Monthly Archives: December 2014

On the inadequacy of a crude utilitarian morality

It is not especially uncommon to hear Humanists  espouse a crude form of Utilitarianism: “Maximize happiness; minimize suffering,” and on the surface this seems sensible. We like happiness, in both ourselves and others, and we dislike suffering just as broadly.

There are, however, a number of problems in implementation that render the idea virtually useless. The most important of these are quantification and aggregation.

It is an open question whether emotional states like “happiness” and “suffering” are quantifiable and consequently whether “utility” is.  Certainly no current scientific technique has the ability to unequivocally quantify these things. We can start scanning brains and having people fill out surveys, but at the end of the day, none of that is conclusive. People lie on surveys, and there are large differences in individual brain structure.

At most we could hope to discover (as, in fact, we have) some crude insights about human nature. What’s likely to make us happy, what’s likely to make us suffer, but as valuable as these insights might well be they don’t begin to make individual utility quantifiable much less comparable.

Comparability is a problem specifically to aggregation. How do we weigh one person’s happiness against another person’s suffering? If we can’t do that, how can we aggregate their individual utilities if making one person happier requires that another suffer? Can we rely on that never being the case?

Which brings us to a final problem. Are these goals even compatible? Can we maximize happiness while simultaneously minimizing suffering, or do we have to accept some exchange of happiness against suffering to make this problem tractable? If so, what exchange should we accept?

Or is this whole idea unworkable?

Why privileged people get confused about privilege.

“Privilege” is one of the most important words to learn when learning to look at the world in a social justice framework, whether as a feminist, as an anti-racist, or whatever. This is in part because the social justice use of the word is actually a little odd if that’s not the world you’re from.

In this sense, “Privilege” refers to any unearned systemic advantage one group of people has over another. What makes this odd is that the advantage is often something privileged people think everyone should have and that it shouldn’t be impossible for everyone to have. Like being treated decently by strangers and fairly by the justice system.

The way I think most SWMs (Straight White Male; you can pronounce it “swim” if you like) learned the word is our parents telling us they would take away our “privileges” if we were naughty.

So the definition that gave us was “A thing I want but am not entitled to.” Which, to be clear, for most of us probably doesn’t actually include our black friends and neighbors getting shot by police or our female friends and neighbors being terrorized by other men.

In its original use, “privilege” referred to matters of formal law where the law was different for one person (say, a king) than for anyone else. Thus a word derived from “private law.” Over time, it was applied to aristocrats and plutocrats to describe the things their positions gave them that others didn’t have.

Consequently, here’s what privilege means to a typical SWM:
1) A thing I want but am not entitled to.
2) The non-monetary advantages the rich enjoy over the poor.
3) The advantages the aristocracy enjoy over the common people.

And so when you say we “have privilege,” that’s weird and confusing, because we don’t on the whole actually want other people to be treated like crap (and generally don’t get what we want) and most of us aren’t rich or aristocrats.

Our systemic advantages are a thing we have trouble seeing and don’t tend to think about, so “not getting shot today” doesn’t generally show up in the list of things I want beside “finally getting my car fixed.”

A lot of social justice advocates seem to think this confusion is feigned, and it probably is in some cases, but a lot of it is also genuine. and perfectly understandable. I’d even suggest that there may be value in finding another way to talk about these things.