Utilitarianism by J S Mill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 26th, 2010

I finished Utilitarianism and I was pleasantly surprised. His approach for arguing for utilitarianism is fairly open and well argued. He doesn’t underestimate the challenge and he covers most of the main objections against his position. Most books that argue for a moral code don’t go as far as Mill, although I am not a fan of utilitarianism myself.

Many of the objections against utilitarianism, he rightly points out are really objections against any moral code. Other arguments he rebuts as straw men. This is often the way in debates, from my own experience: detractors try to steer the discussion into irrelevance. One chapter worrying is titled “Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility”. I find it worrying because I analyse such claims through an existential point of view, and all previous attempts at finding an “ultimate sanction” have so far failed. But this chapter is surprisingly good, as he avoids this trap of is-ought and claims that utilitarianism is also a descriptive model of human action. Moral codes are adopted more by human habit and social pressure than abstract philosophical argument.

The main issue I have with utilitarianism is it assumes that happiness and suffering are mutually exclusive, and are opposite ends of some scale. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tie in with human psychology. Many activities are considered worthwhile but have either intrinsic pain or the risk of pain. To eliminate that risk is like trying to “abolish bad weather” as Nietzsche would say. Mill’s ideas work fairly well in terms of human belief in what is good but, as Mill points out, belief doesn’t always lead to the corresponding action. Humans, as Dostoevsky observes, are often doing actions that contradict any possible system, including self destruction. I also have concerns that utilitarianism, in trying to compare different forms of happiness and suffering, is trying to compare apples with oranges – but that is for another time (possibly every moral action is unique, “there is no requital”).

I believe that these sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact: that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility.

So obvious does this appear to me, that I expect it will hardly be disputed […]

Always suspect a philosopher when they say something is obvious. If he had tried to argue against his own position here, it would have been more philosophical.

Anti Citizen One

PS I have since been reading Dostoevsky’s Demons for the first time:

There are also lovers of such anguish who prise it more than its most radical gratification, if such indeed where even possible.

Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions, Contact (the Movie)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 6th, 2010

I finished reading Billions and Billions, a collection of essays by Carl Sagan. I was already I fan of his, from the movie Contact. In “Billions”, the book has three sections – wonder at the universe (as reflected in various popular science issues he addresses), environmentalism, and social issues. The scientific issues are slightly historic, being published back in 1997. The style is very optimistic. He seems the polar opposite of Dawkins. Both are good popular science writers. But Cagan is very “glass half full” and Dawkins is known as a “glass half empty” writer. (Although this doesn’t apply to his real work on evolution, just that atheism is a denial (ish) and therefore somewhat negative. Of course, destruction is a form of creation but moving on…)

His writing in both Billions and Contact on contrasting views is notable for its optimism. For instance, pro-life and pro-choice with respect to abortion, he points out that these are two extremes and that most people and most legal systems fall into some compromise. In other cases, he points out the commonality in beliefs, e.g. environmentalism is in part driven by science and he compares it to the religious attitude of stewardship of the Earth. Sometimes, his totally constructive attitude is not quite to my taste. I guess in cases when he might refute his opponents’ views, he simply declines to comment (in a similar way to Nietzsche’s advice: “where one can no longer love, there should one – pass by“).

There are a few disparate scenes in Contact I want to mention specifically. I thought about trying to tie them together coherently, but I have been unable to do so, or too lazy. In most of the scenes I mention, two world views are contrasted. Many involve the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, who is passionate about SETI (that is the search for “little green men” aka extraterrestrial intelligence). In the first example, which provides an important illustration of Ellie’s character, teleological explanations are contrasted to mere physicalism (not to mention atheism).

Priest at the Funeral of Ellie’s Father: I know it’s hard to understand this now but we aren’t always meant to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes, we just have to accept it as God’s will.
Ellie Arroway: I should have kept medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could’ve gotten to it sooner.

Another interesting exchange is when one character justifies his actions on an essentially pessimistic or Machiavellian basis. Ellie counters with some Saganistic optimism, which is almost existential.

David Drumlin [after metaphorically stabbing Ellie in the back]: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

There are loads of interesting themes that could be endlessly analysed, particularly the problem of religious extremism and the reductionism/commercialism trend in science. Both prove major antagonistic factors in the film.

Ellie quoting Palmer: “Ironically, the thing people are most hungry for – meaning – is the one thing science hasn’t been able to give them.”

Gratuitously I mention a slightly existential question, which connects to Babylon 5. The question “why am I here?” is once of the key themes of the series. The exchange has a large non-verbal element, which makes it hard to state here (which is of course appropriate for existential questions):

Ellie: [sincere but baffled] What am I doing here?
Haddon: [quietly laughs to himself, notices she expects a verbal response, then suddenly becomes almost menacing] The powers that be have been very busy lately positioning themselves for the game of the millennium. Maybe I can help deal you back in.

The response of Sagan to conflict seems to be to approach it with delicacy, subtlety and intellectual modesty. There is perhaps an echo of Spinoza trying to “understand” human actions above all. A perfect example of this attitude is given as the “last word” in the move. A kid on a school trip asks Ellie a question she KNOWS the answer to, but the way she deals with it is telling:

Kid on school trip: Are there other people out there in the universe?
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good question. What do you think?
Kid: I don’t know.
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good answer. Skeptic, huh? [glances knowingly at her colleagues] The important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers. One thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us it seems like an awful waste of space. Right?

I’d say that is a healthy altitude!

Anti Citizen One

PS Another review which is good.