Pragmatic utilitarianism?

I have been a utilitarian for about 30 years now and am seen in my academic work as an extreme version of the genre. I did my Phd on the topic. I do not merely say that governments should make policy for the benefit of the wellbeing of the population, but have spent years in the weeds of government bureaucracies to help them figure out how to do it. I just published the first real Handbook on that subject, almost 500 pages long, which is already heavily used as a reference work by the UK bureaucracy. I set up and still co-organise the World Wellbeing Panel, dedicated to finding out what the wellbeing experts around the world think is the policy and behaviour that optimises wellbeing. After that effort, I feel I co-own the term utilitarianism and am allowed to say some unusual things about it.

Mainly, I think most philosophical discussions of utilitarianism – for or against – are irrelevant to decision making in this world. My own take on what utilitarianism is about and why one should be one differs from most takes I read on the subject. Let’s go over the three crucial issues.


Idea 1: a utilitarian in his/her own life pursues the wellbeing of humanity.

You hear a lot that a utilitarian should be the ultimate do-gooder in his or her private life. The effective altruist bunch are like this.

Well, I certainly am no angel of that type. Utilitarianism is the decision criterion I advocate as a decision-making principle for society, which is not the same as my personal decision criterion. So I want society to adopt the rule to save the whole population of Boston over any random person in the world. But if that random person is my wife and I would have to personally choose, then it is just bad luck for Boston.

Also, like anybody else, I do not make decisions solely on the basis of a calm considered calculus. If an adult hits my child in my presence, my first reaction is to hit back hard and wonder later about the calculus of utility that might or might not rationalise it. Afterwards, I would feel nothing but pride that I defended my child in the moment itself, not even needing the pretence that it was somehow utilitarian as well. That is healthy normal behaviour and an outcome of quicker systems of decision making than considered action.

Indeed, no one is as rational, as consistent, or as observant as a ‘utilitarian in private life’ would have to be if you took the principle as an actual command. It simply can’t be done. The strain of observing and analysing the world as it is, a necessary ingredient for deciding what is optimal, would already be far too much for anyone to achieve. We humans are not capable of observing reality or ourselves as we truly are, no matter how much we try. We are not the type of animal that could be a totally truthful decider.

Importantly, I have the same reaction to all other systems of ethics I read about, like liberalism, Christian ethics, situational ethics, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They are just as impossible to actually be in both a procedural sense and a human sense. Most of them for instance include the idea that one should start with seeing the world as it is, which I regard as a complete impossibility for anyone to achieve more than to a very faint degree. So, for instance, anyone swearing to speak ‘the whole truth’ is simply engaging in a lie. In any actual human society you’d be an outcast if you didn’t brazenly lie a fair percentage of the time. Also, like utilitarianism, the other ‘systems of ethics’ require a super-human psychology.

So what does it then mean to be an avowed utilitarian? Principally, it means one professes utilitarianism as the preferred system of ethics for society, and that one uses whatever political power one has towards that idea. One advocates it, votes accordingly, and in representative roles tries to decide accordingly.

So I premarily regard any avowed system of ethics as a public stance, a kind of political clothing. I see all such ‘philosophies’ as attributes of societies in which people are supposed to have public stances, hence societies in which some kind of public clothing is deemed important. I don’t think hunter gatherer society, in which humans lived for most of evolution, was like that at all: then humans lived with their friends and family their whole life, so there was no-one to have a public versus private stance towards. To have an ethical stance at all is playing along with a game societies demand some of us play. As a result, I look in bemusement at people who stolidly claim their system of ethics has something timeless about it, as if I am watching an actor who doesn’t realise she is in a play. I find the question why some people latch on to a particular ethical story much deeper than the story itself.


Idea 2: a utilitarian government calculates all effects of all possible actions for a population from now till ever, choosing the one with the highest sum of ‘utils’.

This one is particularly important because it goes to the heart of my own academic work and the way in which utilitarianism is depicted in many textbooks. The picture painted is that of a super-calculator working out all effects of all possible actions over time, choosing the action that has the highest sum of outcomes. Economic journals are full of such fantasies.

No-one has actually ever done this, could ever do this, or should be trusted with the power to do this. Hence the central problem with the claim is that it involves a god of sorts, namely someone or some single unit with the actual ability to make these impossibly complex calculations and then the power to decide on such a basis. That whole depiction falls apart on many counts.

For one, the depiction, if taken to its logical consequences, requires the possibility of making all relevant decisions about the far future at one supreme moment in time at which in essence all future decisions of everyone else get set in stone. The problem is not so much that there are uncertainties, but much more importantly that the future has no say in anything: all those yet to be born or everyone yet to change their minds has their futures set in stone by this mythical utilitarian optimiser that sets everything involving the future on an optimal setting. That is undemocratic, impossible, megalomaniac, and all the rest of it. There is a hidden vision of an omnipotent god in that depiction.

Second is the fantastic amount of knowledge needed, invariably depicted as a kind of rational centre on top of a more automatic measuring and obeying population. There is the assumption of unlimited intelligence, zero costs of information, and absolute unquestioning loyalty in that description. Even as a stylised description that one finds in economic textbooks, it is the stylised vision of extreme fascism, with the hyper-intelligent expert on top. It is a horrifying image when one reflects on it, dismissive about the agency and limitations of humanity.

I have a similar problem with nearly all other systems of ethics that yield some decision about the far future of humanity based on zero costs of information and computation, combined with implicit total obedience: it is pure hubris and a power fantasy to engage in that type of view of ethics. It is neither possible not ethical at all to give oneself, or anyone else, that actual power in reality. Surely one can do better, as fantasies go.

I know that some people then try to rescue the argument by saying one should see the depiction as an ‘in principle goal’ or a ‘unanimous agreement by humanity if they could all live at this moment and think just like me’ point of view, but that is really just a higher level power fantasy. Consider the elements of this kind of ‘the whole of humanity choosing from the veil of ignorance’ fantasy.

In what imagined world does it makes sense to speak of the whole of humanity from now till the infinite future as being present to agree to some set of principles or future actions? It slips in very weird notions of humanity. As if humanity remains the same species over time. As if real cultural disagreements can be overcome by the right argument. As if people in their actual lives could be represented by themselves at some particular moment, locking all other selves into obedience. As if people have or could be a kind of all-understanding presence capable of grand decisions about their whole lives. Etc.

So from start to finish, the whole notion of timeless ethics and decisions made for the whole of humanity over time is preposterous, requiring some god-like entity somewhere in the depiction. In that sense, Thomas of Aquinas was quite right: any notion of choosing the ‘Good’ begets a god-like entity somewhere in the argument.

I knew all this 30 years ago but I am still a utilitarian, so what does that then mean? What decision scenario do I have in mind for utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism as a public stance to me means that the wellbeing of the population should be the joint goal of those with some power over what a group does to try to make decisions on the basis of how decisions will work out for the sum of utils of that whole group. That means utilitarianism is what I advocate as the joint responsibility of those with some group power, a joint quest. So when asked what is good for society, I myself respond in keeping to that quest with the answer that I personally believe would lead to the highest utils.

I accept that it is impossible for anyone to know what the ‘optimal’ decision truly is, but take the essence of pragmatic utilitarianism to run with what one thinks is the optimal decision anyway. One runs with what one thinks is best until one discovers something even better after which one should run with that. In that sense I am a practising utilitarian, willing to be counted. It forces one in many cases to have no opinion on what is optimal, and to look around widely before having an opinion on important matters, precisely because to be pragmatic requires one to run with what one has come up with.

Note that the means of ‘trying’ can be varied and do not actually need a computation except in rare circumstances. After all, families can pursue the wellbeing of a family without anyone measuring those utils openly. They use theories, implicit measures, introspection, conversations, and other methods to tell them what is good for the family as a whole.

So trying also allows for the possibility that in many cases people have no idea what would be good for the utils of some group and that they apply various heuristics for which they have no better justification at that moment than ‘well, this seems to have worked out in the past’. It thus allows for a whole environment in which lots of people make decisions on the basis of lots of rules, habits, and guesses which lack a utilitarian calculus. A utilitarian tries in important cases to make some reasoned guess as to whether or not the laws and customs in place are moving in roughly the right direction from a utility point of view, nudging the system towards better customs and laws if that then is required. Numbers and formulas can certainly help, but not always. Indeed, not all that often.

Crucially, it is not utilitarian at all to presume that to try and openly measure and calculate everything is necessarily the best in all decision circumstances. That is a control fantasy that falls apart as soon as one realises there are costs to gathering information and analysing anything. Indeed, it is downright uneconomic to envisage a utilitarianism without costs of information and calculation. It slips in a good with a zero price.

Pragmatic utilitarianism is thus about trying to move the dial of decision making somewhat towards the notion that the overall goal is the utils of society and that ‘we’ have choices to make that either help or hinder that goal. How to help and what the best strategy is, is then not up to some central god-like character, but the joint quest of many, requiring lots of rules of thumb that hopefully become better.

This stance also brings very different requirements for what a utilitarian should be spending time on. They should, in my opinion, spend far less time wondering about the perfect measure for a util and far more about the decision system that is there and that needs improving. In effect, I accuse most utilitarians of not caring at all about the utils of the population because they want to sit on cloud cookoo and waste their time dreaming of perfect systems in which effort and measurement is costless, with all power bundled in their hands. That is not utilitarianism but a form of narcissism.

Over time, pragmatic utilitarians thus need to learn such things as to whether in fact the system is better off without any open calculations at all, or whether it is better off with lots of local deciders determining their own use for numbers. Hence I can easily imagine a society of with lots of utilitarian policy Mandarins but with no calculations or powerful centres at all.

Why did I then spend years of my life trying to figure out how to do calculations and adjust government decision making systems? Because my judgment at the time was that in the society I found myself in, that was a sensible way forward, ie that enough big mistakes were made right now that would be avoided with more knowledge of reasonable measures somewhere in the system. The point of counting and calculus is that it reveals things one truly wouldn’t know or be convinced of unless one did some measuring and counting. It can thus itself be useful. I did not advocate things any classic utilitarian would recognise as 100% what utopian utilitarian had in mind, but I hope many will see why I think my suggestions are improvements upon the current system towards the joint goal.

This then brings us to the third idea.


Idea 3: a utilitarian deeply believes in the foundational assumptions, such as a deep convictions on the equal innate value of all humans.

There are many variations of this idea, but they all boil down to the notion that people are utilitarians because they ‘in their soul’ believe strongly in something. They have axioms or convictions.

I have always found such arguments extremely weird, bizarre even. As if any of us believe anything deeply in our souls. Laughable. Asking me to fully sign up to axioms is like asking me to join the ‘pantomime of deep convictions’.

Myself, I am more or less a utilitarian by accident.

I first became a utilitarian 30 years ago, when confronted with the different ethical systems around me, largely out of mental laziness. It sort of seemed right to me and I liked the fact that utilitarianism allowed me to have lots of strong opinions on lots of topics without needing to put in much effort to rationalise them. Utilitarianism was intellectually very easy for me and I felt I was supposed to have a system of ethics. I can pretend I had utilitarian convictions at that time, but my truly deep convictions at that age (around 20) were confined to sex.

Over the years, it mainly kept feeling right to me. The story that people were equal fit my culture that celebrated democratic values, and I liked the mythology of rational choice. It was the system that fit my education and how decision making in my society was depicted to me. As a result it seemed to be the long-run winning view to me, even more so because so many people were always bitching about it. I reasoned that the philosophy everyone loves to hate must be the one that everyone actually believes will win in the long run. I definitely wanted to be with the long-run winning team.

I think I also liked the god-view implicit in how utilitarianism was described to me at that time, ie the idea that I could decide everything for the whole of humanity. For their own benefit, of course. And yes, you might say that that is not a noble motivation, but, well, guilty as charged: young men will dream of power, one way or the other!

Over time, I started to see it more and more as a means of relating to people, just like any clothes make one part of a club. As a recognised ‘philosophy’ my efforts towards making utilitarianism a reality made it possible to relate to many others with similar quests. It also in my own mind allowed me to feel I was being the ‘good shepherd’ that my family wanted me to be. It furthermore allowed me to feel connected to thinkers and populations long dead or yet to come. It is a pleasant feeling to have that sense of recognition with others in time and place on the basis of what one works towards, even if the words used are different. I thus still wear the utilitarian clothes gladly and rejoice in meeting others wearing the same gowns.

Indeed, many of the people I regard as ‘the most utilitarian’ don’t think of themselves like that at all, including pastors and parents just looking after their local flock. I for instance see many sex-workers who get pleasure out of pleasing and connecting with their clients as a kind of ultimate applied utilitarians, bringing more total utils to the population than most supposedly dedicated effective altruists I know.

So, my sales pitch to all you non-decided seekers of some ethical clothing out there: become a pragmatic utilitarian. It’s good fun, easy, winning, and gets you around.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Dance, Death and taxes, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Ethics, Geeky Musings, History, Humour, Life, Parenting, Personal, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Social, Social Policy, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Pragmatic utilitarianism?

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Utilitarianism is for public decision making at least most of the time, but within the guardrails of not offending other systems of public ethics too egregiously.

    And I’m with you on the idiocy of extreme EA stuff — you know when we work out how many humangoes will manage to live in the next few billion years and then conclude that it’s just so, so, so, so important to avoid extinction that we should all jolly well make sure things work out.

    • Ni Nick,


      We might disagree on the guardrail thing, but in a subtle way. I do take utilitarianism as the ‘master ethics’ in that public-stance sense. Hence one of the key lines in the post above: “I accept that it is impossible for anyone to know what the ‘optimal’ decision truly is, but take the essence of pragmatic utilitarianism to run with what one thinks is the optimal decision anyway.” That is not a small statement and I should perhaps have made it more prominent because it is not humble. It includes decisions on life and death. It includes things like laws, social norms, decision habits, etc. They all raise the question whether it is reasonable that different laws, social norms, decision habits, etc. would be better for overall wellbeing.

      I think you have something more ‘humble’ in mind, no? Something more trusting of the systems and opinions already out there?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I was looking for this quote when I wrote what I wrote yesterday. From EAer Nick Bostrom:

      It might not be immediately obvious to some readers why the ability to perform 10^85 computational operations is a big deal. So it’s useful to put it in context. [I]t may take about 10^31-10^44 operations to simulate all neuronal operations that have occurred in the history of life on Earth. Alternatively, let us suppose that the computers are used to run human whole brain emulations that live rich and happy lives while interacting with one another in virtual environments. A typical estimate of the computational requirements for running one emulation is 10^18 operations per second. To run an emulation for 100 subjective years would then require some 10^27 operations. This would be mean that at least 10^58 human lives could be created in emulation even with quite conservative assumptions about the efficiency of computronium. In other words, assuming that the observable universe is void of extraterrestrial civilizations, then what hangs in the balance is at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 human lives. If we represent all the happiness experienced during one entire such life with a single teardrop of joy, then the happiness of these souls could fill and refill the Earth’s oceans every second, and keep doing so for a hundred billion billion millennia. It is really important that we make sure these truly are tears of joy.

      • paul frijters says:

        yes, that is an issue I maybe should have talked about in the post: is it really about some notion of pleasure experienced in brains? If one answers ‘yes’ to that, then indeed one gets into fantasy lands of the form “well, let’s then created artificial humans in computers that are deliriously happy all the time”.

        As you say, that is not how ethics is, nor my notion of utilitarianism. Rather it is about that notion of individual and joint ‘good’ whereby that good is an evaluation by humans of their own life and that of their community. Pleasure is one of the positives, but the notion of utility is more that very-long run notion of what humans keep getting back to as the thing they value and experience as positive about their lives. We have measures that seem to pick that up reasonably well, but it is inherently an imprecise notion.

        I can imagine future human communities starting build pleasure computers that have a great time themselves, but I dont see as a quest to advocate. I am not with the computers but with the humans!

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I can’t think of any clear example where I’m sure I’d ditch utilitarianism, but I can think of plenty where I’d go all ‘umble.

    Actually, trying to enumerate them, I can’t think of any really good examples. I was going to write ‘torture’ but in all the set pieces they’re stacked in favour of torture. (You know, you have to save a city by torturing a person.) In fact if it’s that clear cut I’m not very ‘umble — I’d save the city. The thing is, as it generally happens, one doesn’t have the knowledge. So one ends up deciding that, when you consider all the knock on effects, you really don’t know what would be best for the greatest number.

    More generally I’m hostile to the utilitarian way of thinking, because I think of ethics as something that is built — personally and within a community — over time as life is experienced. It’s deeply qualitative and fused with the development of character and identity, and not with numerical optima.

    If you think of what a parent owes several of their children, then in some conceptually trivial but practically important way they owe them ‘fairness’ between them. Unless there are good reasons, they shouldn’t spend $100 on one’s birthday presents and $10 on another’s. But what they really owe each is deeply qualitative. They owe their children their best attempt to understand, engage and help them grow as people and, once one goes beyond this bland description, the duties this entails differ between each child. That, to me, is the foundation of ethics. To live in the best way one can in communion with others.

    • paul frijters says:

      “It’s deeply qualitative and fused with the development of character and identity, and not with numerical optima.”

      I agree it is deeply qualitative, but I do not see that as incompatible with numbers. Humans use numbers as they use sticks: as tools. Bureaucracies and large groups can use numbers in order to understand and help choose over different deeply qualitative outcomes. Particularly when one goes to large groups, I see a role for numbers. When it comes to own kids, less so, but that is really just a question of practicalities. Some numbers on kids are useful too: for instance, cognitive and emotional tests can help reveal where and how they are struggling in ways that would not be trivial to find out otherwise.

      If I think of the ‘limits to utilitarianism’ where I get edgy, it would have to be over such things as the group that matters, thus involving questions of new life and future populations.

      How much should we care about preventing life when closing down IVF clinics? That’s a tough one for me. Another difficult one is the tradeoff between what could replace current populations. What if the Papuans could replace all current Australians, ending up with double the current population numbers, and still be happier and living in a more sustainable manner? Should a utilitarian then be in favour of the atrocities needed to get to that other outcome? That’s not a trivial question, and one with great relevancy for judging historical events because we are all the children of survivors and supplanters. In essence the notion of which group matters to a utilitarian is a tough one because one by design is talking about a vague abstraction.

      • conrad says:

        “How much should we care about preventing life when closing down IVF clinics?”

        I’m sure I’ve suggested this before, but the non-utilitarian answer is zero, because you are attributing negative externalities to things that don’t exist, and things that don’t exist don’t care. However, I imagine you think this because you think that the more people there are, the better.

        But this is by no means a given. If you read Reasons and Persons, Parfit points out that evaluating how much people are worth has no great utilitarian solution and goes through examples where it falls down, although he can offer no solution himself (and has not been able to). So perhaps we need pragmatic non-utilitarianism :). He also talks about the butterfly effect in the same book, which I imagine is similar to your calculation of all actions in time, and comes to the same conclusion as you (it’s pointless).

        However, he talks about it largely at the level of the individual not the group (at least I read it), and his suggestion is that because minor and random events often lead to large qualitative changes at the individual level, even small differences can lead to qualitatively different lives and comparing qualitatively different things is generally pointless. That’s kind of useful because it means that we should be thinking about minimum standards for individuals, since that’s the best we can predict is useful, and not against hypothetical better alternatives (or adding more utils).

        So if I take IVF as an example, we should be happy to have people not know their parents (unlike current laws), because there is no comparison to be made at the individual level — If I know my biological parents I’ll lead a qualitatively different life compared to if I don’t. If I’m correct, your utilitarian solution here would be to keep the current laws because knowing your parents might add some utils to not knowing them (you would perhaps be happier and perhaps less philosophical, the latter of which gains no points), and that would thus be a better outcome.

        • conrad says:

          that should be :”at least as I read it”, not “at least I read it” which sounds like a smear!

        • paul frijters says:

          the idea that things that do not yet exist do not count, does not seem a popular stance. After all, communities do care about the next generation way before they are born. Some action that would prevent a community from conceiving children would be hugely detrimental in the eyes of the current generation, but also from a longer-term view of that whole community. In many ethical systems, it is considered strange that only what already exists matters as the current occupants are merely seen as custodians, not owners. Christian ethics is like that. The environmental movement is like that. Any notion that it matters what one leaves behind as a generation requires buying into the idea that that which does not yet exist (future generations) already matters now.

          So I think your view that preventing IVF children from being born does not count because they are then not born is a fringe view. Doesn’t make it wrong, but definitely fringe.

          The problem for the utilitarian is not so much that the new generation matters before they are born, but how much they matter. 10%, 50%? Not clear. Should people be encouraged to have more children if more people can be sustained?

          On the matter of the right to know the parents, the empirical reality is that laws that force disclosure of information on who the biological father is will reduce the number of male donors quite considerably. So then one gets less IVF babies. Better to live without knowing the father than not live at all. So such disclosure laws are a great case in point for this issue of who matters to what degree. I posed a question to the World Wellbeing Panel exactly on this disclosure of information issue. Not many utilitarian answers….

          • conrad says:

            I agree it is a fringe view — but that doesn’t make it incorrect. I don’t think many people think about it at all. They just assume there must be a counter condition of an identical person that would otherwise exist. But they don’t make the mental leap that if no-person exists, then there is no individual you can attribute the externality too.

            Note that this argument as at the level of the individual, not the group level — I don’t suppose anyone denies people think about the people of the future and the generations that come after them, and different arguments apply in that respect which you are sure to know about (like is it really better to have 11 people than 10?).

            Also — we don’t let people conceive all the time incidentally. IVF is hugely expensive in many places, so it’s clearly already restricted. Many places have also historically not allowed various groups to access it (e.g., single people), presumably based on naive utilitarian arguments (the children will be better off without such people as parents)

            I also agree that there are other things going with IVF that change the equation and making the parents known causes less IVF to occur (this is certainly the case in Aus now), but even if this didn’t occur, I don’t see why you should have a law restricting it to only known donors since the minimum standard for everyone else to have children is clearly less and since there is no otherwise identical individual that would otherwise exist (which means means there is nothing lost).

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    For what it’s worth I’ve been reading quite a bit of a mid 20th-century Scottish philosopher called John Macmurray. His message is quite like Alasdair MacIntyre’s. In MacIntyre’s language he’s drawing attention to the importance of trying to ensure that ‘external goods’ don’t crowd out internal goods — a big problem with utilitarianism, the market, and bureaucracy:

    The first result of thinking that the individual should subordinate himself to the group because the welfare of the group is more important than the welfare of the individual is to produce an effective social materialism. For if human welfare is to be measured by numbers it must be measured in terms of that which can be multiplied and divided, and so bought and sold. This is by no means what the idealism of self-devotion to the service of society intends, but it is none the less its only possible result. The welfare of the group is something less than the welfare of the individuals composing it, not something more. For it is the welfare of the individual members in so far as that welfare can be produced and distributed among them by organized corporate effort. Only material welfare can so be produced and distributed, for it alone can be handled and managed statistically. And the group is a statistical conception. This helps us to understand the curious paradox of the history of the last century, to see why the lofty idealism of a Hegel becomes in practice the economic interpretation of history of a Marx, why the humanitarian movements degenerate into a national scramble for wealth and possessions, why a war to make the world safe for democracy ends in a peace of the pickpockets.

    The second result of subordinating individual welfare to social welfare is that in effect it sacrifices persons to organizations. This is inevitable. It is organization which turns a mere multitude into a society, which therefore we contrast ‘self’ and ‘society’, when we distinguish the welfare of the individual from the welfare of society, we are in reality contrasting persons with institutions. If we imagine that the individual is of less importance than society, we are effectively asserting that institutions are more important than persons. The service of society consists, in fact, in serving people in the mass, impersonally. It consists in maintaining, improving, and elaborating the organization of society. The service of society and the service of others are essentially different activities. They do not come to the same thing in the end. The one is personal and involves personal contact and personal interest. The other is impersonal and is best done in an office, by statistics. If, then, we generalize the service of society as an ideal of human conduct, we are demanding of every man that he should look upon himself as a means to the maintenance and improvement of social institutions. We are denying the intrinsic value of human personality, and exalting the impersonal organization of life as the end which personality should serve. From a moral or religious point of view, this is a hideous thing to do.

    • paul frijters says:

      the way I put this point about submission is “If everybody is worried about the pleasure of others, who is actually still having a good time?” I certainly want a bit of hedonism in my utilitarianism, and personal care. I don’t see the two as incompatible though: it is within the impersonal reflective spaces large groups create (institutions) that we need impersonal ethical systems (utilitarianism). In other spaces (the personal realm) and other choice situations (immediacy), we behave differently. I found Adam Smith to be good on this with his quote about caring for the happiness of the circles around one, whereby the notion of that ‘circle’ is different for different people and larger group institutions. Some mix of the personal and impersonal within any organisation is obviously functional and normal: one rows with the oars available. A joint quest is also a normal social thing.

      I do tend to take personalities and such of next generations less as given and more subject to social choice, where again I turn to utilitarianism to tell me what would be optimal. People are somewhat moulded, and so what other end? I do think one shouldn’t easily turn to ‘design’ on such matters, but am not against the principle, more cognisant of how likely one is to do more damage than good when one falls in love with the first design that comes along. A bit of learning from natural experiments however…. the society of Brave New World didn’t seem such a bad one to me ….

  4. The silent observer says:

    It is a shame then that governments pander to their perception of what the voting blocks want, rather than what is truly useful for the populace long term.

    Consider housing. No rational utilitarian government would do what the UK government (of all types) have done for the last 25 years. Instead, they have chosen to take what should be a fair market in an essential commodity (shelter), and rig it alongside their central bank colleagues in order to enrich (in a somewhat illusory manner) sections of the population (early gen X and older) at the long term expense of the young. This is the height of short termism (the elderly will die, eventually) and can kicking policy.

    This mass disenfranchisement has meant they are continuously losing further credibility and faith. And there is no easy way out of the predicament they have created. Inflation (where wages rise faster than prices)? Destroy the elderly faith their fixed rate (but substantial) pensions. Likely to be a medium term vote loser and rampages the very niaive but prudent cash saver (please don’t do this!) too. Remove props and let markets correct themselves? As I say, you won’t get voted in again.

    But the TL;DR is this (imho) – it is impossible to have utalitarian government policy with the current debt based money system. You can have a guess what is coming to fix this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.