Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Num Nums

My paper 'Negative Utility Monsters' is now forthcoming in Utilitas.  It's a very short and simple paper (2500 words, expanding upon this old blog post), but kind of fun.  Here's the conclusion:

Nozick’s utility monster should no longer be seen as a damning objection to utilitarianism. The intuitive force of the case is undermined by considering a variant with immensely negative wellbeing. Offering significant relief to such a “Negative Utility Monster” plausibly should outweigh smaller harms or benefits to others. Our diverging intuitions about the two kinds of utility monsters may be explained conservatively as involving standard prioritarian intuitions: holding that benefits matter more the worse-off their recipient is (and matter less, the better-off their recipient is). This verdict undermines the distinctiveness of the utility monster objection, and reduces its force to whatever level one attributes to prioritarian intuitions in general. More ambitiously, the divergence between the two cases may be taken to support attempts to entirely explain away the original utility-monster intuition, e.g. as illicitly neglecting the existence of an upper bound on the monster’s wellbeing. Such an explanation, if successful, suggests that our intuition about the original utility monster scenario was based on a mistake. Either way, the force of Nozick’s objection is significantly undermined by the Negative Utility Monster.


NUM: just imagine that the cookies are people, and the monster only looks so happy because this is his first respite from torture for several centuries...

8 comments:

  1. Interesting, I hadn't thought of the negative utility monster.

    The positive utility monster objection always seemed strange to me since the common sense view appears to be not far from saying that utility monsters do indeed exist and are called homo sapiens! Admittedly, many people including Nozick would say that what gives humans rights that animal lack is not is not that they have greater capacity for well-being, but that they can form long term plans, deliberate about actions, have ethical views, or something. I quite admire his ruminations at that part of ANU, which ultimately end in him throwing up his hands and saying "I hope to grapple with these and related issues on another occasion."

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  2. Is a similar argument possible to show that playing the game of the St Petersburg paradox (infinite expected utility) is actually rational?

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    1. Hmm, how are you thinking that would go? Starting from a lower baseline would make the infinite expected payoff more appealing, perhaps, but it would also make the near-guaranteed loss all the more painful. So I think the issues there may be independent of these ones. (Curious to hear more though, if you disagree.)

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    2. Imagine a *bad* version of the St. Petersburg game. If you play, you'll receive 2^N seconds of severe pain, where N is the number of 'Heads' flipped before your first 'Tails'. If you get really unlucky, you could end up suffering for days, weeks, years, or even millennia. How much would you pay to *avoid* having to play this 'game'?

      Few would pay a million bucks to play the good St. Pete... but maybe Blair's thought was that we would/should pay an arbitrarily large amount to avoid the bad St. Pete. And if that's right, then maybe we have reason to doubt the original intuition.

      To me, it's not as clear cut as the Num Num, but I do suspect that the good/bad intuitive asymmetry will afflict our judgments in other cases, and it's worth trying to identify them.

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    3. Ah, very good -- thanks for spelling that out! I agree with your last sentence.

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  3. congrats! I have a different case I call the negative utility monster (in my teaching). It's a monster who is incredibly hard to make happy. He is more miserable than any of us and it would take almost all of our resources to move him from really miserable to just a bit less miserable. It seems to show that we shouldn't give too much priority to the least well off.

    Philip Swenson

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    1. Ah neat, Theron Pummer had a similar idea he called the "Priority Monster" (in an unpublished manuscript).

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    2. oh cool, i figured someone else would have hit on the idea. And that's a better name too!

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