Bentham is turning in his grave

Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that is difficult for non-utilitarians to understand. Apparently, the lack of comprehension extends even to self-identified utilitarians!

Take the economist Scott Sumner, a self-described utility-maximizer who teaches economics at Bentley University in Massachusetts. In a response to Bryan Caplan’s post about double standards in war, Sumner wrote:

Scott Sumner: Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender. Would the act have been morally justified? I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the ”bad guys.” On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified. They were fighting the “good guys” (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”)

There is no such concept of “good guys” or “bad guys” in utilitarianism. Units of utility are judged equally regardless of the being who holds them. Moreover, utility is not dependent upon a being’s prior acts. Jeffrey Dahmer did not forfeit his moral worth after he became a serial killer – in fact, it stayed the same. Call him a “bad guy” if you will, but such classification is irrelevant to a utilitarian.

What is relevant to utilitarians is future probabilities based on past data. Forcing Germany and Japan to surrender would produce a different amount of utility than if America were to surrender (has al Qaeda ever demanded a US “surrender”, as in turning over the Capitol building to bin Laden?). If the expected outcomes differ in utility amounts, it is not hypocritical to support one but not the other.

Sumner posts a second reply to Caplan, and digs himself a deeper hole.

Scott Sumner: It’s true I haven’t seen any occasions when I thought foreigners would have been justified in killing lots of Americans. But I’m not sure that means I have a double standard. I don’t recall many occasions (in the past few decades) where I thought a country would be justified in killing lots of Estonians, or Thai people, or New Zealanders, or Canadians, Portuguese, or people from lots of other countries.

It’s funny he mentions Portugal as if the country hasn’t been in a war since the 1600s.

I suspect that Sumner’s unease at American deaths has more to do with group serving bias than historical facts. How was it not justifiable for Iraqis to shoot at Americans who had shot at them first? Is that really a difficult question?


2 Responses to “Bentham is turning in his grave”

  1. Scott Sumner Says:

    Yes, I know there are no good and bad guys in utilitarianism, that’s why I used quotation marks. By “good guys” I meant people trying to set up relatively pro-utilitarian governments, and bad guys were those trying to set up anti-utilitarian governments.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comment Scott!

    If WWII could have been ended in 1943 by killing 3,000 civilians, I think it could have been justifiable, if it appeared that a million more would die under the likely alternative scenarios. But the justice of the act has nothing to do with who the victims are, which is what you wrote.

    I know that the language of ethics can become verbose, and it’s tempting to employ abbreviated terms to avoid this, even if they don’t correspond to the way utilitarians usually talk about morality. But the way you phrased your argument, someone could just as easily infer that you meant “The Germans and Japanese and bad and therefore deserve to suffer” which is pretty close to the opposite of utilitarianism.

    While you’re here (and thank you again for taking an interest in my blog), I’ll repeat the question Bryan asked when foreigners could justifiably attack Americans. I find it odd that you couldn’t think of an instance from history when it was justified.

    I also detected in your original reply to Bryan that the justice of the wider war dictated the justice of all acts contained therein, such that if the Germans were wrong to invade Poland, that it was therefore necessarily wrong for any individual German to kill any individual Pole. This is a view I do not share. The decision to invade Poland and the decision to shoot an individual Pole are separate decisions with different consequences. I don’t see any reason to assume that one must be wrong if the other is, too.

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