Felicific Calculus

To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

  • Ecclesiastes 2:26

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!’

  • Matthew 25:21

“Jeremy Bentham, a legal reformer and philosopher, was convinced that all human activity was driven by only two motivating forces – the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. …
“More controversially, Bentham proposes a ‘felicific calculus’ that can express mathematically the degree of happiness experienced by each individual.  Using this precise method, he states, provides an objective platform for resolving ethical disputes, with decisions being made in favor of the view that is calculated to produce the highest measure of pleasure.
“Bentham also insists that all sources of pleasure are of equal value, so that the happiness derived from a good meal or close friendship is equal to that derived from an activity that may require effort or education, such as engaging in philosophical debate or reading poetry.  This means that Bentham assumes a fundamental human equality, with complete happiness being accessible to all, regardless of social class or ability.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Some folks classify Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) as an ethical hedonist.  Hedonism is given a bad reputation from the standpoint of taking revelry and pleasure to the extreme.  That could result in bad consequences for the revelers, like a hangover, or innocent bystanders, like the pedestrian that is run over by the drunk driver.  But in Bentham’s calculation, he considers consequences, to an extent.  These consequences are what he calls “vectors.” They are: duration, intensity, propinquity, extent, certainty, purity, and fecundity.  Or…  How long does the pleasure last?  How intense is the pleasure?  Is the pleasure near or at a distance?  How widely accepted is the pleasure?  How certain are you to obtain pleasure?  Is there a chance of the activity producing pain, thus an impure pleasure?  And can the activity lead to even further pleasure?

These factors take care of the unwanted side effects upon one’s self, such as dangerous thrill seekers who risk death or bodily injury.  But the only “pain” associated with some “pleasurable” activities could be getting caught, even when it causes pain to others.  Ethics filters in a little, but not adequately.

Hmm.  There are a lot of Bentham followers out there who never heard of Jeremy Bentham, in that they do whatever they please in hopes of never getting caught, calculating the probability of “getting away with it.”

I have two problems with Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy, and mathematics, for that matter.

First, I graduated from college with a BS in Chemical Engineering.  I felt I could reduce anything to a mathematical formula, if I could learn enough about it, and then I could optimize that process.

There is a philosophy of process control based on levels.  Level Zero (0) is an operator turning a valve or pushing a button – making the process work.  Level 1 control takes the button pushing, to an extent, and the valve turning out of the operator’s hands.  Instead, the operator chooses the setpoints and the control system automatically moves the control devices in a programmed fashion to achieve those setpoints, setpoints that the operator selects.  But then, Level 2 control takes the setpoints away from the operator.  The kind of calculations that I used to make are done and the setpoints are decided by the computer.  The operator monitors the process and intervenes when upsets occur if those upsets have not been programmed into the computer.  Level 3 control is an administration control that can adjust production of an entire facility by the salesmen inputting the products that have been sold and the entire plant automatically adjusts every Level 2 system, plant-wide, to alter production to meet the customer’s orders without any operator involvement at all.  Operators would sit back, sip coffee, and monitor whether anything was not running properly, and then be prepared to step in.

Level 2 control is often purchased and rarely used, because the operator has an ego.  The operator’s sense of self-preservation worries that he (she) will not be needed if the computer never screws up.  He thinks he (or she) can do better than a computer (and possibly could in some circumstances), but the computer is mind-numbingly consistent, which is what plant management wants.  I have never seen a fully integrated level 3 system in action, especially since most plants rarely have anything in Level 2.

The descriptions above may be boring to most people, but the problems in those systems illustrate why Bentham’s calculations can never work.  I moved from process mathematical modeling to start my career and eventually went into the education and training of the personnel, even into the motivation of the personnel to do the work the proper way.  It was not just about the owner of the company making more money.  It involved safety, product quality, lowering maintenance costs, energy efficiency, and reducing environmental impacts.  These factors are more relatable factors on a shop floor than just making money, even when there is a bonus program in place.

And in 35 years of teaching adults how to do their job and do it better, I have learned that even that is not an exact science.

Bentham’s formula may look like a calculus formula, but when you define the terms in the equation, it starts to fall apart.  And beyond that, when you use his own vectors, it totally crumbles.  Such attributes of certainty and purity go out the window when the “cowboy” operator in the operator pulpit thinks his idea is better than what he was told to do.  As long as you are not operating abnormally for too long, you might get away with it, but then something breaks, and no one is producing anything for the next couple of hours, or couple of days.

But enough about human frailty screwing up Bentham’s formula, Bentham ignores Ecclesiastes 2:26, my second heartburn with Bentham’s math.  Wisdom, knowledge, and happiness (each in the true sense) are gifts from God.  All that the “fool,” or non-believer by definition, can get is temporal happiness by making earthly wealth that is gone as soon as he (or she) leaves this world and is squandered by others.  Some of the most unhappy people that I have known have been wealthy people who continuously worry if they have enough in the bank.  When you have more stuff, you have more worries – keeping the stuff maintained.

The ideal life with maximized happiness is not something that you get from a mathematical formula, it is doing God’s perfect will that He has specifically designed for your life.

We all have “level 0” tasks in life.  Until they design something for home use that is better, you need to insert the key into the lock and turn it or you will never get in your home.  Level 1 control would be us making our decisions based on what we have calculated (or a wild hunch) will make us happy.  I have never found those bits of happiness to survive Bentham’s vectors.  They have no duration; they may lead to pain (purity issues); and they rarely, if ever, lead to further happiness (failing fecundity).  But level 2 control with God in control, adjusting the setpoints to what will make us more like Jesus?  That is the source of true happiness, wisdom, and knowledge.  No “cowboys” need apply nor should they flip the switch to take it out of Level 2 control.  Me making setpoints?  A disaster.

And Level 3 control?  God is already doing that.  God is sovereign and whether we are doing our part or not, God’s will is going to get accomplished.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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