Utilitarianism, Pragmatism/ Practicalism, and Perfection

I feel strongly that every person has an intrinsic sense of what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Parents can observe this in their children when they’re very young. Take a toy away from a toddler and the result will be a howling child. Sigmund Freud would identify this as the ‘Id’ in action. The child’s desire keep that which is theirs is disrupted. No longer having the thing they want is an injustice where justice, in this case, is having what they want. As the individual develops, outside forces influence the developing child’s sense of right and wrong to evolve. The values of our parents, our peers, and society as a whole, influence that evolution. Our own experiences, the influence of those values, and forces like pleasure, pain, power, and weakness combine to steer each person’s moral compass. When value systems differ, conflicts arise.

In philosophy, ethics is a field in its own, tackled earliest by people like Confucius and Socrates – the former being one of the first to express what those of us in the West refer to as the “Golden Rule”. Nietzsche, on the other hand, would classify the Golden Rule as an expression of “Slave Morality”. Good arguments abound for everything from Stoicism to Anarchism. Ethical philosophies range from pessimistic about human nature to optimistic and idealistic.

For myself, I’ve landed on Utilitarianism as an ethical philosophy:

  • Achieve the greatest overall pleasure
  • Avoid the most overall pain

Utilitarianism¬†is not simply a quest for pleasure. It is not Cyrenaic hedonism where immediate gratification is the only goal. Personal pleasure is only part of the story. “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”, says Jeremy Bentham. In other words, the amount of pleasure attained and the amount of pain avoided is how we measure the utility of an act. In other words, “Good” is synonymous with pleasure and “Bad” is synonymous with pain.

  1. Achieve the most pleasure for the self, while creating the least pain for the other
  2. Achieve the most pleasure for the community, while creating the least pain for the state
  3. Achieve the most pleasure for the state, while creating the least pain for the country
  4. Achieve the most pleasure for the country, while creating the least pain for the continent
  5. Achieve the most pleasure for the continent, while creating the least pain for the globe
  6. Achieve the most pleasure for the globe.

An end goal of maximizing pleasure may seem extremely simplistic. How can you accomplish hard things if you only focus on what feels good? Anyone who’s gotten drunk, done drugs, or had sex knows what “feeling good” really feels like. Although I’ve never done hard drugs, I’ve heard plenty of people talk about what an amazing ride cocaine or heroin are. So why don’t I just kick off a heroin habit? Because maximizing short-term pleasure in that way risks long-term pain. Those same people I know who tell stories about doing hard drugs also have their own stories to tell about intense long-term pain: homelessness, overdoses, and death. Three of my best friends in high school wound up homeless and another three overdosed and died. Clearly focusing on the short-term without considering the long-term is a terrible idea.

Pragmatism/ Practicalism

A lot of times when people mention the word pragmatism, they really mean practicalism – that an action should be chosen based upon what choices are realistic. In other words, people who say they approach things pragmatically most often mean that they choose to do what is realistically achievable given the current situation. In theory, this seems like an excellent approach. Instead of seeking “perfection”, the practicalist chooses some progress over no progress. “The Perfect is the enemy of The Good”, says the practicalist. Unfortunately, the end result isn’t that the best possible action is chosen but merely the “good enough”. The practicalists resign themselves to moderate short term success in order to wholly avoid the pain of conflict. Being resigned to the idea that they’ll never achieve perfection, they abandon the idea altogether and accept whatever they can get right now.

Perfection should always be the goal

The utilitarian knows that they may not ever be able to achieve perfection but that the goal of maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain is still one worth pursuing at all times. Giving up is not – ever – an option. Achieving the best possible outcome may be an incremental effort and may take a very long time. There may be setbacks and there may be times when the pain is more than the pleasure. None of this makes accepting compromise anything more than a temporary option. This is exactly why I do what I do for a living and what drives a majority of my own decisions.

Utilitarianism in action

One example of this can be seen in Tenon‘s prioritization algorithm. Whenever tests are run by Tenon, each individual result is scored based on a handful of factors:

  1. Impact on the user
  2. Impact on the interface
  3. Ease & speed of repair

Each of those factors is weighted in a way that provides an appropriate level of gravity to each one, with “Impact on the user” given highest importance. The end result is a ranked list of issues that, when used to steer remediation, will result in the greatest positive impact for users in the shortest amount of time. In other words: by fixing the highest impact issues is the same as “maximizing pleasure”.

Making these changes with the least impact on the interface and highest ease & speed of repair is the same as “minimizing pain”. In this way, every single time a test is run, all of the issues are scored to make it very clear which things must be fixed first. Incrementally the system becomes improved by always focusing on the most important stuff first. This doesn’t necessarily achieve perfection. There will always be other things that happen along the way, up to and including completely replacing the system with a new one. But until that time comes, we can continue to push forward by maximizing the positive impacts of our efforts.