Skip to main content

The simplest form of utilitarianism

I've heard it said that utilitarianism has this pragmatic benefit: it could constitute a plausible ethical consensus (even if we're all only pretending to believe it?) that could lessen the intensity of moral conflicts.  In other words, it is better to argue over non-fundamental things than over fundamental things, because we're more likely to go to war over the latter than the former.   

Thinking this through: reaping this benefit would require us, I suppose, to give our consent to the simplest possible form of utilitarianism, because only that one can promise to turn serious substantive moral conflicts into mere mechanical computations. 

In the spirit of Jeremy Bentham, portrayed above, then, let us suppose that pleasure could be measured in, say "positive hedons." Pain could be treated as negative hedons. Consider whether the govt should require a vaccine. Add up all the positive hedons the policy will create (discounting for uncertainties), subtract the negative hedons, and get the hedon total, which you then compare to the hedon totals for alternative inconsistent decisions. 

Arguments would still occur, but they'd be technical-sounding quarrels over the arithmetic, since the big questions would have been settled by the presumed consensus. Since people aren't likely to go to war over their differing calculations, this may well be a peaceful and so an attractive vision to some. 

Consider, to flesh this out a bit further, one premise necessary there: that one presumes the value of a continuing life, in hedons, is positive. Otherwise, murder is up for grabs, and "the victim would have had a negative-hedons life" becomes an affirmative defense. Further, consider the above example of vaccines again. Why does a  vaccine that works properly have any hedons to its credit? Because we presume it lengthens life. So, on this simple view, we need to presume that the balance of negative and positive hedons is positive. 

Suppose that if I had not gotten my MMR vaccine when I was a child, I would die ... today. But since I did, and it works, I will live ... oh, another 20 years. On the positive side of the ledger, then, we include whatever is the positive number of hedons we attribute to the extra 20 years of my life. Does that vary person to person, or do we assume a general background figure?

But anyway, something like that simple version of utilitarian can be credited, I suppose, with the possible consequence of making disputes over such questions technical boring ones, the sort for which nobody would take up arms. "Imagine ... nothing to kill or die for."

If we regard that versions as silly to the point of infantilism, and we try to correct it into a less silly version, we forfeit the simple consensus that this dream of peace relies upon. People might well fight for the very different versions they'll adopt once they start thinking for themselves and realize they aren't calculating machines alone. 

But almost nobody believes that this simple counting-style utilitarianism is true, and there is NO chance of getting the world to that fantasy consensus on it. Zip. 

Fun little fantasy, though.


  1. I question your assumption that we typically go to war over things that we argue about--that wars are arguments that have gotten out of hand. More typically, I believe, we go to war over psychological needs, particularly the need for power over others. This need is most prevalent in government leaders--why, after all, did they seek to become leaders in the first place? Also important is the need to submit to authority; this explains why people follow their leaders to war, even though it is contrary to their interests. Of course, the psychological issues are far more more complex than I've just outlined them as, but studying them is the direction that we should take.

  2. That's a good point. In general, though, I think that humans are pack animals. Like other mammals we divide the world into "us" and "them," where the various thems, other packs, are competitors for resources. Non-rational psychology does enter into this picture in that it determines who gets to be considered part of "us," part of a particular pack, and of course as you suggest it helps explain who leads the pack and who follows. Still, my suspicion is that most conflicts between packs are resource conflicts. THEIR pack is standing between ours and something we want. Those are usually the arguments that lead to wars, and that utilitarianism if everyone could agree on it would presumably tame. But of course everyone won't agree on it, for one obvious reason because utilitarianism tells us that there is nothing special about "us" as distinct from "them." So long as the creatures on both sides feel pleasures and pains. Which is a lesson that pack animals are chronically incapable of internalizing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …