IS HAPPINESS MORALLY RELEVANT?
BY JOE HODSON
BY JOE HODSON
It's not without good reason that utilitarianism has its fans, it offers us something that other moral theories generally don't: a basic method by which we can prioritise between the options available to us in any given scenario.
Utilitarianism beats the alternatives – let’s take the trolley problem
The two great rivals to utilitarian thought- deontology and virtue ethics- cannot in themselves provide a convincing answer to the thought experiment known as the ‘trolley problem’, in which by pulling a lever you have the opportunity to divert a trolley from a track with five poor souls tied to it to a track with just one unfortunate person, i.e. you can choose to save five lives by ending the life of one.
A Kantian deontologist would argue that pulling the lever is murder because you would not want this to become a universal law, especially given that you would presumably object to it if you were in the victim's position. However, given that the five on the other side would presumably also object to being killed by your inaction, there seems to be no truly universalisable choice here whatsoever.
Virtue ethicists might agree among themselves that pulling the lever demonstrates the vice of cold-blooded mercilessness, but then also praise the virtue of pragmatism that the same choice would also demonstrate.
It is only once we accept that the difference between the consequences of the choices is relevant that we can have a meaningful way of resolving the issue. A utilitarian would argue that it is best to save the greatest possible number of people, and thus pull the lever with a heavy heart and a clear head.
Consequences are therefore necessary to make sense of the rightness or wrongness of any action or trait, regardless of whether it involves a trade-off with tracks and trolleys. The judgments we make when we attempt to universalise like a Kantian ultimately have to recourse to some kind of hypothetical consequence that we would or wouldn't want to happen. The idea of murder cannot be separated from the idea of the consequence of death, the idea of honesty cannot be separated from the idea of the consequence of accurate beliefs, and so on.
Similarly with virtue ethics, the idea of courage necessarily implies that some kind of suffering is being risked for the sake of some presumably greater benefit.
But it still needs plenty of work
However, while it seems intuitively obvious that consequences matter, it's far less obvious what kind of consequences we ought to prioritise. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the two founding fathers of utilitarianism, assumed that pain and sadness are simply equivalent to deductions from pleasure and happiness, but this just doesn't seem to ring true with how we experience either. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, pain and sadness have a much greater capacity to captivate our attention than their supposedly equal opposites. Our widespread preference for fiction that shows characters suffering and struggling at least to some extent, with happy endings being relatively optional, similarly betrays a fascination with darkness that light doesn't compete with. It follows therefore that pains that we would initially imagine to be equivalent to a particular pleasure actually outweigh it, and unfortunately the extent of this gap in appreciation of magnitude is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to measure and rectify.
As Michael Sandel loves to remind us in his critiques of Bentham's utilitarianism, how could any amount of sadistic exhilaration gained by the multitude of spectators in the Coliseum justify the mauling and butchering of even small numbers of slaves, Christians, and gladiators? While you could argue that this isn't a straightforward trade-off, given that harmless forms of entertainment also exist, it does highlight the theoretical problem posed by Robert Nozick of "utility monsters" who might gain enormous amounts of happiness from outcomes that inconvenience everyone else. Under an uncomplicated version of utilitarianism, there has to come a point where this extremity is enough to justify anything at all.
Secondly, our opportunities to do things that marginally increase happiness (as opposed to merely avoiding harms) are so abundant that attempting to do all of them as a simplistic reading of utilitarianism would lead to immediate burnout and a sense of total loss of self-ownership, each of which could amount to a major harm. The scarcity effect, as any economist would quickly add, means that the value of these actions to their beneficiaries would generally decrease with every repetition.
Thirdly, leisure is incompatible with duty. While we might sometimes coincidentally enjoy undertaking our various moral obligations, the nature of obligation means that treating people with a basic level of decency is morally necessary whether we naturally adore them, would rather have them roasted on a spit, or simply don't care.
The things we do for the sake of enjoyment, however, need to be thoroughly disentangled from the typically burdensome category of duty in order for them to feel authentic rather than hollow, especially when they involve the participation of other people. In these instances it's not just mildly preferable but crucial that everyone feels self-motivated rather than merely compliant. This was a great oversight of Kant's when he announced that all actions must be motivated by duty in order to have value- sometimes, paradoxically, such a motive can snuff out the value altogether.
Can this be resolved?
Taken together, these three arguments lead us in the direction of either negative utilitarianism or prioritarianism. The former states that the only morally relevant consequence is the reduction of sorrow, and increases and decreases in joy do not matter. The latter holds both to be relevant, but the pain side of the equation to be more relevant.
Choosing between these is tricky. To declare that happiness is irrelevant is to deny the most mundane fact of how incentives work, but if it is always outweighed by sadness then surely it may as well be?
Moreover, discarding happiness from our calculations leads to some highly unpalatable conclusions, although these are mercifully only hypothetical for the foreseeable future. If ending suffering is all that matters, would it not then be right to instantly annihilate all sentient life if given the chance?
For a similar conundrum, take a look at the film Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky in 2014. Mirroring the Biblical narrative where God decides to spare a tiny remnant of the barbaric human race from an all-destroying flood, Russell Crowe's Noah believes that his family should also not reproduce any further, but of course when his son and daughter-in-law secretly procreate on board the Ark (ignore for the moment the incestuous logistics of all this further down the line), Noah eventually changes his mind and allows their newborn child to live. A brief montage "confirms" the accuracy of Noah's original calculations, however, alluding to all the future wars and atrocities his descendants will still commit, with no regard to how much positive value they might also create.
Shifting from Bentham's simplistic act utilitarianism to Mill's rule utilitarianism is perhaps a good first step to take, but it only really deals with the second of the three main caveats outlined in the previous section, as it allows us to think in terms of general rules rather than attempting to calculate the effects of every single thing that we do and don't do. Mill's further distinction between the higher and lower pleasures (the key difference seems to be an association with pride and sophistication for the higher ones) doesn't really change how they should be weighed against sadness. If an action causes a sufficient amount of harm, sophistication of pleasure surely won't justify it any more than intensity would in the case of Nozick's utility monster.
Ditching our "pretensions" to being bound by any principle at all is not really a viable escape route. You show me a person who is truly invincible and I'll show you a leprechaun. Attempting to consistently live without principles would in itself be a kind of bizarre principle, and no matter what your political positions are, good luck trying to articulate, spread and achieve them without at least implying the presence of some overarching standard.
To finally answer the question, "Is happiness morally relevant", I would have to say yes, but only by the skin of its teeth. While duty binds us to directly reduce harm, it merely requires the facilitation of the threshold conditions for happiness to come and go of its own accord.
Preserving sentient life, and securing a basic degree of meaningful and non-intrusive personal liberty for all, will always be ultimately worthwhile. It is only in the context of this modicum of hope that anything, including moral rules, can have value in the first place.