Utilitarianism – The Greatest Good

I am releasing the script for podcast episode 78 at the same time as the audio because there is an important message here which needs to reach as wide an audience as possible.

The Here and Now Podcast – Episode 78 Utilitarianism – The Greatest Good

A few days ago our cat went missing. She was a rescue cat, a bit over a year old and she took a long time to domesticate. But she finally settled and was a great companion for my family. The problem was, she was always desperate to go outside. After a few months we began to let her explore our small garden, which she did timidly at first. Then after a while she began to jump the back fence and explore the local area. She would disappear for longer and longer periods, as cats often do, but she always returned home in the evening or occasionally late at night. We tried a couple of times to keep her inside as we worried that she might be eaten by a snake, but we couldn’t keep her contained. But then a few nights ago, she didn’t return. She still hasn’t. All hope is not lost, but as each night passes it seems increasingly likely that she is gone forever. We live in a tropical environment, surrounded by dense, impenetrable jungle, no doubt teeming with snakes. So, whatever has happened to her, we of course feel sad at the loss, guilty even, as we wonder whether we should have been stricter about keeping her inside.

We reason that if we had kept her inside, she’d still be with us, and we’d be happy. But how about our cat? She obviously wanted to be outside, exploring, hunting, doing what cats do. What sort of life would our cat have had if we had kept her locked in? Staring wistfully out the windows at the birds pecking at the lawn? Whose happiness was more important in this instance? Ours because we got her to keep us entertained, to have a pet for the children to enjoy, something cute and fluffy that served our needs? Or hers, by keeping her feed and homed but also free to live as a cat does without having to worry about food and a place to sleep? Is it better that she was lost being a cat then saved by being a pet? What is the greater good in this scenario?

This is a question of ethics, and one which we all tend to have different intuitions about. Expand this scenario to all of humanity, or even all sentient beings, and we find ourselves with a conundrum which has intrigued philosophers throughout the ages. When faced with a choice, how do we know what is the best course of action? We might be given that seemingly irreducible piece of advice that sounds prophetic but is practically meaningless – “do the right thing”. How do we know what the right thing is?

Let’s introduce the infamous trolley problem; you have a runway trolley car hurtling down the tracks. If you do nothing the trolley will hit a group of people, almost certainly killing them all. However, you could pull a lever, divert the out-of-control trolley and kill one person. If you do nothing, people will die but it won’t be your fault, if you do act, only one person will die but it will be directly as a result of your actions. What is the ‘right’ thing to do? This problem is all about consequences. Consequences for the potential victims – death, and you – guilt. If we simply make a quantitative analysis of the consequences, that is, add up all of the good outcomes then subtract from that all of the bad consequences, then what are we left with? In the first instance, the good consequence is we feel guilty that we did nothing but not that we killed anyone directly, the bad consequence is a lot of people died. From the perspective of everyone, only the one survivor and ourselves are happy about that. Conversely, if we do pull the lever, a lot of people don’t die, minus the bad of one death and of course our guilt that we didn’t save that one life, albeit a smaller amount than in the first scenario. A lot of people are happy, now just two are not.

Perhaps we can agree that the good of saving the group of people trumps option two, its intuitively correct, so in this case, the right thing to do is pull the lever. This would be a consequentialist view, we made our decision based on what would result in the greatest good and least harm for the majority. We would be saying that what is morally right is the action that produces the most good. This is the principle of utilitarianism which we are going to explore in this episode.

He wasn’t the first to think about this problem, but Jeremy Bentham was one of the first to really sink his teeth into it. Bentham was a philosopher who wrote the first classical account of utilitarianism in 1780, and he began by outlining the principle of utility which we’ve looked at so far. He wrote,

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do … By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.

Utilitarianism, Bentham, 1878

Bentham considered the point of life to be to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. This is known as hedonism and can be traced to our old friend Epicurious who felt that the purpose of life was to spend as much time as possible contemplating the questions of life and the universe, not unlike this podcast. But Bentham was more agnostic about the source of that pleasure, all pleasures were created equal to him, it was purely a question of quantity over quality. Cracking a cold beer on a hot day was equal to successfully completing an expert level sudoku if the pleasure it brought the individual was the same. For Bentham, the way to determine the rightness or wrongness of any choice was to simply weigh the amount of pleasure, or happiness, derived from an action against the amount of pain it produced. Much as we just did in the trolley problem thought experiment, Bentham outlined some basic principles for calculating the greatest moral good. He called it the felicific calculus, although it is also known as the hedonic calculus. It included what Bentham called, ‘circumstances’ although in mathematical terms we might think of them as variables or vectors. They are:

What is the intensity of the action, that is, how intense the pleasure it will bring? How long will it last? How certain is it that it will bring that pleasure? When will that pleasure happen? How likely is it that more pleasure will follow? How likely is it that pain will follow? And finally, how many people will it bring pleasure to? He developed a short poem to help us remember which goes like this:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.

Bentham had articulated an important tool for the development and the assessment of important social decisions. This could be applied not only for our personal choices, indeed, it was perhaps most applicable to political decisions which affect the majority. By introducing a systematic way of quantifying the amount of good generated by a decision, people could be confident that they were acting in the best interest of society. Rather than relying on intuition, some sense of the moral good which is intrinsic to the action itself, we could just work it out. The hedonic calculus is a tool, an instrument if you will, where the rightness or wrongness of an act can be determined by considering its properties specifically.

For instance, we may be faced with the decision, how to deal with a starving man who steals a loaf of bread from a wealthy man. In the first instance, the thief was desperate and stole the bread only to survive. Who would really suffer if we punish this individual? The rich man had plenty of bread, the starving man had nothing. We might argue that no great harm would come to society by allowing this act to go unpunished and the starving man would be fed. But this would be short-term, narrow-minded thinking according to Bentham. A so-called, evil of the first order. However, if such an act was condoned, then others would begin to steal and soon all social order would be lost. Property would not be sacred; the law would become a farce. In order to maintain the sanctity of the laws of property for all of society the beggar must be punished. For if he is not, an evil of the second order is introduced, allowing fear to spread throughout the community more insidiously.

Does this mean the thief will suffer? Yes. But does it mean the greater good of society is maintained? Certainly. Therefore, the law should protect the rich man and in so doing, protect the greater good. We do not need to turn to intrinsic morals of right and wrong, or commandments or what feels like the right thing to do. The felicific calculus spells it out clearly.

A student of Bentham’s, John Stuart Mill, would expand upon this work by considering not just the quantity of good, but also its quality. Returning to the hedonistic view, that those pursuits which furthered the intellect were always more valuable than those which were purely based on sensation. By considering the quality of the good, we can begin to modify our approach to calculating the greatest good. Mills argued, the greatest good is that which brings the greatest good for all people and that occurs not through simple pleasures of sensation, but through pleasures of the mind which can be used for furthering social benefits for all of society. But in addition to this obvious benefit, there is an individual one. In something akin to a Buddhist view, materialistic pleasures may offer short term benefits, but they soon fade, and we are left disappointed and searching for greater pleasures. Intellectual pleasures provide more long-term benefits by improving our overall quality of life and, when combined, that of others. The greatest pleasure to Mills was to literally think of ways to make life better, to seek pleasure just for pleasures sake was not doing the greatest good, it was only in the interest of the individual, and therefore those with the capacity to think bigger were more valuable to society.

One of Mill’s most famous quotes from his 1863 book, Utilitarianism reads:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

Utilitarianism, Mill, 1863

This challenge famously considers Bentham’s ‘all pleasures are equal position’, swine morality. If we apply it to the trolley problem scenario then we can see his point. Imagine now that the one person who will be killed if we do nothing is a researcher developing a cure for some horrible disease, or a famous author and the group of people are regular citizens, or a meeting of the local flat earthers group. How would this change the calculus? We are being forced to make a quantitative judgement of the worth of one life over another, of in this case, many others. How many you and I’s does it take to make an Einstein? Bentham would side with quantity, Mill would save Einstein. But remember, utilitarianism is not only about the greatest good, it’s about the greatest pleasure, not just avoidance of the greatest pain. And because pleasure is so subjective, regardless of how we might interpret its value form the outside, only the individual can feel truly know what it means to be happy. Perhaps that researcher is miserable, having failed at every attempt to cure the disease so far, and feels death would be a better outcome. I don’t mean to make this an impossible situation, but clearly, there is too much nuance in real life to make thought experiments like these of much use beyond highlighting the problem itself.  

But the risk of getting too abstract for our purposes, I’ll emphasis why this point is important. If we are thinking about the greatest good when making decisions, we need to have some context. Is it the greatest good for right now, for some time in the future? Are we willing to accept some discomfort now if it means a greater good down the road? This applies whether we are thinking about eating that cookie or going to the gym, or studying for a degree which will make us more educated which perhaps helps get a better job in the future. It also matters to how much freedom a government gives its people.

Just like my family decided to let our cat roam, we made a choice because we felt it was in the interest of the cat. The greater good, we felt, was to let the cat be free to be a cat, most of the time. But now she is gone. Perhaps the greater good, if we take that to be our happiness and the cat’s happiness at not being dead or suffering somewhere, would have been to keep her inside. Now of course I can’t ask the cat what she would have preferred, we made a decision on her behalf. This is called paternalism, like we do for our children or those who we feel do not know best. That’s also what governments do when they make rules for our own safety and protection. There is a continuum of freedom upon which all societies situate themselves which affords some varying amount of discretion to its citizens. There is no need to invoke examples, we can easily call to mind those countries which vary in their degree of freedom afforded to the populace. But let’s be clear, no country affords total freedom to its people, that would be anarchy, not in the literal sense, but in the political sense.

As we saw in our exploration of the social contract, we have tacitly accepted an agreement with the state to give up a little freedom in exchange for protection, safety, convenience, quality of life. There is nothing unusual about this in principle, the real debate surrounds just where we draw that line. This is where utilitarianism comes in as it serves as a methodology, a way of thinking about the problem, that can lead us to some well-reasoned solution. This is an inherently paternalistic approach, but that is precisely what government is, a group of people who govern by telling us what we can and can’t do and place restraints on how we should live. But we face a conflict between my happiness and our happiness and this forms the crux of the problem with utilitarianism.

It’s called egoistic hedonism. It’s where my happiness is my priority, just as yours is to you. We could also call it agental well-being or something like that. Stacked side by side it might feel intuitively immoral to say that personal happiness is more important that happiness of the whole of a community, but how we do actually live our lives? How do we really make decisions on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis? Are we thinking about how our decisions will impact the lives of others? For the most part, no, we are not. This is a uniquely Western conception however, other countries with a more collectivist, community centred value system do actually place personal happiness secondary to the happiness of the group. But that doesn’t help us Westerners much unless we are willing to reinvent ourselves which is not easy to do, if it is possible at all.

So we have this conflict – between my happiness, and all of our happiness. We know that the greater good for all is the moral high ground, yet when it comes to actually making decisions, we don’t actually integrate this moral calculus into our thought process, not unless we explicitly decide to so. And we also have a paradox because if our individual happiness is most important to us, but the collective happiness is the moral good, then what would make the most people happy would be for each individual to be happy, and how can we reconcile those two goals without compromising one or the other?

This is, in part, the duality of practical reason and forms part of economist John Harsanyi’s work on preference utilitarianism. He reasons that what is good or bad for an individual can only consider individual needs and wants. It is no good to me if a rule might be in the best interest of society if it makes my life more difficult or unpleasant. That is contrary to my happiness. But we must be realistic, every possible decision will have cost and benefits for someone or something. If we stick only with sentient beings, or even humans, then that list becomes shorter, but no less significant based on the intrinsic value we place on life over inanimate objects. But the whole notion of intrinsic good, or even intrinsic morality, is called into question, because meaning is contextual and relative and we can never truly calculate the incalculable because that means setting a standard. My morality, happiness and social goals could be in contrast with yours. We may agree on some high level points, like don’t kill others, and in that case we are driven by avoidance of pain rather than maximisation of happiness. That was the view of Karl Popper, called negative utilitarianism.

Ultimately though, we are left with an imperfect solution. We must establish some rules from which to judge the relative utility of our actions. This line of thinking began in earnest during the 20th century and consists of two parts – the first is rule utilitarianism. In this conception, we come up with rules designed to maximise happiness for all. This means inherently making value judgements and acting paternalistically. The obvious limitation here is societal. We cannot hope to make happiness goals universals because happiness means different things to different cultures. But if we consider only a single society were social norms are more or less ubiquitous then we have a pretty good solution. The second part is act utilitarianism which is really the classical approach taken by Bentham and Mills. It means we are less concerned with the rule which only considers some hypothetical case, what we are really concerned about is the consequences of our actions. A traffic light offers a useful analogy for understanding the difference.

A traffic light is a rule based system for managing the flow of traffic at a busy intersection. The rule is simple, when the light is green you can go, when it is red you have to stop and wait your turn. Society relies on everyone obeying that rule to keep us all safe from collisions for a minimal imposition on our time. If the light turns red just as I am approaching it, then I have a choice, I can stop and wait a minute or two, even if there is no traffic at the intersection, this would be rule utilitarianism which considers evils of the second order, or I can decide to go and take my chances. This would be act utilitarianism. I forgo the rule by considering the consequences directly. If I can safely pass the intersection without hitting any other cars or disrupting the flow of traffic, then I have avoided delaying my own journey at no one else’s expense. This would be a greater good than following the rule and stopping at the traffic light. That is of course until I cause an accident. So despite our efforts to take our intuitions out of the equation, we are still faced with a choice. Do I trust my judgement in the pursuit of my own happiness or do I trust in the system which has been designed to maximise happiness for all?

If it is not already evident, I might call you attention to the world we live in today and the challenges we are facing. Utilitarianism is as relevant now as it has ever been in my lifetime. In 1914 millions of men marched off to war because the greater good was to protect the freedom of one country over the zealous ambitions of another. However, by 1918, or even much earlier, the calculus was far from clear. Was the death of millions of people really the greater good? By 1939, the principle of utility emerged again. If we remembered the first world war, would we have calculated that the utility of allowing Germany to takeover Poland and other European countries was a greater good than sending millions more to their deaths?

We don’t question this decision, it had to be done, what the German’s were doing under Hitler was unquestioningly a moral wrong that needed to be stopped. By conscripting soldiers, and condemning many to suffering and death it was accepted that happiness be paid for at high price. The greatest good was the evil of the secondary order of allowing Hitler’s armies, and later the Japanese, to carry on unchecked. My generation has never been faced with a burden of this significance. And of course we now have the benefit of hindsight, we know the human cost of those wars and as painful as it is, we feel it was worth it, our ancestors who lived through that period thought so too. The greater good was indeed obtained but at the cost of millions of lives.

So here we are in 2021, nearly a year and a half into our version of world war against an invisible enemy which some don’t believe exists. We know it is natural to think of our own utility first, what will give us the greatest happiness. Society comes second. But think for a moment about what the greater good for all people might mean for you individually, and what you would be willing to sacrifice to allow that to happen? We are facing many challenges right now, challenges imposed upon us by our governments who purport to be acting in the interests of the greater good. They are employing rule utilitarianism paternalistically to tell us what we can and can’t do to get through this pandemic with the least amount of suffering as possible. But how do we quantify that? Let’s return to Jeremy Bentham’s felicific calculus for a moment and run the numbers. This will be divisive, but it is a divisive issue so I may as well tackle it head on: your choice to get vaccinated, versus the on-going imposition of the pandemic on all of us. The closed borders, quarantines, supply chain issues, and of course, the risk of serious illness and death.

So how much happiness do you get from not being vaccinated compared to the happiness sacrificed by all of us because of this pandemic? How long will that happiness last for? How certain is it that you will be happy about the decision? When will that happiness occur and how likely is it that more will follow? How likely is it that pain will follow? And of course, how many people will it affect?

The argument I’m making here is not about whether the vaccine is safe or scientifically proven. It is not that you should forgo your personal reasons for not being vaccinated if that is a choice you have made so far, rather it is that this should be a moral decision which considers the utility of your choices. We can apply this to many things, and as we have seen it is not without wrinkles. But we must also think beyond ourselves and our immediate, first order evils, to the broader consequences of our choices, of how they will impact others, for how long and in what way. Ask yourself a straight forward question: is your decision made in the interest of the greater good? This is a question which asks, do your personal reasons even matter?

This is a rationale that does not invoke science, it doesn’t need to, it invokes reason and follows the moral principles that have been guiding our civilisations for centuries. In times of war, people set aside their personal happiness in pursuit of the greater good, of happiness for the whole. Remember, the definition of utilitarianism is that which is morally right is the action which produces the most good. Or put simply, do the right thing.

In a glass case in University College London sits the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham. He is dressed in his fine black suit, a wide brimmed hat adorns his wax head, and his favourite walking cane Dapple rests between his knees. Bentham has sat in that chair for over two hundred years, presiding over humanity’s struggle to interpret his version of utilitarianism, the greatest happiness principle. I wonder what he would think of our attempts if he were alive today.

What do you think?

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