Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Scott Sumner's Lukewarm Endorsement of Utilitarianism

He rejects objections that utilitarianism does not meet standards of equality:
It doesn’t merely say “love thy neighbor,” it says that one should care just as much about the well-being of a stranger in a far away country, as one’s family or friends. No favoritism is to be shown to people of different nationalities, races, genders, sexual preferences, or economic class. Very few people, even very few liberals, are quite this unbiased. For instance, in their proposals for domestic and international transfer programs, most liberals act as if they care far more about the poor in their own country than the poor in other countries... Although utilitarianism would theoretically allow for a highly unequal distribution of wealth, as a practical matter it almost certainly favors egalitarian distributions (other things equal), as an extra dollar is probably valued by a poor person much more highly than by a rich person.
One of the big differences between our current society and one that is purely based on our instincts is the reduction in nepotism. Genetically speaking, treating your relatives favorably is an adaptive trait and thus over evolutionary time mutations predisposing us to act in this manner have been selected for. Evidence for this assertion is based upon the high levels of nepotism in extant hunter gatherer tribes, as well as in historical societies.

However, one of society's major shifts as of late has been away from nepotism, which is based not only not a desire for egalitarianism but also competitive pressure. In a free market, those who blindly favor their brothers, aunts, and uncles in business will be less successful, on average, than those who choose simply the most qualified candidate. It is in this way that market principles can lead to the most egalitarian outcome, and it is in this way that utilitarianism likewise represents in many respects the optimally egalitarian solution.

His whole piece is brilliant, but it is of course your choice to read it or not.