Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An ethic of truth.

During the French Enlightenment some of the most powerful thinkers of the day were trying to move beyond religious thinking and toward a rational worldview. One in particular, Denis Diderot, wrote that "we need an ethic of truth for there is nothing more dangerous than to deceive ourselves about the nature of the world". Further, in a naturalistic and atheistic ethics, the only ethical criteria are pleasure and utility.¹ So what can we get out of this idea?

We can get a simple rubric to think about ethics. It won’t necessarily pass philosophical muster, and it may not defeat theistic bigotry, but it might help us think through some of our day to day ethical conundrums without resorting to "my invisible friend told me” or “it’s just obvious”.

Smelling the roses

The first simple case is where things are useful and pleasurable, the mitzvah case. These are the things that are unambiguously good. The canonical example seems to be getting pregnant. It’s fun and useful. That being said I don't think they were having the overpopulation problems that we are when that canon was written. The second simple example is something that is "anti-useful" and also unpleasant, the sin case. Smashing yourself (or anyone really) with a hammer for no reason. It causes harm and reduces utility. But these cases are too obvious to bother explaining.

The two grey areas are only slightly more problematic. In the first grey area (unpleasant but useful) you can understand the spectrum of possibilities starting with something like vaccines. There is no fun to be had there, but it is clearly useful. Doing your chores or going to the gym are other examples. This utility over pleasure idea can obviously be taken too far. We do not all train to be Special Forces on the off chance we need to defend the nation. We do not route every last dollar into savings and investment.  The second grey area is the mirror image of the first. The case where things that are pleasant but reduce utility. This can be seen on a scale from smelling the roses, which is has long been understood to be a net positive; to freebasing cocaine, which I understand is enormously pleasant, but does have meaningful downsides. We can make sacrifices of utility for pleasure, and do so all the time. Sometimes spending that extra dollar on something that you can’t possibly justify is the right thing to do. Life needs to be enjoyed, and sometimes you have to do unpleasant things to make that possible, but you miss the point of hard work if you don't get to enjoy anything.

Most of us take each of these mixes too far from time to time. We eat too much, we spend too much time at work, we imbibe too much, or penny pinch to the point that it causes upset. Each of us has our vices and the point is not to eliminate them, but to understand the costs and keep our overall long term goals in mind when we make choices. And this rubric of utility and pleasure is meant to help tally the score.

You may have noticed some room for confusion here. For example what if you really like going to the gym and you go so much that you miss out on important things? Is that too much pleasure or too much utility? What if the down side to eating too much is that I get sick? Wouldn't that be pleasure and its opposite fighting it out?  Because we haven't defined our terms pleasure and utility, it has sounded like stuff-we-want and other-stuff-we-want. Simply stated Pleasure is feeling good and Utility is the power to change things. These definitions are probably question begging, but too bad. If you have the philosophical sophistication to tear down concepts like utility and pleasure, then you have issues that I am not addressing here.

There is in these kinds of problems a conflict between the now and the future. There is what you want to do right now (eat chips and watch TV) and what you will wish you had done looking back from tomorrow (gone to the gym). But the reason that you will have wished that you went to the gym is because future you is better off in that case. Thus the chicken and egg problem is perpetual with utility and pleasure, which is fine you just have to pick where you start and end the story.

At the end of the day this is just a specific way to draw up pro/con lists. It is an idea that helps clarify problems. There are, undoubtedly, conundrums that this idea does not help illuminate. And in those cases you would want to use a different interpretation of events to help figure out what you thought was right and what was wrong. But that is another story. 

I hope you find this idea helpful, and its explanation amusing. And I hope that you are now glad that you read this, as opposed to looking at funny pictures on Reddit.  

¹ The last two sentences are basically a paraphrase from this lecture. Birth of the Modern Mind. Which is itself referencing D'Alembert's Dream.

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