Posted by Michael Dickens on February 17, 2010
Recently I’ve been thinking about different sorts of averages. The mean average is the most common: add up all the values, and divide by how many values there are. But another useful average is the median average: put all the values in a line, and take the one in the middle. This is useful for some types of averages. For example, if you want to find the average person’s income, the mean would not be very accurate since people like Bill Gates would push the average up. But a median average would be more reasonable.
This got me to thinking about Utilitarianism. On one particular axis, the two types of Utilitarianism are what could be called Average Utilitarianism and Total Utilitarianism. They may have more proper names, but I think that those are descriptive enough. The basic idea there is that Total Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering overall, while Average Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering only for the average person. This is when I started thinking about what kind of average we’re talking about here. Mean average is the type that people usually talk about. But using a median average would possibly be more advantageous. For example, it would be the solution to problems such as the Mere Addition Paradox, also known as the Repugnant Conclusion. The basic idea is that, according to Total Utilitarianism, a great massive population filled with people whose lives are barely worth living is more valuable than a small population filled with people whose lives are rich and enjoyable. Median Utilitarianism solves this problem (so does Mean Utilitarianism).
The “utility monster” was one of philosopher Robert Nozick’s objections to utilitarian theory.
Nozick postulated a creature who received 100 units of utility (pleasure, happiness) per unit of resource consumption, in a universe where everybody else received 1 unit of utility per unit of resource consumption. In this type of universe, Nozick argued, utilitarian would require that all of the people who got lesser utility be sacrificed (give up any and all resources) to the utility monster. This moral demand for sacrifice, however, is absurd. Therefore, basic utilitarianism is defeated by means of a reduction to absurdity.
Median Utilitarianism fixes this problem on an intuitive level. By Median Utilitarianism, making more and more people unhappy to support the happiness of one being is not actually a good thing, since it reduces median happiness — but notice that it still increases total and mean happiness.
Median Utilitarianism probably has problems of its own, but it resolves these two objections to Utilitarian moral theory.