Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Modern Utilitarians

In philosophy this year we learned about utilitarianism, which is essentially the idea that every action is good if it is in the interest of producing the greatest amount of pleasure, or happiness, for the greatest number of people. Of course, this was an extremely difficult task, and as John Stuart Mill, a later utilitarian pointed out, it is difficult to tell because there are different types of pleasure or happiness for different people. Following on that problem, one of the main reasons that it has been generally disregarded as a philosophy is that its tenants are essentially impossible to propagate. Who can tell what produces the greatest amount of pleasure, or happiness, is for the greatest number of people?

Well, up until recently, the answer was nobody. But now that we are beginning to understand more about the brain, and can do very intricate brain-imaging surveys, we may literally be able to tell which activities and which emotions contribute to the greatest amount of pleasure and happiness for the average person. We could determine, based on the average life span, and the average amount of this activation expected to occur during a day, on average how much pleasure and happiness individuals will experience during their lifetimes. We could then intricately calculate the value, perhaps in terms of happiness but especially in terms of pleasure, of each individual's life. Eventually, we may even be able to figure out each decision that we make based on whether or not it was for the greatest good of society.

Now, I'm not saying that we should do this. I'm just saying that it could form the background for a sick science-fiction novel. You heard it here first.