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Utilitarianism, Jesus of Montreal, and the Common Good

Flamer images : Philosopher
Philosophy is an all-encompassing subject : no wonder it also has its share of oddity. In the large sense, all crackpots are philosophical crackpots, since any proposition is ultimately based on a given view of epistemology and man's place in the universe. Some, like Alfred Lawson and his Lawsonomy philosophical system, which begins from the very fabric of reality and goes up to spheres such as economics and psychology, take this idea to extremes. Most are more modest, and hammer on a pet idea. When that pet idea is general and vague enough, it can eventually degenerate into its own full-blown system, such as Alex Chiu going from magnetism-as-eternal-life to magnetism-as-answer-to-everything.

No area of study is immune to crackpots. Biology has Creationists and religious survival-after-death ideas, astronomy has astrology, medecine has holistic and alternative pseudo-medecine, architecture has Feng Shui, the police has psychic detectives and various mind-bending cults, and so on and so forth.

Philosophy likewise is stuck with a number of crackpots and weird ideas, much more than can be expounded on here. Religion provides the bulk of them, and religious oddity is already well-covered on this site. Most of the weird secular ideas aren't nearly that entertaining, but some stand out. The most extreme strand is subjectivism, the idea that reality exists in a certain form because we will it that way. But this is ridiculous : if it was really true that the universe bended to our wills instead of the reverse, then reality would be very different than it is now, to say the least. I would wager that about half of us would be on the beach, and the second half would be doing things which cannot be described on this family site...

Such an idea cannot be held consistently. Otherwise, it would be uncontroversial that one can throw himself out of the window and not suffer any damage, but even a subjectivist will not desire to be thrown out of a window ! When discussing with subjectivists, I like to shock them with a random act of violence against them. When they complain, I point out to them that, since I am a product of their mind, they should not complain : they wanted this from the beginning !

Surprisingly, the most well-known advocate of this idea is Kant, considered by many to be the most proeminent figure in modern philosophy. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote :

car accident Hitherto it has been supposed that all our knowledge must conform to the objects - The experiment therefore ought to be made whether we should not succeed better by assuming that the objects must conform to our mode of cognition.

As David Kelley rightly pointed out, it sounds simple on paper but it is insane (is not insanity the incapacity to recognize reality ?). He illustrated this by replacing the vague context of the sentence with the context of driving :

Hitherto it has been supposed that all our driving must conform to the road - The experiment therefore ought to be made whether we should not succeed better by assuming that the road must conform to our steering.

The usual result of such delusion can be seen to the right.

Illustrating subjectivism with a disaster is quite to the point - the ultimate result of lies is misadaptation and destruction. It is a demand to the sacrifice of the self to a higher ideal, an appealing idea in religion but which has no place in rational thought. Alleee has written an article about how Christianity is close to sado-masochism, that is, the ideal of submission of the self. In the long view, all lies are a form of submission. And in fact you cannot dominate someone except by lies.

Jesus of Montreal Going up to ethics, we get to the submission to society - utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the belief that ethical good is that which maximizes happiness (or some other positive) for the greatest number. Like most philosophical ideas, this may seem innocious until one understand what it means. If happiness must be maximized, then a sacrifice for the greatest good is the best. For example, having yourself killed so that your organs can go to people on waiting lists, would make lots of people happy ! And so, by extension, should you kill someone else for their organs.

This is a very religious idea, akin to Jesus sacrificing himself (if a deity could do such a thing) for the sins of mankind. The movie Jesus of Montreal featured a man who came to think he was Jesus. He dies at the end and his organs are given to other people, thus making an analogy to the Crucifixion. This is very touching as a movie : as a way to live, no one would take it for himself, for good reason.

It is possible to construct other conundrums on that basis. For example, utilitarianism would argue in favour of the old gladiator system in Ancient Rome and black slavery in the United States : how relevant is the suffering of a few slaves when the mass is happy ? One can invent a number of situations like this. Utilitarianism also leads often to the idea that animals have rights - since animals and plants can suffer, we should want to maximize their happiness also (whatever that means). Many pseudo-environmentalists go further than that and actively try to harm people or property in order to save animals.

Jesus of Montreal The extreme case of this idea would be something like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of insane people whose slogan is "May we live long and die out". Even they can't escape realizing that other people think they're insane :

Many see humor in The Movement and think we can't be serious about voluntary human extinction, but in spite of the seriousness of both situation and movement, there's room for humor. In fact, without humor, Earth's condition gets unbearably depressing -- a little levity eases the gravity.

True, wildlife rapidly going extinct and 40,000 children dying each day are not laughing matters, but neither laughing nor bemoaning will change what's happening. We may as well have some fun as we work and play toward a better world.

Besides, returning Earth to its natural splendor and ending needless suffering of humanity are happy thoughts -- no sense moping around in gloom and doom.

There are things in philosophy that you just can't believe... The only way to get out of the thorny organ harvesting and animal rights arguments is to redefine "utility" (to exclude negative actions against self and others) and therefore collapsing utilitarianism into objective morality. Despite its popularity, and the fact that it is taught in certain disciplines, utilitarianism is an idea for thought experiments, not for serious discussion.

Dan Quayle Going up to politics, well, we have lots of absurdity here. In fact, modern politics can be pretty much defined as clowning itself. George Bush claiming to be the friend of small government (so did Clinton, for what that's worth) - while being the biggest protectionist and tax-spender we've ever seen. Dan Quayle's illiteracy... Ralph Nader and his Green, anti-everything sensibilities... the Communist Party complaining about lack of respect of its copyright ownership... Not many people respect politics anymore because it is so self-parodying. Regulations about toilet seats, getting guns away from schools and then complaining about school shootings, and the recent absurd spectacle of politicians praying in public after the decision to remove "God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The fundamental idea of our governments - collectivism, the idea that man must sacrifice himself for a greater good - is absurd. Whenever you call this greater good "society", "the state", "equality", or whatever you want, how can you magically believe that general happiness can be achieved by asking everyone to sacrifice himself ? This is like believing that collective suicide can bring more life. Another source of endless incredulity are anarchists, who propose to stop "trade", "exploitation" and "money" by abolishing the government. But if the government is abolished, it would be difficult to see how these things could cease to exist !

It is not given to us to understand why people believe in these weird things, so it's as best to laugh about it. At least that's what Russians did over communism, and now you can read their jokes too in Laughing Under the Covers.

In a school, a survey was a conducted among the students. One of the questions was "Would you suggest a classification of Soviet citizens in accordance with any criterion you may choose?"

The son of a KGB officer answered: 'There are three categories of Soviet people, namely, 1) those who have already been to prison; 2) those who are now in prison, and 3) those who will be in prison."

Sounds like modern United States, actually... If you prefer more modern humour, PJ O'Rourke is definitively the wittiest.

"Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty - their power and privilege - to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by ... politicians"

"On page 8 of Earth in the Balance, Al Gore claims that his study of the arms race gave him "a deeper appreciation for the most horrifying fact in all our lives: civilization is now capable of destroying itself." In the first place, the most horrifying fact in many of our lives is that our ex-spouse has gotten ahold of our ATM card. And civilization has always been able to destroy itself. The Greeks of ancient Athens, who had a civilization remarkable for lack of technological progress during its period of greatest knowledge and power, managed to destroy them fine"

There is, of course, a lot more that could be said about philosophical oddities. One of the absurdities now on the rise in the academia is post-modernism. This system is based on the idea that there is no priviledged way of seeing reality, and that science is not any more valid than anyone's rantings. A good lampooning of that idea was made by Alan Sokal and his famous Sokal hoax, which basically consisted of stringing obvious scientific errors and inanities and trying to get it published : he got published in a prestigious post-modernist publication called Social Text. Here is an extract :

Finally, Bell's theorem and its recent generalizations show that an act of observation here and now can affect not only the object being observed -- as Heisenberg told us -- but also an object arbitrarily far away (say, on Andromeda galaxy). This phenomenon -- which Einstein termed ``spooky'' -- imposes a radical reevaluation of the traditional mechanistic concepts of space, object and causality, and suggests an alternative worldview in which the universe is characterized by interconnectedness and (w)holism: what physicist David Bohm has called ``implicate order''. New Age interpretations of these insights from quantum physics have often gone overboard in unwarranted speculation, but the general soundness of the argument is undeniable.

I'm sure. Sokal's hoax, at any rate, revealed at least one thing : that human gullibility is limitless.

review written by Franc, 07/2002.