Utilitarianism, Welfare, and Information

Utilitarianism is often criticized for making assumptions about welfare comparisons that are too strong to be plausible. Roughly speaking, it assumes that all goods can be precisely measured and compared. This criticism applies both to classical utilitarianism, and to Harsanyi’s more sophisticated version.

However, joint work with Kalle Mikkola and Teru Thomas provides a response. Our version of utilitarianism, a generalization of Harsanyi’s, has almost unlimited flexibility when it comes to welfare comparisons. It allows for all kinds of incomparabilities. The post connects this flexibility with uncertainty.

Utilitarianism

Crudely put, utilitarianism is the thesis that one world is better than another if it contains greater total welfare. This theory of distribution has been much criticised. But it received a major boost in Harsanyi’s 1955 utilitarian theorem.

Harsanyi’s theorem seems to mainly be about expected utility theory. But this makes it subject to versions of some of the traditional criticisms, particularly in the assumptions it makes about welfare comparisons. But joint work with Kalle Mikkola and Teru Thomas provides a reply.

Alternatives

It is common for moral philosophers to describe their own views about distribution in terms of what they see as the problems of utilitarianism. For this project to work well, it has to use the most plausible version of utilitarianism. But philosophers often choose straw man versions.

I have been using my favored account of utilitarianism to provide such a contrastive account of the alternatives. This work focuses on egalitarianism, the priority view, contractualism, personal and impersonal value, and various kinds of threshold views.

Uncertainty

My account of utilitarianism, and therefore the alternatives to it, is all about uncertainty. For simplicity, it is mostly stated in terms of risk, but work in progress explains how to make sense of it for a much wider range of ways of representing uncertainty.

A curiously related project with Branden Fitelson examines a new way of thinking about the foundations of comparative likelihood. We argue that it supports Dempster-Shafer belief functions, of which probability functions are a special case.

Mathematics

Ethics involves complicated problems that overlap with formal epistemology, philosophy of probability, decision theory, and game theory. No one could deny the relevance of mathematics to those subjects, so it would be remarkable if mathematical methods were not central to the study of ethics.

My own work especially involves axiomatic methods. Ordinary language is not well suited to the precise statement of axioms, and it is almost impossible to work out the consequences of even small sets of simple axioms without some mathematics.