Utilitarianism, Reconsidered

What is happiness?

For quite some time, I was inclined toward the utilitarian answer, equating happiness with pleasure and taking pleasure in the absence of pain as the good. Over the course of the past term, however, after reading Nietzsche, Freud, stoics and pragmatists, I have had second thoughts, particularly about the place of suffering in ethical life.

I have never fully escaped a reductionistic, scientistic worldview concerning the qualities of experience. As an individual whose happiness is chemical-dependent, I was inclined to think that we should act to maximize pleasure-causing chemicals and minimize pain-causing ones, whether indirectly by more traditional means, or by direct pharmaceutical or genetic intervention.

I would write off those who felt a need to justify suffering as operating under a natural human coping mechanism, which works to reduce suffering by adding meaning and necessity to the brute unpleasantnesses of life. My contention was that virtually no suffering was worthwhile, and that it was only necessary to the extent that we could not eradicate it. Now I am not so sure.

A lot of my inspiration comes from Nietzsche and Freud, and James and Dewey. Nietzsche was the basis of my critique of those who cloak suffering with significance, yet he himself is not loathe to promote the merits of suffering, how it can make one strong or at least interesting. (Freud provides further challenges, but unfortunately I do not feel capable of getting into them at present.)

James construes the essence of ethical life as satisfying demand. Thus, which each demand made comes a prima facie obligation to satisfy it. This is a consequentialism, but not utilitarian since James acknowledges that all demands are not for happiness. This is a version of the argument used against Mill that people do not desire happiness per se, but that happiness is a consequence of getting the things that one wants.

Dewey takes this a step further, and argues that only intelligent demands are worth satisfying. What makes a demand intelligent? There is of course no hard and fast rule, but scientific inquiry and collective experience offer us clues. We can be pretty sure that we don't want to drink bleach, to use a favorite example from one professor, because people have learned that it will kill you. (James would counter here that this is unintelligent only as a result of its conflict with other demands, such as to stay alive.)

Notice that this is more than just a preference satisfaction, rational choice model. Utilitarianism has largely come under this kind of economic framework, but it is completely short-sighted, too abstract and ideal to be useful. People's preferences are not so easily ranked, and there is no guarantee of commutativity and other such properties. Furthermore, most people are not narrowly self-interested.

Rational choice theorists are just another group who try to keep passion and reason in separate spheres. We start with the givenness of our preferences, and then work out a logic to maximize satisfaction. But, these preferences are never merely given, nor will a simple logic of satisfaction maximization do justice to the good life.

Really, these realities are far too complex to be reductionistic about. Can the vast range of human experience be charted on a single pleasure/pain axis? Is happiness really nothing more than pleasure? Are pleasure and pain reducible to certain chemical reactions, or are there far more complex processes which produce them? At least some of these questions science cannot adequately answer.

Thus, whether one approaches utilitarianism with a kind of psychological realism in which desires and satisfactions and dissatisfactions are real entities, or with a neurological reductionism in which experiences are reduced to pleasures and pains caused by specific reactions in the brain, it is not immediately obvious that the best world would be one with no suffering, or even the one with the least possible suffering.

Nevertheless, this still leaves open the question of how much suffering is necessary. Even if we cannot neatly classify experiences into pleasant and unpleasant, we can largely agree about certain extremes. Starvation and malnutrition, infection by preventable diseases, torture and humiliation--who could ever say that these are a necessary part of life? When we recognize that so many of the causes of suffering are human, we must also acknowledge that there are alternatives.

We now stand at a crossroads in which it may be possible to augment human nature, at least on a biological level. A consistent utilitarian would argue that we have a moral imperative to do so in order to reduce suffering, to tweak people's genes to make them happier. I'm not sure it's so simple. Nevertheless, I still see this as an admirable ideal up to a point.

We may debate about what if anything counts as "unnecessary suffering" but only someone utterly inhuman would see it as a good. However, neither extreme is very plausible; most people would say that some suffering is a prerequisite for other good things like strength of character or personal growth and that some suffering is unhelpful, meaningless, and preventable.

Thus, I say we should do what we can to eliminate the suffering that is largely agreed to be unnecessary, even if that includes the use of new biotechnologies. However, we should not assume that medication or genetic enhancement would be sufficient. If nothing else, premature death is an evil that can come in painless forms. A surefire way to eliminate suffering in the world is to eliminate all life--but no one in their right mind would argue that this is desirable.

Furthermore, even if it were possible to eliminate desires for the unattainable--an ideal that utilitarians share with the stoics--the needs of the body do not always correspond with what we feel. To satisfy the basic necessities of healthy living--and this will of course vary somewhat from person to person--requires an economic system in which individuals have access to what they need, in addition to a social system in which knowledge of the prerequisites of health is readily available.

Upon reflection, I advocate a more sensible approach to ethico-political life that takes the utilitarian greatest happiness principle as a rough guideline but not a hard and fast rule. It is true that individuals do not always know what is good for them, but those of us committed to personal liberty would not presume that others can make such judgments for them.

This is where education comes in--and it always must come in somewhere (I have to justify to myself my existence as an educator, after all!). Education can be paternalistic--and, consequently, potentially ineffective--if educators merely presume to tell people what's good for them. That's why I strive so hard to teach students to think for themselves and make informed decisions on the basis of critical reflection upon available evidence.

Leave it to the individual to decide whether her happiness is simply constituted by pleasure and the absence of pain or whether it is something more complex. Here, I see Mill's On Liberty trumping his Utilitarianism. But, I am not simply a liberal so this will not be the end of the story for me; liberalism in itself will not ensure equality, democracy, and the rule of law nor that individuals will be able to attain what makes satisfies them. That said, this will nevertheless be the end of this post.


The Rationality of Sentiment

The inspiration for the name of this blog, and of this particular entry, is a recent paper I wrote for a seminar I did this past semester on stoicism and pragmatism. The paper's title was "The Rationality of Sentiment and the Sentiment of Rationality," itself derived from an essay by William James entitled "The Sentiment of Rationality."

In the latter, James argues that rationality is fundamentally affective. That is to say, a certain kind of experience comes with the perception of rationality, a feeling that something is clear, or simple, or just right. It is a profoundly aesthetic experience that, in the rarer moments of intense insight, might even be described as proto-religious. Anyone who knows me or my blogging elsewhere is well aware that I've had a number of these experiences which verge on the mystical.

In my essay, I was contrasting James' account of the relation between reason and passion with that of the stoics. I tend to side with those, like Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, James, and Freud, who do not posit a sharp separation between reason and passion, as do thinkers like Descartes or Kant. (I put the stoics in the former camp, despite their reputation for suppressing emotion.)

Nevertheless, I find that in practice there is sometimes a significant gap between the two. My thoughts were recently motivated in this direction after watching 2 movies last night, both non-standard love stories starring Natalie Portman: Garden State and Closer. If you've not seen them, I encourage you to do so.

While the former shows how love is still possible in a tragic world that is not as we would prefer, the latter refuses to pull its punches. The characters in Closer, Dan, Larry, Alice, and Anna, are truly remarkable and undeniably human. Each has his/her pathological tendencies that forego all possibility of lasting happiness; all are profoundly irrational. They would almost serve as case studies for the stoic: "See, this is where following your passions without self-control will lead you."

I find myself at a loss to make sense of the situation. I suspect that "understanding" may not even be the proper approach to this film. Nevertheless, this issue of passion and reason is central in my life now, both intellectually and personally.

I only just finished teaching a fantastic class on the ethics of love and sexuality and I feel myself moving in the direction of passion/reason as a dissertation topic, since it is of the utmost importance to my favorite thinkers. I am particularly interested in its ethical and political dimensions.

Likewise, although I leave detailed elaboration to other fora, this has been one of my major introspective and therapeutic concerns. As an individual who is if nothing else rational, it has been harder to come to terms with the affective aspects of my life. In particular, I feel a deficiency in the love department, largely due to a lack of experience. I know--that is, I have read--far more about love than I have experienced, which makes me wonder if I really know anything about it at all.

I suppose I am fairly cynical about love. I am not reductionistic about it, but I do not suppress the biological aspects of it. I am still largely influenced in my thinking from a book I read entitled The Mating Mind by biologist Geoffrey Miller.

Passionate love evolved, I am convinced, largely as a result of the need for shared parental investment because of the prolonged immaturity of human beings. The differential levels of investment, however, lead to divergent psychologies between the sexes in matters of love. For instance, in women (generally speaking, but keep in mind this will not apply to all individuals) jealousy tends to be more over infidelities of emotional commitment, while men care more about sexual infidelities.

This is evident in the characters of Closer. Dan and Larry are obsessed with knowing the truth, sometimes in miniscule detail, about the sexual liasions of their lovers with their rival, while Alice and Anna downplay the significance of brief flares of sexual passion.

Prior to advanced civilization, biologists suspect that human beings were serial monogamists and polygynists. In cases of the former, partnerships tended to last only about 4 to 7 years (I don't precisely remember where I came upon this figure), just so long as the passionate love remained strong. (The events of Closer take place over the course of about 4 or 5 years.)

Only with agriculture and the extra effort it required was a more stable, lifelong marriage desirable. It is certainly no surprise today that divorce is so common given our prehistory of serial monogamy. The marriages that last tend to be those in which some kind of friendship replaces, or at least supplements, sexual passion.

Nevertheless, we have a certain ideal in the West about what a happy life should be, and this includes a happy marriage in which a deeply passionate love persists. I contend that it is this expectation--and the failure to recognize it--that ruins the lives of the characters of Closer. Each is so obsessed with love at first sight, the random encounter with the stranger that leads to instant mutual attraction. Each is pulled by passion in all directions without restraint. This is what makes each ultimately so unhappy, but also so interesting.

I just marvel at the irrationality of it all. Jude Law's character, Dan, in particular fascinates me. He is simultaneously in love with 2 women at once but convinced that he can only be with one of them. Anna has a similar predicament, complicated by her inability to resist what Larry calls "a guilty fuck."

If not for a pathological commitment to honesty, Dan could be with Alice and Anna with Larry while Dan and Anna fucked surreptitiously on the side, and all would be content. Even if Larry and Alice knew, so long as the infidelity remained unspoken they would not feel a need to stir up troubled waters. Or, as perhaps supported by the proto-sexual tension between Larry and Dan, the four could probably coexist as a polyamorous foursome if not for their equally pathological commitment to exclusivity.

Honesty, sexual exclusivity, and fidelity are key components of Western sexual mores. The logic of these values is what really prevents the characters from fulfilling their desires and being happy. The viewer rails against these characters--"What are you doing? She's not the one you really love!" "No, don't go back to him!" "Why can't you just forgive her?"--but if the spectacle were not so perverse it would not be so entertaining.

Here we come to one thing I like about Garden State. (This is a spoiler, so don't finish the paragraph if you haven't seen the movie.) Andrew, played by Zach Braff, gets this crazy idea into his head that he has to go figure himself out before he can be with Sam (a more light-hearted Natalie Portman) because he's afraid of screwing things up with her. As he's about to fly back to LA, he realizes the irrationality of his idea and gets off the plane to go back to her, citing that his love for her is the only thing he's really ever been sure of in his life. It may seem that passion triumphs over reason here but really it's just one passion defeating another. To me, it seems he acts more rationally by choosing as he does.

Yet even if happy endings occur, if Romeo and Juliet were to stay alive together, or if we follow the lives of those in Garden State, down the line we may just find something more like Closer. We do not wish to admit it to ourselves, but we have unfulfillable ideals. Intense passion, especially one that is mutual, is by its very nature short-lived. In some cases it may be prolonged, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Nevertheless, in countless novels and films we are presented with this not simply as a prominent ideal, but as the norm, as a prerequisite of happiness. Of course, this is just one among the numerous sources of alienation and anomie in our social milieu.

Even recognizing this, I sometimes feel a deep sadness about never brushing up against this dimension of life. I have never known the bottomless melancholy of requited love's inevitable woes. Much like Braff's Andrew, I lament a numbness more wretched than the lover's all-consuming anguish. I desire to ride the rollercoasters of life, to know what it's all about.

Of late, I have been happier than perhaps ever before. But isn't there more to life than happiness?

I am now convinced that suffering is the precondition of beauty.


50 Years

Last night I went to see Good Night, and Good Luck. It's the story of Edward R. Murrow's largely successful crusade against that charlatan Joseph McCarthy and his exploitation of the Red Scare. I highly recommend it.

It's another one of those stories that remind us of what the press might be in this country, were it not so wedded to corporate interests.

The day before, I had only just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, in many ways the most plausible of its dystopic counterparts (We, 1984, Brave New World, etc.). For those of you who have not read it, it's a story of a professional fireman (one who starts fires for the burning of books, which have been outlawed) who wakes up to a world in which entertainment has enfeebled the minds of the masses while knowledge is limited to the fragments of a former literati who wander the countryside with a precious hoard of memorized texts.

Written in 1953, it clearly reflects the events documented in Clooney's film, which began that very year.

The two make for an interesting contrast. One a projection of troubling tendencies half a century forward, the other a recasting of those troubled times to call attention to our own.

Having lived less than half of the span between then and now, my capacity to reflect on the changing times is rather limited. Nonetheless, as a student of history I feel a need to consider: Have we heeded Murrow's advice? Have we avoided the dystopia of which Bradbury warned us?

On the surface, of course we have. Academic culture is alive and well, open dissent remains a possibility, and the Internet allows unprecedented levels of access to information.

Nevertheless, our public is not civically engaged, cares more about the crimes of Michael Jackson than about those of George W. Bush, is systematically un- and misinformed.

Most Americans remain unaware of what it requires to maintain our comfortable way of life, of what nefarious deeds are committed in their name, of our disrepute among citizens of the world. We assume ourselves to be the chosen of God, spreaders of freedom and democracy to the world, bringers of hope. The informed progressive knows otherwise.

The rhetoric of national security has changed little. Instead of "communist" we now have "terrorist," a label so nebulous that it depends on no existing nation-state or political organization, applying simply to those who "hate our freedom"--but never to those who actively destroy it.

Franklin's reminder, that those who would sacrifice liberty for the sake of security deserve neither, goes unheeded; Old Ben is better known for gracing the C-note with his visage.

We in the progressive community maintain that not everything in this world should exist for the profit and power of the privileged few. This is why the state is such a necessary institution in a world of Machiavellian multinationals and why the press is even more essential to ensure that government does not become coopted.

But instead of keeping money out of government, the press itself has been purchased. Assuming that people wish not to be bothered by unpleasant truths--the news is always bad news, why not focus on the positive?--the media feed them a diet of tripe. But people will establish a taste for whatever is crammed down their throats: Truth is now too bitter to be stomached.

We--we who are lucky to be informed--now know that our "president" has so little disregard for the law that he will not even see to getting a rubber stamp on his tyrannical intrusions into the lives of ordinary American citizens. The press aids and abets these crimes; that "liberal rag" the New York Times sits on the story for a year only because the president asks thems too, out of a "vital national security interest."

But we should not be completely disheartened. The fact that this information is available at all, that the NYT did eventually release it, that there is public outrage about it, is a promise of better things to come. A promise, but not a guarantee.

This is why I blog. This is why I teach. This is why I believe education to be the single most important task of humanity. This is why I commit myself to the political vision of the left, to the party of hope, hope for a better tomorrow. Not a utopia, perhaps, but certainly not a dystopia either.

And this is why I encourage you to take it upon yourselves always to seek the truth and to speak it.

As a thoroughly modern, i.e., postmodern, individual, I am well aware of the problematic nature of this term. There is no neutral perspective, no privileged access, no infallible pronouncement. Truth is always tentative, selective, and relative. As Nietzsche reminds us, it is just one species of lie.

I see this recognition as an advantage of a certain part of the left. We never appeal to supernatural, superhuman standards. We know that we might be mistaken and that experience will show us what works and what doesn't. We do not spread a dogma, but rather a commitment to the power of an individual to develop her own mind, determine her own values, and decide the truth for herself.

But this openness, this tolerance, this inclusivity is itself a kind of ideal. Like all sound ideals, it is best on its own terms, but not on those of its competitors. In the end, we take it on faith.

This, however, does not mean that all faiths are created equal. In certain respects, according to certain standards, some statements are truer than others. In typical discourse, it is just plain wrong to claim that Poland invaded Germany in 1939.

Thus, when I say that we must spread "the truth" I acknowledge that we take a risk because we can never be fully sure of ourselves and our commitments. We are never certain that the ignorant are really ignorant; we can never claim definitively to know others better than they know themselves. But because we are committed to open inquiry and intelligent practice, we have the flexibility to adapt ourselves and recognize new truths when they emerge.

Nobody wants to suffer needlessly. It is our job to show suffering where it exists and to undermine claims of necessity when they are unwarranted. If our actions increase this suffering, so long as we remain honest with ourselves we can learn from our mistakes and move on.

In the end, I see this as the lesson of Good Night, and Good Luck and Fahrenheit 451. It is a lesson about education and the courage to move boldly forward. History may be a slaughterbench that can never be wiped clean, but we may yet slow the pace of this slaughter or at least prevent it from hastening.

This is no small task. But that is the very reason why each and every individual educator is so vital to the struggle.

Fifty years may not have been enough for America to realize it has abandoned its ideals and let fear win out over hope. But let us give it our all, and see where we are in fifty more...


Same Blog, Different Everything Else

After some thought, I decided to move my blogging activities here. The primary reasons are:

1. I wanted to determine my own url.
2. I thought a new name would be worth my while.
3. A number of professional philosophers have blogs through this site.
4. Generally speaking, blogger is taken more seriously than livejournal.

In spite of the change, this is more or less the same blog as before. I will keep the lj site as a place to keep more personal thoughts, but for those posts with more intellectual, philosophical, or political content, I will be using this site.

I will try to update as often as possible, but my hectic schedule doesn't always allow it. However, I'm not as behind on things as I was last term, so hopefully there won't be the same long pauses without posts.

That's all for now.