Posts Tagged ‘ utilitarianism ’

Critical Analogies and Dis-Analogies Between the Trolley Car and Emergency Organ Harvest Experiments

I, like almost everyone else in the world, am not a utilitarian. More surprisingly, I reject utilitarianism for almost the same reasons as everyone else, almost. Is pleasure preferable to pain? Of course. Should maximizing net pleasure be the sole concern of our moral inquiries? probably not.  Utilitarianism, like almost all absolutist moral philosophies, is subject to damning counter examples, one of which I’ll focus on here.

Judith Jarvis Thomson:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

On its face, it’s identical to a trolley car experiment: kill one to save five. The difference is, here, no one regards the decision to be as easy as flipping the switch on the trolley car. I think I can safely put the variance in responses up to people simply not understanding thought experiments, but some elaboration is in order.

In the trolley car experiment, the probability of the five being killed in lieu of a track switch is 1, the probability of the one being killed and five being saved with a switch is 1. The experiment’s beauty is in its simplicity; people understand that there really are only two possible outcomes here. When hearing the emergency transplant scenario, however, people implicitly reject these probabilities even though they assent to them, their real-world knowledge weighs too heavily on them: the patients are old and sick, their donor is young and healthy, no surgeon is perfect.

The other side of the coin is viscerality: The traveler is completely innocent and you’re going to strap him to a table and carve him open with your own hands. The man tied to the rails must have found himself there somehow and he’s probably expecting a trolley to come barreling down any minute; it will never look like anyone intentionally killed him. All moot, the parameters of the experiment are such that both these men were completely safe and free from any danger until an agent’s utilitarian calculation worked against them. Each life in the experiments will be equally long and happy after they’re conducted, all there is to do is for your intuition to dictate whether five go on or one does.

The interesting thing is, when fully appreciated, these experiments tell us precisely nothing. When utility is the only value at stake, of course you maximize it. However, loosening the constraints of either experiment and actually allowing other values a stake in the decision does illustrate why people who do and don’t fully understand the experiments ultimately reject utilitarianism.

Naturally, the more easily adaptable experiment is the emergency transplant. Adding a combination of uncertainty and a reasonable person standard with regard to choices immediately engenders huge and justified sympathies for the traveler. Yes, his life still likely represents a new lease on five others (or, make it seven so we can say the expected value stays the same), but our general experience of the world tells us that a person making his sequence of choices to end up in the hospital should expect no harm to come to him and indeed deserves no harm to come to him. Of course, the same could be said of the patients, none of whom may have any behaviorally caused ailments.

It seems as though a bullet must be bitten either way. My very narrow contention is that, while the patients may not have merited their conditions, the forces of history have nevertheless placed them here at deaths door. Now, the surgeon does have the option of taking history into his own hands and establishing a principle that allows moral agents to make their mark on the procession of existence to a degree rivaling fate, The question is: need we favor the will of many to exercise their liberty over fate over one whose liberty was granted by fate?

I worry about the consequences.

My Ride-sharing Soap Box

This post will be longer than I’d like most of my posts to be, but I imagine this is one cost of starting a blog a considerable amount of time after being born. I have a lot of old ideas I would like to reference, but since I’ve developed them elsewhere, the blog needs to be caught up before I can develop them in a more incremental, and palatable, manner.

Last month, Bryan Caplan posed this question to his students: how to spend a billion dollars most efficiently and, alternatively, in such a way as to maximize utility. Part of the idea was undoubtedly to distinguish utility from efficiency by proposing plans that differed in their espousal of each principle. Another part was to see whether students could actually identify any low hanging fruit: is there something we obviously could and should do that we haven’t already done?

My proposal would be that we pay ~8 million Americans to become casual cab drivers. Here it is important to qualify “casual;” no one is leaving his job to drive people around, in fact, they’ll be asked to go no more than a few minutes out of their way. Smartphones have made it incredibly easy for people to impersonally coordinate time and locations, why not pay someone a trifling amount to take you to work when you’re right on their way?

There are two general reasons why it wouldn’t work, one preferential, the other structural. The preferential case revolves around general insularity (stranger danger, social awkwardness, misanthropy) and is more difficult to predict as it’s unclear at what prices people would be willing to shrug it off. The structural case is simply that a widespread and reliable ride-sharing network needs a big push and it’s hard to see how you could get the gains from such a scheme to accrue to the source of the push. I think a billion dollars simultaneously remitted to to a few million active participants in a handful of major cities would be sufficient to get the project off the ground and its evident convenience would sustain it from there.

There are a litany of potential benefits. Most immediate is the relief of traffic jams in major cities, perhaps to the extent that it eliminates the need for congestion charges which are a net social gain, but privately costly in terms of time/money/planning. Secondly, its short term labor labor-saving effects would free up cabbies and public transportation workers/dollars while providing people with a lower cost service across the board (t/m/p). The long-term gains are by far the largest. Ownership of private passenger vehicles is the second largest expense most Westerns face in their lives, in many cases approaching one third of the median income (consider these figures for the US). If there were a convenient, reliable way for commuters travelling in the same direction to ride-share, I’m keen to entertain estimates of how many active vehicles could be taken off the road in 15 years.

In the interest of quantifying the efficiency gains, I’ll say that we can reduce the number of passenger vehicles by 15% in 15 years (Ceteris Paribus). There were 255 million registered passenger vehicles in the US in 2007. In the interest of conservatism, I’ll suggest 265 million as a current figure. At roughly $9,000 per car per year the annual expenditure hits $2.835 trillion. 15% of that?  ~$358 billion per year. Say my plan has a low probability of success, or the reduction in car ownership wouldn’t be so great, how low would it have to be and how small would the change have to be? Even if there were only a 3.5% chance of the strategy reducing the number of cars on the road by 1%, you’d still get your principle back in savings every year.

While it may not be the most efficient way to spend $1 billion, it is perhaps the one most highly relevant to the everyday lives of Americans. Also it’s much more easily quantifiable than the promotion of natalism, unspecified scientific breakthroughs, or immigration.

I think I’ve done enough to answer Bryan’s prompt and don’t wish to make this post any longer, though I have much more to say on the topic. For those curious about how far private money has gotten in this endeavor, look in to Lyft and Uber, two services being developed while I’ve been day dreaming.