Genetic Utilitarianism?

The Solution

The core problem that plagues all versions of Utilitarianism, is the focus on the happiness or misery of people. It is the same core problem that has plagued all of the various pre-Utilitarian forms of "happiness ethics" from the early Cyrenaics and Epicureans, through Aristotle, to Bentham and Mill and the modern Utilitarianists and Pragmatists. It is all based on the "Self-evident" truth that all else being equal, something which makes me happy is better than something which doesn't. This truth is generally regarded as "obvious" because we experience happiness and pleasure from those life experiences that are generally considered good for us, and misery and pain from those life experiences that are generally considered bad for us. At least when the consideration is limited to those concrete daily experiences with which we are all familiar. There are exceptions, of course, but they are generally acknowledged as exceptions   --   provisions are made.

Modern science, however, is now able to provide some assistance. Unlike Aristotle, Socrates, Bentham, Mill or even Ayn Rand, we now understand that "happiness, pleasure, misery, and pain" are emotions generated in our brains by various chemical reactions to our experienced and perceived environment. We now understand that these emotional reactions are programmed to a large degree by our genes. And we now understand that it is those individual genes, and not the visible individual, that is the unit of evolutionary selection, transmission, and survival. From the perspective of the individual gene, the only aspect of the state of the world that has any real impact, is whether or not it will succeed in surviving beyond the particular organism in which it now resides. If it does not survive, it will cease to exist. Continued existence is the only issue that matters to the individual gene. All of the genes in the genome of any currently living organism have successfully managed to exist for billions of years. So it is a safe assumption that the genes now existing are pretty good at continuing to exist.

A Re-examination of Mill

The application of relatively recent (post 1970) scientific understanding of genetics, evolution, and biology results in a fundamental change to Mill's statement of the central principle of Utilitarianism. Instead of Mill's phraseology -

Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

we can apply a scientifically verifiable and contextually measurable translation and re-state it as -

Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote [maximize the probability of] the continued survival and proliferation of my genes.

"Happiness", no matter how you choose to define it, is but one means by which the individual experiences things that evolution has programmed our genes to consider as "Tending to promote the continued survival and proliferation of our genes". By and large, those circumstances and behaviors that would likely promote genetic survival and proliferation make us happy and give us pleasure. Those that would likely interfere make us unhappy and cause us physical or emotional pain. And those exceptions to this generality are easily understandable as the miss-application of our genetic programming to circumstances it is ill-equipped to understand. The modern scientific disciplines of Socio-Biology, Evolutionary Genetics, Evolutionary Psychology, and Evolutionary Anthropology are exploring and documenting just exactly how our various genetic programs get translated into specific behaviors that tend to promote the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.

With this as a foundation and basis for understanding just what is meant by "The greatest good", let me return to the Utilitarian principles enumerated in the previous chapter, and respond to the objections to them.

1. The only aspect of the state of the world which has any direct moral significance is the happiness or misery of people. It now makes sense to re-phrase this basic principle of Utilitarianism in terms of the individual genes that are all that matters in the long run -

1. The only aspect of the state of the world which has any direct moral significance is the probability that your own genes will continue to exist.

Now - suppose I tell a defamatory lie about you to an acquaintance of mine, who has never had and never will have any sort of interaction with you, and swear him to secrecy. This does make a difference to the probability that my own genes will continue to exist. A little thought will tell you that if I develop a reputation of telling defamatory lies about people, I will soon begin to loose any friends and acquaintances I might have. Even telling a defamatory lie to a single person will warn that person that I am prone to relating defamatory gossip. Does that make it OK? It seems clear to me that it doesn't. It's a very rare individual who can make his way through this life, and more importantly ensure his genes get passed long to the next generation, without friends and acquaintances.

That is why there appears to be something fundamentally good about knowledge and truth, and fundamentally bad about falsehood and ignorance. Some such idea does seem to underlie the near-universal agreement that lying and ignorance are in themselves bad.

2. Actions, as such, have no moral value. What matters is their effect on the state of the world.

This now becomes far more plausible. If I kill someone, if I take great pleasure in annoying other people, if I get enormous satisfaction from causing you minor but genuine unpleasantness -- there is in fact something intrinsically bad about that. In all such cases, the threat to my potential for passing on my genes to the next generation is significant. One obvious thing that these things have in common is that most of the things near-universally agreed to be good are things which increase the likelihood that your genes will get passed along, and most of the things near-universally agreed to be bad are things which decrease the likelihood that your genes will get passed along. And in most exceptional cases, there is a clear recognition that they are exceptional cases: the analysis of "genetic success" is taken further and deeper, and has so far always discovered a reasonable genetic rationale.

3. In particular, only individuals matter. The only relevance of the state of a family or a society is the effect it has on its individual members.

With the basis founded on the survivability of your genes, the logic of this principle becomes obvious. The family matters because related individuals also carry copies of your genes, and if you cannot pass along your own copy, you can "Succeed" by assisting your relations to pass along their copy of your genes. Society matters because it is a method used by the individual to make it easier to pass along his genes.

4. All people are, ethically speaking, equal, in all situations. One person's happiness is precisely as important as another's.

This principle now has to change dramatically. And it must change in precisely that direction that resolves a number of the practical problems with Classical Utilitarianism. From the perspective of your genes, other people are important only to the extent to which they either (a) carry copies of your genes and will likely be able to pass them along; and/or (b) are of assistance to you in your efforts to pass along your own copies of your genes. So it makes sense to re-phrase this principle of Utilitarianism in terms of the individual genes that are all that matters in the long run -

4. All people are, ethically speaking, unequal, in any situation. Another person's ethical importance is just the extent to which they either (a) carry copies of your genes and will likely be able to pass them along; and/or (b) are of assistance to you in your efforts to pass along your own copies of your genes.

Now, what about criminals? If I am in the process of raping your wife, in general you should not consider my well-being in deciding how to go about stopping me. The one obvious exception would be if I am closely related to you, and have a meaningful likelihood of being a useful avenue through which you could pass along your genes.

5. It is possible to measure happiness, in the required sense, on some sort of comparative linear scale.

The change required to this principle is relatively simple in words, but has a significant impact in resolving many of the challenges to Classical Utilitarianism. The change is to replace the measure of happiness with a measure of the likelihood that your genes will get passed along to the next generation.

5. It is possible to measure differences in the probability that your genes will continue to survive and proliferate on some sort of comparative linear scale.

And now we have replace the very real problem of how to measure happiness, with a very solvable problem of how to measure statistical probabilities of genetic survival. The latter problem we know how to solve. Population geneticists have been making a science out of it for about 40 years now. Insurance company actuaries and medical statisticians have been projecting statistical probabilities for about 100 years. Now I will admit that when you are faced with an Ethical choice, you may not have the resources of a medical statistician, or the statistical population of an insurance actuary. But I return to that part of the problem later. At least with the genetic re-phrasing, we have eliminated the problem of how to measure the rather subjective emotions of happiness, misery, pleasure and pain.

6. It is possible to add up different people's degrees of comparative happiness, producing a meaningful "Total (net) happiness". And, again, the results can meaningfully be compared.

As with the previous one, the change in this principle is simple in words, and involves the replacement of the measure of happiness with a measure of the likelihood that your genes will get passed along to the next generation..

6. It is possible to add up different people's contribution to the probability that your genes will continue to survive and proliferate, producing a meaningful (net) total. And, again, the results can meaningfully be compared.

This eliminates the problem of treating different sorts of happiness and different people's happiness as commensurable.

There do remain several objections, however --

A system of rules, as has been proposed for Rule Utilitarianism, would resolve these objections so long as they serve only as convenient advice. They would codify the wisdom of past experience, and preclude the need for constant calculation. They would also make it good to have wisdom, and to collect the knowledge and experiences of others. And this too is consistent with a near-universal appreciation of wisdom and knowledge.

There are a lot of rules in the Bible/Torah/Koran/etc., and many religious communities have come up with others (either deduced from the ones in their Sacred Book, or not). I distrust rules, even when they come from the very most reliable sources. It seems improbable to me that any finite collection of rules can really give a perfectly accurate account of what one should and should not do. (Unless, of course, one is defining "what one should do" as to be consistent with the rules.)

This is realized in practice (though often not in theory) by just about everybody. This is why there are all those other rules which aren't found in the Sacred Book: "we can see that this must be right; it's right for the same reason as {thing found in Sacred Book} is right."

Combined with the change in scope that results from the shift from "happiness" to "genetic survival", the employment of a suite of rules as convenient advice resolves the challenge that Utilitarianism requires too much impossible calculation. I no longer have to work out the entire future of the whole universe for each alternative, with possibly radically different outcomes (the butterfly effect). I no longer have to work out exactly how happy each person is in each case and for how long. I now have to be concerned only with those people and that future that would have a meaningful contribution to the likelihood that my genes will survive. Comparative distance in genetic relatedness or contributory assistance would reduce the comparative importance of any likely contribution. Comparative distance in time would reduce the importance of any likely contribution. So the scope of concern narrows dramatically. And in those situations where I do not have the luxury of the time, the knowledge, the capability, or the interest to do the calculation, I can draw upon the accumulated experiences of previous successful decisions and use the rules as a guide.

It may indeed be an Elitist system of Ethics, as has been charged of Rule-Utilitarianism. But it does seem to resolve the weaknesses of Utilitarianism while retaining its strengths. And, more significantly, it does appear to be the decision making methodology employed by most people - whether they label themselves as Utilitarians or ignore the whole Ethics question.

A Social Dividend

Genetic Utilitarianism delivers one clear social dividend that is unavailable to Classic Utilitarianism, or any other system of Ethics that is based on a measure of happiness (or any other subjective state of mind). Genetic Utilitarianism permits, at least in principle if not always in practice, a factual and scientific resolution of the question "Is this the Right Thing for me to do?".

It is, in principle at least, feasible to determine whether some proposed action would, in actual fact - to the accuracy of the best available data, contribute the most to the likelihood that your genes will continue to survive and proliferate. If two people, considering the same set of circumstances, should disagree about whether some proposed action is the right thing to do, then they can differ only in their understanding of the consequences of that action. And that understanding is open to scientific investigation and resolution. If the two people differ in their circumstances, they may have to agree that the action is right for one of them but not for the other. But they should at least be able to agree that it is indeed right for the one of them.

In a democracy, each voter gets to choose and vote for (in theory) the government policy they believe is "The right thing to do". If each voter chooses and votes for the government policy that is "The right thing for me", then the electoral processes will result in a government policy that is the right thing for the majority (the known mathematical problems of electoral processes aside). Thereby achieving what Mill wanted to achieve -- a way to apply the ethics of Utilitarianism to society-wide solutions. In a democratic society, for government policy --

Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

Now, with Genetic Utilitarianism, instead of this statement being a principle expressing the incomputable standard of good behavior, it becomes the expression of an emergent property of individual application of Genetic Utilitarianism by the citizens of a democratic society. It is a perfect moral analog of the "Invisible Hand" of Adam Smith's economics of free market behavior.

Combining these two ideas, it is now feasible to convince people from a basis of scientific evidence and the facts of reality that a particular government policy is really their best choice. This has the potential to remove from public debate, arguments from emotion and religious authority. I do not want to suggest that it will do so, only that it has the potential to do so.

Is the issue Abortion, the Death Penalty, Animal Rights, Sexual Rules, Invitro-Fertilization, Cloning of Humans, Privacy on the Internet, Tax reform? With Genetic Utilitarianism (aka Evolutionary Pragmatism) as the tool, all are now open to a science based resolution, rather than an opinion and emotion laden shouting match.

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