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:
- Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
- Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
- Certainty: How likely is it that the pleasure will last?
- Remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
- Fecundity: Could the action be followed by sensations of the same kind?
- Purity: Could the action be followed by sensations of the opposite kind?
- 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.