What is “two-thirds utilitarianism?”

I sometimes call myself a “two-thirds utilitarian,” since I look first to human well-being when analyzing policy choices. If a policy harms human well-being, on net, it has a high hurdle to overcome. If “doing the right thing” does not create a better world in terms of well-being on a repeated basis, we should begin to wonder whether our conception of “the right thing” makes sense.

That said, human well-being is not always an absolute priority—thus the half-in-jest reference to my two-thirds weighting for utility. We sometimes ought to do that which is truly just, even if it is painful for many people. I should not forcibly excise one of your kidneys simply because you can do without it and someone else needs one. We should not end civilization to do what is just, but justice does sometimes trump utility. And justice cannot be reduced to what makes us happy or to what satisfies our preferences.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments.

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Nick Beckstead: I think there was a point in my life when I was like a diehard utilitarian, and I was like this is the way that things should be done. I think over time I have kind of backed off of that a little bit and I now have a more circumscribed kind of claim, that's kind of like I can articulate some conditions under which I think a type of utilitarian reasoning is roughly right for a certain purpose. If I was going to put a quick gloss on it, it would be: actions that are conventionally regarded as acceptable and you are happy to do them.

There are some times in your life where basically what you are trying to do is to help people [sentient beings] and to help them impartially […] and you're trying to do good, you're trying to do it impartially and [...] there is no temptation to do anything sketchy with that, you're acting fully within your rights according to any common sense conception of how things are, and you're happy to do it, let's say it's a sacrifice you are happy to make, say it involves giving some money or spending some time. And I think [in circumstances such as these], as a first cut utilitarianism can be your go-to answer. And this is distinct from saying that utilitarianism is the master theory of value that works for all situations no matter what.

I would include in those stipulations that you are not violating what people conventionally conceive of as rights. And that's gonna get squishy little bit. If you say "so is it convention that matters?" I'm going to say no it's not convention exactly that matters, and then you start saying "well what is it?", I'm gonna have a little bit of a hard time pinning that down. But I would say that convention is a good first cut and I want to make a further claim that you really can do a lot with this. If somebody's mission in life is to do as much good as possible, I think most of the good ways of doing that don't require a lot of lying or breaking promises or violently coercing people to do things.


Spencer Greenberg: Maybe a better characterisation is that utilitarianism is something that a lot of effective altruists lean on for a bunch of considerations, but actually a lot of EAs are not pure utilitarians.

Nick Beckstead: I think that's right. I would say I'm not a pure utilitarian, I just use utilitarianism a lot, it's like generating a lot of my insight. If you had never heard of utilitarianism and you were trying to understand what I am trying to do by looking at my life, I think you'd have a hard time. But I don't think it's good or healthy to go so all-in on it. I'd like a better name for it. I've heard Tyler Cowen say two-thirds utilitarianism, I kind of like it.

Constraints, options and special obligations—maybe they have a utilitarian reduction, maybe they don't. I'm more married to them than I am to the idea of utilitarianism per se. Let's respect these things in practice but I'm still really into the idea of doing as much good as possible with a big part of my life and I think utilitarianism is the most productive framework for that. I mean I wouldn't even sign up for "always do the utilitarian thing" in that setting, but I would sign up for like when you're trying to figure out what to do in that setting, try a hand at the utilitarian calculus and see where it gets you, and let's have that be our first cut. And sometimes things might go in too crazy a direction and you're not going to endorse it.

Nick Beckstead, in conversation with Spencer Greenberg.

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Russ Roberts: Let's turn to a philosophical question, which is utilitarianism, which you write quite a bit about in the book. I think you define yourself as a 2/3 utilitarian. What do you mean by that?

Tyler Cowen: Well, that was a little tongue in cheek. But, I think if you are looking at a public policy, the first question you should ask should be the utilitarian question: will this make most people better off?

It's not the endpoint. You also need to ask about justice. And you should consider distribution. I think you should consider, say, how human beings are treating animals. You might want to consider other broader considerations. But that's the starting point. And if your policy fails the utilitarian test, I'm not saying it can never be good. But it has, really, a pretty high bar to clear. So, when I said "two thirds," that's what I meant.

Tyler Cowen, in conversation with Russ Roberts.