Utilitarianism and anti-social preferences

I’ve been troubled this week by Arindrajit Dube’s anecdote about the Nobel-prize winning economist Gary Becker:


In case you don’t speak economics, what this means is that Becker thought we can’t say that domestic violence is incontrovertibly a bad thing, because we need to consider the benefits to abusers against the harms to those who suffer abuse.

Crass and offensive though this is, that isn’t what bothered me about Becker’s view. I am a hedonistic utilitarian. That means I believe that the goodness of a state of affairs depends on the happiness and unhappiness it entails. And being a hedonistic utilitarian commits me to taking arguments like Becker’s seriously. If people take pleasure or enjoyment from domestic violence, then as a hedonistic utilitarian, I have to believe that is a good thing. Of course, it is highly likely that the costs to the victims is far greater than any benefits to the abusers – probably in the moment, but certainly when we take into consider the possible long term impact of the trauma (and the impact on others, such as children). So on net it is highly likely that hedonistic utilitarians should condemn domestic violence.

But just the thought that my moral system requires me to make such a trade-off, to count the sadistic pleasures of the abusers the same as the pain of the abused makes me feel a bit sick. This is the sort of excessive calculation, on a question that ought to be simple (is domestic violence bad?) that leads critics to condemn utilitarians for having ‘one thought too many’. But worse is the repugnance of claiming that there is anything good about domestic violence, that we have to put something on the positive side of the scales.

For some, this is the sort of thing that shows hedonistic utilitarianism is just plain wrong. That goes too far, at least for me – no other moral system chimes anywhere near as closely with my intuitions. For others, there are ways of amending the philosophy to exclude ‘anti-social’ preferences – for example, John Harsanyi says that we should attribute no value to fulfilling preferences based on “sheer hostility, malice, envy and sadism”. That is more promising, but I’m not sure that there is a principled way of deciding which preferences we should count that isn’t just an ad hoc discounting of ones we find unpalatable.

JJC Smart uses a rather fanciful thought experiment to test views like Harsanyi’s. He asks us to imagine a world in which there is only one sentient being (let’s call him Jim). Jim falsely believes that there are lots of other beings and they are suffering greatly, even though he is in actual fact the only person in the universe. Smart asks us whether it would be better for Jim to be sad at the torments of others, or for Jim to be a sadist that is cheered at the thought that others are suffering. Smart’s view is that “the universe containing the deluded sadist is the preferable one. After all he is happy, and since there is no other sentient being, what harm can he do?” For all my distaste, I think I agree with Smart on that.

So where has Becker gone wrong? I think it is in his empirical characterisation of domestic violence. On Becker’s view, domestic violence seems to be a revealed preference: people abuse their partners, which must mean that they get some sort of enjoyment from it, or it must improve their welfare in some way. On this view, domestic violence is just a matter of taste: some people like abusing their partners, just like other people like crime novels or chocolate ice cream.

While I am far from an expert on domestic violence, a quick look at the literature suggests to me that this is wrong in at least three ways. First, I think it overstates the rationality of abusers – a common element in their accounts is how impulsive an act it is, and often encouraged by drinking. People don’t sit down and decide to do some abuse of a Tuesday night. Rather, they are taken by an urge, which they will often come to regret. It is unclear, then, how far we can take this to be a genuine reflection of preferences, rather than uncontrollable impulse.

Second, Becker’s approach seems to imply that domestic violence is intrinsically pleasurable or enjoyable to the perpetrator. Seeing abusers as utility maximisers risks giving the impression that abuse is done for fun. Yet in actual fact, violence seems more often to be associated with negative feelings: frustration, dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, and the desire to relieve these. Of course, utility can come from relieving or minimising pain, but it seems less clear to me that this is just a matter of taste, rather than a mistaken strategy. My suspicion is that it does not succeed in making them feel better.

Third, domestic violence often appears to be instrumental in another way: it is often used as a way of controlling or punishing a partner. Again, my inclination is to say that this is an error: it seems highly questionable that violence will lead to a better, more fulfilling relationship.

Utilitarians are notorious for trying to point to empirical considerations to wriggle out of the unpleasant implications of their principles. Is that what I am doing here? Am I creating a just-so story about how abusers don’t really benefit from their domestic violence because they are irrational or mistaken about how to relieve their unhappiness or improve their relationship? Possibly. I don’t have strong evidence to support my claims. But I think they are plausible, and I don’t think they are just ad hoc. In fact, I think this case illustrates a more general point for hedonistic utilitarians. For the same reasons as we should be reluctant to take anti-social preferences at face value, I think we should be sceptical of the value of many other apparent preferences that people hold. Domestic violence clearly isn’t the only impulsive activity that people come to regret – that applies to everything from drinking to suicide. And it isn’t the only case of an activity that we would be mistaken in seeing as a matter of personal pleasure, when in fact it is a (mistaken) effort to ease emotional pain – take comfort eating, for example.

The moral framework underpinning neoclassical economics is often taken to be utilitarian. As a utilitarian, I think this case shows us why that is often not the case. Hedonistic utilitarians like myself should not just assume that fulfilling preferences is good. Instead, we should seek to be sure that those meeting those preferences would really make people happy.


One comment

  1. On abuse and it’s “benefit” to the abusers – one must first, given your equations and calculus, decide if a temporary reduction in negative feelings is within the scale of pleasure. After that, I suppose one must look at the models and try to determine if the abuser is by being abusive protecting themselves from further harm by venting and externalizing strong, destructive emotions that might otherwise lead to sever stress-related illnesses or even suicide.

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