The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. We can apply this principle in the context our own individual lives, and in the context of our collective social lives. Libertarians generally encourage you to invoke the principle of utility when it comes to managing your personal life, but they generally do not endorse social utility.
The Principle of Social Utility is usually defended in reference to the empirical fact that we are social animals and that morality in this context requires a degree of altruism; and that collective happiness requires a degree of self-sacrifice. Social utilitarians argue that an action is right to the extent that it produces "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" and it is wrong to the extent that it produces "the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number." This sounds wonderful until you begin to look at it a bit closer.
Recall that both individual and social utility are grounded in teleological moral theory. Therefore, we’ll encounter some of the same issues of associated with hedonism and consequentialism, as discussed in the earlier section on Teleological Theories. A hedonist believes that the Good Life consists solely in the pursuit pleasure or happiness. The feelings of pleasure and pain are biological events that involve our central nervous systems, which are controlled by our cerebral cortex. We all obviously experience feelings of pleasure when we perform certain acts that fulfill biological functions such as eating, drinking, and having sex. We also experience pleasure when we perform certain intellectual activities, such as reading philosophy books, playing guitar, or drawing a picture. We sometimes, but not always, experience pleasure when we exercise beneficence toward others. Conversely, we experience pain when these functions are left unfulfilled, and sometimes we experience pleasure at doing the wrong thing.
Again, in order for utilitarianism to be applicable in the real world, pain and pleasure would have to be demonstrably objective and quantifiable. If a hedonistic calculus is possible, it would probably apply to our own individual decision-making. Traditionally this has involved the quantification of variables such as: intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood. Although I doubt that these variables can be precisely quantified, I do think that when it comes to ordering our personal lives, our brains go through hedonistic logarithms of some kind. Sometimes these are conscious processes, sometimes unconscious. Not only are we genetically programmed with many our own particular interests, we are also programmed with a set of genetically-based interests that we share with other members of our species, and even other species. And of course, many of our interests are culturally bound and acquired via teaching and learning.
One fallacy of utilitarianism is the underlying assumption that both our collective goals and individual goals are best realized by advancing collective goals. Unfortunately, in the real world, the realization of collective goals often conflict with individual goals. Libertarians, therefore, argue that the most efficient way to realize collective goals is to advance individual goals.
Recall that if you are a hedonist, the most important question is: "Whose pleasure counts the most?" Social utilitarians are altruists to the extent that they believe that the standard of right or wrong is not the agent's own personal greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Therefore, good behavior increases the number of persons experiencing pleasure among members of a specific group. Bad behavior increases the number of persons experiencing pain. But there are many hidden complexities associated with this.
A few years back, Cincinnati government officials had a referendum on whether to use the proceeds from a proposed sales tax increase to build two new sports stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. A social utilitarian would have to examine how the costs and benefits would be distributed throughout Cincinnati, Ohio, the United States, or even the world. Let’s just focus on Cincinnati.
First let’s look at individual or personal utility. If I had a choice, how would I allocate my finite personal income in regard to going to sports arenas? Generally speaking, I attend one or two pro baseball games a year. I buy the cheapest seats. I’ve never attended a pro football game. I watch baseball and football on television, only because it’s free, (Call me a "free-rider!") and that’s only because it’s usually more pleasurable than watching what is usually on television. I also listen to games on the radio when I’m traveling or doing some other task: again, only because it’s free. If I had to pay to watch or listen to a football game or baseball game I wouldn’t do it. However, I would willingly pay to hear a live band. In fact, I would spend a lot of money to hear one of my favorite European bands. In short, I allocate my personal funds based on my interests and I’m more interested in music than sports. If I had a choice between A. going to a sporting event at an arena for free; or, B. watching the game at home for free, I’d choose B., and stay home. In fact, in the past, my wife and I have been given free Reds tickets, but we didn’t use them.
Libertarians acknowledge the unfortunate fact that we all pay taxes. But the higher my tax obligation, the less personal income I have at my disposal. The stadium tax alone probably doesn’t add up to much in terms of my total tax contribution, but I’ve never actually figured it out. I’m sure that the city of Cincinnati cannot guarantee that every penny of that tax goes directly into the stadiums. Anyway, if someone could have convinced me that the money we spent on stadiums actually served the "public good," I might have supported it. But there are several conceptual muddles at work here too.
First off, I’m not sure that anyone knows exactly what the term "public good" really means. I have an imperfect concept of my own "personal good," in the sense that I have a pretty good idea of what makes me happy and what makes my family and friends happy. But admittedly I am occasionally wrong. I was surprised to discover that I like Indian food! But I’m not sure what it means when someone claims that something makes the whole city of Cincinnati happy. Why? Well, first of all, a city is a composite entity that includes a wide variety of conflicting individual interests. Some people benefit and others suffer as a result of all publicly funded projects. But there’s another pernicious conceptual muddle at work here too.
All teleological reasoning involves both ends and means. It is one thing to say that an end is "good" and it’s another thing to say that the means to achieving that end is "good." Social utilitarians tend to confuse these two variables. One might indeed argue convincingly that airports, sewers, gas and electric, police and fire protection, mail delivery, public transportation etc. are all public goods. It might, in fact, be true that a majority of the population benefits from each of these services. But that doesn’t mean that the most efficient way to provide these services is through government. I’m not sure exactly how much of my tax obligation goes toward provision of any of these services. I don’t think the city of Cincinnati knows either. So if spending tax dollars on any project can be justified based on social utility, its advocates would have to demonstrate, not only that the benefits to the community would outweigh its costs, they would also have to prove (or at least provide compelling evidence) that government offers the most efficient way to provide these benefits.
Now back to those sports stadiums. First of all, let’s admit that it is more difficult to argue that sports stadiums serve the public good than sewers, clean water, and other public health related goods. If stadiums are, in fact, public goods, one would have to argue that there is positive cost-benefit ratio. The benefits outweigh the costs. But that’s really not enough. It would have to be shown that the most efficient way to pay for this construction is with tax money.
Now in order to justify the use of tax money on stadiums, it would have to be shown to serve the public good. Now objectively speaking, the primary beneficiaries of the larger more modern stadiums would be the wealthy team owners, wealthy players, fans, perhaps a few downtown restaurant owners, hotel owners, parking lot owners etc. One could argue that the public good would also be served by increased tax revenue. If the levy fails, at least one of the local teams would probably move to another city. That would cause pain to those primary beneficiaries. Now the rub here is that the Reds and the Bengals asked the city to pay for these stadiums because the owners, players, leagues, and fans had already decided it wasn’t worth it for THEM to pay the costs of building these stadiums using their own money. But note that they thought it was worth it to spend everyone else’s money. In short, it’s always better to benefit if you can get someone else to pay the cost. That’s Human Nature in a nutshell!
The fundamental problem for utilitarianism is the fact that governments, forcefully, take tax money from one class of individuals and give it to another class. Since, I do not attend the games played at the stadium, and will not benefit from its revenues, why should I want to contribute to either project? Social utility requires that at least some members of the community involuntarily sacrifice their own interests for the interests of others, even though they may not benefit personally. Again, it is often the case that what is represented as the public good, often conflicts with the private interests of some individuals. So why serve the public good rather than one’s own private good?
Sometimes, it is possible to provide a large amount of quantifiable pleasure for a minority at a small cost to everyone else. Suppose, for example, that we have a small, but significant number of homeless children that could be helped by providing a shelter for them. Suppose we decided to accomplish this by imposing a small tax on everyone in Cincinnati. A utilitarian would not be able to justify imposing that tax, unless it could be shown that more people would be helped than harmed. One way to get around this would be to count not only the number of persons that experience pleasure and pain, but also weigh the intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood of the pains and pleasures involved. Hence, we might argue that if we weigh the amount of pleasure that homeless children experience, as the result of providing them shelter, against the minimal pain that tax payers experience, then we might rationally justify building that shelter at public expense.
But in the case of sports stadiums, we are not really talking about disadvantaged populations. In fact, another real world problem with social utility is that, in the United States, there is a culturally-based tendency to confuse the interests of the wealthy and powerful with the public good. That’s because the rich and powerful have access to the media, lawyers, marketing expertise, and lobbyists. This tendency is manifest in what critics call "corporate welfare."
Suppose it is true that only the primary stakeholders really benefit from building expensive stadiums, and suppose that tax levy would be very small, could we justify building the stadium for that wealthy team owner at a small cost to the majority? If so, on what basis could we also justify building the shelter? So the basic problem here is that it is always preferable to have someone pay for the fulfillment of out interests. That’s why we appreciate gifts so much! Therefore, once the city decides to underwrite professional sports, you can expect others to follow the leader. Indeed, that’s how cities end up subsidizing orchestras, art museums, swimming pools, parking garages, and hospitals. How about a tax to buy a new Volvo for every philosophy professor in Cincinnati? Obviously, the more of these tax supported projects that a city takes on the more expended tax revenue. The higher my taxes are the less money I have to pursue my individual interests. When I can no longer afford to attend music concerts, why not petition government to build a concert hall and a guitar museum? I could craft some convincing arguments in support of the idea that it’s a public good. "Just think about the tax revenues that these venues would bring in!" If enough guitar players rally behind my proposal, some self-interested politician will eventually champion its cause. Although this sounds utopian, can everyone’s needs and wants be met this way? Where does it all end?
Another social utility-based issue has been the growing use of the eminent domain principle to seize private property to serve the public good. Historically, this legal principle has been used, primarily, to acquire the land we needed to build roads, sewage treatment plants, and court houses. But now, local governments have begun seizing private property in order to build shopping malls, and arguing that more people benefit from a mall than from a private residence. Local governments bolster their argument by saying that the tax revenue is also greater for a mall than for a private residence. So here we have a prime example where the perceived public good conflicts with the private good. But seizing private property for the public good always sounds better when someone else’s property is being seized. Utilitarianism’s tendency to advance the public good at the expense of individuals and minorities invariably contributes to the "tyranny of the masses."
Now even if x is deemed a public good that does not necessarily mean that government is the best vehicle for providing it. Libertarians argue that the most efficient way to serve the public good is through the free market; that is to say that the best way to serve the public good is to maintain a political structure that supports individual enterprise and reciprocal altruism. That means government ought to make it easier for individuals to pool their resources in pursuit of their mutual self-interest. Libertarians argue that governmentally funded projects are paragons of inefficiency. That’s because there are few, if any, incentives for public officials do anything efficiently. Politicians are price-insensitive when it comes to spending tax dollars. All of their incentives are set by the "bring home the bacon" principle. This means that when politicians build stadiums using tax money, they, invariably, make sure that as many of their constituents get a slice of that bacon as possible. This leads to padded budgets and cost overruns. Politicians, therefore, make sure that local contractors and laborers get most of the jobs, even if they are more expensive.
We are all better stewards of our own time, energy, and resources. If we are not, we tend to lose those things. If the price-sensitive Bengals and the Reds were to build their own stadiums, with their own money, you can bet that the owners, players, fans, and leagues would insist on efficiency. After all, they would be risking their own money, not ours! "Bang for the buck." not "Bring home the bacon." Suddenly, out of state contractors and cheaper foreign labor suddenly look much more appealing. Suddenly, the teams would become more competitive and actually win a few games.
On the surface, the "greatest happiness principle" carries with it a lot of intuitive plausibility. Collective beneficence carries a lot of persuasive force when it is employed in a social context. Critics of the gradual expansion of government are demonized when they object to publicly-funded projects that are presented as serving both the needy and the public good, such as: social welfare, schools, mental health agencies, health clinics, and alcohol treatment programs. But the principle of social utility is wrought with philosophical and moral chicanery. There are several well-established lines of criticism.
First of all, it is notoriously difficult to predict the consequences of our actions over the short-term or the long-term. Therefore, there is a lot of uncertainty in our dealings with how our moral decisions affect individuals, and even more in uncertainty in our communal decisions. We often just don't know whether one act or policy will promote more pain than pleasure, and we don’t know how those pains and pleasures would be distributed over the short-run or the long-run. So what do we do when faced with those many cases where we just aren't certain? Do we guess? Given this complexity, social utilitarians tend to resort to intuitionism or some other principle, other than utility. Public policy issues such as sports stadiums, capital punishment, abortion policy, are all wrought with mind-boggling complexity and uncertainty. Libertarians argue that the best strategy for serving the public good is to let individuals decide, rather than empower government.
Most deontological theorists argue that utilitarianism often conflicts with our moral intuitions. Social utility has a built in bias against individuals and minorities. What happens when it seems to be in the public interest to inflict extreme hardship on an individual or minority in order to advance the public interest? For example, based on utilitarian reasoning, Japanese Americans were hoarded into detention camps during World War II because the government feared that some of them might support Japan and perhaps engage in terrorist activities. Indeed, the greatest happiness principle has often been used in support of totalitarian schemes in which the price paid for collective happiness has been personal freedom. The institution of slavery has often been justified based on social utility. That’s why there is a consensus among contemporary philosophers that utilitarianism cannot operate without other principles, especially justice.
Rights-based libertarians believe that we have a right to private property that we acquire through the fruits of our labor and through voluntary exchange with our neighbors. Libertarians are against the use of physical force, by individuals, groups, and government in pursuit of individual and collective interests. There two exceptions: the application of physical force in acts of self-defense and the application of physical force in returning property that has been previously seized. Therefore, libertarians are against anyone (including government) seizing another person’s property, even if those takers believe they can do more social good with it. As we will see in the next chapter, liberty almost always trumps beneficence and social utility.
Involuntary taxation is the handmaiden of social utility. But, for libertarians, it is very problematic in so far as it requires the coercive power of government. Although a certain amount of taxation is necessary to protect us from criminals and foreign invaders, libertarians are minarchists (advocates of small government) that seek to limit the power of government to self-defense. On the other hand, if you want to expend your own time, effort, and resources in pursuit of your own vision of the public good, you are certainly free to do that.
In summary, libertarians are deeply suspicious of the principle of social utility. The most troubling problem with social utility is its conceptual ambiguity, which can be easily manipulated by powerful individuals that would like the rest of us to pay for the realization of their private interests. But even if we could clearly differentiate the "public good" from the "private good" of powerful individuals and groups, we would still have to establish whether government is the most efficient provider. Serious social utilitarians, therefore, would have to compare the costs and benefits of both public and private provision. Libertarians argue that about the only things that government can do more efficiently than private initiative is provide an army, and a criminal justice system. Deontological libertarians argue that taxation violates property rights and therefore any utilitarian projects beyond internal and external defense cannot be justified.
In the final analysis, the basic problem with the principle of social utility is that it assumes that it is possible to make unambiguous, objective statements about the public good. Unfortunately, there are not many things in life that are good for everyone. Typically, those who set themselves up as the cultivators of the "public good" turn out to be cultivators of their own "private good;" and also the "private good" of their relatives and friends. This is not to say that all social utilitarians are hypocrites. But I would say it’s a lot easier for do-gooders to serve the interests of others when they are spending everyone else’s time, energy, and resources.