February 26, 2005

Bentham's mummified corpse, like Lenin's, remains fresh in appearance

Posted by Curt at 08:27 AM in Geek Talk | TrackBack

It’s almost comforting that such invidious fluffy-minded sludge as this is floating around, as it seems, like religion, to keep the middle-brows hypnotized by “beautiful sentiments” which are so vague as to keep them from actually getting together and doing anything. It’s sort of weird to hear this weakly Marxist social-democratic pap which used to be shouted from the rooftops now being whispered in a low monotonous whine. The author avows his fealty to Jeremy Bentham, not Marx, and calls it utilitarianism not Marxism, but there are many illegitimate fathers along this line of thought.

The root of the idea is that, now that neuroscience has supposedly made it possible to actually identify what makes us happy, the idea of happiness has become quantifiable, and hence a program of providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people has become objectively possible. However, the author does not make the slightest effort to apply these wonders of modern science to actually determining what the alleged sources of human happiness are. The neuroscience tack is really just a defensive ploy to ward off the eternal charges that utilitarinism is simply a euphemism for an authoritarian imposition of values. As for espousing his positive program for what constitutes human happiness, it is simply the usual liberal middle-class canards, with not surprisingly a socialist edge: more time to spend with family, a decent wage for everyone, blah blah blah. But he seems to make two pretty criminally unsubstantiated assumptions: one is these sources are essentially the same for everyone, or at least could be under certain conditions, and the other is that they do not inherently conflict with anyone else’s.

I say under certain conditions could be, because in evaluating our current society he seems to privilege envy of other’s material well-being as the principal determinant of happiness. His theory is that above a certain level of material subsistence people are motivated primarily by status-seeking and the desire for a high rank within their social group. Therefore, the increasing wealth of the society will not increase happiness because people measure their well-being relative to the group, not by their absolute prosperity. This is always been a flaw in the concept of the “war against poverty”; I’m not sure it’s much of an argument for socialist economic redistribution. But actually if you read his section on the value of income taxes carefully, he doesn’t even seem to be arguing that they are useful insofar as they can be redirected to the less prosperous, although he does evidently believe that a certain amount of money contributes more to the happiness of a poor person than to a rich one’s. Rather, he seems to think that taking money away from the properous is valuable in and of itself, because it will supposedly make them less focused on the “rat race,” more family-oriented, etc., etc. In short he seems to be advocating a net impoverishment of society.

All of which may be consistent with the program of a good little socialist, but does not necessarily accord marvelously with his own evidence about the supposedly quantified happiness of humanity. The research that he cites non-specifically supposedly indicates that people’s feeling of happiness has not risen in the last half-century, but he does not cite anything which indicates that it has necessarily declined. He cites rising rates of depression and crime as presumably implicit indicators of greater unhappiness, but he does not seem to acknowledge the possibility that in our hyper-medicated and surveillance-based society perhaps people simply report depression and crime more. In any event, if roughly similar numbers of people today as in the ‘50’s report themselves happy (and we believe them), despite the increase in prosperity, that might perhaps indicate that happiness is not fixed to material well-being. Which may be consistent with his general point, but not with his idea of increasing happiness by manipulating income levels.

And even if it did, it seems rather difficult to countenance any social program predicated upon appealing to one of humanity’s most depraved instincts, namely envy. The author acknowledges that his ideal of taxation is mainly motivated by the desire to pander to people’s envy, but he seems to think that their envy will be sated by the loss of prosperity of those around them and that after that point there will be no more. So the envy of the less prosperous will be satisfied by the losses accrued by the more prosperous, which will somehow not be counter-balanced by the chagrin of the more prosperous at the prospect of seeing their status diminished. Very logical.

One of the more egregious presumptions of utilitarians is that non-utilitarian social systems somehow aren’t concerned with seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people. On the contrary, that’s the defining problem of practically every social and political theory I can think of, and they all either seek or claim to have found the answer—whether such a solution exists, I have my doubts, but that’s why I’m a skeptic about politics. This is a handy trick by utilitarians: they say “I believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Which is practically begging the question: “As opposed to whom?” It’s useful because it tends to conceal the fact that their real agenda is generally somewhat more specific, and tends to consist in the autocratic notion that one or two measures of social living can be authoritatively determined to be the sources of happiness, and then divided up in a centralized fashion. Those that are the most insistent on the idea of liberty are generally those that are the most skeptical about the possibility of the notion of happiness being either quantitatively defined or generalizable. In other words, only indviduals can determine their own sources of happiness.

For the author, on the other hand, the fact that certain stimuli trigger certain areas of the brain at the times when test subjects profess pleasure has solved the problem of determining happiness. Of course, as mentioned, he never really bothers with the results that those studies have yielded. Somehow the fact that he considers envy to be a principal element of human happiness does not place very severe limits on the harmoniousness of individual happiness. Nor does it constitute a tyranny of the majority, because he claims that in an ideal utilitarian society the happiness of the most unhappy would be considered of pre-eminent importance. Of course, at the beginning of the article he cited the equal importance of each individual’s happiness as the fouding tenet of his theory, but I’m sure it all sorts out in the end.

Among social factors responsible for unhappiness, he cites divorce and unemployment as of pre-eminent importance. Of course, rates of both divorce and unemployment in the crassly materialistic and religious United States are much lower than in the much more overtly utilitarian-embracing Europe, but it would be a bit embarassing for him to admit this after avowing that all traditional value-systems outside of utilitarianism and “individualism” are dead.

Personally the question of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people doesn’t exactly compel me constantly, although the issue of personal happiness tends to impose itself intransigently. I would have thought that evolutionary biology would have provided an adequate explanation of this, as well as the recurrence of what we call altruism. But such an idea of course suggests that happiness, whatever that is, is not really the point of our little existences, and that the more imperious competitiveness of life will ultimately subvert all of these little trifles of pleasure and pain. But in the meantime, we have these debased statistical notions of happiness to amuse us in an idle hour.

It seems to me that if one’s “objective” measure of happiness is electrical stimulation in the cerebral cortex, the most efficient utilitarian solution to the problem of human happiness would be strap everyone onto hospital gurneys and stimulate the “happiness” part of their brain all day long. If one does not wish to be this deterministic about it, perhaps one should allow more latitute to individuals to discover their own conception of happiness. Personally, I have found happiness generally to be an idea for the unhappy and something rarely spoken of by the happiness; mention of practically guarantees that it is not present in the environment where it is uttered. I don’t deny that what you might call love is the real bridge between personal happiness and moral obligations, and the only true means by which the desires of oneself and of others are united, but such a sentiment can never be mandated; it is entirely resistant to intellectual compulsion. Utilitarianism, which sometimes does a decent job of faking morality, is nevertheless ultimately predicated on the pleasure principle, and hence is wholly inadequate to uniting the moral and the pleasurable except when love truly pertains. In that case, of course, political theory is entirely superfluous, which is why this is all a waste of time.

p.s. I don’t claim that people’s behavior necessarily reflects what really would make them happy, but presumably it does at least reflect what they consciously value. Hence, if I were the author I would have been a bit skeptical of using the results of “surveys” of what people claim to value when the results don’t correlate with their behavior, i.e. they claim that spending time with family is most important, but they spend a disproportiante amount of time working (at least according to him). So either people are not really being forthright (consciously or unconsciously) in responding to surveys, or there is not actually a problem of priorities. In either case, he’s way over-valuing surveys as a guide to what will make people happy.


Letís see. Inequality creates unhappiness. Taxes punish those who get ahead and it serves them right because people are hardwired to be unhappy if someone gets ahead of them. Even if I am living in unprecedented wealth relative to preindustrial humanity, even if I can expect a helicopter rescue, coordinated by GPS and cell phone messages if I fall into a snow bank, if I am unhappy it is because Bill Gates and Donald Trump make more money than I do. This unfairly reduces the amount of serotonin in my brain. So tax the hell out of them. The only trouble is that the only man that I can get a job from is a man who has money. Oh well, maybe when the government takes that money away from the rich people, they will give some to me. Then I will be equal to Bill Gates and as happy as he is and I wonít have to work. Thatís a great plan. That is why the Indians on reservations are so happy. They are all equal and donít have to work and the government takes care of them. Also notice how happy $ 300 million made Mike Tyson.

Ironically, I was just reading Steve Pinkerís ďThe Blank SlateĒ which points out that, after initially recoiling from all the ideas of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and genomics, the left now begins to embrace them for their own purposes. He points out that both conservative and leftist ideology are based on theories of human nature that are 300 years old. It is about time for an update. If you can get the book read pages 283-305, at least.

Posted by: Dave at February 26, 2005 05:09 PM

I should reiterate that I don't think the author believes in high taxation for re-distribution purposes. He seems to honestly want to use it to siphon money off from our society, I guess causing some sort of net deflationary cycle on the economy, because if there is less money to go around we will have less to fight over and therefore be more contented with what we have. Or something like that. It need hardly be said that this is rarely how competition works in conditions of scarcity of resources. Even if this were true, and even if we followed his advice and took into account "broader criteria" of valuation besides amount of money and prosperity (I'll ignore the totally unsubstantiated implicit assumption that those are the only criteria of valuation in our society), it seems to me that there is little reason to think that people would not fight over and envy each other other signs of prestige. At universities and research institutions, for example, where everyone is earning similar amounts and leading a fairly equivalent lifestyle, the professors and researchers compete with each other over intellectual eminence, discoveries, and the respect of their colleagues. Sports teams, the army, kindergarten--similar situations emerge in all of these group situations where money, at least in an overt sense, is of minor or secondary importance. I guess that's what I find most idiotic and disingenuous about this kind of social philosophy--it's basically tossing totally arbitrary assertions that sound nice (to some), and then pretending to call "science" to the defense of the theory when the two don't have the slightest thing in common. His other big deception is the implication that those who aren't utilitarians don't care about the happiness of humanity. This preposterousness allows him to conceal the fact that his anodyne little social-democracy government-program proposals are hardly uncontroversial, let the inevitable proscriptions of a society that values its happiness. I'm perhaps most highly skeptical of his belief that compassion and love of others can be taught in the schools. From what I've seen of the world, a century of indoctrination in the belief that everyone in the world is equal and equally valuable and simply taught the majority of people to put a decent front on their selfishness. I've rarely met a truly compassionate person that wasn't predisposed to it. Of course, if compassion could be taught in the schools, this would presumably eliminate the need for taxation and all his various other governmental remedies for suppressing the competitive spirit. If not, it seems impossible that people's individual happiness will ever cease to conflict. So for all this fine talk about government intervention, shared harmonious happiness will in the end be voluntary or it won't happen at all. Hmm.

Posted by: Curt at February 27, 2005 06:04 AM

ďI should reiterate that I don't think the author believes in high taxation for re-distribution purposes.Ē
The interesting thing about the New Leftist complaint is that it has changed from a plea for the redistribution of wealth because of need to a demand for equality based on the fact that inequality has adverse psychological effects. I say, too bad. Adjust your attitude. If I were the Presidentís butler I would consider myself to be among the privileged. My attitude would not be that I wasnít going to be happy until I was president. This complaint is all about envy, not need.
I donít know of any other choice but to give some help to the underclass. There has always been one and there is one in every country. The bigger the economy the easier this is. Also a big economy gives people more seams, crevices and niches which they can move into and succeed. I they sit on their asses, too bad. I donít see that society is obligated to put the underclass first. In some sense this one of the most successful lifestyles, since reproduction and perpetuation are insured.
ďAt universities and research institutions, for example, where everyone is earning similar amounts and leading a fairly equivalent lifestyle, the professors and researchers compete with each other over intellectual eminence, discoveries, and the respect of their colleagues.Ē
I see that you have been around academia long enough to see the egos in action in the academic setting. This isnít so bad as long as the tacit rules are obeyed. For example if one of your professors put out a Mafia contract on another oneís life, that would be destructive.

Posted by: Dave at February 27, 2005 12:41 PM

What a truly awful article.

Let's see, you're unhappy because your neighbor has a shiny new Porsche and you don't. He makes 50% more than you do. Now, the government raises tax rates on him and taxes away his ability to own a Porsche. At this point, you are expected to be too stupid to realize that the only reason you're now "equal" is that his Porsche has been stolen--making you dumb and happy.

Posted by: Andy Stedman at February 28, 2005 11:34 AM