[link] Choose your (preference) utilitarianism carefully – part 1

byKaj_Sotala4y25th Jun 20156 comments


Summary: Utilitarianism is often ill-defined by supporters and critics alike, preference utilitarianism even more so. I briefly examine some of the axes of utilitarianism common to all popular forms, then look at some axes unique but essential to preference utilitarianism, which seem to have received little to no discussion – at least not this side of a paywall. This way I hope to clarify future discussions between hedonistic and preference utilitarians and perhaps to clarify things for their critics too, though I’m aiming the discussion primarily at utilitarians and utilitarian-sympathisers.


I like this essay particularly for the way it breaks down different forms of utilitarianism to various axes, which have rarely been discussed on LW much.

For utilitarianism in general:

Many of these axes are well discussed, pertinent to almost any form of utilitarianism, and at least reasonably well understood, and I don’t propose to discuss them here beyond highlighting their salience. These include but probably aren’t restricted to the following:

  • What is utility? (for the sake of easy reference, I’ll give each axis a simple title – for this, the utility axis); eg happiness, fulfilled preferences, beauty, information(PDF)
  • How drastically are we trying to adjust it?, aka what if any is the criterion for ‘right’ness? (sufficiency axis); eg satisficing, maximising[2], scalar
  • How do we balance tradeoffs between positive and negative utility? (weighting axis); eg, negative, negative-leaning, positive (as in fully discounting negative utility – I don’t think anyone actually holds this), ‘middling’ ie ‘normal’ (often called positive, but it would benefit from a distinct adjective)
  • What’s our primary mentality toward it? (mentality axis); eg act, rule, two-level, global
  • How do we deal with changing populations? (population axis); eg average, total
  • To what extent do we discount future utility? (discounting axis); eg zero discount, >0 discount
  • How do we pinpoint the net zero utility point? (balancing axis); eg Tännsjö’s test, experience tradeoffs
  • What is a utilon? (utilon axis) [3] – I don’t know of any examples of serious discussion on this (other than generic dismissals of the question), but it’s ultimately a question utilitarians will need to answer if they wish to formalise their system.

For preference utilitarianism in particular:

Here then, are the six most salient dependent axes of preference utilitarianism, ie those that describe what could count as utility for PUs. I’ll refer to the poles on each axis as (axis)0 and (axis)1, where any intermediate view will be (axis)X. We can then formally refer to subtypes, and also exclude them, eg ~(F0)R1PU, or ~(F0 v R1)PU etc, or represent a range, eg C0..XPU.

How do we process misinformed preferences? (information axis F)

(F0 no adjustment / F1 adjust to what it would have been had the person been fully informed / FX somewhere in between)

How do we process irrational preferences? (rationality axis R)

(R0 no adjustment / R1 adjust to what it would have been had the person been fully rational / RX somewhere in between)

How do we process malformed preferences? (malformation axes M)

(M0 Ignore them / MF1 adjust to fully informed / MFR1 adjust to fully informed and rational (shorthand for MF1R1) / MFxRx adjust to somewhere in between)

How long is a preference relevant? (duration axis D)

(D0 During its expression only / DF1 During and future / DPF1 During, future and past (shorthand for  DP1F1) / DPxFx Somewhere in between)

What constitutes a preference? (constitution axis C)

(C0 Phenomenal experience only / C1 Behaviour only / CX A combination of the two)

What resolves a preference? (resolution axis S)

(S0 Phenomenal experience only / S1 External circumstances only / SX A combination of the two)

What distinguishes these categorisations is that each category, as far as I can perceive, has no analogous axis within hedonistic utilitarianism. In other words to a hedonistic utilitarian, such axes would either be meaningless, or have only one logical answer. But any well-defined and consistent form of preference utilitarianism must sit at some point on every one of these axes.

See the article for more detailed discussion about each of the axes of preference utilitarianism, and more.