The Needs of the Many…

I kind of exhausted myself, by accident, writing what was supposed to be an inspirational post Monday. And it indeed was inspirational, especially for the people who had been there to witness the events I described. But as for me, it was emotionally draining to write. Then, yesterday, I pulled together for a post on how to write sex scenes, which was a lot of fun to do, but way more work than I had expected. So I have little energy left over today for a long, drawn-out, opinionated, issue-oriented blog post about a topic I care deeply about. Sorry.

(Or maybe you’re thinking, Wonderful! Maybe he’ll actually write something worth reading for a change!)

However, there is one little tidbit that popped up this past weekend, while we were flipping between the NFL playoff game and one of the Star Trek movies. Every time it pops up, I feel an irresistible need to comment on it. And it’s popped up frequently enough that even my Little One understands exactly what I mean by “interpersonal utility comparison.”

So this brief rant should at least be interesting to both Star Trek fans and economics enthusiasts.

Vulcans and Humans

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one.” We were introduced to this bit of Star Trek wisdom in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is still my favorite of the Star Trek movies. Early in that film, Spock tell us that “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” They revisited the topic again in the following movie, The Search for Spock. And it even popped up in The Voyage Home, where Spock takes it as an axiom, and his mother then wisely counters that he is alive “because of a mistake made by your flawed, feeling, human friends. They have sacrificed their futures because they believed that the good of the one – you – was more important to them.”

What I find curious, however, is how Spock–or any Vulcan–ever came to the conclusion that this axiom is “logical.” In fact, it teems with wild, vacuous illogic.

We humans, we have it hard-wired into our brains to follow the popular opinion. In numbers lies strength, and we instinctively know that if everyone else is doing something, it’s probably the right thing. (Even if it is in fact the wrong thing to do.) This is an instinct we share with lemmings and wildebeests. And schools of fish.

In the wild, it makes a certain amount of sense. Because if you’re standing there, quietly grazing on your grass, and a lion attacks, and someone sounds the alarm, and everyone begins running, you don’t have time to stop and analyze the situation. No, you just start running in the same direction everyone else is, because in numbers there is power.

So it makes perfect sense to me that we emotional, illogical humans would rely on this instinct in order to perpetrate the worst crimes against humanity (as we do), all in the name of “the needs of the many.”

But Spock is not human. Or at least not fully human. And Vulcans pride themselves on having bridled their inborn instinctive emotional reactions to the point that they feel no feelings whatsoever.

Interpersonal Utility Comparisons

At this point, I must bring up the subject of interpersonal utility comparisons, because this axiom involves one.

Here’s what I mean, as I explained it to my pre-teen daughter, who also likes Star Trek (especially The Next Generation). And she understood it perfectly, well enough that she was even able to then explain it to her friends.

Let’s say I like ice cream. (Which I in fact do.) Now, I love strawberry ice cream, but I’m not too crazy about chocolate. So I like strawberry ice cream better than chocolate. So far so good.

Let’s say you also like ice cream, but you’re allergic to strawberries. So you like chocolate ice cream, which is rich and creamy and does not cause you to break out in hives, much better than strawberry. In fact, you don’t understand how anyone could possibly not like chocolate ice cream, which is clearly the best dessert ever invented.

Okay. Now, here’s the billion-dollar question. Do I like strawberry more than you like chocolate? Or is it the other way around?

And the answer is: we’ll never know. Because there’s no way to compare the way the neurons are firing inside my brain to the way the neurons are firing inside yours. (Even though neurologists and psychologists sometimes like to pretend there is, or may someday be, or something like that.)

From an economic perspective, if you were willing to pay $10 for a chocolate ice-cream cone, whereas I’m only willing to pay $5, that still doesn’t prove it one way or the other. Because all it really proves is that you like chocolate ice cream more than the other things you could buy with that $10, whereas I like strawberry only better than the other things I could buy with my $5.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” That depends on the same sort of comparison. We aren’t comparing ice cream, of course, unless you consider ice cream a “need.” (Which maybe you do, but that’s a different topic.) In order to make that statement logical, you need to measure how important the needs of the many are to them, and then compare to how important the needs of the few are to them. That’s an interpersonal utility comparison, which you can’t logically make; therefore, illogical.

What Really Happened

Spock considered that his own life was less valuable than the lives of his shipmates. He probably also reasoned that if the Enterprise couldn’t escape, he’d be just as dead as they. So he sacrificed his own life for theirs, subjecting himself to excessive radiation in order to repair the warp drive. It was a selfless decision Spock made in his own mind, using only his own perceptions. Still very logical, but not an interpersonal utility comparison.

Sometimes the needs of the many do not outweigh the needs of the few. For example, since we’re talking about Star Trek, in Star Trek: Insurrection Picard eloquently defends the opposite position:

Picard: We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded. It’s an attack upon its very soul. And it will destroy the Ba’ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history.

Admiral Dougherty: Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.

Picard: How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? How many people does it take, Admiral?

So, the needs of the many? Not necessarily. And definitely not logical.