Friday, July 3, 2009

Utilitarianism: The Noblest and Most Virtuous of Creeds (plus Comics!)

I promised economist John Bellettiere that I’d respond to his concerns, fairly common and understandable ones, about possible perverse consequences of utilitarianism, and I hope he won’t mind if I try to be even more sweeping, addressing many concerns about utilitarianism.

First, in hopes of dispensing with many objections of the sort he raises — should we let a town be flooded if the rescue money can be used to save even more people in a hospital elsewhere, etc. — I think it’s important, always, to stress the “rule” part of the “rule utilitarian” formulation, that is, the idea that we will not simply trust people to make wild calculations about what is morally permissible, willy-nilly, each time they encounter some opportunity to foster happiness or suffering. We adhere to broad moral rules — and intuitively, perhaps even instinctively, shudder at their violation — precisely because we don’t want horrific acts to become commonplace acts, even if their one-time occurrence might create joy (in at least some people).

Utilitarians, more than any other philosophical sect, are obligated to think about the long term — the total happiness of all morally-relevant beings, from now until the end of time. Humility should make us realize that we can’t begin to predict the entire future of the universe and thus must fall back on rules that at least appear to foster the greatest happiness in the widest number of cases — property rights, I think, combined with a tendency to err on the kind rather than sadistic side to diminish not only gratuitous direct suffering but the constant clashing and mis-coordination of interests. But — and this is crucial — I could be completely wrong about the efficacy of property rights, or even about the efficacy of rule-making (as opposed to spontaneous “act utilitarianism”), and it would not make the larger end-goal of increasing happiness and decreasing suffering any less appropriate. That would still be the foundation and we would merely have a (potentially immense) practical disagreement about how to achieve it.


Absent preconceived notions and allegiances to false metaphysical idols (me being in some sense a nominalist, as noted in yesterday’s Comments), we all tend to be utilitarian in the broadest sense, in that we are aware that we have desires, seeking their fulfillment absent other considerations and being pained by their thwarting absent other considerations. Morality consists in abstracting that pattern within ourselves to a recognition that others have preferences and pain as well, then regarding their preferences and pain as being as significant as our own (the only alternative position being selfish bias of some sort).

I think this happiness/good, pain/bad intuition is not merely a pattern of correlation but (as is obvious to people without stubborn prior allegiances) is in fact the sole source and generator of all our moral intuitions and rules. There is simply no reason to believe that in the absence of joy and suffering (however unconscious or indirect our interest in them may be), human beings would ever even have developed the language of good and evil. Why would we have asserted that Object A must be taken to Place B or that Person X must behave in such-and-such a fashion with regard to Person Y absent the underlying assumption that the alternative would cause harm and suffering? It would be like spouting arbitrary square-dancing instructions and expecting people everywhere to heed us.

And I think even people who claim to be resolutely anti-utilitarian tend to betray this profoundly human, reasonable, decent, and necessary attachment to what we might broadly call happy endings. Fans of Ayn Rand condemn utilitarianism and assert that they’d be allied to her vision of man qua man regardless of whether it brought widespread suffering — but why? And is it really mere coincidence that they invariably go on, pricked by conscience and residual sanity, to assure listeners that “of course, our system would not lead to widespread suffering — rather it is socialism and altruism that do.” What a relief! But why should I care if utility doesn’t matter, right?

People almost invariably slip into endorsing some sort of (quite literally) happy ending, even when denouncing its use as the moral litmus test: …and they will know joy in Heaven…and living as man qua man will prevent the suffering that comes from socialism…and the Ubermensch will live full-souled and free instead of cramped and neurotic…and the traditional family unit will know loving reunions and happy times instead of aimless, glum futility…etc.


Even those perverse few religious people who claim that morality consists solely in following whatever rules are spat out, as if in arbitrary fashion, by a God who they claim to serve out of sheer love no matter his cruelty or compassion, cannot resist (and well they should not) predicting that following the moral rules will, funny coincidence, produce everlasting joy in the long run.

If I thought there were the slightest scrap of evidence there were a God, indeed, I might well say that utility dictates doing whatever God says — perhaps even stupid or arbitrary things, given the prospect of divine punishment. But notice how naturally the conventional vision of the afterlife (the perpetually-unseen realm where we’re assured this God character will set everything right) ends up being a utile one, with good behavior leading to joy and bad behavior leading to torture and misery and pointy sharp sticks while roasting in a lake of fire forever, etc.

Indeed, any religious believer who claims to be immune to underlying utilitarian intuitions should try this thought experiment: If God appeared before us, unmistakable and real, and said that he was going to take all of those who worshipped him and hewed to his commandments into Heaven, where they would be roasted over hot spits for the rest of eternity while watching their loved ones torn apart by jackals, while in Hell, Satan would be giving people foot massages and otherwise letting them go about their business, wouldn’t you suspect that something had gone terribly wrong somewhere along the line, that you’d been had or that this God character wasn’t quite as moral as you’d been led to believe? And assume for the sake of argument that he didn’t have some longer-term plan that would bring people joy — not even one that would bring him any joy. He’s God, utility doesn’t matter, and he just sort of flipped his cosmic coin as a matter of divine right and decided on: the hot spits. Sound “good”? No? Then you’re almost ready to begin mature moral reasoning, for which religion has perhaps previously been your crude substitute.

On a more practical, earthly level, ask yourself whether anyone you know is satisfied upon hearing of friends that “they lived unhappily ever after,” or whether you’d truly approve if a stranger showed up at your work station and said, not “I’ve got something that ought to make you happy!” but “I will now inflict terrible suffering upon you.” Which do we think of as an obvious warning sign of evil — “evil,” after all, being the convenient four-letter label for sadists?

Our entire morality, as well as our evolved (and survival-enhancing) emotional structure, etiquette assumptions, concepts of philanthropy and abuse, and civilization in general would be rendered utterly incoherent in an instant if we truly desired (???) the net decrease in happiness or increase in suffering, like a man who tried each day to exit his apartment by breathing heavily and walking into the wall instead of, as sane people do when acting upon desires, taking a route that fulfills them — turning the doorknob, then exiting. Disutile thinking is madness serving no productive end, no moral purpose, like recognizing a widespread desire among humans to reach the Moon and responding by digging a hole to the center of the Earth.

The world has its handful of vicious little runts who like to torture animals — and they have a greatly above-average tendency to grow up to be serial killers, which should not surprise us, unless we’re the sort who refuse to see a connection between the desire to inflict suffering and evil action in general. Empathy vs. evil, happiness-making vs. the infliction of harm, that’s the primary character-formation choice facing all human beings from day one, regardless of the complexity of the moral rules and reasoning that ultimately flow from this choice.


But don’t get me wrong: even arch-utilitarian John Stuart Mill (much like Hume before him) recognized the wisdom in many already-existing creeds, in that they all attempt, often with a subtlety and richness that no cobbled-together modern code could replicate, to foster good (that is, happy) outcomes and prevent bad (that is, miserable) ones — thus Mill’s willingness to see history as progress rather than as one huge mistake and Hume’s willingness to tolerate existing regimes and codes even while quietly holding them up to the philosopher’s yardstick of reason and utility, without calling for revolution each time they fall short. (The Ten Commandments might even be so useful that we should perhaps pretend they’re true and divinely sanctioned, for instance, to use a sort of Straussian argument, but the cat’s out of the bag on that one by now, so I guess we’ll just have to make real moral arguments.)

Even traditionalist Burke was making essentially utilitarian, consequentialist arguments: If you throw out all existing political and moral rules, the results will likely look more like the bloody French Revolution than like Utopia.

If Burke weren’t thinking in a proto-utilitarian fashion, he would have said something utterly circular and utterly unconvincing after the fashion of some of our (very modern, very new-fangled) paleoconservatives, along the lines of: You shouldn’t start doing things a new way, ’cause then you won’t be doing them the old way, and we do ’em the old way on account of that’s the way we do ’em, whereas not doing ’em that way would entail doing ’em different, which would be bad, on account of being different — and unlike how we do ’em.

Now, a more sophisticated objection to utilitarianism — one that is both more ancient (more pagan) than Burke or Christianity but is also voiced at times by people like my girlfriend Helen Rittelmeyer and her friend Will Wilson (not to be confused with utilitarian quasi-Canadian Will Wilkinson, mentioned yesterday) — is that achieving total happiness will render us boring, slack anemones without any of the inspiring virtues deployed prior to reaching that state.

There are countless objections to that fear, but just a few are:

1. Can we worry about that state when we reach it? With some 2 billion people on the planet still not even having electricity and us having struggled some 10,000 years post-hunter-gatherer just to get this far, do we really need to rain all over humanity’s parade already?

2. Aren’t you once more making an unintentionally utilitarian argument, in that you fear (in effect) that we will become too shallow from easy pleasures to retain the capacity for deeper, richer ones? (Mill already dealt with that concern a century and a half ago, suggesting that we do indeed know from introspection that the rich, rewarding forms of happiness, like seeing your opera finally get produced, tend to affect us more than a pleasant scratching behind the ear or humming “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” all day — boredom itself is a form of suffering we would continue to strive against even in a world devoid of enemies or dangers. And it’s simply not true, on balance, that people are more creative when beset by numerous practical worries and sources of suffering. If it were, we would look not to places like relatively comfy Europe for great art or good behavior but to Sierra Leone’s war zones. Perhaps non-utilitarians should go there sometime and admire the local art museums. Bring me back some poetry collections.)

3. Often people’s fears of an envisioned utilitarian world — say, heroin addicts playing videogames all day (presumably dumb videogames, not the cool ones) — amount, quite plainly, to fears that are themselves utilitarian. You don’t really think the heroin addict is happy, do you? And if not, you’ve just shown that he isn’t the outcome utilitarianism itself advises, is he? Of course, there will always be the problem of people causing themselves long-term harm for the sake of short-term pleasure, but utilitarianism is better suited than any rival philosophy to make that dilemma explicit and get people to make wiser calculations. Older ideals didn’t appear to prevent lives being wasted on slaughter or drunkenness.


Likewise, when we look at cases where ostensibly-utilitarian reasoning led to bad outcomes — as in notorious law-and-econ examples of neighborhoods demolished by eminent domain to create new facilities that generate greater tax revenue — we tend to recoil from the outcomes precisely because we don’t believe that in the long run, given government’s inability to gauge individuals’ needs and the immense risk of creating bad legal precedent leading to further authoritarian interventions, such decisions were utile. That’s why some of us counsel libertarianism, here meaning treating property as all but inviolable: to avoid people deciding from on high what’s best for everyone.

(And in law as in morality, though we can always imagine kill-one-man-to-save-twenty scenarios, let’s simply remember the wise insight that “extreme cases make bad law” — rules are for the long haul, not this one time. We could as easily posit imaginary “51% of people vote to kill 49%” arguments against democracy or “This man will ruin everyone’s lives unless we kill him” arguments against anti-murder laws. Realistically, for formulating moral basic rules, we should instead talk about what happens most of the time.)

Utiliarianism is a deeper and richer philosophy than its critics typically make it out to be (all too many even take the utterly disingenuous or simply stupid route of claiming that the philosophy counsels doing whatever makes you individually happy at the expense of others, that of course being the exact opposite of the philosophy, which trains us, like all useful moral codes, to take the wider world into account before acting).

There are, of course, people for whom utilitarian language will always “sound” reductive, and to them I can only say that, like Douglas Hofstadter’s writings about intelligence and levels of analysis/abstraction, you can always describe things in simpler or more complex terms without necessarily doing any damage to the underlying phenomena. We can talk about martial virtues, heroism, compassion, fortitude, frugality, and all the rest without childishly insisting every time we do so that it’s all just smiley faces and soma, as some critics of utilitarianism make it sound.

Similarly, some religious conservatives become so incensed by talk of chemicals or molecules — as if fearful future art critics will talk about the Mona Lisa only in terms of the painting’s physical weight — that they practically drive themselves into a tizzy in which they sound as if they don’t believe in molecules (Dinesh D’Souza gets this bad at times). You can believe in molecules and talk about art, and you can talk about very sophisticated moral traditions while recognizing at the back of them all the ultimate goal, the great hope — the very source of humanity’s desperate and heroic striving for millennia — of happiness.

Happiness is foundational language, but we can build higher upon it — and by building on this foundation will be far less prone to have people claim we should all sacrifice our happiness for some arbitrary goal they claim is so glorious it trumps everyone’s desires, such as building pyramids with slave labor or sacrificing people to create an ethnically pure homeland. Hard to fight those bastards when pointing to all the weeping and misery they cause is dismissed as morally irrelevant. Hard to argue with people willing to see the Earth run red with blood, like al Qaeda, too. They have intuited a higher calling than petty human happiness, and how will you convince them to prefer your own metaphysical constructs and intuited rules?


You cannot escape utilitarian decision-making — it suffuses every moment of our lives even if we stubbornly refuse to recognize it as ethical thinking. With every action, every plan, every thought, you decide whether to make the world better or worse, more full of joy or more full of pain. If you deliberately, on balance and over the long haul, choose the latter, you are quite simply a monster — a living thing that makes the world more horrible, a sort of sentient cancer that the rest of us would do well to combat.

Luckily, I live in a nation explicitly founded on “the pursuit of happiness,” which not coincidentally has become the greatest and most accomplished on Earth. Only a ghoul would wish greater suffering upon it — and I, by contrast, look forward to toasting it privately tomorrow night with Helen and a couple other Americans. May it be a happy, happy Fourth of July for all — and a happy future for humanity.

P.S. As a little reminder that utilitarians, like doctors administering painful injections, are perfectly capable of recognizing instances where short-term sorrow enhances longer-term pleasure, I offer this:

The lost-cyborg-animals story We3, a dying Supergirl, the massive teleporting lunar dog named Lockjaw, a respectful Skrull general, a self-sacrificing Starman, and more appear in an unusual comment thread sparked by the question, What comic books have made readers cry? Thanks to the commenters’ tendency to synopsize, you might appreciate it even without knowing the stories or characters (I knew some).

More than a few are meta-moments in which characters realize the tragedy of their whole existences — or the reader’s. And on that note, though I don’t think I ever actually cried while reading a comic, one moment (aside from We3, which you’ll all supposedly get to see as a film one of these days) that struck me as at least poignant was a moment in Zot! — a comic about one lone superhero boy on a world otherwise pretty much identical to our unheroic own. In one issue, we see that a boy from our world who Zot knows imagines his doomed high school romance as a sci-fi death tableau — and it is made all the more painfully pathetic by the fact that we readers can see that the semi-imaginative youth’s fantasy is, while superficially powerful, terribly derivative of Phoenix’s death scene in X-Men.

If, reading it, you admit to yourself that the Zot! scene works, you suddenly have to confront the shortcomings — and great potential — in your own nerdy life and in your favorite medium, like the experience of hearing a song trope that undeniably works even though you’ve heard it 800 times before and not being able to decide whether you resent the songwriter, his predecessors, the world, or your own weakness.

P.P.S. Speaking of sad animal stories, I fear the two cats who often sat in the window of an apartment near mine have moved away, possibly taking the unbelievably huge, brown, furry, and Chewbacca-like Newfoundland mix with them before I ever got around to taking a picture of him.

On the bright side, I just read a review of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book in which a telepathic Russian dog named Cosmo (not owned by Jonah Goldberg, unless he’s a double agent) wakes up from unconsciousness with the aforementioned Lockjaw licking his head and looking concerned, and Cosmo asks “Are you God?” Lockjaw is not God, but he’s good — he worries when his friends suffer.

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