Utilitarianism transcript

Collecting my notes at Zeke’s request. Here’s the provocatory Neanderhall discussion.

In a way. My take on it [Ed: see point #4 below] is merely empathy mixed with reason. Here’s an argument to convert any utilitarian (who isn’t dumb enough to be a shiny-eyed utopian progressive as well):

1) The end of all morality is to minimize suffering (and/or maximize pleasure).
2) There has been more suffering than good in the world at any given time in history.
3) This will continue to be the case for an indefinite period of time.
4) Therefore, ending the lives of all people in a relatively brief and painless nuclear armageddon is the safest and most certain way to minimize suffering. To do anything else is less moral.

Each of these points is easily defensible on its own as well. It’s beautiful, frankly, and especially so when you really dig into the implicit subpoints and try to disprove them.

-Aeoli Pera

#1 is a matter of opinion, although I think it’s probably correct but it’s definitely debatable. If you take a look at history, I would think #2 is false, good and evil waxes and wanes. Also, #3 isn’t provable in any objective sense of the word. So, your conclusion does not follow.

-Commenter A

I would actually consider this [Premise 2] to be necessary false, as demonstrated by the fact that our species is still alive. Consider that eating, breathing and continuous blood flow are all kinds of good, albeit kinds that we tend to take for granted (eating less than the other two). If we consider the good/suffering balance to be the derivative of life, then it follows that the integral of pleasure minus pain throughout time is equal to the amount of life in existence.

I think I’ve distorted your point 1, though. I guess while I would consider myself a utilitarian, I wouldn’t consider subjective happiness the measure of utility. The perpetuation of life (which subjective happiness is pretty good about supporting) is a far better measure. And from that position, the annihilation of all life is indefensible… 😆

-Commenter B

For the record, I’m not a utilitarian. And I don’t believe God is either.

The latter statement is technically incorrect, regardless of the soundness of my premises, because my argument is valid. Anyway, details.

#1 is the premise of utilitarianism. So #1 stands.

I can support #2 either with a preponderance of evidence or by a few different informal arguments:

2a. In brief, action defines desire. As long as people act, we must assume their desires are unfulfilled.
2b. In Christian terms (and again in brief), the world and all of us in it have fallen into sin and need to be either redeemed or destroyed. A quick estimate shows that most of the people born at any time in history are destined to go to hell. (The more merciful thing, therefore, is to end all life before more people are born who will go to hell.)

I can think of a couple more, but these should suffice for now.

As for #3…you’re correct. It’s an inductive statement.

But it’s not an unreasonable inductive statement. If it can be shown that 2a or 2b is correct at every other time in history, it’s reasonable to expect that they will be correct more than 50% of the time in the (foreseeable) future.

-Aeoli Pera

You’re leaning pretty heavily on your definitions of “suffering” and “good”. Since the definitions of good and evil are the big vague spot in utilitarian philosophy, I think your argument constitutes a constraint on what good and evil (and the neutral ground between them) can be, rather than a real rebuttal of utilitarianism. It’s a simple matter to contend that a live person who feels normal has far more utility than a dead person. Your argument only defeats the very naive form of utilitarianism that is based solely on emotional experiences.

-Commenter B

That’s a very good point. While I strongly believe that the subjective theory of value is the only useful model, I’ve never proven this. Or even stated it here. I do not agree that this is a “naive” form of utilitarianism, because many other value theories have been tried and failed.

I’ll bite. Why does a living person have more utility than a dead person, and for what definition of utility?

-Aeoli Pera

Let’s go with “survival of the species” as the definition of utility. I think this is a pretty good one, since it has natural force, not just moral force. Having more members in the species makes it more resistant to extinction; therefore, a single living person should be kept alive, all else being equal.

If you’d like to stay close to emotional utilitarianism, there’s also the simple expedient of basing the morality of the act on what people think of it (knowing the consequences) before it happens, rather than after. In practice, that’s probably how most people will be thinking when they first balk at your point #4.

-Commenter B

If we’re using the survival of the species as the definition of utility, I agree that it becomes very simple to show that extinction is not the best way to maximize utility. 😀

-Aeoli Pera

I deliberately broke off the discussion there, but I wouldn’t mind re-engaging sometime soon. The environment over there is a social experiment of sorts, and I didn’t think it was the time to be forming schizms (although I’m reevaluating that diagnosis).

UPDATE: I’ll be keeping more useful stuff here.

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2929#comic
http://alphagameplan.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-limits-of-desire.html#comment-form
http://captaincapitalism.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-importance-of-revisiting-meat-market.html (Euphoric recall)
http://science.slashdot.org/story/13/05/06/0235212/tylenol-may-ease-pain-of-existential-distress-social-rejection

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2 Responses to Utilitarianism transcript

  1. Zeke says:

    You’re also assuming that a quick death would lead to less suffering than a long life, but I think you’ll agree that eternal damnation is probably awful. (I’ll never know personally, but I’m told it is) That’s talking about the individual, but if we think of large groups and their offspring, I can see how mass-destruction can seem like the best solution since we can reasonably assume that their children would walk in the footsteps of their heathen parents. And this is of course assuming a Christian view of utilitarianism. Secular utilitarianism seems to break down very quickly.

  2. It breaks down according to any worldview that I know of (except those for which pain itself has utility, as Daniel from VP believes), but it’s very appealing to secular materialists in particular. Usually their consciences and good sense get in the way of intellectual consistency. SMBC always seems to have the best explanations…http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2929#comic

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