February 26, 2005
Bentham's mummified corpse, like Lenin's, remains fresh in appearancePosted 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.