Themes and content of week one: utilitarianism and other things

…And so begins a gathering of the themes that connect my four courses at LC week by week, because it’s impossible for me not to be thinking about connections and it’s more fulfilling long-term try thinking through them, in writing. Fulfilling in that AGH sort of way, but anyway. I’ll get out to run through the beautifully chilly low Portland fog soon as I’m done here.

The four courses are:

  • Public Discourse (Rhetoric and Media Studies Department, RHMS)
  • Philosophy of Environment (PHIL Department)
  • Environmental Economics (ECON)
  • Medical Anthropology (Sociology/Anthropology Department, SOAN)

Concepts at center:

Utilitarianism – philosophy fundamental to economic theory declaring that an action is right if it yields the greatest expected utility for the greatest number of people

  • in common phrase: “the greatest good for the greatest number”
  • yes, people. traditionally humans. Utilitarianism is aligned with anthropocentrism. Peter Singer, among others, remain sided with utilitarian thinking but extend this to “sentient nonhuman beings”, but this (in a kind of revolting hierarchic philosophizing) seems to mean mostly vertebrates. definitely not microbes, or plants.
  • another alignment is hedonism. the first makes sense when we understand the “utility” of utilitarianism to mean happiness/well-being, and more specifically to economics, consumption of non market and market goods produces wellbeing/happiness/utility (there is, of course, an equation for this called the utility function).
  • yet another alignment, and my last here, is consequentialism. well, utilitarianism is more like a child of consequentialism, inheriting its focus on effects (consequences) of an action rather than, say, intentions motivating the action or the action itself….please go ask dedicated philosophers for help with this one. in short, consequentialism (and so utilitarianism) argue that the moral status of an action is determined by its effects, as far as I’ve seen, mostly along the binary of pleasure (remember hedonism?) or pain, and the philosophized status of the feeler (remember anthropocentrism?)

Utility as foundational to economics — mentioned and elaborated above, but addressed separately because it holds two of the five foundational assumptions of economics I was given (in reading and lecture) this week. Alongside anthropocentrismutilitarianism, and atomism, they are:

  • equal marginal utility of consumption, or, the assumption that one unit of goods/services (say $100 worth) carries the same effect of happiness/well-being, if consumed, for every individual human being. This assumption makes cost-benefit analysis possible, as it would be infeasible to address and calculate every individual’s subjective value differently.
  • the efficiency standard, or, social welfare is equivalent to the sum of individual utilities. It is common practice to assume individuals as atomistic for the purposes of calculating social welfare.
  • These two points especially cause me immense trouble. Can there be an economic equation that adapts to a different view of well-being/happiness, doesn’t focus on the wellbeing/happiness of humans as principal over all else, and has a grip on relationality/interdependence? How in the heck would this sort of economics come forward? Would that be helpful at all

Marketplace of ideas– conceptual legacy of the Enlightenment Age of Reason, the aristocratic beginnings of American democracy. Closely tied with “public forum” and will lead next week, I believe, into more on “public sphere” and “discourse”.  Namely, this matters because people — especially people thinking about/wishing for functional democracy — hitch a lot of hope to the notion of a public forum, and it carries meritocratic tones: the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be a zone of public discourse for the best ideas to organically surface and provide easy course of rule. Not so. But we still hope. What’s next? What could be better?

Questions and loose ends:

  • How do these concepts relate: public discourse/sphere, narrative/story, and mythos?
  • positivism vs. normative theory (starting with economics, said to be positivist but handling/attempting to develop particular answers to normative questions)
  • intrinsic vs. instrumental value (which philosophies bear this, again?)

Trouble situating

As an environmental studies student I’ve struggled time and time again to ‘situate’. In part, it’s due to my avoidance of the fact that, yes, this time around (and every other) some topics and the questions that can touch them will have  to be left out. Perhaps as antidote I should get to work to see for myself how the bounds of limits are the very thing that make research what it is, rigorous and beautiful.