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  March 16, 2013

Philosophy: On utilitarianism
Sections
Introduction   
1. On utilitarianism
About ME/CFS

Introduction:

This time, to make it easy for my self, and also because I like it, something I wrote in 1998, found yesterday, and probably haven't seen since 1998. If you don't know what "utilitarianism" means: it gets defined below, as done in an English philosophical encyclopedia, and then criticized by me.

This is similar to similar criticisms in my extensive notes to Aristotle's Ethics, Mill's Utilitarianism, and Hume's Moral Enquiry, but then it antedates them, though there probably are similar arguments still earlier in my philosphical notebooks.

Anyway... ethics and morals are relevant to human society, and worth serious pondering (see Robert Reich linked yesterday), and utilitarianism is a fairly common ethical position that many take, though probably mostly unconsciously in most cases.

1. On utilitarianism

What is indented and between the two horizontal lines that follow is something I wrote in 1998, as I wrote it, with only the first sentence translated from Dutch and with the title supplied, and with the links to my Philosophical Dictionary also added today.

There is an endnote, in which I both give and promise further clarifications.


On utilitarianism

Here is a quotation from the Concise Ecyclopedia of Western Philosophy:

Utilitarianism. The characteristic English empirical theory of ethics, which maintains:
(1) The rightness of an action is to be judged by the contribution it makes to the increase of human happiness or the decrease of human misery. The moral validity of a law or rule, the value of an institution, depends on the same considerations. Nothing else matters: e.g. conformity to revelation, authority, tradition, even "moral sense" or conscience: even perhaps, contract or history. An action may pass any of these tests, flatter the conscience of the doer, and yet bring deliberate misery and ruin. What matters is the contribution to happiness.
(2) Hence (on reflexion) pleasure is the only good in itself and pain the only evil in itself. Happiness includes pleasure and freedom from pain: perhaps such a balance of pleasures such as itself produces further pleasures. (p. 383)

If so, I should be quite unhappy, being in pain most of the time, even though the pain is comparatively mild. [1] In any case, the quotation formulates what most people would hold these days, at least if they are not religious. However, I disagree, and briefly explain why.

First, the initial point about rightness I take to be a stipulative definition: An action is right to the extent that it decreases misery or increases happiness; wrong to the extent that it increases misery or decreases happiness. If taken as a stipulative definition, I have no objection: those who think what's right is something else, say pleasing the authorities, may introduce another stipulative definition of right.

Second, if it is a stipulative definition, it only lays down usage, and this is why I don't object. My problem is especially with the notion of happiness, and secondarily with the symmetry of happiness and misery. To start with the notion of happiness.

There are two problems here, namely that "happiness" is far too much of a blanket term, while anyway I don't believe people seek happiness, as such, in any normal sense of "happiness", whether it is pleasure or something else, like riches, health and a long life.

The problem of the blanket term is that, as stated, the stipulative definition makes it right to shoot heroine, supposing that to bring pleasure, to torture, on the same supposition, and so on. In short, not everything that may bring happiness is right, in the senses in which "happiness" and "right" are normally used (where something being right entails it is approved, just, meritorous etc.). Mill made the same point by contrasting Socrates' happiness with the happiness of a swine, holding the former to be better than the latter, even if both are numerically the same.

I call this the problem of the blanket term, because normally the problem is approached by making distinctions. That's fine with me, and accords with ordinary usage and my intuitions, but it goes against utilitarianism as stated, for it simply denies the validity or the applicability of the stipulative definition of "right", for now what would be right would be such as increases happiness provided it is happiness of a certain kind, and not others (like the pleasures of junkies and sadists).

But I simply don't believe people seek happiness in the sense in which that term is ordinarily used. I think people seek satisfaction or gratification, where the difference is that what satisfies or gratifies people is to fulfill their needs or desires. This gives a feeling of happiness or relief (in case of pain), and these feelings are indeed an important part of what motivates people.

What motivates people are their desires, needs and value-judgments, and happiness, pleasure and the like simply are kinds of feelings that arise when one's desires or needs or values are satisfied, just as displeasure or pain arise from not being able to satisfy one's desires, needs or values.

The relation between desires, needs and values on the one hand, and pleasures arising from their satisfaction on the other hand, is in many cases much like that between eating and the pleasures of the table.

In any case, for me something can be right or good only if it satisfies some desire, need or value. This often also results in some pleasure, but the amount of pleasure has no regular relation with the degree of goodness, and may be rather incidental.

This completely undermines utilitarianism, since all manner of things may satisfy some desire, need or value besides such things as give one pleasure.

Here it may be well to give an example. I desire to live in a society in which there is publicly declared code of law, rather than in a society without one. My reasons are varied, but mostly have to do with what I think about people in general. Now the actual pleasures that may be derived from living in such a society, or from contemplating that one lives in such a society, may be quite small, yet this does not make my desire less important for me when I consider human societies and people.

Consequently, I disagree with all of the rest of (1), in fact only agreeing with the first sentence, and that only on condition it is taken as a stipulative definition, and then with the addition that I prefer another one.

But I also disagreed about the supposed symmetry between misery and pleasure. Here my reason is that it seems factually false: Pain and misery are stronger motivators than pleasure and happiness. People generally seek to avoid any amount of pain, and therefore generally seek to diminish pain (for the moment disregarding masochists, who may be taken to be mentally ill), but they are often satisfied by a modicum of pleasure, and seek no more, even while they could.

Third, I also disagree with what is said under (2) in the quotation. Pleasure is not the only good, and pain is not the only evil. Indeed, some pleasures some people seek - shooting heroine, torturing people - may be evil, and some pains some people have - say those necessary to do a brave act that rescues people - may not be evil, though they still will be unpleasant.

Also, as I said before, often the pain or pleasure that accompanies acts is not of much importance in judging the act good or bad: what matters is whether the act satisfies one's desires (taken in a wide sense that also covers needs and values). If much pain or pleasure is involved it may be difficult to do the act or avoid doing it, but even so it is good or bad relative to the desires one has and not primarily to the feelings of pain and pleasure that accompany it or gets produced by it, unless, indeed, one is a dogmatic utilitarian, of course (in which case I recommend that one starts shooting heroine, since this seems to give a whole lot of intense pleasure).

Finally, the claim that "(h)appiness includes pleasure and freedom from pain" also is not true, neither in principle nor in practice: very many people feel quite happy when they have achieved something they desired much to achieve, but which cost them a lot of pain to realize, such as climbing the Mount Everest, winning a fight, or running the marathon.
16 juni 1998



Endnote: I added the links because they matter to me and to my argument, since they clarify the senses in which I understand important terms.

I think the above is a nice bit of analytic philosophy - and for more see
my extensive notes to Aristotle's Ethics, Mill's Utilitarianism, and Hume's Moral Enquiry - but I leave a lot unsaid, notably about needs, values, desires, the existence of the real world and relativism.

To clarify a little here: Our desires are for states of the world, states of our bodies or states of our minds, and by our minds I mean conscious experience - what we experience we experience, which for a natural realist like I am is what gets produced by the brains in our skulls, without interference or contribution from a non-material soul. [2]

Our bodies are part of the real world, that exists independently of our desires, and there resides one of the key points about ethics: While our desires, values and the bodily feelings we have are all in a rather solid sense private to us [3], our bodies, and therewith the foundation of the experiences our brains generate, are located in the real world, and subject to the doings and ommissions of other people
, while our ideals and ideas for the most part, if they are to become real at all, require that reality, populated by very many others with similar minds but other ideas and ideals, will be(come) of the form and shape we desire.

This is what makes so much that is private, personal, particular, unique and rapidly changing [4] relevant to others: That we are a located in one and the same real world, through which we can effect each other for better or for worse, intentionally or accidentally.

Further see W.K. Clifford's
The Ethics of Belief on my site in the full version, and with my extensive notes.

This should do for now, but I hope to add some further explanation about ethics, morals, and propositional attitudes later, possibly in a wider context of philosophical logic.
----------------------------------
Notes
[1] I refer to my ME/CFS.

[2] This is still a subject of much confusion, some probably created on purpose by psychiatrists. Regardless of these, the fact is that a non-material soul has nothing to do with real science, even it it were to exist - as I do not believe - because its existence and real contents would be as vague, arbitrary, untestable, and metaphysical as the gods postulated by religions (of which at most one can be right).

[3] This may be different in the future. Whether it is a good thing one's mind may be read by a future chip depends very much on who does the readings, and what for.

[4] The actual consciousness we have is located in what William James called the specious present, rarely longer than a few seconds at most, since attention tends to rapidly change from subject to subject.


About ME/CFS (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

2. Malcolm Hooper THE MENTAL HEALTH MOVEMENT:  
PERSECUTION OF PATIENTS?
3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
9.
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)


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