It seems almost self-evident that (barring foreign subjugation) a government will care about the wants of (some of) its citizens and nothing else: no other object of concern is plausible. If governments concern themselves with the wants of noncitizens, that will be only because citizens desire their well-being. The now platitudinous insight that the only possible basis for government policy is people’s wants can be attributed to utilitarianism, which gets credit in its stronger form for the apparent success of weaker claims.
Another reasonable claim derives from utilitarianism: citizens’ wants should count equally. This seems only fair in a democracy, where one citizen gets one vote. Few today would deny the principle that public policy should serve the most good of the greatest number, which may seem to contradict my claim that no general moral principle governs public policy, but in practice, the consequences of this limited utilitarianism are thin indeed, leaving ample room for ideology. I’ll call thin utilitarianism this public-policy formula: the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, weighting their welfare equally.
First, I’ll consider whether thin utilitarianism succeeds on its own terms by providing a practical guide to public policy. Second, I’ll examine how this deceptively appealing guide to public policy transmogrifies into the monster of full-blown utilitarianism, a form of moral realism. The first constrains even casual use of thin utilitarianism; the second impugns utilitarianism as a general ethical theory.
1. Non-negotiable conflicts between subagents undermine thin utilitarianism
Although simple economic models attributing conduct to rational self-interest require that agents assign consistent utilities to outcomes, agents are inconsistent. One example of inconsistent utility assignment is the endowment effect, where agents assign more value to property they own than to the same property they don’t own. The inconsistency considered here is stronger than the endowment effect and similar phenomena that we can surmount with effort, as professional traders must do. Despite the effect, there is a real answer to how much utility an outcome affords; the endowment effect is a bias, which willpower or habit can neutralize.
The conflict between subagents within a single person, on the other hand, can’t be resolved by means of a common criterion, such as market price, since two subagents pursue different ends. Which of these subagents dominates depends on situational and personological factors that elicit one or the other, not on overcoming bias. Construal-level theory reveals a conflict between intrapersonal subagents, near-mode and far-mode, integrated mindsets applied to matter experienced at fine or broad granularities. Modes (or “construal levels”) differ in that far-mode is more future-oriented and principled, near-mode, present-oriented and contextual. Far-mode and near-mode are elicited by the way social choices are made: voting elicits far-mode and market choices, near-mode; the utility of a choice depends on construal level.
Take a policy choice: how much wealth should be spent on preventive medicine? There are two basic ways allocating resources to medical care, political process and the market, socialized medicine being an example of political process, private medicine, the market. Socialized medicine makes allocating funds for the medical care a political decision; the market makes it each consumer’s personal choice. When you compare the utility of the choices by political process with those on the market, you should expect to find that when people choose politically, they use far-mode thinking encouraged by voting; whereas when they make purchases, they use near-mode thinking encouraged by the market. The preventive-care expenditure will be higher under socialized medicine because political process elicits far-mode, which is concerned with future health. People will be more miserly with preventive care under private medicine, where the decision to spend is made by consumer choice in near-mode, where we care more about the present. People favor spending more on preventive care when they vote to tax themselves than when they buy it on the market. Which outcome provides the greater utility—more preventive care or more recreation—is relative to construal level.
The same indeterminacy of utility occurs when comparing decisions made under different political processes, such as local versus central. Local decisions will be near-mode, central decisions far-mode. Assuming socialized medicine, less funding would be available if it were subject to state rather than federal control. Which provides more utility depends on whether the consequences are evaluated in near-mode or far-mode; no thin-utilitarian criterion applies.
Some utilitarians will protest that we should measure experiences rather than wants. The objection misses the argument’s point, which is that utility is relative to mode, a conclusion easiest to see in the public-choice process because the alternatives may be delimited. If the conclusion that utility depends on construal level holds, the same indeterminacies occur in evaluating experience. That apart, when utilitarianism is applied to public policy, present wants rather than experienced satisfaction is the criterion; agents necessarily choose based on present wants whether on the market or the political process.
2. Full-blown utilitarianism stands convicted of moral realism
Full-blown utilitarians are necessarily moral realists, but increasingly they are seen to deny it. While moral realism is widely recognized as absurd, utilitarianism seems to some an attractive ethical philosophy. For the sake of intellectual respectability, utilitarians can appear to reject an anachronistic moral realism while practicing it philosophically.
Full-blown utilitarianism often obscures its differences with thin utilitarianism, which is a questionable doctrine but in accord with ordinary common sense. It emerges from thin utilitarianism by the misdirection of subjecting ethical premises to the test of simplicity, a test appropriate to realist theories exclusively, because simplicity serves truth. A classic illustration: Aristotle theorized that everything on earth that goes up goes down; Newton set out the gravity theory, which applies to all objects, not just those terrestrial, and which predicts that objects can escape the earth’s gravitational field by traveling fast. Scientists confidently bet on Newton well before rockets were invented, and their confidence was vastly increased by the simplicity of Newton’s theory, which made correct predictions concerning all objects. Although philosophers have explained variously the correlation between simplicity and truth, they generally agree that simplicity signals truth. Unless utilitarians can otherwise justify it, searching for a simple moral theory means searching for a true theory.
The full-blown utilitarian seeks a misplaced simplicity by insisting that all entities that can experience happiness, a much simpler criterion than “current citizens,” serve as the beneficiary reference group—including future generations of humans and even beasts, whose existence depends on policy; whereas, thin utilitarianism is a democratic convention, serving only the wants of the currently existing citizens . Because they must incorporate future generations into the reference group, utilitarian philosophers have had to accept that a policy-dependent reference group entails a dilemma regarding interpretation of full-blown utilitarianism, with unattractive consequences at both horns, which realize radically different ideals. In one version, you maximize the average utility obtained by the whole population; in the other you sum the utilities. These interpretations seem almost equally unattractive: the averaging view says that one supremely happy human is better than a billion very happy ones; the adding approach implies that a hundred trillion miserable wretches is better than a billion happy people. To apply a utilitarian standard to scenarios so distant from thin utilitarianism, accepting their consequences because of simplicity’s demands, is to treat moral premises as truths and to practice moral realism, despite contrary self-description. Those agreeing that moral realism is impossible must reject full-blown utilitarianism.