Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.
- George Santayana
Edit: It seems as though people who read this were thinking that I was defending Positive Utilitarianism. This is not at all my intention. I am just suggesting that the class exists, and that it should be OK to express oneself as part of it. It is obviously better to be both a positive and a negative utilitarian than just a positive one. If that was not clear, I hope it is now. My point was just that if someone wanted to be sure that she is an utilitarian before doing some action, but was not feeling confortable because she was actually just a positive utilitarian, now that person would feel the relief that someone else felt the same, and could go about trying to make the world a better place without worrying about lone bystander bias.
It is only in unusual occasions that I find myself as compatible with a label. Back in my wild and reckless youth, I have probably encountered only those memes as acceptably labelling me: Transhumanist, Polyamorist, Immortalist, Extrovert.
That was it. No political position, no sexual orientation, no teen affiliation, no ethnicity, no nationality, no soccer team, no dress code. No religion.
There are very few one-word things that I feel like I am.
Then along came Utilitarianism. We were presented by transhumanism, and got along somewhat well, I would check out its origins, who was into it as a philosophy, and we seemed to be thinking in the same general direction.
Once we had some problems with regards to vehicles. We call those the trolley problems.
From then on I slowly met many transhumanists (keep in mind that I live in Brazil), and in general would identify instantaneously. That did not happen with utilitarians. There was something to utilitarianism that just didn't work for me.
Yesterday, I finally had the sudden realization. It was negative utilitarianism. Everyone these days is a negative utilitarian. They may have come from many realms into utilitarianism (preference or hedonistic, doesn't matter) but eventually they notice that suffering is really really bad and start to think that they ought to do something about it. Some set course towards diminishing it, and I wish them Godspeed. Yet I could not acquiesce in their beliefs, rejoice in their conquests, celebrate their pursuals.
It is arguable, and has been extensively argued, that negative utilitarianism may be a more ethical approach, during our non posthuman times, than it's positive counterpart. This is correct.
Enters Santayana, "Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness."
and also one of few philosophical agreements of the millennia “Ought implies can”
I don't feel good thinking about suffering. I don't like suffering, I don't spontaneously wake up every morning and visit a hospital. I never try to check out what is going on in the nearest slum to see if someone died, and in fact, I don't even read the newspaper, which strikes me as a lot of ephemeral sad information about the things that went so wrong the last fews days that people are willing to read about it. I bet you like horror/suspense movies, I don't.
It doesn't really matter if you are talking about diminishing suffering, relieving pain, decreasing poverty or striking misery. When I read sentences like the previous one, I read “ It doesn't really matter if you are talking about diminishing suffering, relieving pain, decreasing poverty or striking misery.” My brain just doesn't get around this and I don't want it to.
So I finally made peace with it, and would like to go out of the closet now:
Folks, I am a Positive Utilitarian!
For the past several years I have understood evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and read 7 books on happiness because I really care about making other people happy. I've been promoting happiness ever since school time and, like the NY less wrong group, I've optimized for fun around me as much as I could (some day I'll write a post about effective group-happiness increasing techniques, but this is not that day). What attracted me to transhumanism was not how it would cure disease, solve starvation, but it's motto: Better than well. One of the things that caused most shock in my self presentations to the people of the Singularity institute was when I said: I am more of a transhumanist then a singularitarian. Now I know what that meant, it meant that I don't have a barrier against thinking about “better than well” but I do have a barrier against “before someone does it and destroys life as we know it”. This of course, sums up perfectly with the fact that I have rejected joining the X-risk network launched here in Less Wrong
Positive Utilitarianism is not a position I am arguing for within Utilitarianism, please don't abandon the children suffering. But I would like to argue that it is OK in the broad picture of things. It is much better than the vast majority of ethical choices humans make, and probably better than personal hedonism. It is about maximizing the happiness of everyone, near or far, for as long as possible, with most of our strenghts. In the case of Positive Preference Utilitarianism, make that everyone's preferences.
Positive Utilitarianism is not the most ethical position a person can take, and one can see it as a consequence of egocentric utilitarianism, if it is the case that a person became a positive utilitarian because they value their hedons and utilons more than other people's. Sometimes it just is the case that they feel better surrounded by awesomeness and happiness than by civil war, disease and crying innocents, thus their higher value attribution for self-utilons will generate positive utilitarianism.
There are others out there that are like me, that are very strongly cognitively wired against ever letting themselves into this situation(1 min video). Maybe they have engineered their world to be a happy bubble, or otherwise controlled the environment in such ways. Maybe experienced trauma related to suffering, or just can't stand thinking about it.
But if still committed to make the world a better place by the most effective means possible, why are we still hiding? It just so happens that our conditions of emotional possibility are a little different.
Let us abandon our Christian origins and not set the threshold for greatness so high that only the ascetic can be thought of as good.
If you have like me in the past postponed action because there was this internal itch that didn't let you feel comfortable as an utilitarian, call yourself a positive utilitarian, and hold your tools no longer. Open that closet, get comfortable with those awesome negative utilitarians around you and whole heartedly remark: I am a Positive Utilitarian.
It is OK.
Edit: Nisan asked some things for positive utilitarians to do, and it seemed good to put them here -
Write Life-advice kinds of books, in Ferriss/AJ Jacobs style. Create a Transhumanist Institution to transform Rationalists into Utilitarians into Transhumanists. Organize complex engaging events on facebook for friends that would cause happiness that would not have happened otherwise. Make a lot of people laugh in a conference. Read many books on happiness, and upon request, give people data on how to be happy (count blessings twice a week, force smiles when bored, write 300 words thank you notes and read them outloud, wear botox, etc...) There are so many other things...
I'm not sure what you're actually trying to say.
I agree. You say you want to maximise happiness in the world? Well someone starving to death is pretty unhappy, so making them not starve would seem to maximise happiness.. Or do you mean you wish to maximise your own happiness, and, as thinking about suffering gets you down, you'd prefer to do things which make you and those you care for happy?
Well maybe the ac of prefering positive over negative utilitarinism it's not as simple as your characterising it to be.
''We examined 1) whether people would be more responsive to the delayed consequences of their decisions when attempting to minimize losses than when attempting to maximize gains in a history - dependent decision making task and 2) how trait self - control would moderate such an effect . In two experiments participants performed a dynamic decision - making task where they chose one of two options on each trial. The increasing option always gav e a smaller immediate reward but caused future rewards for both options to increase. The decreasing option always gave a larger immediate reward but caused future rewards for both options to decrease''
Positive utilitarianism is psychologically easier than negative utililitarianism. That should be enough. It's better than moping around like that edgy homeless Buddha guy.
I'm not a utilitarian, but I'm definitely a positive ethicist!
(I met you at the Cryonics conference. I feel like your focus on the positive increased your utility to everyone there.)
X-risk reduction creates happiness a lot more than it prevents suffering. In fact it might even cause expected suffering, since dead people can't suffer.
This seems a lot like... ignoring the bigger issues in order to maximize the happiness of self and anyone-you-might-happen-to-encounter.
In other words: Short term gain of personal happiness, long term (potential/risk for) loss of overall world-happiness.
So, let me get this straight: When you say that you are a positive utilitarian, you don't mean to say that the best thing one can do is to optimize the amount of happiness in the world. You mean to say that you want to devote yourself to optimizing the amount of happiness in the world. Correct?
ETA: Or are you saying that you want to identify with people who don't think about suffering?
The first one.
that is I am not saying that everyone should be doing something. I am just saying that if someone was not feeling OK because he didn't go all the way into negative utilitarianism, it was still ok to be just positive utilitarianist.
For the sake of concreteness, would you like to say what sort of things a positive utilitarian like you would do to make the world a better place?
Write Life-advice kinds of books, in Ferriss/AJ Jacobs style
Write Philosophical Articles
Create a Transhumanist Institution in Brazil, to transform Rationalists into Utilitarians into Transhumanists
Organize complex engaging events on facebook for friends that would cause happiness that would not have happened otherwise.
Make a lot of people laugh in a cryonics conference and become known as the happiness guy
Read many books on happiness, and upon request, give people data on how to be happy (count blessings twice a week, force smiles when bored, write 300 words thank you notes and read them outloud, wear botox, etc...)
There are so many other things...
Ah, so you're saying that the best thing one can do is to optimize the amount of happiness in the world. The supporting arguments I found in your post are:
You don't like thinking about suffering; and
One could do a lot worse than be a positive utilitarian.
ETA: Ah, ignore this comment.
Those two points don't seem compelling at all.
No, that is absurd, you just said, You are not saying A, you are saying B (in your first paragraph) I said, Yes, I am saying B, and now you said I am saying A......
I am saying that For me, and possibly for other people around there, the best thing is to Max happiness/preferences. I just want these people to feel confortable with that.
I think with the edit I made clear now that I'm not arguing in favor of positive utilitarianism.It seems that the default assumption is always that if a person is describing a position, they are arguing for it.
Ah, I misunderstood your response before the edit.