Part 2: The Sum of All Pleasures

The second segment of my intro to parvulism is the framework for a system of ethics.

Like the other aspects of parvulism, this system was conceived by smarter people than me (their synthesis into a singular coherent worldview is all I can claim).  The philosophy of morality known as utilitarianism, first articulated by Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill in 19th-century England, suggests that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the “greatest happiness principle.”  They each attempted to devise a solid mathematical formula to define the term, but the basic idea is more exquisite.  The goal is simply to estimate, to the very best of one’s ability, the total net amount of happiness and suffering that will occur as a result of the action in question.  If the act will cause more happiness than suffering, it is morally right; if it will cause more suffering than happiness, it is morally wrong.

What does this mean exactly?  Bentham was a bit of a hedonist, believing that all types of pleasure were of equal value.  Mill distinguished between higher pleasures that lead to true happiness, and baser simpler pleasures that lead to shallow contentment.  He argued that people who had experienced both a game of hopscotch and a night at the opera usually tended to prefer the latter, so it should be valued more heavily in the calculation.  For this reason, he advocated expanding educational opportunities for the poor, on the grounds that it was morally right.  I also accept that distinction; to reject it would be to endorse a society in which everyone would be justified in living in a constant intoxicated stupor, watching pornography and cartoons all day until the TV stations go dark from lack of maintenance.  The happiness derived from a beautiful work of art or a meaningful human relationship is, in fact, stronger and greater than anything one could hope for in the absence of such things, so their creation and cultivation is a worthy and moral enterprise.

Geneticists have determined that everyone in the world today is descended from a small band of less than five thousand humans living in east Africa only about two thousand generations ago.  So we are, literally, all of us, brothers and sisters.  Animals are much more distant relatives, but family nonetheless.  (Our shared ancestry does not constitute the premise for utilitarianism – it can stand firmly on its own merits as the one and only standard of morality constructed purely from objective rationality – but does help reinforce it.)  The various animals possess varying capacities for “higher” forms of happiness, all apparently much less than humans.  But the sentient ones undoubtedly possess some capacity for pleasure and suffering, which must be taken into account.  

Having established these important parameters, we can apply the greatest happiness principle to any moral quandary.  People must estimate for themselves how much to weigh each instance of pleasure and suffering, and how likely it is to occur as a result of their actions.

  • Carnivorism as a means of survival?  Entirely justified – a human life is more valuable than an animal’s because of our capacity for “higher” forms of happiness.
  • Choosing to eat meat when a wide variety of nutritious vegetarian alternatives are equally available?  Not justified – no steak could ever be delicious enough to offset the animal’s suffering and death.
  • Capital Punishment?  Immoral – the death penalty does nothing to deter future homicides; its only real value is to comfort society with a false sense of justice, not to restore a victim or to right a wrong.
  • Torturing “terrorists?”  Could be justified if the probability of preventing a future attack, multiplied by the level of suffering and devastation that it would cause, is greater than the amount of pain and suffering inflicted on the captive (also taking into account the possibility that the very act of torture may actually inspire other disenfranchised people to violence).
  • Abortion of an early-term fetus, unable to feel or suffer, entirely unaware of its own existence?  Not immoral in itself, as a non-sentient being cannot suffer.  (Its potential to become sentient is irrelevant; otherwise contraception – even abstinence – must also be considered immoral, as they rob a potential human being of its chance at life.)  Until the full development of the central nervous system (the earliest time at which we can reasonably concede that a fetus could be conscious), the only suffering is that of the mother (and, to a lesser extent, the father) so she must be the one to apply the Greatest Happiness Principle to her particular situation.
  • Genetic engineering?  It supports the essence of the parvulist worldview (the continued evolution of the human race), and I don’t see any real moral ambiguities about it.  Humans have always practiced it (albeit subconsciously) in selecting a spouse/partner/mate.  Genetic engineering in a laboratory would make this natural selection more efficient.  Even if it were to become widespread in future generations, it would not make “natural” people like Huxley’s Savages any less valuable or important.  Likewise, those who are genetically engineered before birth would not be any less “human.”  Genetic engineering has the potential to create much more happiness than suffering, which makes its study a moral imperative.

These are my own personal positions, based on my own careful estimates of the pleasure and suffering in each scenario.  As a parvulist I can respect different conclusions – as long as they are reached through the diligent and unbiased application of the Greatest Happiness Principle.

When I was growing up, my brother and dad and I would pass the time on long car rides with a game we called Gray Area.  One person would present what was supposed to be a moral absolute (“stealing is wrong,” for example) and then we would try to think of exceptions to the rule.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my answers often stemmed from the Greatest Happiness Principle.  It is, in fact, the only moral absolute.  So while people will inevitably come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong, our every decision must be guided solely by the Greatest Happiness Principle, without any interference from any other laws or creeds.  When this happens, we will have created a world with the maximal amount of happiness and the minimal amount of suffering.  The next segment illustrates what that near-utopian world may look like.

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