Sunday, October 14, 2012

Elitism in J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism

Elitism in J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism

"It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides." (Utilitarianism - J.S. Mill) 

It is this quote, parroted in ethics classes that slowly bugged me more and more while studying moral philosophy. Doesn't it just seem to reek of elitism? I thought it did and because of this slowly moved away from Mill's two-tiered conception of pleasures (lower and higher - bodily and intellectual, etc) to Bentham's more 'pure' conception of utility that is based on only intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness.

Recently, however, I read an article by D.D. Raphael[1] that led me to reconsider Mill's utilitarianism, or at least led me to drop my accusations of elitism on him. The passage in particular that appealed to me was this one:

"It is possible for Mill to maintain, as he does, that it is quite consistent with hedonism to say that the pleasure of philosophy is better in kind than the pleasure of rolling in mud - so long as he also maintains that the qualitatively higher pleasures are superior in quantity as well." (pg 11)

D.D Raphael's interpretation of Mill might look something like this:

 Whilst the fool is completely satisfied they are still not be as satisfied as Socrates. The scale on the above graph should represent absolute pleasure (10 representing bliss and 0 being nothingness). It's not that the fool isn't happy - the fool is indeed happy, as happy as he can possibly be! It's just that the fool is unaware that his potential for happiness could be increased if he were to take up poetry instead of pushpin. Socrates, on the other hand, is dissatisfied because there is a gap between his potential pleasure (the pleasures of philosophy perhaps) and his actual pleasure. So if we take an absolute perspective on happiness based on something fairly objective (maybe the level of endorphins and serotonin in someone's body) we can understand that it's completely possible to be dissatisfied yet still happier than someone who is completely satisfied. Being satisfied isn't everything - it matters the extent of the pleasure that is derived from the satisfaction too. 

I think that this is the most charitable interpretation of Mill because it avoids jumping to the conclusion that there is something metaphysically different between the higher and lower pleasures. Instead it is conluded that whilst both pleasures have the same quality (pleasure is pleasure no matter what its source) it is impossible that a lower pleasure can ever exceed a higher pleasure in terms of gross utility. So this type of thing would be inconceivable to Mill:

In this case although Socrates is engaging in higher pleasures he still has less overall pleasure than the fool. This does not compute for Mill. He says:

"It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower...From this verdict of only the competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal...What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general sufferage of those who are familiar with both?"

The underlying argument here is simply that somebody who has experienced both higher and lower pleasures would always choose the higher pleasure. The temptation is to flatly deny this argument and say something like "But right now I'd much rather have sex than be working on my metaphysics essay, philosophise that Mill!" and D.D Raphael does exactly that. Raphael responds:

"Could not the fool and the pig retort in kind? Socrates knows all about mental pleasures but not enough about bodily [pleasures]. The pig has no capacity to enjoy philosophy, but Socrates has spend so much time on philosophy that he has not given rolling in the mud a decent chance. He does not know the exquisite pleasure that it can bring to those who go in for it in a big way." 

 I wholeheartedly agree with Raphael. It is entirely conceivable that a lower pleasure could bring more utility than a higher pleasure and the attitude in which the pleasure is approached probably influences the utility derived also. I do not doubt that Mill gets more pleasure from philosophy than eating or sex. But maybe the reason that this is so is because he presupposed his conclusion beforehand and hence psychologically tricked himself into enjoying the food and sex less and the philosophy more. Perhaps cultural and societal influences were at play here - people who enjoy food are called gluttons, people who enjoy sex are deviants, etc, etc. 

Overall I still rather like Mill as a utilitarian but I'm looking forward to moving on and reading some Sidgwick for his more egalitarian account of pleasure as "desirable consciousness of any kind".

[1] Raphael, D.D., Bentham and the Varieties of Utilitarianism, in: B. Parekh (Hrsg.), Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments, London 1993.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Maurice Sendak - Nostalgia

I was reading a blog about banned books (here <--- excellent artwork that you should all check out) when I stumbled across a familiar book title. The book was called 'In the night kitchen' by Maurice Sendak. It turns out that Maurice Sendak is the author of 'Where the Wild Things Are' but  I originally knew about him for a  different reason.

When I was growing up there was a VHS tape with a collection of short, surrealist, cartoons that I watched on repeat until the VHS tape was so warn and damaged I could barely watch it anymore. After some internet detective work I figured out that the VHS was entitled 'Really Rosie' and is based on plotlines from Maurice Sendak's picture books and with vocals sung by Carole King.

The nostalgia hit from rediscovering the video clips on youtube was intense. It was also really illuminating to watch the same clips again as an adult. These video clips aren't anything like anything else I watched as a child, in other words they are completely different to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Sharks, and Biker Mice From Mars. These are bizarre video clips - brilliant and creative, yes - but fore-mostly bizarre.

Here's a taste of what I mean:

The original picture book that this clip was based on (entitled 'In the Night Kitchen') was banned because (and here I quote some wikipedia):

Critics object to Mickey's nudity (which depicts not only his buttocks, but also his penis and testicles). Some also interpret sexual innuendo in the events, with the nudity, free-flowing milky fluids, and giant (allegedly phallic) milk bottle.

Interesting. I really don't think that my 5 year old self could recognize any of the sexual innuendo or was particularly bothered by the few short glimpses of Mickey's animated penis. Nonetheless I do wonder what watching sort of psychological influences watching these videos had on my young and impressionable mind.

This one is another classic:

Basically Pierre is an apathetic little brat who says 'I don't care' to everything despite his parents well-meaning attempts to engage with him in caring conversation. The best bit comes when Pierre meets an unusually congenial and rational lion. This section goes like this:

'Now as the night began to fall,
A hungry lion paid a call,
He looked Pierre right in the eye,
And asked him if he'd like to die,
And Pierre said.... "I don't care".

"I can eat you don't you see?"
"I don't care"
"And you will be inside of me"
"I don't care"
"Then you'll never have to bother.."
"I don't care"
"With a mother and a father"
"I don't care"
"Is that all you have to say?
"I don't care"
"then i'll eat you if I may"
So the lion ate Pierre.

Pretty gruesome huh?! Pretty excellent also. It makes me wonder whether my supreme hatred of apathy comes from the subliminal messages ingrained in my brain from repeat viewings of stupid Pierre. Pierre gave me my first taste of existentialism, and I didn't like it. . .actually, I still don't.

So I thought I'd share with you what cartoons I watched as a child. I watched cartoons that are philosophical and surreal. Perhaps unsurprisingly I'm still gripped by the philosophical and surreal now as I was at 5 years old.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Patriotism #2

Patriotism #2

"Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all it's faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority" - Arthur Schopenhauer

I posted the above quote to a forum recently and got a very mixed reaction. Some people agreed with Schopenhauer and others defended patriotism and the flag as a symbol of the positive values of a country. I've blogged about patriotism before (see here) but I was, perhaps, a little harsh on the supporters of patriotism. So I'm going to take another look at the issue in a more charitable light.

 Let's start off with the assumption that patriotism is a good thing. As evidenced by my other patriotism blog I don't think that this is the case, but let's assume for the moment that patriotism is great; that it brings people together, inspires us to progress as a country, reminds us of all the things we should be proud of, etc, etc. If we accept that patriotism is a good thing then it should probably be promoted right? But how do we promote patriotism? - This is the important question.

It seems to me that there are 2 main types of patriots (there are probably more types, or hybrids of these types, but for simplicities sake let's just stick with two):

The first type of patriot (let's call them 'Person A') reaches their view through a thought process like this; they say:

                "I have a set of values that I have reflected upon and decided are worthy. Conveniently   these values match the values of my country! I love Australian Values."

The second type of patriot (let's call them 'Person B') reaches their view through this sort of thought process:

                "I love Australia. 'Australian Values' are a part of Australia, so I love Australian Values too"

Whilst both Person A and Person B both would call themselves patriotic they are patriotic for completely different reasons. The first person is reflective and unbiased - They have thought about what they value and then discovered that it matches that values of their country. These are the people that when you ask them why they have a flag hanging in their bedroom they can tell you all about the values that Australians tend to hold and why these values are important to them.

Person B, however, is less reflective. Person B's love of Australian values comes from a general love of living in Australia. The problem is that they have not reflected on what it is that they actually value about Australia as an individual. They have fallen prey to the composition/division fallacy and assumed that because they love Australia as a whole that they love Australian values too. Or maybe they never made that assumption at all - Maybe they just bypassed the 'reflective phase' altogether. Either way this is the type of person who is likely to defend their country as being great not because of any particular values persay, but because they enjoy their life in Australia. Unfortunately without reflection it's hard to say whether it's the values of Australia that this person approves of or something completely different like, for instance, the fact that Australia is a first world country with nice beaches.

You can argue as much as you like about the proportion of the 'type-A' patriots to 'type-B' patriots in Australia, but it seems that one thing is clear: If we are to promote patriotism (for whatever reason) we should be aiming to promote 'type-A' patriotism whilst steering people away from 'type-B' patriotism. It is the foundation of a successful democracy that people actually think and reflect on issues, rhetoric and conformity will likely prevail. Only type-A patriotism includes this type of reflection.

So how do we do promote Type-A patriotism? The answer - compulsory education about ethics, morals, and values. In short, philosophical education as part of schooling curriculum. This gives people the best chance to make an objective (or at least 'less subjective') judgement about their country based on values rather than the influences of mob-mentality and unreflective, flag-waving drones.