The problem with "utility" (Re: [EM] Re: Election-methods Digest, Vol 15, Issue 1)

Rob Lanphier robla at
Thu Sep 1 13:07:54 PDT 2005


The problem with placing paramount importance on "utility" in voting
methods is not that it doesn't exist, it's that there's no systematic,
fair way of measuring utility.  In the highly charged atmosphere of
high-stakes decision making, it's hard to tell the real Hitler from
someone who is "just like Hitler" as far as someone else is concerned.
Comparisons to Hitler are so common, it's cliche.

Range voting methods tend to give strategic advantage to those that are
prone to hyperbole, i.e. those people that declare "candidates A, B, and
C are PERFECT, while candidates D and E MIGHT AS WELL BE HITLER".  Your
strategic incentive will be to give the absolute highest rank to those
that you approve, and the absolute lowest rank to those that you don't.
Not everyone will do that; just the people who deeply understand the
system and those that are prone to hyperbole.

I'd just as soon not favor a system that favors those prone to
hyperbole.  That would do real damage to humanity.


On Thu, 2005-09-01 at 15:36 -0400, Warren Smith wrote:
> >>--aha.  So by "median candidate" you do not mean what I thought you meant
> >(namely, in an N-canddt election, the top-quality floor(N/2) are above median)
> >but rather median in the prior distribution of probabilities of winning.
> >
> >But wait, that would be even more insane, since the policy of
> >voting only for the candidates with above-median prior election 
> >probability, would be a policy that would completely disregard the
> >quality of the candidates.
> >
> My understanding of Weinstein's approval strategy is this:
> "Approve your favourite (or equal favourites). If the remaining (so far 
> unapproved) candidates are on more
> than one of your preference-levels, then approve the candidate/s on your 
> next-from-the-top  preference-level if
> you consider that the probability that one of the candidates you prefer 
> less than this/these candidate/s  will win
> is greater than the probability that one of the candidates you prefer 
> more will win.  And so on."
> This strategy seems sane to me, and probably right for voters who only 
> have a ranking.
> --aha. 
> Well in that case, return to my original example that started this thread, namely
> your choices in order of increasing  quality are
> 1. Stalin
> 2. Hitler
> 3. Genghis Khan
> 4. Jacques Chirac
> and assume prior probabilities of (1/4, 1/4, 1/4, 1/4) of
> the election of each.  Then by adopting the Heitzig/Weinstein
> approval voting strategy, you vote for Genghis Khan and Chirac.
> By adopting the Smith Uitlity-based strategy, you vote for Chirac only.
> Excellent.  Now that we are all agreed about the underlying definitions,
> we are ready to consider how much damage to humanity would be caused by
> adoption of the Heitzig/Weinstein approval voting strategy
> based on Heitzing denying the existence of "utility".   Well,
> looks like humanity  gets 50% chance of massive euro-asia-spanning-war    
> and wholesale genocide, the HW way.  The Smith way, humanity gets 0% chance of
> that.  I wonder how many times it would be necessary to repeat this experiment
> before it dawns on Heitzig that there may actually exist such a concept as utility,
> and all those Bayesians and economists that have been using this concept for the
> last 100 years, may not have been doing it because they were all completely insane
> and believing in silly phantasms that do not really exist. 
> Since I am not a believer in conducting unethical massive experiments, I would be
> happy to change the terms of the election to one which would only affect Heitzig
> and no other human beings.  For example, make 1,2,3 be various extremely painful
> forms of torture inflicted on Heitzig, and 4 be he gets $100.   
> Utility is real, and if top decision makers fail to acknowledge that fact, it results
> in immense damage to humanity.  I am not making this up, I am not saying it
> because I am "highly emotional".  I am simply stating a well known fact that
> has been well accepted for over 100 years.
> Now my suggestion is that the rest of you simply accept this as settled and obviously true.
> It then will be possible to proceed from there to have a genuine debate about voting methods.
> I am not going to debate voting methods with people who refuse to accept probability theory,
> believe that the sun revolves around the Earth, think Darwin is a phantasm, etc.
> Warren Smith
> ----
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