The Roots of Morality III: Universal Utilitarianism

In Part 2 of this series, we reached the conclusion that happiness is the ultimate value and we should strive to increase it. This result can be formalized into a secular ethical system I call universal utilitarianism, whose key tenet is as follows:

Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.

Granted, this simple statement hardly seems sufficient to undergird an entire ethical system. On the other hand, the statement “Allele frequencies change over time due to environmental pressures” hardly seems revolutionary either, and yet one who understands its implications can see how it forms the basis for a scientific theory that is vast and intricate enough to explain all the diversity of the living world. In this post, I will similarly unpack universal utilitarianism and show how it holds implications for morality that are very important indeed.

The first and most important principle that I believe can be derived from this ethical system is the primary importance of justice. Justice – defined as giving people what they deserve and not giving them what they do not deserve – is and must be a bedrock principle of universal utilitarianism. It is easy to see why: a society where justice is not ensured vastly increases both the actual and potential suffering of all its citizens, actual because of people who legitimately do not receive the reward their efforts merit, potential because all people will have reason to fear that the same will happen to them. Security and stability are major components of happiness; very few people can be happy when experiencing uncertainty and fear. By establishing strong guarantees of just treatment, we eliminate one of the major sources of these negative emotions.

By a very similar argument, we can establish a basis for many fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, the right to pursue happiness, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of protest and assembly, and the right to have a say in the running of one’s society, otherwise known as democracy. Again, these rights exist not for mystical or supernatural reasons, but because they are the principles that, when enshrined into law and consistently obeyed, create a society that guarantees the best chance of peace, security and happiness to all of its members. Conversely, a society that lacks them will easily stray into inflicting injustices and suffering on its citizens.

But universal utilitarianism can do more than just demonstrate the validity of basic principles. It can apply these principles in order to resolve moral dilemmas that are widely believed to expose some fatal flaw in other forms of utilitarianism.

One of the quintessential examples is that of a doctor with five patients, each of whom are facing death due to the failure of some vital organ. Would it be morally right for the doctor to kill one healthy person and split up his organs among the five to save all of their lives? If a utilitarian seeks to increase net happiness, treating the happiness of all people as equally valuable, then why (the interrogator asks) would this not be allowable? Or must utilitarians bite the bullet and assert that this intuitively horrific idea is morally legitimate?

It is neither legitimate nor allowable, and no bullet-biting is required. Universal utilitarianism can show us this. We can reason thusly: following the principles of justice and human rights and being consistent in doing so, even if an immediate gain can be realized by violating them, is the course of action that truly will produce the best outcome in the long run. There is and can be no conflict between universal rights and specific situations; the conflict is only apparent, due to our limited perception which can see the immediate consequences of an act but cannot as easily view all its ramifications.

Universal utilitarianism can make concrete the intuitive reasoning that leads us to reject the killing-an-innocent-person option in the doctor’s dilemma. Doing as the thought experiment suggests might save some lives, but consider the mortal terror that would be engendered in the vastly larger number of people by the knowledge that any routine doctor’s visit might lead to them being summarily vivisected to save the life of some total stranger. Consider the vast amounts of grief, despair and ruin that would overtake the families and friends of the victims of this procedure, who would have lost a healthy loved one with everything to live for. Consider, even, the suffering of the transplant recipients who must bear the unhappy knowledge that an innocent person was murdered for their sake!

Violating human rights in one instance, though it may produce some benefit, will be counterbalanced by the numerous currents of suffering inevitably engendered downstream by such an act. It is this corrosive effect of rights violation that leads the universal utilitarian to argue that these principles must be held absolute and not broken for the sake of expediency.

However, I acknowledge that in more ambiguous and complex cases the decision endorsed by universal utilitarianism will not be as clear-cut. This will surely be one of the principal criticisms urged against this system, that it is too vague and does not actually tell people what to do. A similar criticism is that our limited knowledge would not permit us to judge whether any decision truly was the best, in light of all relevant circumstances.

To the first of these criticisms, I reply that universal utilitarianism does give us an unambiguous goal to aim at. Moral reasoning is complex, but it is not arbitrary: all people claiming to follow universal utilitarianism must justify their actions with a plausible account of how they will increase happiness. In this respect, universal utilitarianism enjoys a particular advantage: it brings moral reasoning into the light, so to speak. Under this system, moral conclusions must be justified by reasons that anyone can examine, and therefore moral deliberation must be performed in public.

This stands in sharp contrast to other moral systems – especially religious systems – which allow deliberation to take place behind a private veil of faith that hides the reasoning and presents only the conclusion. Conclusions reached by faith in this manner are usually held sacrosanct and immutable, meaning that when advocates of different moral beliefs clash, the only results are deadlock or one overwhelming the other by force. On the other hand, conclusions based on reason can be debated, criticized and changed by persuasion. I agree that using this method to untangle thorny issues will require much debate, dissension, and critical reasoning. I believe that this is a point in favor of this system and not against it. No realistic ethical system – no ethical system actually capable of coping with all the complexity of the real world – could possibly derive unambiguous guidelines for behavior in every situation in a way that left no room for dissent.

Regarding the second criticism, I do not claim that it will always be easy or even necessarily possible to tell exactly what the right action is. Universal utilitarianism is a heuristic method of decision-making, not an exact algorithm. But again, it is no different in this respect from other objective systems of thought such as science: just because we cannot be absolutely sure that a decision will be the right one is not an excuse to refrain from decision-making altogether. Instead, it means that we should make the best decisions we can, guided by the best evidence available to us, and if in retrospect they turn out to be wrong, we can use that data to refine and improve our future decisions.

Lest all this abstract reasoning about maximizing happiness strike any readers as chilly or overly removed from tangible human concerns, I would like in conclusion to offer a more down-to-earth description of what universal utilitarianism stands for. I believe such a description can best be given as an answer to this question: What kind of world do you want to live in?

Would you prefer – truly prefer – a world of selfishness and struggle, where every person is out for themselves and is always striving to gain whatever they can at the expense of everyone else? Or would you prefer a world of conscience and compassion, one that does not exclude merit-based competition but that also recognizes that we are all in this together and should do what we can to help each other, and treats anyone’s suffering as everyone’s problem? Would you prefer a world where most of the people you meet are strangers or enemies, or one where the recognition of our common humanity unites even strangers together in friendship?

The second scenario, I believe, describes the world where everyone is a follower of universal utilitarianism. It can also be described as “perfect-world morality”, because what it asks us to do, in essence, is to imagine what a perfect world would be like – perfect in the sense of the way human beings treat each other – and then to act as we would in that perfect world. By doing this, we are taking steps toward one day bringing that world into existence.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
Atlas Shrugged: Bare Branches
Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
Atlas Shrugged: The Lilies of the Field
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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