Saturday, February 11, 2006

Pleasure and Pain

I have been thinking of reductios ad absurdum* of Utilitarian ethics.
If pleasure and pain are to be put on a single axis, can an entity experience more of one than the other? If pain outweighs pleasure, then we should destroy everything, as painlessly as possible. If pleasure outweighs pain, then one would think that the more things that can experience pleasure, the better. We should thus convert the entire universe into the smallest entities possible that can live their lives in continual ecstasy. I thought of a silly story about a Utilitarian alien invasion, where the Earth is converted into grey ‘happygoo’ of cheerful nanobots, but in such a way that everyone is wildly happy about it all stages of the process. Maybe something like this has already happened, and all the fundamental particles of our universe are really, really, happy.
It seems to me also that if either ‘pleasure’ or ‘fulfilling your potential’ are really seen as ‘good’ by secular humanists, they should be as down on birth control as any Mormon. Unless, pleasure is not seen as additive good: our pleasure will be *better* than that of those other people, if they are not here. Maybe, it is the *quality* of the pleasure that is important, and they are working towards a future where there is only one being, but that one is capable of a Godlike degree of happiness and has harnessed all the energies of the universe towards achieving it. Hmm, this is also the conclusion given- with no argument for it, just a kind of a sermon- by the mad ex-clergyman Straik in ‘That Hideous Strength.’

This utilitarian idea has clarified something for me that never made sense before. Harlan Ellison et al.'s theory that we need to have evil so we can know what good is makes absolutely no sense in a Judaeo-Christian-Islamic way, but if we have ‘good’ equated with ‘pleasure’ and ‘evil’ with ‘pain’ it is self-evident. We all know that the best pleasure is frequently the stopping of pain. The first sitting down, after a long walk in inappropriate shoes: the first drink of icy lemonade, after ditto...

*Hmm, is there any plural of ‘reductio ad absurdum’?

11 comments:

Marco said...

Birth control (including abortion) and forms of euthanasia seem to be accepted by the humanist fraternity. I think the thought behind it is that a control of population does indeed make it better for the rest in that sense. And like in nature where predators sometimes do their prey a favour by hunting the weak and the easily replaceable- Humanists believe population control is a good thing but it should be completely restricted to the extreme ends of the spectrum and not imposed by the state or ideology.

winstoninabox said...

I have a completely different idea. I thought it was because they believe that each person should have the opportunity to reach their potential and make their own life decisions.

The freedom to birth control fits neatly into that. It gives the individual more choice.

Like I said before, the rights of the individual seem paramount in the manifesto.

Marco said...

Yes but the point being that the unborn don't get given a choice. You wouldn't say the same thing about the freedom to kill one's newborn or even later gestation fetus - even though the rest of the argument for freedom is pretty identical. The freedom from the burden of dependents in a humanist society is limited to early cases.

winstoninabox said...

Don't forget that you began your comment to this thread by say, "Birth control (including abortion) and forms of euthanasia seem to be accepted by the humanist fraternity." But then you specifically focus on abortion (and so I'm left ot make the assumption that you don't have a problem with preventative types of contraception). Abortion is one kind of the many kinds of birth control. That you would choose to condemn all humanism on the basis of a portion of one of their points, is a little unfair to the philosophy as a whole.

"You wouldn't say the same thing about the freedom to kill one's newborn or even later gestation fetus - even though the rest of the argument for freedom is pretty identical."

Your making the mistake of extending your argument, when humanism looks at each case on its own merits. Abortion is obviously not equal to murder under a humanist philosopy (YMMV). So of course the above argument falls down without any rebuttal required. What I beleive is neither here nor there.

"Yes but the point being that the unborn don't get given a choice."

And so I'm assuming that "the unborn" are actually the aborted. And again it seems that in the case of individual freedoms, humanism is to be hoist on its own petard.

Let's go the other way then - abortion is banned. Now about 50% of the population's freedoms are definitely being infringed upon, as the rights of all women are, in this case, dictated by the state. This is definitely in opposition to the philosophy. And so humanism is to be damned either way.

To have the high-minded ideal of guaranteeing all individual's freedoms humanism means to mostly throw out paternalism. For remember the philosohpy is not mandating the use of birth control, but saying that those who wish to use it should have the option to do so. This is consistent with its philosophy of individual freedom.

And inconsistency is one of the false charges which you lay against it.

Dr. Clam said...

It's all about where you draw the line between 'Us' and 'Them': Given where you draw the line, your argument is irrefutable; where I draw it, infringing the right of mothers to kill their children is no worse than infringing the right of fathers to kill their children, as enjoyed by the ancient Roman paterfamilias...

Marco said...

Oops, maybe I should have made clear what I actually believe, so you would know what to attack. I am also against "prohibition" of abortion per se. The results of it in Italy say in the 60's was, I believe a disaster. I am against individuals having a casual attitude to the unborn, just because the law is liberal in this regard. I am not so much condemning humanism for this liberalism - but I am severely nitpicking it. I am not sure that it is good enough to say the line is drawn depending on the case. The rules should be the same for everyone where possible. The fact that "religious" people are less likely to abort than secular humanists means they will probably have more children earlier. They are also more likely to pass on at least some of their basic beliefs. Therefore secular humanists may well die out because they are memetically inferior :-).

winstoninabox said...

Dr. Clam, certainly "Us" and "Them" is central to this portion of their philosophy. The question that I'd like to know is, under humanism when are we individuals that come under the protection of humanist ideals, and when are we a collection of cells still yet without potential or a brain-dead body that has used all its potential up?

"Oops, maybe I should have made clear what I actually believe, so you would know what to attack."

Marco, I hope I don't sound like I'm attacking your beliefs. I have no intention to do so, and apologize if any comments I have made have given you that impression. Your beliefs are yours, and you have every right to hold them. I was hoping to get a better understanding of your position.

I also am not (although it may appear to be the case) a defender of humanism. I have tried to find flaws in your arguments or tired to better elucidate my reading of the articles. I was interested in the articles both you and Dr. Clam have blogged, and thought that the intellectual excercise of debating might be enjoyable. If anyone feels it has become anything more intense than that, I'm happy to withdraw.

Dr. Clam said...

Don't worry about hurting Marco's feelings, he is inured to bitter ad hominem attacks!
I know 'attacks' on my points of view have been the main stimuli towards making them more self-consistent, articulate, and fanatical. If I was never challenged, I might never have learned to think at all. Intelligent challenges should make us rise to the occasion, and unintelligent ones will just make us feel smug and superior. So don't worry!
We have argued a lot about setting the border (or the demilitarized zone) between 'Us' and 'Not Us', Marco and I- have you explored the archives to our respective blogs?

Marco said...

For God's sake don't withdraw (Or should I say " for humanity's sake :-). I would prefer more spirited attacks from more sides in fact. I did kind of steer the humanism debate to specifically humanism's take on the abortion debate. I still believe the "when does a bunch of cells become a human?" element is a device designed to absolve ourselves of the guilt we might otherwise feel for letting it happen where our "instincts" feel like it is ok. The only possible way we can avoid feeling the loss is by convincing ourselves that the aborted were never really one of us. Thus we make artificial gestation points that don't reflect any milestone in particular such that at least the rules are mostly the same for everybody. I must say that it is mostly "economic" factors one way or another that has been setting the line. Justifications seem to be an afterthought to where the line has been voted on. The line seems to have moved over the last few decades, whereby late term abortions have been less and less accepted by the general population.

winstoninabox said...

(in an attempt to re-hijack the discussion)

Well if you two have already debated abortion to death, then maybe a focus on another part of the manifesto would be in order.

Back in Yesterday's Men Dr. Clam, you felt there was some incongruity between Points 9 and 12.

Would you like to paraphrase it?

Anonymous said...

Where does all this leave us, then? No moral judgements at all?

Or back to Buddhism and Schopenhauer, perhaps?
Simply compassion and no philosophical hairsplitting!
Klaus