The Moral Calculus

    A friend recently stated that all of existence, including ethics, has a mathematical basis.  Brought up short, in part, because my own mind is resistant to numbers except for the most basic arithmetic, I disputed the statement.  But on further reflection, I recalled learning something about Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Moral Calculus, decades ago in an introductory college course on ethics.

    The professor, whom I discovered died just a couple of years ago, indicated that Bentham’s concept was now generally derided among professional philosophers.  But surely it is worth seriously considering theoretical concepts whatever they may be, on their own merits, or lack thereof.

    Simplifying considerably, Bentham’s concept actually had little to do with, say, Newton’s Calculus.  Rather, it consists of positing a choice, then in two columns, writing down positive elements in one, and negative elements in the other, giving each element a number, adding up each column, and making one’s decision based on the larger number.

    For example: Should I smoke cigarettes?

    In the positive column, we might have the following elements:

They relieve stress 40
They are "cool" 20
Smoking is socially popular 10
Total 70

    In the negative column, the following elements:

They impair breathing 30
They are bad for other organs 30
People don't like the smoke 20
They might lead to cancer 90
Total 170

Comparing the results, 170 to 70, the clear decision is not to smoke cigarettes.  Each element simply has a designated quantity, it’s simple arithmetic.

    The beauty of the process is that the assignment of quantities is by the individual person (rather than someone else: the State, etc.).  It is entirely uncomplicated.  At first sight.

    On reflection, some complications do arise.  If one has no idea that cigarettes can cause cancer, that element is no on the list.  So even conceiving of an element is dependent on the person’s knowledge base.  Indeed, for many decades after their introduction in the 19th century, cigarettes were not linked to cancer.  They were even promoted and advertised as being entirely healthy.  But after decades of initial epidemiological studies, a link manifested itself, confirmed later by studies of lung pathology, etc.

    Another difficulty arises because people do not list pertinent elements, or assign different quantities to them.  For instance, someone might acknowledge that cigarettes can cause cancer, but assign a small quantity, say, 20, instead of 90.  With a basis of individual choice, subjectivity is unavoidable.

    Related to this is the issue of denial—of minimizing the impact of such substances—alcohol, drugs, etc—in spite of the evidence to the contrary.  In any case, most people will not even know of the existence of the Moral Calculus, never go through its simple and easy process.  They do not use mathematics in making their choices.

    In spite of these criticisms, it is possible, especially for my friend who believes that all existence has a mathematical basis, to observe that even if an individual does not do any math in making decisions, the Moral Calculus still obtains, behind the scenes, as it were.  Thus, even if someone is ignorant of the link between smoking and cancer, that link will manifest itself in time.  Of course, there are instances of people who smoke throughout a long life, and die of other causes.  But the preponderance of the evidence is that there is a strong likelihood a heavy smoker will die of cancer, or some other related disease (emphysema, etc.).

    To note a parallel in science, the Law of Gravity exists throughout nature, whether or not we happen to know Newton’s mathematical formula.  Thus, it is at least arguable that even ethics has a mathematical basis.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

[Note: my college ethics professor stated that the theory he supported in the main, was something else, quite distinct from mathematics.  That will have to be the subject of another paper.—F.W.]


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