A Rejection of Cardinal Utility

It’s widely accepted that humans desire and act according to those desires. Wants and needs are among the most essential parts of the human condition, regularly studied by social scientists and philosophers alike. While the existence of desire is seldom disputed, how we act on that desire is surprisingly contentious for something so critical to the functioning of our society. The resolution of this debate has serious implications; a mistaken understanding of action resulting from desire leads to incorrect models. Unfortunately, these incorrect models are increasingly used to justify the immoral, all in the name of a greater good.

Among economists, this debate is framed in technical terms. Economists define “utility” to be the satisfaction resulting from consumption — the happier one is after purchase, the greater the utility. Cardinal utility is the idea that utility is a number. Each person decides what to consume by weighing the costs of the good against its utility. The seemingly harmless concept of assigning a number to a traditionally qualitative idea, however, is much more sinister than it appears.

It may be apparent that all human desire can be externally modeled in any arbitrary way; for any set of desires, there exists both a cardinal and a non-numeric model that explains the actions resulting from the desires. Say, ranking A before B, as opposed to A = 6 > B = 3. It is, however, problematic to disregard the difference between cardinal and non-numeric utility. The presumption of cardinal utility has a number of consequences, all of which are wrongly used to justify policy that negatively impacts some for an arbitrary greater good.

Utilitarianism in the context of cardinal utility contends that every individual acts on the basis of some arbitrary utility function. This utility function determines the choices one makes by assigning some number to certain actions — a real number in a mathematical sense. Utility is generally established to be an abstract construct — economists agree it is entirely immeasurable. Nonetheless, utilitarian economists morally depend on the consequences of a numerical utility for their policy prescriptions.

Numerical utility’s existence, in a mathematical sense, has a number of consequences for the analysis of social welfare. First, it implies the utility of one person is directly comparable to that of another — an actor must achieve more, less, or equal benefit when consuming some good, as compared to another actor. Second, utility retains meaning in the context of traditional mathematics operations. For example, if one actor is better off after an action, while another is worse off, it is meaningful to say the sum of their utility is greater than zero — in other words, it is better for them as a whole for one of them to be happier than the other sad. Finally, utility is separable from the conditions of exchange. Two actors paying the same amount for some good does not imply equal utility for that good; it merely implies they both receive greater utility than the good’s cost. Besides, the units for utility are incomparable to the units of money.

Based on this presumption of numerical utility, utilitarian economists now have justification for a number of morally dubious actions, categorized under the umbrella of welfare economics. First, they define a social welfare function, which is similar to the sum of its component utility functions. Using this function, it’s reasonable to hurt one individual for the benefit of another, under the justification of a positive sum delta. Indeed even violence is easy to justify by this logic: a moral sacrifice in the pursuit of some greater good. The existence of some social welfare function implies an ability to maximize its benefit for all — it deceives one into the possibility of playing God with the world’s resources to reach a better outcome than might naturally occur.

Interestingly, cardinal utility’s lack of being measurable does not discourage economists from performing mathematics on it. Ethical hedonist Jeremy Bentham proposed a “felicific calculus” that would calculate the morality of any given act — done by summing the pleasure and pain according to their durations and intensities, across a number of individuals. Perhaps what’s most attractive about his utilitarian mathematics is that it morally justifies the painless killing of others to free up their resources for personal use.

The ethical dilemma associated with these utilitarian conclusions warrants its own discussion. Without a rejection of the idea that the ends justify the means, it is logically consistent to assert cardinal utility as some basis for violence. For a quantity that is both immeasurable and meaningless in its true value, its properties certainly hold great weight in the justification of action. Should utility be considered non-numeric, none of the above conclusions would continue to be convincing. Indeed no activist in favor of preventing violence would need to prove some component of utility; its unknowable quality is perhaps its most attractive.

Interestingly, the debate as to whether utility is cardinal has no meaning outside the scope of these consequences. Recognizing that non-numeric and numeric models alike satisfy the need for some external model ought to imply they are substitutable — these descriptions of utility simply describe some state of an actor’s desires, and nothing more. For someone who seeks to justify no otherwise immoral action, this debate is thus entirely unconsequential.

Empirically, however, this debate exists — and thus, there exists some who seek to justify an otherwise immoral action on a utilitarian basis. A basis built upon an imaginary foundation, a number conjectured from no measurement. The theory of cardinal utility as it stands today, I argue, is nothing but an attempt to justify the immoral. History is not on their side; perhaps the millions of deaths in some unenumerable socialist uprisings serve to show the vast lengths people will go to seek the greatest good for some amount of people, maximizing their social welfare function. Some thousands of pages of legislature require the moral bookends of cardinal utility, opening only to show their immoral nature when released on each side.