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Utilitarian Bioethics

Bentham plus Biotech?  Utilitarianism in the Era of Post-Genomic Medicine


"Utilitarianism" is an uninspiring name for an inspired ethic. The word derives from the Latin utilis, useful. It utterly fails to evoke the relief of suffering - and the prospect of sublime bliss - that the scientific application of the felicific calculus entails. It doesn't stir to action. It conveys no sense of moral urgency. "Utilitarianism Now!" will never serve as a rallying cry for anyone, perhaps with the (very) improbable exception of a small community of ethicists in academia. Even within a university setting, students typically associate utilitarian ethics more with scholarly logic-chopping, essay-writing and stressful examination rituals than a breathtakingly beautiful vision of life to come.

Beyond the academic treadmill, "utilitarian" in normal usage connotes a concern for usefulness without regard for beauty or even pleasantness. Such idiom has little currency on the street, but among the educated lay public, "utilitarian", "utility" and "utilitarianism" are terms more likely to evoke Thomas Gradgrind from Dickens' Hard Times than the abolition of pain - let alone the replacement of suffering by a gradients of profound happiness.

There is another challenge for the utilitarian activist. In ethics, probably more than in any other discipline, doctrines tend to become almost inseparable in the imagination from their most prominent advocates. Marx notoriously described Jeremy Bentham as "a desiccated calculating machine". Bentham's most visible legacy is his mummified corpse at University College, London - a remarkable sight to behold, but probably not the ideal icon for a new era of life on Earth. Nor is Bentham's design for the Panopticon an inspirational symbol of a better world. The problem is not that the early utilitarians led depraved lives. On the contrary, the classical "hedonistic" utilitarians would appear to have been uncommonly virtuous, even in the light of ethical systems radically different from their own. Bentham was celibate; and it has been well said that no orgy was ever graced by the body of John Stuart Mill. Incredibly, however, utilitarianism seems rather "dull" - a historical, nineteenth century English affair. "Humans do not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that" ["Der Mensch strebt nicht nach Glück; nur der Engländer thut das" - Nietzsche]. Bentham himself was trained as a lawyer. His prose and sometimes its content are lawyerly. The practical legislative issues that Bentham dealt with are especially associated with early industrial England; and not all of them are still pressing. This is scarcely a reproach. The idiom and preoccupations of malaise-ridden utilitarians of the early 21st century may seem no less quaint to our descendants. But the unfriendly language of utilitarianism and its numerous sub-species is a problem that remains unsolved to this day.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Bentham first used the term "utilitarian" in 1781. He was drawn to the term by the usage of "utility" in Hume. In later life, sensing its pitfalls, Bentham writes in a note of July, 1822, Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. 1879, p. 1 n.7: “The word utility does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure and pain as the words happiness and felicity do: nor does it lead us to the consideration of the number of the interests affected.” So Bentham in his later years preferred "the greatest happiness principle". However, John Stuart Mill revived the term "utilitarianism", crediting the first use of the word "utilitarian" to a novel by Galt. As Mill explains, "Utilitarian supplies a want in the language, and offers, in many cases, a convenient mode of avoiding tiresome circumlocution" (JS Mill; Utilitarianism, 1863, 210n); and the usage has stuck.

Why does getting the terminology right matter? ["a rose by any other name...", etc.] It matters to the utilitarian bioethicist because making the world a better place is difficult if not impossible when one flies under an ill-chosen banner. Confusing the name of something with the thing itself is such an obvious mistake that it might seem scarcely worth noting; but psychologically, we are prone to do it all the time. This kind of confusion can sometimes help, and sometimes hinder, advocacy of the value-system at issue. In the case of utilitarianism, the confusion represents a huge obstacle to success. Sadly, the principle of utility hasn't been applied to its own title.

Thus more than two centuries after its formulation by Bentham, utilitarianism and its revolutionary implications haven't captured the popular imagination - even if quasi-utilitarian intuitions do inform a lot of our moral and legislative practice. Opponents of utilitarian ethics would respond that this limited progress has little to do with an infelicitous choice of name and much more to do with the weakness of utilitarianism as a moral theory. These alleged shortcomings will not be addressed here, other than to note that most criticisms of utilitarianism to date stem from the allegedly bad consequences that follow from adopting a utilitarian ethic - whereas to show that applying utilitarian ethics leads to unpleasant net consequences is to show that the alleged policy prescription in question isn't really utilitarian at all. Certainly, doing felicific calculus isn't remotely straightforward. Bernard Williams once even argued that if utilitarianism were true, then one should try, on utilitarian grounds, to discourage anyone from believing it.


So how can the practical implications of utilitarianism best be conveyed in the modern era? Now that the human genome has been decoded, the ramifications of a utilitarian ethic go far beyond socioeconomic and legislative reform. In era of post-genomic medicine, they extend to control of the pleasure-pain axis itself. By unravelling the molecular substrates of emotion, biotechnology allied to nanomedicine permits the quantity, quality, duration and distribution of happiness and misery in the world to be controlled - ultimately at will. More controversially, the dilemmas of traditional casuistry will lose their relevance. This is because our imminent mastery of the reward centres ensures that everyone can be heritably "better than well" - a utopian-sounding prediction that currently still strikes most of us as comically childlike in its naïveté. However, unlike perennially scarce "positional" goods and services in economics, personal happiness doesn't need to be rationed. Within the next few centuries, a triple alliance of biotech, infotech and nanotech can - potentially - make invincible bliss a presupposition of everyday mental health. From a purely technical perspective at least, global happiness can be increased by many orders of magnitude; the substrates of suffering and depression can be abolished outright; genetically pre-programmed superhealth can become the norm; and well-being in the richest sense of the term can become ubiquitous.

Over-excited technofantasy? Well, perhaps. But instead, these rosy predictions may prove hopelessly conservative. For the melding of biotech, nanorobotics and quantum computing is going to be extraordinarily fertile - far beyond anything imaginable today. On the utilitarian conception of value, sentient life will become vastly more valuable as well, since value - in the form of an abundance of subjectively wonderful experiences - will be correlatively increased by orders of magnitude too. What kind of narrative structures this diversity of valuable experiences will be woven into can only be speculated: future-gazing into the lives of our descendants is an idle parlour game at best. Yet when harnessed to biotechnology, the "greatest happiness principle" dictates the mass-manufacture of the molecular substrates of value on a prodigious - and perhaps one day cosmic - scale. Critics will view this "hedonistic" implication of a classical utilitarian ethic in the age of biotech as its reductio ad absurdum. Such critics also charge, inevitably, that utilitarians want to reduce us all to "happy pigs" - or the functional counterparts of utility-maximising wirehead rats. Utilitarianism itself has long been dismissed as a doctrine "worthy only of swine". Mischievously perhaps, Bentham himself kept a "beautiful pig" as a pet which would "grunt contentedly as he scratched its back and ears". Certainly, it is simplistic to view sentient beings as mere Benthamite pleasure machines - and not just because Darwinian life is typically "nasty, brutish and short". But quite aside from the critics' needless disparagement of our abused fellow creatures, a future world of mindless bliss - or some kind of collective cosmic orgasm - is less sociologically plausible than a post-human era of superintelligent, supersentient well-being. Regrettably, this mouth-watering vista of delights isn't immediately obvious from the "utilitarian" label.


One possibility is that this futuristic vision of heaven-on-earth should be promoted by marketing professionals, image consultants and branding specialists. The proposal that utilitarian ethicists should resort to the techniques of Madison Avenue to educate the wider community is likely to be met with a fastidious shudder of distaste - or outright incredulity - by (most) professional philosophers. One will be told that better scholarship, not inspired propaganda, is needed to win over the sceptics - and stir the morally apathetic into action. But to hope that the cool light of reason alone will illuminate the case for a cruelty-free world, let alone secure its practical implementation, is optimistic and perhaps naïve. To be effective, utilitarians will need to organise, agitate and actively campaign - rather than simply talk and write papers in academic journals. Yet successful organisation-building demands a compelling label and a potent brand image - and a different set of skills from mere scholarly acumen. Alas philosophers by temperament are rarely men of action. An effective "utilitarian" political organisation sounds fanciful. "The Utilitarian Party" today would be stillborn. A "utilitarian" mass-movement under that description seems out of the question. So what can be done?

If the idiom of "utilitarianism" and "utility" can't be salvaged, then there is a need to find a soul-stirring alternative - consistent with preserving the core utilitarian ethic. As Bentham recognised, "the greatest happiness principle" does resonate more strongly with most people. But the principle doesn't lend itself to any single-word "ism" - beyond "hedonism". As it happens, selfless hedonism is an apt description of Benthamite utilitarianism and its refinements. However, any slogan incorporating the word "hedonism" or its derivatives is likely to evoke shallowness, emptiness and amoralism - or at best a very one-dimensional kind of well-being. It won't work in conveying the marvellously enriched conception of mental health which tomorrow's biotechnologists have in store.

Unfortunately, none of the proposed terminological alternatives are satisfactory either.

Academic philosophers may be drawn to a term that incorporates "eudaimonism" or "eudaimonistic" [from eu: "good" or "well being"; and daimon: a "spirit" or minor "deity"; literal meaning "having a good guardian spirit" - frequently translated as "human flourishing"] No one really knows quite what it means, but its etymology is respectably ancient. Amongst scholars, at least, eudaimonistic idiom conveys a richer conception of human well-being than talk of unidimensional happiness - or indeed mere "pleasure", that handy catch-all antonym of "pain" with its regrettable penumbra of debased connotations. On the Aristotelian conception of happiness, the happy subject is one who focuses on developing the excellence of his character. Unfortunately, excellence of character is a notion that's hard to naturalise. Aristotle didn't think eudaimonia was possible for non-human animals at all: "we call neither ox nor horse nor any of the other animals happy" (Nicomachean Ethics;p.1099b). So to conflate eudaimonia in Aristotle's sense with happy experiences is untenable. Worse, there is no way "eudaimonistic consequentialism" - or even just "eudaimonism" - is going to fire the popular imagination.

Negative utilitarians - and ethicists who give greater moral weight in general to alleviating distress than magnifying pleasure - focus on the abolition of suffering. Thanks to the unfolding revolution in the biological sciences, this scenario is technically feasible - though it may take centuries to complete. So there is "abolitionism", "abolitionist" and even "the abolitionist project". These terms convey something of the moral grandeur and seriousness of purpose of utilitarian ethics; and also reflect its transcendence of narrow species self-interest to encompass all sentient life. Here again, Bentham was ahead of his time in recognising our complicity in the plight of non-human animals - though he could scarcely have anticipated the growth of single-cell protein technologies that may one day inaugurate global veganism. Unfortunately, abolitionist terminology doesn't directly specify what is being abolished, in common usage at least. Further, not all abolitionists are utilitarians; and it may be unwise to imply that commitment to the eradication of suffering is the exclusive prerogative of one contested ethical theory. Buddhists, for instance, locate dukkha [suffering; ill; unsatisfactoriness; imperfection] and its relief at the very heart of existence. Also, strict negative utilitarianism has [allegedly] counterintuitive consequences that have hitherto disqualified it from serious consideration. Either way, abolitionist vocabulary is problematic - but at least worth bearing in mind.

Other suggestions are problematic too. "Positive" utilitarians searching for the elusive dream makeover may be better disposed to a term like "paradise engineering". It's an expression that evokes the wonders ahead without discounting the relief of suffering. The quasi-religious metaphor inherits the favourable associations of Christian (and Islamic, etc) paradise shorn of its untenable theological commitments. "Heaven" could in theory play a similar lexical role, though "Heaven engineering" doesn't have the same ring. However, neither of these terms imparts a sense of moral urgency; and they may not be short and snappy enough.

The same applies to "Post-Darwinian transition". The term alludes to the impending reproductive revolution of so-called designer babies. By rewriting its own genome, our species is destined to transcend age-old "human nature". Beyond this century, prospective parents are unlikely to choose genotypes predisposing to depression, anxiety and malaise in their future children. Over time, the "unnatural" selection of designer genomes should weed our predisposition to emotional nastiness from the gene-pool - even in the absence of any grand ethical/ideological project. Our natural "set point" of emotional well-being should become progressively higher over the millennia - a form of hedonic enrichment possibly amounting to some kind of phase change in the nature of consciousness itself. But the nature of any Post-Darwinian transition is controversial even among scientifically informed utilitarians. There is no guarantee that the outcome of post-human reproductive medicine will accord with a utilitarian ethic - though this may broadly be the case even under other labels. And the expression "Post-Darwinian transition" is a bit of a mouthful too.

A related term is "transhumanism". This convenient one-word label embraces a diverse family of belief and values that predict (and advocate) the transcendence of our biological heritage. According to Article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), "transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non-human animals)". But conceptions of the post-human realm differ widely. Not all transhumanists advocate the outright abolition of suffering, let alone the maximisation of happiness. So neither this term nor its cognates will serve the frustrated utilitarian either.


There is a further difficulty with any possible replacement terminology. A strength of classical utilitarianism and the felicific calculus is that it provides, in principle, an objective criterion of whether an action - or rule of action - is right or wrong. Practical ethics becomes, in theory, a rigorous, exact, and mathematically quantifiable discipline - though this aspiration remains a pipe-dream even as neuroscientists elucidate the molecular substrates of happiness, sadness and other "core" emotions (anger, fear, disgust, surprise, etc.) in the brain. By contrast, none of the proposed terminological alternatives capture this calculational feature, or indeed any kind of decision procedure for action - short of some very drastic stipulative (re)definitions. So what's needed is a catchier, sexier synonym for "utilitarianism" that retains the all-important criterion but at the same time is more evocative of the sublime - and sounds more morally urgent than "utilitarian". Undoubtedly this is a tall order. Perhaps a new word altogether should be invented and explicitly defined from scratch. But neologisms have their drawbacks as well.

Practical utilitarianism does involve systematic calculation and planning - as the dour figure of Thomas Gradgrind might suggest. Most humans find the process of formal calculation painful; and calculus is typically associated with the miseries of school-day mathematics. But ultimately (most of) the calculation demanded by a global application of the felicific calculus needn't be done by humans, post-humans or indeed any sentient computational system. We can offload it. The exponential growth of computing power promises to revolutionise the discipline of futurology - and potentially practical ethics too. Most dramatically, the ability of [currently hypothetical] quantum supercomputers to run complex alternative simulations many orders of magnitude more powerful than their classical predecessors may transform the felicific calculus from a philosopher's fantasy into a scientific tool - and a utilitarian ethicist's dream.

This prospect leaves most people unmoved. In common with "utilitarian", the term "calculus" sounds cold, clinical, technocratic and disturbing, even when it's prefaced by the word "felicific". What place is there for romantic and poetic diction in a utilitarian ethicist's toolkit? Intuitively, we believe that the realm of feeling belongs to spontaneity - not premeditation. The joys of love, beauty and friendship shouldn't be subjected to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis: here at least, Gradgrindian "fact" should submit to non-utilitarian "fancy". But spontaneity and romanticism can be practised safely only when the biological foundations of a civilised society are genetically in place. In a Darwinian world, they often lead to suffering and heartache. Likewise, in a future post-Darwinian world of rational reproductive decisions, honesty may be less hazardous than today. For personal integrity is frequently impossible for utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike with a Darwinian genome: evolution by natural selection has spawned Machiavellian apes.

Whether or not we can effectively rehabilitate the terms "utilitarian", "calculus" and their cousins, the new lexicon of genetic engineering, CRISPR-based gene drives, drugs, wireheading, eugenics, and the technologies of mind-control stir deep anxieties too. The historical record of their application is not encouraging; and our conception of a notional utilitarian future owes more to Huxley's Brave New World than starry-eyed utopianism. In fact our entire conceptual scheme is steeped in negatively-charged language - a legacy of the Darwinian emotions adaptive in our evolutionary past. None of the vocabulary we use today is unpolluted by the (ab)uses to which it has been put. Yet at the heart of utilitarianism is the most wonderful - and the most valuable - ethic ever discovered. Properly understood, the very name should induce an almost overpowering sense of delight at what's in prospect. Sadly, the ghost of Thomas Gradgrind still haunts the utilitarian project; and it's unclear how the terminological difficulty can best be overcome.


J.S. Mill
Jeremy Bentham
The Despair of J.S. Mill
The Pinprick Argument
The Abolitionist Project
Reproductive Revolution
Quora Answers (2015-22)
Utilitarians Past and Present
What is Utilitarianism? (video)
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Quantum Ethics? Suffering in the Multiverse
Population Ethics and the Repugnant Conclusion
Negative Utilitarianism and Utilitronium Shockwaves
Bioética Utilitarista (Brazilian Portuguse translation)
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
(Ursula K. Le Guin, pdf)

universal happiness?