Utility MonstersPublished 11 February, 2013
Hi! My name is Sam. Rob’s on yet another break – something about (could this be right?) “leveling up his archery perks” – so I’m substituting in for him. Anyway, I’m a Utility Monster, and today I’d like to talk to you about My Good Works, and also sex.
Those of you who have read Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia probably remember me, but for those of you who don’t, I’m something of a thought experiment. As Nozick put it
Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility. (p. 41)
So, let me just put it this way. Suppose we all agree that we should set up the rules of the game – public policy and so on – in such a way that we try to maximize aggregate happiness. Now suppose that I get ten units of happiness whenever you lose one unit. Further, suppose I don’t experience any diminishing marginal returns, and I get even more jollies – 100 units of utility – when you lose your second unit of happiness. If all this were true, then there would be more happiness, as a whole, if we set up the world for you to lose happiness. If I’m allowed – or even compelled – to reduce your happiness by two units, aggregate happiness has just gone up by 98 units. (#HappinessWin!)
Now, Nozick talked about me as part of his critique of utilitarianism, but I want to talk about a slightly different way in which I try to satisfy my particular and perverse utility function. In particular, you know what makes me happy? Nothing juices my lemons more than preventing mutual consensual transactions in which both (all) parties are made better off. I hate utility gains as much as I love utility losses. Why do you think they call me a Monster?
To take one example, how about those canonical butchers and bakers in Adam Smith’s discussion of exchange. The baker gives up a loaf of bread, preferring the money he charges customers to the bread – he has enough already! – and the customer would rather have the bread than the money. I need not tell you what agony this causes monsters like me to see these transactions take place. Gains in trade! The horror!
As you can see, the modern world is a tough place for me. Mutually beneficial arrangements are everywhere, often protected by the instruments of State. What is a Utility Monster to do? Woe is me. I am woe.
Thankfully, I still have one arrow in my quiver. Let me explain by way of example, drawing on current events in Rob’s municipality, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back!) (Unofficial Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back MotherF*cker!). The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported a story about a billboard off of Interstate 95 advertising a web site called “ArrangementFinders.com.” (Bree Olson certified!). ArrangementFinders is a service for people who are seeking “Mutually Beneficial Arrangements” (MBAs). Mutually beneficial! Can you imagine?!
Well, not just any MBAs. The web site caters to men who are interested in exchanging some fraction of their wealth for sexual access to women, who are reciprocally likewise interested in such a transaction.
Last week, a number of people protested the firm that sold the advertising space, which space, according to the Inquirer piece, seems to have been successfully employed; the ad was credited with “a 600 percent increase in members from the area.”
The grounds on which the protestors protested are pretty clear from the text in the ad, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” with the “not” crossed out as I’ve rendered it here. The basis for objecting to this particular mutually beneficial arrangement is – same as it ever was! – the last, best tool of Utility Monsters: morality.
Indeed, there might be two moral entry points into destroying utility here. The first comes from the ad text, which seems to be encouraging people to break the rule against having sex outside of marriage. This is actually somewhat peculiar, given that the web site itself doesn’t seem to be catering to rich, married men, but simply rich men. The tagline, “Intimacy with a twi$t,” is consistent with this interpretation. This tagline points to a second moral rule, the one forbidding the exchange of sex for money. (Unless, as Rob discussed in his last post, the sex is being recorded for subsequent sale, in which case it’s just fine.)
So, we Utility Monsters have a keen ally in moral psychology. When people go around trying to limit other people’s gains in trade, usually, though not always, the stick used to beat people into welfare-destroying-submission is morality.
Moral cognition just might be a Utility Monster’s best friend.
And with that, I’ll be signing off. – Sam
Rob here. Despite Sam’s claim, I did not, in fact, relegate this entry to him because I was leveling up my Archery perks. First of all, one should be skeptical of claims of Utility Monsters as a general rule, and, second of all, I have been focusing on Enchantment Magic anyway. In any case, the reason I acceded to this guest post might not be obvious, so I’ll make it explicit. This post fits in with some ideas I’ve been working on with some collaborators, specifically engaging the view that morality evolved in the service of producing group-beneficial outcomes. From this post, it appears that morality is often implicated in Utility Monster activity, decreasing aggregate welfare, rather than increasing it. This circumstance seems to present such models with something of a quandary. That is, if, as the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology would have it (Krebs, p. 750), “morality boils down to individuals meeting their needs and advancing their interests in cooperative ways,” why is morality such a useful tool for Utility Monsters like Sam?