Humans are utility monsters

When some­one com­plains that util­i­tar­i­anism1 leads to the dust speck para­dox or the trol­ley-car prob­lem, I tell them that’s a fea­ture, not a bug. I’m not ready to say that re­spect­ing the util­ity mon­ster is also a fea­ture of util­i­tar­i­anism, but it is what most peo­ple ev­ery­where have always done. A model that doesn’t al­low for util­ity mon­sters can’t model hu­man be­hav­ior, and cer­tainly shouldn’t pro­voke in­dig­nant re­sponses from philoso­phers who keep right on re­spect­ing their own util­ity mon­sters.

The util­ity mon­ster is a crea­ture that is some­how more ca­pa­ble of ex­pe­rienc­ing plea­sure (or pos­i­tive util­ity) than all oth­ers com­bined. Most peo­ple con­sider sac­ri­fic­ing ev­ery­one else’s small util­ities for the benefits of this mon­ster to be re­pug­nant.

Let’s sup­pose the util­ity mon­ster is a util­ity mon­ster be­cause it has a more highly-de­vel­oped brain ca­pa­ble of mak­ing finer dis­crim­i­na­tions, higher-level ab­strac­tions, and more as­so­ci­a­tions than all the lesser minds around it. Does that make it less re­pug­nant? (If so, I lose you here. I in­vite you to post a com­ment ex­plain­ing why util­ity-mon­ster-by-smart­ness is an ex­cep­tion.) Sup­pose we have one util­ity mon­ster and one mil­lion oth­ers. Every­thing we do, we do for the one util­ity mon­ster. Repug­nant?

Mul­ti­ply by nine billion. We now have nine billion util­ity mon­sters and 9x1015 oth­ers. Still re­pug­nant?

Yet these same en­light­ened, demo­cratic so­cieties whose philoso­phers de­cry the util­ity mon­ster give ap­prox­i­mately zero weight to the well-be­ing of non-hu­mans. We might try not to drive a species ex­tinct, but when con­tem­plat­ing a new hy­dro­elec­tric dam, no­body adds up the di­su­til­ity to all the squir­rels in the valley to be flooded.

If you be­lieve the util­ity mon­ster is a prob­lem with util­i­tar­i­anism, how do you take into ac­count the well-be­ing of squir­rels? How about ants? Worms? Bac­te­ria? You’ve gone to 1015 oth­ers just with ants.2 Maybe 1020 with ne­ma­todes.

“But hu­mans are differ­ent!” our anti-util­i­tar­ian com­plains. “They’re so much more in­tel­li­gent and emo­tion­ally com­plex than ne­ma­todes that it would be re­pug­nant to wipe out all hu­mans to save any num­ber of ne­ma­todes.”

Well, that’s what a real util­ity mon­ster looks like.

The same peo­ple who be­lieve this then turn around and say there’s a prob­lem with util­i­tar­i­anism be­cause (when un­packed into a plau­si­ble real-life ex­am­ple) it might kill all the ne­ma­todes to save one hu­man. Given their be­liefs, they should com­plain about the op­po­site “prob­lem”: For a suffi­cient num­ber of ne­ma­todes, an in­stan­ti­a­tion of util­i­tar­i­anism might say not to kill all the ne­ma­todes to save one hu­man.

1. I use the term in a very gen­eral way, mean­ing any ac­tion se­lec­tion sys­tem that uses a util­ity func­tion—which in prac­tice means any ra­tio­nal, de­ter­minis­tic ac­tion se­lec­tion sys­tem in which ac­tion prefer­ences are well-or­dered.

2. This re­cent at­tempt to es­ti­mate the num­ber of differ­ent liv­ing be­ings of differ­ent kinds gives some num­bers. The web has many pages claiming there are 1015 ants, but I haven’t found a cita­tion of any origi­nal source.