Jeremy Bentham and Polar Bears

Low Utility Curve

Over at the Reality-Based Community, my co-blogger James Wimberley rightfully takes to task a right-wing economist named Karl Smith for what Wimberley calls the dumbest blog post of 2011.  Smith essentially seems to argue that it’s okay to cause hundreds of species to become extinct because it will increase aggregate wealth in the short run.

In doing so, James makes a point so gobsmackingly obvious that it is somewhat embarrassing that I had never thought of it before.  Most economists, James observes, are utilitarians:

Now as Bentham observed, animals suffer too. The basic physiology of pain and pleasure is found throughout the animal kingdom in anything that has a nervous system….

For now, we’ll forget about fish and lobsters. Polar bears, lemurs, dogs and cats certainly feel pain and pleasure, and Descartes was just wrong to deny it. For a utilitarian the implication is inescapable: we should avoid causing higher animals unnecessary pain.

The dramatic reduction in Arctic summer ice and its possible elimination is putting the polar bear population under severe stress. The distances between ice floes are becoming too far to swim. Many polar bears are dying of starvation, and their reproduction is problematic – bear cubs need two years’ training by their mothers to have a chance of fending for themselves. This stress, caused by human AGW, imposes net suffering on the bear population compared to the steady state.

….Overall we are looking at an Arctic world with fewer and more miserable bears and seals. That’s a welfare loss. On any plausible accounting, if policymakers had to choose between the lives of the last 1500 polar bears and those of another retired blogger or assistant professor of right-wing economics, Smith and I should not expect to make the cut.

One thing about the debates between those who favor cost-benefit analysis and those who don’t concerns the value of biodiversity.  Yes, yes, one could put it in dollar terms, but at the end of the day, the CBW skeptics say, in best faux-Rawlsian terms, that there are just some things that you can’t put on a utilitarian calculus.

But if we are serious about our utilitarianism, you have to put animal welfare on a utilitarian calculus because animals feel pleasure and pain.

There are two obvious responses to this, neither of them particularly persuasive from a utilitarian standpoint:

1)  Human beings are different and better than other animals, even higher ones.  If you accept this, you are no longer a real utilitarian: you are saying that some pleasures are better than others.  That’s a no-no, according to Dr. Bentham (via JS Mill): “push-pin is as good as poetry.”  You might say that human beings have rights that animals don’t, and I agree with you, but then you can’t use a purely utilitarian calculus to judge things, and you should stop talking about efficiency as if it’s the polestar of your policy thought.

2)  We can’t really measure “utils,” so we use aggregate wealth maximization as a proxy.  This is Richard Posner’s argument, and it has holes you could drive a truck through, but when we are talking about extinctions of whole species, then that proxy looks even worse than it does now.  It’s one thing to use an approximation; it’s another to use a measure that ignores vast swathes of what it is trying to measure on its own terms.  The celebrated “drunk under the lamppost” has his day job in the University of Chicago economics department.

Peter Singer recognized this decades ago, but the title of his book — Animal Liberation — might have obscured more than it revealed.  Singer wasn’t trying to liberate animals: he was just trying to have their utility curves included in the overall calculus.  I don’t think that one can do that, but if one is being serious about her utilitarianism, one has to try — as Singer does and as virtually every economist does not.

So in the end, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about “animal rights” at all: we should instead be talking about “animal utilities”.  And if economists continue to resist inclusion of animal utilities, then that’s one more nail in the coffin of efficiency as the principal value criterion.

, , , , , , ,

Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Jeremy Bentham and Polar Bears”

  1. Cass Sunstein has made an argument for including harm to animals in the balance when considering cost benefit analysis. You can find the paper at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=959701 . However, this approach apparently isn’t reflected in his current work in the government, which isn’t surprising given how much political flack he got during the confirmation hearing about his support for animal rights.

  2. Cass Sunstein has made an argument for including harm to animals in the balance when considering cost benefit analysis. You can find the paper at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=959701 . However, this approach apparently isn’t reflected in his current work in the government, which isn’t surprising given how much political flack he got during the confirmation hearing about his support for animal rights.

  3. I don’t think Posner said that we should use wealth maximization as a proxy for utility maximization. I think he said that wealth maximization is affirmatively better than utility maximization. Wealth maximization doesn’t sanction utility-maximizing thieves and tyrants because it is based on market-determined prices made by people interacting according to law. In other words, it bakes in the rules of the game that tend to force people to do something useful for others if they want to attain wealth, and Posner thinks those rules basically (though not always) work. This is a conservative viewpoint in the original Burkean sense, and in this respect the opposite of Benthamite liberalism.

    I also doubt that most economists are utilitarians. Given the discipline’s emphasis on revealed preferences and markets, I suspect most economists, while casually materialist and consequentialist, would not support utlitarian government intervention in private conduct. (I think your “drunk under the lampost” dig, though, is both accurate and hilarious.)

    The practical upshot of this for the polar bears is the same as it usually is: your theory of justice just isn’t going to tell you what to do. To paraphrase O.W.H., tell me whether I’m Kantian, utlitarian, Rawlsian, or whatever, and I’ll still decide the case for you either way you want. Whether to protect polar bears is a political decision about their status in our human community. To be liberal (i.e. progressive) is to be proud of the fact that the boundaries of our human sympathies have expanded to draw in lots of people who used to be out, and aware of the fact that it’s within our power to grant human status or some more limited form of sympathy to polar bears, too. (I think this last bit is from Richard Rorty, who was like Posner a pragmatist, but a more softhearted and liberal one.)

  4. I don’t think Posner said that we should use wealth maximization as a proxy for utility maximization. I think he said that wealth maximization is affirmatively better than utility maximization. Wealth maximization doesn’t sanction utility-maximizing thieves and tyrants because it is based on market-determined prices made by people interacting according to law. In other words, it bakes in the rules of the game that tend to force people to do something useful for others if they want to attain wealth, and Posner thinks those rules basically (though not always) work. This is a conservative viewpoint in the original Burkean sense, and in this respect the opposite of Benthamite liberalism.

    I also doubt that most economists are utilitarians. Given the discipline’s emphasis on revealed preferences and markets, I suspect most economists, while casually materialist and consequentialist, would not support utlitarian government intervention in private conduct. (I think your “drunk under the lampost” dig, though, is both accurate and hilarious.)

    The practical upshot of this for the polar bears is the same as it usually is: your theory of justice just isn’t going to tell you what to do. To paraphrase O.W.H., tell me whether I’m Kantian, utlitarian, Rawlsian, or whatever, and I’ll still decide the case for you either way you want. Whether to protect polar bears is a political decision about their status in our human community. To be liberal (i.e. progressive) is to be proud of the fact that the boundaries of our human sympathies have expanded to draw in lots of people who used to be out, and aware of the fact that it’s within our power to grant human status or some more limited form of sympathy to polar bears, too. (I think this last bit is from Richard Rorty, who was like Posner a pragmatist, but a more softhearted and liberal one.)

  5. tylermcnish —

    Yes, I think that that is right. I just rechecked Chapter 2 of the Economics of Justice, where Posner does make such a distinction. I was thinking of the Posner of Economic Analysis of Law (subject to Arthur Leff’s brilliant review: , but Economics of Justice is a fuller and more up-to-date version of his thinking on the subject.

    I don’t know about most economists: economics, however, is utilitarian in the sense that it does try to maximize social welfare. I can’t see any reason under a Kaldor-Hicks criterion not to have widespread invasions of privacy if it enhances overall welfare.

    My objection on the polar bear issue is just to say that if we are actually thinking about maximizing overall welfare, there is no reason not to include polar bears’ preferences. Put another way,if we are serious about cost-benefit analysis, as many conservatives claim to be, then we have to include benefits and costs to polar bears. And if you say that polar bears just aren’t important enough, then spare us the rhetoric on CBA.

  6. tylermcnish —

    Yes, I think that that is right. I just rechecked Chapter 2 of the Economics of Justice, where Posner does make such a distinction. I was thinking of the Posner of Economic Analysis of Law (subject to Arthur Leff’s brilliant review: , but Economics of Justice is a fuller and more up-to-date version of his thinking on the subject.

    I don’t know about most economists: economics, however, is utilitarian in the sense that it does try to maximize social welfare. I can’t see any reason under a Kaldor-Hicks criterion not to have widespread invasions of privacy if it enhances overall welfare.

    My objection on the polar bear issue is just to say that if we are actually thinking about maximizing overall welfare, there is no reason not to include polar bears’ preferences. Put another way,if we are serious about cost-benefit analysis, as many conservatives claim to be, then we have to include benefits and costs to polar bears. And if you say that polar bears just aren’t important enough, then spare us the rhetoric on CBA.

Comments are closed.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

POSTS BY Jonathan