Thursday, December 27, 2007

Love, Wisdom, and Utilitarianism

What is Utilitarianism? It is a philosophical way of thinking, determining how you act. According to wikipedia:

"Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—the ends justify the means. Utility — the good to be maximized — has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain), though preference utilitarians like Peter Singer define it as the satisfaction of preferences. In simpler terms, it's for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Like most ethical theories, utilitarianism primarily evaluates proposed actions and courses of action, rather than virtuous or character traits"

This way of thinking was first made popular by John Stuart Mill's essay on Utilitarianism, published in 1861. I remember learning this in a course on philosophy, and of all the things presented in philosophy this seemed to me the most "useful" or practical way of thinking. According to John Stuart Mill:

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure."

Utilitarianism was made popular by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, but it has often been traced back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. It is criticized by the Catholic Encyclopedia as a modern form of "hedonism" - devotion to self pleasure, but this is clearly a distortion of the values this mode of thinking presents. The "love of self" can indeed explain most people's behaviour.

Another criticism of Utilitarianism is that it measures morals by their outcomes, rather than by their intent:

"Utilitarianism has been criticized for only looking at the results of actions, not at the desires or intentions which motivate them, which many people also consider important. An action intended to cause harm but that inadvertently causes good results would be judged equal to the result from an action done with good intentions. However, many utilitarians would argue that utilitarianism applies not only to results, but also to desires and dispositions, praise and blame, rules, institutions, and punishment. For instance, bad intentions may cause harm (to the actor and to others) even if they do not result in bad acts. Once this is recognized, supporters argue that utilitarianism becomes a much more complex, and rich, moral theory, and may align much more closely with our moral intuitions.

Furthermore, many utilitarians view morality as a personal guide rather as a means to judge the actions of other people or actions which have already been performed. In other words, morality is something to be looked at when deciding what to do. In this sense, intentions are the only thing that matter, because the consequences cannot be known with certainty until the decision has already been made."

So is Utilitarianism yet another philosophy worthy to be ignored? Or is it mere hedonism, a rule for self pleasure? Actually before Utilitarianism became popular, before this philosophical school of thought even existed, Swedenborg espoused a form of it as a general moral rule for all humanity.

In this account, while in a vision Swedenborg overheard a discussion among angels concerning the origin of marriage Love:

The angels replied that love and wisdom without application to useful purpose are only abstract and theoretical ideas, which, even after being entertained for a time in the mind, eventually pass away like the winds. "But love and wisdom are brought together in application to useful purpose," they said, "and in this they become a single entity which is called actual. Love cannot rest unless it acts, for love is the active force in life; nor can wisdom exist and endure unless it does so from love and together with love whenever love acts, and to act is application to useful purpose. Therefore we define application to useful purpose as the doing of good from love through wisdom. Application to useful purpose is what good is.

Since these three elements - love, wisdom, and application to useful purpose - flow into people's souls, we can see why it is said that all good is from God. For all action from love through wisdom is called good, and action includes also application to useful purpose.

Love without wisdom - what is it but a kind of foolish infatuation? And love accompanied by wisdom, but without application to a useful end - what is it but an airy affectation of the mind? On the other hand, love and wisdom together with application to a useful end - these not only make a person what he is, but they also are the person. Indeed, what may perhaps surprise you, they produce the person. For a man's seed contains his soul in perfect human form, clothed with substances from the finest elements of nature, out of which the body is formed in the womb of the mother. This useful end is the supreme and final end of Divine love acting through Divine wisdom. (Conjugial Love, 183)

Descartes is famous for saying, "I think, therefore I am". The angels would say: "One is what he does according to thought". Your very inmost nature is defined by one thing: what you love the most. Moreover, Utilitarianism is incomplete in that it only consideres the useful outcomes. There are three emanations of Being: (1) Love (2) Wisdom, and (3) useful application. Or what is the same: (1) End (Intent) (2) Cause (Thought) and (3) Effect (Action). Most are just familiar with the principle of cause and effect.

This Triad of Being manifests itself in the human as soul, body and spirit. This is what the Trinity truly is.

As for the criticism that Utilitariansim can be used to support Hedonism, it is well founded, unless one distinguishes the Love of Heaven from the love that originates from hell:

"Spiritual and celestial love is love for the neighbor and love toward the Lord, while natural and sensual love is love of the world and love of self. By love for the neighbor we mean a love of useful services, and by love toward the Lord we mean a love of performing useful services, ...These loves are spiritual and celestial for the reason that to love useful services and to perform them from a love of them is divorced from a person's love of his own self-interest. For one who loves useful services spiritually regards not himself but others apart from himself, being affected by a concern for their welfare. Opposed to these loves are loves of self and the world, for loves of self and the world have regard for useful services not for the sake of others but for the sake of self; and people who do this invert Divine order, putting themselves in place of the Lord, and the world in place of heaven. Consequently they look away from the Lord and heaven, and to look away from them is to look in the direction of hell." (Divine Love and Wisdom, 426)

Useful application is brought about by love and wisdom. Belief without action is utterly worthless. Thus in the Near Death Experience, many people have reported encountering a great white light, full of Love, who asks them just one question: "What have you done with your life?"

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