In my last post on morality, I mentioned that I am approximately utilitarian, and promised to explain how my viewpoint differs from utilitarianism at a later stage. So, while there are further responses to some of the points LL brings up that I could mention, and a whole host of related subjects that might keep me blogging for weeks if I wanted to stick to a single subject, for now I shall give you the post that I have actually promised.
I quite like to break utilitarianism down into two propositions:
(1) We should act in that manner that produces the greatest good.
(2) Happiness is (the only thing that is) intrinsically good.
Do you agree that happiness is intrinsically good? Do you agree that it is the only intrinsic good? I'm not going to give you my answer just yet. Still, I will tell you that just about any utilitarian will agree that 'happiness' is meant in a very broad sense here, encompassing anything from sensory pleasure to refined artistic taste and even spiritual fulfilment (although those of us who are atheists might have a slightly different definition of the word 'spiritual', of course, and some of us, mindful of the connotations, prefer to avoid it entirely). Some, notably John Stuart Mill, have argued that 'higher' notions of happiness should be given greater weight than mere pleasure. Personally, at least insofar as it only affects the person having the experience, I think it ought to be a matter of taste.
Proposition (1) has been challenged on the grounds that you can use it to justify nasty trade-offs. Ursula K. LeGuin's quite marvellous short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (PDF) illustrates this problem almost as an abstraction, describing a beautiful city where everyone lives good and happy and fulfilling lives -- but the reason they are happy is because of a single, frightened child kept in a cellar, spending its life in confusion and misery and self-hate. Is the happiness of others worth unbroken pain and despair for a single person? LeGuin doesn't seem to think so.
We might answer LeGuin's problem by requiring a rule in our utilitarian calculus which states that unhappiness is generally better shared around; a week's unhappiness for a hundred people is better then a hundred weeks' unhappiness for a single person. We might justify it with the idea that happiness can actually be appreciated better when you have been through a small amount of pain, and spreading the pain around in small bits thus maximises the trade-off in the resulting appreciation of the happiness that follows (but if you agree with that justification, then of course the rule is actually not inserted into utilitarianism but rather derived from it -- just a note). Other answers are also possible, of course; if you'd have preferred me to bring up some other answer, please do write it in the comments so we can all see it. For now, however, I am mostly interested in challenges to the idea that what is good is defined by what makes us happy.
I once attended a philosophy seminar (been to a few of those in my time) where the speaker was defending the Aristotelian notion that the purpose of human beings is to reason. Aristotle thought that everything had a purpose (telos, final cause). The purpose of a pen is to write. The purpose of rain is to water the fields so that plants can grow. And the purpose of human beings? Human beings exist so that they can reason, says Aristotle. That is what human beings are for.
Somewhere in the course of a very informal discussion after the seminar, the speaker challenged the notion that we should be aiming for happiness, with reason only as a method of getting there, using the following interesting illustration:
Look, orgasm is the highest form of happiness, right? Are we agreed on that? So suppose you had this machine -- call it the Orgasmatron -- and you could sit in it, and you'd have an IV drip or something, your life wouldn't be shortened at all, and you could just sit in it for the rest of your life and be continuously and orgasmically happy. Think seriously about this. Can you honestly tell me that you would just give up everything in your life to go sit in the Orgasmatron?
Well, would you?
I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.
So here is the answer I gave at the time, after I had thought for a bit. Part of what makes us happy in this life (outside the Orgasmatron) is being engaged with the world. We have to have things we care about in order to make life worth living. But then, because we have things we care about -- goals, hopes, caring for other people -- we don't want to give those things up. Not even to be continuously, orgasmically happy.
Now that's a good answer, but it's not necessarily a utilitarian one. Should we want to be continuously, orgasmically happy, over and above other purposes? If everyone already has the option of the Orgasmatron, I suspect the utilitarian answer is yes (but, please, feel free to argue). Still, I have to say, that's not my answer. Here and now, outside the Orgasmatron, I would fight to be excused the fate of being continuously, orgasmically happy for the rest of my life.
Still, I don't agree that the purpose of human beings is to reason. I think we make our own purposes. I think we should make our own purposes, weaving ourselves into the world with tireless urgency (sometimes I suspect this makes me diametrically opposed to the Buddhist notion of detachment from the world; on the other hand, trying to be detached is a purpose, so maybe not).
I think that purpose is an intrinsic good. That's not to say that there are not evil purposes, purposes which aim to destroy the happiness and purpose of others. But purpose is an essential part of what it takes to live a fulfilled, happy, successful life. And so, I think our view of morality ought to respect that, placing purpose and story right up there with happiness in the things we try to aim for -- indeed, aim with, in the case of purpose!
Thus is my utilitarianism diluted.