Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

I need to learn how to stop thinking

Daniel asked:

Hello. For two weeks I have found myself unable to generate a concrete thought as well as unable to avoid generating a thought, my body reacting to philosophical contradictions that always lead to nihilism. I can do almost anything except vomit and puke, and I feel as if my body is vanishing from space. This all seems ridiculous to me, as I have read existentialists such as Camus or Nietzsche (perhaps almost to the point of obsession) and I agree with their vitalist approach. However, my relentless mind and previously conditioned mindset to seek the truth and nothing else has stripped me of every other instinct. I need to know how to simply stop thinking about life and start living. Surely, an actual philosopher may have had a similar experience and learned how to control such things. I would greatly appreciate any form of advice.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Daniel.

It seems you have thought yourself into a corner. This may be something to do with studying existentialism.

If you were a meditative practitioner your state of mind would be considered a wonderful place from which to begin and make progress. You have spotted the contradictions that plague the world-view of most people, you are committed to truth, you have recognised your conditioning, you’ve begun to wonder if you’re disappearing in a puff of smoke and you want to stop thinking and start living. These are perfect conditions for a truth-seeker.  It takes some effort to reach this point.

You now have choices. You could try to control these thoughts and feelings. I would not advise this. It would be counter-productive and a waste of all your work so far. Or you could make use of of your situation. To build on this beginning you would need to forget all about existentialism and all other ‘isms’ and set out to discover what is true.

Meditation is the usual way forward. This entails doing just what you wish to do, namely stopping your wayward ordinary mind from controlling your life.  The topic is too extensive to discuss properly here but there is a vast literature. It will take you beyond the mind entirely.

I’d suggest a study of Zen. Perhaps you could try a book Cultivating the Empty Field by Dan Leighton, a compilation of the poetry of Zen master Hongzhi. His poetry says much about his state of mind and reveals a peace and tranquility that should appeal to you while the preface and introduction deal with the philosophical issues.

As for philosophical contradictions, which as you say can ‘do our head in’ and lead us into nihilism, for Zen and the Perennial philosophy there would be no such thing. This would be what is discovered in meditation. All contradictions would be misunderstandings. For more on this issue Nagarjuna would be your man. I’d recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom: Teaching on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamptso.

I know of no other method for dealing with the problems you describe than meditation and a study of the non-dual philosophy of the mystics. This will require leaving behind the muddled and purposeless philosophy of our Western universities and it seems you’re keen and ready to do this. Frankly, while I admire Nietzsche I see a study of his thoughts as a fairly direct road to depression and insanity. The problems you describe do not arise for meditative practitioners because they don’t deal in theories or guesswork and become able over time to see the tricks of the mind for what they are. The purpose of the practice is to realise the truth about Reality so this is the go-to method for truth-seekers. The Oracle at Delphi was no fool.

YouTube is your friend. Try watching a few talks by, say, Rupert Spira, Mooji or Sadhguru. You’ll see that they show no signs of suffering from your problems.  They will explain that your body cannot ‘disappear into space’ since neither your body nor space would be truly real. Perhaps you’re intuitively sensing this. If you explore further you’ll find no need for nihilism or pessimism and your mind will become much easier to live with.

Good luck!