Tag Archives: utilitarianism

The Very Model of a Good Utilitarian

(It is suggested that you play this in another tab while reading this.)

I am the very model of a good utilitarian.
I cultivate the virtues of a great humanitarian.
I always switch the trolley so it hits the one and not the five
Because there is a duty and it comes with an imperative.
I have a perfect duty to select the one best act and rule.
And consequentialism is what’s universalizable.
I try to play the role of consequentialists and what they do
Habituated practice means that that’s what I’m accustomed to.

I donate giant quantities because of scrupulosity
I try to find the golden mean amount of generosity.
In short, with all the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian. 

If biting every bullet is the purpose of philosophy
You’ll find that I’m the best at its inherent teleology.
Like in the dust specks/torture case I must deontologically
Accept the torture so I don’t use people as means, optically!
If giving Felix all the world increases total happiness
It’s time for us to practice with the virtue of self-sacrifice!
If five need organs from one donor, that bystander I would kill
But it’s OK because I’d do it from the lawful mind’s good will! 

I’d tell a lie to save a life since Exodus 1 told me to;
Divinely ordered duty is a thing that I should hold me to!
In short, with all the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian. 

In fact when I choose actions by what globally fills preference,
And when I make my choices based on likely future consequence,
When I attempt to maximize the happiness of everyone,
When I start picking options by events that will then flow therefrom,
When I begin to weight the value of all humans equally,
And follow maxims that I think will maximize utility,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of sensible philosophy
You’ll say that I apply my consequentialism flawlessly. 

My decision-making process, while it’s better than ad hoc-ian
Is really better-suited to the Ethics Nicomachean.
But since I have the virtues of a great humanitarian
I am the very model of a good utilitarian!


Vegetarianism: Some numbers

“If God had not meant them to be eaten, he would not have made them out of meat.”
—Zorblax the Malevolent, Eater of Men, Women, and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Last week I was thinking about the ethics of vampirism (as one does) and calculated how many cows you’d have to farm and drain in order to maintain your immortal superpowered life. (3.8) Then I realized it’s kind of stupid that I hadn’t done the same calculation for real life.

Before I go any further, stop and ask yourself how many animals you’re OK with having farmed and killed to support your ability to eat meat. Come up with an actual number, or at least a factor of ten. Is the number different for cows and pigs than it is for turkeys and chickens? Do you care more about them suffering, or dying? Those can change your results.

Oh, and “farmed” is kind of a euphemism. For the animals that end up being part of my diet at least, I think it’s fair to say the word “torture” applies. The question is how much of that you’re willing to tolerate. Since the animals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this purpose, the choice isn’t about giving up meat to save animals. It’s about giving up meat in order for there to be fewer animals in that kind of existence.

Try to come up with a number such that you’re probably OK with there being X animals tortured for their entire existence to enable your omnivorous lifestyle, but for 10X you’d give up meat if it would somehow let you put them out of their misery. (Assume no consequences like them being replaced; we can argue about that later.)

You might think the animals are better off being tortured than never existing. If so, the question does not apply and you ought to increase your meat consumption as much as you can. Instead, I’m going to assume X is some positive number.

Have you figured out values of X yet? If not, stop reading until you have some.

OK, nobody stopped reading. Oh well. If you dislike any of my decisions, say it out loud or write it down so your mind doesn’t change it on you.
I arbitrarily decided the following:
—I care some about animal suffering but don’t really care about animal death.
—I am probably OK with an average of one cow or pig being tortured at a time if that’s what my meat-eating takes, but I’d rather be vegetarian than have it happen to ten.
—For chickens and turkeys it’s more like I don’t mind ten but do mind forty. (I don’t actually trust my mental image of forty as distinct from thirty or fifty. Seems like an important caveat.)

This is the weakest part of the exercise. It’s based on nothing more than me asking myself the bolded question and going “Hm, that seems acceptable.” I could be completely wrong about anything from how sentient cattle are to just how bad the conditions are. Feel free to correct whichever mistake is the most outrageous.
Then I looked up the numbers.

The average American (in 2009) ate 120.2 kg of meat. (The chart cites the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., but I linked to this instead because it’s much easier to read.)
Using the numbers from this awesome chart, that .72 pounds per day (pretending all of it’s beef), is 1.6 cows every thousand days. Beef cattle get harvested at 18-22 months, so say they live for 600 days. In that case, there’s an average of .96 cows being farmed at any given time to support the average American’s meat eating.

That number is uncomfortably close to my range that I’m questionably OK with. It’s technically on the right side of my arbitrary line, but keep in mind that the numbers are extremely approximate.

That was assuming the entire average meat intake was beef. If it’s pork, the number is instead
(.72 lbs/day)(1 pig/140 lbs)=5.14 pigs every thousand days. Wikipedia says 4-12 months for the age at slaughter, with animal rights sites rounding off to six. (5.14 pigs/1000 days)(180 days/lifespan)=.92 pigs at a time being farmed for the average American. Or .46 pigs and .48 cows, or whatever other distribution if you eat more than one type of meat.

It’s pretty much the same as the number for cows, but remember what it’s not saying. That number does not mention the fact that pigs are being farmed and killed off faster than cows. These numbers are about the number of animals suffering at a time, not the number of animal deaths. For the second thing, I’ll refer you back to the awesome chart.

If it’s chickens instead,
(.72 lbs/day)(1 chicken/5lbs)(42 days/chicken)=six chickens being farmed at any given time. Notably, this has more of a margin of error than the cows and pigs did, since I said I was fine with up to ten.

Numbers on turkeys were less Googleable for some reason, but it seems like they’re about five times the weight of a chicken while alive, and 2-2.5 times the age at slaughter. In which case, the average American’s meat intake could be satisfied with only about three turkeys being tortured at a time. If, like me, you care about poultry suffering somewhere on the order of a tenth as much as cattle suffering, this is where the best deal is.

Personally, I don’t average anything like .72 pounds of meat a day. I don’t keep track (probably should), but I’d be shocked if it’s above .5. With the numbers multiplied accordingly, I conclude I don’t need to become vegetarian until someone corrects my assumptions.

I am going to eat more turkey, though, as compared to the other meats. I wasn’t expecting one to be significantly more acceptable than the others, but may as well take advantage of it.

Capes and Masks

“Way I see it, having a local team of superheroes is like having a sports team.  Everyone’s rooting for them, they make for great media that isn’t about wars or the water crisis or whatever, there’s merchandising and tourists… all good shit that the local government loves.” —Lisa Wilbourne, aka Tattletale, Worm.

Unfortunately, that’s not remotely close to true. A typical world with superheroes has property damage is in the high billions, and offscreen civilian deaths are way too high. It’s worse off than if there were no superheroes at all.

That’s really too bad, so let’s see if we can construct an exception. A situation where it might actually be to the city’s benefit to have capes and masks running around wreaking (controlled amounts of) havoc. It won’t be much better than regular Earth, but it won’t be worse.

You’ve got what Tattletale calls full-contact cops and robbers, where people dress up in costumes and run around throwing superpowers at each other. The heroes get to say they’re doing it to protect the public, the villains say they’re in it for the money, but really they’re all just playing for fun.

If people get seriously injured, it’s not fun. So everyone on both sides goes out of their way to avoid hurting people. The guy with the power to disintegrate organic matter by pointing at it doesn’t go into crimefighting. And definitely not crime. He’d get arrested and charged with lots and lots of murder. He goes into medicine instead and zaps people’s cancers or something.

The powers that get used by the people in masks are more oriented toward containing their opponents, or defeating them in any relatively harmless way. If Mythos messes with Relentless’ perception of time during a fight, everybody’s OK with it as long as she puts it back afterward. There are also people with powers like explosions and lasers, but nothing that can’t be set to stun gets used in a fight.

As you might expect, since people are running around (or flying as the case may be) and hitting each other, injuries do happen. No deaths or anything classified as catastrophic, but there are a lot of concussions. This is recognized to be a problem, but the average fan doesn’t really care.

A typical cape fight looks nothing like a crime in progress and more like an improvised stage production. A villain group announces that they’re going to, say, rob a particular bank that weekend. On Sunday the bank is closed and there has been plenty of notice for bystanders to get out of the way—except of course for the people who bought tickets. At the prearranged time, the villains arrive and pose dramatically for the cameras before walking toward the front door. The heroes drop from the sky and start the fight.

If the bad guys fight their way in, they break into the vault and get out with as much as they can carry. It’s all covered by the bank’s villain insurance, along with any property damage. If the heroes win, the villains get captured and left shouting phrases like “Curses! Foiled again!” until the actual police arrive. There usually aren’t charges pressed, because everyone knows it’s all part of the game. The bank was never actually in any danger of losing anything, and the endorsement deals are good for business. In any case, everything is back to the status quo pretty quickly.

The villains are obviously playing along. If they really wanted to rob the bank, they could just not tell people ahead of time. But then it’d be treated as a crime instead of a sport, and nobody wants that. Besides, they’d lose all their fans.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be able to work without a powerful industry backing it up. That’s where the money comes in.
There are the ticket sales, and people might pay through the nose for that, but you can only fit so many people around the site of a bank robbery. It’s not like superheroing takes place in a baseball stadium. The real money comes from merchandising. If people will buy a T-shirt that looks like Peyton Manning’s jersey, they’ll buy one that looks like Enforcer’s costume. They’d do it for golf if that were the sport that everyone cared about, and I guarantee superheroes are at least as interesting as football players. From selling things with their logo on it, the National Supers League could probably bring in, oh, at a random guess let’s say $2.1 billion per year.

Ticket revenue is pretty much negligible next to that, and advertising will be less than it is for current sports. There may be just as many people watching it, but when superheroes fight supervillains it’s not exactly a predictable length with scheduled commercial breaks.* Call it a billion and a half in advertising.

Selling the rights to televise the matches could bring in another three billion dollars, and I’d imagine there’s a lot to be made from movie deals as well. The Avengers made a lot of money, it would have made a lot more if they could have marketed it as “based on a true story,” and that means more money for the superhero teams.

The fans, meanwhile, enjoy being able to follow their favorite franchises.  There are rumors that Captain Anvil might leave the Defenders and move to a different city? Well if that happens, you’ll have to start rooting for the villains over there! He’s supposed to be on our team! It’s hard to imagine a sport that’s better designed for rivalries than this one.

There’d also be all kinds of non-fight-based events. If the fans have been arguing over whether Atalanta could outrun Speedster over a long enough distance, organizing a race means free publicity for both heroes and a great advertising opportunity for the NSL. But the main events are always the classic heroes-vs-villains match-ups.

You might not like the idea of a giant entertainment industry built around watching people hit each other. But a lot of people enjoy watching it, and there aren’t all that many people being hurt and they aren’t being hurt that badly, so it’s fine. Right? Anyway, if you’re in favor of the continued existence of football you should probably consider these superhero fights a good thing for the same reasons. You can’t tell me it wouldn’t be entertaining.

*Usually it’s over more quickly than a normal sporting event. With some exceptions. When Vortex dueled Chronomancer, they both got mistaken for statues of themselves. Eight hours in, Chronomancer won with the first punch, and those two have avoided each other ever since.