Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Some thougths about Utilitarianism and the Felicific Calculus.


CENTRAL TENET OF HEDONISTIC UTILITARIANISM: Morally right acts increase aggregate happiness. Happiness is measured as a subjective experience of pleasure.  
  
Assuming that we are trying to be perfect Utilitarians:

P1 - We should aim to perform perfect felicific calculus's. (see here)
P2 - Perfect felicific calculus's are conducted with a complete knowledge of all the 'relevant facts' involved.
P3 - We are ignorant about what the 'relevant facts' in a scenario will be until we encounter the scenario in which the felicific calculus is required.
C1 - Therefore ANY fact should be considered valuable because it is a potentially 'relevant fact'. (And the possession of 'relevant facts' is a necessary condition for conducting a reliable felicific calculus)
C2 - Therefore we should aim to gather as many facts about the world as possible.
P4 - We gather facts about the world through our direct and indirect experiences.
C3 - Therefore we should maximise our direct and indirect experiences.

We can reach C2 and C3 through the uncontroversial P1. I am concerned, however, with the implications of C3 and whether or not it is compatible with the central tenets of Utilitarianism.

I am defining 'direct experiences' as being something that we intimately experience and interpret into knowledge ourselves, i.e. learning about Japanese culture through going to Japan. Indirect experiences are equally important when the direct experience is not available; an example of an indirect experience might be reading a book about Japanese culture. In the second example the reader gains a direct experience of 'book-reading' and an indirect experience of Japanese culture. I cannot perceive of any other way that we might come to gain knowledge other than through direct and indirect experiences. I admit that just because someone has an experience it doesn't mean that it necessarily translates to knowledge. There are often examples of experience without knowledge (caused through a failure to observe or synthesize information). But there are never cases of knowledge without experience (excepting perhaps ingrained biological 'knowledge'). 

In order for experiences to be effectively turned into knowledge one must possess what I'd like to call 'philosophical virtues', or in other words one must be inclined to understand the world in a certain way. This idea falls broadly under the umbrella of Virtue Epistemology. Virtue Epistemology is a relatively new strand of philosophy that looks at the way that we understand the world and turn our observations into knowledge. Virtue Epistemologists follow in the Aristotelian tradition of looking at the quality of the reasons behind the judgement rather than the consequences of the judgement itself. It might seem bizarre to introduce something like virtues into a consequentialist theory however I believe it is entirely appropriate. Instead of defining virtues as things like courage, honesty, integrity, etc, I would like to define virtues as being 'tendencies to view the world such that sufficient data is obtained in order to conduct a felicific calculus'. Valued qualities in making a judgement might include things such as conscientiousness or open-mindedness. Another virtue might include the capacity to recognize unreliable evidence, e.g. testimony. It is these 'epistemological virtues' that mark the difference between those that can effectively conduct a felicific calculus and those that cannot. 

Provided that one possesses these aforementioned virtues there is no reason why every new experience couldn't provide the agent with a greater knowledge-bank to be used in future decision making. In fact, if one accepts the central tenet of hedonistic utilitarianism and the links between the premises above, one is obliged to have as many of these new experiences as possible. This is, I guess, the crux of my argument.

What happens, however, when one is faced with a choice between an option that will definitively increase pleasure and another option that will definitively increase knowledge?  The essence of utilitarianism is to increase total pleasure, however, as we have seen, this entails that knowledge be maximised too. How, given our ignorance of future states, should we decide on a course of action in such circumstances? 

For example imagine that you are at a Chinese restaurant and are offered either ice cream (your current favourite desert) or a traditional Chinese desert in which you know nothing about whatsoever. As far as you know the pleasure that you will receive from eating the traditional Chinese desert is a mystery - It might be horrible, or it might replace ice-cream as your favourite. In trying to be the best Utilitarian that you can be, what should you do?

I would argue that one should try the mystery Chinese desert even though there is a risk of discovering that it gives less pleasure than the ice-cream. The reason is that the world contains an admittedly large, but still finite, amount of experiences that can be had. This means that it is very likely than many experiences will be had more than once. If utilitarianism is adopted as a life-long system of morality acting in accordance with C3 (and hence maximising new experiences) this makes it more likely that felicific calculus's will be accurately conducted in the future.  Every new experience gives knowledge about a previously mysterious variable. This is how I propose that the alleged epistemological deficiencies of the utilitarian can be countered. One should only be deficient in knowledge of the pleasure potential of a particular course of action once per each unique action. This is because after acknowledging that they do not know whether the action beings about pleasure or not they will choose above all other options it in order to gain knowledge about it. 

There is one important exception that I make to this rule. This exception applies to choices between courses of action that have already been experienced and are known to be pleasurable and courses of action that have not been directly experienced but that one has reason to believe (through indirect knowledge) that the experience would be unpleasant. To return to the Chinese Restaurant example this would be a scenario in which your choice is still between the ice-cream and the traditional Chinese desert except that this time you are not in complete ignorance in regards to the Chinese dish. Your friend who is accompanying you says that he once had it and found it unpleasant. Here you are in a very difficult position. Whilst you know that things like 'taste' are quite subjective you also acknowledge that hitherto your food preferences have been very similar to this person. You do not like the idea of subjecting yourself to easily avoidable (and perhaps likely) displeasure, yet at the same time you recognise this moment as an opportunity to increase your knowledge about the world.

In these circumstances I would argue that it doesn't matter which option is chosen - the formula's can step aside here.There are merits to trying new things, however it is rash to deny pleasure for the sake of new experiences in all situations. There will be times in which one simply wants the pleasure of a comforting and familiar taste and doesn't like the potential risk for having an unpleasant experience. The decision to settle for such a thing is understandable and justifiable.
The decision making apparatus I would suggest in conjunction with the felicific calculus would look something like this:


Decision making matrix with 2 variables.
Have directly experienced and is pleasant.
Have directly experienced and is unpleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be pleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be unpleasant.
Have not experienced in any way.
Have directly experienced and is pleasant.
1.
Apply Felicific calculus.

Choose the pleasant option.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.

Choose either option. Both are valuable.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have directly experienced and is unpleasant.
2.
Choose the pleasant option.
6.
Apply Felicific calculus.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be unpleasant.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be pleasant.
3.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
7.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
10.

Apply Felicific calculus.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be unpleasant.
4.
Choose either option. Both are valuable.
8.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be unpleasant.
11.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
13.

Apply Felicific calculus.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have not experienced in any way.
5.
Choose the unexperienced option.
9.
Choose the unexperienced option.
12.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
14.
Choose the unexperienced option.
15.
Choose at random.

EXPLANATIONS:
 Squares 1, 6, 10, 13 and 15 are straight-forward decisions and can be made fairly easily provided tha tone possesses the epistemological virtues required to conduct an accurate felicific calculus.
Square 15 is similarly straight-forward - when choosing in absolute ignorance it really doesn't matter which path is chosen.
Decisions made in squares 2 and 11 show that, all other factors being equal, pleasure is chosen over displeasure.  
Decisions made in squares 3 and 7 show that paths that are indirectly known to be pleasurable should always be chosen. This is because it turns indirect knowledge into direct knowledge and because pleasure is, of course, a worthy goal.
The proposed decision to be made in square 8 shows that direct knowledge is taken to be more trustworthy than indirect knowledge. For this reason indirect displeasure is chosen for there is a chance that the knowledge received is faulty and, in fact, the path may prove to be pleasurable.
In square 5 I suggest that one should choose the unknown experience. This is because going from no knowledge whatsoever to direct knowledge represents a very valuable move.  
Square 9 is a rather intuitive decision - if you know that one of the options is certainly unpleasant you might as well try your luck with absolute chance.
In square 12 I advocate that that the indirectly experienced pleasurable experience be chosen over the unknown experience. This is because it I consider direct experiences to be the most valuable type. Although taking a risk on the unknown option may pay pleasurable dividends there is the risk that it may not. Conversely there is a good chance that the indirectly pleasurable experience may turn out to be directly pleasurable. And a move from indirect to direct knowledge is valuable in itself.
Square 14 is again rather intuitive. Whatever option is chosen there will be the benefit of gaining direct knowledge. It makes sense to take a risk on the mystery choice rather than accepting what will probably be an unpleasant experience.
Square 4 is the most interesting square on the matrix. It is what might be called the 'freedom square'. When one is faced with this type of decision I do not think that there is any more merit in either option than the other. It is certainly a noble move to choose the indirectly unpleasant experience in order to fully understand whether it is unpleasant it actually is (and how unpleasant it is), however when faced with the competing choice of definitive pleasure it is entirely acceptable to forgo such a choice.

I imagine that a person who chooses to live this way for an entire lifetime would have an immense range of pleasant and unpleasant experiences; she would be vastly knowledgeable and quite different to the typical portrayal of the shallow, pleasure seeking utilitarian stuck on an endless hedonic treadmill. I believe that the move I have just made from P1 to C3 is a necessary, albeit not revolutionary, move that needs to made to increase the legitimacy of utilitarianism. Ascertaining how widespread pleasure is best achieved is a vast empirical challenge and requires a great deal of inter-disciplinary knowledge from biology to psychology to cultural studies and beyond. Whatever criticisms that you may have towards utilitarianism any claim that it is overly simple is simply false.  

I believe that something along the lines of the argument I have just presented must be adopted if one is seriously considering adopting utilitarianism as a long term morality. I have begun opening myself up to a range of new experiences recently as part or my moral and personal development. It's incredible how often something that something you have avoided because of mere heresy turns out to be quite pleasurable. Recent examples include going vegetarian - I suspected it would be awful and difficult when really it just forced me to make more creative (and still delicious) meals. Another beneficial example of actively pursuing new experiences has been forcing myself to read things that I'd heard negative reviews about. I read 'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris recently and actually quite enjoyed it despite all the negative reviews I'd read. Sure, it wasn't perfect but it wasn't horrible any where near as horrible as some of the reviews I'd read. The same goes for Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. . . sort of. . . well actually as it turned out the hearsay I heard was partly true - I got a little overwhelmed and bored by the sheer size of the thing; BUT, nevertheless I can now actively participate in conversations about Rand and Harris without merely regurgitating common-places. Maximising experiences not only helps you be a better utilitarian it also helps fight the spread of dogmatic belief!


11 comments:

  1. P1 Utilitarianism involves the use of felcific calculus
    P2 Perfect felicific calculus's are conducted with a complete knowledge of all the 'relevant facts' involved.
    P3 Relevant facts include future events
    P4 It is impossible to reliably know facts about the future to a large extent
    C To a large extent it is impossible to practice utilitarianism

    P1 Utilitarianism involves the use of felcific calculus
    P2 Perfect felicific calculus's are conducted with a complete knowledge of all the 'relevant facts' involved.
    P3 C1 - Therefore ANY fact should be considered valuable because it is a potentially 'relevant fact'. (And the possession of 'relevant facts' is a necessary condition for conducting a reliable felicific calculus)
    C2 - Therefore we should aim to gather as many facts about the world as possible.
    P4 - It takes a long time to collect as many facts about the world as possible, and this collection is necessarily incomplete unless we are omniscient.
    P5 - Humans are not omniscient
    C3 - Many decisions in utilitarianism will be made
    C3 - The attempt to practice utilitarianism will lead to much unknown harm during the collection of the relevant facts

    P1 Utilitarianism involves the use of felcific calculus
    P2 Felcific calculus involves variables which are impossible to measure
    P3 Unmeasured variables have no value
    C It is impossible to measure utility in utilitarianism

    AND SO ON AND ON AND ON

    Signed,

    Nemesis

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  2. C3 - Many decisions in utilitarianism will be made without the relevant facts

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    1. Nemesis. How amusing. I don't entirely disagree with your arguments - just some minor phrasings. For example P4 in the first paragraph. I agree that often it is impossible to know 'for sure' what might happen in the future. However we have the ability, with the help of the sciences and the general uniformity of human psychology, to make generally accurate predictions about the future. Remember, a utilitarian doesn't need to know EVERYTHING about a scenario, they just need to know which option promotes happiness the most. Of course, the more information that is known the less chances the agent has of making mistakes, but a complete knowledge isn't necessary. If I'm deciding whether to donate money to charity I don't need to know exactly how much pleasure I will get from withholding the money (down to the nearest hedon) and exactly how much the recipients might get - I just need to know who gets MORE happiness.

      For these reasons I deny that it is impossible to practice utilitarianism. A lack of complete knowledge (or an inability to obtain complete knowledge) is not a 'knock-down' argument. What you have proven is that it might be impossible to be a 'perfect utilitarian', and I agree. But in everyday life we don't need to have a complete knowledge of all the variables (although we should aim for that), we just need to know comparatively where they stand in relation to the promotion of happiness.

      Your second paragraph I accept up until your final conclusion which doesn't directly link to the premises. Nevertheless I understand the point you're making and again I agree. There would probably be many cases in which mistakes are made in deciding what course of action promotes happiness. This is inevitable. What happens, however, is that each failed calculus contributes more data to our 'knowledge-banks' in order that the same mistakes are not made in the future. Provided that the amount of variables stays roughly the same we can slowly diminish our amount of errors that we make based on the new experiences that we have. I don't deny that there will be errors in the process of knowledge gathering but I suppose my argument is more long-term. Over the course of a lifetime if one has had a large range of experiences they will hopefully (as a consequence) have gained a large amount of knowledge about the world and the consequences of their actions and this will contribute to more accurate felicific calculus's.

      I disagree with premise 2 and 3 and your conclusion in your third paragraph. Subjective happiness can be measured: Through testimony and through neuroscience. And again the measurement needn't be perfect. For a pragmatic form of utilitarianism we just need to know which options MOST promotes happiness, the ordering of all the other options is irrelevant. I think that if you can rate purely personal options in order of preferences (Do you want to eat fish tonight or steak? - should be fairly easy to work out which one brings you more happiness) then you can do the same with others too. Once I know that you prefer steak to fish I could (with a fairly good degree of accuracy) make these types of decisions for you.

      Also, why do unmeasured variables have no value? There were times in history in which pain was unmeasurable - we didn't know how to explain it or measure it physiologically. Does that mean that people's pain then was not valuable? (or worth avoiding?) I have no idea how one would go about measuring the pain felt by 20, 000 people being immersed in lava. But nevertheless I have personally felt pain, recognize that other humans have the same capacity to feel this pain, and therefore wish to avoid inflicting such pain. The measurement tool is just that - a tool.

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    2. About your reply to my first argument:
      "But in everyday life we don't need to have a complete knowledge of all the variables (although we should aim for that), we just need to know comparatively where they stand in relation to the promotion of happiness."

      -- Just exactly how much do you need to know in each situation then to know enough to make the correct moral decision? It seems up to each individual. What if Nemesis thinks that killing a prominent utilitarian might make him feel pretty darn good and he just decides that's all he need to know about the situation?

      - About your reply to my second statement
      You simply will not be able to know the harm you are doing in the things you have no idea about, or are remote to your felicific calculus - This is a key problem for utilitarianism. If you want to maximise pleasure, you can't be sure you do it if you have unknown unknowns in the felicific system. If you claim you can do it without knowing everything, nemesis will criticise you at every turn because he will argue that you can't be sure that this is the correct solution; and there is no quick response to this, which takes a lot of time :)

      - TBC

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    3. - About your reply to my third statement
      "I disagree with premise 2 and 3 and your conclusion in your third paragraph. Subjective happiness can be measured: Through testimony and through neuroscience. And again the measurement needn't be perfect. For a pragmatic form of utilitarianism we just need to know which options MOST promotes happiness, the ordering of all the other options is irrelevant."

      You can only know who has more happiness by making an estimate of an amount of hedons. If you cannot derive the amount of hedons, you can never actually make meaningful comparisons of happiness between people or groups when performing the felicific calculus because there is no standardisation. Human psychology, neuroscience, and testimony do have certain regularities, but to derive a hedon, there will have to be something that is standard, something that defines a hedon - what will that be?

      The closest thing that Nemesis can think of is perhaps an injection of morphine for example, (a stimulation to mu receptors, closely linked to the physical experience of pleasure) - so we can reproducibly start testing, but even then, due to idiosyncrasies, different people will have different tolerances and pleasure responses. Testimony is unreliable. So, we would have to somehow measure brain stimulation of pleasure, in each person we would include in our felicific system and correlate a particular "pleasure state neuronal pattern" in their neurology with a particular dose of morphine injection. This would have to look the same in each person. Then, you would have to run tests on each person in the population to correlate pleasurable activities with a certain injection of morphine in each person - of which there is an innumerable amount. Quite clearly, we can never actually derive hedons at this time with our technology. Consider any attempt to measure or standardise hedons as a reductio ad absurdum.

      PS Unmeasured variables have no value because they remain a variable. X remains X because it is unmeasured, if it was measured X it might = 2. This is what Nemesis meant by P3 "having no value"

      THEN

      Even if we are charitable and assume you can derive hedons;

      Do you seriously mean to do this at every action in life?
      Consider these variables?
      - (Intensity, Duration, Certainty, Remoteness, Fecundity, Purity and Extent)
      For every person, and compute the myriad of possible situations?
      The computation is astronomical!

      It really is impossible to practice utilitarianism. Any attempt to do so without consideration of hedons allows you to take strong paternalist positions to oppress outcomes you merely consider will lead to unhappiness without KNOWING this is actually true. It is a prescription for tyranny by some sort of pathological philosopher.

      Nemesis will always correct hubris.

      Signed,

      Your corrector, N

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    4. You ask: Just exactly how much do you need to know in each situation then to know enough to make the correct moral decision?

      Probably an enormous amount of knowledge is required to make a verifiably 'correct' decision. However I'm not all that interested in advocating a philosophy that requires people to go around asking people to take neurological tests so that they can measure dopamine, etc. That would be extremely unpractical. I'm interested in people making the best decisions that they can with the knowledge that they possess OR ALTERNATIVELY seeking out the required information to make an informed utilitarian decision. Seeing as utilitarianism is an objective system it should be verifiable with other people. I imagine that if you stated that you were going to kill a prominent utilitarian for your own pleasure and thought it was the best course of action you'd simply be wrong. There are many options to consider (the families of the deceased, fans of the philosopher, the pain incurred during the death, etc, etc). Theoretically if you are making the correct moral decision in killing this person ALL other utilitarians will agree with your choice to do so.

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    6. You also say: "You simply will not be able to know the harm you are doing in the things you have no idea about, or are remote to your felicific calculus - This is a key problem for utilitarianism." - I agree that It is a problem for utilitarianism, but it certainly isn't a unique problem. Isn't unknown variables a problem for almost all decision making models? Just as a virtue ethicist may sometimes be unsure about whether her action is 'courageous' or 'rash' the utilitarian will sometimes be unsure about whether the action being promoted will cause the most pleasure or whether some other action will. The point is that the person making the decision acts in a philosophical, rigorous, and unbiased way. This is where Virtue Epistomology comes in. (See this pdf for more info http://john.turri.org/research/VE_entry_Sage.pdf). Errors will be a part of any system, we can minimise them through refining the process in which we come to conclusions.

      The rest of your objections relate to the difficulty/impossibility of measuring a 'hedon'. Well yes, I agree it's probably impossible (or at least impractical) to measure a 'hedon'. Nevertheless when you tell me that you stubbed your toe and it hurt I don't need to ask 'hurt? what do you mean? How many hedons did you lose?'. Pain and pleasure are almost universally understood concepts. Despite this, attempting to measure or predict that pain and pleasure of others is indeed subjective. And this is a problem for utilitarians and their calculus's if this subjectivity in not recognized. I think that part of being a good utilitarian is realizing that one will inevitably be biased or flawed sometimes. Knowing this can encourage a good utilitarian to cross-check their calculations with other people (perhaps people that know more about the variables involved) or to seek a more knowledgeable perspective.

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    7. Another consequence of realizing that we are flawed calculators of pleasure is an obligation to have more experiences. If we can't have true 'objectivity' the closest we can get is 'super-subjectivity'. What I mean by super-subjectivity is having subjectively experienced the position of all affected by the act. For example: Imagine that a decision must be made about whether I pull a certain practical joke on a friend. OBJECTIVITY in making a desicion would require a god-like position in which the decision is made without any personal bias - This is not an option for a human being. A SUBJECTIVE decision would be one made from the position of a potential prankster. A SUPER-SUBJECTIVE decision would be make as BOTH as prankster and a victim of a practical joke - This is the situation in which the most accurate and non-biased utilitarian decision can be made. The person who has both pulled pranks and had pranks played on him has a subjective knowledge about the pain and pleasure felt in each situation.

      Aiming for super-subjectivity requires that one maximize their experiences because one never knows what one might need to have experienced in order to have the required knowledge for future felicific calculus's.

      Ultimately if you're arguing that it is impossible to be a perfect utiltarian then you are probably right. However, if you possess epistemological virtues and you aim for super-subjectivity in all cases (and hence maximise your experiences) you are on the right track to being the best utilitarian that you can be.

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    8. "Isn't unknown variables a problem for almost all decision making models?"
      - only for some... and the biggest one is Utilitarianism because it purports to weigh up the total sum of pleasure and pain for every act... So unknown variables destroy utilitarian reasoning and make it subject to constant revision. Your super-subjectivity cannot exist for this very reason. It is a FANTASY because it purports to account for the view of a person whose mind you do not share - could you empathise with an alien for example? Duty ethics for example, place no value on the unknown, it is merely acting according to a duty, e.g. a duty to tell the truth.

      "Despite this, attempting to measure or predict that pain and pleasure of others is indeed subjective. And this is a problem for utilitarians and their calculus's if this subjectivity in not recognized. I think that part of being a good utilitarian is realizing that one will inevitably be biased or flawed sometimes. Knowing this can encourage a good utilitarian to cross-check their calculations with other people (perhaps people that know more about the variables involved) or to seek a more knowledgeable perspective."
      - You said it yourself. But, just HOW much do you need to seek to find out from others before you make your decision? HOW much analysis paralysis will you tolerate before acting? Utilitarianism cannot answer these questions. It is a hollow recipe for tyranny by a well meaning but bumbling, unknowing pseudo-intellectual elite.

      - Nemesis, as always, your corrector

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    9. Pain and pleasure may be universally understood by humans and some animals, but this still does not allow the derivision of hedons that Utilitarianism requires to be even somewhat acceptable.

      - Nemesis

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