Landesman Reviews Vallentyne


Posted March 10, 1995

"Infinite Utility and Temporal Neutrality" Utilitas 6:2, November, 1994: p. 193, by Peter Vallentyne, (Virginia Commonweath University)

Reviewed by Cliff Landesman (CLANDESM@PANIX.COM)

Utilitarians, like investors, are greedy, only they are greedy for good (expected good, possibly limited to human good, but not necessarily goods as in "dry goods", of course). Their desire to induce the most good helps them steer a clear course in situations where the most can be had. But in some situations where a person can freely choose from a set of alternatives that get better and better, necessity may prevent the chooser from even hoping for the best. You might think you want to get the most money for your used car, but what if I offer you any amount of money (or gambles over money) equal to a sum between $1 and $1,000, not inclusive of $1,000? The opportunities to improve your side of the bargain expand tediously.

Utilitarians confront choices between more or less, but without an alternative offering the most, when they imagine a world with an infinite future or a human race that endures forever.

Mark Nelson first delved into the ethics of infinity in "Utilitarian Eschatology" (American Philosophical Quarterly, 28:339, 1991) and discussion of the quandry has continued now for a few years. (Incidentally, Jonathan Bennett, in "The Necessity of Moral Judgement", Ethics, 103:458, 1993, claims that Anthony Quinton deserves the small honor of being first to spot this difficulty for utilitarians, but I believe a careful reading of the context of Quinton's remark, "that the consequences of an action extend indefinitely into the future and, therefore, that an evaluation of its total consequences is logically impossible" suggests otherwise. If Quinton had an infinite--and not an indefinite--future in mind, he would not have said, "indefinite" and not have thought that the problem disappears when one considers objective rightness. See Utilitarian Ethics, 1989, p.52.)

Peter Vallentyne's "Infinite Utility and Temporal Neutrality" is the latest installment in this continuing debate. Vallentyne defends a modification of the utilitarian principle so it can make some comparisons of infinite good. His proposal--arrived at independently--resembles similar solutions adopted by economists to resolve parallel dilemmas in the theory of investment and growth. The thrust of Vallentyne's suggestion--which he defends in this paper against the objections of others--carries significant intuitive appeal. He has the utilitarian permitting only those actions for which there is no alternative action with more utility (a standard formulation, if not the only standard formulation). However, he departs from the usual understanding of "more" by suggesting that action x produces more good than action y if and only if there is some time after which the good produced by x is always greater than the good produced by y. Suppose Achilles and the tortoise race on a circular track. The race is peculiar, however, in that we know Achilles and the tortoise will run laps forever. Suppose we see Achilles pass the tortoise at some point and we know that from that point on, he will always be ahead of the tortoise. Whatever Yogi Berra might have said, in a race that is never over, with the right information, we may still declare the current and eternal leader (Achilles) the winner.

Since I am writing to stimulate interest in a topic and not to contribute to it myself, I will not attempt here a thorough review of the adequacy of Vallentyne's proposal. Speaking off the cuff, I don't think Vallentyne should insist that he is defining a notion of more utility, when he could do just as well using his suggestion to define a notion like "always keeping ahead" and advise utilitarians to prefer actions whose expected consequences (eventually) always keep ahead of the competition. Further, his proposal does not save kind hearted maximizers from the deeper no-maximum or "ever more" problem. This quandry depends on infinities, but not necessarily on infinite good. As regards the good, indefinitely large amounts will do. I have given an example elsewhere of how utilitarians can get trapped by their generous greed without having to compare infinite amounts of good (see "When to terminate a charitable trust", Analysis, 55:12, 1995). Admittedly, Vallentyne doesn't set out to solve this larger problem, but the problem he does tackle is closely related and a good solution should solve both.

Although this is an inconsequential slip on Vallentyne's part, he is mistaken to claim in footnote 7 that a numbering of books illustrates his point that a two-a-day book reader reads more books than a one-a-day book reader. Simply imagine having the two-a-day reader reading only odd numbered book, while the one-a-day reader reads both odd and even numbered books. Clearly, if they read forever, none reads more books than the other, although one has read some books the other hasn't. The Utilitas reviewers should have saved this very nice article from such an obvious blemish.

There is an intriguing problem here and Vallentyne offers the most promising solution so far. Whether the best remedy so far is also an adequate remedy remains to be seen.