Joe Carlsmith on the utilitarian dream

I think there’s a certain type of person who comes to philosophy and encounters ideas — a certain set of kind of simple and kind of otherwise elegant or theoretically attractive ideas. The ideas I most think of as in this cluster — and this is all separable — is total utilitarianism, Bayesianism, expected utility reasoning.

I remember at one point I was talking with a friend of mine, who used to be a utilitarian, about one of his views. And I started to offer a counterexample to his views, and he just cut me off and he was like, Joe, I bite all the bullets.” I was like, You don’t even need to hear the bullets?” He’s like, Yeah. It’s like, whatever. Does it fall out of my view? I bite it.”

So I think that a certain kind of person in this mindset can feel like, Sure, there are bullets I need to bite for this view. I need to push fat men off of bridges; I need to create repugnant conclusions, even with a bunch of hells involved.” All this sort of stuff. But they feel like, I am hardcore, I am rigorous, I have theorems to back me up. My thing is simple; these other people’s theories, they’re janky and incomplete and kind of made up.”

It just has this flavor of you’re kind of unwilling to look the truth in the face. Like, make the lizards… Sorry, the lizards: One conclusion that falls out of total utilitarianism is the idea that for any utopia, there’s a better world with kind of a sufficient number of barely happy lizards plus arbitrary hells.

Infinite ethics just breaks this narrative. And that’s part of why I wanted to work on this topic: I felt like I saw around me some people who were too enamored of this utilitarian dream, who thought it was on better theoretical foundations than I think it is, who felt like it was more of a default, and more of a kind of simple, natural foundation than I think it is.

You’re going to have to start giving stuff up. You’re going to be incomplete. You’re going to start playing a game that looks more similar to the game you didn’t want to play before, and more similar to the game that everyone else was playing. You’re not going to be able to say, I’m just going to bite whatever bullets my theory says to bite.” You’re running out of track, or to the extent you’re on a crazy train, the crazy train just runs out of track. There are just horrific bullets if you want to bite them, but it’s just a very different story and you’re much more lost.

I think that’s an important source of humility for people who are drawn to this perspective. I think they should be more lost than they were if they were really jazzed by like, I know it’s total utilitarianism. I’m so hardcore. No one else is willing to be hardcore.” I’m like, I think you should spend some time with infinite ethics and adjust your confidence in the position accordingly.

Quote joe carlsmith metaethics metaphilosophy utilitarianism