Economists are wedded to utilitarianism as their collective moral compass. This is why we speak of social planners, welfare, utility maximization, and quality of life. The essence of utilitarianism is that moral judgments are reserved for final outcomes, not the means via which those outcomes are achieved (unless people have preferences over those means). As Bentham said, it is about the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. In modern jargon, classic utilitarianism is about getting the highest number of total happy life years.
The quiz has 4 questions. My ‘classical utilitarian’ answers and discussions on Friday:
- To which identifiable group should society allocate its scarce supply of life-saving donor organs? I am thinking here of gender, age, race, area, anything that is a potential basis for an administrative allocation.
- There is a potential terrorist of whom there is a probability that he will cause a million deaths and he can only be stopped by being killed. How high should the probability of the threat materializing be for you to agree that your society should have institutions (such as drone programs) that kill him off pre-emptively? And how high should the probability be for you yourself to be willing to kill him off pre-emptively, presuming no other consequences for yourself of that act?
- Suppose you are in the position whereby you alone can choose to make it statistically visible what socially-unwanted things are done to pets by people in their own homes, but no-one knows you have that ability. In this hypothetical, making the data available would in no way change outcomes. Would you make that information visible?
- Suppose you are in the position to decide on whether to have an institution that saves the lives of an identified group of patients, say with a particular genetic or childhood disease. With the same money you could set up an institution that prevents 10% more deaths in the general population, for instance by innoculation or investments in road quality that reduce accident rates. Hence the second institution saves more lives, but the lives saved are not visible, either beforehand or afterwards: even afterwards, you do now know who was saved so the lives saved are ‘statistical’. Would you invest in the first or the second institution? More generally, what is the ratio of ‘statistical lives saved’ to ‘identified lives saved’ you implicitly choose via your policies?