Morality, Ethics and Optimization Problems

We’ve just begun taking a course in ethics here in the Princeton psychology department. I find it hard not to play the devil’s advocate during class by poking fun at the haphazard and half-consistent theories behind much of moral philosophy. My attitude seems always to echo one of my favorite of Nietzsche’s aphorisms:

Are we immoralists harming virtue? No more than anarchists harm princes. Only because the latter are shot at do they once more sit securely on their thrones. Moral: morality must be shot at.1

I am well aware I’ve come close to the upper limit on Nietzsche references that can be fairly made in a month, but this passage was all too apropos. To make up for the Nietzsche passage, I might as well also quote my favorite attack on utilitarianism, written by two Princeton academics about fifty years ago:

A particularly striking expression of the popular misunderstanding about this pseudo-maximum problem is the famous statement according to which the purpose of social effort is the ‘greatest possible good for the greatest possible number’. A guiding principle cannot be formulated by the requirement of maximizing two (or more) functions at once.

Such a principle, taken literally, is self-contradictory. (In general one function will have no maximum where the other function has one.) It is no better than saying, e.g., that a firm should obtain maximum prices at maximum turnover, or a maximum revenue at minimum outlay. If some order of importance of these principles or some weighted average is meant, this should be stated. However, in the situation of the participants in a social economy nothing of that sort is intended, but all maxima are desired at once — by various participants.2

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche : Twilight of the Idols : Maxims and Arrows : 36
  2. John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern : The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior