Nozick’s Utility Monster

The inspiration for the title of this blog comes from an argument presented by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He presents the idea of a so-called “utility monster,” which gains great utility (i.e. pleasure, happiness, or some similarly enjoyable feeling) at the expense of other people’s utility. Nozick writes:

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.

There are a number of problems with this argument, the most obvious being that Nozick never articulates why this would actually be a bad thing. His presentation of the argument creates a rather frightening image of widespread suffering, as all people are forced to surrender their resources to the utility monster. However, if we look at a realistic situation in which a sort of utility monster could exist, Nozick’s argument fails even to retain the emotional appeal that it relies on.

Consider the case of a starving, homeless child living in an incredibly wealthy village, in which everyone but the child has an abundant supply of food and other material possessions. While all of the wealthy people gain utility from keeping their food, it is certainly the case that if they were to give some of their food to the starving child, the child would “get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose.” The utilitarian would clearly hold that the morally optimal action for the wealthy villagers to take is to provide food, clothing, and most probably shelter to the child, since the child will experience immense suffering without the help of the villagers, while the inconvenience to the villagers is relatively minor in comparison. It seems likely that non-utilitarians would hold a similar position, although their beliefs would rely on different justifications.

A seemingly stronger version of the utility monster argument posits the existence of an individual who does not experience diminishing returns as they consume additional resources. For example, the child in the above scenario would never be satisfied, but would instead perhaps become more hungry despite constantly consuming food, and would therefore satisfy a greater desire with each bite of food, and consequently gain more utility with each bite than with the one before it. Once again it is worth noting that there is no clear reason why this would actually be a bad thing, but that it in fact just seems intuitively problematic. One reason that such a scenario appears so distressing is probably that it does not correlate with any of our experiences, and sounds like it would actually cause a great deal of suffering as everyone is forced to surrender their happiness to the utility monster. I can conceive of no realistic situation in which this sort of utility monster would actually exist, but even such a scenario were to arise, it would still be perfectly reasonable to continue giving resources to the utility monster so long as the utility lost by the people giving up resources was less than the utility gained by the utility monster. If multiple people are experiencing even mild unhappiness in this hypothetical situation, the utility monster would have to be experiencing incredibly profound happiness greater than the sum of all those people’s lost utility in order to be consistent with utilitarian principles. In fact, when we really examine this argument, the existence of this sort of utility monster would be incredibly wonderful in the utilitarian view. Such an individual would essentially be a producer of happiness, as it would be able to effortlessly convert resources of a certain utility value into something that has greater utility. Giving resources to the utility monster would be guaranteed to increase the overall happiness of society. Thus, there exists a compelling moral obligation to give resources to this hypothetical being, despite Nozick’s emotional appeal to the contrary.

Finally, I would like to conclude by emphasizing that utility monsters, particularly the second type mentioned in this post, do not exist in reality. If a real person were to constantly take resources from everyone else, it would almost certainly be unjustifiable under utilitarianism, since that individual would experience diminishing returns as he amassed more and more resources, and the suffering of the people losing resources would outweigh the gains of the single person taking the resources. This would result in a net decrease in happiness, which is never justified by utilitarianism. I think we tend to envision this sort of dystopic scenario when we think of the utility monster presented by Nozick, when in fact the conditions placed on the existence of a utility monster would always result in an overall increase in individual well-being.

This post, and Nozick’s arguments, are based on an understanding of classical utilitarianism, which values happiness (utility) as the most desirable end of any action. I’ll be writing about the differences between various moral frameworks, including variations on utilitarianism, in later posts. Ultimately, I’ll explain why classical utilitarianism based on average happiness is the correct way to evaluate the morality of an action, and how all other popular moral frameworks are really aimed at maximizing happiness.