Rich People’s Gain is Worth Less Than Poor People’s Pain

A new way to think about utilitarianism, courtesy of the Office of Management and Budget.

Cory Doctorow
8 min readMay 21


A faded, halftoned image of the US Capitol Dome, surmounted by a balance scale. The lower part of the scale is weighed down by a towering Oliver Twist figure, porridge-bowl extended in supplication. He is raising up a scale holding a fan of caricature drawings of a business-suited plutocrat with a dollar-sign-emblazoned money-bag for a head.

Tomorrow (May 22), I’m keynoting Public Knowledge’s Emerging Tech conference in DC.

On Tuesday (May 23), I’ll be in TORONTO for a book launch for Red Team Blues that’s part of WEPFest, a benefit for the West End Phoenix, onstage with Dave Bidini (The Rheostatics), Ron Diebert (Citizen Lab) and the whistleblower Dr Nancy Olivieri.

Utilitarianism — the philosophy of making decisions to benefit the most people — sounds commonsensical. But utilitarianism is — and always has been — an attractive nuisance, one that invites its practitioners to dress up their self-serving preferences with fancy mathematics that “prove” that their wins and your losses are “rational.”

That’s been there ever since Jeremy Bentham’s formulation of the concept of utilitarianism, which he immediately mobilized in service to the panopticon, his cruel design for a prison where prisoners would be ever haunted by a watcher’s unseeing eye. Bentham seems to have sincerely believed that there was a utilitarian case for the panopticon, which let him declare his sadistic thought-experiment (thankfully, it was never built during Bentham’s life) to be a utility-maximizing act of monumental kindness.

Ever since Bentham, utilitarianism has provided cover for history’s great monsters to claim that they were only acting in service to the greater good.

Think of Larry Summers’ infamous 1991 memo where he, in his capacity as chief economist of the World Bank, proposed dumping toxic waste in poor countries:

The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

Translation: people in poor countries are already sick, and will not feel the additional health burdens from toxic…



Cory Doctorow

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