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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Another diversion... via my nemesis...

Utilitarianism.


So, I've finally got the complete reading lists for my course. And, well, let's say that I will mostly be reading for the next month. The first three books were a drop in the ocean. So it's useful for me to try to get down on paper (screen) some of what comes up as I read.


Now, I have gone on about utilitarianism a few times - for example, here - and this is a further explanation of my concern, I suppose, though hopefully with a little more nuance and explanation.


Firstly, it seems to me that little can better some form of utilitarianism at governmental or institutional level, where the needs of a large number of people have to be met. I particularly appreciate the role that Mill's own version of classic utilitarianism played in fighting for women's suffrage and free speech.


However, his experience of an emotional breakdown seems to me to highlight part of what I feel as a concern about the concept of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He said:


I never… wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.


And here's my response: whether we are dealing with preferences or happiness, the experience of happiness and the preferences depend upon not a general and abstract idea of the person, but of the individual psychology and circumstances of the conscious subject. Jeremy Bentham understood this when he proposed that his calculus should consider seven different quantities of happiness: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent. He also famously said that to the person what matters is how they feel about something - thus the enjoyment of push-pin is equivalent to the pleasure gained from listening to Bach. Mill, though, further complicated the issue with the suggestion that happiness could indeed be of different qualities - that it's better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.


Now, what this suggests is that when considering saving five lives which would be lived in abject misery of great intensity, long duration,ongoing certainty of misery, pain close to the subject that led to further pain, that was pure and deep, or one that would lead to flourishing, the calculation might not work out as utilitarianism would wish. (And this is not even to begin to consider such problems as how hard it would be for an agent to knowingly sacrifice - or kill, as utilitarianism does not distinguish between acts and omissions - an innocent to prevent a riot in which some larger number might die.) As the utilitarian is judged on the consequences, surely she must consider the quality of the lives, the quantity of happiness and suffering in the lives, that would be saved or ended by her decision? And how does she know? Does she then have a further obligation to improve those lives? Or would her obligation to save five more be greater than to raise the first five from misery to neutrality? I suppose my doubt - being a depressive in a deep dip - is whether the value of a life really is so high in all circumstances at all times.


Further, let's consider what makes the normal lives of normal people good or bad. It is not, I would argue, the somewhat detached knowledge of having saved five lives somewhere else but is rooted in matters closer to the self (in Bentham's terms, perhaps, propinquity). A person who is not a moral saint is happiest, I would claim - and this is am empirical question, not a normative one - when she is relatively healthy and secure; when those she cares about are likewise; expanding, one imagines, to community and nation and, in the case of most moral agents, albeit with lessening salience, to further away but incorporating concerns close to her interests - which may or may not involve all sentient beings and the environment; in addition, she will surely be happier if, as Mill claimed, engaged in projects that matter to her.


We might wish - we might - that all people were strict utilitarians and properly valued lives - though I would argue that this still raises concerns about the focus of attention: number of happy lives (do we raise millions of happy chickens?); quality or equality of happiness (is it better to have everyone at 40% or some at 20% and many at 60%); how one creates opportunities for individuals to find the happiness that makes them happy (are they allowed to be monks if thereby not helping anyone else?).


But the fact remains that we are not all utilitarians and the very things that make us happy incline us to favour the happiness of those around us to the happiness of those further away. I do not think we can escape some moral responsibility for those further away, however, nor for future generations or for beings that are not humans. Yet it seems difficult to insist that people ought (in a strictly normative sense) to be utterly egalitarian in this way - because their own happiness, and thus their values, are rooted in propinquity. To expect people to disvalue what they feel matters to them is a big ask.


I understand the claim that there is a like argument to be made about our own future selves: what makes me happy now is vaping and drinking, thus I am disvaluing my future self and this is irrational, foolish and will lead to a greater intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent of unhappiness in the future. But, rather like Galen Strawson, I struggle to feel any affinity with my future self. She can deal with what life throws up. I probably should be responsible for her in some way, but I don't see her returning the favour. Even if I consider my past self, I am not inclined to condemn past me too harshly for all the decisions that made present me less happy than I might have been because past me is also a different person in different situations with different needs, priorities, preferences and desires, which present me has to respect in the same way that I seek to respect and understand the different needs, priorities, preferences and desires of people who are not me now.


For this reason I do think that it is helpful if governments and institutions 'nudge' us to act in ways that are in our 'better' (or later) interests (thus countering the negative tendencies of immediate gratification, advertising and so on), by things like making us 'opt out' of pensions or taxing sugary drinks . I also think it is a good thing if governments, appreciating the individual's focus on propinquity, take the responsibility (with the people's taxpayers' money) of supporting those further away with international development funds. These seem to me to be 'moral' trends that the public benefit from themselves and also that benefit the global community on a more egalitarian basis. Some might label this soft paternalism, but I don't care. I think that it shows a kind of intimacy bond (that the nation acts as a whole for these interrelated and interdependent individuals) in an interconnected global sphere, with the nation having some duties to and responsibilities for citizens (including the future citizens) who in turn have duties and responsibilities to the state and each other (not using limited NHS resources through smoking and drinking too much... oops... but this is in part why community health is so important), while recognising that in terms of integrity, we are all in different places on the moral saint path and all have different preferences and routes to happiness.


Another point of contention that I have is that while environmentalists, for example, are no doubt delighted to have utilitarian arguments about future generations to back up their concern for the environment and while animal rights activists have utilised utilitarian arguments to support their work improving the lives of non human animals (and, to make it clear, I heartily support both views and am also glad for the detailed and rigorous arguments of the likes of Peter Singer and Toby Ord in these matters), I don't imagine that PETA supporters would tell people not to buy an expensive non-leather item and instead get a cheap leather one and give the rest of the money to fund malaria nets (which is, I think, still the most efficient way to save lives). In both cases, campaigners would prefer that agents devoted their money and time to environmental or animal protection rather than focus on immediate life-saving charitable donations.


The point is that what matters to most people is what matters to them. Not an abstract calculation.


One paper I read countered all arguments for giving money to a cancer charity in favour of a malaria charity (such as partiality or to honour the life of someone who died of cancer) because the maths of lives saved per dollar is so much in favour of malaria. But I thought, if everyone stopped funding cancer research and put all the money into malaria, what you would have is a whole lot more people further from a cure for cancer. Surely there's an advantage - not in utilitarian terms but in some other humanitarian construction of ethics - in people expressing preferences? If it costs more to save a life by donating to a cancer charity, then isn't there a case for exponentially more money going into cancer charities? Or are we saying that the lives of cancer patients are less important? Perhaps it just demands greater expenditure rather than the siphoning of resources to one cause?


And if we are to consider other animals and the environment, aren't we harming them by there being more of us?


I don't have answers and have a feeling the tutors won't like my questions.


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