Episode transcript here. This month, we’re joined by Tyler Cowen (Professor of Economics at George Mason University), to talk about utilitarianism, economic growth, and the future. Click here to download the episode.
Utilitarianism is the name we give a family of normative ethical theories, most of which are variations on the idea that doing the right thing involves imparting the greatest amount of benefit to the greatest number of people. How do I tell whether policy XYZ is the right policy to adopt? Simple! Numerically measure the amount of happiness that policy is going to cause, add all of it up, numerically measure the amount of suffering that policy is going to cause, add all of that up, subtract the suffering from the happiness, and go with the policy that yields the greatest amount of happiness. We find this idea intuitive, because we like to be generous and help other people. If there are surpluses of happiness anywhere in the world, we often feel it would be great if those surpluses could be transferred, somehow, to the less fortunate.
The trouble with utilitarianism is that most versions of it are really demanding. Like, they tend to predict that if you could help enough other people by suffering a lot, then you should do the thing that would make you suffer, as long as the amount of happiness you’d cause in other people would exceed the amount of suffering you’d cause in yourself. But it would just be kind of hardcore do that your whole life. Are you ready to donate your entire salary to charity, minus the price of the cheapest food and housing that money can buy? Maybe some of us are, but only few. So what happens is that a lot of us believe in utilitarianism but find ourselves falling seriously short of what it asks us to do.
In this episode, Tyler Cowen makes the case that you can be a full-throttle utilitarian without having to give everything up and live like a monk. How so? Typical utilitarians are just worried about the here and now. But our guest thinks that utilitarians should care about future people just as much as they care about the people who currently exist. Don’t just factor in how policy XYZ would affect everyone in the world now–factor in how it will affect everyone in the world indefinitely, going forward. According to Tyler Cowen, the available empirical evidence suggests that the most effective mechanism for conferring the maximum benefit on the greatest number of people over time in a compounding way is economic growth. Therefore, the core obligation of a utilitarian, is really to try to facilitate economic growth. And our current way of life is already doing a pretty decent job of facilitating economic growth.
Tyler Cowen’s book on this topic, Stubborn Attachments, is available from Stripe Press.
Enjoy the interview!