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Some Thoughts on Utilitarianism

By Feo Takahari · Jul 3, 2015 · ·
  1. I felt like I needed to write something before I exploded, so I figured I'd put down some of my ideas about ethics. With one exception, this isn't intended to convince anyone of anything, just to show where I'm coming from and give some idea of why the morality in my stories seems so odd sometimes. I tried to address objections from as many points of view as possible--give me a holler if I missed anything, or if there's anything you don't understand.

    Utilitarianism? What's that?
    It's an ethical ruleset for determining how to be a good person and live a good life. It's compatible with most (all?) religions, but it's most commonly associated with atheists and agnostics. It's probably the simplest system, boiling down to one rule: create as much happiness as you can for as many people as you can, using whatever methods you think will work best.

    That's it? Really?
    Not necessarily. It's been around long enough that various philosophers have bolted on other ideas, like "Happiness from fine art is more valuable than happiness from loafing around," or "It's good to help people fulfill their personal goals, even if it ultimately makes them unhappy." I don't bother with most of those, but I do have my own variant: "The perfect person would create as much happiness as they could for as many people as they could." I don't think it's required or even remotely realistic to be that perfect person--more on that later.

    Why happiness?
    Why not?
    More seriously, I don't think there's an inherent, objective reason to choose Utilitarianism over other systems of ethics. If you're into Divine Command Theory or Kantianism or whatnot, I can't say you're "wrong" for it. I just picked it because it matches with my instincts. That said, I do think there are some subjective arguments for it:
    1): It fits people's general desires and tendencies. Not everyone has an instinct to never lie, or to always obey authority, but unless your name is Monokuma, you probably want to be happy. That makes it something people can agree on even if they have different backgrounds and expectations.
    2): It fits with what storytellers write. I've read a ton of stories that preached strict obedience to absolute rules, with villains who sought to break the rules in order to provide for the greater good. Time and again, they ended with the revelation that obedience to the rules would have led to more happiness anyway. At worst, the protagonist dies to save his people and make all of them happy. It's quite rare for these stories to have an ending where obedience to the rules leads to people being unhappy, because if they did, readers might question whether the author is right in saying that people should follow the rules all the time.
    3): People who absolutely reject happiness as a measure of morality tend to be creepy as all hell. By way of example, let's take Vincent Cheung, a proponent of Divine Command Theory:
    "God is the only one who possesses intrinsic worth, and if he decides that the existence of evil will ultimately serve to glorify him, then the decree is by definition good and justified. One who thinks that God's glory is not worth the death and suffering of billions of people has too high an opinion of himself and humanity. A creature's worth can only be derived from and given by his creator, and in light of the purpose for which the creator made him. Since God is the sole standard of measurement, if he thinks something is justified, then it is by definition justified."
    Shin Megami Tensei called. They're missing a Law Hero!

    Why others' happiness, then? Why not just care about your own?
    This is called ethical egoism, and frankly, it's always felt really white to me. Arguing that everyone can succeed in the world and only their own lack of effort holds them back makes a lot more sense when you're light-skinned and able-bodied. Besides, I barely lasted through five pages of Atlas Shrugged before I dropped it out of boredom.

    But what if trying to help just makes things worse? Isn't it better to not get involved?
    I cannot possibly discuss this any better than James Rachels. Read Active and Passive Euthanasia. Seriously, read it--it's pretty short. This is the one point I want to convince people of, and I think it's more important than anything else I'm discussing.
    Okay, that's out of the way. If you agree with Rachels, then it comes down to determining when to intervene. It may be true that you'll often make things worse, but it would be ridiculous to say that no one is ever capable of making other people's lives better or longer. You just need a sense of judgment. And if you disagree with Rachels . . . I don't even know what to say to that.

    Wait . . . If you're responsible for helping people, how far does that go?
    This is why I said a perfect person would help everyone else, and real people aren't perfect. Realistically, you're not going to donate every dime you have to save starving people in Africa. It could be argued that this makes you responsible for their deaths, but by that logic, so is every other person who isn't donating. Not even saints are that selfless, and endlessly pushing people just makes them push back and help even less. Utilitarianism is just a signpost that says "Righteousness is in this direction," and if it makes you even slightly more kind and generous, that's a net win as far as I'm concerned.

    What about other ethical theories? Don't those hold any value?
    Of course! If we had absolute knowledge of the universe, we could determine the right thing to do in every situation. But when information is unclear, it's often best to default back to the old rules. Don't lie, most of the time. Don't steal, unless you're starving and desperate. Don't kill, if there's a way to avoid doing so and not get killed yourself. I just think problems arise when rules, originally meant as guideposts to good consequences, become more valued than those consequences.

    What if making one person happy makes another person unhappy? Or what if . . .
    This is one of the things I love about Utilitarianism. Ethics can be approached in three parts, specifically meta-ethics (what do you mean by things like "good"?), normative ethics (what rules do you follow?), and practical ethics (what do you actually do to solve real-life problems?) Utilitarianism is incredibly bottom-heavy, with very short meta-ethics and one sentence of normative ethics, but the ability to argue endlessly about the best solutions to real problems. To me, that's where the value and meaning to ethical debate comes in--not in defining your terms or quibbling over rules, but in actually trying to make people's lives better.
    To sum it up, I don't have grand, canonical answers to tricky ethical problems. I have my interpretation based on the knowledge I have available, and you have yours. If you know more than I do, you can argue with me and convince me to act differently, and hopefully the same applies in reverse.

    What about people who take away others' happiness? How do you handle punishment?
    As little as possible. This is one of the big reasons a lot of people don't like Utilitarianism--to many folks, not hurting people who've done bad things seems unnatural, even immoral in and of itself. As for me, I feel scared and queasy when people lovingly describe all the awful shit they want to do to criminals. I'm not against killing someone who's trying to kill you, or locking someone up because you have no other way to stop them from committing crimes, but murder and torture for the sake of "justice" doesn't seem different to me from murder and torture for the sake of a thrill.
    And yes, Utilitarianism is missing a lot of the other stuff people insist on as inherent to morality. Property rights? Zippo. Free will? Bye-bye! Honor? Who cares? In practice, though, respecting others' property and telling the truth and other stuff like that is conducive to a society where everyone's happy, so you can't go out and steal everything you want.

    Does this even matter?
    I think so, at least. I said before that fiction is full of moral relativists doing horrible things and making everything worse. In real life, I think most of the people doing horrible things and making everything worse are moral absolutists. There are a lot more awful people like Osama bin Laden than like Ted Kaczynski.

    Why are you writing all this, anyway?
    Just to explain why my stories feel strange. With justice in particular, I wouldn't feel comfortable writing the sort of protagonist-directed vengeance I see in other stories. At worst, my villains bring themselves down, victims of the logical consequences of their actions. And there are a lot of other, smaller ways in which my morals can feel skew, even in stories where the protagonists aren't Utilitarians.


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  1. j.k.m
    mmm. I agree 'the best is for your friied'. However, when it comes to choosing fruit, my considered though is, that it does not harm the next person. They will get an apple, which is what they want. If you were to ignore, and not report an apple that you saw something peculiar or sharp on or in, then that could potentially cause the next person harm. Harm in my eyes is 'actual harm or the serious threat of actual harm'.

    Taking it to any extreme, in 'what if' scenarios enables the kind of convaluted thinking that can be used to manipulate people into supporting crazy dictators ( as we have seen in the past ) I see this philosophy in modern politics used to control and tax people these days- while getting them to vote them in.

    I totally agree with your 'transactional morality' comment- a clear and sinister example of this is the trading of carbon tax allowances accorss the globe, which allows for devestating polution in some countries.
  2. Feo Takahari
    Or the Wiccan Rede--"An it harm none, do what ye will." But as an economics major, I'd dispute its possibility within a large group of people. Every time I go to a store and buy the ripest, juiciest apple on display, I'm effectively "harming" the next customer who will have to settle for a marginally less juicy apple. Every time I drive on a public road, I'm helping to wear it down and contributing to the eventual need to have it repaired. Capitalists in particular often abuse this to its limits, creating societies where wealthy people don't directly harm poor people, yet continue to take for themselves and give poor people as little as possible.

    Some people respond to this with a kind of transactional morality, where every bad thing they do is "offset" by doing an equally impactful good thing. I think that's silly. Just do the right thing whenever you can, and don't worry about whether it's adding up to zero like some hellish algebra problem.
  3. spectre
    You know, now that I think about it, Utilitarianism is as often pawned off religiously as it is proffered in a governmental way. It has that propaganda slogan attached to it so that people will accept the culture more readily. Honestly I've mostly heard of it with respect to one of the World Wars although I cannot recall which. I guess in my mind's eye I look at it as the Ponzi scheme of a time of refugees. In truth though it isn't a far cry from Feudalsim. Essentially Chinese culture exerts the same kind of idealism in order to encourage people to adopt their culture. I guess that makes your statement all the more true J.K.M.: "...we build social structures to benefit wealth and power...", we make things proliferate for us and call them the prettiest roses, ignoring their sharp thorns as we learn to love them and care for them, still cautious not to get pricked.
  4. j.k.m
    Interesting thoughts. Personally, I wonder at the motives behind any social structure invented by people, ( all of the 'isms' ) as they all introduce unnecessary rules, then regulations etc designed to progressively remove personal determination, power and wealth from people in general- on the grounds that the creators of such 'isms' are morally and intelectually superior, (And invariably consider themselves worthy of far, far more wealth and status than all others, at the expense of all others).
    Simple fact is, the one law of common law covers all possible moral and financial bases.. Cause no loss or harm to another.
  5. spectre
    Your most important statement is in the middle of your writing. Your most controversial one in the bottom 8th. The proof that you're honestly writing how you think is right above that. Utilitarianism is about a whole over varieties of indignation.