How Demanding is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (at least some forms of it) is often criticized for being too demanding for the individual. It seems to entail, for instance, that if you have a surplus of welfare you should compensate those who have a deficit until you are equal in welfare. In reality this, of course, often means transfer of money or other physical resources, because it is usually assumed that the more money you have, the less extra welfare you get from more money, while those who have very little money get more welfare for every unit of money that get transferred to them. (I think this seems intuitively plausible to most people. Imagine that you live on the streets and manage to obtain about € 10 a day. An additional € 20 a day would make a huge difference to your quality of life, while an addition of € 20 to a salary of € 180 a day would not be a similar improvement in welfare.)

But how demanding is utilitarianism, or hedonism, really? That rich people have a duty to give to the poor seems very reasonable to that theory, but do those who are slightly above the median income face heavy obligations as well? Before discussing the real world, let’s imagine the following scenario:

You are walking through the desert. You believe that you will find water, food and shelter within three days. You are carrying three water bottles, each containing enough water to keep you alive for one day. You know that it is likely that you will meet other people wandering lost in the desert, you also know that some of them carry about the same amount of water as you, but some have less or no water at all. If you meet someone who have less water than you, are you obliged to give that person some of your water, until you have an equal amount?

In a world of “perfect compliance” with hedonism, this might be so, because then you would be sure that if you yourself start to run out of water, you can count on someone else to provide for you. But if you are not sure whether the second person you meet will behave morally to you, then it would be rather foolish to give a lot of your water to the first person. And you might not be sure if the first person is a moral person either. Perhaps he or she won’t reciprocate in the same manner at a later occasion when the tables have turned. An altruist should, in other words, be careful when helping an egoist, even if the egoist happens to be poorer than the altruist.

The point of the story is that in a world of less than complete compliance with the altruism that hedonism entails, it is not reasonable that everyone should, for instance, give away all of their monetary surplus above the median wage each month in order to equalize resources (and, presumably, happiness). For one thing, it is reasonable that everyone should be able to pile up some savings for rainy days, especially if one has an irregular income. Again, you need money for emergencies, since you can’t always count on your neighbors to help you (of course, a robust welfare state – keeping in mind that welfare states get less and less robust these days – can cover for some emergencies, like being suddenly prevented from working on account of illness). It is also reasonable that you have some money left for your own pleasures – the world would not be a very enjoyable place if we are to live like monks as long as there are people who are worse of than ourselves, and some pleasure and relaxation is probably needed to keep up the psychological motivation to be altruistic.

Thus, I would not say that hedonistic utilitarianism is extremely demanding (as, for instance, Liam Murphy claims in his book Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory). But it is, at least, moderately demanding. It does not demand that we give until all are equal or that the “ordinary worker” should renounce all pleasures and comforts in life; but it does demand that when your life is starting to get settled and comfortable then you should not expect any more material improvement for yourself. Indulging yourselves with, for instance, more cars, more trips abroad, designer clothing or furniture, fancy jewelry, swimming pools, dining in fine restaurants, cosmetic surgery et cetera would simply be immoral. (And if you renounce a lucrative career – as a surgeon, lawyer or engineer, for instance – just because you would have to give away a lot of your money, that would, of course, also be immoral.)

Two points should be added: 1. These demands for material redistribution does not entail that redistribution must take place in a haphazard and unorganized fashion. Preferably it would mostly be done through the tax system, which means that your prime obligation might be to vote for parties that are committed to effective redistributive policies (although this does not mean that you are completely off the hook when it comes to voluntary charity). 2. We should keep in mind that the more people live up to this standard of altruism the less we would all have to sacrifice. If most people in affluent countries were to live in accordance with it, then most of the world’s (material) problems would be solved long before we would have to live like monks.

Adaptive Preferences and the Happy Pauper

The two main forms of utilitarianism are preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism (but there are other forms). According to hedonism pleasure should be maximized, while according to preferentialism (as I will call it here) it is the satisfaction of preferences (or “utility”) that should be maximized, i.e., people should get what they wish for to the highest degree. The “crudest” form of preferentialism simply takes people’s actual wishes as given and asks how they can be satisfied, while other versions qualifies the theory by, for instance, demanding that the preferences must be “rational” or the like to count. An “economistic” version simply assumes that people want as much income and/or resources as possible.

A problem for preferentialism – especially in its cruder versions – is adaptive preferences. People who claim to have certain wishes or desires may have adapted them to the fact that there is not much in life they can really get. Or they may have adapted them to certain social expectations of them. For instance, a poor and uneducated woman might claim that she really doesn’t want much for herself and that she doesn’t deserve as much as her husband, because life without patriarchal structures are almost unthinkable. Should we, then, say that the way she “chooses” to live reflects her true preferences?

We can easily see the difference between hedonism and preferentialism. People may, and often do, want things that will not make them happier, and sometimes they even want things that will make them unhappier (of course, a hedonist could also want such things, but then the reason would be to increase happiness for someone else). Of course, as a hedonist I cannot see the good in simply giving people what they want if there is no connection to actual pleasure and pain. Now it is often the case that people – especially people who have few choices in life – want things that will actually make them happier, but we all know from experience that there are many exceptions to this rule.

Serene Khader has discussed adaptive preferences in the book Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment. Like myself, she rejects preferentialism but do not endorse hedonism. Instead she has another consequentialist theory that wants to maximize “basic flourishing”. Certainly, this theory has some affinities with hedonism, since hedonists (especially in a political context) are also interesting in providing people with the things that Khader includes in basic flourishing; basically the things that poor people (and especially poor women) lack to achieve basic well-being (the book is mainly about development in poor countries).

Why then, does Khader reject hedonism? Although the criticism against preferentialism is thorough, the criticism against hedonism is handled in a few lines. She admits that a hedonist can view a preference for, e.g., staying malnourished as an adaptive preference, since it is more pleasurable to be nourished than malnourished, but she claims that “many preferences we intuitively classify as adaptive may not produce psychological suffering” (p. 50). Khader’s examples of these intuitive cases are not, however, very enlightening. The only actual example against hedonism (as opposed to the many examples against preferentialism) is a poor and oppressed (through discrimination) worker who “gains immense subjective pleasure from the small mercies in her life” (ibid.).

Now I would say that if we can imagine such an unlikely person, who is immensely happy despite being poor and oppressed – and if we have good reasons to think that this person would be unhappier if her social and economic conditions improved – then we do not have any obligation spend resources to help that person. But, again, these people are probably so rare that we do not really have to take account of them in political discussions. If people are living in wretched conditions but still claim to be as happy as they could be, we can simply assume that they are victims of adaptive preferences, unless we get clear evidence for individual cases that this is not so.

Moral Obligations to Future Generations

The question about moral obligations to future generations is sometimes approached in a backwards manner. In those instances it is simply assumed that we must have some moral obligations to future generations, and if a moral theory leads us to think that we do not, then there must be something wrong with the theory in question. This is, as I said, a backwards way of doing ethics, since the question about about future generations is all about application. To apply a theory we must first know what theory we endorse, not the other way around.

Now some people reject utilitarianism, since – they claim – utilitarianism cannot account for our moral obligations to future generations. I think that is a bad reason to reject utilitarianism. If one wants to reject it, one should argue against the theory itself and not make it stand or fall with one particular application of the theory. But destroying utilitarianism as a theory does not, of course, establish that we do have duties to future generations, because that should be defended as an application of a different theory, and not simply assumed.

But is it actually true that utilitarianism does not entail obligations to future generations? My answer would be no, at least not when it comes to the type of hedonistic utilitarianism that I endorse. It is true that this kind of hedonism sees no value in maximizing the pleasure of people not yet born. I believe in maximizing the pleasure of people who live right now. This is, thus, a kind of average utilitarianism, and it differs from “total” hedonism in that we can’t just make more and more babies to raise the sum of happiness (provided that the new babies will have lives that are more on the pleasure than on the pain side of the spectrum – lives “barely worth living” as some would say). By the same token we do not have to care about the potential pleasures of those unborn people.

In theory, the average view might advice us to simply use up all the world’s resources to enhance the pleasure of the people living right now. And if this was the last generation living on earth this would surely be the right conclusion. But as soon as a new baby is born, its pleasure must matter to us. If we can expect that this baby will live to the age of eighty, then we must at least make sure that her or his quality of live does not diminish sharply when our own generation is gone. Right, you might say, but do we only have to care about one generation after us? I would reply that this is no small thing. Since new babies are born all the time the horizon of obligation keeps moving forward at the same rate. Whatever point in time we pick it seems that we must always make sure that the world will be a hospitable place to live 80-90 years from now.

So while it is wrong to claim that hedonism implies obligations to future generations (if by this we mean unborn generations), it still implies an obligation to provide a good future for newly born generations – which, as argued above, is a constantly moving target. And it does imply robust protection of our environment, at least until we all perceive that the planet is doomed and we deliberately stop procreating (or move to another planet). This should, however, not be a decisive reason for an environmentalist to endorse hedonism. As I see it, environmentalism is applied ethics (unless we are talking about “deep ecology” and  the like), which means that one should first decide which ethical theory is most reasonable, and then let the theory lead one to whichever conclusion on the environment that the original premises warrant. It seems kind of intellectually dishonest to start with the conclusion and then construct the premises.

On Prostitution and Pornography

Although I admit that I have not studied the philosophical literature on prostitution and pornography much at all, I shall here venture to speculate on what a hedonist position on these matters might look like. The starting point must, as always, be a consideration of the consequences of these activities. However, the relevant consequences are somewhat different when we compare prostitution and pornography. So let’s start with prostitution and then see what conclusions can be transferred to pornography.

Can we, from a hedonist perspective, claim that the act of taking money (or paying) for sexual services is in itself immoral, regardless of the pain or pleasure connected to this activity? Obviously not. It seems hard to object to such a transaction between sane, adult people if the seller perceives that the pain of having sex in this unromantic fashion is less than the pain of going without the money being offered. But for this conclusion to hold we should also add that the sex worker in question is not in such a desperate position that this is a choice between two evils. If the sex worker sells his or her body in order not to starve or to get money for a destructive drug addiction, the solution to prostitute oneself might possibly be called the least bad option; but it can never be called a good, or satisfactory, option. It is, in other words, highly doubtful whether it can be good to buy sex from someone who we know (or can safely assume) will experience pain from the sexual act. Surely, we have a moral duty to make sure that this person is helped; but the best way to help, in this instance, is not to buy sex from this person, but to contribute to a welfare system that makes sure that no one will have to become a prostitute in order to get the basic necessities of life (and if people are drug addicts they can be offered programs to treat this).

Can we, then, draw the conclusion that in a state where there is such a welfare system in place we can safely allow prostitution, since those who are prostitutes will not be driven to this “occupation” by pure necessity? It might not be as easy as that. Even though a few people will freely choose to become prostitutes (i.e., choosing it not as a last resort to avoid starvation or homelessness), we can probably assume that the supply will not be enough to satisfy the demand. This, in turn, will probably lead to a situation where additional women (I’m assuming that this mostly happens to women) will be brought in from other countries (sometimes by force), where the “no-desperation” proviso is not satisfied. Again, these people should be helped in other ways than by getting paid for sexual services which they, presumably, derive great displeasure from performing.

The bottom line in all this is that one should not take advantage of a person’s desperation in order to have them do things they would never do under non-desperate circumstances. This principle can also be applied to the case of pornography, since there are no morally relevant differences between the circumstances of production in the cases of pornography and prostitution. If we are to find a morally relevant difference we must look to the circumstances of consumption. The rate of pornography consumption in a society might, for instance, be causally linked to the rate of rape or sexual abuse. It might also be the case that many couples have worse sex lives because their views on sex have been distorted by the fanciful scenarios depicted in pornographic films. These things may lead the hedonist to look skeptically at pornography. However, it is probably the case that reasonable social scientists can differ regarding the evidence of the purported societal consequences of pornography consumption.

So can the hedonist safely say that there is nothing wrong with prostitution or pornography, provided that we can be certain that those who participate are not doing it out of pure necessity and that there are no other indirect social consequences that offset the pleasure? Must we not also add that there is something inherently “degrading”, or the like, about treating a person’s body as a commodity (especially when it is men doing this to women)? I think this would be a problematic path upon which to embark, since people have very different views about what is degrading to them. For a few people it might, for instance, be more degrading to have to go to a factory at seven o’clock every morning, stand by some machine for eight hours and obey every command from the foreman, than to earn the same income by selling sex (which, I assume, would not involve as many working hours). Well, one might say, why don’t we abolish regular wage slavery as well as prostitution, since both may be degrading? No doubt, a world where no one would be compelled be neither a wage slave nor a prostitute would be a better world than the present; but “wage slavery” is such an established practice in our present society, so it would bring us too far into the utopian to discuss its wholesale abolishment.

What is “Utility”, and Can It Be Measured?

Some people say that you can’t make interpersonal comparisons of utility. You can’t, in other words, say that Anne gets more utility from a piece of chocolate than Bill, or that Claire gets more disutility from a punch in the face than David. Everyone has their own scales of utility (based on an ordinal ranking of things) and those scales do not transfer between people. This means that the only thing you can say is that Bill gets more utility from a piece of chocolate than what Bill gets from an apple (at least at a certain point in time), and this can be proven by, for example, examining how much he is willing to pay for chocolate or apples.

To assess whether this is a good objection to utilitarianism we first have to establish what is meant by “utility”. Jeremy Bentham was quite clear about what he meant: utility is basically the same as usefulness (and when people in general say “utilitarian” the usually mean “useful for practical purposes”). Then, of course, we have to ask: useful for what? Bentham’s answer is, of course, pleasure. A law or an action has high utility if it contributes to maximizing pleasure.

If “utility” is interpreted in this way, there is no problem (at least in principle) of interpersonal comparisons. What we are interested in is actually pleasure, and not utility in itself. And if we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain (and I can’t see how anyone can deny this, because that would be the same as denying that human beings can have meaningful social interactions with each other), then we can also discuss meaningfully which actions or laws have more or less utility.

However, when people (often economists) say that you cannot make interpersonal comparisons of utility they have another conception of utility in mind. By utility, they usually mean something like “degree of satisfaction”. And I would agree that you cannot really compare degrees of satisfaction between different individuals, because that is really a mystical concept. How much sense does it really make to say “Wow, I feel so satisfied”, without connecting this feeling to something more tangible – and morally relevant – like pleasure? (Just try to satisfy someone sexually without giving them pleasure…)

Still, economists thought that they were becoming more “scientific” when they, during the second half of the 19th century, switched from pleasure to utility as the thing that should be studied and maximized. But this made economics less relevant for politics, because isn’t pleasure (happiness) what we want politics to bring, rather than maximization of “utility”?

Furthermore, “economic” preference-utilitarianism seems to disregard wishes that cannot be “revealed” or “demonstrated” by monetary transactions (or perhaps by barter). It seems rather strange that we can only say that a person’s preferences (or scales of utility) is revealed by how she has in fact (ex post facto) spent her money or managed her resources. This would mean that a very poor person cannot have the preference of owning a fancy car and a big house, and that he would get very much “utility” from those things, because we have not observed that he has spent any many to acquire those things. His actions seem to reveal that he “prefers” (gets the most utility from) having a hard, low-paid job instead of choosing the career that would get him a fancy car and a big house.

Thus, to make sense, preference-utilitarianism has to take account of imagined preferences, as well as revealed or demonstrated ones. Otherwise it has no relevance for the real world and people’s real wishes and aspirations. But then we all know that wishing for some things does not guarantee that you will be happier once you get what you wish for. On the contrary, many studies have shown that people who suddenly win a lot of money may get happier for a short while, but that they quickly return to the same (or lower) happiness levels as before their lucky break. Again, “utility”, perceived as preference-satisfaction, has no meaning when it is not connected to maximization of pleasure (and minimization of pain).

Anyway, when you hear someone complain against utilitarianism by claiming that you can’t make interpersonal comparisons of utility, you can just relax and reply that you are not a preference-utilitarian, but a hedonistic utilitarian; and we hedonists are not concerned about comparing and maximizing utility, but pleasure. So if your antagonists want to continue this line of criticism they would have to deny that we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain. They must deny that we can, for example, say that Anne gets more pain from being burnt at the stake than what Bill gets from the prick of a needle on his finger.

Of course, one can deny that such comparisons can be made, and claim that we humans are inscrutable mysteries to each others, and that we can’t make any – not even rough and imprecise – general statements about what goes on in most people’s brains and nervous systems. But I suspect that only a philosophical curmudgeon would make such a claim. A more reasonable objection would be to claim that we can make interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain, but that they are too imprecise to count as scientific. Then I would just reply that ethics cannot be a precise science, just as the art of living a good life cannot be a precise scientific endeavor.

Hedonism and Politics

When setting up this blog one of my aims was to connect hedonist ethics to political matters. I did not want this blog to be about philosophy only. But can one really draw definite political conclusions from hedonism? To be sure, this is an empirical matter. What is deemed good policy today may, at least in principle, be deemed bad policy tomorrow. It depends on our assessments of what actually maximizes pleasure.

Classical hedonists like Bentham were rather liberal – in the old laissez-faire sense – but they did not rule out a substantial role for government if the utilitarian principle seemed to warrant it. That is why at least some have claimed that if Bentham were alive today he would probably have been a supporter of the welfare state. Marxists have historically been hostile to utilitarianism, probably because the early utilitarians – as mentioned above – were rather “bourgeois” in their political outlook. In spite of modern hedonism’s disentanglement from bourgeois politics, marxists and socialists today seem to regard hedonism with indifference (my impression is that they are generally not that interested in traditional “analytic” moral philosophy).

Nowadays, the laissez-faire – or libertarian – camp has largely moved to deontological ethics (often “natural” rights) as their foundation. The utilitarians that still defend laissez-faire (or even anarcho-capitalism) are by and large preference-utilitarians (not hedonist utilitarians). I, at least, have not seen any modern libertarians who defend their position on hedonist grounds. Some conservatives, on the other hand, seem to have some sort of crude (or implicit) hedonism or welfarism as justification for their ideology.

When it comes to my own ideas in politics, I have presented a few thoughts in a document of “guidelines” (see the tab “Political Guidelines”). Except for a first point on democracy (which I believe everyone should endorse), I believe three points are especially salient for hedonists: (1) economic redistribution, (2) reforms and public planning to enhance quality of life, and (3) support of individual development (in contrast to “tribal” identity-seeking, and the like). Some people will probably call this agenda rather “leftist”. That I do not mind. And if this is indeed a leftist agenda, I believe the hedonist justification for it is better and more coherent than, for instance, a socialist justification.

To be honest, many political leftists, “progressives”, “liberals”, and so on, seem to lack any clear philosophical justification for their positions. This might lead me to suggest that they should adopt hedonism. But that would be suggesting that they should become hedonists for the wrong reasons. Politics should be the application of an ethical theory and not the other way around. My advice to all ethically confused ideologues would be to first disregard their ideology and then try to find their moral foundations. And if that leads them in the direction of another ideology – when the moral theory is ready to be applied – then they should change ideology. But I suspect that this advice wont be followed by many, since most politically active people are already so emotionally (and often socially or economically) committed to their ideology.

Hedonism, Feminism, and Identity Minimalism

Must the decision to become a feminist be dependent on one’s moral outlook, and if so, should a hedonist also be a feminist? It is, of course, hard to say exactly what “feminism” means these days, but in some obvious senses the hedonist position seems to entail feminism. One could not, for instance, claim that men’s happiness would be more important than women’s happiness. And it would be hard to argue that men and women shouldn’t have the same political and social rights.

But this kind of “first wave” definition of feminism is usually not what is meant these days. There are some modern feminist theories that, I believe, should be rejected because they are built on moral theories that differ from hedonism (i.e., ethics of care) or because they are built on other kinds of dubious claims (i.e., “postmodern” feminism). But there are other kinds of “radical” feminism that are worth taking seriously.

The most interesting view, albeit controversial (even among self-proclaimed feminists), is that we should strive to abolish strict gender roles. This is a claim that goes beyond liberal (equal rights) feminism, and it is an open question whether hedonists should endorse it or not, since it is an empirical question whether a strict difference of gender roles increases or decreases happiness. But we have to keep in mind that your own acceptance of the gender role you have been assigned does not necessarily affect only yourself. To be, for instance, a woman who does not accept her traditional gender role can be difficult in a world where most other women do accept and live in accordance with it. It could, for instance, increase the risk that you become the victim of discrimination in your work life (since the employer may just accept the prejudice that you will behave like all other women).

So the question is how much both men and women would benefit themselves from having less strict gender roles and what effects they would have on other people if they continue with their strict gender roles. Personally I believe (and this is a provisional empirical conclusion) that, on the whole, we would benefit from less strict gender roles than what is common today, and if you share this conclusion then I believe you should strive less to be a “real man”, if you’re a man biologically, or a “real woman”, if you’re a woman biologically (incidentally, this does not mean that I think it’s a good idea to strive to be more of a “real woman” if you were born a biological man, and vice versa).

For me, this is actually a part of a bigger idea, which I have called identity minimalism. I believe we should all (or at least many of us) strive less to acquire “identities”, including gender identities. The labels that we give ourselves and each other mostly contribute to shut  people out from our own group, which results in unnecessary conflicts. And many people struggle in vain to find their “true” identity instead of focusing on doing more productive things (in terms of pleasure) in their lives. I believe that we should think harder about what we should do, rather than what we should be. People fight wars over ethnic labels, which have no basis in anything except the will to conform to and to perpetuate the traditions themselves.

Clearcut identities makes us predictable, which for some people feels safe and good. But the upshot of predictability is that it makes discrimination easier. It also makes the world a less interesting place, since you have fewer opportunities to be surprised about people.