Total and Average Utilitarianism

One of the main theoretical questions within utilitarianism is whether one should favor total or average utilitarianism. The former aims to maximize total pleasure (assuming we’re talking about hedonistic utilitarianism) while the latter aims to maximize average pleasure. In other words, the average utilitarian would prefer the existence of relatively few very happy people rather than a lot of people who are just above the limit between happiness and unhappiness. In the latter case, there is a thought experiment, most famously discussed by Derek Parfit, which, according to him leads to a “repugnant conclusion”: if we have a population of billions of people with a good quality of life, we could always imagine a larger population that would be better, in the sense that the sum of happiness would be higher, as long as we just add more and more people whose lives are barely worth living. If we have a population of 10 billion with an average happiness of 3, we could simply compare that to a population of just over 30 billion with an average happiness of 1. The total utilitarian would, presumably, have to choose the latter scenario. But to some people this seems absurd, or even repugnant.

Some utilitarian philosophers (Torbjörn Tännsjö, for instance) simply bite the bullet and accept that they would choose the maximum happiness anyway. I, however, avoid the repugnant conclusion by being an average utilitarian – not simply because I want to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but because it seems more “intuitively” reasonable to me. I don’t see happiness as a kind of free floating mass of happiness particles. Sums of happiness are only thinkable when they are attached to existing individuals. Individuals that do not exist are not relevant to the calculation. Therefore, average utilitarianism seems most plausible. One consequence of such a view is that we should not create more people in the world if we think it would decrease average happiness. Of course, I do not think creating more people generally does decrease average happiness, but it is imaginable that there are points where overpopulation – and other kinds of considerations – might make it so (different points would apply globally, locally and individually).

But the average view can lead to some repugnant conclusions on its own.  If we think that calculating happiness is only relevant when happiness is attached to an existing individual, then it seems to be the case that the death of someone is not really a bad thing if the death of that person does not affect anyone else (in the form of emotional pain, for instance), since the happiness level of that person drops out of the average calculation. On the total view, however, happiness decreases when someone dies (given that they had lives barely worth living or higher). The “repugnant” thing about the average view could, thus, be that killing people by itself might not be bad at all, at least for the person being killed. Death would only be bad for the people who mourn the loss of the dead person, and if there is no mourning (or other bad consequences) of killing one particular individual we could not really say it was bad. Or could we? Yes, we could always claim that even if the state of being dead in itself is not bad for anyone, fear of being killed is very strong among most people. This means that having a strong ban on killing is very beneficial for society, because constantly living in fear would decrease average happiness a lot (but there would be other bad consequences as well, for instance, consequences related to the probability of making miscalculations). All this being said, I must still concede that I do not mourn the deaths of the countless millions who have already died and become completely forgotten by the world, as I do not mourn the non-existence of all people who have not yet been born or who could have been born if we did not use contraceptives (regardless of whether they would have been happy people or not).  Their state of non-being is irrelevant for calculating happiness in our present world.

However, there is another type of “repugnant” conclusion with average utilitarianism (but it can affect total utilitarianism as well). Imagine if we could raise average happiness by killing off unhappy people. Four people with happiness levels of 4, 3, 2 and 1 could raise their average by killing the person with happiness level 1 (they would get average 3 instead of 2.5). But this involves some illegitimate fudging of the numbers. It is true that the average would increase, but none of the individual numbers would increase; no individual would in reality be any happier as a consequence of the killing. This might mean that the sort of average utilitarianism I am contemplating must avoid this absurd conclusion by being reformulated in some way. In other words, we can compare two averages in different scenarios, provided that any individual numbers actually increase or decrease in the two scenarios. It seems we need an increase in both total and average happiness (total happiness among the survivors, that is).

Nevertheless, one might retort the following: what if some individual happiness levels actually increase in the previous scenario – if, in other words, we got levels of 4, 3, 3 after the killing (maybe because the killed person annoyed one of the individuals very much). Would that killing, then, be justifiable? Again, I would say that, in theory, the state of being dead would not be bad for the person who was killed, but it would be hard to imagine an organized society where things like that are condoned. On the other hand, we should remember that this sort om “removal” (if not killing) of people is something that all societies do in a milder form. For instance, if some people go around lowering other peoples happiness by stealing from them, raping them, abusing them, etc. we remove them (usually temporarily) from society so that happiness levels among the “survivors” (average and total) can increase again (and conversely, if happiness levels were never affected by such crimes it would by wrong of us to punish the perpetrators). Just like an organized society cannot tolerate individual decisions of removal, we must tolerate collective democratic forms of removal (but we should not accept non-democratic forms). In an even milder forms we practice this form of removal by stopping to socialize with people that make us unhappy – and it would, presumably, be hard to claim that this is immoral (unless, perhaps, we have not made any serious attempts to improve the relationship first).

Fear of Death and the Afterlife

The fact that we must all die can be hard to handle. I don’t have much experience discussing death with other people, but I presume that fear of death is a common phenomenon. I have certainly felt it from time to time myself. Not only might one be scared of what it’s like not to exist, to fall asleep and never wake up again; but it might also be daunting (although I would guess this is somewhat less common) to contemplate the insignificance or pointlessness of one’s own existence. Billions after billions of humans have died (many of which never got the chance to live as long and full lives as we expect today) and will continue to die until humankind is, at some point, extinct. And the existence of humankind itself will only be a minuscule parenthesis in the life of the universe.

My intellectual belief is that we should not fear death. After all, I did not experience the time before I was born and, thus, I could not have experienced it as painful. In the same way, I will not experience the state of non-being after death, so it could not be painful for me. This is an old view which was held by, among others, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. But this is hard to swallow emotionally. I can still feel sad about the fact that one day I will cease to exist; that I will no more experience the things I enjoy in life.

So what should I do about this sadness? Unfortunately I cannot turn to religion (at least not in its conventional guises), since I just find it too hard to believe in some kind of deity or paradise (and/or hell) which, presumably, exists at some place beyond space and time. I also find ot hard to believe in reincarnation or Karma (and other sorts of punishments and rewards after death).

There are, however, beliefs about life after death that I find less unreasonable. One hypothesis that I have sometimes felt inclined to believe is that there might be something in our brains (where our consciousness resides) that keeps on living after the apparent physical death of our bodies – some kind of molecule not yet observed by science and which contains something of our thoughts and experiences.  As we slip out of life we might slip into some dreamlike existence which might go on for a very long time (at least it might be perceived as a very long time). It might not give us eternal life but at least a sort of second life.

One might also think that the way we have lived our lives will affect the content of our “afterlife”. If we have hurt many people and caused much suffering (including to ourselves) our second life might be haunted by nightmares and vice versa. This would mean that the person who has lived a harmonios and “good” life would have less reason to fear death than the one who has lived a “bad” life. This, in turn, could give discussions about morality a whole new meaning; but I must concede that the thoughts in this paragraph sprung into my mind literally as I was writing this blog post, so I haven’t thought much about it.

Of course, the existence of unknown molecules which contain something of our consciousness (and perhaps something of our conscience too) could not be confirmed by science. But neither can it be falsified, and if it gives someone comfort to believe I don’t see why they should not believe it. I would certainly not try to talk anyone out of it. I am generally not someone who actively tries to talk people out of their supernatural beliefs, unless they actively seek to argue about it themselves, or if they are trying to impose their supernatural beliefs on other people (the latter means that I am a firm believer in separation between church and state). Even less would I try to talk someone out of a belief that I am sometimes close to holding myself (i.e. the theory of the dream-life referred to above) or might very well come to hold completely some day.

Constructive Egoism and Meaningful Work

I have often pointed out that hedonism, in the philosophical sense, is not an egoist doctrine (unlike, perhaps hedonism in its more popular sense). On the contrary, it is very altruist. There is, however, an important place for thinking about oneself – a sort of “constructive” egoism in hedonistic utilitarianism. After all, our own happiness is a part of the sum of all happiness, and if we could somehow make ourselves happier, without making anyone else unhappier in the process, the world would be much better. Add to this that an amount of personal recreation is necessary for any beneficial societal activity, at least it it is meant to be sustained over a whole lifetime (which we should assume).

But the problem is that we usually think very shallowly about both our own happiness (including our necessary recreation) and that of others. Usually, we passively accept the paths to happiness that our culture has provided for us. In my own cultural context it’s mainly getting an education and a well-paid job in order to afford a house, a car (or two), vacations abroad and/or a summer cottage. Similarly we accept the traditional ways of being altruistic, mainly helping out close friends and relatives when they need us, but also paying our taxes (a tiny slice of which actually goes towards helping genuinely needy people), and giving a small amount to different charities (some of which, again, are only marginally engaged in significantly reducing suffering).

This kind of shallow egoism combined with shallow altruism does not really seem optimal. Instead, we should perhaps try to think deeply about both things. Maybe we could think more seriously about how we could make ourselves happy as well as how we could make other people happy.

The main inspiration for this post was the reading of Critique of Economic Reason by French social philosopher André Gorz. In this work, Gorz highlights a very important aspect of what makes up our (un)happiness, namely our approach to work. His idea is that we should gradually reduce working time for everyone (while keeping purchasing power intact, since it is technological progress which reduces working time), reaching, perhaps, 1000 hours per year instead of around 1600 hours, which is common in Europe. This should be coupled with an increased power to plan one’s work-life on a macro-level, e.g., deciding to work 8 hours a day for a few months (or years) and then taking the next few months (or years) off from work. But others might prefer constantly working 4 hours a day.

Changing work-life in this manner requires some radical shifts in our culture. As Gorz points out, our free time is mainly seen only as the opposite of work – a time for resting and receiving some passive entertainment. Due to the way in which work-life is organized, we are not accustomed to viewing our free time as a source of productive activity in which we can develop our own talents and passions as well as engaging in social projects that are hedonistically beneficial to people around us. We simply don’t have the time or energy do do that.

Another benefit of shorter working time would be that more people would gain access to jobs which are interesting, stimulating, creative, or even fun. Having such a job is generally a privilege, jealously guarded by those who presently hold them. As Gorz points out, we seem to have this idea that someone who works in such a privileged position much immerse oneself in it totally, i.e., being engaged in it (at least) 40 hours per week. This idea is fuelled by the myth that those privileged people are totally irreplaceable.

Even though it may be utopian to envisage a society where work life is transformed on a large scale by political means, there are still things we can do in regard to our own lives in our present society. The first step is to actually think through what kind of life would be best for oneself. It might be the case that after reflection one reaches the conclusion that a “standard” life is best suitable. The important thing is that one actually goes through the thought process, something I suspect most people do not do – because if they did it thoroughly, I find it hard to imagine that so many would chose such stressful and, in many ways, “spiritually” unfulfilling lives as is actually the case.

Not only would working less increase happiness for many of those who choose to do that, but it would also increase happiness for others, namely those who involuntarily work too little (or are stuck working too much at a job they really don’t like). Until politics is geared towards a real redistribution of work, reducing their own work time is something that, at least, middle-class people (and above) can do, even if it entails losing some income which does not serve to make them happier anyway.

Marxism and Ethics: Some Problems

I’m the sort of person who requires extraordinary reasons for being convinced by extraordinary moral claims. If you, for instance, want me to take part in a revolution to topple the present order and establish an entirely new one, then you should provide very good reasons to convince me, including reasons of an ethical nature (the same might be the case if you’re trying to convince someone to radically change their lifestyle for moral reasons). The problem with Marxism is that this tradition is seldom characterized by careful ethical reasoning.

Now, it might be claimed that Marxism is really not an ethical theory, but a (sort of) scientific theory, which only purports to explain the course of history and other social phenomena. But that would not really capture the venture of Marxism when we look back at its history. As Stevenn Lukes observes in his book Marxism and Morality, Marxism has always embodied a paradox in that it, on the one hand, seems to reject morality as merely a form of ideology, serving class interests and bourgeois prejudices, while, on the hand, Marxist writers (including Marx himself) constantly employ a moralizing language when they denounce the injustices of existing societies.

And herein lies the problem: you can’t simultaneously denounce some practices as immoral and refuse to engage in ethical reasoning to prove why they are immoral (and why your alternative practices are not immoral). Of course, some self-identified Marxists have tried to engage in traditional ethical reasoning, but I have never found any such reasoning convincing. If we go back to Marx himself, he seems to have held an essentialist view of human nature, and his moral justification for communism was that under it we would be able to live more fully in accordance with that nature. He also seems to have held that most (perhaps all) causes for social conflict would dissapear in a classless society, something which makes it superfluous to specify what moral rules (or laws) would govern a communist society. In other words, people would not need any specific rights, since no one would ever need protection from other people.

The latter aspect is, perhaps, what I find most disturbing among Marxist thinkers, i.e., the refusal to discuss ethical (and legal) principles in detail. If this refusal stems from the aforementioned belief that such principles will be unnecessary in a communist society, then that is simply too naive a justification. Even if people are economically “liberated”, there will always be other causes for conflict among people, and we should discuss in advance how such conflicts ought to be resolved. We can’t just assume, as some Marxists have done that “[a] really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has forgotten them in practical life” (Engels, quoted by Lukes). It is this sort of attitude that leads people like Trotsky and Lukács to urge the proletariat to simply trust the communist leaders and not think for themselves (including not questioning methods which might appear extremely brutal from an “ordinary” moral standpoint, but justifiable in light of the class struggle).

The first thing one should require from Marxism is an ethical justification of the badness of (capitalist) exploitation and alienation. Marx’s own essentialist justification is inadequate, even if the implausible foundational premise is accepted (it is implausible in that I don’t think “human nature” is such a fixed thing as Marx seems to believe). To make it more inadequate one would have to discuss in detail what a communist society would look like, and how it could overcome the processes that lead to exploitation and alienation more perfectly than other alternatives. For instance, it is not entirely clear that Marx’s ideal of self-development would fare better in an (unspecified) communist society than in, say, a quasi-capitalist welfare state with a universal basic income. For one thing, the realization of the latter seems like much less of a gamble.

Do these problems mean that the entire project of left-wing politics is in danger? Of course not. Being left-wing (even of fairly radical sort) is not necessarily the same as being Marxist. One does not need Marxist social science or ethics to understand society from a left-wing perspective, or even to be a socialist. I do not subscribe to the ethics of most Marxists I have read, nor have I found much use of any Marxist theories in the context of social science. But in practical politics I often make common cause people who consider themselves Marxists, and I strive for a society in which economic equality is much greater than today. I am not, however, a communist (and by some definitions not even a socialist), since my utilitarian ethics does not lead me in that direction.

Utilitarian Political Demands

In the previous post I sort of endorsed Johan E. Gustafssons design for a utilitarian flag. But in order for someone to be induced to march under such a banner, we should also provide some concrete political demands to go along with it. In the following I will make a few suggestions for such political demands. My main criteria of selection were three: the demands should be relatively concrete, they should be relevant for large portions of the world, and they should be relatively uncontroversial within (hedonistic) utilitarian circles, at least as minimal demands.

Of course the list could be made longer, but these are the suggestions (in no particular order) that sprung to my mind while writing this:

  • Abolish all practices through which non-human animals are subjected to continuous suffering.
  • Support taxes and other measures which substantially reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
  • Preserve (or introduce) an unconditional and effective right to abortion.
  • Support a strong welfare state financed by highly progressive taxation and focused on redistribution from rich to poor.
  • Support an effective right to seek asylum from war and persecution.
  • Promote transparent and accountable democratic governance.

A Flag for Utilitarianism?


Philosopher Johan E. Gustafsson has proposed this as a flag for utilitarianism. He thinks – as explained on his own website – that such a symbol is badly needed, especially since utilitarianism has been a major tradition of thought and politics for such a long time. I agree with this, and I think this flag is visually compelling and well thought through in its symbolism.

The five stars stand for inclusiveness, impartiality, hedonism, aggregation, and maximization. The color yellow apparently symbolizes happiness (something I was not aware of). Together the stars (which by themselves symbolize individuals) make the shape of a smile – the collective happiness we can achieve toghether.

The flag is in the public domain and can be downloaded in different file formats on Gustafsson’s site.

Review: Christopher Woodard on Utilitarianism

Taking Utilitarianism Seriously by Christopher Woodard (Oxford University Press, 2019) constitutes a commendable attempt to revive interest in utilitarianism and to argue that this doctrine is not such a dead-end as it is often presented to be. He starts with a brief presentation of common objections to utilitarianism – for instance that it permits some purportedly abhorrent actions, that it is too demanding, and that it does not “take seriously the difference between persons” (to use Rawls’s famous formulation).

These objections can be met in two main ways. One is to show that even though utilitarianism is a good theory, people apply it wrongly or misunderstand it when they raise the aforementioned objections. This is the strategy I employ in my own book on the criticism of hedonistic utilitarianism (Woodard does not explicitly endorse the hedonist form of utilitarianism, but talks about a more “open-ended” concept of well-being). I would claim that, for instance, even though utilitarianism in theory accepts that it could be right to kill or punish an innocent human being, it is hard to see realistic scenarios where such a policy would maximize happiness, all things considered. However, in some cases – even though they be fanciful or unrealistic – I would have to bite the bullet and accept that utilitarianism might accept some actions non-utilitarians would find abhorrent.

Woodards method is different. He employs a second strategy which seems designed to avoid such bullet-biting, namely reflective equilibrium. This approach (made famous by Rawls) is nowadays very common in moral and political philosophy, and it consists in revising philosophical theories in light of non-philosophical conceptions. In other words, if (unreflective) people see something wrong with the conclusions of a particular moral theory then that theory must be revised, so that it can “explain” or “account for” these unreflective objections. For the philosopher to just say, “here is the theory, take it or leave it”, is simply not an option.

So Woodard uses reflective equilibrium to show that utilitarianism can be revised to accommodate common objections to it. His main idea is that some “abhorrent” actions which standard utilitarianism seem to commend can be rendered less commendable by referring to patterns of actions: an action that might have the best immediate consequences might not be morally obligatory if abstaining shows allegiance to an overarching pattern of behavior, which in itself has the best consequences. For instance, a world where no innocent people are killed would be the best pattern, therefore it is not morally obligatory to kill an innocent person in a specific case where it would have the best consequences. This is something between rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism.

There are a few other more or less novel ideas in the book, but I will only mention one more, which I found interesting, although, in the end, untenable. Woodard puts forward a new (at least as far as I know) conception of legitimacy, which amounts to the claim that “the legitimacy of a procedure” should be defined “as the degree to which those subject to it comply with its decisions for reasons other than threat of sanctions for non-compliance” (p. 176). I don’t know whether he intended this theory to have anarchistic implications, but to me it seems to imply just that, since it is hard to see how we could confirm that people really comply with a procedure for other reasons than fear of sanctions unless (non-voluntary) sanctions are absent.

Another pertinent question of political philosophy in the book is how utilitarianism can provide a principled defense of democracy. Here Woodard mostly relies on instrumental considerations like democracy’s track record in keeping the peace, mitigating poverty, etc. But he also invokes his theory of legitimacy, claiming that “in much of the world” democratic “processes are now a prerequisite of legitimacy”. As for myself, I rely on a more “principled” defense of democracy, in the sense that I don’t think any utilitarian considerations should be able to trump the democratic procedure, since utilitarianism itself is not some kind of “objective truth” which should be upheld politically regardless of people’s actual adherence to it.

Anyway, this is an interesting book, and, as mentioned, commendable for its aim to defend and develop utilitarianism. It does not, however, satisfy people like me, who reject reflective equilibrium as an adequate approach to ethics. As for style, it is generally well-written and the philosophical jargon is kept at a reasonable level. I suppose you don’t need to be a trained philosopher to understand it, but a philosophical beginner would probably have some problems along the way. Many ideas in the book are also rather sketchy, but perhaps Woodard would be keen to develop them further if future discussions about this book call for it.