The Utilitarian Manifesto

Utilitarianism is a system of morality, a code of conduct. But to me, it is my religion.

I have been exposed to various major sects of religions in my lifetime. I went to a Protestant primary school in Hong Kong. When I moved to Canada I switched to a secular public school, but near the same period my parents switched religion from Christianity to Buddhism – Mahayana Buddhism to be exact, and my mother is the most devout, who now does volunteer work for a Buddhist organization on a full-time basis. I have dated more than one girl who was Catholic. I have a friend who is a Satanist.

I was positively influenced by all the religions I was exposed to, but the deficiency of each is so severe that I could never find myself committed to any (Buddhism was very close), until I read about Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is hardly ever referred to as a religion by most people. It is usually described as a philosophy of ethics, a somewhat practical tool for deciding what is right and what is wrong. But I call it a religion for the way I believe in it and the intensity of how I live by it.

The utilitarian ideal is this: each act is judged by its contribution to the overall happiness of people. That’s it! Now, there are different branches of utilitarianism and different ways of interpreting what that ideal means, but this is the overarching gist of it. You are doing good when you create happiness, and you are doing evil when you destroy happiness (or create suffering). What better ends can there be? If you have to believe in something, why not this?

Utilitarianism appeals to me, especially to my pragmatic mind, because it removes all the unnecessary superstitious stuff from other religions and reduces them to their core, the essence of goodness. There are many people who would not call this a religion at all, but this is as religious as I get.

I used to call it my “worldview”, but other parts of my worldview are typically supported by testable facts and logical deductions. Classifying Utilitarianism as a “religion” actually makes it a second class citizen in my head. I do this because it has flaws, just like any system of morality, but I live by it because it is by far the least seriously flawed system.

One major flaw that disqualifies utilitarianism from the realm of, say, cold hard facts, is that by believing in it, I am elevating its status above all other ethical systems. I feel deep down in my gut that this is by far the best, but I cannot and will never be able to prove it empirically. Although I intuitively know that making people happy is less evil than ravenously murdering innocent babies, I can never prove this to you as a fact. One can never prove the superiority of a moral belief, so these beliefs will always stay in the realm of quasi-religion.

Another flaw is the problem of measurement. If the goal is to maximize happiness, it implies that there is a quantity of happiness we can measure. That is not always a major problem – economists have long measured utility within an individual via methods based on principles of substitution and order of preference. The real problem lies in comparing happiness between separate individuals. How do I “know” for sure that you derive the same amount of enjoyment from this apple as I do? I can ask you if you like the apple or not, but I can never subjectively feel your feelings and then compare it against mine, nor can I objectively measure it. You can tell me that you think the apple is only “OK”, but may be you actually liked it as much as I do. It’s just that you’ve had even better tasting fruits before so the apple is nothing special; whereas that apple is all I’ve ever had in my limited experience and it’s delicious.

In order to properly apply utilitarianism to my everyday life, despite the difficulties of measurement, I use a little trick for estimation purpose. But it is a crude estimation at best, a heuristic.  We will never get more than utilitarian heuristics, and this limitation excludes Utilitarianism from the methods of facts and logic.

I use a concept I call “self-circle”, where you redefine your sense of “self” to include whoever’s impacted by your action. The goal is to trick your genetically predisposed selfishness to work in favour of more than just yourself. Let’s use this method to judge the action of a thief, who steals somebody’s wallet, takes the cash, and throws away the IDs.

Use the self-circle trick from the thief’s or the victim’s perspective and pretend they are one person. What is gain or lost in this transaction? The victim lost cash and IDs; the thief only gained cash. On net, we lost IDs and have the same amount of cash. If they were one person, they would prefer not to have the trouble of reapplying for all their IDs, therefore it was a decrease in net happiness. Therefore this was an evil act.

So what happens if the thief takes only the cash, but leaves the victim with her wallet and IDs? Naively speaking, this is a neutral act because nothing is lost between the thief and victim. However, look at the long term impact of allowing such an act. Let’s expand our self-circle to include all human beings. If we allow the stealing of cash, many people would choose to take this easy way out instead of working on something productive to earn their own cash. The net result will be a less productive economy, and we would have less goods and services to enjoy. So even though it is neutral at best in the short term, once we consider the long term impact, we can conclude that “stealing just the cash” is also unequivocally evil.

It is apparent that we can expand the concept of “self-circle” and eventually push it to the logical limit of universal utilitarianism. You can first define your self-circle as your family and close friends, pretending that all of them and you are one person. You can then expand the circle to include everyone in your company, or your country, and act in their interests. You can eventually push this to include all mankind, and then all things in the Universe. By then there will be no concept of “self”, because you are everything, and everything is you, and there are no “others” to contrast against your “self”. Any decision you make will be to maximize the sum of happiness of everything in the Universe. This concept is in fact eerily similar to the Buddhist philosophy of selflessness and “everything is nothing, nothing is everything”. This is why I mentioned Buddhism was the only religion I came close to believing in. But it comes with much additional baggage and I prefer a more concise, distilled version.

Utilitarianism is different from altruism in that it does not advocate ignoring one’s own happiness in order to increase other people’s happiness, because everybody’s happiness should be accounted for, we are all part of the system. In fact, in borderline cases, I have a tendency to be selfish. If I can reasonably estimate that you derive about the same amount of enjoyment from the apple as I do, then I prefer I get the apple rather than you. And I rather it is me who ends up with all the chips on the poker table.

That said, I admit that I am not perfectly ethical under the utilitarian system of ethics, just like even the best Christians are not perfectly ethical under the Christian system. But at least I judge my morality using a gauge that is better than any other.

When I don’t rape somebody, I don’t have to be told to think that because God said so; When I don’t steal an unattended purse , I don’t have to be told that it’s because I don’t want to go to Hell. Being good is an end in itself. Utilitarianism also automatically removes outdated clauses – No sex before marriage might have been a rule that became popular because it prevented the suffering caused by unwanted child-birth, but obviously it has no place in my rule book in this day and age of contraception.

I sincerely hope that by calling utilitarianism a religion, I did not lower your impression of it down to the level of the other pedestrian religions. If there exists any definition of goodness, then utilitarianism found it, like Occam’s razor, by cutting out all the excess from the major religions to reveal the nuggets of truth. There is no need to posit an external god.

Let’s keep the amount of untestable beliefs to a minimum. Celebrate no god other than Mankind itself, for all its strengths and flaws, all its achievements and failures, all its glory and embarrassment. We are not omnipotent, we are not omniscient, but we are us. Worship no tyrannical God who casts you to hell for your sins; obey no Allah who sends you to war against unbelievers; serve no karmic cycle where the only purpose to do good is to get repaid by good karma. Striving for the happiness of all mankind is an end in itself.

I am a utilitarian, and this is my manifesto. There will never be a temple built for the Utilitarian God. The only temple already exists in each of our minds.

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3 Responses

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Enjoyed “The Utilitarian Manifesto” it made me very happy.
    I would need to make one change. You state “The utilitarian ideal is this: each act is judged by its contribution to the overall happiness of people”. For me this needs to be “all living things”. I think it works.

  3. Pleased Fresh Year harry! 🙂

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