically rational expectation. Looking for imaginary things doesn’t cause you to find them.
    A social group that isn’t efficient at distributing resources fairly, has increasing internal dissent about this, and is also irrational about the future with their use of resources, is headed for the dieoff that biologists expect with animals that overshoot resources. The fit survive such events better. They are more efficient at giving people what they need to do their job and aren’t planning on imaginary things to bail them out of logical problems.
    I see morality as something that gets selected because it works to keep life going. If people follow rules that kill them, their rules were immoral.
    Of course, this is a completely science based view, and people may want to decide things on other postulates about reality, and we find out what reality actually is with this.

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  4. Ronnie Hawkins
    Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Thank you for this, Professor Snyder. You have pointed to a key issue in the increasingly necessary critique of mainstream “growth” economics—the pivotal role of utilitarian thinking—and the references provide a rich source of ammunition. For detailed examination of the role this kind of economics, and the “smuggled in” normative utilitarian assumptions underlying it, play in IPCC modeling that drastically limits our ability to deal with climate change, see Spangenberg and Polotzek, “Like Blending Chalk and Cheese,” 2019 (http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue87/SpangenbergPolotzek87.pdf). But utilitarianism not only puts the future of the Biosphere in question because of its direct input into economics, it has also had a largely unappreciated effect on inhibiting our ability to slow human population growth, the other driver of ecological destruction and accelerating consumption worldwide.
    See Scovronick et al., “Impact of population growth and population ethics on climate change mitigation policy,” 2017 (https://www.pnas.org/content/114/46/12338), for a discussion of the influence of “total utilitarianism” (TU) versus “average utilitarianism” (AU) on the modeling of climate policy; the assumption of “total utilitarianism” being that, in order to attain our ethical goal of maximizing “utility,” what we should do is strive to achieve the greatest human population possible, even if this results in the life of the average person (“average utilitarianism”) being barely worth living, but still slightly positive. It is easy to see how “total utilitarianism” dovetails with the growth imperative of global capitalism, providing an ever-growing pool of both laborers and consumers (always welcome), but what is most egregious is that utilitarianism is simply taken as the basis for what is considered “population ethics,” untempered by consideration of alternatives or indeed of recognition of the existence of any other ethical theory at all.

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  5. Ronnie Hawkins
    Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Scientists have spent at least the last quarter century exploring and reporting to us about the complexity of the natural world, and as, you mention, Daly and Cobb have pointed out that the happiness of sentient beings like us should be understood as a group-level phenomenon; to begin to grasp our reality, one should approach the world with an openness to its amazing complexity and with empathy and compassion for the “others’ within it. But at the core of utilitarianism is the cognitive approach of reductionism, the antithesis of approaching what’s out there in an open, caring way; and what could be more reductionistic than reducing every sort of value to a single kind of thing, and then to a quantity of that kind of thing, to numbers, to abstract mathematics, and then finally to money? However, there is growing interest in the conclusion of psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist that our brains present us with two complementary cognitive styles, each useful in its proper context, but that the reductionistic approach of the left hemisphere has gradually come to predominate in our Western, now-globalizing culture; his 2009 tome, The Master and His Emissary (https://www.amazon.com/Master-His-Emissary-Divided-Western/dp/0300188374), offers a wealth of research findings in support of his thesis, but it has been reviewed quite favorably by Mary Midgley in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/02/1) and is outlined graphically in a TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain) and now presented in a documentary that, among several neuroscientists, also features John Cleese and a former Archbishop of Canterbury (see the trailer at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thedividedbrain). The exciting thing about McGilchrist’s thesis, in my view, is that there exists an alternative cognitive style that may have as yet been underdeveloped in our present culture but that could be enhanced once its importance is fully appreciated.

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  6. Ronnie Hawkins
    Ronnie Hawkins says:

    But wait—there are other ethical theories besides utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, including Aristotelian virtue ethics and several varieties of feminist ethics, all of which may be more amenable to encompassing complexity than the traditional two, whereas the way you emphasize Kant’s focus on logical contradiction hints of a reduction to a linear logic that itself lies within the forte of the left hemisphere; surely there are more important reasons why we should not steal from others along the “Harm/Care” spectrum mentioned in one of your references (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886914000129) than the fact that it might call into question the existence of private property, a concept not embraced by all human cultures. Moreover, an additional characteristic of the cognitive approach that McGilchrist worries has “gradually colonized our experience of the world” is its use-orientation toward whatever is distinct from self, and while I agree that one should strive “to use as little of X as required to maintain your life at the standard all people can maintain indefinitely,” a far less reductionistic way to approach the world ethically—one that would indeed powerfully address all of our current “environmental” problems—would start by questioning just what we mean by “resources,” resist the reduction of all “value” to human value, and find an ethical imperative for ending both human population growth and escalating human consumption in extending a “care” ethic to all the other sentient but nonhuman beings which, in our cognitive blindness if not in our “greed,” we are rapidly crowding right out of existence (see Crist, “Reimagining the Human,” 2018; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6420/1242).

    Reply

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