One increasingly complex problem within utilitarianism is that it puts such emphasis on the individual. The idea that utility is individually felt and assessed may miss something important about utility – the fact that it is a concept that is deeply relational. Or put differently: if you were the last human on Earth you would not experience any utility or happiness generally. You would not be unhappy either, but merely incomplete.
Now, where this goes deeply wrong is where we then revert to saying that utility is only possible to construct across an entire population – so that the population experiences a sum total utility of some kind and that utility is what we should maximise. This view also seems deeply, obviously wrong. A collective cannot experience anything at a certain size – but we miss that there are many intermittent states that we should explore more closely.
A family, a group of friends, an organisation – or even a party! Utility is produced in the groups where there is interaction between the members at a certain level of complexity. Utility, then is an emergent phenomenon and some kinds of utility can only be produce in groups of certain sizes: just like you cannot play a symphony with only three people.
So, the kind of happiness produced in a football stadium is different from the happiness you feel on an evening when you settle in to have dinner with your partner and children – but both are a kind of utility.
A network producing musical utility
Now, you may say, surely you can organise in some kind of value order? You value the dinner more than the soccer match? Well, no – that is where I actually think that we go down the wrong path again. Utility categories are incommensurable and not comparable – and what we look for is some kind of portfolio combination of different incommensurable utilities. This is why the repugnant conclusion is such a sophism — it is a version of the argument that Socrates pokes fun at in Euthydemus. If you are a father and all children have a father – then you are a father of all the children – in its crudest form.
This is also why I like the notion of “partiality” that Tyler Cowen introduces in his talk on EA here. He makes that point that the people in the repugnant conclusion – subsisting but still by mere addition producing more utility than a few happy people – are a different species. And inter-species utility comparisons are simply meaningless when driven too far. (Does this mean that I do not care about the happiness of dogs? Of course not – I think there are some kinds of happiness or utility that you can only experience together with a dog. Again utility, like happiness, is not individual.)
This brings me back to an issue that increasingly is bothering me – and that is the emphasis on the individual that we live with. Many philosophers have noted that the idea that we are unique atoms is simply false, yet so much current thinking seems stuck in thinking of people as isolated entities. And when that view is criticised it is contrasted with the idea that there is no individuality.
The only way out of this it seems to me is to recognise that individual is a network concept – as is happiness and utility. It is a concept that is produced by different-sized networks. These cannot be too big, nor too small – and we need to understand the role of different network formations in policy and politics, as well as in philosophy, much better.
All in all this is perhaps just a version of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: we cannot define our own words and give them meaning, because meaning is produced in shared language. Our happiness is shared, our utility is shared and ultimately we are shared in language as well — but really exploring the consequences and implications of that argument at different level reveals a fundamentally different way to think – a mental model – of concepts that have been hopelessly distorted by the gravity lens of the atomic individual.