Utilitarianism

The philosophical counterpart to the economic realist’s “welfarism” is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism asserts that the right thing to do is to maximally promote well-being. This is a mainstream view in ethics. Hence, to the extent that economic realists rely on it, they are not repudiating ethics or philosophy, but rather embracing a specific position within them. (Sometimes this point is obscured by the fact that utilitarianism—the ethical doctrine—is a popular view within economics and law.)

One fundamental challenge to “welfarism” is that utilitarianism is a controversial position in ethics. There are many ways in which one might resist it, and some include positions that are quite close to utilitarianism, easily mistaken for it, and may capture much of its appeal.

The traditional utilitarian doctrine has three basic components. One is a view about value: well-being is the only thing worth pursuing for its own sake, or good in itself. (This is the view usually labeled “welfarism” by philosophers.) The second component (“consequentialism”) is a view about how values should be treated: they should be maximized. The third component (“impartiality”) is the claim that everyone’s well-being matters in the same way: no one’s well-being matters more than anyone else’s just because it belongs to that person (e.g., the Queen’s well-being is not more important just because she is a queen). The Chicago lawyers appear to accept all three claims.

Given these components, there are various ways to reject utilitarianism. First, one might accept that welfare is an important value without conceding that it is the only fundamental value (and so deny philosophical welfarism). Most rival ethical philosophies agree that well-being is worth pursuing for its own sake, but also claim that other things have this status too (e.g., freedom, rights, justice). Utilitarians do not have a monopoly on interest in well-being.

Second, one could agree that welfare is the only value, but deny that it should be maximized (and so deny con- sequentialism). Most notably, some claim that we should seek a sufficient or equal level of well-being for everyone, or give priority to those who are worst off, rather than maximize total well-being regardless of its distribution. For example, if maximizing merely increases the well-being of those already very well off (e.g., billionaires), leaving many others very badly off (e.g., the homeless), securing equal or adequate well-being for all often seems better.

A second fundamental challenge to Chicago “welfarism” is that there are a number of ways to be a utilitarian. Economic realists typically do so through (a) direct calculation of costs and benefits, and (b) within the standard economic framework of cost-benefit analysis (CBA). However, both are controversial, even among utilitarians.

Consider first direct calculation. There are many versions of utilitarianism. Direct calculation is most closely related to “act-utilitarianism,” the doctrine that one should aim to maximize the net benefits of each of one’s actions. In the recent history of moral philosophy, act-utilitarianism has been subject to several major objections. One is the complaint that utilitarianism neglects the individual. In focusing on total happiness, it is said, utilitarianism puts no weight on how happiness is distributed. Consequently, direct utilitarian calculation may lead to violations of what we usually think of as individual rights, and also to highly unequal distributions. For example, perhaps there are a lot of racists and they so love a good lynching that there are more overall benefits to be gained from allowing than prohibiting it; or perhaps the rich are so obsessed with their comforts and the poor so resigned to their lot that happiness is maximized by helping the rich get richer and giving nothing to the poor.

Utilitarians have a number of responses to such objections. Some simply deny that rights or equality are important values. However, many argue that a general strategy of promoting equality and respecting rights increases welfare overall, and so should be supported on utilitarian grounds. Specifically, many (on my understanding, most) philosophical utilitarians advocate pursuing the end of maximizing social welfare through intermediaries such as justice, individual rights, and democratic decision making, rather than through direct calculation. Some even reject act- utilitarianism in any form, in favor of indirect utilitarianisms, such as rule-utilitarianism: the doctrine that the right thing to do is to act in accordance with the set of social rules which would maximize happiness. Consequently, Chicago welfarism is controversial, indeed probably a minority position, even among utilitarians.39

 
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