Why I am not an Estimator

One of my the many reasons I think utilitarianism is silly is that you can’t tell if you are increasing utility, or by how much. Admittedly, this is hardly an original criticism. Utilitarians defend themselves like:

A CEO would sound ridiculous making this argument to his shareholders. ‘You guys are being ridiculous. It’s just not possible to know which actions will increase the value of the company exactly how much. Why don’t we try to make sure that all of our meetings end on time instead?’

In other words, we have to make hazy estimates about the future all the time, so this is not an objection to utilitarianism, as much as it is to all human action.

But this defence is silly. We may not be able to calculate precisely the future value of the company, but we can at least measure the profitability in the past and the present, and so to some extent judge our measures retrospectively. By contrast, utility is ill-defined and not measurable even in principle. It’s more like if the shareholders were telling the CEO to maximise the company’s karma.

What’s more, predicting the future is not just messy, it is expensive. Even if utility were theoretically measurable, the effects of an action on net utility would be intractable, so by saying that we have to estimate the effects of our actions on utility, the utilitarian is committed to an endless waste of resources on this issue. It would be rather like telling the CEO of a company to act so as to maximise world GDP.

Ultimately, saying “maximise utility” is just too vague. It is the moral equivalent of telling someone “be yourself” – either content-free mush, or dangerous nonsense, but certainly not a helpful heuristic.


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