Are You a Utilitarian? (And My First Podcast)

From Scientific American (May 2018):

In a paper published online in December 2017 in the journal Psychological Review entitled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm,” University of Oxford scholars Guy Kahane, Jim A. C. Everett and their colleagues aim to rehabilitate the dark side of utilitarianism by separating its two dimensions: (1) “instrumental harm,” in which it is permissible to sacrifice the few to benefit the many, and (2) “impartial beneficence,” in which one would agree that “it is morally wrong to keep money that one doesn’t really need if one can donate it to causes that provide effective help to those who will benefit a great deal.” You can find out what type you are by answering the nine questions in the authors’ Oxford Utilitarianism Scale.

Here’s the scale.

I scored a 32 out of a possible 63 on the overall utilitarianism scale which was driven almost exclusively by a very high score on “impartial beneficence.”

The piece goes on:

…if we can decouple the sacrificial side of utilitarianism from its more beneficent prescriptions, moral progress may gain some momentum. Better still would be the inculcation into all our moral considerations the beneficence as an internal good rather than an ethical calculation.

I think this is on to something.

As I’ve written, John Stuart Mill (in his defense of utilitarian ethics) had a certain respect for Christ’s Golden Rule:

…the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the idea perfection of utilitarian morality.” (Utilitarianism)

But the problem with Mill (and perhaps utilitarianism) is not that the agent (that’s you!) is required to be completely neutral in order to effectuate the Golden Rule of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” 

Rather, Christ’s Golden Rule requires a perfectly interested spectator. Interested in their own wellbeing and that of others. Especially those people who you cannot stand!

Asking people to love others who cannot love themselves is hopeless. They won’t get it. This is the true joie de vivre. In other words, it’s not enough to just treat everyone equally. You have to treat everyone equally and well. Including yourself!

For those interested in more I’ve recorded a 30-minute podcast episode on economics and the Golden Rule (see below). I’m turning this into a public talk to be delivered later this year called “Was the Good Samaritan a Bad Economist?” Warning: I jump right into the good stuff without much of an introduction.