19. Felicific Calculus, or the Mathematical Ethics [QP]

If you are a reductionist, you believe that every single process can be reduced to simplicity by science, but regardless, you might have reservations about human behaviour. It is simply too complex to quantify, you might say, but Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of Utilitarianism composed a dazzlingly succinct algorithm for calculating how much pleasure an action will give us, the Felicific Calulus:

  1. Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
  3. Certainty: How likely is it that the pleasure will last?
  4. Remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
  5. Fecundity: Could the action be followed by sensations of the same kind?
  6. Purity: Could the action be followed by sensations of the opposite kind?
  7. Extent: How many people will be affected?

Utilitarianism is ambitious in that it literally studies the mathematical repercussions of an action; it is a system of ethics that focuses on the consequences an action will have rather than any motivation having gone behind it. It lets us visualise the impact of our action, allowing us to foresee how we can attempt to create the greatest good, for the greatest number. However, taking the above algorithm into account, can there not emerge a slippery slope, whereby men can justify any of their actions under this system to promote their own happiness? Nietzsche recognised this very issue:

“All rules have the effect of drawing us away from the purpose behind them and making us more frivolous.” – Nietzsche, Daybreak.

This ethical calculus wants to convey to us the idea that there are moral absolutes and that actions can be objectively analysed to promote pleasure (hedons) and pain (dolors), but the brutality of circumstance is completely neglected by this system. It is supposedly secular, but it holds that there is some standard by which human behaviour can be measured and thus it evangelises itself, just as religions have pre-ordained, moral absolutes. The spectrum and ultimate irrationality of human behaviour defies all logic, all algorithms and all systems, then why is it that we insist on being crippled by these concepts? The answer lies in our fear of the uncertain, of the ambiguous and freeform liquid that fills the container, which is a representation of a particular ideology. Perhaps, these words, can help us to go beyond valuing our actions by those easily manipulated terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’:

“Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

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3 thoughts on “19. Felicific Calculus, or the Mathematical Ethics [QP]

  1. There are measures by which we can evaluate the effects of actions: the intensity of signals transmitted through the nervous system can be used to quantify physical pain, and in the absence of physical pain, the level of stress hormones in circulation can be used to quantify psychological pain. It is far easier to dismiss a system attempting to systematise and quantify morals and ethics than it is to conceive it. It is far easier to dismiss anything at all, than it is to come up with that thing that we so easily dismiss. Be cautious and measured in assessing and handing out judgment. Isn’t “being good for something” what everyone always tries to be, no matter what that something is? How do individuals define themselves and their worth in their own eyes? Isn’t one of our most basic requirements for life to feel needed, useful, necessary, recognised in some way? Here again, it has been seen (not in controlled experiments, but in unfortunate circumstances where they have no parents) that infants, humans governed primarily by instinct, lose their will for life and stop eating when they feel abandoned and not cared for (recognised, valued, loved) by at least one other being, no matter who that is, even when all their basics needs are taken care of. Could this also be measured somehow? I think so. There is no way to separate the function and action of the meat from the non-meat. Everything that we think of as “mind” is biochemistry expressed through the meat of the body, and everything that is done to the meat is felt as biochemistry in the “mind”. Psychological foundations for ethics and morality should not be overlooked because of the internet difficulty in identifying or understanding them.

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    1. The intention was never to dismiss this system of morals, but to point out the issues which result naturally from following it too seriously. Utilitarianism promotes a consequentialist view of ethics, which could justify any means to a ‘desirable’ end. The other normative ethical systems such as Deontology and Virtue Ethics similarly have their own flaws. The issue with Utilitarianism is that it makes subjective ‘value judgments’ and can be quite selfish and hedonistic. Beyond that, it could condemn people if they fail to save someone’s life, regardless of their good intentions. This system can slowly erode values with its shallow and dualistic view of consciousness – pain and pleasure – the horrendous effects of which we may encounter in Huxley’s Brave New World.

      I do concur that we should attempt to search for physiological foundations for ethics, it creates a rather precise feedback loop to make valuations of actions. In his book, “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins explores evolutionarily stable strategies, which really hone in on the idea of an ‘innate morality’ which can be genetically passed down. The idea necessarily is that ethics remains highly subjective. We should attempt to explore all the moral perspectives that there are, so that we may get more of a mosaic-representation of ethical behaviour rather than dwell on a single tile.

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  2. Very good! BTW, in my comment above, I meant to write “psychological pain” and “inherent difficulty”. Maybe you can make those changes if you have a minute, since I can’t edit it myself.

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