The long scale of utility

by Paul Crowley

The way that utilitarianism is normally stated is a terrible way to think about it which leads to real errors. Wikipedia:

Utilitarianism [holds] that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility

This idea strikes terror into people’s hearts: this is a standard that no-one could possibly live up to. Even Toby Ord occasionally buys himself a treat. This is the heart of the demandingness objection to utilitarianism. I think this definition says both too much and too little; it comments only on the highest point on the scale, where a better definition can illuminate the whole scale. I would rather say this:

A course of action that results in higher utility is proportionally better.

So yes, it’s better to give all your money to GiveDirectly than to spend it all on a yacht. But it’s also better to give £5 to GiveDirectly than nothing; and having given £5, you can feel good that your action is better than giving £0 and wonder if you might give £10 which would be better still.

People spend a lot of effort on trying to work out whether they reach the bar on their actions, and where the bar should be. They are hard on themselves for not reaching the bar they set, and worry that if they stopped being hard on themselves they would slide back and fail to achieve what they could. Utilitarianism, by the first definition, seems to set a bar so high that you can’t hope to reach it. But the truth is, there is no bar; there’s an infinitely long scale of utility. And so the question is not “is this the very best I can do”, but “can I do better than this? How much better?”

(A post I’ve been meaning to write for some time finally prompted by a blog post by Julia Wise, which in turn arose out of a conversation with me, her and Jeff Kaufman)