As I asked in response to your other argument: Who has given utility this new definition?

I think perhaps there is a disconnect between the origins of utilitarianism, and how people who are not economists (Even some economists) understand it.

You as well as black belt bayesian are making the point that utilitarianism as used in an economic sense is somehow non-ethics based, which could not be more incorrect as utilitarianism was explicitly developed with goal seeking behavior in mind - stated by Bentham as greatest hedonic hapiness. It was not derived as a simple calculator, and is rarely used as such in serious academic works because it is so insanely sloppy, subjective and arguably useless as a metric.

True, some economists do use it in reference and it is introduced in academic economic theory as a mathematical principal but I have yet to see an authoritative study which uses expected utility as a variable, nor as it was introduced in my undergrad (Economics) as a reliable measure - again, why you do not see it in authoritative works.

You both imply that the economics version utility is non normative. Again as I said before, it was created specifically to guide economic decision making in how homoeconomicus should act. Does the fact that it can be both used normatively and objectively in economic decision making change the definition? No, because as you said, they use the same math. People forget that political economics was and is still normative whether economist want it to be or not.

Which leads me to what I think the root of this problem is in understanding what economics is. At it's heart economics is both descriptive, prescriptive and normative. Current trends in economics are seeking to turn the discipline into a physics-esqe discipline which seeks to describe economic patterns. Yet, even in these camps they must hold natural rate of employment as good, trade as enhancing, public goods as multiplicative good etc... Lest we forget than Keynesianism was hailed as the next great coming and would revolutionize the way that humans interact. Economics without normative conclusions is just statistics.

I realize it is a semantic point, however if we want to use a term then let's use it correctly. I know Mr. Yudkowski has posted before about the uselessness of debating definitions, however we are talking about the same thing here.

All of this redefining utility discussion smacks of cognitive dissonance to me because it seems to be looking to find some authority on the use of the term utility in the way that people around here want to use it. If you want to use normative utilitarianism then you'll have great fun with Bentham's utilitarianism as it is and has always been normative. The beef seems to lie between expected and average utility - which are both still normative anyway so it is really a moot point.

I have thought of making a separate post on utilitarianism, it's history and errors, mostly because it is the aspect I have been most interested in for the past decade. However I doubt it would give any more information than what exists on the web and in text for any interested parties.

edit: Here is a perfect example of my point about the silliness of expected utility calculation in empirical metrics. The author uses VNM Expected utility based on assumed results of expected utility in terms of summed monetary and psychic income. There are no units, there is no actual calculation. There are however nice pretty formulas which do nothing for us but restate that a terrorist must gain more from his terrorism than other activities.

I did separate undergrad degrees in Economics and Philosophy precisely because they speak to different questions.

Economics tell us what is possible; philosophy tells us which outcome we should choose.

I think you were closer to the mark when you said

At it's heart economics is both descriptive, prescriptive and normative

I would simply drop the normative part. Economics certainly attempts to describe the world, and in so doing it offers conclusions such as wedrifid's: to get X, do Y.

The lack of the normative part can be seen in e.g. Steve Levitt's f... (read more)

0wedrifid11yNo it isn't. It is just economics that is less irritating. Economics can conclude "If you want X then you should do Y". This is obviously most useful for people who have consequentialist ethics and happen to desire Y but these preferences are best considered to be attributes (probably) held by the economists and not by economics itself. A trap I have noticed some economists falling into is reasoning "Z is something that probably will happen therefore Z is something that should happen". This tends to invoke my contempt, particularly since it is seldom applied consistently.
0Matt_Simpson11yNote that allowing a murderer to, well, murder, improves his economic welfare - it increases his economic utility. Yet murdering is a net negative in the ethicist's utility function. Economics makes normative claims because economists typically have some relatively uncontroversial normative assumptions - like maximizing economic welfare is a good thing. This is by and large true, but see my counter example above. Also, economists aren't trying to prove that the values they assume are the correct ones. They are assuming certain ethical values and proposing policies that maximize these values. The two types of utility functions look very similar - the math is the same, both describe goal seeking behavior, etc., but the difference is the preference sets that each describe. Murder can increase utility in the economist's utility function, but not in the ethicist's (under normal circumstances).

The Difference Between Utility and Utility

by Matt_Simpson 1 min read2nd Dec 200916 comments


Recently I argued that the economist's utility function and the ethicist's utility function are not the same.  The nutshell argument is that they are created for different purposes - one is an attempt to describe the actions we actually take and the other is an attempt to summarize our true values (i.e., what we should do).  I just ran across a somewhat older post over at Black Belt Bayesian arguing this very point.  Excerpt:

Economics (of the neoclassical kind) models consumers and other economic actors as such utility maximizers... Utility is not something you can experience. It’s just a mathematical construct used to describe the optimization structure in your behavior...

Consequentialist ethics says an act is right if its consequences are good. Moral behavior here amounts to being a utility maximizer. What’s “utility”? It’s whatever a moral agent is supposed to strive toward. Bentham’s original utilitarianism said utility was pleasure minus pain; nowadays any consequentalist theory tends to be called “utilitarian” if it says you should maximize some measure of welfare, summed over all individuals... Take note: not all utility maximizers are utilitarians.

There’s no necessary connection between these two kinds of utility other than that they use the same math. It’s possible to make up a utilitarian theory where ethical utility is the sum of everyone’s economic utility (calibrated somehow), but this is just one of many possibilities. Anyone trying to reason about one kind of utility through the other is on shaky ground.