Update: General Utility 3.0 (10/4/2022)
I brainstorm a taxonomy of wellbeing metrics at the end of my essay “General Utility 2.0”. A complimentary taxonomy of suffering metrics should be possible.
In “General Utility 2.0” I imagine a “graphic equalizer” metaphor whereby we can adjust the weights of wellbeing parameters to achieve the most pleasing combinations. But since writing that essay I’ve come around to a preference for minimizing the suffering parameters instead of optimizing wellbeing parameters. Wellbeing is something we should leave entirely open to requisite variety, which weighs against any single point of convergence towards which we might optimize. Minimizing pointless suffering also has a similar issue, in that suffering is different things to different people, but on that side there is less harm in focusing more on what people have in common than on ways they differ. If we can minimize the most common parameters of suffering we shall have done great good without imposing any artificial conformity on the positive wellbeing side. This is analogous to a negative framing of the golden rule–do not do unto others that which you would not have done to you. There is some evidence that such was the earlier formulation of the maxim.
A Late Period (c. 664–323 BCE) papyrus contains an early negative affirmation of the Golden Rule: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.
— Mahābhārata 13.114.8 (Critical edition)
The Mahābhārata is usually dated to the period between 400 BCE and 400 CE.
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General Utility 2.0, Towards a science of happiness and well-being
A defect in some forms of consequentialism is an externalization of subjective, qualitative states such as happiness or contentment from a tally of consequences. Incorporating subjective values, states, or qualia as consequences of an action or circumstance is one of the aims of “General Utility 2.0” In addition, taking a cue from Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, I attempt to begin a catalog of objective correlates to subjective states as a quantitative framework (sometimes referred to as a “hedonic calculus“) for a science of happiness and wellbeing. This doesn’t exclude subjective self reports by any means, but tries to supplement them with metrics that might capture unconscious aspects of wellbeing or compare self assessments of things such as health status, for example, with more objective measures.
Stephen J Gould seems to have spoken for many when he proposed that science and religion, or the domains of “is” and “ought”, are “non-overlapping magisteria,” and opined that “science and religion do not glower at each other…but interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.”
But whether or not the “magisteria” of science and religion overlap is the question, (a version of the demarcation problem) not the answer. In my opinion they do overlap in the following way: religion, philosophy and science widely overlap in the domain of 1) asking questions about the world, and 2) interpreting evidence—although each may specialize in the types of questions it chooses to ask and the kinds of evidence it chooses to interpret.
The problem, and the glowering, arises when it comes to 3) the scientific method and the CRAFT of gathering and validating evidence, regardless of whether the evidence concerns atoms, evolution, or out-of-body experiences. One person’s justified belief is another person’s heresy.
More to the point of this essay, one person’s “ought” is another person’s “ought not”. Curiously, the difference between an ought and an ought-not often comes down to what “is”. My choice to give a panhandler some money or not may depend on whether we are standing in front of a cafe or a liquor store. The more complete our information about people and situations the better we can decide about the “right” thing to do, regardless of our moral framework.
The hypothesis on which this essay is based is this: the more we know about the domain of what is, the smaller the gulf between “is and aught” becomes. I will approach the domain of what is, as it concerns happiness and well-being, through the lens and methods of science, without intending to question or threaten any beliefs that science may be silent about.
Reduction of a duck
Hopefully this will not be dismissed as scientism, positivism, reductionism, or materialism. These terms have various negative connotations but what they may all have in common is a criticism of scientific authority when it violates the parsimony principle. In other words, legitimate science crosses the line into scientism when it takes authoritative positions without sufficient empirical evidence to justify scientific conclusions. A lack of evidence for a proposition (the existence of a God, for example) is not proof of the contrary (negative) proposition. The legitimate scientific position where evidence is lacking is to abstain from drawing conclusions, period.
On the other hand, it is perfectly proper for science to evaluate the conclusions of scientists and non-scientists alike, the methods by which such conclusions are reached, and the evidence on which they are based; and to judge their scientific merit. There are many truth claims popular in modern times that are demonstrably false. I think it is important for people in all walks of life to have the opportunity to learn what science may say about the truth claims we are bombarded with all the time by our authority figures and peers. Even in those cases where science must remain parsimoniously silent, that silence may speak volumes.
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
Are we satisfied with people doing good for the wrong reasons or doing wrong for good reasons? Doing something for a wrong reason increases the risk of bad side-effects and unintended consequences, including but not limited to the consequence of reinforcing the fallacies behind the original motivation. The branch of moral philosophy known as consequentialism emphasizes the results or consequences of an action or rule over the importance of intentions or motives. What I like about consequentialism in general is a concern about unintended consequences because, after all, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It also accords with the aphorism that “By their fruits [i.e. results—not words, reputations, intentions, etc.] shall ye know them.” Results alone may not be sufficient to justify actions, but neither are intentions. Of the two, results may well be the more germane; and they are certainly the more easily quantifiable.
Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of one’s conduct are the true basis for any judgment about the morality of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.
Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behavior itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also distinguished from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself.
Obviously the glaring problem with that definition is “The ends justify the means.” We have a strong, intuitive, negative reaction to that. But consequentialism makes no such absolute, categorical dictum (in distinction to other schools of thought which might hold the contrary dictum that ends can never justify means). Consequentialism holds that both means and ends have consequences and that a valid utility calculation would include both. Would you tell a lie to save an innocent life? Would you kill someone to save your own life? Would you kill someone to save thousands of innocent lives? If so, you may be a consequentialist. Would you cheat, lie, and steal to win a political election? If so you may be a scumbag, but not necessarily a consequentialist.
The saying “the ends justify the means” is often used to justify means which are actually ends in themselves or which serve ends that are not explicitly stated by those who employ them. Or the stated ends may fail to include various “externalities” or side-effects, by-products, or other consequences which were unintended and/or unjustified.
I can’t prevent the concept of consequentialism from being applied euphemistically and disingenuously to provide cover for special interests and antisocial behaviors, but that is in direct contradiction to the aim of empirically and transparently accounting for all consequences—including side-effects and so-called externalities.
Consequentialism does not hold that results/ends matter more than methods/means but that consequences matter more than intentions. Methods and means are susceptible to empirical evaluation as to their consequences (both direct and incidental) and fitness for any given purpose, but intentions are not.
As goodgraydrab put it in a discussion at The Reason Project Forum, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”
We often fail to define and justify our “ends” in a full and explicit way. One goal often contradicts another goal. That is why we usually say the ends don’t justify the means. What this really says is that certain implicit goals, such as civil society (the rule of law), or the value of personal virtue, are considered axiomatic and must not be contradicted by the means used to achieve other goals, such as accumulation of personal wealth. The means for achieving one goal may violate or defeat achieving another, perhaps even more important, goal. Means are properly justified (or judged) by all their consequences, intended or unintended; or to put it another way, by their effectiveness and by all their side effects. In consequentialism, no “externalities” can be sanctioned. To recognize one set of consequences and ignore others would be outright hypocrisy or subterfuge, not consequentialism.
The harder philosophical issue may be judging the merit of the desired “ends” or goals.
Goals can be classed as individual or collective. There is a natural tension between these two categories that can be difficult to resolve even by concepts of enlightened self interest and maximum utility. Human beings would not be well served by the deterministic rules of ant society. A model of maximum utility that includes human beings requires a certain amount of capability, freedom, and dignity, as well as some amount of inequality or disequilibrium. But when, where, why, and how much?
That is where a generic version of consequentialism, utilitarianism or utility theory that I call “general utility” comes in.
General Utility vs The Noble Savage and a Morality based on “Natural Law”
“Jean-Jacques Rousseau…argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism [see anarcho-primitivism] and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution.” (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)
IMO Rousseau actually WAS enamored of the “noble savage” fantasy though he didn’t use the phrase. However, this controversial and highly speculative side-track to his thought is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the present social contract, not vague speculations about prehistory.
“For Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social compact, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.” (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)
Civic/legal/moral equality is a relatively modern idea and derives little from evolution or ancient cultural traditions, with the possible exception of the old canard that we are all equal “in the sight of God.” We need to replace both the legacy of evolution and the “sight of God” with the insight of a humanity which bases its ethics on reason rather than appeals to authority, history, nature, or divine revelations.
All rights (including human rights, civil rights, and property rights) are the products of contract, the most fundamental of which is the “social contract.” Regulation and enforcement of contracts (and thus rights) is a matter of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. Law determines what rights may be inalienable in a given jurisdiction, just as law determines what contracts are legal or illegal. This is all a matter of LAW. Theories based on or derived from “natural law,” “natural rights,” or even on economics are irrelevant to the question of rights and property except to the extent that such ideas have been (and still are) toxic to the evolution of jurisprudence. Rousseau, Kant, and many, many others have tried to settle the rights question on the basis of some “natural law” which remains a speculative and unsettled theory.
IMO “Natural law” is simply a modern facade for divine law. It is a fiction. I do not support morality or ethical systems based on religion or fairy tales. I prefer jurisprudence based on empirical (quantifiable and verifiable) equity, and preferably in a framework of the greatest good for the greatest number (general utility). That is the only proper, objective (non-fictional) basis for morality, ethics, law, or enlightened self-interest. I only wish this were considered self-evident by more people. Instead we constantly debate rights on the basis of philosophy, religion, ideology, or economic theory, none of which provide a sound foundation for rational human rights, civil rights, or property rights.
But where do we get the right foundation for a modern and rational social contract? Not from any form of conventional deontological or consequentialist morality. Deontology and consequentialism are usually contrasted with one another:
“Consequentialism, we are told, judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by the desirability of the outcome it produces; a deontological system, on the other hand, judges actions by whether or not they adhere to certain rules (e.g. ‘don’t censor newspapers’).” (“All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist” by Noahpinion)
Deontology is really just after-the-fact consequentialism. If not prior experience (and thus appreciation of consequences), what would deontological rules and duties be based on other than some form of moral superstition or conjecture? One answer is that deontology is based on contract theory.
“Contract theory is the whole drama of deontology(intent) and ultilitarian(outcome) mergers. Agential problems are the friction between the crude utlilitiarian measures/systems/incentives and the deontological issues of contracts, and when such problems are insurmountable at any given present, we have tension that can lead to revolution. ” ~
Yes, the rules and duties of any deontology worth its salt are not merely unilateral assertions–they are social contracts. But the utility of a contract is not merely in its intent. The utility must also be judged by results. Both the intents and the results matter, in the same way that both the ends and the means matter; and both are embraced in the concept of general utility.
General utility (my term for a generic form of consequentialism) is not arbitrary, authoritarian, philosophical, religious, ideological, historical, anthropological, or tradition-bound. Nor is it cruel or heartless. (What kind of madman would calculate well-being or “the greatest good” without taking subjective needs into account?) By general utility I mean much more (and less) than narrow market-based utility functions that are full of externalities.
The so-called “utility function” in economics and the many varieties of utilitarianism and consequentialism have their critics and their historical baggage. In philosophy, economics, and social science utility functions have been formulated in overly vague, reductive, or simplistic ways often rife with primitive, pre-scientific assumptions and externalities. Utilitarianism and consequentialism have countless variants each with its controversies. I assume a priori that any economic or philosophical school has historical baggage and needs to be reformulated to conform with a modern empirical framework. Henceforth I will refer to that scientific framework as General Utility 2.0 (GU2). I call it “general” utility to distinguish it from prior species of utility theory and utilitarianism which I characterize as narrow or “special” versions of utility.
In theory, the GU2 framework is a multi-dimensional matrix of all variables that impact the well-being and flourishing of human life and everything on which it depends, including the biosphere.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but I don’t think he is saying that well-being is only a matter of mental states. Things like organic health, economic well-being, and ecological fitness are important, too.
I hope that an empirical approach to ethics can breathe new life and scope into consequentialism and the utility function. In my opinion, “what is” and “what ought” are on a collision course, and Sam Harris may be one of the early pioneers of that convergence.
Objections to utility
The most compelling objection to consequentialism is that consequences are unpredictable or uncontrollable despite our best intentions and our best-laid plans. This is the problem of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty. But as a critique of consequentialism this is simply a special case of the repudiation of science in general. By a similar process of reasoning we would conclude that science is impractical and that reality is unknowable because it is not perfectly or completely knowable. I hope that pointing out this fallacy dispenses with the “unknowability of consequences” objection.
Perhaps the most common objections to consequentialism are those that simply assert a bias for other standards of morality that are thought to be morally superior. I argue that non-empirical standards, whether based on authority, history, or any other unfalsifiable theory, are no longer worthy of serious consideration in today’s world.
I already discussed the objection to “ends justifying means” but here is a particular example I recently came across:
“Utilitarianism cannot protect the rights of minorities if the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number. Americans in the eighteenth century could justify slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans. Certainly the majority benefited from cheap slave labor even though the lives of African slaves were much worse.”
Many objections to utility have to do with the difficulties in weighting, aggregating, and computing individual vs collective well-being. Some methods can produce “repugnant” results for individuals and minorities, and even for the whole population in some instances. These are mostly methodological issues.
The biosphere and well-being of future generations must also be taken into account in GU2, and the means for achieving maximum utility must conform with certain axiomatic constraints such as justice and allowance for prior conditions. For example, if maximum utility prescribes a population smaller than presently exists, the population goal must be achieved via natural attrition rather than mass extermination.
Further, the goal of GU2 is not to force people autocratically into conformity with some computed state of maximum utility. The idea is make information about the consequences of possible choices available in the expectation that such information will affect the choosers. The GU2 model would allow the results of changes to any variable to be distributed across all knowledge domains and the consequences estimated.
As goodgraydrab put it so well, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”
Since in the end people still have to decide how to weigh variables and how apply GU2 information, the results of maximizing utility should not violently contradict generic, intuitive attitudes towards well-being. The hope is more that such empirical knowledge would SHAPE such attitudes for the better.
The following is little more than a brainstorming effort, but I think its helpful to have some concrete iteration of an idea to work from.
General Utility 2.0 Framework
A CRUDE TAXONOMY OF WELL-BEING/FLOURISHING/QUALITY OF LIFE
- personal profile
- demographic info
- physical metrics and descriptors
- biographical info
II. Happiness (mental/emotional state)
Note: possibility of real-time monitoring of some factors
- vital signs
- galvanic skin resistance
- pupil dilation
- brain scans (qEEG, fMRI)
- hormone levels
- presence/absence of stress or other happiness inhibitors
- subjective reports
III. Health & longevity (many dimensions)
IV. Safety/security (ditto)
V. Freedom/constraint/capability (ditto)
- Formal education
- Self education
- implicit associations and biases
- conscious values/beliefs
- strengths and weaknesses
- effective/ineffective reinforcement history
D. Beliefs and opinions
E. Cognitive and communication skills
- cognitive deficits
VII. Social matrix
- Status (gender, age, wealth, power, rank, position, fame, celebrity, etc.)
- Employment (job code, job satisfaction, working conditions, culture, co-worker relations, etc.)
- Memberships and affiliations
- On-line social networks
- Other support networks
VIII. Skills & abilities (academic, technical, mechanical, professional, athletic, parenting, housekeeping, etc.)
IX. Standard-of-living factors
- market basket
- assets & liabilities
- disposable income
X. Other quality of life factors
- creative activities
- exposure to nature
XI. Contributions and Costs to the flourishing of others (including ecosystem impacts: carbon footprint, resource footprint, etc.)
It is important to note that various instruments already exist to measure nearly all the parameters in the above table and thus create well-being “profiles” of individuals and groups.
The next level of developing the GU2 model would be to correlate every species of data in the profile so that a change in one variable would be reflected in any others where a relationship was known. So the GU2 framework is a model of both data and relational algorithms.
The GU2 framework might be thought of as analogous to the control board in a recording studio. All the individual parameters of the sounds on multiple “tracks” can be adjusted and combined in an infinite number of ways but somehow one particular set of levels gets chosen as the most pleasing combination. The old-school theories of philosophy, economics, politics, and social welfare might be analogous to the generic rock/pop/jazz settings on a cheap acoustic equalizer. GU2 encourages a much more granular, eclectic, and empirical approach to altering parameters and measuring results, either as simulations or as interventions in the real world.
What is the goal?
Everyone has multiple goals with some degree of overlap and conflict. The best way I know to express the overall goal of General Utility 2.0 is this: to enhance the process of evolution. What I mean by evolution is the on-going emergence of new and increased capacities and capabilities in the biosphere and its parts, including but not limited to ourselves.
What happens if we maximize the biomass of human neurons on the planet and minimize the mass of human fat cells? This is a far-fetched question even in the context of GU2. But the current impossibility of simulating such scenarios is not a bad reason for investing in GU2.
Utility is actually implicit in everything we do. The goal of GU2 is to make it explicit. This will seem like a bad idea to some. Many may feel, not without some justification, that such knowledge is dangerous. The funny thing about knowledge, though, is that a little bit is more dangerous than a lot.
The brain is a powerful utility-computing device, but it is an analog device with many eccentric, ad hoc methods for doing its job. An increasing number of brains are becoming aware of this limitation and they are developing science and technology to enhance the power and quality of utility computation. These rational cognitive prosthetics, enhancements, and quality controls are vital because the biological brain is not able to evolve rapidly enough to deal with changing environmental conditions.
Some rational utility computations will no doubt conflict with eccentric brain-based computations. Many of our human eccentricities may be relatively harmless. Some may be essential to who we are. Certainly some are beautiful to us and are deeply cherished. Unfortunately, some are also responsible for a great deal of human suffering and environmental damage. Sorting it all out will not be easy or painless but that is the goal of GU2.
I would also say that a goal of GU2 is for humanity to achieve greater moral-ethical maturity–i.e, to put away childish, pre-scientific notions of morality and to grow up.
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