George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Professor studies how utilitarianism provides framework for major policy decisions

Mon, 06/16/2014

LAWRENCE — Critics have decried the use of utilitarianism to justify major American policy changes, like the Affordable Care Act and raising the minimum wage, instead arguing both fail the "do no harm" test.

But a University of Kansas researcher who recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism says the theory based on the maximization of overall well-being is the most well-suited way of thinking in political philosophy to make sound large-scale policy decisions.

"It doesn’t make sense to insist on 'do no harm' when the status quo presents us with problems that need to be addressed," said Ben Eggleston, associate professor of philosophy. "The status quo has real shortcomings, and it is worth looking into whether we can make improvements. All major policy decisions involve tradeoffs, and utilitarianism provides a framework for making those tradeoffs and trying to do so in the way that promotes the common good the most."

Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century pioneered utilitarianism, and it remains influential in contemporary moral philosophy.

Eggleston, who co-edited the book with Dale E. Miller, a professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University, said one argument against using utilitarianism to justify policies, such as increasing the minimum wage or instituting mandatory health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, centers on some unusual hypothetical cases instead of considering broader, more complex policy questions.

N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard University economics professor, in a March New York Times column criticized both policies, saying they would have unintended consequences and do harm to business, for example. He argued against using utilitarianism as a public policy framework and mentioned the ethical dilemma of a doctor weighing harvesting the organs of one healthy patient to save four dying patients. "At this point, almost everyone balks," Mankiw wrote. "Sometimes, respecting natural rights trumps maximizing utility."

Eggleston said while that scenario is useful to discuss in introductory-level ethics courses when talking about utilitarianism, it's less applicable when trying to decide large-scale policy decisions.

"You don't have to endorse forcibly removing some people’s organs, such as in that hypothetical example, in order to think that when it comes to large-scale economic planning, we ought to choose the policy that maximizes benefits and minimizes harms," he said.

He said when Congress debates issues like the Affordable Care Act or raising the minimum wage, it's to address existing harm or problems with the status quo, such as people not being able to secure health insurance due to pre-existing conditions or still living below the poverty line despite working a full-time job.

"At that scale it's much more plausible to think in terms of figuring out what's the policy that will maximize the balance of benefits minus harms," Eggleston said. "Acknowledging that any policy you choose is going to have some harm and some benefit, you've just got to try to pick the best one."

He said utilitarian ideas have been appealed to in the advocacy of both liberal policies — such as Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Johnson’s “Great Society” — and conservative principles, such as the free-market idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

"In many ways, utilitarianism is very intuitive. I would hope that when we think about the plausibility of utilitarianism in public-policy situations, we don't get distracted by unrealistic, hypothetical examples, even though they can be fun to think about," Eggleston said. "They shouldn't cause us to reject the whole idea of trading off between costs and benefits, which is essential if we are to think intelligently about public-policy decisions."

In addition to co-editing the book, published in March by Cambridge University Press, Eggleston co-wrote the introduction and composed a chapter on act utilitarianism, an ethical theory that argues in any situation a person acts rightly if he or she maximizes overall well-being and wrongly if he or she does not.

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