Utility Maximization, Morality, and Religion

By Leightner, Jonathan E. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Utility Maximization, Morality, and Religion


Leightner, Jonathan E., Journal of Economic Issues


One of the most important foundation stones for neoclassical economics is utility maximization theory. This theory assumes that all choices are made to maximize the chooser's utility, happiness, or pleasure. The theory can be expanded by explaining that what maximizes a chooser's utility, happiness, or pleasure is achieving his or her goals. Goals can run the entire gamut from complete self-indulgence to saving others (a goal that may require self-sacrifice, as it did for Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Jesus, and Buddha). Because all goals are accepted, utility maximization theory can be used to explain all choices including marriage, terrorism, altruism, raising families, war, and so on. Neoclassical economists are proud that this theory can explain every possible choice.

In order to maintain the universal applicability of utility maximization theory, neoclassical economists refuse to judge one set of goals as better or worse than another set of goals. The judging of different sets of goals is left to the philosophers. We will begin this paper by examining what philosophers say about judging different goals. For the purposes of this paper, moral philosophers fall into two major groups: (1) those who argue that to be moral, I must treat others the same as I treat myself and (2) those who argue that I should develop myself to the fullest extent possible.

Utilitarianism is a tradition that requires that I treat the welfare of others the same as I treat my own welfare. Jeremy Bentham (1914) argued that we should make the choice which gives the greatest happiness or benefit to everyone involved. Francis Hutcheson said that "the right thing to do is that which is likely to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" (Thompson 2003, 67). Peter Singer suggested that it is a good idea to ask affected people what their preferences are, but all preferences for everyone should be treated equally (Thompson 2003, 72). Under utilitarianism, I am forbidden to rank my own happiness as more important than anyone else's happiness.

John Rawls (1958, 1971) proposed two principles for creating a just society: (1) each person should be allowed the maximum amount of liberty that is compatible with everyone else having the maximum amount of liberty and (2) inequalities should be allowed only if it is reasonable to believe that the inequalities will be most beneficial to the least well off. The first of these principles takes precedence over the second, and the first requires that everyone's "liberty" be considered equally. Joseph Fletcher, who developed situation ethics, said that when I make a choice, it should be the most loving option that I have (Thompson 2003, 51-52). Love requires that I place others on at least an equal basis with myself.

The categorical imperative, as developed by Immanuel Kant (1927a, b), requires two things: (1) that I make only choices that I could change into universal laws for everyone and (2) that I treat other people only as ends, and never as means. Changing choices into universal law would result in giving equal weight to everyone. The second of these rules is logically inconsistent with utility maximization because, according to utility theory, everything I do is a means to increase my own utility. For example, utility theory would say that my giving money to a homeless person is done to increase my own utility, which implies that I am treating the homeless person as a means, not an end.

All of these ethical theories directly imply that, to be moral, I must (as a necessary but not always a sufficient condition) place everyone else on the same level as myself when making choices. In contrast, utility maximization, as taught by economists, places 100 percent of the emphasis on the chooser's utility. Under utility maximization, I will do things that increase the utility of others if and only if that increases my utility. My utility is primary. …

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