A Monkey Wrench in the Gears

I was reading this blog post that was discussing religion and morality and came across a term I hadn’t heard before. It is called Hedonic Calculus, and is designed to weight the happiness an action will bring into the world.

“AHA!” I thought to myself. “This is it! This is someone else who thought exactly like I do!”

It seems I was overly optimistic, because my own human emotions get in the way of my motto (I am sure most of my readers know it, but it is to bring more happiness into the world than I take out of it). The very first example given was that of two sinking ships. One contains your family, one contains a rock star. By Hedonic Calculus, of course, one is required to save the rock star. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized Hedonic Calculus would require, for example, that I support Justin Bieber in whatever it is that Justin Bieber does, for it makes a huge number of people happy — sort of. If you go deeper, Justin Bieber’s antics make me sad, and I would imagine the antics of daughters taking part in #CutForBieber or #DrunkForBieber counts as sadness. Too many confounding factors.

Talking about Hedonic Calculus, I realize it is very similar to the mathematical system I created for myself that governs a very large portion of my life — but unlike pure Hedonic Calculus, I left in an error margin for my own emotions because … Well, one way or another humans are emotional creatures. And again, I ended up jumping down into the giant cave that is morality, with a new tool on my belt–perhaps this time I could get deeper.

One field that is contained in Hedonic Calculus (it is more formal than I tend to be in my theoretical mathematics of sociology) is purity, described as the probability that it will not be followed by feelings of the opposite kind. To use an example from the linked Rational Wiki page with a slight twist for my own purposes, an orgy will make you feel happy or give you pleasure, but once it is over many people in the general populace will feel shame. Very low purity score, then.

To apply that to my own example of Justin Bieber, his antics may make 10-15 year old girls (is that his target demographic? I am not hip to what the jive kids are doing these days…) happy, but when their parents punish them for whatever stupid hashtag 4chan has popularized today, they will feel sadness. Liking Justin Bieber has a very low purity score, then! And it is true that he is a bad person, because now math says so! Though I won’t lie, Justin Bieber’s “Extent” score would be quite high, and that is sad, because that doesn’t change the fact that he is pretty much awful.

That being said, for anyone who says science can have no bearing on morals, I think Hedonic Calculus (not to be confused with hedonistic calculus, which is a whole different bag of dangly bits) puts at least a partial lie to that. The values may be somewhat arbitrary, but they are based on happiness. Is it a mature morality? Probably not; nothing absolute is ever mature. The world is not black and white, no matter how much math you throw at it. That being said, it is definitely something to think about.


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