For the second time I’m reconsidering altruism as an alternative to utilitarianism. “Reconsidering” in the sense of possibly regarding it as the better ethical system, I’m not an altruist and I don’t claim to be one. Both are forms of consequentialism but (in theory) a utilitarian gives equal consideration to all beings and an altruist gives greater consideration to other beings (I still think that every other being should be regarded as equal to every other being except oneself). Humility does not regard others as equal, it regards them as greater. This is an irrational position. I still believe that happiness is (factually) the only intrinsic good and the logically consistent conclusion to this is hedonistic utilitarianism ; regarding one’s own well-being as equal in value to everyone else’s. But the first concern is not which position is logically consistent but which position is more likely to maximize a greater balance of happiness over suffering if adopted individually or on a widespread level. I believe altruism is better because for self-aware, rational beings the secret to stable, long term happiness that isn’t dependent on external circumstances is to respect, love and care about others more than you do yourself (in addition to gratitude, which I think is related to compassion, as well as optimism, positive thinking etcetera). A preoccupation with one’s own happiness and pain is like ‘putting all of your eggs in one basket’ and I think there’s strong evidence for people being happier when they focus more on something other than themselves and their own emotional states. Altruism is much easier said than done (hence “ I’m not an altruist and I don’t claim to be one” ) and it doesn’t guarantee happiness but I think altruistic tendencies necessarily make it more likely - other factors considered. What’s the point in maintaining the logically consistent position if another position is necessarily more likely to maximize happiness?
After having been a hardcore materialist, agnostic about the mind-body issue and a pan-psychist I’m now considering that the polar opposite of materialism might be true ; that there is no mind independent physical world and subjective experience is the only ‘substance’ that exists. As ‘new ageish’ and hokey as that might sound it might be the only coherent mind-body problem position that takes the existence of consciousness seriously.
Many ethical vegans and animal rights theorists have serious issues with utilitarianism as an ethical view either for reasons unrelated to their attitudes toward non-human animals or because they believe utilitarianism is in direct conflict with the ethical principles they use to justify their anti-speciesist position. I feel that this is ironic because no other ethical philosophy can defend the idea of animal equality as well as hedonistic utilitarianism can. Regardless of whatever non-animal related reasons ethical vegans may have for rejecting hedonistic utilitarianism it is a thoroughly non-speciesist worldview because the interests of humans and non-human animals is given equal consideration and the criterion for what constitutes ‘interests’ or the basis of moral status is a characteristic that humans almost indisputably share with non-human animals ; a capacity to experience happiness and pain. Preference utilitarianism (which is concerned with the fulfillment of preferences and not our actual experience of emotional states per se) is implicitly speciesist because it involves an unavoidable hierarchy between beings whose desires are moment to moment and beings who can have extended future oriented desires as well as an abstract and self-conscious desire to continue existing. I’m not convinced that most non-human animals lack self-awareness and a capacity for mental time travel but I can imagine a hypothetical being for whom this would be true despite their feeling the same basic emotions that psychologically normal human adults do and I have to take seriously the possibility that only a handful of species posses these characteristics because it seems to be the general consensus among researchers. Someone could in turn accuse hedonistic utilitarianism of being ‘kingdomist’ because the criterion for moral status is a trait that excludes some biological organisms but hedonistic utilitarianism involves no hierarchy, either you are a full fledged person or you are not. Also unlike preference utilitarianism, hedonistic utilitarianism gives equal consideration to the interests of potential beings (when understood in this way, ‘moral replaceability’ becomes less chilling) because it is concerned with the maximization of what’s good, preference utilitarians are concerned with the actually formed preferences of beings who do or did exist. According to the preference utilitarian view, because factory farmed animals do not have a desire to live per se (this would require a meta-cognitive realization and concept that one is alive and is the same being who exists over time and favoring this future existence over the conceivable alternative) the primary issue is with the unwanted pain caused and not the killing or the prevention of the future happiness they could have otherwise experienced. Arguably there is a difference between a preference and a desire ( one can have a desire to eat tasty but unhealthy food or have sex with an attractive partner but rationally prefer not to).
I don’t believe that prison abolition is practical at this point in history but there are some general and specific reforms that I think should probably be implemented. Some of these policies may already be in practice in some places and in some prisons :
I wouldn’t be interested in swinging (one committed romantic relationship with non-romantic casual sex partners ) even if a relationship of any kind were an option because of the emphasis on separating sexual attraction from romantic affection. It seems to me that the two necessarily involve one another (other people might feel differently). I’m not sure why romantic feelings should be suppressed even if they don’t. It seems to me that sexual pleasure stems more from the emotional intimacy that sex involves than the raw physical sensations. Swinging seems inhibiting but I wouldn’t be sociable enough for polyamory (multiple romantic relationships) and I’m not interested in one committed relationship let alone multiple. Everyone may not have in mind what I do when I use the terms ‘swinging’ and ‘polyamory’. I don’t feel that romantic love warrants a formal commitment considering it’s unstable nature but I don’t think that can be connected to my basic ethical belief (I would say that any relationship -platonic or romantic or committed or casual-serves no valid purpose other than the happiness of some or all of the parties involved). I do think that a valid argument can be made for non-monogamy beyond just personal preference.
I’ve always believed that a communist economy was morally ideal but I’m now coming to think that encouraging a non-violent and democratic transition to a global (or possibly inter-planetary) communist economy is practically desirable. If capitalism provides the incentive that boosts economic production it’s only because people are as self-interested as they are and I think our egocentric tendencies should be discouraged. Communism that works on a widespread level might be achieved by developing a culture that is oriented around altruism and universal empathy. I disagree with the class warfare and violent revolution that Marxism involves. I think of capitalism as amoral but not as an injustice (although I don’t believe in natural property rights either). I think that liberals and other leftists make a mistake in arguing for progressive taxation and economic redistribution on the basis of fairness or ‘social justice’ and not just a concern for the welfare of the less fortunate. The egalitarianism that I believe is moral is equal consideration of everyones’s interests (emotional well-being) and not economic or political equality for it’s own sake. Similarly, I think that everyone in the ideal society would be equally happy only because everyone would experience as much happiness as a person could and not because the equalization of happiness or suffering itself is worth promoting. Bringing those who are better off down to the level of those who are worse off is counter productive.
I’ve also come to realize that my ideal society isn’t properly thought of as ‘anarchist’-communist. Coercion wouldn’t exist in my perfect utopia only because it would be unnecessary but the utilitarians in this society would be willing to initiate coercion and force for the greater good, which would include the allocation of resources on the basis of benefit alone and controlling means of production with the interests of the community as a whole in mind if the harm done was compensated for and necessary. In the same way that regarding violence as distasteful is not enough to make one a pacifist if they are still willing to employ it, consistent anarchists are willing to use force only to combat or prevent force. I think that physical force-and the threat of it- can be justified to prevent suffering that isn’t the result of the infringement of autonomy. Even in ideal circumstances, I think that a communist one world government that is prepared to initiate force would be justified if this party gave every being’s interests the same consideration and had as it’s sole objective making the world a better place.
Causing pain or depriving someone of happiness is morally bad in all conceivable hypothetical scenarios. The utilitarian position should never be misrepresented as being “OK” with something like pushing a man in front of a runaway trolley in order to save 5 passengers even if this is the best decision someone could make under those circumstances. Hedonistic utilitarianism would not actually favor killing the 1 to save the 5 simply because more people benefit. The ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’ is a double maxim because maximizing happiness and maximizing the number of happy people are two different goals. There are factors involved that could make killing the 1 worse than letting the 5 die. This could be the case if the 1 was a single mother in her 30s and the 5 were terminally ill senior citizens or if the 1 was kind and compassionate and the 5 were sadistic and cruel (I believe that everyone’s happiness has equal inherent value but people who are kind and compassionate are more instrumentally valuable because they are necessarily more likely to maximize happiness generally and never mind their actually being happier) or even if the 1 had social, political and economic influence that could help many people that the 5 lacked. All other factors being equal the death of 5 people would be even worse than the death of 1. We should be completely demoralized by the idea of killing 1 to save 5 but there’s no valid reason to make a distinction between harming or killing people and allowing them to suffer or die. We should be just as demoralized by the idea of allowing people to suffer or die. Allowing people to die may not be ‘unjust’ since no one is entitled to help but it has the same consequence and when it isn’t reluctantly deemed necessary for the greater good it involves the same lack of empathy. The badness of killing the 1 should be weighed against the badness of allowing the 5 to die. It’s the ultimatum that is cold and harsh, not utilitarian reasoning. The hedonistic utilitarian wants everyone involved and all sentient beings generally to be free from pain and to experience happiness. The utilitarian would not sacrifice the 1 out of a lack of empathy for him or her or their loved ones who will mourn their death but because (s)he empathizes just as much with the 5 passengers and their loved ones. Sacrificing the interests of some is sometimes necessary for the same reason it’s bad to begin with. If it’s an option and if all other factors are equal the best thing for the utilitarian to do would probably be to sacrifice him or herself instead of anyone else which would let people know that sincere utilitarians are serious about egalitarianism (read : impartiality).
Without arguing specifically for pan-psychism I think I can show that phenomenal consciousness is eternal and written into the very fabric of reality rather than an epiphenomenal consequence of mindless brain activity. For a thing to come into existence, the potential for it’s existence must have existed prior to it’s actuality. That potential can’t exist in ‘nothingness’, the absence of anything can’t produce something because it doesn’t exist. The potential for a table exists in the elements that are rearranged to form a table, a table cannot be created out of nothing. A thing would have to exist in order to produce itself. Matter-energy has always existed in some form or another (contrary to popular belief, the Big Bang is not a theory about the origin of matter-energy, just as evolution is not a theory about the origin of life, and virtual particles do not literally pop into and out of existence. Virtual particles pop into and out of quantum ‘vacuums’ that are filled with fluctuating energy). If subjective experience is numerically identical to objective brain activity, phenomenal consciousness can come into and out of existence because it is only a particular arrangement of preexisting matter and there is no problem of radical emergence. The problem is that unless you deny the very existence of what ‘appears’ to be consciousness, in claiming that subjective experience is really corresponding objective brain activity materialism defies the law of identity. A rock is a rock and a chair is a chair. Even an illusion would be proof of consciousness since an illusion is an experience. I agree with materialists that consciousness is a process, just not a physical one. Internal mental states are not extended in space, they have no mass and can’t be converted into anything that does, and they cannot be observed through sensory perception but clearly they exist. Even if we define ‘physical’ in a way that includes the mental, the latter is a different ‘dimension’ of nature, or reality, than the external world of spatial objects. Since nothing comes from nothing, every moment of experience must come from a preceding moment of experience in an infinite continuum, the past became the present and the present is becoming the future. Consciousness cannot be created or destroyed, it only changes.