Infinite utility: Anonymity and person-centredness

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (3):413 – 420 (1995)
In 1991 Mark Nelson argued that if time is infinitely long towards the future, then under certain easily met conditions traditional utilitarianism is unable to discriminate among actions. For under these conditions, each action produces the same infinite amount of utility, and thus it seems that utilitarianism must judge all actions permissible, judge all actions impermissible, or remain completely silent. In response to this criticism of utilitarianism, I argued that utilitarianism had the resources for dealing with at least some cases of infinite utility. More specifically, I defended the following principle as being part of the "spirit" of traditional (total) utilitarianism: PMU*: An action a1 has better consequences than an action a2 if and only if there is a time t such that for any later time t' the cumulative amount of utility produced by a1 up to t' is greater than that produced by action a2 up to t'. For the usual finite cases, this principle agrees exactly with the standard approach of comparing totals. For infinite cases, however, it can distinguish among two actions each of which produces an infinite amount of utility. It says, for example, that an action that produces 2 units of utility at each time has better consequences than an action that produces 1 unit of utility at each time -- even though they both produce the same infinite amount of utility. Of course, cases where one action produces more utility than a second at each time are going to be rather rare. PMU* is not limited to such cases, however; it also has bite in cases such as the following: Time a1: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, ... a2: 3, 3, 3, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, ... For although the cumulative utility of a1 up to and including the fourth time is only 4 utiles and a2's is 12, a1 starts catching up after that, ties a2 in the 12th time, and stays ahead after that. Thus, PMU* judges a1 as having better consequences than a2. I claimed that PMU* better captured the "spirit" of traditional utilitarianism than the usual sum total view -- on the grounds that almost anyone inclined to defend traditional utilitarianism would, upon reflection, want to hold, for example, that 2 utiles at every time is indeed better than 1 utile at each time. Two responses to my view have since been given in this journal. Luc Van Liederkerke has argued that PMU* violates an anonymity (neutrality, impartiality) condition that is central to utilitarianism. And James Cain has argued that PMU* is not person-centered, and that being so is central to utilitarianism. Here I will reply to the criticisms. Basically, I will acknowledge that each is right about an important point, but deny that this establishes that the core idea underlying PMU* is less plausible than the standard sum-ranking versions of utilitarianism.
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DOI 10.1080/00048409512346761
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Luc Lauwers (1997). Infinite Utility: Insisting on Strong Monotonicity. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 75 (2):222 – 233.

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