Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Earliest F-Word / Against Utilitarianism

The Language Log reports what may be the first instance of the F-word bleeped out. It's about homosexual sex, too!
Rigby ſeemed much pleaſed upon Mintons coming, and drank to him in a glaſs of Wine and kiſt him, took him by the Hand, put his Tongue into Mintons mouth, and thruſt Mintons hand into his (Rigby) Breeches, saying, He had raiſed his Lust to the higheſt degree, Minton thereupon askt, How can it be, a Woman was only fit for that, Rigby anſwered, Dam’em, they are all Port, I’ll have nothing to do with them. Then Rigby ſitting on Mintons Lap, kiſt him ſeveral times, putting his Tongue into his Mouth, askt him, if he ſhould F----- him, how can that be askt Minton, I’ll ſhow you anſwered Rigby, for it’s no more than was done in our Fore fathers time;

Goodness gracious!

Will Wilkinson slashes at the insanity of utilitarianism with his entry "The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number", but proposes a way to reform its basic principle in a more voluntaryist light:

Let’s step back and think again about the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” It’s not a bad principle, really. And there’s a way of reasonably parsing it so that makes good sense. Don’t start with “greatest happiness.” Start with “greatest number.” The greatest number of people in society is, well, everybody—each individual, that is. So we’re thinking about each person. Got it? Now we move on to “greatest happiness.” For each person, we want the greatest happiness, for them. For each person, we’re going to try to see it their way.

This puts us in the neighborhood of the contract view. Everybody desires to achieve happiness by succesfully implementing his or her life-plan.

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At 6/28/2006 8:59 AM, Blogger Daniel declaimed...


I am an egoist. I still have a hard time in fleshing out how we humans do not act unselfishly, even if, at least, we subconsciously have some value of our own at stake. Utilitarianism doesn't seem completely incompatible with egoism to me, as odd as that sounds. If each individual recognizes the value of self, and the value of society, in that order, it seems that altruism naturally follows...

When I typically use the term altruism, I use the second of the two definitions on webster's: 2) behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

Note here that altruism is an action, not a philosophy, and does not describe motives. I think the question is--does this really exist? That is to say, when we see chimps grooming each other, or humans giving charity, it obviously first looks like unselfish behavior. When I have said before that rational self-interest extrapolates to altruism, [and was accused by you of being an unthinking "jackass" for] I mean this very superficial altruism--only the acting/behaving component. Getting into the psychology of the action gets a lot more nebulous.

Why are we motivated to act unselfishly? That presupposes that we actually do. But, does anyone deny that in living in society, we all must at times, in differing degrees, put someone else before ourselves? But, is this action, necessarily altruitic by definition, incompatible with egoism? That is, if I value my life, and I recognize that my life is more protected and bettered by society, I am likely to contribute to society. I am afforded the protection and economic stability of a society in return for my contribution. This ascribes the conscious motivation to act in a way that seems unselfish, but according to our egoistic interpretation, really is not...but we've still got to deal with the definition of altruism.

For me to say that I ever act out of truly unselfish motives is a stretch. However, I have the illusion of acting unselfishly, just as evolution creates the illusion of design. The evolutionary adaptation of empathy enables me to put myself in the minds of others. Because of empathy, social structures and behaviors are made possible. This is selected for naturally [despite RA's recent protestations to the otherwise], because social behavior contributes to the survival of the species. Attendant with empathy, and correlated to its enabling us to see from other perspectives, comes the impulse to alleviate the suffering of others, even when we know it will not directly benefit us.

To rid ourselves of this burden, we might argue, we act selfishly--that we want to avoid guilt, or some semblance thereof, or that we want to promote our values (let us say that we cherish all human life and want to see it flourish, and we value the alleviation of suffering) I agree with this attempt by egoism to make every action rise out of some attendent benefit to the self/individual. But, can we say that "the greatest good for the greatest number" does not necessitate some form of collectivism or socialism? I think we can. I think utilitarianism and egoism are not incompatible, as odd as it first sounds, when all we consider are the actions of individuals and their direct consequences.

It can also be argued that empathy kicks into overdrive at times, and that self-sacrifice is a real possibility not only on the superficial/illusory level, but due to the development of the psychology of "courage/honor/virtue" ...what have you. When we sacrifice self for children, we aren't really sacrificing anything, as we recognize the innate behavior of all animals to protect their own kin, as our progeny are all that will remain of us. What about when we sacrifice self for strangers? Rush into a burning car to pull someone to safety? Jump on a grenade in a trench during wartime? How do we interpret these behaviors?

These scenarios can still be interpreted through the cynical eye of egoism, sure, but how far can we stretch it until we admit that the person is, as far as they are consciously aware, acting solely for the good of the other, and, when this capacity is found in all humans, we will all benefit from being on the receiving end by virtue of statistical probability. That is, there are more scenarios by which my life can be furthered and protected by others who act on empathetic impulses than scenarios in which I risk my life for others, by virtue of the number of others relative to myself.

In that sense, rational self-interest sometimes extrapolates to altruism, because socialization is a package deal. We don't get to shrug off sympathy/empathy when it suits us, as it still compels us to act.

Okay I rambled on a lot more than I'd intended. What do you think?

At 6/28/2006 11:39 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Very often, our values intersect with the values of other people. The fact that, in this context, we seek to fulfill the values of others does not mean that we have given up our own. There is no such thing as an unselfish act.

At 6/28/2006 6:54 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

This seems to be the crux of your argument:

"What about when we sacrifice self for strangers? Rush into a burning car to pull someone to safety? Jump on a grenade in a trench during wartime? How do we interpret these behaviors?"

And then you conclude that sometimes we "act solely for the good of the other".

First of all, you can't use wartime as an argument, as soldiers are brainwashed and can't properly be called moral agents.

Your burning car example is better, but still does not demonstrate how I "act solely for the good of the other". Are you saying that you have no empathy or desire for people in your society to be healthy? That sounds rather unlikely. You may foolishly rush headlong into a dangerous situation thinking it's not so dangerous, but that's just human error.



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