Utilitarian Reasonings I

The ancient Epicureans’ contractarian ideas on justice have greatly influenced contemporary libertarianism, and conceptions of hedonic calculus–the comparative evaluation of the pleasure versus pain generated by our choices and avoidances–have been applied, sometimes in a manner that is not very artful, to public policy in attempts to demonstrate their relevance and usefulness. But pleasure is a highly individualistic ethical principle, and there are some problems with the application of hedonic calculus to policy at the collective level. Many Epicureans express doubt that hedonic calculus can or should be applied to entire communities or states, while others–like Michel Onfray–enthusiastically speak of a hedonic covenant that seeks to maximize the other’s benefit and pleasure in order to secure and maximize our own.

Utilitarians–like Bentham and Stuart Mill–have been the main proponents of equations and formulas that seek to use hedonic calculus in policy and ethical decision-making at the collective level. This in spite of the fact that, from the onset, Jeremy Bentham in
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, says that “community is a fictitious body” (Chapter 1.4), which echoes to some extent accusations that we’ve seen in Epicurean discourse along the lines of most of what we think of as community is Platonic, and can be contrasted with natural community. Might we be able to revisit Utilitarian theories in view of these considerations?

Here is the first problem that Utilitarianism faces. If, by its own admission, Utilitarianism concedes that community is fictitious–and therefore, that only individuals are real–then, why not stick to individual and strictly interpersonal ethics if we are hedonists? I imagine Utilitarians would argue that public policy is a messy and complicated matter, and that the Utilitarian project reflects the sincere efforts of policy-makers to apply some scientific standard to their responsibilities.

Utilitarianism also has the effect of providing the left and progressive movements with a framework and a tool that helps us to assuage the (sometimes narcissistic and unhealthy) extremes of the West’s individualism. The eradication of ignorance, poverty, and contagious disease can be said to increase the benefit and pleasure, and the decrease the loss and the pain of all the members of society, so that a pretty uncontroversial case can be made for these projects at the level of public policy rooted in hedonist and utilitarian ethics. Other, more controversial cases can be made in favor of progressive causes like cannabis legalization, but these controversies arise from cultural convention and not from common-sense, careful evaluation of facts in light of the mutual advantage principle.

I will begin by setting up some of the basics, and in future blogs will explore more in depth some of the more complex dimensions of the Utilitarian doctrine.

Utilitarianism Is a Hedonism

One of the first insights that we get from reading both Bentham’s and Mill’s writings advocating Utilitarian ethics is that they are convinced that their tradition is firmly founded on the recognition that the pleasure and pain faculties are the guides that our own nature has given us to help us live ethical lives, and that these faculties are essential for our moral compass.

Their reasonings start from the declaration of the doctrine that the end that our own nature seeks is pleasure and happiness, and Mill also refutes the concept of virtue as an end, seeing it instead as a means to pleasure, and adamantly advocates for the avoidance of sacrifice except for a higher pleasure.

In addition to denouncing needless self-sacrifice, we also find an adamant denounciation of ascetism in Bentham’s foundational work, as the anti-hedonism and as a danger to human happiness. With ascetism being the domain of “moralists and religionists” in their own words, it is clear that we must make room for Utilitarian intellectuals in the firmament of our counter-history of philosophy.

We also see that Utilitarian intellectuals consider it their task to argue that pleasure and pain, as the guides of life, are natural and scientific standards, and that even non-hedonist thinkers have had to concede that real criteria are needed and that arbitrary ones only serve tyranny, corruption, and moral confusion. This is reminiscent of modern thinkers–like Sam Harris–and ancient ones like our third Scholarch Polystratus, who argued for a moral realism and against culture-based relativism.

Finally, we see in the foundational writings of the Utilitarians that, like Epicurus and Aristippus, they argued that the goodness and choice-worthiness of pleasure and the badness and avoidance-worthiness of pain are self-evident to our senses and faculties. Epicurus specifically refused to argue this issue with rationalists. This is not a matter of logic. We can argue with our own nature, but when it comes to pain and pleasure, these are real criteria provided by nature and we argue and rebel against nature only to our detriment.

Utilitarianism is Founded on Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines

… the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

… the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

– John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, Chapter 2

Jeremy Bentham (Chapter 1.2) also defines utilitarianism along the same lines. The key quotes that will help us understand to what extent their utility principle is one and the same as Epucurus’ mutual advantage principle can be found in Principal Doctrines 31-38. Here, we see the requirement of a “pledge” by an agent, a free man or woman with the power to make decisions and enter into contracts with others.

In Mill and Bentham, the problem of agency is addressed in many nuances, but more liberties are taken to argue that policy-makers have the power and responsibility to account for the happiness of non-agents, so that the welfare of animals and small children is accounted for. Outside of this, it seems that the mutual advantage principle that Epicureans associate with natural justice is identical in most important respects to the utility principle.

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Lucretius, in honor of Earth Day

In his epic poem, Lucretius refers to Earth as Mother numerous times, but also takes the time to explain that the personification of Earth as Mother is merely a figure of speech, an act of poetry, and that the planet is not a sentient being as the ancients imagined it to be. The current Gaia hypothesis is a contemporary pseudo-scientific reincarnation of that belief. It is true that beings evolve progressively more complex through symbiotic relationships, but these networks of life do not themselves automatically become separate sentient beings. Here is the relevant passage:

Truly is earth insensate for all time;
But, by obtaining germs of many things,
In many a way she brings the many forth
Into the light of sun. And here, whoso
Decides to call the ocean Neptune, or
The grain-crop Ceres, and prefers to abuse
The name of Bacchus rather than pronounce
The liquor’s proper designation, him
Let us permit to go on calling earth
Mother of Gods, if only he will spare
To taint his soul with foul religion.

– Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II

Later, in the third book, Lucretius delves into the problem of demystifying sentience itself by studying the nature and the physicality of the psyche.

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Happy Twentieth! – The Well-Walled Fortress of the Wise

Last Friday I worked my normal 9-to-5 job, after which I worked until after midnight a bartending shift at a wedding that I had accepted some weeks back. I wasn’t crazy about working more than 16 hours, but figured that I had all weekend to recover and that this would help me to pay for my mother’s medical bills. I mentioned her upcoming surgery in the Shakers and Doers Podcast. Today, I’m happy that she is making full recovery and returning to normalcy.

At the end of my shift last Friday, I was exhausted, my feet were in pain, but somehow I was in a great mood. I hadn’t made as much money as I had hoped, but working in a different environment and with fun, young people, plus seeing a young couple get married and their family come together, was a nice break from routine. It also helped my morale that I didn’t have to be there, the money was just an extra bonus. I had chosen a day of greater productivity, and was thankful at the end of the day.

Then I got in the car of the co-worker who drove me home and cheerfully listened to half an hour of vindictive, angry rants about life and about random people that I’ll never meet, including everything from legal entanglements to vehicle repair, at the end of which I wasn’t sure what to say other than “Well, you do not seem to need lawyers to defend you. You have fangs and claws of your own for that!”. He vehemently agreed and we said our good-byes.

I sensed a serious disturbance in the Force. I’m not a Jedi yet, and my life is far from perfect, but it’s eye-opening to meet people who so easily create and attract so much evil and intrigue around them. It’s almost like they’re magnets for it. I was reminded of a portion of Rhetorica where Philodemus of Gadara warns his pupils about lawyers and, specifically, about “the kind of people who live life in constant litigation”.

I was also reminded of Lucretius’ “fortress of the wise” passage. Not that I claim to be wise, but I would like to think that Epicurus and the others who came before us built these fortresses for us, and that in some way these well-walled fortresses of the wise protect us from living a bad life, not just by our taking refuge in and practicing Epicurean doctrine, but specifically by our commitment to training ourselves to not postpone happiness. This may seem like nothing more than a mere act of yay-saying to life, but I believe that if we seriously commit ourselves to not postponing pleasure, over the course of time this does change our attitude and our ability to enjoy even the little things. We may live another week, another month, four years, or twenty more years of life, but in the end in all cases the only thing that will have mattered is that we lived well and happy.

Below is the Lucretius passage. Cheers!

Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters, from the land
To watch another’s labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because ’tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared;
‘Tis sweet, again, to view the mighty strife
Of armies embattled yonder o’er the plains,
Ourselves no sharers in the peril; but naught
There is more goodly than to hold the high
Serene plateaus, well fortressed by the wise,
Whence thou may’st look below on other men
And see them ev’rywhere wand’ring, all dispersed
In their lone seeking for the road of life;
Rivals in genius, or emulous in rank,
Pressing through days and nights with hugest toil
For summits of power and mastery of the world.
O wretched minds of men! O blinded hearts!
In how great perils, in what darks of life
Are spent the human years, however brief!-
O not to see that Nature for herself
Barks after nothing, save that pain keep off,
Disjoined from the body, and that mind enjoy
Delightsome feeling, far from care and fear!
Therefore we see that our corporeal life
Needs little, altogether, and only such
As takes the pain away, and can besides
Strew underneath some number of delights.

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Lucretius Against Reincarnation

reincNaturalists frequently and easily reject the salvific theories of the Abrahamic religions, but there are some who, influenced by New Age ideas, claim that reincarnation is somehow more plausible, makes more sense and is more provable than rebirth in or transportation to heavenly or hellish planets after death.

There are even memes online that seek to justify belief in reincarnation by showing pictures in black and white and paintings of people long dead, next to pictures of people alive today who look so alike that they seem like they might be the same person. With the advent of the age of information, we should expect these cases to multiply. But since there are look-alikes who live at the same time and sometimes in the same country, and are obviously not the same soul reincarnated, then it shouldn’t be difficult to fathom that look-alikes to famous and non-famous people can also be born in future generations. There is no reason to interpret the accident of looking like someone long-dead as an instance of reincarnation, as there is no continuity in the memories and relations, or in the atomic bodily structure of the two persons.

In the following passages, Lucretius rejects the idea of reincarnation, arguing that we have no memory of life prior to birth, and later mocks the idea of souls waiting to be born in some factory in heaven where human bodies are made.

And besides,
If soul immortal is, and winds its way
Into the body at the birth of man,
Why can we not remember something, then,
Of life-time spent before? why keep we not
Some footprints of the things we did of, old?
But if so changed hath been the power of mind,
That every recollection of things done
Is fallen away, at no o’erlong remove
Is that, I trow, from what we mean by death.
Wherefore ’tis sure that what hath been before
Hath died, and what now is is now create.

Again, at parturitions of the wild
And at the rites of Love, that souls should stand
Ready hard by seems ludicrous enough-
Immortals waiting for their mortal limbs
In numbers innumerable, contending madly
Which shall be first and chief to enter in!-
Unless perchance among the souls there be
Such treaties stablished that the first to come
Flying along, shall enter in the first,
And that they make no rivalries of strength!

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura III.670-78, 776-782 

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Lucretius on Overabundance and Obesity


Then, shortage of food brought men to weariness
and death; now, overabundance kills them off.
In ignorance, they served themselves
poison; now, wiser, they serve it to others.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book V

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On Knowing the Natural Limits of Pleasure and Desire

So man in vain futilities toils on
Forever and wastes in idle cares his years-
Because, of very truth, he hath not learnt
What the true end of getting is, nor yet
At all how far true pleasure may increase.
And ’tis desire for better and for more
Hath carried by degrees mortality
Out onward to the deep, and roused up
From the far bottom mighty waves of war.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book V.1427-1435

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The Panama Papers and the Crisis of Capitalism


The Panama Papers are a collection of 11.5 million leaked legal documents spanning over four decades — amounting to an incredible 2.6 terabytes of  data — that contain details on on over 214,000 offshore companies and their shareholders and directors — who include the leaders of five countries — Argentina, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates — and the officials (or their relatives and confidants) of more than 40 other countries, including Brazil, China, France, India, Mexico, Russia, and the U.K. 

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