PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Lecture 4

 - Origins of Classical Utilitarianism


Jeremy Bentham’s formulation of classical utilitarianism is the first Enlightenment tradition that the course will cover in depth. In his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham outlines the principle of utility; that is, the principle that all men are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. Professor Shapiro presents the case that classical utilitarianism has five characteristics: (1) it is comprehensive and deterministic, (2) it is a pre-Darwinian naturalist doctrine, (3) it is egoistic but not subjectivist, (4) it is highly consequentialist, and (5) it is based on the idea that utility is quantifiable and that one can make interpersonal comparisons of utility. As for the role of government, Bentham believes that it is to “maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The class discusses the merits of utilitarianism through examination of Robert Nozick’s hypothetical experience machines, the implication of public goods, and “the tragedy of the commons.”

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PLSC 118 - Lecture 4 - Origins of Classical Utilitarianism

Chapter 1. Enlightenment Tradition I: Classical Utilitarianism [00:00:00]

Professor Ian Shapiro: So today we’re going to start talking about classical utilitarianism, and we’re going to use as our point of departure Jeremy Bentham, who lived between 1748 and 1832 and came up with the canonical statement of the doctrine of utilitarianism. It’s a doctrine which is still very much alive and kicking in the contemporary West despite all of its problems, and we’ll have things to say about why that is. But I wanted to make a couple of prefatory remarks first about Bentham himself. There are some thinkers in the Western tradition, I guess in any tradition, who have a particular characteristic that Bentham certainly has, and I think of the folks we’re going to read Karl Marx had and Robert Nozick had. And the thing I’m thinking of here is they are the kind of person who takes one idea to the most extreme possible formulation. They ask themselves a question, “How would the world be if this idea that I have is the only important idea,” and they take it to its logical extreme, to an excessive kind of formulation.

And they will go places with their idea that nobody else will go, and so that makes them a little bit crazy. They’re monomaniacal, obsessively consumed with their idea. In the case of Bentham it’s the idea of utility, which we’re going to unpack a little bit in a moment. But what’s always interesting about people like this is that they play out an idea to its logical extreme and that exhibits both its strengths and its limitation just because they’re willing to go when others will not go, think the unthinkable, think politically incorrect things for their time in pursuit of really pushing this idea to the absolute hilt.

And so Bentham is the kind of thinker who I suspect, at the end of the day, nobody will be fully convinced by, but he’s very useful. He’s a very useful diagnostician of what it is about utilitarianism that’s going to be appealing to you and where eventually you’re going to want to put some limits on it just because he goes beyond the limits. And so you can see what happens if you push it all the way to the hilt.

Secondly, I want to just say that Bentham is important as a fountain of more than utilitarianism, but also of modern conceptions of value more generally considered. You’ll see that there were rumblings of the kinds of things he had to say about value in the seventeenth century. Hobbes, for example, who I mentioned last time, criticized Aristotle for not seeing that what is good for some people may not be good for other people, and Bentham builds on that idea. You’ll see Bentham will start to link the good to what it is that people desire.

There were also rumblings of Bentham’s methods in particularly his aspirations to found politics on scientific principles in the seventeenth century. We already saw last time the Hobbesian and Lockean creationist theories of science, but they were really transitional figures. They also gave theological justifications for their arguments as I explained at some length in Locke, in the context of Locke. I didn’t have time to do it with Hobbes, but many of you will know that if you read the second two-thirds of Hobbes’ Leviathan, it’s almost all about interpretation of the scriptures, showing that his scientifically derived principles are also consistent with the Bible.

Bentham sheds all of this. For Bentham he’s not interested in appeals to tradition. He’s not interested in appeals to religion. He’s not interested in appeals to natural law. He dismisses the natural law tradition as dangerous nonsense, “nonsense on stilts.” He’s only interested in a scientific set of principles for organizing politics. And one of the nice things about Bentham, at least from your point of view, is — and we’ll see that utilitarianism values efficiency in many ways, but one of the interesting things or the helpful things about Bentham is that he reduces his whole doctrine to a single paragraph, and he puts that paragraph right at the front of his Introduction to The Principles of Morals and Legislation. So here you have the kind of Cliffs Notes formulation of Bentham’s argument. He says that, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” So this is going to be about describing human behavior and about what ought to be the case, right? What we shall do.

…[T]o point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. (That’s the throne of pain and pleasure.) They govern us in all we do, in all we say, and in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection (that’s our subjection to pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding) will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it (to confirm that subjection). In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire (that’s the empire of pain and pleasure): but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law. Systems which attempt to question it deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, and in darkness instead of light.

That is, in a nutshell, Bentham’s theory; very bold unequivocal statement. He’s saying if you want to understand human beings in a causal explanatory sense all you have to know about them is that they’re going to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And if you want to think about what ought to happen in the design of institutions they should be designed around that fact, to accommodate that fact. And he’s going to develop a system of laws, a system of government that takes into account and is built upon this assumption about human nature, as he would have called it; human psychology, as we would call it today.

Chapter 2. Betham’s System: Features of Classical Utilitarianism [00:08:24]

Now, I’m going to make five points about Bentham’s system to give you some sense of the full dimensions of it, before we start dissecting it and subjecting it to critical scrutiny. I want to make sure that we understand exactly what his system is. And I want to first of all notice that it is what I’m going to call a comprehensive and deterministic account. I call it a comprehensive and deterministic account in that it’s an account of all human behavior. He wants to say everything you do is ultimately determined by pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. How plausible — who thinks that’s plausible? Hands up. Plausible? Implausible? Okay, give us an example, somebody, of something that is not pleasure-seeking or pain-avoiding, anybody, something that is not the result of pleasure-seeking or pain-avoiding. Well, you put your hands up. You must have had some thoughts. Yeah, okay here. Yeah, you take it.

Student: Running into a fire to rescue people.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Pardon?

Student: Running into a fire to rescue people.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Running into a fire to rescue people. Okay, you run into a fire to rescue people. What do you think Bentham would say about that example? Yeah, over here, sir.

Student: The pleasure is actually saving the people, so there is, like, this benefit that you get from it, the pleasure.

Professor Ian Shapiro: The pleasure you get from having saved the people must outweigh the pain of the fire or you wouldn’t do it. Any other example? Nobody’s got an example? Nobody can think of an example? No? Yes? Yes, sir?

Student: Well, there may be some. For example, saving one’s child may be purely instinctual rather than driven by pain or pleasure.

Professor Ian Shapiro: So say sacrificing your life to save your child, let’s say, to put it in an extreme case.

Student: Yes.

Professor Ian Shapiro: What would Bentham say about that? I mean, this seems like a genuine altruistic action. Somebody lays down their life for their own child. How can that be pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding? What would Bentham say? Yeah?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Ian Shapiro: Wait, we need you…

Student: I mean, clearly the pain of, like, having lost a child, like, outweighs whatever pleasures.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah, I think that is what he would say. Think of the counterfactual. How could I live with myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t do it? The pain would be too great. And Bentham considers cases like this sort of thing. Apparently altruistic acts seems ultimately always reducible to the pleasure-pain calculus. One example he considers is people acting from religious motivations and he says, “Ha! Just read the Bible. Look at the descriptions of heaven and hell. Isn’t that a made-to-order pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance?” Hell is described as, you know, the fires of hell, perpetual pain. So, the people who constructed religious doctrines clearly had an understanding of human nature or they wouldn’t have described hell in a way that they described it and heaven in the way that they describe it.

So, the first thing he wants to say is that this is a completely comprehensive explanation of human behavior. Can anybody think of any example that couldn’t be re-described as fitting this pleasure-pain calculus? Yeah?

Student: I think that if life is all about pain and pleasure we would be willing to replace our life with one with only, I mean, one only with pleasure, right? But we wouldn’t. We value our life by ourself. There is something indescribable quality to it. I mean, life is the sum of all experiences rather than just pain and pleasure, so.

Professor Ian Shapiro: So you think that there is more complexity to human motivation that’s just not expressible as or reducible to pain and pleasure. I think that’s a very sophisticated and common critique that’s been made of Bentham. If you go and read, indeed if you read the obituary of him that was written by Coleridge, I think it was, makes exactly this point. There was this sophistication to human motivation that isn’t captured in this idea. I think that the truth is Bentham would have acknowledged some of that, but he would have said, “At the end of the day it’s not important because the pleasure-pain calculus overrides when the chips are down. If we’re going to think about what it is that’s going to motivate people, it’s pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance.”

Okay, a second thing that you should notice about this doctrine is that I’m going to call it a naturalistic doctrine. In some ways it’s astounding that writing almost half a century before Darwin, Darwin was born in 1809 and lived until 1882, so writing almost half a century before Darwin, Bentham grounds his principle in the imperatives for human survival. He thinks that the pleasure-pain principle has a natural biological basis. Although there are religious, moral and political sources and sanctions of pain and pleasure, these are all secondary to the physical sources for Bentham.

“The physical,” he refers to at one point, as “the groundwork” of the political, moral, and religious. It is included in each of them. At another point he says we are bound by the principle of utility as “the natural constitution of the human frame” often unconsciously and often when our conscious explanations for our actions are inconsistent with the principle of utility. I’ll come back to that point. If we didn’t abide by the principle of utility, he says in his little essay, The Psychology of Economic Man, he says, “The human species could not continue in existence and that in a few months, not to say weeks or days, we would be all that would be needed for its annihilation.” In other words, the principle of utility expresses our objective interests as living creatures.

A third point that I’m going to make about Bentham’s doctrine is that it’s what I will call egoistic, but not subjectivist. Now, that’s a lot of babble terminology, but let me explain what it means. The reason I’m using those two words together is that they don’t normally go together. That is to say egoistic views are usually subjectivist, so I’m pointing out that they’re not. And by egoistic I mean it is just like in all economics assumptions, the assumption of self-interest. People are self-interested seekers after pleasure, and self-interested avoiders of pain in exactly the way you learn about them in an economics 101 textbook. And we’ll have occasion to examine that self-interested premise in some depth later.

But it’s not a subjectivist doctrine in that Bentham wants to say this is true regardless of what we ourselves say about our preferences. It’s not dependent upon your acknowledging its truth for its being true, okay? So you might think you’re motivated by altruism, or love of your child, or your religious faith. Bentham says, “You’re just muddled and deluded. You don’t understand. Your subjective understanding is not in accord with the science of the matter.” At one point he says, “It is with the anatomy of the human mind as it is with the anatomy and physiology of the human body. The rare case is not of a man’s being unconversant, but of his being conversant with it.” So just as if you have a pain in your side and you don’t know if it’s your liver, or your spleen, or your lung, the rare case is you get it right. He once says exactly the same with your motivation. The fact that you don’t understand, or wouldn’t agree with, or don’t acknowledge what’s motivating you, so much the worse for you. You just have an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of your motivation. You’re just wrong, okay?

So it’s in that sense picks up on the idea this is an objectivist account. It is objectively the case. Whatever people think about it, whatever people say about it, it is objectively the case that they behave self interestedly in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Fourth, Bentham’s is a radically consequentialist doctrine. Anyone know what that might mean? Anyone want to tell us what you think I might mean by calling it a consequentialist doctrine? Yeah? Yes, ma’am?

Student: That in being motivated by pleasure and pain we’re concerned with the consequences of our actions. If we know something is going to be painful we’ll avoid it, and if it’s going to be pleasurable we’ll move towards it.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah, but as I said at the beginning of the lecture, Bentham takes everything to the extreme. So we are concerned with the consequences of the action and nothing else. It’s an extreme consequentialist doctrine. He’s not interested in our intentions, right? The road to hell is paved with good intentions for Bentham. Now, it doesn’t matter what people intend it matters what happens, right? It’s a radically consequentialist doctrine.

We will see that there’s an alternative tradition of thinking about ethics and politics that is deeply rooted in human intentions when we come to read Robert Nozick and John Rawls and people who draw on Kant’s, Immanuel Kant’s ethics, and that’s what gets to you — to give you all of the jargon up front that is what will be called deontological, sometimes contrasted with teleological. Consequentialist is a kind of teleological doctrine. What does teleologicalmean? Anybody? Yeah, at the back. Teleological system?

Student: Well, given that telos in Greek is the end…

Professor Ian Shapiro: The end, the purpose, the consequence, exactly right. So consequentialist doctrines are teleological doctrines. They’re all about the consequences, the purpose, the ends, the goals, the results, whereas what we will talk about later when we get to deontological systems, or the antithesis of that, they focus on intentions, on processes, on procedures, on how you do things, not on where you get to, okay? So Bentham is a radical consequentialist, and you judge a doctrine simply by looking, you judge a possible policy, an action, anything you’re thinking of doing or not doing simply by virtue of what effect it is likely to have and nothing else. Nothing else matters.

Finally, Bentham thinks everything he’s doing is quantifiable. I gave you just a sliver to read from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation just so that you could get a sense of how this guy’s mind actually worked. He really thought it was the case that he could develop a kind of science of utilitarianism where he would figure out exactly how many utils, we might call them.  We might call them Standard International Utils, “SIUs,” would attach to a pleasure or pain any policy or action, and that eventually you could figure out exactly what all of the optimal policies were for the organization of society.

He thought about utility. He thought it had really four dimensions. How intense is it? Duration, how long does it last? Its certainty or uncertainty, that is, probability that the result will occur. And what he called propinquity or remoteness, which modern economists would say we discount pleasure into the future. If you say, “I’ll give you a dollar today, or I’ll give you a dollar tomorrow,” you’ll get more utility from the dollar that you get today, okay? So he thought that these were all quantifiable dimensions of utility, so a little unsure about the intensity, but he’s sure that everything else can be quantified. And he set about quantifying. He set about trying to figure out a system of legislation not only for his society, by the way, he started writing constitutions for other countries. And when he ran off to Poland and various places and said, “Look, here’s my utilitarian constitution for your country,” and he was very disappointed when people didn’t rush off and implement it right away. So he truly believed that you could come up with a scientifically demonstrable system of organizing society based on the quantifiable character of utilitarianism.

So one further feature of this quantifiable character of utilitarianism is that he thought we could make comparisons across people. We could do the math across people. We could add up how much utility one person gets from a possible action, and how much utility or disutility another person gets, and redistribute in order to do what he thought we should do, which was to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He’s a complete consequentialist, so we would do whatever we have to do to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

So, for example, I happen to know that Denise, who’s sitting over there, has got a great capacity for utility. She’s easily pleased. If you give her a book she’ll be just delighted. But Anthony over there is a kind of grumpy guy. If you give him a book he’d say, “Well, why didn’t you give me two books? One measly book.” So, if I have a choice between giving this book to Denise, or giving the book to Anthony, I’m going to give the book to Denise because she’s going to get more utility than Anthony’s going to get from having this book. We don’t really care who has the utility from a social perspective. We want to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number, okay? But then what we might discover is that Leonid over there has an even greater capacity for utility. He is just a utility monster. He’s got such a capacity for happiness that any little thing that most of us would think is neither here nor there is really going to make him happy. Well, then we should give everything to him, right?

So it’s a doctrine that’s completely uninterested in the distributive side of utilitarianism except in an instrumental way, and we’ll come back to that on next Monday. All you want to do is maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number in society, the total amount of happiness.

Now, here’s a further feature of Bentham’s doctrine and I think it follows from the consequentialism that you should at least notice, because I think it bears on our thinking about, for instance, the Eichmann problem. And this is actually taken from Robert Nozick’s book, who you’re going to read later in the semester, in his critique of utilitarianism. He says let’s consider the following thought experiment. Suppose your brain was connected by electrodes to a computer and the computer was programmed to make you have whatever experiences give you pleasure and not to have any experiences that give you pain. So you would, in fact, be unconscious, I think actually in Nozick’s example, floating in a vat unconscious, but you would believe you were doing whatever it is that gives you the greatest pleasure. And the question Nozick asked is, “Would you want to be connected to the machine?”

Who would want to be connected to the machine? Okay, we only have one, two three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, fifteen. I see about fifteen candidates for Nozick’s pleasure machine. Who would not want to be connected to this machine? Okay, we have probably two-thirds of you. Who’s not sure? Okay, some are not sure. Those who wouldn’t want to be connected, why not? I mean, this is great, isn’t it? You don’t have to work anymore. You don’t have to do assignments. You don’t have to show up to class. You just, you know, for the rest of your life, maybe, you’re programmed to have the experiences that give you the most pleasure in life. What could be better than that? Why don’t you want to do it? Yeah, over here?

Student: Well, I think the point of life is to have like a complexity of experiences, and without experiencing pain at some point pleasure wouldn’t be as sweet.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, the point of life is to — hold on to the mic. I just want to follow this a little. The point of life is to have some contrast effects. Richard Nixon said, “Only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you appreciate the joy of being on the highest mountain,” as he was being run out of the Whitehouse in 1974. Well, you could say, okay, well, in that case we’ll program the machine accordingly so you’ll have certain painful experiences in order to maximize the net of pleasure and pain. Every, I don’t know, every fifth minute you’ll have some unpleasant experience just so that you don’t forget how pleasant the pleasant experience is. We can do that.

Student: Well, then you wouldn’t be, like, having free will in experiencing the various experiences.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, so that’s different. It’s not the contrast. It’s not the banality of pleasure, if you like, it’s that the lack of free will or autonomy. But couldn’t we program it to make you think you were acting freely even though you weren’t? I think — what about that? Some people say that’s true of us all, this idea we have free will it’s a lot of bunk. We’re all really basically just acting out sort of impulses and instincts, but we believe we have free will. So you could be made to believe that you’re making choices even if, in fact, you aren’t.

Student: Well, wouldn’t the, like, free will be as much a component of, like, the natural physical nature of man…

Professor Ian Shapiro: Well now you’re…

Student: As well as — I mean, I’m adding more to Bentham, but…

Professor Ian Shapiro: Okay, so that would be a different theory than Bentham’s theory, but you can see where this is going, right? That I think there are some people in the room, if we had time to pursue this conversation, there are some people in the room who no matter what you did to the programming in the experience machine they wouldn’t like it, and they wouldn’t like it for two principle reasons, I think. One has just been articulated which is that somehow this seems like an abdication of your own autonomy. And when we think back to the Eichmann problem one of the things that troubled people was his abdication of his autonomy. He’s giving up his free will to say, “Yes or no. I think this is right or wrong. I’m going to do it on the basis of my own autonomous judgment.”

The second thing I think that people would worry about is who’s operating the machine. Who’s operating the machine? How do you know that once they’ve got you floating in that vat what you wanted to have done will in fact happen? And so there’s a basic problem of agency and accountability that makes people nervous.

Chapter 3. Individual Utility versus Social Utility: The Role of Government [00:32:46]

But let’s just put those things to one side for the moment and focus on the rest of the exposition of Bentham’s doctrine. We’re going to come back to all of these issues, I promise you. I just want to get everything out on the table. What he says is that the role of government is, “A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be comfortable to or dictated by the principle of utility when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.” So again, the bumper sticker version of that for Bentham is, maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

And for those of you who like thinking diagrammatically, and as I noted in my opening lecture not everybody does, but if we imagine a two-person society, so A has this much utility, that’s the status quo, right? A has this much utility. B has that much utility, and let’s say there’s some outer limit of possible utility, which we’ll call the possibility frontier. Bentham would say if you draw that line there anything that puts us in this, whatever it is, cloudy zone here, would be a net increase in the total amount of utility in the society; pretty straight-forward claim, right? So we went from there to there. Both would have more utility, but if we went from there, say, to there A’s utility would have gone up and B’s would have gone down, but we don’t care, right, because the total amount of utility in this society has gone up. What we wouldn’t want to do is come anywhere into this area because then utility, the total amount of utility in this society would have decreased.

Okay, so that’s basically the story. Now, you might say, “Well, why do you need government at all if this is the story?” Everybody is — whatever they think, whatever they say, whatever they understand, everybody is a mindless pleasure-seeker and pain-avoider, or perhaps mindful pleasure-seeker or pain-avoider, but they have no control over that. They’re going to just do what they have to do. Why create government with the principle that it should maximize utility in this society? It seems like an odd thing to do. Why would you do that? Anyone? Yeah?

Student: So just looking at that last graph, right? If each person tried to maximize their utility then they’d both want to be on the opposite corners of each other, so then you would get chaos when you extrapolate that to a larger group. You need something to kind of manage everybody’s pleasure, I guess.

Professor Ian Shapiro: So people wouldn’t voluntarily do things that maximize one another’s — maximize the total social utility, right? If taking something from A and giving it to B would increase B’s utility more than it would diminish A’s utility, well A’s not going to go for that voluntarily. B might go and take it, but he may or may not be strong enough to take it. We don’t know. So that’s a very shrewd observation in response to that diagram, and it actually gets to more sophisticated questions about redistribution and utilitarianism that I’m going to take up on Monday.

But there’s, I think, before we get to those questions, there’s a more fundamental level at which Bentham thinks utilitarianism creates the need for government, and that is that there’s a disconnect between what’s individually optimal and what’s socially optimal even before we get to the redistributive questions. We might call it the market failure theory of government. Where other eighteenth-century thinkers had taken the view that when this, you know, Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand, everybody acting selfishly leads to a collectively optimal result. Bentham, we’ll see, thinks that’s true a lot of the time, but not always. There are certain circumstances in which people are likely not to act in a way that produces a common result.

“The great enemies of public peace are the selfish and dissocial passions — necessary as they are…Society is held together only by the sacrifices that men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government.” And he’s thinking really of, and this may be the first formulation of it that we find, what we today call free-riding, freeloading. He thinks about the provision of something like national defense, what we call, economists call a public good. You can’t be excluded from the benefits of it, right, and it must be jointly supplied. So it says,

If, for example, the commencement or continuing of a war being the question upon the carpet, if, upon his calculation, a hundred a-year during the continuance of the war, or for ever, will be the amount of the contribution which according to his calculation he will have to pay. (You have to pay a hundred dollars a year in taxes to finance this war.) If his expected profit by the war will be equal to 0, and no particular gust or passions intervene to drive him from the pursuit of what appears to be his lasting interest upon the whole. — he will be against the war and what influence it may happen to him to possess, will be exerted on the other side.

Now, why would his benefit be zero? This is rather convoluted prose, but what Bentham’s saying is, “If the war is going to be fought anyway, I get no marginal benefit from supporting it.  I might as well oppose it, or I might as well refuse to pay taxes in support of it,” right? And that is the nature of public goods, that people can free ride on their provision because an economist says the two features of a public good are they must be jointly supplied, everybody has to contribute to them, and you can’t exclude anybody from the benefits of them. Like clean air, if we create clean air for some people we’re going to create clean air for all people, okay? So people are going to have to be coerced in the provision of public goods. People are going to have to be coerced to pay for the war.

So that’s one example. Another one that comes up is the so-called tragedy of the commons problem. Suppose you have some common land, and we’ll come back to talking about this in connection with Locke’s social contract theory. God gave the world to mankind in common, on Locke’s story, so long as much and as good is available to others in common. So if you have common land here’s the problem. You’re thinking about grazing your sheep on the common. If I put my sheep onto that common land it doesn’t do any lasting damage, but if everybody grazes their sheep on the land and none of it is allowed to lie fallow, then it destroys the common, okay? So there are too many sheep for everybody to gaze their sheep on the land, but any individual person doesn’t have a reason not to graze his sheep.

This was finally formulated in a rigorous way by a man called Garrett Hardin. The tragedy of the commons that if you have commons they’ll be destroyed because each person will do something that makes individual rational sense but not collective rational sense. So this is, again, it’s not exactly the same as the free-riding problem, but it’s related to the free-riding problem. I won’t see any reason in the world why I shouldn’t graze my cow or my sheep on the common, but when everybody does that we destroy the common. It’s a bit like walking down the street with a soda can and you think, “Should I take the trouble to cross the street to put it in a recycling bin or just throw it in the trash?” One Coke bottle, I mean, what difference one Coke bottle — it’s not going to make — but if everybody doesn’t cross the street, the same problem, okay?

So these are the areas where there’s a disconnect. There’s a disconnect between individual utility and social utility, and that is what creates the need for government. We will pursue these questions and much else about classical utilitarianism next Monday.

[end of transcript]

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