Utilitarianism functions on basically two simple premises: "pain is bad" and "pleasure is good". Combined with a kind of reductive mechanistic conception of the universe, its logical conclusion is found in the example of Dave Pearce and his Hedonistic Imperative, about which I have written before.
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.
The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.
Mr. Pearce is just about the most consistent person I've ever had the opportunity to speak with. While the value of consistency is debatable, I think it important that individuals who are sympathetic to utilitarianism realize what their ideals would lead to--and I have had my utilitarian moments.
Recently, I have been working on a paper on Nietzsche and the value of pain and suffering which has exploded for me the simplistic stance of the utilitarian. Upon further reflection, there is far more taken for granted than the pain=bad/pleasure=good equivalence.
One possibility I hope to open up with my investigations is a more refined utilitarianism, one with a more sophisticated understanding of pleasure and pain. With such a view, a precise hedonistic calculus would be impossible--but, of course, not even Bentham was able to come up with an applicable instance.
Let me venture this: the appeal of utilitarianism today is due to the difficulty with which we moderns have with the assignment of intrinsic value. A plurality of conceptions of the good--to use the classical language of liberal political theory--leads us to doubt that anything is simply valuable in itself. All goods are instrumental, it seems, only good for certain other purposes. Under such a formulation, though, the real questions of morality are dodged--this is a valuable insight to be taken from critical theory--because an instrumental logic can foster any purpose, from ending poverty to systemic genocide.
So what does the liberal or pragmatist or modernist have to fall back on? I think there are actually two slightly different but related answers to this question. First is the obvious case of pleasure and pain. If anything is intrinsically good or bad, these seem to be the most likely candidates. Second is a notion taken from William James' oft-cited "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life", in which demand--desire--is what is taken as primary. Something is desirable only if it is desired--and indeed John Stuart Mill uses this proposition to argue for the validity of his system.
Even here we can start to see that pain and pleasure are a bit more complex than they might at first seem, because of their relation to desire (not to mention other human affect). Allow me to leave pleasure to one side, because I think pain is the more interesting case, and much of what I say about it applies to pleasure.
As far as I can discern, there are at least 3 aspects to any pain: 1) the "hurt", the raw visceral feel of pain, pain as sensation; 2) nociception, i.e., the information that pain conveys, such as the report of (potential) tissue damage; and 3) a desire, viz., that one not be having the experience that one is having, a demand that things be otherwise.
There is a significant question about how separable these different aspects are. Individuals who are unable to experience 1, also do not experience 3, and fail with respect to 2. These individuals tend not to live very long because, so it seems to me, nociception is the adaptive aspect of pain, its evolutionary raison d'etre. This is one example, in which a mutation led to the incapacity to feel pain. Perhaps it is the case that 1 & 3 are inseparable, that it is the very nature of pain to desire that things be otherwise, or that the hurt of pain inevitably leads to this desire. It's hard to say precisely. A good test would be if people are capable of feeling pain but "not care" so to speak. I think I've heard of such examples, but I can't seem to find any medical/scientific references right now.
What Pearce wants to do, basically, is find an alternative pathway for nociception that doesn't "hurt". In other words, if possible, he wants to find a way that allows for the transmission of information about tissue damage that causes--and this is vital--the body to react in the appropriate way. We could think of it as something like a more advanced reflex. Does this mean he wants to eliminate 1 or 3 or both? For the sake of argument, let's say both, since we know that movement can be caused by things other than desire.
But when we start to advance this analysis, we see that what is taken to be valuable is not simply pleasure and the absence of pain, but also something like survival, self-preservation. If this were not the case, then it would be just as desirable that there be no conscious life at all, or that there only be organisms that are in a constant state of bliss with automatic systems working to prolong this capacity.
Nietzsche's reflections further complicate this picture. In The Gay Science he says a number of remarkable things about pain, e.g., that violent stimuli as such are neither painful nor pleasant but must be interpreted one way or the other by the body, that those who complain the most about pain are the ones who experience it the least--a brilliant insight almost certainly true--and that pain has value insofar as it produces individuals who are not simply mediocre. Contrary to what might be argued, he doesn't simply replace pleasure with "health" or "life-affirmation" or something like that; he even suggests that his notoriously erratic health has value because of the insight and different perspectives that it affords.
Moreover, there is not just one kind of health, or one kind of suffering, for that matter. Utilitarianism is essentially a universalistic approach to ethics, which assumes that the pain/pleasure experienced by different beings is comparable and interchangeable.
Personally, I think that I must give up utilitarianism's ambition to find a source of intrinsic value in an otherwise instrumental world. Let us ask the question, what is pain good or bad for? I don't want to be romantic or sensualist here, and take any kind of experience as worthwhile simply for being something new and different, but it seems to me that even the undesirable aspect of pain, whatever that may be, has effects we would consider positive.
I think one of the biggest problems with America today is its relative isolation from suffering, death, poverty, and all the various unpleasantnesses of the world. There is something to the idea that suffering builds character. Yet part of me wants to say, what's so great about character? Would it be bad to be extremely sensitive to pain in a world in which pain scarcely existed?
What if it were possible to transmit the memory of pain w/o the pain itself? We could learn the lessons of pain without having to feel it. A real question that Nietzsche raises is whether a diminution in the capacity for pain entails a similar reduction in the ability to feel pleasure. I think this is a more complicated question than could be answered by saying something like, "the neural pathways/specific brain chemicals/genetic determinants of pain and pleasure are distinct".
What about other unpleasant affects? Personally, I detest fear, probably even more than I do pain. Is fear painful? Not exactly, but I doubt that Mr. Pearce would be satisfied with a world that abolished pain but let fear remain. What about anger? Righteous anger can be a pleasant feeling, but one can get burnt out feeling angry all the time--one reason why I've practically stopped following American politics, at least for a while.
What about desire itself? Doesn't any kind of desire demand something different? Would we want all desires instantly to be satisfied? Stoicism and Buddhism agree in seeing desire as the source of all suffering, but most of us would not want to minimize our desires as they advocate--and it's certainly foreign to the consumer capitalist spirit. Desire is a great example because it is, by its nature, a source of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
What I'm hoping to do is raise some questions about the moral status of pain and suffering. While a world without either is still entirely fantastical, it is helpful to reflect on what we think makes life valuable or disvaluable.
I would like to suggest that what is least desirable--in the ethical sense--is sadness, in the Spinozan sense. Sadness is simply the feeling that accompanies a diminution in power. It is, in a sense, the counterpart of eudaimonia. Unlike other kinds of suffering--that is, undergoing, experiencing--sadness makes the individual less open to experience and less inclined to action. Sadness slows the speed of thought, and focuses the mind on a small number of fixed ideas; it reduces motivation and colors the entire world.
But even here, I cannot help but wonder if there isn't a beauty in sadness? Or is this simply a pretense? Would we not do well to take to heart another teaching of Nietzsche's, that what human beings truly cannot stand is the meaninglessness of suffering? Do we make sadness beautiful to make it easier to bear?
I feel like Descartes at the beginning of the 2nd Meditation. When you begin to ask questions not simply concerning the satisfaction of desires but about what ought to be desired in the first place--particularly in this nihilism-inducing postmodern world--you are going to run into trouble.
It seems to me I have come up against a reason why the social engineering of utopianism is problematic. Value is the creation of a historical process. There is simply no ground to stand on if you try to start from scratch. I think there is some truth to what James suggest about desire as the only possible source of desirability, except that desires should be differentiated more than just according to their intensity. Some desires, like self-preservation and self-development (self-enhancement?) are more important because they make other desires possible.
Nietzsche asks the question of the value of systems of valuation. Is value itself valuable? Should we desire more desire? Is not the quiescence and perpetual satisfaction of the utopian ideal--not to mention the ideal of heaven--indistinguishable from death? Is life anything more than conflict, suffering, desire, will to power?
I have no clue. To continue to speak in Nietzschean terms, my will to truth here is effectively trumping all of my other drives. Maybe I should just pick some value scheme and go with it. I mean, whose judgment do I really care about here, other than my own? I think I might just go with the whole transhumanism thing, because it's interesting and unpopular.