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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.


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