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Refining Utilitarianism through a Buddhist Framework

· Buddhism,Philosophy

What makes an action right or wrong?   The word 'right' as with 'good' is often used synonymously with 'pleasure' or 'happiness'. The concept of pleasure, which is derived from the ancient Greek word Hedonism has been debated since the time of Plato,  "Ethical hedonism claims that only pleasure has worth or value and only pain or displeasure has disvalue" (Moore 2013).  Similarly, John Stuart Mill holds "that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (John Stuart Mill 1969). This view assumes that the base state of human existence is a neutral point, where good actions bring us elation, and bad actions bring us pain. This assumption of a neutral state needs to be challenged, such that humanity can understand our shared state of being, suffering, and from there redefine 'good'. 

This essay will focus on John Stuart Mill's essay 'Utilitarianism' , explaining the theory, and showing how a gap in the theory can be resolved in much the same way that the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi (Hammill 2016) makes broken pottery more beautiful. Although Ethics and Politics are often studied together, given the constraints of this essay I will look at the Ethics of an individual in relation to the Utilitarian approach. Interweaving the golden thread of ideas of Suffering, Attachment and Emotions from Buddhist tradition, and leaving the exploration of Duty, Law and Politics for future essays.

"Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy" (Driver 2009), it is for this reason I will be using the approach to build upon. There are three principles which serve as the basic axioms of Mill's Utilitarianism; 

1. "Pleasure or Happiness is the only thing that has true intrinsic value", 

2. Actions are right insofar as they promote happiness, wrong insofar as they produce unhappiness", 

3. "Everyone's happiness counts equally" (Westacott 2019). 

 I will not argue against the notion that Pleasure or Happiness has intrinsic value, or value in its own right. As Zimmerman and Bradley point out in relation to Aristotle's perspective, "all are agreed that pain is bad and to be avoided, either because it is bad “without qualification” or because it is in some way an “impediment” to us; he adds that pleasure, being the “contrary” of that which is to be avoided, is therefore necessarily a good" (Zimmerman & Bradley 2019). 

I will qualify this by saying that philosophers such as Epicurus and Jeremy Bentham, whom hold this hedonistic perspective often assume that we exist in a state of neutrality, a state between 'intrinsic good', and 'intrinsic bad', oscillating like a Sine Wave. The best way to describe this would be through the equation, "y= A sin(B (x + C) ) + D", where A is the amplitude or the height of the wave function, B is the period or the distance between peaks, C is the phase shift left, and D is the vertical shift. See Appendix Figure 1:


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If we assume the amplitude (A) is 50, such that the distance between positive 50 (happiness) and negative 50 (suffering) is 100 (human experience). Utilitarianism seems to assume that humans vertical shift (D) is +0. That we exist in a state of neutrality, and that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (John Stuart Mill 1969), oscillating between feelings of elation (positive 50) and suffering (negative 50). Using this example, I argue that the vertical shift (D) is '-30', where the base line for humanity is suffering, that 'reducing suffering' in this instance is equivalent to 'promoting happiness'. As with an iceberg, where twenty percent of its existence is above water, and eighty percent is below water, so too does suffering embody human existence. The depth of suffering is far greater than our perceived feelings of pleasure or happiness. This is a perspective that has been held in Eastern Tradition for Millenia, as the basis of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Duhkha or Suffering being the first Nobel Truth, is a characteristic of existence in the realm of rebirth. That suffering begins with birth, continues with aging, in sickness, and follows us in death (Lopez 2019).

The second principle in Mill's Utilitarianism, "Actions are right insofar as they promote happiness, wrong insofar as they produce unhappiness" (Westacott 2019), is where the Buddhist tradition can be used in redefining the axiom. The second Nobel Truth focuses on the cause of suffering, as the Buddha taught in his first sermon, suffering begins with craving or attachment. Other Buddhist texts have understood suffering as stemming from negative actions (killing, stealing, lying) and, the negative mental states or emotions that motivate the negative actions (desire, hatred and ignorance) (Lopez 2019). 


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To accept that suffering is the base state of human existence we will need to explore human experience as it relates to our emotional states (Figure 2), our material/non-material attachments in this world (Figure 3), and as a product of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow 1943). Whereas what we consider happiness or pleasure is an emotional state based on a sensory input, the reason we feel the emotion is due to the nature of our relationship or attachment with an activity, person, idea, or object.

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If we consider Mill and Bentham's perspective on higher or nobler pleasures such as Poetry, and the lower sensual or voluptuary pleasures (Brink 2018), both are contained in our attachment or relationship to something, and thus expressed as a feeling of elation upon receiving. For the higher pleasures, there is an attachment to the intellectual ego, where sensual input relating to patterns, perfect pitch, and emotional expression, is given a higher weighting than that of sensual pleasures that are denoted from attachment to the physical indulgences, such as food, wine or sexual relations (Brink 2018). To place a judgement on the feelings of happiness as Mill's does, perhaps shows why he missed the mark, by building utilitarianism around the concept of pleasure. 

"If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account" (John Stuart Mill 1969).

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With attachment to anything, comes the potential for suffering. As a modern example, if you purchase a new car, there may be a feeling of joy as you drive around, believing that the car is an extension of yourself. The negative feelings that are derived from attachment emerge when the car is scratched, or if it receives hail damage, in the emotional response that unfolds as the person tries to resolve their 'problem'. In this sense, emotions are the language of the soul, attachment is what binds it. Our emotional language expresses the suffering that we process internally, where our attachment to ourselves, to our family, our friends, our pets, our possessions, our intellect, and even our emotional states, keeps us in a constant state of fear or anxiety, a negative emotion focused on the potential of future loss.

Lastly we must consider that what Mills attributes to happiness is often a 'desire', or as explored in Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, equating a person’s pleasures with his “indulgences” (John Stuart Mill 1969). These indulgences exist outside of what Abraham Maslow considered our Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow 1943). It would seem logical that before someone would focus on a want or desire, that they would first work towards fulfilling their needs. What good is listening to an Opera if one hasn't eaten in days, or receiving fellatio when on the brink of dehydration. According to Maslow's Hierarchy, we have five layers, "If all the needs are unsatisfied, and the organism is then dominated by the physiological needs, all other needs may become simply non-existent or be pushed into the background" (Maslow 1943). This explanation, that if needs are not satisfied all other needs become non-existent shows first and foremost that our needs must be satisfied daily such that we can appreciate the 'wants'. Each morning as we wake, we need to satisfy our need for water and food, and fight against gravity to get ourselves out of bed and begin moving. Unfulfilled needs are directly linked to suffering, such as starvation, isolation or hypothermia. Therefore, it can be argued that human experience is not in a state of neutrality, but exists in a state of suffering

If we agree that humans exist in a state of suffering, as explored, then Mill's second principle should be amended, that "Actions are right insofar as they reduce total suffering, wrong insofar as they increase total suffering".  What is being argued here is that Utility does not solely rest on the 'Greatest Happiness Principle'. Or as it has been inferred, that 'Everyone's happiness counts equally' (Westacott 2019). Rather a more accurate assessment would be what Mill attributes to Bentham, "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one" (John Stuart Mill 1969). Although both statements may be true, the law of diminishing marginal utility needs to be considered. It states that  "all else equal as consumption increases the marginal utility derived from each additional unit declines (Kenton 2019). Given the previous assessment, that the state of human experience is that of suffering, then we can infer from the statement that "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one" should therefore incorporate the reduction of suffering as an equal or greater action for the majority, than an action that is purely derived for pleasure.

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As an example, we can look at an act of stealing. From Kant's perspective, Stealing is immoral regardless of one's circumstance. (Immanuel Kant 2019) as he precisely defines a kind of act that is forbidden. From the Buddhist Utilitarian approach, I can show that the action is morally justified. The principles we are working off is "Actions are right insofar as they reduce total suffering, wrong insofar as they increase total suffering". In the thought experiment, we shall look at a simple one to one example. John is a seller, Sam is in need. Sam hasn't eaten for one whole day, each day he doesn't eat, his suffering increases. John has many items of food. If Sam was to steal an item of food to reduce their suffering, John's increase in suffering would be less than the reduction of Sam's suffering. Given the law of diminishing marginal utility, the more that Sam steals from John, the less each item reduces Sam's suffering, and the greater John's increase in suffering. Thus, if Sam steals 1 item of food, the action can be morally justified, but if they steal all of John's food, the action cannot be morally justified. It is only justified in so far as it reduces the total suffering. In this example, we are looking at an individual looking to satisfy a basic human need, if they are looking to satisfy a want or desire, such as stealing a Television, it cannot be morally justified as there is not a decrease in total suffering through the action of stealing a Television. 

The notion of right and wrong cannot be viewed through the lens of hedonistic pleasures or happiness. The assumption that we exist in a state of neutrality, between happiness and pleasure is what I have argued needs to be refined. The Buddhist traditions as taught by the Buddha explain that humans in this existence are born into suffering (Lopez 2019), as such, our existence is to understand how to reduce the overall suffering in the world. What I have argued for in this essay, is that through incorporating this understanding of life from the Buddhist perspective. We can refine the Utilitarian theory, such that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" and to refine the perspective to develop a greater empathetic understanding of human nature. That, "actions are right insofar as they reduce total suffering, wrong insofar as they increase total suffering". It is through this perspective that we can apply a new nuance to utilitarian criticism and explore the moral justifications of individual and collective action.

Reference list

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Driver, J 2009, The History of Utilitarianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Dukkha | Buddhism | Britannica 2019, Encyclopædia Britannica.

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Hammill, S 2016, ‘Technical: Kintsugi’, The Journal of Australian Ceramics, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 70–73, viewed 22 May 2021, .

Immanuel Kant 2019, Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysic Of Morals., Blurb, S.L.

John Stuart Mill 1969, Utilitarianism, 1861, University Of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Kenton, W 2019, Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility, Investopedia.

Lopez, DS 2019, Four Noble Truths | Definition & Facts, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Maslow, AH 1943, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 370–396.

Math is Fun 2020, Amplitude, Period, Phase Shift and Frequency, Math is Fun.

Moore, A 2013, Hedonism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),

Westacott, E 2019, What Are the Three Basic Principles of Utilitarianism?, ThoughtCo, viewed 22 May 2021, .

Zimmerman, MJ & Bradley, B 2019, Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),