Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010


I'll admit: I'm a utilitarian. But what does that mean, exactly, and why would I advocate others to follow along as well? Why have a morality anyway?

As I mentioned in my previous post, thanks to several areas of science it is painfully clear that we are not masters in our own homes: much of our decisions, much of our actions, function like clockwork. We've pinned down a number of chemicals in the brain that make you feel a certain way, or make you do certain things. We understand how these feelings got there, too, and it's not a flattering picture. All our "noble" feelings are, in the end, products of evolution: a process which only "wants" copies of genes in the next generation. The selfishness lies at the gene level, and looking around at the world we can see evolution doesn't care beyond that, in fact it doesn't even care about happiness or pain or cruelty. It's a "blind idiot god", whose indifference I would also call cruelty through negligence.

The Darwinian view has been around for some time, and it has been befriended by other forces that combine to "biological determinism" (though really, the word "biological" is unnecessary). It's increasingly difficult to actually blame and punish people for their actions, when it's clear why those actions were undertaken and why there wasn't any other choice for that person. It's like blaming a radio for playing bad music, and smashing it to bits when it plays especially bad music. Basically, it has become increasingly clear that humans are machines, and like machines can be controlled with certain forces.

We are in an age of cynicism, and the Darwinian view has helped it along. The continuous decline of religion is just another example. It's clear to people that there is no such thing as objective morality, there is nothing written in the laws of the universe to tell people how they should behave, there is no divine light shining down to reveal the proper course of action. Existential and nihilistic views are very common.

And yet we haven't descended into chaos. We're the only moral animals, and we've seen our "morals" are just evolution's trickery to try and make us more prolific. People want to be seen doing good, because that increases their status in the eyes of others, and the way to be seen doing good is by doing good things fairly often. But of course it's not that simple, and people generally thought of as good are fully capable of bad acts such as deceit, exploitation, and so on. (How often we here of decent men losing their temper and killing a cheating wife! Okay, it's not all that common, but the feeling remains.)

Even when we push aside morality as something useless, unless we're sociopaths we still do certain things which can be said to be "moral". Every functioning human has a sense of justice and honor, has the emotions of sympathy, affection, lust, and anger. You can disregard those as unimportant, but you're still going to fall prey to them whether you consciously want to or not.

So what do people do anyway? This is the central premise of utilitarianism: all else being equal, happiness is better than unhappiness. And we look at people, and see they more or less implicitly accept this. People go through their lives pursuing happiness, and when they are restricted they will find ways to get past.

It should be clarified that when happiness is better than unhappiness, what is meant is total happiness. Yet another thing we know is that no one person's happiness is more special than another's. Of course, this goes against our intuitions: everyone likes to think of themselves and their own pursuits as being more valid than other people's. And people feel upset when someone tries to tell them otherwise, especially if that other person is also deluded with their own specialness. We call them "selfish" for not considering other people, ignoring that for the most part we do the same thing.

Fortunately humans do care about each other, even unrelated kin. Even strangers. The prospect of caring for someone else, even untold amounts of people, isn't incompatible with human nature.

Utility: all else being equal, happiness is better than unhappiness. It follows that one should seek to increase the total happiness not just in themselves, but in all people they can. There is a full, logical chain from that simple assumption most people implicitly agree with to the conclusion of loving one's neighbor as oneself, of doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Of altruism.

"But why?" ask the nihilists. Remember, "ought" does not necessarily follow from "is". True, and so I'm going to hand-wave that I'm not committing the naturalistic fallacy, and claim that all "oughts" are chosen subjectively and utility happens to have a very simple system with good results behind it--in other words it's the winning theory. Now you can be a very extreme nihilist and say that even happiness doesn't matter (even though in humans it clearly does), but if that's the case I have no words left for you on this matter. Every breath you take is hypocritical.

Now comes a paradox, which I shall state but not attempt to address at this time. The intellectual conclusion of utilitarianism combined with knowledge of other sciences is that we shouldn't punish people at all. But the practical conclusion of utilitarianism is that we punish only when the utility is greater that way. We punish a thief to deter other thieves, and if he's likely to be a repeat offender. But we should also look to rehabilitate and help him. Unfortunately humans tend to see punishment as just in itself, that if you found yourself on a remote island, and discovered a forgotten 70-year old man who in his teens had killed another man, then it would be just for you to punish him now regardless of what you felt about it. This is not the case.

Utility is founded on happiness, which is a pretty fuzzy concept but not impossible to define, and I will leave it there. Where issues come in is on the aspect of "life", not "happiness". Obviously some lives are more important than others on the utility scale, because some lives will do more to increase the total happiness pool than others. Obviously the life of a Charles Darwin is worth more than the life of an unknown thief, but the key to utility is that their happiness is in equal units, and there's nothing to say Darwin deserves happiness more than the thief.

Life-questions test the usefulness of a moral system, and stretching to the limits also test the moral system. Utility's system for lives is just as simple as for happiness: all else being equal, two lives are better than one. Why I don't think that matched up with any two humans Darwin should give his life for them is because all else is not equal. Darwin matched against 100 randomly selected humans, and Darwin is still likely to be worth more on the utility scale because he has more ability to increase the happiness pool. Darwin against a million humans, and the weight shifts in favor of the million humans, even if randomly selected. Of course certain factors can shift the weight one way or another, and the number could very well be less for certain groups.

People mistakenly think all lives are equal, when the better phrase is all happiness units are equal. Besides, if all lives were equal, then 2 > 1 would hold regardless of what lives were at stake. Maybe lives are "priceless" or "infinitely valuable", to which I'd respond "Then why do you support the troops who carry out war?" Nothing is priceless, and nothing is infinitely valuable. Indeed most people's concept of infinity is a finite number pathetically small. Graham's number typically overwhelms it, but that's like using a colony drop to kill an ant when a finger will do. You don't need a number as large as Graham's number to get past most people's conception of infinity.

This all gives rise to transhumanism, which I also profess to subscribe to. Transhumanism is simple: for all lives, if they can be saved, they should be saved. Weaker forms of humanism tend to reverse this after a certain point: "Except of they're 90 years old." With transhumans, it's not the case. And the phrase "can be saved" compresses a lot of information. Obviously if you come to a car crash and are faced with the choice of saving a young person and a very old person, and you are only able to save one, then pick the young person on the grounds of utility. But if you can save both, you should save both. Don't just save the young person and sit smugly as the older one dies, "I did the right thing. I saved the one that mattered more." True, but you could have saved the other, and your failure in that respect makes you far less respectable.

Where does non-violence fit in this picture? The paradox mentioned above shows it's possible to conclude with never punishing people, but practicality suggests otherwise. This will be the subject of another post, but for now I would like to say I think violence is not all that effective a punishment (and punishes the inflicter as much as the inflicted upon), and other forms of punishment that don't rely on violence exist.

Posted on 2010-01-14 by Jach

Tags: existentialism, morality, utility


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