Thursday, December 27, 2012

Minimum Utility

From the wiki on "Teleology":
The broad spectrum of consequentialist ethics, of which utilitarianism is likely the most well-known, focuses on the end result or consequences, with such maxims as utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “the greatest good for the greatest number”, or the maximum utility. Hence they are teleological in nature.

To assert that those who remain out of paradigm are committing some sort of "fraud" to benefit the "1%", to me, is  teleological.

To do so, you are ascribing a “purpose” for their actions of which at the same time you believe they are not aware of.

You can't say that they are unaware of the truth (idiots/morons) and at the same time committing fraud. “Fraud” requires foreknowledge of wrong-doing which they do not ever exhibit.  I'll point out as an example, the J6P in the post Roger put up below, where the guy is going all around making personal contributions to reduce the national "debt"... what a moron!

You CANNOT assert that this poor disgraced fellow is part of some purposeful "conspiracy" to benefit the 1%.

This assertion relies on a sort of “reverse maximum utility”; or perhaps “minimum utility” ie “utility for the 1%".

If this concept of "max utility" is unscientific/false in the one direction then it has to be false in the other direction too.  I don't believe in a teleological “Invisible Hand” as a "force" for "good" or "bad".

Magic thinking is magic thinking.

What we are witnessing, ie this broad-based ignorance, can only be explained scientifically via cognitive science, and we know from cognitive research that people possess differing amounts of mathematical cognitive abilities.

They do not possess the necessary cognitive ability (certain math abilities) to discern truth in this matter; ie they are "stupid".  I'm sorry for them but I have nothing to do with their disgrace, all I can do is point this out to others to the best of my feeble ability. 

My views here I assert are scientifically skeptical.


A.K.A. Damo Mackerel said...

'You can't say that they are unaware of the truth (idiots/morons) and at the same time committing fraud. “Fraud” requires foreknowledge of wrong-doing which they do not ever exhibit'

this is not true. ignorance of the law is no excuse

paul meli said...

Nice dissection of the logic chain here Matt.

Personally I am unaware of the concepts you have pointed to here so it is very helpful to be "illuminated".

My personal worldview is that every event happens for a reason, and in most cases the reason is not elusive.

It seems we have, as a society, adopted a philosophy of "taking the long way"...if the answer is across the street we tend to go around the block to get there.

This is why defining the problem properly is so not doing so we end up solving "a" problem instead of "the" problem...we spin our wheels.

Matt Franko said...


" ignorance of the law is no excuse"

Not true wrt "fraud"... from the wiki on "fraud":

In the United States, common law recognizes nine elements constituting fraud: a representation of an existing fact; its materiality; its falsity; the speaker's knowledge of its falsity;....

For it to be "fraud", a prosecutor has to legally demonstrate that the fraudster had 'knowledge of its falsity', without this knowledge it cannot be proven "fraud"... perhaps "negligence" imo...

Ignorance (moronhood) IS an excuse here...


marris said...

Wikipedia is wrong. It's incorrect to to put consequential theories into a teleology bucket while leaving deontological theories out.

I would say the "teleological" properties of consequential ethics come from the fact that you're talking about *ethics* (what an actor *should do*), not from the fact that you're ethical theory is built on consequences.

In a consequential theory, the teleology is focused on the goal of the action. In a deontological one, the telelogy is focused on the structure of the action (means+goals).

marris said...

If I had to guess, I'd say that the wikipedia section was written by someone who'd just finished a high school book report and wanted to share what he "learned." So he put it on wikipedia. The grammar also has issues.

Matt Franko said...


does this have anything to do with whether or not these people have foreknowledge of their actions or whether we are ascribing "purpose" to unrelated collection of facts...

Can you relate what you write here to the current circumstances?


Tom Hickey said...

Generally speaking, "teleology" is a philosophical term stemming from the ancient Greeks, who through in terms of causality. "Telos" means "end" in Greek and refers to the "final cause" for which an action happens or is performed. Since final causes exist outside of or independently of natural systems, teleological explanation is rejected in science and by all subscribing to naturalism as opposed to supernaturalism or transcendentalism.

All ethical systems are based on sets of rules regulating behavior. Deontological ethics bases rules on duty, which is often supernaturally prescribed as a religious code. But tribal cultures are also based on duty that is extra-religious, and we have inherited some of these rituals, such as loyalty. Deontological ethics is a lot about conforming to a prescribed pattern that transcends individual interest.

Virtue ethics is based on transcendental standards called "virtues" that are based on achieving "the good for man." The objective is to life "the good life," or what we would now call "be a good person." Virtue ethics is thus focused on quality. It involves the inner struggle to build character.

Consequentialist ethics, on the other hand, is naturalistic, and it is based on achieving a desirable outcome, often determined by efficiency and effectiveness for a social purpose, such as "the common good," or "the general welfare." Narrowly interpreted it is about rational agents maximizing utility and thereby maximizing quantity in aggregate.

Economically, this has been measured in terms of utility. There is some disagreement over this measure among utilitarians, exemplified by the contrast between Bentham and Mill. Bentham thought it was just adding up quantities, whereas Mill objected that differences in quality counted.

Peter Pan said...

What does any of this have to do with math?

Jeff65 said...


I see no contradiction or problem in believing that some are ignorant, some are willfully ignorant and some are fully aware but keenly self interested.

In this context a general comment about the motivation behind "not getting it" being self interest (or self preservation) is broadly applicable. Not having the "mathematical maturity", as you put it, to understand could be attributed to willful ignorance in many cases.

While I agree that you can't reliably assign motives to a an individual, if you are in a position to create, advise on or influence policy, why are you not culpable for your ignorance? I view it as no lesser crime than the other self interested motivations.

Jeff65 said...

I think the reason that engineers seem to "get it" more easily may have more to do with working in a world where ideas are judged mostly on merit. It's easier to discard baggage because we have to do it every day. Perhaps "mathematical maturity" is incidental to this?

Tom Hickey said...

Right. What I notice about experienced engineers is that they know how to ballpark and use rules of thumb to cut right to the chase so they don't waste time on things that will turn out to be infeasible. Then they know how to lay out the design problem in terms of actual conditions and achieving a desirable solution. Then it is a matter of filling in the details step by step and revising based on feedback. Economists, not so much. It's not the way they are trained to think.

marris said...

> does this have anything to do with whether or not these people have foreknowledge of their actions or whether we are ascribing "purpose" to unrelated collection of facts?

The way I like to think about it is that teleology is a conceptual framework. The concepts in this framework are means and ends/goals.

Given that, we can ask in what cases, if any, is this framework applicable?

Historically, it was applied to all kinds of fields. For example, many tribes/religions believed in some form of animism, where they thought of rocks, plants, animals, weather, etc in teleological terms. For example, they may have tried to explain a storm as Zeus being angry or whatever.

But since then, our knowledge of the natural sciences has improved to the point where we can explain those real-world things in terms of functional laws (of biology, physics, chemistry, etc).

It is possible that we will eventually be able to explain all human behavior this way. For example, we may be able to cobble together AIs in the future to do certain things. It's not clear what role teleology will play in that design process. Maybe the code will use teleological design patterns? Who knows.

Now in terms of the ordinary human behavior we see around us, it's an open question as to how much of it is conscious action (teleological) and how much is "bouncing around."

Tom Hickey said...

Now in terms of the ordinary human behavior we see around us, it's an open question as to how much of it is conscious action (teleological) and how much is "bouncing around."

I think that most would agree that much if not most of human behavior is "purposeful," even though it may not be consciously intentional, as when we do things from habit rather than recalling the purpose. It is the basis of consequentialism.

Teleology is a bit different from purpose in this context, though. Purpose is generally testable empirically in that we can inquire of agents why they are performing certain behaviors and construct ways of checking on the accuracy of the answer. That's all naturalistic and hence the subject of science.

But when one assumes or imputes purpose, this easily crosses the boundary into the non-naturalistic and invites criticism as teleological in the anti-scientific sense. That is to say, once an end is imputed, then explanations are constructed to fit those assumptions.

This is a major point of criticism of Mises's theory of human action. Purposeful action is posited as self-evident, and the explanation is based on Kantian epistemology rather than behavioral investigation. Scientifically, or naturalistically minded people like Popper objected to that approach as dogmatic, and Hayek agreed with Popper. This is not to say that Mises is wrong factually on this score, only that the method is not naturalistic, hence, is non-scientific but rather "philosophical" in the sense of being merely speculative.

Moreover, cognitive science is revealing that motivation and brain functioning are more complicated than generally supposed, and what most would regard as "purposeful" is not quite what they think it is. That is to say, inspection at the conscious level either through introspection or reports is not necessarily a good indication of what is happening neurologically.

It turns out that people are less rational than they presume themselves to be. The idea of an individual rational agent that is "representative," i.e., universal, just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. There's a whole lot going on in there that we are not consciously aware of.