Reply: What’s the Matter with Utilitarianism
Posted April 7, 2008on:
Over at the very good blog Long ago and not true anyway,
Utilitarianism leaves no place for justice at a philosophical level … (in utilitarianism) justice is there simply because it helps make us all better off; not because it is right to put wrongs to right
Given that the economic method is fundamentally utilitarian I feel that I have to say a little about this.
Justice is a normative, equity based issue. Defining what is just requires making a value judgment about what is right and what is wrong. Stating that certain things are right or wrong simply tells us what value judgments we are making regarding morality. The beauty of utilitarianism is that it allows us to decompose a situation and define when something is “right” or “wrong”.
As we have discussed earlier, if we are willing to abstract sufficiently we should be able to place equity and efficiency concerns into one single framework. Then the distinction of what is right or wrong will depend clearly on the value judgments we feed into our abstract model/thought experiment.
Utilitarianism doesn’t tell us that there is no such thing as a right or wrong action, but it does allow us a way of viewing problems given some social value of what is right or wrong. Ultimately, a trade-off can exist between something that is “morally” right and something that is technically efficient – the appropriate choice will depend on the value that society places on “morality”.