Utilitarianism and Psychopathy

From “No, Utilitarians Are Not Nice,” at Commentary:

The Economist reports two researchers from Columbia and Cornell have been studying the personalities of individuals who, in surveys, express a willingness to personally kill one human in the hope of saving more. Their conclusion is there is “a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas . . . and personalities that were psychopathic.” The Economist’s conclusion, in its usual slightly tongue-in-cheek style, is utilitarianism is a “plausible framework” for producing legislation, and the best legislators are therefore psychopathic misanthropes….

What is missing … in the Economist’s praise of law-making as expressing the will of the psychopath, is the point from Friedrich Hayek​ that Steve Hayward has been making on Power Line recently: “Central planning cannot work because it is trying to substitute an individual all-knowing intelligence for a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.”

I will resist the justifiable temptation to apply the label of psychopath to executive, legislative, and judicial law-makers. But I will call them deluded in the extreme if they believe in the possibility of determining the greatest good for the greatest number. Hayek’s objection to central planning hints at the fundamental problem with utilitarianism, but does not quite hit it dead-center.

The fundamental problem with utilitarianism, as it is practiced by governments, is that it relies on something called cost-benefit analysis. It is modern utilitarianism:

Governments often subject proposed projects and regulations (e.g., new highway construction, automobile safety requirements) to cost-benefit analysis. The theory of cost-benefit analysis is simple: If the expected benefits from a government project or regulation are greater than its expected costs, the project or regulation is economically justified. Luckily, most “justified” projects are scrapped or substantially altered by the intervention of political bargaining and budget constraints, but many of them are undertaken — only to cost far more than estimated and return far less than expected.

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

The true psychopathy of (most) law-makers (and others) is not found in their utilitarianism per se but in their raw urge to control the lives of others. Utilitarianism is an excuse to exercise that raw urge, not the source of it.

Related posts:
Modern Utilitarianism
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
The Social Welfare Function
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Case of the Purblind Economist