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.

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