Baron, J. (1988). Utility, exchange, and commensurability.
Journal of Thought, 23, 111-131.
Utility, exchange, and commensurability1
Jonathan Baron, University of Pennsylvania
Western society, particularly the American version, is often
criticized for an overreliance on the free market in the
allocation of goods and in the division of labor (e.g., Bellah et
al., 1985; Schwartz, 1986). For example, many of us extend this
mode of behavior to such interpersonal relationships as the
selection of friends and mates, the division of household work,
and civic duties. Before we ask what we can do for our country
(friend, spouse, child, student), we ask what it (he, she) can do
for us in return.
Schwartz (1986) has recently argued that social theory, including
psychology and economics, has exacerbated this problem by
constructing theories in which the market is said to be part of
human nature, thus making the situation appear inevitable if not
justifiable. It is easy to find support for such a claim.
Behaviorist theories of child-rearing and classroom management
tell us that children can be induced to behave properly if it is
made sufficiently worth their while. Social exchange theory (Homans,
1958) tells us that our everyday social relationships are based
largely on market exchange, as does Becker's (1981) theory of the
family. Equity theory (Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978) tells
us that people see distribution based on `to each according to his
contribution' as fair. Most of these theorists do not even bother
to ask about other cultures, let alone ask whether the situation is
a good one and whether it is changeable. When other cultures are
examined, the results that originally supported the theories often
do not consistently hold up (see Leung & Bond, 1984).
But Schwartz goes on to argue that some of the very basic concepts
of the social sciences are at fault - not just the particular
applications of these concepts. One of these is the idea of
commensurability of outcomes, as used in economics and the
psychology of decision making. According to this idea, it is
possible to compare any two outcomes (or changes from one state to
another) so as to judge which is better from a certain point of
view. As an extreme example, a scientist ought to be able to
compare the moral effect of misreporting her data with the personal
advancement that might result from doing so.
From the idea of commensurability, it is a short step to the market.
If I prefer outcome A to outcome B, you prefer B to A, and I can
give you B in exchange for A, we both benefit from an exchange.
Thus, we both benefit if I give you use of my laboratory in return
for my name on your publications (which I didn't otherwise read), my
faithfulness in return for your physical attractiveness (as long as
you keep it), my weapons for your hostages, etc. What is crucial
here is that each person compares the loss of one sort of thing to
the gain of something else. If I trade weapons for hostages, I am
comparing the loss in weapons to the gain in hostages. (Even
faithfulness amounts to a loss of freedom.)
By implication, Schwartz criticizes the concept of utility as
well, for utility has served as the common coin by which outcomes
are compared. (The idea of utility is similar to the concept of
reward in learning theory.) Utility is, by one account, a measure
of the extent to which a person's preferences are satisfied by a
particular outcome of an action. Many descriptive theories claim
that people seek to maximize utility.
The problem, according to Schwartz, goes beyond descriptive theories
of behavior. Normative theories (idealized theories of how people
ought to behave - see Baron, 1985, 1986) go on to argue that people
ought to maximize utility (or, perhaps, expected utility
under conditions of risk - a distinction that is irrelevant here).
There are two forms of such theories. Simple decision-theory holds
that individuals (and institutions) ought to maximize utility. This
concept of utility is utterly neutral about moral questions. There
is nothing wrong with preferring moral behavior, or with preferring
that others' preferences be satisfied as well as one's own, but such
preferences are completely optional. This kind of theory may be
accused of condoning selfishness by failing to specify that anything
is wrong with it.
The second form of normative utility theory is in fact the moral
theory of utilitarianism, which holds that the morality of
decisions be judged according to the extent to which they
maximize utility over all relevant individuals.2
Utilitarianism justifies the use of methods based on utility
maximization for social decision-making, including the setting of
medical policies and social decisions about risky technology
(e.g., Brown, Kahr, & Peterson, 1974; Keeney & Raiffa, 1976).
Utilitarianism may also be used to justify reliance on the free
market, on the basis of the same kind of exchange argument given
If utilitarianism is at the root of the problem Schwartz finds, his
argument is of interest beyond the confines of philosophy
departments. Utilitarianism in the form at issue lies behind most
of economics, and other social sciences that attempt to prescribe as
well as understand. An attack on utilitarianism is thus an attack
on applied social science as we know it.
Three assumptions (among others - see Sen & Williams, 1982) are
commonly made in utilitarianism:
At issue is an implication of these assumptions, the principle of
exchange: two individuals ought to make an exchange whenever the
utility of what each gets is higher than the utility of what each
must pay. The utility-scale assumption plus consequentialism are
sufficient to yield this principle in the form stated. When we add
the interval-scale assumption, we may justify exchanges even when
one person loses utility, provided the utility lost to one is more
than compensated by the utility gained by the other. This
conclusion is relevant only later in this paper.
Schwartz's claim now amounts to an argument that the principle of
exchange conflicts with very basic intuitions about what is morally
right and about how society ought to be organized. (At least, it
would conflict with such intuitions if we were not brainwashed
by social theory.) Thus, Schwartz argues that utilitarianism is
part of the problem, not part of the solution.
It is argued here that utilitarianism, properly understood, is
innocent of the charges that Schwartz has made against it. First,
the argument just outlined interprets the idea of a `consequence'
too narrowly, to include overt behaviors but not the inner states
that behaviors often signify. Second, many of Schwartz's objections
can be handled by adoption of a distinction between critical and
intuitive moral thinking, as proposed by Hare (1981). Third, the
idea of commensurability need not be given up, and it is in fact
required if we are to make any sort of arguments about social
justice. Aside from these three points, the positive case for
utilitarianism is put aside (for that, see Hare, 1981).
It may seem that I am attempting to salvage utilitarianism by
narrowing its scope and weakening its claims, and that further
weakening will follow further attack, until nothing is left.
Although this may be true (and without consequence except for the
terms we use), I would argue that utilitarianism has indeed suffered
through its association with certain behaviorist doctrines in
economics and psychology. I thus agree with Schwartz that there is
a serious theoretical problem in these disciplines, but I think the
problem is a form of behaviorism, not utilitarianism.
- Utility scale. Preference may be described in terms of a scale
of utility along which all outcomes of a choice are ordered.
Interval scale. Differences on such a scale are also ordered,
allowing us to compare (for example) the gain to one-person with the
loss to another from some decision. Note that this assumption
includes the claim that differences may be compared across
individuals or across domains of activity within an individual.
Consequentialism. When evaluating choices, only consequences
need be considered. The idea here is to exclude from consideration
whether a choice conforms to various moral rules. Utility
maximization is supposed to be the justification for actions or for
rules, so it cannot take such rules into account.
1 Consequences and inner states
As Schwartz notes, there is something wrong with the idea that human
relationships should be based on exchange. By this idea, it is
perfectly fine for Dick and Jane to form a relationship based on a
certain kind of contract, explicit or implicit. Dick will provide a
steady income, do some household chores, participate in child
rearing, and show certain outward signs of affection, such as
bringing flowers home occasionally. In return, Jane will sleep with
Dick (except when she truly has a headache), do most of the
housework, raise the children, and provide similar signs of
affection. Similarly, the relationship between employer and
employee, between teacher and student, and between citizen and state
(or fellow citizen) may be described in terms of this sort of
contract. Such contracts may indeed be appropriate in the world of
commerce, between consumer and producer, but they distort these
other relationships, to varying degrees.
Why is this? Schwartz claims that there is a fundamental flaw in
utilitarianism, which condones this sort of contractual relationship
of exchange. Alternatively, let us ask ourselves what we really
want out of these sorts of relationships, what our true
preferences (in the sense relevant to utilitarianism) are. Do we
want a spouse who performs spousely duties only because of the
benefits we in turn bestow? Or do we want a spouse who acts out of
love and honor (if not obedience!)?
Many of our true preferences concern not just the outward acts of
others but also the motives behind those acts. We want a spouse who
acts out of love. In fact, the outward acts are valued mostly
because they are indications of this inner state. Literature is
full of stories of lovers united by a love that transcends their
mistreatment of one another. Of course, if claims of love are not
sometimes supported by actions, they become empty and unbelievable.
Similarly, employers want employees who care about the enterprise
they are engaged in, employees want employers who treat them as if
they were this kind of employee, teachers want students who want to
learn, students want teachers who want to convey their knowledge,
the government wants truly loyal citizens, and the citizens want a
truly caring government. If each person in such relationships is
convinced that he is getting what he wants (true loyalty, etc.), he
will be more willing to tolerate occasional lapses in behavioral
manifestations. People do not like to have their behavior closely
monitored; they would rather be trusted to carry out their role from
a true sense of duty or loyalty. Hence the idea that
professionalism, citizenship, etc., are important virtues.
Thus, I am arguing that the real problem is behaviorism, the
confusion of inner motives with their outward expressions.
Behaviorists think that what we really want from one another are
expressions of love, loyalty, etc. They are wrong. What we
want is the real thing. Where theories of human nature have
distorted human nature itself is in telling us that what we want is
just the behavior (or even more extremely, just its products). If
human nature has changed as a result of these theories, it may well
be in the acceptance of this idea.
It is not important here what loyalty, love, caring, etc., really
are. What is important is that each is not identical with any
particular list of behaviors - although it is of course true that we
know the mental states and potentialities of others only through
their behavior (this fact being the ball that behaviorists have
grabbed and run with).
Because of the distinction between inner states and their behavioral
manifestations, it is possible to speak of deception and of not
knowing the true feelings of others. We do not want our spouses to
pretend to love us, nor our students to pretend to want to learn.
We cannot speak of such deception in the case of acts that are only
overt behaviors. A pitcher cannot pretend to throw a strike.
Admittedly, some are satisfied with a show of affection (e.g., from
a prostitute) or loyalty (from a sycophant), but the satisfaction
they receive from this is ordinarily incomplete, or else the
recipient has deceived himself - has made himself forget that the
prostitute's signs of affection are occurring because he paid for
them. Admittedly, behavior may matter on its own. People prefer a
loving husband who cooks dinner to an equally loving husband who
doesn't. Finally, there is surely some truth in the saying, `Where
the hand leads, the heart follows.' What begins as a polite show of
affection in order to justify physical intimacy might turn into the
real thing. However, these admissions recognize, even require, a
distinction between the pretense and reality of certain inner
states, which are often the true objects of our preferences and
My argument so far implies that we could apply utilitarian calculus,
and the exchange principle, to the satisfaction of these true
desires, so long as they are not confused with their behavioral
manifestations. Utilitarianism might justify market-like
transactions in which Dick gives Jane his true love in return
Once again we come up against certain facts about human nature.
Just as our true preferences concern inner states rather than their
outward manifestations, so it is a fact that these states cannot be
turned on and off entirely at will. Some of these states are what
Elster (1983) calls `essentially bi-products.' If we want to bring
them about, we cannot aim directly at them. Most of the time, the
best we can do is to set up the conditions under which they might
occur (e.g., dating as a condition for falling in love). Arguably,
this limited control is a necessary property of the states we desire
in others. If control were perfect, these states would not be as
desired as they are (perhaps because the supply would exceed the
demand, if for no other reason).
Once again, behaviorism has misled us, this time by assuming that
everything involved in a transaction or exchange is ours to give or
take freely, just as a pigeon may choose to peck a key or not.
(Skinnerians would say that the relevant behavior is `under operant
control.') Nor can it be argued that behaviorism combines naturally
with utilitarian assumptions as opposed to others. For example,
a rights-based legal system could ignore inner states in decisions
about sanctions. Such a system would be wrong for the same reason
that the economic view Schwartz criticizes is wrong.
I conclude that the principle of exchange is useless for many of our
most important concerns. It does not follow from the basic
assumptions of utilitarianism because it ignores, first, the fact
that our preferences often involve inner states, not behaviors, and,
second, the fact that our control over these states is limited.
Because of these limits, the exchange principle is of limited
utility, so to speak, in maximizing utility. Market exchange may
best be limited to those relatively few goods and behaviors where
the behaviorist assumptions apply, that is, consumer goods and
services of the usual sort. If the market is to be defended at all
as a basis of other human relationships, it must be by showing that
it is better than the alternatives, despite these difficulties.
2 Critical and intuitive thinking
So far, I have argued that the real problem is not in the
utilitarian justification of the exchange principle as a full
normative theory of human relationships, for the exchange principle
cannot provide a full theory. (Only a behaviorist could think that
it might.) But we might apply utilitarianism directly to justify
what we might call prostitution in the most general sense. Could it
not be argued that people should make the kinds of exchanges at
issue (e.g., weapons for hostages, lab space for credit) when
utility is maximized? If so, this conclusion conflicts with our
intuitions and argues against the utilitarian use of the
commensurability (interval scale) assumption. To deal with this
problem, we need to step back a bit.
2.1 Critical vs. intuitive thinking
Many of the conflicts between intuition and utilitarianism can be
understood in terms of Hare's (1981) distinction between critical
and intuitive moral thinking (see also Baron, 1985, 1986). Critical
thinking is the application of utilitarian calculus to individual
acts and to the evaluation of moral rules to be followed at the
intuitive level. Intuitive thinking is the following of moral rules
Some of the rules to be followed at the intuitive level concern when
to revert to the critical level. In general, the critical level
should be avoided when miscalculation is likely and when it could
lead to errors with serious consequences, or when there is strong
temptation to rationalize action in one's self-interest. For
example, those contemplating political assassinations would do well
to avoid critical reasoning; even though such acts may appear
justified, the moral track record of people who have made such
calculations is quite poor. On the other hand, the critical level
may be useful in the dispassionate analysis of public-policy
questions in which one does not have a particular stake.
Act-utilitarianism is defensible only at the critical level (Hare,
1981). Assuming such a defense, the question of what rules should
be followed at the intuitive level is still a question of design or
invention. Different personal, material, and cultural circumstances
may require different moral rules, different ways of living. We may
invent new moral rules, just as we invent new methods of
communication or education. The success of our moral inventions are
to be judged by utilitarianism applied to them at the critical
level, but utilitarianism provides no procedure for invention
itself. Most moral philosophies are meant for the intuitive level.
They concern how we actually ought to live.
The critical-intuitive distinction is illustrated in its handling of
the classic dilemma in which you have an inescapable choice between
killing one person or letting ten others be killed by someone else.
Here, killing through an act of commission violates a very strong
intuitive principle. One's role as a causal agent, one's agency
(Sen, 1985), is intuitively relevant. This intuitive principle
conflicts with the principle that one should save as many lives as
possible, leading to the dilemma. The intuitive prohibition against
active killing is clearly a good one to hold. It prevents killing,
and if everyone held it, this kind of dilemma could not arise.
Because it is a good intuitive rule, most of us have strong
preferences not to violate it, and any violation would make us feel
guilty. In this light, a person who declines to participate in
killing on grounds of agency, when the preferences of others would
be better satisfied if he did participate, is indulging a personal
preference at the expense of others. The situation is complicated
because this personal preference arises from intuitive moral rules
that are themselves worth following. None the less, a person who
refuses to `get his hands dirty' for a good cause may be seen as
self-indulgent. In the same way, so might the professor who refuses
to pass the quarterback.
An important feature of the critical-intuitive distinction is that
critical thinking must deal with hypothetical examples like this
one, while intuitive principles need not, exactly because they are
rare. Intuitive principles are meant to serve us in our ordinary
lives, where such situations do not often arise. Hence, it is easy
to find conflicts between our moral intuitions and the dictates of
critical moral thinking for hypothetical examples.
2.2 Purity of practices
Schwartz's recommendations draw heavily on MacIntyre's (1981) idea
of practices. A practice is a culturally-defined domain of
activity that sets its own standards. Examples are cooking, chess,
sports, education, science, music, commerce, citizenship, and
friendship. Once people are initiated into a practice, they take
the goals of that practice as their own goals. When they import the
goals of some other practice, the original practice is weakened.
Thus, the scientific pursuit of truth (a goal of science) is
weakened when a scientist distorts his results for material gain (a
goal of some other sort of practice). The practice of education is
weakened when professors give passing grades to athletes who don't
otherwise deserve them.
Schwartz argues that the purity of practices ought to be preserved.
His criticism of modern U.S. society is that certain standards of
the market - particularly the goal of getting the most gain for the
least sacrifice - are infiltrating other practices and weakening
them.4 Utilitarianism also weakens practices
because it permits their rules to be violated when utility is
maximized by doing so.
This argument is asserts that we should follow `lexical rules,' that
is, rules in which one consideration is given absolute priority over
another. Such rules lead to ludicrous consequences when applied in
hypothetical probabilistic situations or situations in which many
people are involved (Baron, 1986). For example, suppose that the
issue were not whether to fail a particular quarterback but whether
to give professors enough discretion so that some professor, some
year, might give a free point or two in order to see the team
win. If we were to give academics absolute priority over sports, we
would make sure that professors are prohibited from reading the
campus newspaper lest they find out what their students do outside
of their classes.
We may conclude that Schwartz's principle of purity cannot be
maintained at the critical level. Let us therefore treat is as an
intuitive principle. Here, there are strong arguments for it.
Practices are institutions (like the idea of promise keeping) that
benefit us all. Impurity sets a precedent for future violation (by
the violator or others), and the long-run benefits of the practice
may be weakened or jeopardized. The disutility of such weakening is
only rarely compensated by other gains, so the purity principle
usually coincides with the dictates of critical analysis. Moreover,
violations of the purity principle may occur in just those cases in
which critical thinking should be avoided: where self-interest is
However, these arguments might not be decisive. An alternative
intuition is that some of our practices are, in a sense, too
pure. Baron (1986) proposed an idea of simple moral systems, in
which people wall off the moral part of their life from the rest.
Outside of a few specifically moral habits such as giving to charity
and going to church, many people limit moral considerations to a
list of prohibitions, e.g., those against cheating or stealing.
Such prohibitions are often found within practices such as commerce
or science. In these contexts, however, they represent only a
minimal effort to incorporate moral standards into the practices.
It may be argued, for example, that scientists ought to pay more
attention to the potential consequences of their work when they
choose a problem to work on. For example, the successful study of
lasers seems likely to lead to mixed blessings, while the study of
immune reactions is likely to lead to pure ones.
The decision between these two intuitions is a question of which
does better in our world. It has been argued (against my view) that
the importation of moral considerations into science will open the
floodgates to all sorts of other `non-scientific' considerations
such as individual financial gain, governmental use of science
policy to remedy racial injustice, etc. Ultimately, it is argued,
the institution of science will crack or crumble, so that it is
unable to serve its most unique purpose, the search for truth. Such
a consequence would be bad by any theory. At issue is whether this
risk is sufficiently great.
A reply to this argument (following Baron, 1986) is that it is
impossible in today's society to convince people to maintain the
purity of institutions at all costs except through a kind of
brainwashing, unless they themselves understand the moral
justification of our rules at the critical level. Given such
understanding, the importation of moral considerations into the
standards of other practices is easily justified at the critical
level, and it poses little danger of inspiring the importation of
other destructive considerations, insofar as it will also be clear
that such importation cannot be critically justified.
If Schwartz is correct in his argument about appropriate intuitive
rules, it may be best to assume as an intuitive precept that there
is no useful common coin, no commensurability, and no such thing as
utility, even if, at the critical level, people might admit that
these precepts are wrong. Indeed, we admire people who seem to
adopt precisely such precepts: the explorer who perseveres despite
the risk to his men, the professor who fails the quarterback (who is
one point short of passing). Such people typically do not defend
their actions in terms of utility maximization (although they might,
if they were to consider weakening an institution as a consequence
of giving in). Rather, they argue that academic standards, for
example, are not commensurable with the standards of sports, and
therefore these standards must not under any circumstances be
traded off with any other standards. Even if such an argument is
wrong, it might be best for all if people believed it.
My reply is, again, that such an argument is not believable.
Incommensurability does not imply that one consideration should
be given priority over another. It implies that it is impossible
to say which of two considerations should be prior in general or in
a given case. Those who argue that a human life cannot be given a
monetary value must give some further justification if they want
to argue for the preservation of a particular life at great cost.
They cannot argue - as the utilitarian can - that the life in
question is worth more than the money. (A utilitarian can even
maintain that any life is worth more than all the money in the
world, if he really believes it.)
In sum the critical arguments against the intuitive principle of
purity are apparent to thoughtful people in our society. Hence, it
is essentially impossible to convince people that they ought to
follow lexical rules or preserve perfect purity. Any attempt to
build an intuitive moral theory on the belief in utter
incommensurability of different values will not work. Moreover,
even if people could be convinced, should educators withhold
critical arguments in order to insure that their students have
appropriate (but possibly wrong) beliefs? Such a stance would seem
to contaminate the practice of education. Put another way, the
utility of the open search for enlightenment is too high for it to
be intentionally subverted.
3 Commensurability: further issues
Some further arguments for commensurability at the critical level
may be made. There are two issues: commensurability across people
and commensurability across domains of activity such as practices,
i.e., commensurability across different goals, within or across
individuals. If inter-domain comparison is impossible, then
interpersonal comparison is generally impossible as well, since
different people may be involved in different domains of activity.
Clearly, inter-domain comparison is difficult. It is difficult
to compare the harm done to sports by failing the quarterback and
the harm done to the academic enterprise by passing him. But it
need not be impossible.
We may put this difficulty in perspective by considering the fact
that many other comparisons are difficult although possible. It is
somewhat difficult to compare the difference in brightness between a
75 watt bulb and a 100 watt bulb to the difference between a 25 watt
bulb and a 40 watt bulb, and it is more difficult to compare the
difference in brightness of two lights with the difference in
loudness of two tones. However (practical problems aside), so long
as it is possible to elicit repeated judgments, so that the
variability averages out, and so long as it is possible to define a
relevant context for eliciting the judgment, comparisons like these
may be meaningfully made.
Note that the difficulty of inter-domain comparisons is often
exaggerated by the use of poorly specified examples. For example,
it may be argued that it is difficult to decide whether to give $50
to charity or go out to dinner (Schwartz, 1986, p. 154). This
example does not specify which charity, how needy that charity is at
the time, how much we have given to charity recently, which
restaurant, how long it has been since we have gone out to dinner,
etc. There are many ways of filling in these details so that the
choice would not be difficult at all. The appearance of difficulty
in comparison may result largely from ambiguities in the states (or
differences) being compared.
The fact is that we make inter-domain comparisons all the time
through our decisions. We do, for example, make choices between
personal relationships and careers when we decline (or accept) a job
because we want to stay with (or are willing to leave) a potential
spouse. Often such choices are painful and difficult, both because
they involve uncertainties and because of the essential difficulty
of inter-domain comparison. We worry that if we take the job, it
will not turn out well, or that if we decline it, the relationship
will not work out. But we do decide, sometimes easily.
The cases in which people feel most resistant to making inter-domain
tradeoffs seem to be those in which they see one of the two domains
as much more important. Some opponents of abortion regard human
life as so important that they are unwilling to trade it for any
benefit even when the life is itself of questionable status.
Although such unwillingness may be defended through some sort of
argument about incommensurability, this is not the only defense. An
alternative defense (as noted earlier) is that the domains are in
fact commensurable and that the life domain has so much more
importance than any other (in terms of the common measure) that no
amount of benefit on other dimensions is equal to the value of a
single life. This is because the other dimensions are inherently
bounded on the scale of importance. The critical test of such a
belief would involve the choice of actions that might cause an
abortion with some very low probability, e.g., a medical treatment
for a dangerous brain infection in the mother, which would increase
the probability of miscarriage by .00001. If an opponent of
abortion assents to such a treatment, he is implicitly accepting
commensurability, and the possibility of a tradeoff (Baron,
If inter-domain comparison is possible, we may ask whether
interpersonal comparison is possible as well. Many arguments for
such comparisons have been made (e.g., Hare, 1981, ch. 7; Parfit,
1984, ch. 15; Baron, 1986), but perhaps one more thing needs to be
pointed out. If we did not implicitly make such comparisons, we
would not be able to judge that any distribution of goods is too
extreme. We would not be able to say that one person is so much
richer than another that the world would be a better place if the
former were $100 poorer and the latter $100 richer. Such a claim
involves an interpersonal comparison of differences. In fact, we
make these kinds of statements all the time. Although interpersonal
comparison is difficult, it does seem to be possible.
The principle of exchange seems to be limited in its application,
and it cannot serve as a link between utilitarianism and the idea of
a market for interpersonal relations. Our preferences concern the
inner states of other people as well as their overt behavior. The
neglect of this aspect of our preferences is a result of the
coupling of utilitarianism with behaviorism. The problem is thus
behaviorism, not consequentialism.
It might be argued that commensurability is wrong because it
sanctions impure practices - aside from any principle of exchange.
In reply, it may be argued that the principle of purity is an
intuitive one, which must be justified at a higher level. At the
intuitive level, the purity principle competes with the view that
practices are in some cases too pure already, and that blind purity
cannot be maintained without educational deception.
The apparent difficulty of making tradeoffs among different kinds of
consequences is a problem in practice, not a problem in principle.
The difficulty may indeed justify certain prescriptive rules, but a
blanket prohibition against impure practices would seem to require
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1This is a
pre-publication version of Baron, J. (1988). Utility,
exchange, and commensurability. Journal of Thought,
23, 111-131. It is similar to the published version.
is not always defined in terms of preference satisfaction,
although most recent versions of utilitarianism have adopted
this view, e.g., Hare (1981). I shall assume here that other
versions of utilitarianism may be translated into this one.
3A free market will generally fail to maximize
utility, for a variety of reasons, e.g.: it does not provide a
mechanism for helping the poor (who might gain much utility at
a small cost to others), it fails (by itself) to insure
cooperative behavior (from which all might benefit), and it
provides no protection against irrational neglect of future
preferences of participants or their progeny. However, these
issues are not in dispute, but rather the claim that
utilitarianism justifies the market, other things equal.
4Interestingly, the practice of the market itself is
undermined by excessive reliance on this goal, for it has other
standards, such as accurate representation of one's goods and
adherence to one's word.
5Some would allow abortion only when it is an unintended
or undesired risk (Foot, 1967). As a basis for making
decisions (as opposed to a basis for evaluating the decision maker),
the role of intention seems justifiable only prescriptively (not
normatively). See Baron (1986).
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