Seeing as this blog will deal with concepts that interest me, such as geopolitics, economic matters, current events, philosophy, and other stuff, I would like to establish a unifying theme for my writing to tie all of these factors together. In this blog, and in my life, I pretty much rely exclusively on the philosophy of Utilitarianism to serve as a lens through which I interpret just about everything in the world. The fundamental concept of Utilitarianism lies in the idea that society ought to do everything in its power to maximize human happiness and well-being. I am writing this post because I want to establish now that when I look at different types of events, I will be using this lens, the lens of total human happiness gained/lost as a base from which to construct my opinion and analysis. To be perfectly clear: What matters to me about any event is its effect on total human happiness.
As an example of applying the concept of total human happiness, let’s look at the concept of torture. Imagine a situation in which there is a terrorist who has rigged a car to explode on a busy city street. If we torture the terrorist, he may give up the location of the bomb, after which experts can defuse it and save anywhere from twenty to a hundred lives. Do we torture the terrorist, or let scores of people die?
People who are against torture oftentimes cite this example as evidence against Utilitarian thinking. Surely, they say, a Utilitarian would advocate torturing the terrorist to save all of those people. That maximizes total human happiness, doesn’t it? But torture is wrong, everybody knows that! Surely, they think, Utilitarianism must be the wrong way to look at the world if it can allow for such a contradiction to exist between what it advocates and what most people consider the right thing to do.
However, I would argue that this person isn’t thinking broadly enough. To get to the heart of the matter, let’s consider why we think that torture is morally wrong. To the average person, torture is a frightening concept. It involves extreme amounts of pain, something revolting to even think about. Even the knowledge that someone in the world is being tortured, in and of itself, can cause people displeasure. And there we have it. Most people consider torture morally reprehensible because even knowing about it causes them displeasure. So much displeasure, apparently, that they support banning their own country from using it in times of need.
Utilitarianism takes all of this into account. Torturing the terrorist may save twenty lives for the cost of that terrorist’s being put in an unpleasant situation. If that were an isolated system, of course one would support torturing the terrorist. However, Utilitarianism takes the broader world into account. What would happen if knowledge about this torture were to get out in, say, the US? Well, for one, everyone would feel some amount of displeasure at the idea that a person was tortured, right off the bat. But what other emotions would people feel? Fear perhaps, that they will be wrongfully convicted of something in their lifetime and face torture. Or worse, desensitization to torture- now, the entire country becomes more willing to torture in the future, or to torture common criminals instead of only terrorists. Perhaps these two effects lead to some sort of spiral, in which desensitization to torture begets more torture begets more desensitization, and so on until teachers torture schoolchildren for not turning in their homework. Taking the risk of this situation into account, perhaps a Utilitarian might opt to let twenty people die than risk taking steps to encourage a culture that advocates widespread torture.
In addition to demonstrating how Utilitarian thinking can be applied, my point with this example is to show how sometimes the effects of a particular event are far-flung and hard to predict. Just look at the effects of the 9/11 terrorist attack, which occurred ten years ago. See how it has shaped the world as we know it. Who could have predicted all this? But we have to try. And even if trying is an exercise in futility, I want to try anyway. And the philosophy of Utilitarianism gives me the tools.
I plan on writing some more posts on the other philosophies that drive me, and would love to have a discussion about them with anyone interested in talking about it. Please feel free to respond to/argue about/troll any post in this blog in any way you like- if I didn’t want to talk about these things, I wouldn’t bring them up in the first place.