Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for July, 2010

Pleasure, Liberty, and Brave New World

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 31, 2010

Our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty! Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy! (p. 149)

I recently wrote about the choice between freedom and happiness. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Brave New World, the complete text of which may be found online. The novel features an intriguing investigation of the choice between liberty and pleasure.

If you haven’t read Brave New World, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to, then at least read the summary on SparkNotes or Wikipedia so that you may better understand this essay.

Brave New World appears to be, if nothing else, an explication of the difference between pleasure and freedom. It illustrates a world of maximized pleasure but limited freedom, and this prospect is made to look frighteningly unpleasant. Although this is ostensibly true, reality is to the contrary: pleasure, despite what Huxley may have us believe, is liberty’s master.

In this fantastical world, higher pleasures have been eradicated. Shakespeare is banned because people could not understand it, because they are conditioned not to be able to understand it. People’s freedoms are restricted in the most absolute sense when they are conditioned to want certain things. The problem here is not the idea of conditioning itself. In fact, everyone is conditioned, all the time, and this is completely unavoidable. What makes the conditioning in Brave New World so abject is that it conditions people not to like higher pleasures. On the surface, it appears that liberty is sacrificed for happiness; but in truth, higher pleasure is sacrificed for lower.

This sacrifice is made in the name of stability. One character told a story of a social experiment in which a group of Alphas, the most intelligent and highest-class members of society, were placed on an island to govern themselves. What was the result?

The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen. (p. 151)

The sacrifice here is not liberty for pleasure, but rather higher pleasure for stability. This quotation is one of the best pieces of evidence for the superiority of Huxley’s world; notwithstanding, it still relies on a few fallacious premises. The most obvious flaw here is that this is a work of fiction; although the quotation paints an interesting picture, we cannot know that an island of Alphas would find their situation to be hopeless and petition to rejoin the “normal” government. More importantly, we must ask what peoples of a different caste would do were they in a similar situation. Alphas serve to benefit more than any other caste by rejoining society, as they have the best prospects for experiencing higher pleasures. Castes lower than Alpha never get a chance at leadership or even remotely intellectual pursuits, so they do not know if they would like them. If people of the lower castes were given a choice between stability and the opportunity to experience higher pleasures, we do not know what they would choose. But their choice is far more important than the choice of the Alphas, who are already on top by default and whose statures are only lessened by the removal of the lower castes from society. If you created a world full of kings and ask them if they would rather have that or a feudal society, of course they would choose the latter. But create a world full of peasants and ask them the same question, and the answer will be quite different.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the society in question is a problem that is never consciously admitted by anyone in the book, although it is alluded to in a few places. It appears from all sides that the trouble with this society is its emphasis of happiness over freedom — or, after deeper analysis, its choosing lower over higher pleasures. But why does it prefer lower pleasures to higher ones? This society does not desire lower pleasures simply because they are pleasurable; rather, pleasure is only a means to an end. The ultimate ideal of civilization is stability. This is repeatedly mentioned in the book, although it appears that stability is meant to serve happiness. On the contrary: happiness is meant to serve stability. Why?

If you think about it, a society with stability as the ultimate goal will eventually win out over any society that emphasizes liberty, pleasure, or anything else. The truth of this becomes obvious after a moment’s thought. No society will be as stable as one that holds stability as the ultimate goal; all other societies will change, and will eventually reach an equilibrium in which stability is the greatest virtue. This is unfortunate when ethics demands that happiness be the highest goal.

David Pearce, a modern Utilitarian philosopher, wrote a critique of Brave New World. He argues that Huxley’s world fails as a satire of modern society and of the desire for happiness because the people in it are not truly happy. He makes a particularly strong case against soma:

As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.

For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. The drug heightens suggestibility, leaving its users vulnerable to government propaganda. Soma is a narcotic that raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”

Huxley’s novel depicts a world that values not happiness but stability. Liberty is restricted in exchange for stability, and the higher pleasures in life have been stripped away. Huxley’s world is a dystopia, there is no doubt about that. But it fails to effectively show that a world based on happiness is a dystopian one. Not only does this world favor less desirable pleasures over more sophisticated ones, but its ultimate goal is not even pleasure but stability. This striving for stability over all else is what inevitably corrupts mankind.

Perhaps I am not giving Huxley enough credit. Perhaps his novel was meant to show that the happiness from liberty is greater than the happiness from stability. If so, then Huxley’s novel only reinforces my point: that maximizing pleasure is the greatest virtue, and that higher pleasures should be emphasized over lower ones. One may not necessarily draw this conclusion from Brave New World, but it is the best conclusion to be had.

Despite that reality may appear to be to the contrary, a world in which happiness is the highest virtue would be the best of all possible worlds. Although liberty can provide great pleasure and is thus valuable, it is not more important than pleasure itself. Furthermore, stability is hardly an ideal goal. At times it can be pleasurable, but causes myriad problems when taken to its natural conclusion. It is imperative that our eyes not stray from society’s pinnacle desires, or the higher pleasures will inevitably come tumbling down.

Quotations from Brave New World come from the edition published by Bantam Books, 1968.


Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

Death Penalty: A Look at the Numbers

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 25, 2010

One of the most controversial issues right now is the death penalty. It is unique among popular political arguments in that arguments may rely heavily on either the numbers or on philosophical points. The numbers are often overlooked in favor of the philosophical points, and even when people do address the numbers they often get them wrong.

Finding statistics regarding the death penalty isn’t too difficult as long as you have an internet connection, or access to a library. There are plenty of helpful websites out there with tables of statistics — even the clearly biased ones can be useful. The government has what is probably the most reliable and least biased data, but it’s a lot harder to sift through.

I did some research and put together some of the most important numbers.


Supporters of the death penalty argue that it is a deterrent to crime. What do the numbers say?

Every year from 1990 until today, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates, with an average reduction of about 25%. This appears to show that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, but correlation does not imply causation. It’s possible that states with higher murder rates are the slowest to ban the death penalty.

A more accurate statistic would be one that looks at the crime rate of a state before and after it abolished the death penalty, i.e. did the crime rate go up?

Not a whole lot of states have abolished the death penalty. Some of them abolished it too long ago for there to be easily-accessible statistics, and others abolished it too recently for the data to be worth anything. The only really prime states are Massachusetts, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia.

This table contains useful statistics. Data is from this site. The table gives the average murder rate from 1960 to 2008, the average murder rate before abolition of the death penalty, and the average murder rate after abolition.

This still doesn’t take into account other factors that would contribute to changing the murder rate. The second table shows the ratio of murder to violent crime; a higher ratio means that murder is disproportionately represented among violent crime. If the death penalty does act as a deterrent from murder, then the murder rates should go up more than the violent crime rates, so this ratio should increase. It’s possible that there are other factors that affect murder rates and not other forms of violent crime, but this ratio can still serve to remove some of the bias.

Execution of Innocents

One of the main arguments of opponents of the death penalty is that innocent people are mistakenly executed. What do the numbers say?

The Death Penalty Information Center has a list of executed people who are suspected to be innocent. This list is not concrete, and was criticized by Ward A. Campbell.

In the United States, 139 people have been exonerated while on death row. This list has been criticized.

Wikipedia has its own list of wrongfully executed people, although few people on the list were conclusively innocent.

Conclusion: Information on the execution of innocents is inconclusive.


The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice did a study on California’s death penalty and produced a report. It found that

. . . [C]onfinement on death row adds $90,000 per year to the cost of confinement beyond the normal cost of $34,150. Thus, just the enhanced confinement costs for the 670 currently on California’s death row totals $63.3 million. This figure increases each year as the population of California’s death row grows.

These figures do not take into account the additional cost of a trial ending in a death sentence, which are estimated to cost approximately $1 million more. However, it is necessary to put the above numbers in context. As the CCFAJ report explains, California has one of the least efficient justice systems and inmates in California on average spent much longer on death row than in most other states. The costs of capital punishment will almost definitely be lower in other states.

A Kansas State study confirmed the increased costs:

[T]he estimated median cost of a case in which the death sentence was given was about 70% more than the median cost of a non-death penalty murder case. That figure was $1.2 million compared to about $740,000.

These are three of the most important statistics regarding the death penalty, and the relevant context. When you see statistics, remember to consider exactly what they mean. Correlation does not imply causation.

If there are any other subjects around capital punishment that you’d like to see the statistics for, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Posted in Ethics, Politics | 2 Comments »

Assessing Responsibility, Revisited

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 23, 2010

Last August, I wrote about assessing blame. I’ve learned a lot since then, so I think it is appropriate to revisit the issue and look at it from a broader perspective.

When something goes wrong, it is often useful to assess who is responsible. Since my previous post on this subject I have determined a solid primary goal, which can be used to reach stronger conclusions: prevent the misoccurrence from happening again.

Given this primary goal, my previous thesis still makes sense. I argued in my last post that responsibility is based upon one’s ability to affect the outcome of the event. If our goal is to prevent a similar misoccurrence, then the person most able to do that is whoever is most able to change what happens. It therefore makes sense to hold this person responsible.

Once this definition is established, it is also useful in preventing the unfortunate event from occurring in the first place. If people understand who will be held responsible for the outcome, then those who will be held responsible will make an appropriate effort to ensure that the outcome is beneficial. This definition will thus serve to create the best possible outcome.

For those of you out there who reject the notion of free will (which I know isn’t many, but I am one of those few), you may notice that this definition makes no reference to free will. It simply attempts to prevent a misoccurrence from happening. By this definition, unlike the more colloquial sense, responsibility is not dependent upon free will. This may serve to ease the minds of those of you who believe that moral responsibility is dependent on free will.

Responsibility is not based on free will or intentions. Rather, the definition of responsibility that deals with who is capable of changing the course of events is the most useful and the most empowering.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

Has Technology Improved Our Lives?

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 18, 2010

Over the last several hundred years, society has seen a massive increase in technology. Some of this technology, like the printing press and the internet, has served to make information more readily available. Other sorts of technology, such as antibiotics and vaccinations, have fought diseases and increased our lifespans. The question is, has this technology actually improved our lives, or has it only made us more short-sighted and materialistic?

It is commonly observed that technology hasn’t really made people any happier. Although I have never lived in a time period with radically different technology, I think it’s safe for me to assume that this is true. Technology has made short-term pleasures more readily available with the advents of television and video games. But we haven’t really seen any serious advances in technologies that satisfy our deeper pleasures since the invention of the printing press, which allowed important knowledge to be more easily accessed. Still, I am optimistic about what technology has done for us, even in recent years.

Why? Because although technology hasn’t really made us happier, it has most certainly served to reduce suffering, and continues to do so. Advances in medicine give us longer lives and help those lives to be more pain-free. Time-saving inventions like cars and planes, as well as labor-saving machines like dishwashers and washing machines, may not make us happier but they do make life easier. When we don’t have to spend so much time washing our clothes, we have more time to do things that we really enjoy.

As technology continues to progress, our lives become less and less painful. Although technology itself may not make us happier, we can use the time it gives us to enrich our lives. Whether we actually do so is another question entirely. This reminds me of a presentation by Neil Postman on Technology and Society — among other things, he makes the case that we don’t really need technology because it doesn’t make us happier. We’ll just spend our free time watching TV.

Well, maybe we will. And that’s our choice. But it is also entirely possible to spend our time doing very fulfilling things, which we are now capable of doing because of technology. I have the freedom to write essays that can be read by people I’ve never met, thanks to technology. Unlike television, I can definitively say that this has improved the quality of my life.

Technology does not guarantee our happiness, but it does do two very important things: it reduces the suffering that we have to endure; and in frees us and opens our sights to whole new worlds. Those are the true benefits of technology.

Posted in Ethics, Science | 1 Comment »

Why We Identify Good and Evil

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 16, 2010

I recently wrote about sustainable and unsustainable good, about why sometimes motives are more important than consequences — even though consequences are all that matter in the end. The gist of it was that a good will produces sustainable good, while a single good act coming from a bad will is not sustainable.

This train of thought may give rise to a meta-argument about why we even identify good and evil. In terms of consequences, a person cannot be considered good or evil; only an action can be. So why label a person in the first place?

It turns out that identifying a good will as good and an evil will as evil is actually an attempt to produce more good actions in the world. People obviously want to be considered “good”. Labeling the will to do good as a good thing in itself will serve to encourage good wills to arise. A good will, though not directly, almost always leads to good actions.

And even if people don’t want to be considered good, the “good” people will receive better treatment from their neighbors. A good will will be empowered, while a malicious will won’t. If a good will is identified and encouraged, benevolent deeds will inexorably arise.

Although by some definitions it’s impossible to call a person kind or cruel, identifying them as such can itself serve to maximize kindness and minimize cruelty. This is a moral situation in which things turn out better if we act as though we follow certain moral standards, when really we follow others. If we act as though a person can be good or be evil, then good acts — which are what we really care about — will increase.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 1 Comment »

Sustainable and Unsustainable Good

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 4, 2010

I often talk about how the highest moral goal is to do the most good for the most people. This is a form of Consequentialism, which states that the good of an action is measured by its consequences rather than by the intentions of the agent. This notion may seem a little counter-intuitive. Are not intentions important as well?

Intentions are important, but only with respect to consequences. This may seem unusual, but it is not a difficult concept to explain. If someone does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, then this isolated action may be considered morally good. But is this person likely to continue to do the right thing? No. A selfish person who happens to occasionally help others as a side effect of his selfishness cannot be considered a good person, because the majority of his actions will be purely selfish and won’t benefit the greater good. Likewise, a well-meaning person who accidentally harms others is likely to try to ameliorate the situation, and will likely do more good in the future.

To put it simply, the well-meaning person’s good is sustainable while the selfish person’s is not. This is why a good will is valuable, and often even more valuable than a particular good action.

Suppose there is a well-intentioned person who also happens to be very clumsy. She tries to help people, but often ends up hurting them due to her own carelessness. It appears on the surface that she is a bad person because she is doing more harm than good. But our moral instincts tell us that she is a good person, and in fact this is correct. Why? Because she has a good will, and this should be encouraged. As she is well-intentioned, she will continue to try to do good despite her carelessness, and as she becomes more careful she is likely to succeed. Although this person causes harm, she has the potential to do a great deal of good, and the good she does is sustainable — she will continue to do good in the future.

A selfish person who helps others only to benefit himself does do some good, but the good he does is unsustainable. It is not likely to continue. Furthermore, he will likely do far less good than the well-intentioned person has the potential to do. A single good act is often not as important as a good will, because a good will produces sustainable good that will add up to a good far greater than the single good act.

A good will is not valuable in itself. Still, because of the exorbitant amount of good that it can lead to, it is highly desirable. The sustainability of a good will can easily outweigh the unsustainability of a single good act.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 8 Comments »

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