Utilitarianism promotes “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people”, which pairs nicely with democracy, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. However it’s easy to imagine instances where a course of action would provide a net benefit to society but be morally unjust. There’s a famous thought experiment proposed by Eliezer Yudkowsky, “would you rather that a googolplex people got dust specks in their eyes, or that one person was tortured for 50 years?”, which breaks the back of most utilitarian arguments. However we have to deal with less extreme forms of this question every day for our economy to continue functioning. Would you accept a small risk of killing one person to avoid inconveniencing 500? That’s a decision airline companies make when they decide whether to ban peanuts on a plane. What if it isn’t an allergic reaction, but a psychological one? Airlines certainly offer Halal, Vegetarian and Kosher options, despite the financial cost of catering to multiple diets. Most people don’t think about the ingredients of their meal, but those that care about such things, really care a lot.
The average passenger doesn’t notice the cost of this added complexity. In fact, they’re very likely eating halal food and drinking kosher drinks half the time without even knowing. It costs manufacturers more to produce and sell two separate products, so anything that can be made compliant, will be. Only 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, yet 41% of packaged food in the U.S. is certified kosher. This is not some conspiracy, but pragmatic capitalism in action. The majority of people don’t even look at the ingredients, but those who do care about the provenance of their orange juice, care enough to avoid consuming that brand entirely. So it’s cheaper to cater for the minority of preferences, than it would be to needlessly lose 2% market share to a competitor.
Nassim Taleb observes that far from what most people fear, in a liberal democracy the needs of minorities aren’t overruled for the greater good of the people. Instead human rights largely prevail, and the majority are often forced to accommodate the needs of the minority. It could be the apathy of the majority allows a motivated minority to hijack the decision-making process. As Margaret Mead observed, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”. Perhaps instead the result of political pragmatism and foresight. Everyone is a minority along at least one dimension, so poor treatment of minorities is a redline issue, given it’s a slippery slope that will eventually turn back on you. As in the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Communists, And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Communist, Then they came for the Socialists… Then they came for me, And there was no one left, To speak out for me”.
We don’t defend all preferences however. Note the difference between saying “I don’t like gluten” and “I’m allergic to gluten” to a waiter in a restaurant. Both cause discomfort, and violating either would be a sign of disregard for a person’s wishes, but only one will get the chef to clear the kitchen of contaminants. We may honor social norms initially, but then reach our limit of what costs we’ll bear. In “Debt”, David Graeber tells the story of a freeloading Maori villager, who took advantage of the local fisherman, begrudgingly obliging his requests for food, until one day they had enough and killed him. This reaction might seem extreme, but recall the thoughts that crossed your own mind the last time someone cut you off in traffic. We are hardwired by evolution and culture to punish transgressions of social norms, so when they are abused and a tragedy of the commons occurs, the backlash is often sudden and violent.
To earn protected status, there has to be a cost borne by the host, and agreement that they have no choice in the matter. For example discrimination against someone on the basis of religion is illegal in many countires, but not hiring someone because you’re from the Bayesian school of statistics, and they’re a Frequentist, is fair game. The work of the ‘woke’ movement in the U.S. has largely been to expanding the scope of protected statuses, so that everyone is in one protected class or another. Ironically in this pursuit they have more in common with the racist elements of the far right than they’d care to admit. Political extremists have radically different goals, but they both operate under the premise that the world is divided by unshakeable differences in identity. The majority just want to get on with their day, and will choose the path of least resistance.
"Since it’s impolite in Maori culture (as in many cultures)
Calculating Consequences:The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics
Eliezer Yudkowsky Doesn’t Understand Ethics
First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemöller
Less than 2% of the US population is Jewish. So why is 41% of the country’s packaged food kosher?
Margaret Mead quote
Presentation Military Memetics Tutorial 13 Dec 11.pdf
The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority
You Might Be Eating Halal Meat And Not Even Know It