The Utility of Utilitarianism

(This topic is inspired by a class I recently look via iTunesU, ‘Justice by Michael Sandel’, one of Harvard University’s most popular courses. I draw upon a couple of his examples to make my points)

Justice is one of the most popular classes at Harvard@

Over the last few days, I have ‘morally awakened’ to ‘self-knowledge’ through introspecting about some of the toughest questions facing mankind since the dawn of civilisation. The trouble with ‘self knowledge’ is that it is like the loss of innocence; once lost, it cannot be un-thought or un-known. Moral philosophy is greater trouble; it replaces scepticism which is like ‘the resting place of human reason’ by setting off an internal debate that ‘unsettles us by showing us what we already know’, but offering no satisfactory answers or conclusions that may be enabling an eager mind to sleep at rest.

However, it is precisely the nature and consequentiality of these questions that make them important even to an active citizen whose interests may lie beyond academic philosophy. The thinking and rationality of the State in framing and administering its public policy is enshrined in the opinions and views that our decision-makers hold on some of these very questions, making them an important study for any person with an interest in political science, behavioural psychology or public administration.

The principle of Utilitarianism argues that the fit course of action is one that maximises overall happiness, in other words, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Propounded by Jeremy Bentham and expanded by John Stuart Mill, the theory argues that the moral debate for any decision is to be based simply on the net ‘marginal utility’ of the said action. For students of economics and finance, the theory translates itself into a widely-accepted and applied ‘cost benefit analyses.

J S Mill was one of the proponents of utilitarianism

To this effect, let us consider a few questions of policy where utilitarianism does seem to have been applied–

  1. India’s policy on cigarettes has been lopsided at best, on one hand, the Finance Minister seeks to increase excise duty on the manufacture of cigarettes every other budget, while the Health ministry recently banned smoking in public places. The reason why it is lopsided is because both actions lead to very opposite consequences, the former, adds to the State’s Treasury while the other reduces its intake.

Of course, an argument can be made that higher taxes will itself lead to lower consumption – but if the goal of the State was to reduce consumption, it could simply follow a policy of banning the sale of cigarettes themselves (there is plenty of evidence of there being a negative health impact due to smoking and Governments have successfully banned the sale of ‘gutka’).

The thinking here, perhaps is based on a somewhat cost-benefit analysis of the decision, where the ‘benefits’ include primarily, a great source of tax revenue (which can be used for a variety of public goods than benefit a larger group of the population) which triumphs the ‘costs’ such as the loss of life and health of a few individuals and the grief, pain and suffering of their families and friends (represented by a significantly smaller group of the population).

  1. Another lopsided public policy has been India’s Right to Education Bill, which promises free education to children between the ages of 6 to 14. It also requires the reservation of 25% seats in private schools to children from underprivileged sections of society, with the schools being compensated by the State for each child they enrol in this manner. (The amount of compensation is still being fixed – while the policy has already been put into effect!)

Clearly, the State is working on the logic that the ‘benefits’ of going to a well-run private educational institution for a child who without this policy would not have had access to such quality of education outweigh the ‘inconvenience’ of having a child from an underprivileged background amidst children of well-heeled backgrounds and the slight increase in fees needed from the rich parents to subsidise the poor child’s cost.

While the question of whether this policy was indeed the best for the masses and how effective it would actually be is a matter of great debate, the logic behind the policymakers’ thinking was clearly utilitarian in some (if not all) respects.

A Calvin comic strip depicting happiness for the ‘greatest number’

However, it is interesting to see how public responses change when we push the envelope and enter more controversial territories –

  1. Consider the Land Acquisition policy and the emotional responses it generates from public figures across the country. Previously, when land was notified for Special Economic Zones (‘SEZ’) the Government took the responsibility for land acquisition, and while compensation was appealable, the decision to acquire land was not to be questioned. This was classic utilitarian: a few people had to sacrifice some part of their property rights, for the larger development of the nation.

However, the glowing inequality between the rising skyscrapers and the marginalised farmer landowners did lead to protests and since every Government must consider the political implications of its actions, this policy was promptly withdrawn. The proposed Bill on Land Acquisition envisages getting consent of 75% of the landowners before land acquisition can be effected, raising the question – how did we arrive at the 75% number? Is it an arbitrary, feel-good, safely in the majority kind of number? What about the ‘property rights’ of the remaining 25% – how does the decision of other people affect the validity of one’s own rights?

  1. While property rights are still a topic where several people will argue on utilitarian principles (Heard during a 5 star brunch on Sunday: “Look at China, they are building power plants and highways ~2x faster than us – we need to reduce our implementation delays!” – a largely ignored point is China can bulldoze any slums that come in its highways’ way), when it comes to ‘more fundamental’ rights, the decision becomes tougher. Consider the following situation –

“Say before 26/11 happened – on 25/11, the Indian police manage to catch hold of Kasab and know for sure that there is a major terrorist attack happening the next day in the city. It is sure that hundreds of people are going to lose their life in this attack. Kasab is refusing to talk – should the police torture him to save those lives? Or is the idea of torture itself fundamentally  flawed and wrong to human sensibilities?”

If your response to the previous question is that the ends do justify the means of torture, than consider a further scenario:

“Say Kasab is immune to torture techniques and you have just a few hours to break him. You manage to also capture his wife and child in the process. Would we now be okay to torture an innocent person to get Kasab to talk?”

Even the most opinionated person would agree that there is no easy answer to these questions of morality. However, as responsible citizens of the world increasingly empowered to take a stand on the issues facing us, such questions would form the foundations of our ideology and thinking. It is important for us to question the assumptions and moral thinking of the policies our administrators enact and enforce and to debate their rationality and reasonableness.

Obama vs Romney, in the race for the most powerful job on Earth

In the 2012 Presidential election in the United States, one key point of difference between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney is on tax policy; Obama is advocating the ‘Buffett rule’ which (in simple terms) requires the top 1% of the population to pay higher rates of tax to offset America’s growing deficit (pure utilitarian thinking), while Romney believes that doing so would be counter-effective since these are the most important contributors to the economy (the economic reasoning is debateable but his view is that you should be ‘punished’ for your success).

Only the most extreme among us will believe that blanket utilitarianism is the answer, most will fall somewhere in the middle. But where in between the majority falls is rather blurred; when do individual rights take precedence over the ‘greater good’? It does not help that sometimes the consequences themselves may be unclear, making the weighting of benefits vs the costs even more subjective? (‘What if you only had suspicion that Kasab knows about the terrorist attack – would it still be OK to torture him or his kid?)

A cartoon quip on the ‘utility’ of utilitarianism!

The question remains: At what point of time does the idea of collective marginalisation of personal liberties rise to the level of ‘disgust’ and unacceptability to a civilised race? Is it at the stage where land is compulsorily acquired to build a road? Or when our police torture of a guilty man to save a 100 lives? Or when they torture of an innocent person to save a 100 lives? Or perhaps, at cannibalism – where one man kills another in order to survive after a shipwreck? (Queen Vs Stevens and Dudley)? Or at the Roman Colosseum festival – where Christians were thrown to hungry lions in the face of cheering Romans for public entertainment?

It is indeed, your line to draw.

(If you would like to comment, discuss, criticise or debate utilitarianism, I am happy to talk. You can reach me at @aniket_nikumb on twitter or via email)