Utilitarianism is a consequentialist approach to ethics that attempts to objectivize worth in terms of “utility” (happiness, negation of suffering, pleasure) rather than adherence to universalizing laws (deontology) and motives (virtue-ethics). Classical utilitarianism adopts the Epicurean valuation of pleasure as a fundamental principle sought by all members of a society; pain, aside from masochist/sadist dichotomies, constitutes the opposite or undesirable. The English combined these concepts with the empiricst/Humean principles of cause & effects where the latter is considered social utility.

The two major proponents of this school of thought, Bentham and Mill, equate pleasure with happiness but differ as to how social utility is measured. Bentham quantified the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” as the determination of right/wrong; Mill qualified the determination as the “greatest aggregate happiness among sentient beings” which ranked happiness according to intellectual/moral pursuits higher than that of the physical/body. Mill justifies the assertion with the claim that one would choose the former over the latter if both are experienced; this can be be obviously attacked on the grounds of cognitive biases / variations of temperaments in later history. Intrinsic or not, the valuation implies an inequality amongst “moral goods” and subsequently the individuals who pursue them; such effects would be case-sensitive in the sense that worth is never absolute (for example, fur coat production in Siberia would be worth more than production in Egypt). Thus, codifying such a book of laws on social utility tends to intermingle many practical spheres such as economics and politics.


Liberty is a central trade-off one makes in the pursuit of personal happiness and the concern with social utility; the “tyranny of the majority” may decree a law that increases their sense of securities whilst marginalizing your freedom (for example, the negation of liberty can be realized in incarceration). The limits of such acts are bounded by the “harm principle” which circumscribes all coercion by the state on an individual to actions that would prevent harm to its other members; one’s incarceration is evaluated by your danger to the public. As for the positive definition of liberty, Mill makes three claims (freedom of speech, taste, and union). Freedom of opinion (truth, half-truths, and falsehoods) in valued in so much that their expressions are necessary in the production of effects to which their moral statuses can be continually re-evaluated. Taste or individuality appeals to the biased ranking of different pleasures which must be experienced to be apprehended. Union is encouraged for the many can obtain greater pleasure for the whole than otherwise the singleton (for example, the shift from artisan crafts to mass-industrialization produces greater material wealth, the social costs are another story). Co-operatives are encouraged as profit-sharing increases the awareness of the common goods (satisfaction from participation with the whole) that counteracts the growing alienation of industrialized labor. Taxation becomes an instrument by the state to evaluate and manipulate social good.


Modern Philosophy II

Modern Philosophy II

Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt begins the age of modern philosophy by forgoing most of the previous metaphysical assumptions established in the scholastic schools of thought. In doubting all sensory perceptions and the body, he arrives at the fundamental assumption that only his thoughts “as is” exist and thus he exists through thoughts; one’s skepticism of his/her existence via thought is sufficient to prove the existence of the mind. Knowledge of external things is not known in the senses/body as the binding of senses to objecthood occurs in the thoughts/mind; senses are unreliable as they require constantancy to form a description of the world at this low-level. The ability of the mind to make deductions (rationalism) and to ignore the body suggests an immaterial quality that is exception to natural laws. The apparent dualism between mind & body and how the two can interact is a problem that later philosophers will have to address.


Spinoza opposes the mind-body dualism by arguing that everything that exists in nature has a common substance (objecthood) and is synonymous with God (Pantheism). Both thoughts and extensions are attributes of this substance (among an infinitely many that we are not aware of) with different modes (modifications). His ethics are Epicurean and negates absolute good/evil as either can be positive/negative w.r.t. pain/pleasure. His writings on psychology expounds upon active & passive (passions) emotions where the former rises from understanding and latter by external causes; passions, which are purported to be responsible for the ills of the world, can be transformed into understanding so that we become the cause of our effects. These concepts will be the seeds for the later development of psychoanalysis in the 19-20th century.


Leibniz’s solution to the mind-body problem was a new metaphysics based on elementary particles called Monads that reflects the universe (blurred perception of other Monads), are uninteracting (immaterial), and are in pre-harmony with each other. Monads are independent as they have been pre-programmed since inception; they are centers of force from which space, matter, force are appearances. For man, Monads are hierarchical and serve (pre-programmed) the purposes of single Monad that represents his soul. Thus, the non-interaction between Monads resolve the mind-body issue at a cost of free-will. The determinism in his metaphysics creates theological problems; one inquires as to why God allowed for the ills of the world to exist in contradiction to his absolute goodness. The explanation holds that the world is the best of all possible worlds with the largest surplus of good. This follows from the tenant that everything that which does not exist “struggles” to exist (be realized) in the world; the law of compossibility (fewest contradictions) asserts that the world consists of heterogeneous truths. One can view this as a utilitarian solution for maximizing good in an over-determined system.


Locke’s theory of knowledge flipped that of Descartes on its head by placing experience above reason. Knowledge is empirical as it first comes by the senses and then the perception of the mind’s operation (reflection); the mind is initially a blank-slate (tabular rasa) without a priori ideas to which simple to complex ideas are built from experience in a bottom-up manner. Knowledge is thus the agreement of ideas between minds to which the problem of knowing ultimate causes outside experience is circumvented; the cause is often conflated with the sense of the cause. The investigation of ideas is thus probabilistic as they can only be confirmed by experience or by the testimony of experiences of others.


A consequence of Locke’s empiricism enables him to take stances on ethics and state-crafting that are more closely aligned with political actualities. Working from Hobbes, Locke defines the “state of nature” as a lack of a common judge or authority amongst equals with natural rights (life, liberty, and property) grounded by natural laws (Christian ethics). Similar to Hobbes, man engages in a social contract to form a civil society as to protect his natural rights. Unlike Hobbes, authority is not unconditionally (with the exception of self-preservation) handed over to a monarch but instead is given consent which is contingent upon its ability to protect said rights; the denizens are responsible for revolution if the government is ineffectual at its task. The tension between private interests and the rights that were given up to form the public are palpable in the short term but through the assumption that man is rational, will coincide in the long term; prudence is thusly valued. Property, as a natural right, derives from the Christian conception of natural resources given to humanity in common by God. Man, who owns himself, owns his labor to which it enters natural resources and transforms it into property.


Modern Philosophy II

Modern Philosophy (Interlude)

Modern Philosophy 1 (Interlude)

The enlightenment era marks the beginning of the end for the scholastic philosophy from which much of the Western church doctrines and humanity’s knowledge of the world is derived. From a political standpoint, the authority of the Western church and its papal orders were severely undermined in reaction to its gross abuses of powers; the selling of both indulgences and simony violated the spirit of the original gospels. The protestant reformation, spearheaded by Luther and Calvin, resulted in another schism of the Church, particularly in the northern European nations where Papal authority was distant; subsequent power shifted away from the church and back to the state. Political theorists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes produced new commentaries as to how states are both won and maintained. Renewed interests in the classical Greek works led to a revival of a humanistic tradition (life on Earth as opposed to the heavens) and scientific inquiry not seen since the pre-Socratic philosophers.


The protestant reformation rejected many of the Catholic church practices in favor of salvation by faith alone. Catholic doctrines on the purgatory (one’s sentence can be reduced through indulgences) were in clear violation of the protestant beliefs. Merits by good works no longer altered one’s passage to the after-life; it is only through God’s grace that one is pre-destined to enter either heaven or hell. Last, confessions of sins to a priest (middle man) were no longer required as one’s relationship with God has moved onto one’s individual faith alone.

political theory

The power shift from Church to individual (and thus state) gave rise to new commentaries on how societies emerge and are held in check. Machiavellian power-dynamics are a form of instrumentality that exchanges stability for moral corruption; such is the sharp departure from previous incarnations of Utopias idealized by Plato and More. Hobbes approached state-crafting from the perspective of self-preservation (rather than from a “will to power”) where men are equal in the state of nature (where the only right he can claim is his self-preservation) but live short and brutish lives unless engaged in social contracts with each other. However, a society (sovereign entity, state) built upon social-contracts would devolve back to anarchy unless leadership was provided; absolute monarchy was argued as the best leadership as it had fewer conflicts of interest.


The rise of scientific discourse, as a criterion of knowledge, placed hypotheses verified by observation above axiom/priors favored by the Platonic ideals. Francis Bacon’s induction finds similarities amongst accumulated data to build hypotheses. Copernicus placed the sun back into center of the universe; Kepler hypothesized that the orbits of planetary masses were ellipsoidal rather than circle ideals. Galileo developed the dynamics of acceleration and the law of inertia. Newton unified all these models in the universal theory of gravity; a mechanistic description of the universe is formed.

Modern Philosophy (Interlude)