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Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Margin Notes

With the elections drawing nigh, and Nader running again, there seems to be a lot of talk around the neighborhood about whether or not a person ought to vote. More often than not, people who I consider genuinely smart tend largely to think the answer is... no. Not due to a dismissal of the system or the withdrawal of endorsement of an establishment they no longer care for. They fail to act because of something called marginal utility. Speaking frankly, they don't vote because they don't see the direct connection between their individual ballot and the outcome of the entire race. This is something that I believe is both unique and fundamental to our generation of instant gratification junkies - the idea that all of your actions are either of detrimental significance, or utterly useless.

This is generally a principle which casts its shadow across all of modern morality, such as it exists. If I drive an SUV, and spend an extra $50 a month on gas, the $20 of that which goes directly to states which may spend $1 of it sponsoring terrorism is not significant, becuase that one dollar is obviously not the difference between an embassy bombing or not. If I contribute a dollar to Oxfam, that won't really do much to save an individual's life*, so why bother? This sort of "marginal utility" calculus seems to be something which is basically just accepted, even by people who don't typically consider themselves to be utilitarians.

There seem to be two basic modes of deciding the just action to take, when the benefits or justice of a situation is contingent upon the ends. Those who believe only in taking action when said action is a sufficient condition for that end to be brought about, and those who believe the just action is one which is a necessary condition for the end to be enacted. For example, suppose for a moment that there is a basic agreement that a society which is a complete meritocracy is the best. That is, everyone performs to their ability and there is a completely objective selection process for anything involving merit. The former view would seem to vindicate cheating or nepotism on the grounds that, the individual's lack of involvement with such seedy practices doesn't actually bring about said society. The latter would be that, because their forgoing of cheating and such is a necessary precursor to the just society, it is the individual obligation to meet that condition.

Generally, what is lost in the marginal utility calculus is that the aggregate effect of this philosophy as a universal maxim is a less utile society. If each individual acts according to a rubric which evaluates the possible choices that can be made on the relative utility of each choice, then they end up with less overall utility as a group. This, to me, seems to be a condemnation of this sort of philosophy. The fact that its being embraced universally undermines the very precepts upon which it is based tends to mean, for me, that it is a fatally flawed way of thinking.

cranked out at 8:13 PM | |

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