February 7, 2003
The most important question of all is what should one do since the ultimate purpose of answering questions is either to satisfy curiosity or to decide which action to take. Complicated analysis is often required to answer that question. Beyond ordinary analysis, one must also have a system of values, and the correct system of values is utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is the system of values stating that maximizing the total happiness of all people is good. Happiness of people should be sacrificed only to bring greater happiness to other people. Psychologically, immediate happiness corresponds to what you want. Pain, including psychological distress, is the opposite of happiness. Actual happiness is not the same as apparent happiness: A person experiencing strong physical pleasure may suffer hidden psychological distress; the inner desire of martyrs to do what is right can override obvious physical pain. People do not always do what they want because sacrificing immediate happiness is often best to achieve long-term happiness of themselves and others. Utilitarianism per se does not answer the question of how many people should be created. However, creating too many people will damage the environment and thus impair the long term ability to have large population on Earth. Moreover, it is generally agreed that if the society can allow all people to be prosperous and thriving and that creating extra people will undermine that ability, then extra people should not be created.
If you know with certainty what will maximize happiness, you should do that. The problem, of course, is that you (almost) never know the future with certainty. The question of what should one do is a question of how to make decisions. Information that you cannot access cannot impact your decision making and thus does not affect what you should do: Decisions to play a lottery should be based on the odds (which are usually not in your favor) and not on whether, unknowingly to you, your number happens to be a winning one. Thus, a choice of values is a choice of the decision making procedure.
As with every other general theory, a naive interpretation of utilitarianism may lead to incorrect results. For example, one may be tempted to steal to transfer money to a more deserving person. However, our economic system can work only if property rights are protected, so the government has a duty to prevent theft. Theft has dangers and negative side effects such as punishment of the thief, distress of the owner, and abridgments of property rights, which are necessary for good economy. Thieves tend to have an inflated opinion of themselves; a decision procedure for theft must account for such inflation. It is for these reasons that theft is generally wrong, and for the same reasons, most societies developed an intuitive disapproval of theft. In another example, a judge may be tempted to misinterpret an unjust law so as to reach the desired result. However, the power of the judiciary is based on their good faith interpretations of the laws. Judicial honesty is essential for the retainment of such power and thus for the compelling benefits of an independent judiciary. Another misinterpretation of utilitarianism is that you have to give away all your money to poor people in third world countries. However, money can be successfully invested, producing more money and thus ability to do greater good. College education, while costly, greatly improves the ability to earn money and thus allows greater contribution to the poor. Moderate comfort, rest, and entertainment improve productivity. Also, idealism can fail; one's determination to do good today does not guarantee doing good tomorrow. Incentives are needed to sustain the determination; rewarding oneself for hard work causes one to work hard and thus do more good.
An objection to utilitarianism is the claim that the ultimate goal of utilitarianism can be achieved through a pleasure machine: Every person’s brain is connected to the machine, which sends signals to produce extreme pleasure, while suppressing all feelings but pleasure. However, feelings are meaningless but in the context of understanding. One can assign a high pleasure number to a stone, but the pleasure number is meaningless because the stone cannot understand or contemplate pleasure or anything else. Similarly, happiness can only exist in the presence of intellectual processing and struggle that gives it meaning, and our intuition that such pleasure machine would destroy everything we value is compatible with utilitarianism.
Some people argue that utilitarianism is contrary to human rights. The support for human rights is based on our feelings and deep beliefs that human rights are good. These feelings do not arise in a vacuum. They are acquired because, as history repeatedly shows, violations of human rights have horrible consequences. Censorship, more likely than not, prevents indispensible changes in societies that practice it. The benefits of torture are insignificant compared to the suffering it inflicts and the damage to benevolence of the society. Because of fallibility of human nature and the special nature of fundamental rights, abridgements of human rights cause unacceptable danger to the society. For example, allowing the government to conduct a lottery for forcible organ donations would present unacceptable danger for abuse as the government can kill any person by faking the lottery results. It is such abuses in the past, senseless government sponsored murders for alleged public good that cause a subconscious aversion to such lottery. Thus, the utilitarian benefits of human rights coincide with the main reasons why the feelings on human rights have developed. Unlike reliance on feelings, utilitarianism places human rights on a strong logical foundation. The intuitions for human rights are fragile, and many societies lack them; even in the United States today, government sponsored homicide of certain helpless "undesirable" people, i.e. death penalty, is considered acceptable. Moreover, wrong intuitions can create fictitious rights, like the right of parents to beat their children, or, in the past, the right of slave owners to their lawfully acquired property, slaves. Therefore, utilitarianism protects and enhances human rights.
The most significant alleged problem of utilitarianism is its rejection of the conventional view of justice: According to utilitarianism, taken per se, the well-being of a murderer is as important as the well-being of the President of the United States. However, the two should not be treated equally: Murderers may be dangerous and so should be confined; it is essential to discourage murder; the position of the President should attract competent candidates, and the well-being of the President is very important for the nation.
In most cases, relatives of a murder victim have a burning feeling, which is partially shared by the society, that the murderer must be punished, that justice demands punishment. That feeling usually comes without justification by the relatives of the victim. Instead, it is a protective feeling. Punishment can be very effective in preventing future harm. From evolutionary point of view, the desire to punish for harm is caused by the need to protect from harm. Retribution, which often comes under the name of justice, is highly valued in most cultures because by deterring harm it can be highly beneficial, yet the connection between punishment and protection is sufficiently subtle for many people to view retribution is an end in itself rather than as a means to achieve good.
The cases of human rights and justice are illustrative of a general relationship between traditional views and utilitarian ones: Utilitarians look at the reasons that conventional rules of conduct are correct whereas traditionalists take traditional moral values (which are often intuitively true because they have been taught and reinforced by the society since childhood) as correct per se. Conventional moral views do not appear out of nowhere; they appear by evolution and natural selection. The innate, that is genetic, dispositions for views on what is right and wrong are based on what is most likely to cause survival and reproduction in a Stone Age society. It is because of the survival and reproduction value that most people value themselves above all, that high priority is placed on the family, that incest is disapproved, and that retribution is treated as a moral prerogative. Cultures also evolve through natural selection. Cultures with superior (in a certain way) moral values are likely to spread and become dominant because their values cause the people to make choices that are better (in a certain way) than choices made by people of other cultures. Finally, inside a particular culture, morals evolve by natural selection. Moral views that are beneficial (under the relevant metric) become slowly accepted, while harmful moral views are slowly rejected. The inability of natural selection of ethical views to keep pace with societal and technological changes that alter which conduct is most beneficial is one of the major causes of the disagreement of traditional views with utilitarianism; the other is that the selection is for benefit of the individuals and groups, hence traditional views deemphasize helping outsiders but elevate patriotism toward the relevant groups.
The main argument for utilitarianism is that happiness is good and that there is no reason for one person's happiness to be more important than anothers and that there is no reason to follow a rule of conduct that is known to be detrimental to the happiness of us all. Ordinary rules of logic (such as modus ponens) do not allow the inference that something should be done without an ethical value as a premise, and hence alone cannot be used to derive basic values. Instead, potential reasons for and against utilitarianism are minimization of unexplainable—the principle that gives validity to the scientific method. A theory of morality that deviates from utilitarianism would leave unexplained the extent that one person's happiness is more important than another's and the level of importance of non-happiness related elements. In a non-utilitarian theory of morality, the precise importance assigned to each of the values is inherently arbitrary, hence utilitarianism is the only non-arbitrary theory of morality. For example, a theory of morality may consider prohibition of theft and protection of human life as basic values, with protection of human life being more important if and only if the amount stolen to save the life is less than $1234.56, the exact amount being purely arbitrary.
Thus, minimization of unexplainable compels utilitarianism unless disagreement of traditional beliefs with the correct theory of morality is unexplainable and hence a reason to reject utilitarianism. However, an explanation of traditional moral beliefs is presented above, so the disagreement is fully explainable. Even if the disagreement did not appear explainable, it would not constitute a reason to reject utilitarianism because different cultures and subcultures have contradictory moral views. A society may consider an action to be an obvious wrong while another society considers that action morally obligatory. For example, while some societies view cannibalism as disrespectful of the body of the dead and as such clearly wrong, in other societies humans eat flesh of deceased relatives to help ensure the continuation of the spirit of the deceased. Given a non-utilitarian belief, even one that the society holds sacred, it is at least possible that another society (possibly on a different planet) holds precisely the opposite belief just as sacred, the only universal being that people try to do what they want unless they perceive a reason to do otherwise. If you feel that your unexplainable moral values are true because of divine guidance, then another person probably feels that his unexplainable moral beliefs (contradictory to yours) are also true as they are caused by divine guidance: Examples of contradictory claims of divine guidance abound. The only way to resolve the disagreement is by reasoning about basic moral values independently of the fact that your culture has such and such moral beliefs—and such reasoning leads to utilitarianism.
Many traditions and values of the American society are beneficial, but some are harmful. Acceptance of utilitarianism will preserve beneficial traditions while replacing the harmful ones. As a result, new traditions, grounded in reason, will emerge, and future generations may wonder how the irrational and unnatural non-utilitarian values had survived for so long.