Utils for Everyone

(follow-up to Cross-Purposes)

Before I continue this whole adventure, I should clarify that whenever I speak of “happiness,” you should read this as “happiness and the relief/absence of suffering” unless otherwise stated.  I’ve heard interpretations of suffering that argue that suffering itself is not antithetical to happiness – even suffering that doesn’t serve to increase happiness at a later time, e.g. getting your wisdom teeth extracted – but I honestly don’t find these views convincing.  They seem to be ad hoc attempts to glamorize suffering.  Even in the case of masochism, for example, the person who enjoys pain isn’t enjoying suffering in any non-colloquial sense.  So I’ll proceed on the premise that the value of conscious experience exists on a spectrum with happiness on one end, and suffering on the other, unless someone can persuade me otherwise.

Okay, so: beyond happiness?

Yes, if we’re only considering my happiness.  Undoubtedly, much of the reason connections with other people are preferable to me over their absence is that they make me happy, but this isn’t the sole reason.  I’m not happy literally every second I share with others, obviously.  In a less trivial sense, sometimes being a good (read: preferable to others) friend, brother, son, etc., requires that I sacrifice (not the best term, since it makes me sound like a whiny martyr, which is not my intent, but I can’t think of a better word at the moment) my own happiness.  Even long-term happiness, perhaps – although this is impossible to know for sure, since, you know, I can’t predict the future.  It doesn’t make me “happy” (relative to alternative choices I could make with my time) to listen to friends’ struggles when they need consolation, to buy my family gifts for holidays, to drive my brother to school or sports practices, or to do work that other people could do instead of me.  Similar cases can be said for the other elements I listed in the last post: productive engagements, aesthetics, physical and emotional health, and intellectual stimulation.  If anyone wants clarification of these cases, I’ll happily (*snicker*) oblige when I get the chance.

And for the most part, that’s okay.  Because as far as I can ascertain, these losses in my own happiness make these other people happier, probably to a greater degree than they make me unhappy.  This doesn’t mean that every choice I make in anticipation of increasing my or other people’s happiness is successful at doing this.  There are probably many habits of mine, or even significant life choices, that in fact fail to improve anyone’s happiness, and they may seem intuitively desirable to me to the extent that I don’t know this fact.

This last clause is important, because I can foresee objections to my happiness-based philosophy on the grounds that if people really cared about happiness so much, they wouldn’t do [insert activity that is currently considered important to a fulfilling human life here].  It’s possible that these objectors are right and there truly are elements of a “better” life independent of happiness.  I haven’t heard every defense of such a position, so I won’t be so arrogant to suppose they’re all false.

But when I reflect on instances of my past in which I’ve found that something I thought would make me or someone else happy did not in fact make my life feel “better,” the problem was that such things did not make me or anyone else happy in any lasting sense.  The lesson of the hedonic treadmill (which I’ve heard used as an objection to the value of happiness) isn’t that happiness is insufficient, but rather that the methods by which we typically pursue happiness often fail to provide it.  The solution is to get off the treadmill, not to stop running.

So, if there’s some cherished behavior or social structure that we may feel is threatened by the idea that happiness is at the root of all value in life, it might behoove us to ask ourselves whether we’re simply mistaken in thinking that such a behavior or structure is worth cherishing.  My contention is not that happiness is always what we do in fact pursue, but that it’s what we should pursue if we want to make our lives better, as experience demonstrates.  No, this doesn’t mean we should throw out anything that isn’t fun or pleasant to think about.  Dismantling anything in human society is a serious decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly – and mind you, the project of happiness isn’t all destructive.  For every social institution that thwarts happiness and deserves to fall – with the consent of the society itself, obviously, which is why Light Yagami of Death Note infamy is not a hero (among other reasons; incidentally, I highly recommend that series) – there is likely some other source of happiness we have yet to discover.  All of which is my long-winded way of saying that intuition is cheap.  Homophobes undoubtedly find relationships outside their heteronormative mold to be intuitively unpleasant, but we’d be a sorry species indeed if we considered such bigoted intuitions worth respecting.  It may seem intuitive that donating money to a poor nation should help alleviate poverty, but this approach evidently hasn’t worked so well.  Just because something feels wrong or right, it does not follow that it actually is wrong or right (i.e. deleterious or helpful, respectively, to the betterment of people’s lives).

Of course, there’s something to be said for the happiness that comes with acting according to what feels right.  Even if you know what the best course of action is, for effecting actual positive changes in people’s lives, your conscience may feel uneasy about it.  This is an obstacle that is, again, not unique to the utilitarian.  Kant, anti-utilitarian extraordinaire, would have you tell the truth to Nazis about who’s hiding in your attic against your conscience, because, as my former humanities professor put it, “Kant doesn’t care what you want.”  I’d argue that the utilitarian perspective does care what you want, but it doesn’t care what you think you want, to put it in a pithy slogan.

There’s still a lot to clarify about my position on the basis of morality.  Lest anyone accuse me of endorsing Bentham’s Panopticon or Singer’s repulsive insinuation that consent doesn’t matter for mentally disabled people, I’m not.  I am under no obligation to worship or defend any famous utilitarian philosophers, nor should my conception of utilitarianism be conflated with any stereotypical portrayals of this term.  (While the legacy of the Panopticon and Bentham’s economic views is deplorable, it’s still remarkable that he championed women’s, slaves’, children’s, and gay people’s rights in the 18th century, albeit from a position of privilege.)  In future posts, I’ll address some of the nuances of my position, especially in response to classic objections like the “utility monster,” “experience machine,” and the organ-harvesting doctor.

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