November 26, 2017

BENITEZ | What, Exactly, Is ‘Utility’?

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Regardless of whether you’ve taken a philosophy class, you’re likely already familiar with the trolley problem. While the exact terms of the problem may vary, its ultimate question remains constant: should you kill one person to save many and, if so, would you? As a helpful thought experiment, the trolley problem allows us to weigh the relative utility of either option by framing the number of lives saved as the only relevant gauge of either outcome. To save five lives, you must kill one. Any subsequent tension one feels when confronted by the problem is therefore because of an intuition to not kill rather than a reasoned cost-benefit analysis, as the latter always favors sacrificing one life for the benefit of five.

While the trolley problem is most often used to introduce utilitarianism to those who are yet to conceptualize it, the problem’s straightforwardness, maintained by there being literally just one metric of its consequences, perhaps obscures the most interesting question a utilitarian must continue to grapple with. What exactly is “utility”?

Synonyms offered by economics include “welfare,” “net surplus” and “profit.” The formal study of applied philosophy offers terms such as “satisfaction,” “happiness” and “contentedness.” Yet even then, the disciplines betray a reluctance to  define precisely what is a profoundly elusive term. Despite a contemporary tendency toward reductionism — whether it be within the physical sciences (“We’re nothing but atoms”) or linguistics (“This signifier represents A, B and C”) — we  must ultimately recognize the shortcomings of a catch-all term like “utility” considered fundamental.

The Facebook page Economics Memes for Utility-Maximizing Teens publicized a funny meme in which a person conducts a cost-benefit analysis after being asked if they want to go out that night. After deciding that going out would constitute a net benefit, the person resolves to do so. This meme likely derives its humor from the dissonance between the formal reasoning of a cost-benefit analysis and the hurried, informal circumstances in which we must actually make them. Indeed, during the split-second in which we make decisions like the one presented in that meme, a whole storm of variables inform what “utility” is at that precise moment. This meme pokes fun of how we seldom ever calculate our output with perfect consistency. Our desired “output” is a spectral answer, and is perhaps why the universal struggle of young adulthood is figuring out precisely what we want from our finite lives.

This insight may not be the most striking or profound, and has hopefully been reached by many others before me. However, I only recently realized the extent to which approaching life itself as an optimization problem — minimizing inputs to maximize output — has altered my worldview for the worse.

As a hedonist-utilitarian, I’m out to maximize everyone’s happiness, including my own. While my goals and mechanisms for maximizing social happiness haven’t changed, those maximizing my personal happiness have. To this day, I measure the consequences of my actions with a hedonistic lens, but no longer do I consider myself a “hedonist,” as the term is more colloquially understood. For instance, up until now, I mistook the exclusive variables maximizing my life’s utility as being achievement — distinguishing oneself through productive contributions to society — and pleasure. Consequently, for a while you could find me on a Wednesday, with great accuracy, either by  scouring Uris Library during the day or Level B at night.

But at some recent point, I began to realize that the inputs I’ve been throwing at my life — run student council in high school, get into an Ivy League university, preserve a certain GPA — are not actually providing the utility-maximizing output I personally seek. As I ready myself for the next great input of my life — full-time employment — I can’t help but behold its promised reward with skepticism considering the weak correlation between past inputs along the same, pre-professional trajectory, and the anticipated hedonist output. This became clear when I recently joked that I’m at a school I don’t really like, studying a major I don’t fully enjoy, so as to get a job I don’t actually want. The naked truth of that self-deprecating statement was surprisingly impactful, to say the least.

After some reflection, I now understand how the “utility” I seek has shifted away from the sub-categories of “achievement” and “pleasure” I formerly pursued and more toward “contentedness” I once thought incompatible with my mercurial extroversion. I also recognize that this continued tendency to express what I’m looking for in life as an “output” constituted of “sub-categories” and produced by “inputs” is an overly-intellectual, emotionally-sterile attitude I need to continue working on. However, recognizing that “utility” is amorphous, complex, and in constant flux has allowed me to make conscious decisions more in concert with my fundamental identity.

Ultimately, as interesting as the trolley problem is, utilitarianism as a personal, applied philosophy poses far more interesting challenges that just overcoming instinctive intuition. Accounting for the relative utility of different outcomes measurable by the exact same metric isn’t the hardest part of living as a utilitarian. It’s when different outcomes share few common metrics by which they can be compared — when it’s not just lives-against-lives, but, say, pleasure-against-contentedness — that a utilitarian must confront harder questions that aren’t just theoretical, but potentially deeply personal. Indeed, utility is not the same thing as pleasure, and neither is it the same thing as contentedness. However, reflecting on each of our own personal understandings of “utility” at this given time can help direct us toward the lives we really want to live.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.