Yesterday I saw the Watchmen movie. I haven’t read the comics or any of that jazz, but I was told that it provided a compelling critique of utilitarianism. As an ethical theory it definitely illustrated the short-comings of utilitarianism. But in the way economists use utilitarianism – namely as a framework to hang value judgments off – the argument is far less compelling.
Note if you don’t want any spoilers don’t click the tag …
Effectively, the critique of utilitarianism came through the actions of the “villain”. He was willing to destroy people in a number of major cities in order to prevent/delay a nuclear holocaust. Millions would be killed to save billions. This is seen as a critique as there are other moral issues that are ignored in the statement “millions would be killed to save billions” – there is something wrong with doing an action to kill millions of people, even if the outcome was to save billions of other people.
In this sense, we can say that the “outcome orientation” of utilitarianism is wrongheaded – that the process does matter, and has to be taken into account.
Now, this is all well and good – but this seems like less of a critique of the concept of utilitarianism than it is a critique of the implicit value judgments associated with the persons choice. Economists realise that we cannot value outputs so crudely – which is why we tend to say that all goods are differentiated in some way.
For example, economists realise that an apple now is intrinsically different to an apple in 5 minutes. An apple that you have to pick up with your left hand is different to one you pick up with your right hand – and needs to be valued accordingly. In this sense, economists make simplifying assumptions surrounding the value of these disparate goods (fundamentally assuming that the values are sufficiently close that any difference can be ignored) – this assumption can be criticised, but it does not destroy the usefulness of the method.
Similarly, in Watchmen, if we didn’t agree with the killing of millions to save billions it is because we believe that a different set of value judgments exist surrounding “what is social welfare”. Again our critique is of the implicit value judgments, not the framework provided by utilitarianism.
Also, once we can look at things this way we can ask another question – if the “villain” decided to do nothing, would he not hold some responsibility for the death of billions rather than the millions he could have been responsible for. Could we not term it selfish if the character did not kill millions to save billions just because he personally felt uncomfortable about it. If this character had perfect foresight then I think this argument in itself would still be apt – implying that the “correct” value judgment is still incredibly vague, no matter what framework we try to use to describe it.
The critique provided by Watchmen illustrates the problem with any policy prescription – it relies on a set of value judgments that are hard if not impossible to uniquely define as the “optimal set” of value judgments. I don’t see this as solely a critique of utilitarianism – but of all types of theories.
Now, the reason we can illustrate it so clearly with utilitarianism is because utilitarianism is both flexible enough to be bent to uncomfortable situations and transparent enough that everyone can see what is going on. If anything these are the strengths of utilitarianism as a framework.