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The thought experiment
A hypothetical being is proposed who receives much more utility from each unit of a resource he consumes than anyone else does. For instance, eating a cookie might bring only one unit of pleasure to an ordinary person but could bring 100 units of pleasure to a utility monster. If the utility monster can get so much pleasure from each unit of resources, it follows from utilitarianism that the distribution of resources should acknowledge this. If the utility monster existed, it would justify the mistreatment and perhaps annihilation of everyone else, according to the doctrine of utilitarianism.
Commentary by Nozick
In his words:
- Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility.
This thought experiment attempts to show that utilitarianism is not actually egalitarian, even though it appears to be at first glance.
There is no way of aggregating utility which can circumvent the conclusion that all units should be given to a utility monster, because every different system has a monster and defeating one utility monster creates another. For example, in Rawls' maximin or difference principle, maximin sets a group's aggregate utility as that of the being with least utility. Thus, giving units to the utility monster fails to change the group's utility unless the utility monster has the least utility. Even if the utility monster has the least utility, maximin would only prefer allocating units to the monster until it catches up with the member that has next-to-least utility. This would defeat the "happy" utility monster of average utility. But if the person who has the least utility gains only a tiny amount of utility from each unit of resources, they may never catch up with the next person, so they can similarly consume all of the resources in the world. It can be shown that all consequentialist systems based on maximizing a global function are subject to utility monsters.
The utility monster has been identified directly with capitalism, and particularly the neoliberal doctrine that free market relations are the best way to constitute society. The discipline of economics is related because it identifies "utility" as a quantity that can be optimized across human beings. According to critics, these ways of thinking produce decisions that are selfish, shortsighted, and destructive to the many while benefiting the few.
The utility monster has been invoked in debates about population. Derek Parfit's mere addition paradox suggests that additional humans would add to total happiness, even if expanding population decreases average happiness. Opposite reasoning yields the "repugnant conclusion" that the world would be better off with one extremely happy person. Parfit suggests that Nozick's utility monster is unrealistic because one being could not experience more utility than millions of other beings put together. The implication being a more common sense continuous scale of happiness change, from great to nil, based on scarcity of units: the happiness increasing from an additional unit of resource only inversely proportional to the existing pool of units.
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)
- Mark A. Lutz and Kenneth Lux, "New directions in humanistic economics or How to overcome the utility monster", Forum for Social Economics 14(1), 1984.
- Derek Parfit, "Overpopulation and the quality of life", in The Repugnant Conclusion, J. Ryberg and T. Tännsjö, eds., 2004.