Ethics, Philosophy

Utilitarianism: An Overview

What is a utilitarian?

To answer that question, you have to think about another, namely: “what makes an action right?”

Is it the outcome? The intent? What is a good intent or a good outcome?

Kantian deontologists have pithy slogans like: ” I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” or “an action is morally right if done for duty and in accordance to duty.

Virtue ethicists have a rich philosophical tradition that dates back (in Western philosophy) to Plato and Aristotle.

And utilitarians have math.

Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that only the effects of an action matter. This belief lends itself equally well to selfish and universal ethical systems.

When choosing between two actions, selfish consequentialist (philosophers and ethicists would call such a person an egoist) would say that the morally superior action is the one that brings them the most happiness.

Utilitarians would say that the morally superior option is the one that brings the most ______ to the world/universe/multiverse, where ______ is whatever measure of goodness they’ve chosen. The fact that the world/universe/multiverse is the object of optimization is where the math comes in. It’s often pretty hard to add up any measure of goodness over a set as large as a world/universe/multiverse.

It’s also hard to define goodness in abstract without lapsing into tautology (“how does it represent goodness?” – “well it’s obvious, it’s the best thing!”). Instead of looking at in abstract, it’s helpful to look at utilitarian systems in action.

What quality people choose as their ethical barometer/best measure of the goodness of the world tells you a lot about what they value. Here’s four common ones. As you read them, consider both what implicit values they encode and which ones call out to you.

QALY Utilitarianism

QALY Utilitarianism is most commonly seen in discussions around medical ethics, where QALYs are frequently used to determine the optimal allocation of resources. One QALY represents one year of reasonably healthy and happy life. Any conditions which reduce someone’s enjoyment of life results in those years so blighted being weighed as less than one full QALY.

For example, a year living with asthma is worth 0.9 QALYs. A year with severe seizures is worth 0.7 QALYs.

Let’s say we have a treatment for asthma that cost $1000 and another for epilepsy that costs $1000. If we only have $1000, we should treat the epilepsy (this leads to an increase of 0.3 QALYs, more than the 0.1 QALYs we’d get for treating asthma).

If we have more money, we should treat epilepsy until we run out of epileptic patients, then use the remaining money for asthma.

Things become more complicated if the treatments cost different amounts of money. If it is only $100 to treat asthma, then we should instead prioritize treating asthma, because $1000 of treatment buys us 1 QALY, instead of only 0.3.

Note that QALY utilitarianism (and utilitarianism in general) doesn’t tell us what is right per se. It only gives us a relative ranking of actions. One of those actions may produce the most utility. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only right thing to do is constantly pursue the actions that produce the very most utility.

QALY utilitarianism remains most useful in medical science, where researchers have spent a lot of time figuring out the QALY values for many potential conditions. Used with a set of accurate QALY tables, it becomes a powerful way to ensure cost effectiveness in healthcare. QALY utilitarianism is less useful when we lack these tables and therefore remains sparsely used for non-healthcare related decisions.

Hedonistic Utilitarianism

Hedonistic utilitarianism is much more general than QALY utilitarianism, in part because its value function is relatively easy to calculate.

It is almost a tautology to claim that people wish to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. If we see someone happy about an activity we think of us painful, it’s much more likely that we’re incorrectly assessing how pleasurable/painful they find it than it is that they also find the activity painful.

Given how common pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding is, it’s unsurprising that pleasure has been associated with The [moral] Good and pain with The [moral] Bad at least since the time of Plato and Socrates.

It’s also unsurprising that pleasure and pain can form the basis of utilitarian value functions. This is Hedonistic Utilitarianism and it judges actions based on the amount of net pleasure they cause across all people.

Weighing net pleasure across all people gives us some wiggle room. Repeatedly taking heroin is apparently really, really pleasurable. But it may lead to less pleasure overall if you quickly die from a heroin overdose, leaving behind a bereaved family and preventing all the other pleasure you could have had in your life.

So the hedonistic utilitarianism value function probably doesn’t assign the highest rating to getting everyone in the world blissed out on the most powerful drugs available.

But even ignoring constant drug use, or other descents into purely hedonistic pleasures, hedonistic utilitarianism often frustrates people who hold a higher value on actions that may produce less direct pleasure, but lead to them feeling more satisfied and contented overall. These people are left with two options: they can argue for ever more complicated definitions of pleasure and pain, taking into account the hedonic treadmill and hedonistic paradox, or they can pick another value function.

Preference Utilitarianism

Preference utilitarianism is simple on the surface. Its value function is supposed to track how closely people’s preferences are fulfilled. But there are three big problems with this simple framing.

First, which preferences? I may have the avowed preference to study for a test tomorrow, but once I sit down to study my preference may be revealed to be procrastinating all night. Which preference is more important? Some preference utilitarians say that the true preference is the action you’d pick in hindsight if you were perfectly rational. Others drop the “truly rational” part, but still talk about preferences in terms of what you’d most want in hindsight. Another camp gives credence to the highest level preference over all the others. If I prefer in the moment to procrastinate but would prefer to prefer to want to study, then the meta-preference is the one that counts. And yet another group of people give the most weighting to revealed preferences ­– what you’d actually do in the situation.

It’s basically a personal judgement call as to which of these groups you fall into, a decision which your own interactions with your preferences will heavily shape.

The second problem is even thornier. What do we do when preferences collide? Say my friend and I go out to a restaurant. She may prefer that we each pay for our own meals. I may prefer that she pays for both of our meals. There is no way to satisfy both of our preferences at the same time. Is the most moral outcome assuaging whomever holds their preferences the most strongly? Won’t that just incentivize everyone to hold their preferences as strongly as humanly possible and never cooperate? If enough people hold a preference that a person or a group of people should die, does it provide more utility to kill them than to let them continue living?

One more problem: what do we do with beings that cannot hold preferences? Animals, small children, foetuses, and people in vegetative states are commonly cited as holding no preferences. Does this mean that others may do whatever they want with them? Does it always produce more utility for me to kill any animal I desire to kill, given it has no preferences to balance mine?

All of these questions remain inconclusively answered, leaving each preference utilitarian to decide for herself where she stands on them.

Rule Utilitarianism

The three previous forms of utilitarianism are broadly grouped together (along with many others) under act utilitarianism. But there is another way and a whole other class of value functions. Meet rule utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarians do not compare actions and outcomes directly when calculating utility. Instead they come up with a general set of rules which they believe promotes the most utility generally and judge actions according to how well they satisfy these rules.

Rule utilitarianism is similar to Kantian deontology, but it still has a distinctly consequentialist flavour. It is true that both of these systems result (if followed perfectly) in someone rigidly following a set of rules without making any exceptions. The difference, however, is in the attitude of the individual. Whereas Kant would call an action good only if done for the right reasons, rule utilitarians call actions that follow their rules good regardless of the motivation.

The rules that arise can also look different from Kantian deontology, depending on the beliefs of the person coming up with the rules. If she’s a neo-reactionary who believes that only autocratic states can lead to the common good, she’ll come up with a very different set of rules than Immanuel Kant did.

First Order Utilitarianism?

All of the systems described here are what I’ve taken to calling first order utilitarianism. They only explicitly consider the direct effects of actions, not any follow-on effects that may happen years down the road. Second-order utilitarianism is a topic for another day.

Other Value Functions?

This is just a survey of some of the possible value functions a utilitarian can have. If you’re interested in utilitarianism in principle but feel like all of these value functions are lacking, I encourage you to see what other ones exist out there.

I’m going to be following this post up with a post on precedent utilitarianism, which solved this problem for me.

Epistemic Status: Ethics

Falsifiable, Politics

Kellie Leitch and Liberal Democracy

Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did. 

Kellie Leitch recently put out a survey that asked potential Conservative voters “should the Canadian Government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening process for refugees and landed immigrants.” This has proved controversial, to say the least. It’s been described as a dog-whistle and has prompted other candidates to ask her to leave the race.

Dr. Leitch later clarified that she meant immigrants should be screened for: “intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms”.

I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. First, I’ve heard Canadian progressives wish that they could screen their conservative brethren for those biases and throw out the ones who fail. Certainly there must be some overlap between people angry about Kellie Leitch’s statement and those who would cheer this sort of thing on if the target were Canadian Christians and not recent immigrants. I view this sort of moral relativism as fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy and want no part in it.

But Kellie Leitch was a member of Mr. Harper’s government and one of his cabinet ministers. Even if she marched in the Pride Parade this year, it’s reasonable to assume she’s let a lot of anti-gay and anti-women bigotry pass (especially because she’s recently met with the Wildrose Party). Even if her voting record on private member’s bills was rather different than many of her colleagues (see her support for Bill 279), she was still a member of the Harper cabinet and is therefore complicit in its lack of support for queer and female Canadians.

Whether hypocrisy lies with Kellie Leitch, her opponents (or both) is an important question. In a liberal democracy, we should only legislate around classes of things. We should not say: “it is hate speech when a Christian attacks gay marriage, but okay if an atheist does it”, we should instead say either “it is permissible to disagree with gay marriage as long as you don’t call for violence against specific gay people” or “it isn’t permissible to disagree with gay marriage”. In either case, the prohibition targets Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists equally.

Liberal democracy can result in different groups of people being treated differently. The general principle “the government should compensate groups for past wrongs” results in very different outcomes for Japanese-Canadians who are descended from those who were interred during World War 2 and recent arrivals from Britain (namely, the recently arrivals from Britain get nothing and the descendants of interred Japanese-Canadians get a cash transfer). But the general principle doesn’t discriminate; circumstances do.

In this case, it’s hard to evaluate who is sticking to general principles and who is engaging in special pleading. Is Kellie Leitch acting from the general principle “Canada should only be for those who agree with Canadian values” or is she using coded language to say “we should keep Muslims out of Canada”? And are her detractors acting on the principle “Canada should be welcoming to newcomers” or the principle “we don’t like Conservatives and will take any excuse to attack them”? As Dr. Leitch’s detractors are a large, amorphous group with no spokesperson, both of those are probably true to varying degrees among the individual members. Dr. Leitch is unfortunately more opaque. Is she a political opportunist, or is she seeking power to quietly change the Conservatives from within?

So it’s unclear if Kellie Leitch’s implied proposal (that we begin screening potential immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values) can be defended as principled or not. Perhaps we can turn to a simpler test: is it needful? Wherever legislation codifies a limit on freedoms, it should be done only when there is a genuine need for it. This general democratic ideal is written into the very first section of the constitution of Canada, which stipulates freedoms should be impaired only in ways that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Jurisprudence likes the Oakes test builds up a framework for laws that limit freedom that require them to be connected to a pressing objective, proportional to the urgency of the objective, and rationally capable of bringing about the objective.

Before returning to musings on liberal democracy, we should evaluate enhanced screening through the lens of urgency and capability. We must ask: is Canada’s immigration system broken? Is the current immigration system eroding Kellie Leitch’s enumerated Canadian values and leading to a worse Canada?

I can find no fault in Kellie Leitch’s list of values and am going to assume that this post isn’t aimed at anyone who fundamentally disagrees with them. Given these values as a goal for Canada, accepting that any erosion of these values would be an urgent problem, and given that there are many countries around the world where the majority of people don’t support these rights/values, it should not be prima facie unreasonable to be worried that immigration from certain countries could threaten these values, or that legislation could be deployed to screen immigrants such that these values are no longer threatened.

A world in which immigration does threaten these values would have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. There is an ongoing crisis of integration in Canadian society, with a significant proportion of newcomers failing to pick up “Canadian Values” if they did not already possess them.
  2. There are groups immigrating to Canada with the express purpose of shifting Canadian society closer to their (repressive) ideal.
  3. Immigrants to Canada aren’t screened or are screened inadequately for their ability to fit into Canadian culture.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1 – Crisis of Integration

I feel like one of the purposes of any blog I run is to slightly repackage the ideas of Joseph Heath for those who don’t follow Canadian politics blogging. Case in point is his post about the recent protests around the Ontario Sex-Ed Curriculum. In it, he argues that:

[Conservatives] don’t realize how hard it is to transmit a culture that deviates in any significant way from the mainstream. It’s not enough to have a home environment that is radically different. You need to create extensive social isolation, so that children and their peer groups are insulated from every aspect of mainstream society, including schools and the media. This is why religious sects often move to distant rural areas, and limit access to radio, television, internet, etc. This is also why progressives worry about “social exclusion” and racism – because these are some of the few forces powerful enough to create the level of isolation required to impair successful integration. Absent these forces, Canadian suburbs are like giant machines for churning out generic Canadians, and there’s very little a family can do about that.

Surveys show the Canada is consistently one of the best countries in the world at integrating immigrants. While there was a recent slip in Canada’s rankings, this is directly attributable to the policies of the Conservative party – the sorts of policies that can create the social and economic isolation that has caused such integration problems in Europe. With these policies set to be reversed under the Liberal government, there is currently little danger of a serious and protracted integration crisis.

I’d also like to highlight what Joseph Heath obliquely points out: the Canadian method of integration is sneaky. We don’t demand overt displays of patriotism (like Americans). Instead, we count on an excellent public school system to expose children to a diverse peer group and let that do the job of integration for us.

2 – Creeping Threat

This is the stuff of conspiracy theories, not statistics (alas that no one includes stealthy conquest on the list of travel purposes). To deal with this point, I propose a thought experiment. Given that people (in general) don’t to pointless things, what seems more likely: people moving to Canada, in the hopes of moving a famously tolerant society towards whatever form of oppression they prefer, or them moving instead to a country already much more closely aligned with their desired outcome?

It beggars belief to think that with so many countries out there where this sort of thing would be vastly easier that anyone would pick Canada. For Buddhist hardliners, there is Burma, for Islamists, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the remnants of Daesh. For conservative Christians, the American Deep South.

But I can offer one further reassurance. Let’s presume that a variety of groups are all trying to do this. Since none of them agree on what exactly the ideal society is, they don’t talk or coordinate. For some inexplicable reason, hardline Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians all pick Canada to make their heaven on earth. And then promptly all run into each other and their intractable disagreements.

This sort of creeping threat only works if it comes from one viewpoint only. If everyone is trying it, they’re either going to fight each other to extinction, or realize what Europe did in the 1700s and 1800s: when you have intractable disagreements about religion and morals, your options are liberal democracy or death. See Joseph Heath, again.

All of this of course also ignores the fact that Canada takes in less than 1% of its population in immigrants every year and that most of those immigrants assimilate in one generation, leaving a supermajority of Canadians primed to oppose any imposition of alien values.

3 – Existing Screening

It’s pretty hard to immigrate to Canada, despite what Americans on the wrong side of presidential elections tend to believe. To be able to immigrate to Canada, you’ll probably need a college education, proficiency in English or French, and unless your education and past work experience are impressive, either family already in Canada, or a job lined up.

All of these things indirectly select for people who are good fits for Canada. The language requirement selects for people who’ve already absorbed one of our languages and as a consequence, been exposed to media that encodes for our values (or similar values). The education requirement selects for people who are willing to learn. Having a job in Canada means you’ve already convinced some Canadians you’re a good cultural fit and having relatives means that you’ll have others to help you integrate (and know what you’re getting into).

And related to the above; people aren’t stupid. I have trouble believing any significant amount of people who believe women shouldn’t be educated will move to a country where their daughters will be taken away from them and given to foster parents if they aren’t sent to school. I have trouble believing that people absolutely, viscerally sickened by gay people will move to a country with some of the largest gay pride parades in the world; where like it or not, their children will be taught that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

These two forces combined mean that it’s relatively rare for someone deeply at odds with Canada’s culture to move here.

Given that these three points did not hold up to close scrutiny, there appears to be no urgent threat to “Canadian values”. I would therefore consider additional screening to be unnecessary legislation for the sake of legislation. Given that the rhetoric around such screening could be harmful – leading many new arrivals to feel like they are inherently suspect or less worthy of being Canadian – I would not support any candidate who proposed it.

I remain genuinely unsure what Kellie Leitch’s goal is. I went into this blog convinced she was another hypocrite who was only using queer Canadians when it suited her racists agenda. And yet, she voted yea to Bill 279 (to treat gender identity as a protected class) despite almost every single one of her cabinet colleagues opposing it. She does appear to have a principled and reasonably long standing support for queer rights. She voted the party line on whipped bills (as does basically every MP in Canada), but when she’s allowed to vote her conscience, we see that it is rather different than many of the other Conservatives. She may be a political opportunist who can sense which way the wind blows. Or she may be trying to change the conservatives from within.

If I was sent the survey, I would have answered no to her question. But I can’t believe that her question was beyond the pale. It represents a reasonable position and could be implemented in a principled way. That the evidence doesn’t currently support it as necessary means merely that it shouldn’t be implemented, not that no one should say it. Liberal democracy works best when we’re reminded that there are people working from different sets of axioms. This reminder keeps us on our toes and reinvigorates our support for universal rights that aren’t tied to membership in any one group or ideology.

These disagreements remind us that we cannot impose our will or morality by fiat on anyone else, but also that they are bound by the same prohibitions. This is a set of rules that I’m happy to play by. I hope that Dr. Leitch is too.

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable