Some pitfalls of utilitarianism

My aim in this post is to highlight and discuss what I consider to be some potential pitfalls of utilitarianism. These are not necessarily pitfalls that undermine utilitarianism at a theoretical level (although some of them might also pose a serious challenge at that level). As I see them, they are more pitfalls at the practical level, relating to how utilitarianism is sometimes talked about, thought about, and acted on in ways that may be suboptimal by the standards of utilitarianism itself.

I should note from the outset that this post is not inspired by recent events involving dishonest and ruinous behavior by utilitarian actors; I have been planning to write this post for a long time. But recent events arguably serve to highlight the importance of some of the points I raise below.


Contents

  1. Restrictive formalisms and “formalism first”
  2. Risky and harmful decision procedures
    1. Allowing speculative expected value calculations to determine our actions
    2. Underestimating the importance of emotions, virtues, and other traits of moral actors
    3. Uncertainty-induced moral permissiveness
    4. Uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive
    5. A more plausible approach
  3. The link between utilitarian judgments and Dark Triad traits: A cause for reflection
  4. Acknowledgments

Restrictive formalisms and “formalism first”

A potential pitfall of utilitarianism, in terms of how it is commonly approached, is that it can make us quick to embrace certain formalisms and conclusions, as though we have to accept them on pain of mathematical inconsistency.

Consider the following example: Alice is a utilitarian who thinks that a certain mildly enjoyable experience, x, has positive value. On Alice’s view, it is clear that no number of instances of x would be worse than a state of extreme suffering, since a state of extreme suffering and a mildly enjoyable experience are completely different categories of experience. Over time, Alice reads about different views of wellbeing and axiology, and she eventually changes her position such that she finds it more plausible that no experiential states are above a neutral state, and that no states have intrinsic positive value (i.e. she comes to embrace a minimalist axiology).

Alice thus no longer considers it plausible to assign positive value to experience x, and instead now assigns mildly negative value to the experience (e.g. because the experience is not entirely flawless; it contains some bothersome disturbances). Having changed her mind about the value of experience x, Alice now feels mathematically compelled to say that sufficiently many instances of that experience are worse than any experience of extreme suffering, even though she finds this implausible on its face — she still thinks state x and states of extreme suffering belong to wholly different categories of experience.

To be clear, the point I am trying to make here is not that the final conclusion that Alice draws is implausible. My point is rather that certain prevalent ways of formalizing value can make people feel needlessly compelled to draw particular conclusions, as though there are no coherent alternatives, when in fact there are. More generally, there may be a tendency to “put formalism first”, as it were, rather than to consider substantive plausibility first, and to then identify a coherent formalism that fits our views of substantive plausibility.

Note that the pitfall I am gesturing at here is not one that is strictly implied by utilitarianism, as one can be a utilitarian yet still reject standard formalizations of utilitarianism. But being bound to a restrictive formalization scheme nevertheless seems common, in my experience, among those who endorse or sympathize with utilitarianism.

Risky and harmful decision procedures

A standard distinction in consequentialist moral theory is that between ‘consequentialist criteria of rightness’ and ‘consequentialist decision procedures’. One might endorse a consequentialist criterion of rightness — meaning that consequences determine whether a given action is right or wrong — without necessarily endorsing consequentialist decision procedures, i.e. decision procedures in which one decides how to act based on case-by-case calculations of the expected outcomes.

Yet while this distinction is often emphasized, it still seems that utilitarianism is prone to inspire suboptimal decision procedures, also by its own standards (as a criterion of rightness). The following are a few of the ways in which utilitarianism can inspire suboptimal decision procedures, attitudes, and actions by its own standards.

Allowing speculative expected value calculations to determine our actions

A particular pitfall is to let our actions be strongly determined by speculative expected value calculations. There are various reasons why this may be suboptimal by utilitarian standards, but an important one is simply that the probabilities that go into such calculations are likely to be inaccurate. If our probability estimates on a given matter are highly uncertain and likely to change a lot as we learn more, there is a large risk that it is suboptimal to make any strong bets on our current estimates.

The robustness of a given probability estimate is thus a key factor to consider when deciding whether to act on that estimate, yet it can be easy to neglect this factor in real-world decisions.

Underestimating the importance of emotions, virtues, and other traits of moral actors

A related pitfall is to underestimate the significance of emotions, attitudes, and virtues. Specifically, if we place a strong emphasis on the consequences of actions, we might in turn be inclined to underemphasize the traits and dispositions of the moral actors themselves. Yet the traits and dispositions of moral actors are often critical to emphasize and to actively develop if we are to create better outcomes. Our cerebral faculties and our intuitive attitudinal faculties can both be seen as tools that enable us to navigate the world, and the latter are often more helpful for creating desired outcomes than the former (cf. Gigerenzer, 2001).

A specific context in which I and others have tried to argue for the importance of underlying attitudes and traits, in contrast to mere cerebral beliefs, is when it comes to animal ethics. In particular, engaging in practices that are transparently harmful and exploitative toward non-human beings is harmful not only in terms of how it directly contributes to those specific exploitative practices, but also in terms of how it shapes our emotions, attitudes, and traits — and thus ultimately our behavior.

More generally, to emphasize outcomes while placing relatively little emphasis on the traits of humans, as moral actors, seems to overlook the largely habitual and disposition-based nature of human behavior. After all, our emotions and attitudes not only play important roles in our individual motivations and actions, but also in the social incentives that influence the behavior of others (cf. Haidt, 2001).

In short, if one embraces a consequentialist criterion of rightness, it seems that there are good reasons to cultivate the temperament of a virtue ethicist and the felt attitudes of a non-consequentialist who finds certain actions unacceptable in practically all situations.

Uncertainty-induced moral permissiveness

Another pitfall is to practically surrender one’s capacity for moral judgment due to uncertainty about long-term outcomes. In its most extreme manifestations, this might amount to declaring that we do not know whether people who committed large-scale atrocities in the past acted wrongly, since we do not know the ultimate consequences of those actions. But perhaps a more typical manifestation is to fail to judge, let alone oppose, ongoing harmful actions and intolerant values (e.g. clear cases of discrimination), again with reference to uncertainty about the long-term consequences of those actions and values.

This pitfall relates to the point about dispositions and attitudes made above, in that the disposition to be willing to judge and oppose harmful actions and views plausibly has better overall consequences than a disposition to be meek and unwilling to take a strong stance against such things.

After all, while there is significant uncertainty about the long-term future, one can still make reasonable inferences about which broad directions we should ideally steer our civilization toward over the long term (e.g. toward showing concern for suffering in prudent yet morally serious ways). Utilitarians have reason to help steer the future in those directions, and to develop traits and attitudes that are commensurate with such directional changes. (See also “Radical uncertainty about outcomes need not imply (similarly) radical uncertainty about strategies”.)

Uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive

A related pitfall is uncertainty-induced lack of moral drive, whereby empirical uncertainty serves as a stumbling block to dedicated efforts to help others. This is probably also starkly suboptimal, for reasons similar to those outlined above: all things considered, it is likely ideal to develop a burning drive to help other sentient beings, despite uncertainty about long-term outcomes.

Perhaps the main difficulty in this respect is to know which particular project or aim is most important to work on. Yet a potential remedy to this problem (here conveyed in a short and crude fashion) might be to first make a dedicated effort toward the concrete goal of figuring out which projects or aims seem most worth pursuing — i.e. a broad and systematic search, informed by copious reading. And when one has eventually identified an aim or project that seems promising, it might be helpful to somewhat relax the “doubting modules” of our minds and to stick to that project for a while, pursuing the chosen aim with dedication (unless something clearly better comes up).

A more plausible approach

The previous sections have mostly pointed to suboptimal ways to approach utilitarian decision procedures. In this section, I want to briefly outline what I would consider a more defensible way to approach decision-making from a utilitarian perspective (whether one is a pure utilitarian or whether one merely includes a utilitarian component in one’s moral view).

I think two key facts must inform any plausible approach to utilitarian decision procedures:

  1. We have massive empirical uncertainty.
  2. We humans have a strong proclivity to deceive ourselves in self-serving ways.

These two observations carry significant implications. In short, they suggest that we should generally approach moral decisions with considerable humility, and with a strong sense of skepticism toward conclusions that are conveniently self-serving or low on integrity.

Given our massive uncertainty and our endlessly rationalizing minds, the ideal approach to utilitarian decision procedures is probably one that has a rather large distance between the initial question of “how to act” and the final decision to pursue a given action — at least when one is trying to calculate one’s way to an optimal decision (as opposed to when one is relying on commonly endorsed rules of thumb or intuitions). And this distance should probably be especially large if the decision that at first seems most recommendable is one that other moral views, along with common-sense intuitions, would deem profoundly wrong.

In other words, it seems that utilitarian decision procedures are best approached by assigning a fairly high prior to the judgments of other ethical views and common-sense moral intuitions (in terms of how plausible those judgments are from a utilitarian perspective), at least when these other views and intuitions converge strongly on a given conclusion. And it seems warranted to then be quite cautious and slow to update away from that prior, in part because of our massive uncertainty and our self-deceived minds. This is not to say that one could not end up with significant divergences relative to other widely endorsed moral views, but merely that such strong divergences probably need to be supported by a level of evidence that exceeds a rather high bar.

Likewise, it seems worth approaching utilitarian decision procedures with a prior that strongly favors actions of high integrity, not least because we should expect our rationalizing minds to be heavily biased toward low integrity — especially when nobody is looking.

Put briefly, it seems that a more defensible approach to utilitarian decision procedures would be animated by significant humility and would embody a strong inclination toward key virtues of integrity, kindness, honesty, etc., partly due to our strong tendency to excuse and rationalize deficiencies in these regards.

There are many studies that find a modest but significant association between proto-utilitarian judgments and the personality traits of psychopathy (impaired empathy) and Machiavellianism (manipulativeness and deceitfulness). (See Bartels & Pizarro, 2011; Koenigs et al., 2012; Gao & Tang, 2013; Djeriouat & Trémolière, 2014; Amiri & Behnezhad, 2017; Balash & Falkenbach, 2018; Karandikar et al., 2019; Halm & Möhring, 2019; Dinić et al., 2020; Bolelli, 2021; Luke & Gawronski, 2021; Schönegger, 2022.)

Specifically, the aspect of utilitarian judgment that seems most associated with psychopathy is the willingness to commit harm for the sake of the greater good, whereas endorsement of impartial beneficence — a core feature of utilitarianism and many other moral views — is associated with empathic concern, and is thus negatively associated with psychopathy (Kahane et al., 2018; Paruzel-Czachura & Farny, 2022). Another study likewise found that the connection between psychopathy and utilitarian moral judgments is in part explained by a reduced aversion to carrying out harmful acts (Patil, 2015).

Of course, whether a particular moral view, or a given feature of a moral view, is associated with certain undesirable personality traits by no means refutes that moral view. But the findings reviewed above might still be a cause for self-reflection among those of us who endorse or sympathize with some form of utilitarianism.

For example, maybe utilitarians are generally inclined to have fewer moral inhibitions compared to most people — e.g. because utilitarian reasoning might override intuitive judgments and norms, or because utilitarians are (perhaps) above average in trait Machiavellianism, in which case they might have fewer strongly felt moral inhibitions to overcome in the first place. And if utilitarians do tend to have fewer or weaker moral restraints of certain kinds, this could in turn dispose them to be less ethical in some respects, also by their own standards.

To be clear, this is all somewhat speculative. Yet, at the same time, these speculations are not wholly unmotivated. In terms of potential upshots, it seems that a utilitarian proneness to reduced moral restraint, if real, would give utilitarian actors additional reason to be skeptical of inclinations to disregard common moral inhibitions against harmful acts and low-integrity behavior. In short, it would give utilitarians even more reason to err on the side of integrity.

Acknowledgments

For helpful comments, I am grateful to Tobias Baumann, Simon Knutsson, and Winston Oswald-Drummond.

Underappreciated consequentialist reasons to avoid consuming animal products

While there may be strong deontological or virtue-ethical reasons to avoid consuming animal products (“as far as is possible and practicable”), the consequentialist case for such avoidance is quite weak.

Or at least this appears to be a common view in some consequentialist-leaning circles. My aim in this post is to argue against this view. On a closer look, we find many strong consequentialist reasons to avoid the consumption of animal products.

The direct effects on the individuals we eat

99 percent of animals raised for food in the US, and more than 90 percent globally, live out their lives on factory farms. These are lives of permanent confinement to very small spaces, often involving severe abuse, as countless undercover investigations have revealed. And their slaughter frequently involves extreme suffering as well — for example, about a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive in the US every year, and fish, the vast majority of farmed vertebrates, are usually slaughtered without any stunning. They are routinely suffocated to death, frozen to death, and cut in ways that leave them to bleed to death (exsanguination). 

Increasing such suffering via one’s marginal consumption is bad on virtually all consequentialist views. And note that, empirically, it turns out that people who aspire to avoid meat from factory farmed animals (“conscientious omnivores”) actually often do not (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2; Rothgerber, 2015). And an even greater discrepancy between ideals and actuality is found in the behavior of those who believe that the animals they eat are “treated well”, which in the US is around 58 percent of people, despite the fact that over 99 percent of farm animals in the US live on factory farms (Reese, 2017).

Furthermore, even in Brian Tomasik’s analyses that factor in the potential of animal agriculture to reduce wild-animal suffering, the consumption of virtually all animal “products” is recommended against — including eggs and meat from fish (farmed and wild-caught), chickens, pigs, and (especially) insects. Brian argues that the impact of not consuming meat is generally positive, both because of the direct marginal impact (“avoiding eating one chicken or fish roughly translates to one less chicken or fish raised and killed”) and because of the broader social effects (more on the latter below).

The above is an important consequentialist consideration against consuming animal products. Yet unfortunately, consequentialist analyses tend to give far too much weight to this consideration alone, and to treat it as the end-all be-all of consequentialist arguments against consuming animal products when, in fact, it is not necessarily even one of the most weighty arguments.

Institutional effects

Another important consideration has to do with the institutional effects of animal consumption. These effects seem superficially similar to those discussed in the previous point, yet they are in fact quite distinct.

Anti-charity

For one, there is the increased financial support to an industry that not only systematically harms currently existing individuals, but which also, perhaps more significantly, actively works to undermine moral concern for future non-human individuals. It does this through influential lobbying activities and by advertising in ways that effectively serve as propaganda against non-human animals (that is certainly what we would call it in the human case if an industry continually worked to legitimize the exploitation and killing of certain human individuals; in fact, “propaganda” may be overly euphemistic).

Supporting this industry can be seen as anti-charity of sorts, as it pushes us away from betterment for non-human animals at the level of our broader institutions. And this effect could well be more significant than the direct marginal impact on non-human beings consumed, as such institutional factors may be a greater determinant of how many such beings will suffer in the future.

Not only are these institutional effects negative for future farmed animals, but the resulting reinforcement of speciesism and apathy toward non-human animals in general likely also impedes concern for wild animals in particular. And given the numbers, this effect may be even more important than the negative effect on future farmed animals.

Anti-activism

Another institutional effect is that, when we publicly buy or consume animal products, we signal to other people that non-human individuals can legitimately be viewed as food, and that we approve of the de facto horrific institution of animal agriculture. This signaling effect is difficult to avoid even if we do not in fact condone most of the actual practices involved. After all, virtually nobody condones the standard practices, such as the castration of pigs without anesthetics. And yet virtually all of us still condone these practices behaviorally, and indeed effectively support their continuation.

In this way, publicly buying or consuming animal products can, regardless of one’s intentions, end up serving as miniature anti-activism against the cause of reducing animal suffering — it serves to normalize a collectively perpetrated atrocity — while choosing to forego such products can serve as miniature activism in favor of the cause.

One may object that the signaling effects of such individual actions are insignificant. Yet we are generally not inclined to say the same about the signaling effects of, say, starkly racist remarks, even when the individuals whom the remarks are directed against will never know about them (e.g. when starkly anti-black sentiments are shared in forums with white people only). The reason, I think, is that we realize that such remarks do have negative effects down the line, and we realize that these effects are not minor.

It is widely acknowledged that, to human psychology, racism is a ticking bomb that we should make a consistent effort to steer away from, lest we corrode our collective attitudes and in turn end up systematically exploiting and harming certain groups of individuals. We have yet to realize that the same applies to speciesism.

For a broader analysis of the social effects of the institution of animal exploitation, see (John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3). Though note that I disagree with John and Sebo’s classical utilitarian premise, which would allow us to farm individuals, and even kill them in the most horrible ways, provided that their lives were overall “net positive” (the horrible death included). I think this notion of “net positive” needs to be examined at length, especially in the interpersonal context where some beings’ happiness is claimed to outweigh the extreme suffering of others.

Influence on our own perception

The influence on our own attitudes and thinking is another crucial factor. Indeed, for a consequentialist trying to think straight about how to prioritize one’s resources for optimal impact, this may be the most important reason not to consume animal products.

Moral denigration is a well-documented effect

Common sense suggests that we cannot think clearly about the moral status of a given group of individuals as long as we eat them. Our evolutionary history suggests the same: it was plausibly adaptive in our evolutionary past to avoid granting any considerable moral status to individuals categorized as “food animals”.

Psychological studies bear out common sense and evolution-based speculation. In Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption, Brock Bastian and colleagues demonstrated that people tend to ascribe diminished mental capacities to “food animals”; that “meat eaters are motivated to deny minds to food animals when they are reminded of the link between meat and animal suffering”; and that such mind denial is increased when people expect to eat meat in the near future.

Another study (Bratanova et al., 2011) found that:

categorization as food — but not killing or human responsibility — was sufficient to reduce the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn restricted moral concern.

This finding is in line with the prevalence of so-called consistency effects, our psychological tendency to adapt beliefs that support our past and present behavior (see Salamon & Rayhawk’s Cached Selves and Huemer, 2010, “5.d Coherence bias”). For example, “I eat animals, and hence animals don’t suffer so much and don’t deserve great moral consideration”. 

And yet another study (Loughnan et al., 2010) found that the moral numbing effects of meat eating applied to other non-human animals as well, suggesting that these numbing effects may extend to wild animals:

Eating meat reduced the perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals in general and the perceived moral status of the [animal being eaten].

(See also Jeff Sebo’s talk A utilitarian case for animal rights and John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2.)

These studies confirm a point that a number of philosophers have been trying to convey for a while (see John & Sebo, 2020, 3.2 for a brief review). Here is Peter Singer in Practical Ethics (as quoted in ibid.):

it would be better to reject altogether the killing of animals for food, unless one must do so to survive. Killing animals for food makes us think of them as objects that we can use as we please …

And such objectification, in turn, has horrendous consequences. This is usually quite obvious in the human case: few people are tempted to claim that it would be inconsequential if we began eating a given group of humans, even if we stipulated that these humans had the same mental abilities as, say, pigs. Singer’s point about objectification is obvious to most people in this case, and most consequentialists would probably say that raising, killing, and eating humans could only be recommended by very naive and incomplete consequentialist analyses detached from the real world — not least the realities of human psychology. Yet the same ought to be concluded when the beings in question possess not just the minds but also the bodies of pigs.

Relatedly, in the hypothetical case where systematic exploitation of certain humans is the norm, few consequentialists would be tempted to say that abstention from the consumption of human products (e.g. human body parts or forcefully obtained breast milk) is insignificant, or say that it is not worth sticking with it because other things are more important. For on reflection, when we put on the more sophisticated consequentialist hat, we realize that such abstention probably is an important component of the broader set of actions that constitutes the ethically optimal path forward. The same ought to be concluded, I submit, in the non-human case.

Note, finally, that even if we believed ourselves to be exceptions to all of the psychological tendencies reviewed above — a belief we should be skeptical of given the prevalence of illusory superiority — it would still be hypocritical and a failure of integrity if we ourselves did not follow a norm that we would recommend others to follow. And consequentialists have good reasons to show high integrity.

Self-serving biases

This is more of a meta consideration suggesting that 1) we should be skeptical of convenient conclusions, and 2) we should adhere to stricter principles than a naive consequentialist analysis might imply.

A good reason to adhere to reasonably strict principles is that, if we loosen our principles and leave everything up for case-by-case calculation, we open the door for biases to sneak in.

As Jamie Mayerfeld writes in Suffering and Moral Responsibility (p. 121):

An agent who regarded [sound moral principles] as mere rules of thumb would ignore them whenever she calculated that compliance wasn’t necessary to minimize the cumulative badness of suffering. The problem is that it might also be in her own interest to violate these principles, and self-interest could distort her calculations, even when she calculated sincerely. She could thus acquire a pattern of violating the principles even when compliance with them really was necessary to prevent the worst cumulative suffering. To avoid this, we would want her to feel strongly inhibited from violating the principles. Inhibitions of this kind can insulate agents from the effect of biased calculations.

And there are indeed many reasons to think that our “calculations” are strongly biased against concern for non-human individuals and against the conclusion that we should stop consuming them. For example, there is the fact that people who do not consume animal products face significant stigma — for example, one US study found that people tended to evaluate vegans more negatively than other minority groups, such as atheists and homosexuals; “only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarians and vegans”. And a recent study suggested that fear of stigmatization is among the main reasons why people do not want to stop eating animal products. Yet fear of stigmatization is hardly, on reflection, a sound moral reason to eat animal products.

A more elaborate review of relevant biases can be found in (Vinding, 2018, “Bias Alert: We Should Expect to Be Extremely Biased”; Vinding, 2020, 11.5).

Human externalities

Defenses of the consumption of non-human individuals often rest on strongly anthropocentric values (which cannot be justified). But even on such anthropocentric terms, a surprisingly strong case can in fact be made against animal consumption given the negative effects animal agriculture has on human health — effects that individual consumption will also contribute to on the margin.

First, as is quite salient these days, animal agriculture significantly increases the risk of zoonotic diseases. Many of the most lethal diseases of the last century were zoonotic diseases that spread to humans due to animal agriculture and/or animal consumption, including the 1918 flu (50-100 million deaths), AIDS (30-40 million deaths), the Hong Kong flu (1-4 million deaths), and the 1957-1958 flu (1-4 million deaths). The same is true of the largest epidemics so far in this century, such as SARS, Ebola, COVID-19, and various bird and swine flus.

As noted in (Babatunde, 2011):

A remarkable 61 percent of all human pathogens, and 75 percent of new human pathogens, are transmitted by animals, and some of the most lethal bugs affecting humans originate in our domesticated animals.

Antibiotic resistance is another health problem exacerbated by animal agriculture. Each year in the US, more than 35,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections, which is more than twice the annual number of US gun homicides. And around 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US are given to non-human animals — often simply to promote growth rather than to fight infections. In other words, animal agriculture is a key contributor to antibiotic resistance.

The environmental effects of animal agriculture represent another important factor, or rather set of factors. There is pollution — “ammonia pollution linked to U.S. farming may impose human health costs that are greater than the profits earned by agricultural exports”. There are greenhouse gases contributing significantly to climate change. There is nitrate contamination of the groundwater from manure:

The EPA found that nitrates are the most widespread agricultural contaminant in drinking water wells and estimates that 4.5 million people [in the US] are exposed to elevated nitrate levels from drinking water wells. Nitrates, if they find their way into the groundwater, can potentially be fatal to infants.

Beyond the environmental effects, there are also significant health risks associated with the direct consumption of animal products, including red meat, chicken meat, fish meat, eggs and dairy. Conversely, significant health benefits are associated with alternative sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds. This is relevant both collectively, for the sake of not supporting industries that actively promote poor human nutrition in general, as well as individually, to maximize one’s own health so one can be more effectively altruistic.

A more thorough review of the human costs of animal agriculture are found in (Vinding, 2014, ch. 2).

In sum, one could argue that we also have a strong obligation to our fellow humans to avoid contributing to the various human health problems and risks caused by animal agriculture.

Both/And

What I have said above may seem in tension with the common consequentialist critique that says that animal advocates focus too much on individual consumer behavior. Yet in reality, there is no tension. It is both true, I submit, that avoiding the consumption of animal products is important (in purely consequentialist terms) and that most animal advocates focus far too much on individual consumer change compared to institutional change and wild-animal suffering. The latter point does not negate the former (the same view is expressed in John & Sebo, 2020, 3.3).

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