Sunday, June 05, 2005

Utility and Just Deserts

Utilitarianism is purely forward-looking, and as such might be criticized for failing to consider historical claims to entitlement or desert. But such criticisms miss the point. Utilitarianism is best understood as a theory of default treatment, or how to show people equal concern when none have special claims over the others. It thus only applies when there are no desert claims in the picture. The real objection is thus not to utilitarianism itself, but merely its scope. If there are legitimate desert claims which justice must take note of, then this would establish that utilitarianism is not a comprehensive theory of justice, and requires supplementation by an independent theory of just deserts.

One possible response would be to take this on board, and develop a broader theory of justice within which utilitarianism is but one part. Perhaps the first priority would be to compensate those with special claims, and only afterwards engage the utilitarian principle in distributing the leftovers. A pluralistic theory of this sort seems a viable option.

But many utilitarians would be unsatisfied with this response. They would rather deny that legitimate claims can be made prior to utility calculations. Justice is whatever the utility calculations yield. Only by this method is each person counted for one, and nobody for more than one. The utilitarian thus denies that anyone may legitimately claim to be 'more deserving' than any other.

Desert skepticism can be motivated by considerations of ultimate responsibility. Nobody gets to choose their natural talents, so it would seem odd for justice to require that they get rewarded for their luck in the 'natural lottery'. And the inclination to expend effort is likewise a natural character trait which has its origin outside of our control. Even granting some element of free will, we're led to Roemer's account, whereby a natural slacker who puts in some slight effort is held to be more deserving of reward than someone who is naturally hard-working.

A third alternative is to reject my framing of the issue, and try to incorporate prior desert-claims into the utilitarian calculus. Thus Rescher (following C.D. Broad) distinguishes between the 'immanent' and 'transeunt' goodness of a distribution or state of affairs:

[T]he immanent goodness of a hypothetical universe is fixed by the amount of the goodness in it, and its transeunt goodness is fixed by the amount of goodness of it... these two things are not to be identified. (Rescher, Distributive Justice, p.51)

On this view, a state of affairs where the good are rewarded and the evil punished might be of greater (transeunt) value than another which merely contains more value but in a less just distribution. However, this approach makes justice prior to - and part of - utility calculations, and thus cannot be used to provide a utilitarian theory of justice, on pain of circularity.

1 comment:

  1. "utilitarianism is not a comprehensive theory of justice, and requires supplementation"

    *looks at richard in a confused manner*
    I see no reason for conflict or suplplementation. When faced with any problem there is the utility optimizing solution and "the other solution" any attempt to follow the other solution is a move away from utility optimization.
    there is no need to fear that this will create some odd situation where people who deserve things never get them and then there is no incentive to be good because the reason it is disturbing is that it doesnt maximise utility and thus shouldnt be chosen.

    Obviously utilitarianism cant be all about maximising utility for some limited set for example if you used the tiniest system available it would just be libiterianism. It must be (in its ideal form) maximising utility for everyone (the whole system over all time) and as such is an all encompassing philosophy that results in a world that almost certainly is reasonably fair (because in general fairness works).

    > Justice is whatever the utility calculations yield.

    I think this confuses concepts - a honest utilitarian should be able to admit that utilitarianism doesn't result in "justice" as most would see it.

    You sort of get close to the point with Rescher..
    But my point is how can you posibly even contemplate not considering that sort of logic? without some use of the past you cant even tell your actions will have an effect so you can't even begin utility calculations. If you use the past to determine that your actions have effects how can you jsutify not using it to determine how people will act and what they will do if you benefit them etc?


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