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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Utility Monsters

Published 11 February, 2013

Hi! My name is Sam. Rob’s on yet another break – something about (could this be right?) “leveling up his archery perks” – so I’m substituting in for him. Anyway, I’m a Utility Monster, and today I’d like to talk to you about My Good Works, and also sex.

Those of you who have read Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia probably remember me, but for those of you who don’t, I’m something of a thought experiment. As Nozick put it

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility. (p. 41)

So, let me just put it this way. Suppose we all agree that we should set up the rules of the game – public policy and so on – in such a way that we try to maximize aggregate happiness. Now suppose that I get ten units of happiness whenever you lose one unit. Further, suppose I don’t experience any diminishing marginal returns, and I get even more jollies – 100 units of utility – when you lose your second unit of happiness. If all this were true, then there would be more happiness, as a whole, if we set up the world for you to lose happiness. If I’m allowed – or even compelled – to reduce your happiness by two units, aggregate happiness has just gone up by 98 units. (#HappinessWin!)

Now, Nozick talked about me as part of his critique of utilitarianism, but I want to talk about a slightly different way in which I try to satisfy my particular and perverse utility function. In particular, you know what makes me happy? Nothing juices my lemons more than preventing mutual consensual transactions in which both (all) parties are made better off. I hate utility gains as much as I love utility losses. Why do you think they call me a Monster?

To take one example, how about those canonical butchers and bakers in Adam Smith’s discussion of exchange. The baker gives up a loaf of bread, preferring the money he charges customers to the bread – he has enough already! – and the customer would rather have the bread than the money. I need not tell you what agony this causes monsters like me to see these transactions take place. Gains in trade! The horror!

As you can see, the modern world is a tough place for me. Mutually beneficial arrangements are everywhere, often protected by the instruments of State. What is a Utility Monster to do? Woe is me. I am woe.

Thankfully, I still have one arrow in my quiver. Let me explain by way of example, drawing on current events in Rob’s municipality, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back!) (Unofficial Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back MotherF*cker!). The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported a story about a billboard off of Interstate 95 advertising a web site called “ArrangementFinders.com.” (Bree Olson certified!). ArrangementFinders is a service for people who are seeking “Mutually Beneficial Arrangements” (MBAs). Mutually beneficial! Can you imagine?!

Well,  not just any MBAs. The web site caters to men who are interested in exchanging some fraction of their wealth for sexual access to women, who are reciprocally likewise interested in such a transaction.

Last week, a number of people protested the firm that sold the advertising space, which space, according to the Inquirer piece, seems to have been successfully employed; the ad was credited with “a 600 percent increase in members from the area.”

The grounds on which the protestors protested are pretty clear from the text in the ad, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” with the “not” crossed out as I’ve rendered it here.  The basis for objecting to this particular mutually beneficial arrangement is – same as it ever was! – the last, best tool of Utility Monsters: morality.

Indeed, there might be two moral entry points into destroying utility here. The first comes from the ad text, which seems to be encouraging people to break the rule against having sex outside of marriage. This is actually somewhat peculiar, given that the web site itself doesn’t seem to be catering to rich, married men, but simply rich men. The tagline, “Intimacy with a twi$t,” is consistent with this interpretation. This tagline points to a second moral rule, the one forbidding the exchange of sex for money. (Unless, as Rob discussed in his last post, the sex is being recorded for subsequent sale, in which case it’s just fine.)

So, we Utility Monsters have a keen ally in moral psychology. When people go around trying to limit other people’s gains in trade, usually, though not always, the stick used to beat people into welfare-destroying-submission is morality.

Moral cognition just might be a Utility Monster’s best friend.

And with that, I’ll be signing off. – Sam


Rob here. Despite Sam’s claim, I did not, in fact, relegate this entry to him because I was leveling up my Archery perks. First of all, one should be skeptical of claims of Utility Monsters as a general rule, and, second of all, I have been focusing on Enchantment Magic anyway. In any case, the reason I acceded to this guest post might not be obvious, so I’ll make it explicit. This post fits in with some ideas I’ve been working on with some collaborators, specifically engaging the view that morality evolved in the service of producing group-beneficial outcomes. From this post, it appears that morality is often implicated in Utility Monster activity, decreasing aggregate welfare, rather than increasing it. This circumstance seems to present such models with something of a quandary. That is, if, as the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology would have it (Krebs, p. 750), “morality boils down to individuals meeting their needs and advancing their interests in cooperative ways,” why is morality such a useful tool for Utility Monsters like Sam?

  • discoveredjoys

    There is so much that needs teasing out here – and I’ll freely admit I have no clear view myself. Margaret Thatcher was criticised by some for saying that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. I suspect that is a key question to be resolved if we’re talking about evolutionary psychology.

    I’d start by asking if we had a true concept of what morality was. Is it a set of social rules that that people are judged against, or is it the generalised sum of lots of individuals behaving as “don’t get caught behaving in ways that higher status people will object to”? Although religions and laws ‘enforce’ morality these are arguably the secondary result of lots of individuals forming self interest groups. If so utility functions are similar – secondary results of individuals trying to live alongside others with minimal dissatisfaction. We ought to be able to tease apart the individual and group aspects of behaviour by careful analysis of actual behaviour. As far as I know there have always been cheats and ill-behaved  individuals yet various societies have developed different moralities and differently weighted morals – which suggests to me that societies and group beneficial behaviours are secondary.

    I’d also suggest looking at the behaviour of groups – do they exist as a ‘group’ or do they show differential utility between group members? Wikipedia has some interesting observations – see ‘The Iron Law of Oligarchy’ and ‘The Iron Law of Bureaucracy’.  

    I suspect treating morality and utility as fluctuating statistical values rather than behavioural constants would be a better model for observed behaviours. Not so easy to handle though.

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  • JaziZilber

    have you read Baumeister evidence that it was usually women fighting prostitution? the idea is that prostitution reduces the price of sex, harming other women.

    so the proximate cause of what you say maybe moral and emotional etc. but its ultimate maybe just monopolistic reasoning. 

    Now monopoly etc. is a complex economic issue.

    Also, in evolutionary terms. it is: Kids first, women second. man? who cares about them????
    So any strategy for transferring more resources from men to women, is evolutionary reasonable. And the MBAs are obviously cheaper than the going rate for sex…….Ref. baumeister Cultural suppression of female sexuality http://www.femininebeauty.info/suppression.pdf

    • http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com Echidne of the snakes

       Why would *any* strategy of transferring resources from men to women be evolutionarily reasonable?  This seems not to be how resources are allocated in reality.

      On the Baumeister paper, the evidence he provides is largely about mothers teaching their daughters or friends counseling each other about the dangers for women who engage in short-term mating relationships (such as being called a slut today).  There are rather different explanations for that than limiting competition, and in economic terms it’s extremely unlikely that women could use morality to create such a cartel.  Historically, women didn’t have the power to ban prostitution or even regulate it, which was done by 100% male town councils in, say, medieval Europe. — Baumeister, in general, writes rather entertainingly on gender issues, by the way.  His “Is There Anything Good About Men?”  asks, endearingly, how come women never got together to equip a ship for marine explorations.  They were, after all, completely free to do so because during the era of, say, Columbus, all European women (not just queens) had access to their own money and equal inheritances with their brothers, free access to jobs to earn money which they then could keep,  and if young women left home to travel to ports to buy a ship, well, their families would naturally let them go and wish them luck, what with the roads of Europe being such safe places for traveling groups of young women.  I liked all this and then created an alternative history of Europe in my mind!

      In terms of ordinary speech, the people who fought prostitution, including the women who did that, stated their concerns in the dangerous circumstances of prostitution (the job still has the highest violent death risk of any occupation in the US though it’s not listed in the rankings due to its illegality), the poor health of the women (which included passing SIDs on and thus infecting other people via the male customers) and the general poverty of prostitutes in, say, the nineteenth century England. 

      If one wishes to find purely selfish reasons for disapproving of prostitution , then the fact that sexually transmitted diseases are passed through it pretty efficiently might suffice.

      • Jazi zilber

        Transferring from men to women, implies (indirectly) investing in kids, as mothers usually take care on children. Jazi

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NGK226MARR7UKAXBE7DBV6IF2Y Clara

    Maybe “Utility Monster activity” such as “morality” is not monstrous if viewed as “repression of competition” [as per Steve Frank]…i.e., repression of others’ self-interested responses…i would guess that “morality”, then, is most likely to be expressed by individuals with greater Resource-Holding Potential [RHP: Parker 1974], capable of imposing “morals” [rules governing behavior] on those with less RHP…testable…probably the literature on “punishment” [1 type of “repression of competition”] would be helpful for considerations of “Utility Monster activity”…clara b. jones

    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  • Paul Bloom

    Nice post, Rob. If you buy the premise, it extends Nozick’s example and provides a good illustration of why libertarians and progressives can’t be utilitarian. We wouldn’t want the Sams of the world to be able to veto gay marriage, say, just because it upsets them. 
    But I don’t accept the premise.  People who object to certain mutually beneficial arrangements (gay marriage, child labor, consensual slavery, etc.) don’t do so because it causes them pain. They object because they think such arrangements are wrong. (If they feel pain, it’s because they are upset by the wrongness–not vice-versa). And part of the reason they think it’s wrong is that they disagree with your assumption–they think that certain consensual acts actually decrease aggregate welfare, either on the part of the agents or on society as a whole. Now, often they are mistaken. (I take it that you and I agree that gay marriage doesn’t actually harm society.) But often they are right — I take it that we would also agree that it’s a good thing that there are no whites-only restaurants — and something, as in legal drugs and prostitution, it’s pretty hard to tell. 

    • rkurzban

      Thanks for the kind words and your thoughts Paul. I’m willing to grant that the reason people object to the X’s you list is morality, that these X’s are “wrong.”

      I resist your claim, however, that consensual acts (generally, plausibly) decrease aggregate welfare. If they decreased the welfare of the participants, then the participants wouldn’t do them (unless the participants were wrong about the effects of the acts, etc.). If there are negative externalities – which you grant are unlikely in certain cases – then the consensual acts can be regulated so that these externalities are (somehow) internalized. This puts a burden on those who wish to regulate the acts to demonstrate the externalities, measure them, etc.

      Sam’s point is about the argument that one should restrict consensual activities by virtue (only) of a moral sense of wrongness. It seems to me that the sort of arguments Sam is interested in are of the form: the consensual acts shouldn’t be allowed because they are “wrong” independent of welfare considerations. That is, I think The Folk think that a sufficient reason to ban X is that Xing is “wrong,” even if no party or third party is harmed. (As a technical matter, I think people justify, post-hoc, moral judgments of wrongness with welfare stories. I and some colleagues have a little piece on this: http://pdescioli.com/descioli.gilbert.kurzban.victims.pi12.pdf. One of your colleagues at Yale might be sympathetic to this sort of view…)

      • Paul Bloom

        I agree that the default should be to allow consensual acts and the burden is on those who want to regulate them. And I agree that the Sams of the world are often not consciously motivated by welfare considerations–though they will often appeal to them. 

        Still, the problem of externalities is a serious one, and often they cannot be internalized. I think it makes sense that I’m not allowed to open a whites-only restaurant. And sometimes agents are irrational or under duress or ignorant, etc. And sometimes they are not but would still benefit from constraint, so they don’t end up in situations where they are forced to (rationally) make awful choices. You are not allowed to ask your graduate students to choose between painting your house or getting kicked out of the program, say, and employers cannot demand that their employees have sex with them (for an interesting discussion, see http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/29/fuck-me-or-youre-fired/). People are better off not being allowed to trade off certain goods, because this keeps other from exploiting them in certain ways. 

        The hard question here is whether there is a wisdom to our Sam-like intuitions. And in many cases, I would agree with you that the answer is no. Sam finds gay sex icky and wants to forbid it, but this intuition is a biological accident, and isn’t attuned to welfare considerations, so — unless one is a utilitarian — his unhappiness shouldn’t bother us. I am less sure that this holds for such intuitions in general. I know this is the internet, and I should have a strong view here, but I struggle with the idea that there is an underlying logic to certain Sam-like intuitions about dignity, respect, sexual restraint, and so on. 

        • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

          Just a thought with regard to your “whites-only” restaurant example: as you no doubt know, it wasn’t too long ago in American history that such a thing was not in the collective cultural list of “wrong” (or at least it wasn’t there in the same force that it seems to be today. No doubt it was there for some, else how would it have eventually been made illegal?). What today we might conceptualize as a social cost, or externality, to this practice might well have been (though I admit I’m no expert in this regard) conceived of as either (a) not a cost, or (b) actually a benefit in times past. 

          This point need not be specific to the case of the whites-only restaurant, of course. What is counted as a harm is by no means easily observable or definable in many cases. Say that Sam finds gay sex to, in his mind, offend a deity. This deity will, because of that offense, bring consequences down on an entire nation of people. Now Sam might happen to be wrong here, but that he’s wrong isn’t the point; the point is that Sam is perceiving harm to the act. Perhaps, on a different level, Sam might correctly perceive the fact that he will suffer harms by allowing gay marriage, but simply be wrong about the source (harm that comes not from a deity, but from his social group which similarly disapproves).

          Also relatedly, if Sam finds gay people’s expression of affection aversive (in the same way that I might find manure aversive, say), that happiness cost to Sam is, in many cases, not counted as a cost among the proponents of socially accepting gay’s desires. The unhappiness of one group (the gay population) is counted in this analysis, however (in much the same way that I might not count the happiness that some people get from defecating in public among the benefits to manure in the streets).

          So, unless this example has gone badly wrong somewhere, it seems that debates like these will be hindered from reaching unanimous conclusion in many cases because people can’t consistently agree on what counts as a harm and what doesn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/rorysutherland Rory Sutherland

    Next time you have finished making love to your wife or girlfriend, why not increase the utility she enjoys from the experience by leaving a pile of $20 bills for her on the bedside table. This may then encourage her to repeat the experience more often, in which case the practice will benefit both of you.

    At least that’s how the theory goes. But in practice it never seems to work.

  • http://twitter.com/rorysutherland Rory Sutherland

    Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher’s original comment was as follows:

    “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation…….”

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