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Friday, January 16, 2004


From the skeptical standpoint I am taking in this treatise, the goal of most utilitarians is laudable. They are attempting to deduce (create?) morality from the empirically observable facts of reality, without reference to God or any spiritual realm. The fact of primary importance to utilitarians is that all animals like pleasure and happiness and dislike pain and suffering. Thus, we should act so as to increase pleasure and happiness in the world and decrease pain and suffering.
Simple, no?
Too simple. The problems that arise can be grouped into three broad categories: Counterintuitive consequences, practical difficulties performing the required calculus, and basic theory.
Thinking up counterintuitive consequences of utilitarianism can be fun. Anyone can do it - why don’t you give it a try? Be careful though: Most of the example people come up with on their first few tries are easily dismissed by utilitarians as emergency situations were it makes sense that our genes or society would program us with a different intuitive answer. A terrorist with a hostage is about to throw a powerful bomb into a large crowd. If necessary, should the police shoot through the hostage to stop the terrorist? The utilitarian would say yes. For those bothered by the thought of sacrificing one innocent person to save others, the utilitarian can point out that this is a rare emergency situation. True, the evolution of our species or our society may have drilled into our heads the idea that innocent people may never be killed for any reason. Given the rarity of the need to kill innocent people, this intuition is probably, in general, a good one for our society and our species. This does not, however, change the fact that when the rare situation does arise, our otherwise useful emotional reaction may contradict what a more reasoned analysis of the situation would require us to do.
Contemplating less rare situations can provide even more troubling counterintuitive consequences. Consider the case of Peter Singer, the most prominent living utilitarian philosopher. In order to relieve the suffering of the severely disabled and their parents, he has advocated allowing the parents of severely disabled infants to have their children humanely euthanized. For this he has become public enemy number one to the activist disabled community, many of whom quite literally view him as being as morally depraved as Hitler. However, Singer is a hero to many in the animal rights movement for his brilliant defense of vegetarianism due to the utter cruelty of modern factory farming methods. So here you have the most prominent living utilitarian philosopher’s morality: Be kind to chickens, and kill disabled babies.
The practical, day-to-day consequences of utilitarianism can also be daunting. Thinking about going to see Lord of the Rings this weekend? Well, sure you would probably enjoy that a lot, but would your enjoyment of this movie really be enough to balance out the blindness that could have been prevented had you forgone the movie and sent the $10 it would have cost you to a charity that distributes vitamin A to children in underdeveloped nations to prevent blindness? And don’t think you can just spend those three hours you would have been watching the movie just lying around the house. There is no way the suffering you will endure pulling overtime at your cushy OSHA protected workplace will balance out the blindness you will prevent sending your time-and-a-half wages to the afore-mentioned charity. In fact, just forget ever going to any movie or working less than 70 hour weeks. There is no way your suffering will ever balance out all the suffering that will be prevented by sending all of your wages above what you need to survive to keep working to charities that help famine stricken underdeveloped nations.
Or consider a practical dilemma utilitarianism poses for Singer himself. Some of the disability activists that he has upset have claimed that his ideas contribute to the oppression of the disabled. Advocating the euthanization of severely disabled infants on utilitarian grounds spreads the message that the world would be better if these people never existed. If the able-bodied believe the disabled should not exist, this can legitimize ignoring, discriminating against, or outright hostility toward the disabled. And it is undeniable that his ideas have caused great distress among many disabled people themselves. Further, his ideas about infant euthanization have not been adopted, and I doubt any reasonable person believes they any chance of being adopted in any foreseeable future. Therefore, his promotion of this idea has caused suffering in disabled people, has a realistic possibility of indirectly causing greater suffering among disabled people by legitimizing discrimination against them, and does not stand any realistic chance of ever relieving any suffering through implementation. Logically, none of this bears on the rightness or wrongness of the idea of euthanizing severely disabled infants. But if Singer’s utilitarian philosophy is correct, it would seem the moral thing for him to do would be to relieve suffering by no longer promoting this idea, and in fact issuing an unconditional retraction. (Without disclosing the real, moral, motive for the retraction, as that would imply, correctly, that he still believed his idea was right, and the suffering would continue.)
The difficulties in performing the required calculus for utilitarianism are legion, and in my view insurmountable. Consider two questions. First, it is even possible to compare different people’s pleasure or suffering? And, should we count all types of pleasure or suffering? Now consider the following argument: Seeing homosexuals together and even thinking about homosexuality makes the vast majority of straight people extremely uncomfortable. The suffering of any individual homosexual at having to remain closeted is undoubtably much greater than the suffering experienced by any individual homophobe upon being exposed to out homosexuals. However, if we assume that the most reliable estimates are that at most 5% to 6% of the population is gay or lesbian, then the minor suffering of the great number of straights at being exposed to out homosexuals adds up to more than the great suffering of the tiny number of homosexuals. Therefore, to relieve the greatest amount of suffering, we should pursue policies designed to force gays and lesbians to remain in the closet.
How is a utilitarian to evaluate this argument? Certainly it would difficult to attack the factual premises. Most people would agree that the suffering of a homophobe at being exposed to homosexuality is real, that this suffering is less than the suffering of a homosexual who must remain closeted, and that there are many times more homophobes than there are homosexuals. From a utilitarian standpoint, this argument is structurally and factually sound. It would seem that the only avenue of attack open to a pro-gay rights utilitarian would be to attack the math. The suffering of the homophobes might be less than anti-gay rights utilitarian supposes, or the suffering of homosexuals might be more intense, or there might be greater ratio of gays to homophobes.
While the ratio of gays to homophobes might be subject to reasonable measurement using social science methodology, how can you possibly measure the various suffering? How do you average the suffering of someone uncomfortable around a person he thinks of as a pervert, a person who will be embarrassed fi their friends discover their brother is gay, and a deeply religious mother who cries because her gay son is going to hell? How do you average the suffering of homosexuals who lives in denial, those who live in hiding, and those who are discovered and shunned, ridiculed, or beaten? And how do you weigh these averages, given the ratios of the two groups?
It is simply not possible.
One possible solution is to declare that some pleasures or suffering should not count, because they are “wrong”. But how? The whole point of utilitarianism is to determine what is right or wrong. If these pleasures or pains are real, declaring that they should not count prioritizes some other moral system above utilitarianism, such as natural rights, or some sort of Aristotelian perfectionism. And if you do count “bad” pleasures or pain, where do you stop? Should the morality of a gang rape be determined by comparing the pleasures of the many rapists with pain of the one victim? And even if so, again, how is this comparison to be made?
Another possible solution is “preference” utilitarianism. In preference utilitarianism, what is compared is not pleasures and pain themselves as brain experiences, but rather you try to maximize the aggregate satisfaction of the preferences of every individual. Preference utilitarianism does indeed solve the problem of how to do the “calculus”, because preferences can be precisely measured. Individuals can rank their own preferences in order, and the intensity of desire for fulfillment of preferences between individuals can be measured through the market, by comparing how much they are willing to spend to fulfill their desires. Preference utilitarianism is popular with economists.
But why preferences? The mathematical convenience of preference utilitarianism does not prove whether or not it will make the world a better or more enjoyable place. People will often desire things intensely that are clearly bad for them, as the addict desires his drug. Paranoid schizophrenics have suffering that can be relieved, but satisfying their preferences is indulging in nightmares.
Preference utilitarianism does virtually nothing for those who cannot adequately communicate their preferences. An accident that leaves your mind untouched but makes you a quadriplegic without a voice would place you outside the concern of preference utilitarianism. Damage to the specific area of your brain responsible for language can leave the rest of your mind and body fine, but your preferences still uncountable. Helen Keller may have had a fine mind, suffering, happiness, and desires before learning to sign “water”, but preference utilitarianism would not have counted her. The preferences of babies cannot be counted, only those of their caretakers. Animal rights is out. Koko the Gorilla may be able to adequately indicate her preferences, but how do we take surveys of our primate cousins who have not learned sign language? How do we determine, let alone measure the intensity of, the desires of dogs, cattle, chickens, and frogs?
And the market does not compare the intensity of desires between individuals accurately, because it weighs the desires of the wealthy more than the poor. If a starving homeless man gets into a bidding war for a loaf of bread against Bill Gates, who wants to use it as a seat cushion, Gates is likely to win, and certainly can, even if his desire is far less than that of the starving homeless guy.
But the worst theoretic problem with utilitarianism is the way it conflates individuals. As stated by Rawls, utilitarianism ignores the factual separateness of persons.
Consider Susan Susan is single, believes in utilitarianism and is considered by most people to be very attractive, but she is by nature a loner and would rather spend her time painting landscapes or listening to music than having sex, which she has always found to be pleasant enough, but not what she would rather be spending her time doing. The thought occurs to her: Should I spend my nights and weekends offering myself sexually to many different men?
How should Susan evaluate this? Reasonably, she could schedule three men a night after work for an hour each, and at least ten for an hour each on Saturdays and Sundays. This could provide potentially seventy men with biweekly sex. Since she finds sex pleasant enough, and does not desire a significant other who might be upset by the activity, the primary cost to general happiness will be her opportunity cost in time she could have spent painting landscapes and listening to music. On the plus side, the men will not only enjoy the sex a lot, but the biweekly sex might improve their general happiness with life, especially if Susan confines herself to single, working class loners who might not have other sexual outlets available. Confining herself to these men would also prevent unhappiness to potentially jealous partners of the men who might discover the biweekly sessions.
To prevent the possibility these men might view her as more than a sex object and get jealous of the other men, she could charge a nominal fee, enough so that they do not think of her as anything other than a sex object for hire, but not so much as to take away any of the men’s enjoyment from the encounters. Best of all, Susan could then pay any expenses related to the sex and send all of the profits to a charity that distributes vitamin A to children in underdeveloped nations.
Of course, once we throw the charity back into the mix, then it is likely that Susan should abandon this plan and spend her time doing whatever will raise the most money for charity. But again, this could turn out to be prostituting herself to wealthy men for the highest possible price.
The reasons that Susan’s dilemma are counterintuitive are good. This treatise assumes an atheistic, materialist universe in which Susan is a separate, autonomous decision maker whose decision making organ, her brain, is physically connected to a body that provides her brain with sense information and over which her brain has sole voluntary control. Why should the potential sexual satisfaction of seventy people separate from her, or even the potential blindness of hundreds of poor children, be a determining factor in her decision as to whom she should make her body sexually available? People are factually separate, and it is not clear how the pain or pleasure of others puts moral imperatives on others.
Utilitarianism can be saved by spirituality. Pantheists and those who have achieved Oneness with the cosmos should certainly prioritize the overall happiness of the universe, or at least that portion of the universe they can realistically affect, above their own personal happiness. Indeed pantheists can use utilitarianism to refute a primary atheistic argument against pantheism. Atheists sometimes charge that pantheism is nothing more than semantics: Pantheism simply redefines the universe as God. There is no spiritual claim of substance being advanced. But if the pantheists are right in their intuition that the fabric of the universe is woven with spiritual thread, then pantheism justifies a moral code that atheism cannot. For if the universe is God, and we are all One with, and part of, God, then prioritizing the overall happiness of the universe would seem imperative.
But not in an atheistic universe, where the universe exists, but the fabric is not woven with any spiritual connections or meanings. The atheistic universe is indifferent to the individual. The old atheist parable is: A man says to the universe, “Sir, I exist!” And the universe replies, “That fact does not instill in me a sense of obligation.” But the utilitarian wants the reverse of the situation to carry moral weight. The utilitarian wishes to tell the individual, “Sir, the universe exists!” If that person is an atheist, they should reply, “That fact does not instill in me a sense of obligation.”
Personally, I find myself gazing in awe at the mysteries of the universe. Primary among these are the mystery of the existence of the universe and the mystery of consciousness. I also note the absence of evidence of the absence of God. I therefore call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. A serious challenge that atheists pose to agnostics is to point to any theistic belief that is not infinitely improbable. This challenges eliminates all organized religions. Realistically, the myths of the ancients are as likely true as the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien or the science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But the idea of a conscious or semi-conscious universe that longs for life and fulfillment is alluring, and is as likely an explanation for the existence of humanity as any other I have ever heard. I am convinced that if there is any truth to theism, it lies in or near pantheism.
But the goal of this treatise is to build a political philosophy on the foundations of empirically undeniable facts, and I can empirically verify no spiritual essence in the universe. Mysteries, even profound and enduring, are not evidence. Nor is absence of evidence. This treatise therefore takes an atheistic starting point. As such, we must reject pantheism, and therefor utilitarianism as well.

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