Utilitarianism is Our Defining Vibe
The Measurement Problem Comes For Ethics
I learned a lot talking to Jamal Greene, a Columbia law professor and public intellectual, about his new book How Rights Went Wrong. Hope you enjoy the conversation. Rating and reviewing the podcast helps it grow!
Every age has its political, cultural, and epistemological regime. Kuhn calls it a paradigm; Heidegger calls it an epoch; Joachim de Fiore calls it a dispensation; and Foucault calls it an episteme. Gen Z, if you will, calls it a vibe.
Our age is utilitarian. The sacred word of our secular age, the word that indicates where we hope to find salvation, is “Impact.”
Let’s accept the premise of utilitarianism that we should maximize total pleasure and minimize total pain.
My quibble concerns how we would measure pleasure and pain. Let’s say it’s through self-reportage, this raises a few problems.
People can self-deceive
People’s personal evaluations are subjective and often incommensurate.
Let’s say it’s through some objective measure, like a neuralink or fitbit that takes our pleasure-pain pulse throughout the day:
People acclimate to both pleasure and pain so a person with greater delta will show greater pain or pleasure than someone with less volatility, even if, in absolute terms, the stable person is in a better or worse position. For example, a person who expects a low standard of living will be less pained than a person whose high expectations are not met. Theoretically, a highly sensitive wealthy person might be in more objective pain than a stoic or ascetic living in abject poverty.
A person who is happy due to having taken a drug is, as it were, borrowing pleasure now against pleasure tomorrow. Often, though, utilitarianism ignores the reality that we do and should be willing to sacrifice short term pleasure for future pleasure. The Olympic athlete suffering through a practice so as to have a chance at the Gold Medal has an expected pleasure that might be accounted for in utilitarian terms, but from a snapshot physiological view looks barely distinguishable from someone under duress. (Here, I agree with Russ Roberts, who argues in his new book Wild Problems that the only way to account for the Olympic athlete is as a figure who is aspiring to be someone else. The concept of aspiration doesn’t fit within a narrow cost-benefit analysis).
So we’re bad at measuring hedons or utils (or pain units) is one problem. Another problem is that we’re measuring the wrong thing.
What makes a human life meaningful, coherent, and capable of valuing anything is a sense of integrity and purpose. Can that be encapsulated within the static model of marginal pleasure and marginal pain?
In practice, utilitarianism focuses on the floor of the human condition, rather than the ceiling. It doesn’t address questions of flourishing, but seeks to prevent the worst. The most extreme instance of utilitarianism in practice is the focus on lowering “existential risk,” i.e., ensuring species and planetary survival. Who can argue with that? And yet who would want to live in a world whose ethical vision is focused primarily on survival? There is some point of equilibrium where we must be willing to risk our survival for something more. It is this Hegelian insight, continued on in the existentialists, that is missing from the utilitarian vibe.