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Frequently, utilitarian ethics are presented from the point of view of individual decision-making, that is, the maximization of the "pleasure less suffering" function which underlyies rational choice in the context of personal self-interest; and the argument goes on by defining collective utility as a direct (botttom-up) aggregation of individual utilities. This might be a correct description of the behavior of people in competitive games (such as the idealized free market), and so this approach usually makes up a clear, recognizable stance about the philosophical justification of collective action (in a essence, the group behavior is ethically justified iff the sum of individual utilities is maximized, and the only way to change that is through individual, atomistic decisions, in the purely competitive game that makes up the decision-making background).

Nevertheless, where the context provides an effective way to engage in cooperative decision-making as an alternative strategy to detached individual choice, I think it's arguably possible to evaluate the collective utility of the group through (at least) two functions defined by their corresponding strategy schema; and also, that this two won't generally coincide (as exemplified by the Prisoner's Dilemma). This might mean that the ethically justified behavior of a group depends on which kind of strategies the underlying game allows, because the form of the aggregate utility function to be maximized by it's actions depends on the nature of the available decision-making alternatives. Of course that in some situations (for example, the competitive agents in a free market) the only alternative is individual decision-making, but it is reasonable to assert that in practice, there's always a social meta-level in which cooperative decision-making becomes an alternative, or vice versa (i.e. political movements in one or other direction, for example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet Union collapse in 1991 respectively); so in principle, comparing the two ways of evaluating public utility is always a possibility, and so the ethical justification of a collective action should always be aware of this (and also, this might be a way of challenging naive utilitarian justifications from an utilitarian point of view).

My question is, is there any utilitarian thinker which has taken into account this two (or any combination of both) non-equivalent ways of maximizing collective utility in the sense defined above (and not just in the way of Adam Smith's invisible hand always making everyone's life happier through competition, and so allowing just one degree of freedom, the bottom-up approach, in any group decision-making process)?

  • Perhaps I am misinformed, but I always understood utilitarianism as considering collective utility as the basis of ethics, rather than individual morality. I am under the impression that a utilitarian does not say it is right for one to maximize personal utility, but rather for one to maximize collective utility. This principle is often expressed (oversimplified) as "the greatest happiness for the greatest number". – Alex Becker Jul 28 '12 at 5:44
  • You are absolutely right. This question needs to be edited. – Mono Jul 28 '12 at 16:38
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My question is, is there any utilitarian thinker which has taken into account this two (or any combination of both) non-equivalent ways of maximizing collective utility?

In John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's classic, the Theory Of Games And Economic Behavior (1944), both non-cooperative and cooperative game theory are introduced and explored.

The full text is available online.

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My question is, is there any utilitarian thinker which has exhaustively and deliberately taken into account collective utility in the sense defined above (and not just in the way of Adam Smith's invisible hand "accidentally" making everyone's life happier through competition)?

Indeed there is .. Garrett Hardin's paper on the tragedy of the commons addresses this very problem, however you may not be happy as his conclusions imply the impossibility of:

evaluate[ing] collective utility and public interest from an ethical point of view (for example, defined through aggregation of individual utilities), and that this two won't generally coincide (as exemplified by the Prisoner's Dilemma).

really i think it's impossible to create an ethical model in which individual and collective utility do not coincide (i may be misunderstanding what you mean by this term) .. Because one is contained within the other, the two will always coincide because the material circumstances affecting the interests of both are generally one and the same.

  • Unless you define individual and collective utility as identical, we have plenty of examples of conflicts in biology (gene vs. organism, organism vs. colony/tribe, organism vs. species, tribe/colony vs. species, etc.). And as the OP says, any Prisoner's Dilemma type contingency table will push you into this situation--that's pretty much the point of the Prisoner's Dilemma, in my opinion. You have two different questions: "what rules should everyone follow to maximize total utility" vs. "for each entity, which rule would it pick to maximize utility for it". – Rex Kerr Jul 29 '12 at 18:22
  • I misspelled the whole question, and that explains the nature of your answer. I've already edited it, though. – Mono Jul 29 '12 at 20:21
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    @Rex Kerr: in the examples I gave (social ones, with a human group intended domain of discourse), the "resultant" of the aggregate choices of the group, when it's composed of rational individual utility-maximizers, actually ends up maximizing the group's total utility from the classical utilitarian (liberal) point of view. That's the whole rationale behind Smith's "invisible hand". What I argue is that those arguments should be a priori reexamined whenever cooperative strategies become available (which means, in essence, always). – Mono Jul 29 '12 at 20:34
  • @Mono - Keep in mind also that humans are not perfect "rational individual utility-maximizers" (they are okay at it in some situations and pretty bad in others), and also that this assumes a particular set of time-constants and feedbacks which are not always true to avoid the Prisoner's Dilemma situation--so I think even the invisible hand has trouble grasping what it is supposed to. – Rex Kerr Jul 29 '12 at 20:51
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    @Mono: Under the modern Chicago School of Economics interpretation of Smith's invisible hand, social surplus is maximized when goods are priced at the point where the marginal cost of demand crosses the marginal cost of supply. Non-cooperative game theory is agnostic as to whether this is equilibrium for markets with finite players. See the Bertrand and Cournot competition games: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertrand_competition and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cournot_competition – Matt W-D Jul 30 '12 at 17:38

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