Saturday, August 8, 2009

Not quite utilitarianism

In a good post defending his paper about inequality against two progressive bloggers, Will Wilkinson writes,

Most importantly, utilitarianism is false...Like Rawls, I think the fact that utilitarianism is completely indifferent to the question of whether an individual’s income and wealth is or is not a result of exchange according to fair procedures is one of the main reasons it is false. How we came to have what we have matters. Utilitarianism says it doesn’t matter. So utilitarianism is false. As far as I’m concerned, the main reason you can’t just take my TV or take the money out of my wallet and give it to somebody who would get more out of it is that it’s my TV, it’s my money. It’s not yours to redistribute.
This surprised and confused me because he recently paid lip service to John Stuart Mill. I guess I need to read more Mill so that I can understand this apparent contradiction.

It seems intuitively correct to me that a true ethical framework cannot be one where a system of violence is implemented to correct for the organic, peaceful actions of people. So, I think Wilkinson's point is totally correct. I suppose this means my position of being strictly deferential to ordinal utility, and not cardinal utility, shouldn't be called utilitarianism.

I only respect ordinal utility because, in a Hayekian way, it is not possible, nor in any way meaningful, to compare the value of one person's enjoyment of an activity or good to another person's enjoyment of the same. Have I stumbled upon some new derivation of a theory of natural rights? I doubt it; I'm just fumbling about as I search for ethical truths. I wonder who the intellectual trailblazers are that have advocated for a justification of individual rights by, at least partially, rejecting cardinal utility.

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