Limitations of Utilitarianism

A post about the limitation of Utilitarianism uses drug policy as an example:

But the big problem, the world-breaking problem, is that sticking everything good and bad about something into one big bin and making decisions based on whether it’s a net positive or a net negative is an unsubtle, leaky heuristic completely unsuitable for complicated problems.

In the hopes of using theism less often, a bunch of Less Wrongers have agreed that the War on Drugs would make a good stock example of irrationality. So, why is the War on Drugs so popular? I think it’s because drugs are obviously BAD. They addict people, break up their families, destroy their health, drive them into poverty, and eventually kill them. If we’ve got to have a category “drugs”3, and we’ve got to call it either “good” or “bad”, then “bad” is clearly the way to go. And if drugs are bad, getting rid of them would be good! Right?

So how do we avoid all of these problems?

I said at the very beginning that I think we should switch to solving moral problems through utilitarianism. But we can’t do that directly. If we ask utilitarianism “Are drugs good or bad?” it returns: CATEGORY ERROR. Good for it.

Utilitarianism can only be applied to states, actions, or decisions, and it can only return a comparative result. [emphasis mine]

Utilitarianism is often cited in support of harm reduction programs that I object to (I don’t object to all, or even most, harm reduction programs.) and drug legalization. However, as this post argues, the real question is, “X is better than what?”

The argument is limited by which options the person making the argument has chosen to compare. Too often, this lends itself to straw man arguments and reduces complex problems to false binary decisions.

[via Andrew Sullivan]

One thought on “Limitations of Utilitarianism

  1. Our culture is obsessed with dualistic thinking, it seems to me. Even calculating an “average” of good and bad takes good and bad to be two separate entities, rather than, for example, two different aspects or relative views of the same quality. Interesting post!

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