Limits on rationality

Over at Catallaxy, Jason makes some interesting comments on an article by Roger Scruton about the legacy of J. S. Mill and Utilitarianism which Scruton describes as:

… a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime.

Scruton points out that Mill realised the problems that the tyranny of the majority etc, could have on individuals, so combined Utilitarianism with the principle of individual liberty.

According to Mill’s argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the “tyranny of the majority.”

or as Mill put it himself:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Scruton seems to see this as a recognition of the problems of Utilitarianism, but from my line of thinking its is merely a realization of the limitations of what can rationally be calculated, by any individual or group of individuals, not an issue with the normative goal of utilitariansism.

The difficulty with the calculation of how to maximize the happiness of others stems from two big problems, firstly a question of measurement, how you know both what makes another individual happy, and how you measure that happiness against anothers. Secondly even were you to know the “happiness functions” of each individual the complexity of the problem due to the nature of interactions are such that any attempt to maximise this globally would be incalculable. Even for an individual trying to locally maximize their happiness the problem is such that their attempts to do so may result in the reverse, however they at least know what they are working towards in their individual pursuit of personal happiness.

This reasoning is not unlike the considerations behind rule-utilitarianism of Hayek, which Jason refers to in his post. While we may be guided by the normative principle of utilitarianism, policy makers must also realise their inability to necessarily acheive it. There are limits on rationality, not because there are higher things than it, but because our decision making is limited by what it is possible to predict.

So am I saying here that I think reform at the global level is doomed because it is necessarily incalculable? I don’t think I am. Instead what we must realise is that reforms must be gradual so the effects can be seen and individuals take account of the new situation steadily, and secondly that rather than attempting to maximise happiness we must do two things. Firstly stop people infringing on each other’s happiness and secondly assist them not to achieve specific things that will make them happy but by enabling them to have the choices to make themselves happy, and the wealth to make those choices possible.

Ultimately though, the goal is still the greatest good for the greatest number, but we must acknowledge our limitiations in trying to acheive it.


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