IdleTheory Idle Theory and Utilitarianism

Both Idle Theory and Utilitarianism are examples of ethical naturalism, in which moral judgments are regarded as another class of facts about the natural world. It is a fact that the creatures move around and eat food. It is also a fact that they have strategies governing where they move and what they eat.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, Pleasure and Pain.
(Jeremy Bentham.)

It could be said that Nature places all creatures, not only mankind, under such governance. Avoiding pain, and seeking pleasure, the creatures act in their own best interests. To be hurt by thorns, or fire, or poisoned by food, is to learn what not to do. And to take pleasure in eating, in sleeping, in sex, in play, is to learn what it is good to do. Pleasure and pain are the carrot and stick that regulate a life.

It is appropriate that the creatures be driven to eat by the pain of hunger, and be stopped by the pleasure of satiation. It is appropriate that the creatures take pleasure in eating sweet nourishing fruits and grasses, and dislike what is sour and poisonous. For if they took pleasure in hunger, they would die. Just as they would also if they enjoyed poison.

To experience pain is to to learn to fear whatever causes pain. To experience pleasure is to learn to like or desire whatever gives pleasure. To fear predators means avoiding them, and thus surviving. To fear heights means avoiding damaging falls. To fear deep water means avoiding drowning. To like clear sweet water means avoiding being poisoned by brackish water. To desire leisure means avoiding or minimizing the pain and effort of work. Predators hunt where game are plentiful, because that is easier. Grazers eat where the grass grows greenest, because that is easier.

In many ways, Bentham is telling it like it is. The creatures do indeed experience pain and pleasure. But this is psychological experience. Bentham doesn't see the creatures as working physical machines in which pain and pleasure have a regulatory function, such that hunger prompts them to eat, and satiation prompts them to stop eating.

The Principle of Utility approves or disapproves of every action whatsover, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.
(Bentham. Principles)

In many senses, it is with the ethics of Utilitarianism that Idle Theory appears most comparable. Bentham proposed to tot up the pains of pleasures expected of any course of action, and choose the most pleasurable. One problem with this is that 'pain' and 'pleasure' do not appear to be quantifiable. It is not clear how the pleasures of a night out drinking can be compared with the pains of a subsequent hangover. Bentham's "felicific calculus" seems to fall at the first hurdle, on the question of how to measure pain and pleasure.

Replacing Happiness with Idleness

In Idle Theory, pain and pleasure are replaced by busyness and idleness. The Benthamite Principle of Utility may be reformulated such that it approves or disapproves of every action whatsover, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the idleness of the party whose interest is in question. And since idle and busy time may be measured using clocks, there is in principle no problem in measuring idleness, and therefore no obstacle to a reformulated "felicific calculus". At one step, Idle Theory gets round one of the strongest objections to Utilitarianism: that it is incommensurable. For while idleness is at least in principle measurable, happiness is not.

And furthermore it is able to get round the objection to Utilitarianism that one way of providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number would be to simply kill off unhappy people. In Idle Theory, in an interdependent society, killing off busy people not only costs them the remainder of their lives, but would simply transfer the burden of work to the idle people. If the freemen of Athens had killed off their slaves, they would have found that they themselves would have to plough fields and cook meals.

One important distinction between Idle Theory and Utilitarianism is also that Idle Theory has a maximum and minimum of idleness, where life is all leisure or all work. Utilitarianism, by contrast, does not appear to contain any idea of a maximum or minimum of happiness. One can get happier and happier and happier, perhaps even infinitely happy. And if one is already tremendously happy, is there much incentive to become deliriously happy? And this points towards the relative absence of any moral imperative in Utilitarianism. By contrast, Idle Theory's vision of human life as suspended between a hell of unremitting toil and a heaven of perfect idleness lends it the force of a moral imperative. We must arrange our affairs to minimize work, because if we don't we will face a hell of unremitting toil, and a subsequent death. In Utilitarianism, we merely face unhappiness.

Also, Utilitarianism's happiness is a psychological property, whereas Idle Theory's idleness is a physical property. We can only know whether people are happy by asking them. But in principle it is possible to measure social idleness by measuring how long people are busy at essential tasks. Indeed, one suggestion of Idle Theory is that the religious sabbath was originally a way of measuring idleness, by dividing time into periods strictly of work and strictly of leisure.

But if Idle Theory substitutes idleness for happiness in Utilitarianism, it does so by throwing away its core value: happiness. The application of Idle Theory's modified Principle of Utility might result in an idle, leisured society, but not necessarily a happy one. And indeed, because Idle Theory does not set happiness as its principal goal, is it not likely that it would produce unhappiness as an unintended consequence? And does anyone really want to lie around doing nothing all their lives? And what if people enjoy their everyday work?

In the first place it must be said that increasing the idleness of a society is a prudential act, which provides a buffer against misfortune. If some disaster overtakes a largely idle society, it can rapidly set itself to work to meet the emergency. By contrast, a largely busy society, faced with the same emergency, is likely to not have the spare work capacity to respond. In this sense, the idleness of a society might be compared with the numbers of lifeboats on an ocean liner, most of which remain unused and idle. An idle society is one in which the lifeboats are extremely numerous and well equipped, and should the liner hit an iceberg and sink, all the passengers can be saved. A busy society, by contrast, is like a ship in which there is only one leaky lifeboat with no oars. When this ship hits the rocks, everyone drowns.

But in the second place, it is only in their idle time that anyone can do what they want to do, as opposed to what they must do. For idle time, or leisure, is not time in which nothing is done, but time in which nothing can be done. And whoever can do nothing can do everything. In their idle hours, people are not required to sleep, or sit in quiet contemplation, doing nothing. They may, if they choose, engage in any activity they like. And surely pleasure entails doing as one pleases, doing what one wants to do. However sweet and delicate a cake might be, the pleasure of eating it vanishes if, rather than choosing to eat it, one is obliged to eat it - rather like those dinners where the hostess tells her assembled guests: "You all MUST have some of my strawberry cheesecake!"

There are no activities which are inherently pleasant. What for one is a bracing walk in flowery fields is for another a dreary trudge through bogs and swamps. What for one is the thrill of racing in yachts for another is the nausea of seasickness. What for one tastes exquisitely delicate is to another as dull as ditch water. And what pleases one person at one time will not necessarily please them at another time: after consuming the bulk of them in the space of a few minutes, a child may be more than happy to give away his last Rollo1. Pleasure does not reside in any particular activities, but rather in doing what one pleases as and when one happens to be pleased to do it. And happiness may be regarded as "happen-ness" - what happens spontaneously by chance. And just as we work so that we may have leisure, so equally we plan to be open to chance.

But what of those people who enjoy their work? What of those farmers who like nothing better than to walk knee deep through cow dung on cold, wet, and windy days? Clearly it is better if people people take pleasure in doing work that they have to do, but it is of no importance - the work has to be done anyway, like it or not. If anything there is a danger that, if people enjoy their work, they will not act to minimize effort, to find more efficient ways of working, to innovate and develop, perhaps because they prefer old and traditional ways. If people enjoy their work, and their ordinary way of life, and forego the opportunity of increasing their idleness by adopting new tools and technologies and a new way of life, they will be less idle than those who are prepared to innovate, and less likely to survive.

Quantity and Quality

Some of the later Utilitarians, such as J. S. Mill, moved away from Bentham's simple hedonism, and began to introduce the idea of different qualities of pleasure, rather than quantities. Happiness for Mill was cultural and spiritual rather than merely physical (sensual) and he distinguished the latter (lower pleasures) from the former (higher pleasures). In light of this he famously wrote, 'It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied' (Mill p.260).

Idle Theory can incorporate this distinction. It chops ethics in half, creating a primary ethics which is concerned with generating idle time, and a secondary ethics which is concerned with what is done in idle time. An example of the difference between the two would be in the distinction between the formal laws governing a society and the rules of games like football that are played in that society during its idle time.

Primary ethics is essentially quantitative in character, dealing with idle and busy time periods. Secondary ethics, by contrast, is concerned with largely qualitative judgments. The rules of games are adopted to make them more enjoyable, not to speed them up.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Mill was also aware of the threat of 'the tyranny of the majority' in that the individual could become swamped by mass opinion.

A problem with the notion of 'majority' rule in Utilitarianism is whether the majority are always right. Throughout the world the nucleus of a religious movement often begins with the prophetic voice... As far as Mill is concerned each of these people would have been acting contrary to the theory of utility. The greatest number in each of these examples believed real happiness (pleasure) lay in things that were different to what these 'prophets' were calling them to. History has subsequently vindicated the prophetic voice and shown that in many cases the majority were wrong. *

The 'majority' Utilitarian rule, that one should do what makes most people happy, would translate into a 'majority ' rule in Idle Theory that one should do what makes most people idler. But since Idle Theory is egalitarian, while it would accept this majority rule, it would demand that those people who were made less idle as a result should be compensated their lost time. It may make life easier for most people travelling from town A to town B to build a road between the two. But this road might make life more difficult for the few farmers in between the towns, by taking away some of their land, and dividing their lands in half, and creating other problems for them. Such farmers ought to be compensated for their loss. And perhaps they should even be rewarded extra, since society as a whole is more idle with the road than without it.

Bradley’s criticism of Utilitarianism was that it conflicts with ordinary moral judgments. It isn't entirely clear whether this criticism would apply to Idle Theory's variant of Utilitarianism. However, in general, there is always likely to be conflict between any ethical system whatsoever and 'ordinary moral judgments'. If Bradley's criticism is that some new ethical system conflicts with ordinary moral judgments, he is really arguing against new ethical systems of any sort. Bradley would appear to be saying that we should not construct ethical systems, but follow our ordinary moral judgments, even if we are headhunters and our ordinary moral judgment guides us to collect other people's heads. The introduction of Christian or Utilitarian or Kantian ethics into headhunting society would collide with their ordinary moral judgments, and it would appear that Bradley is all for the headhunters' ordinary moral judgments. Bradley would seem not so much an ethical thinker, but an opponent of ethical thinking.

Grote’s criticism of Utilitarianism only was that it perpetuates the status quo. Since Idle Theory is always seeking to increase social idleness, it almost by definition is set on changing the status quo.

Williams attacked Utilitarianism on a number of grounds. In one example, a bandit chief tells you that if you kill one of his captives, he will allow the other prisoners to go free; but that if you don't, he will kill all of them. On Utilitarian grounds, the right thing to do would be to do what causes the fewest deaths and kill the captive. But Williams wanted us to see that it is not just what happens (or the consequences) of an action that matter, but who does it. To perform such an act would damage our integrity as a moral agent and, incidentally, our psychological identity. Similarly, Williams pointed out, a very quick way to stop people from parking on double yellow lines in London would be to threaten to shoot anyone that did. If only a couple of people were shot for this, it could be justified on a simple Utilitarian model, since it would promote happiness for the majority of Londoners. *

It appears that one way of attacking Utilitarianism is to costruct some artificial problem in which only two possible responses are allowed. One third option with the bandit chief is neither to kill a captive, nor refuse to kill a captive, but instead to kill the bandit chief before he presents anyone with any more spurious artificial dilemmas. Similarily, the doctor's dilemma.

As for damaging our integrity as moral agents, it might be suggested that we damage our moral integrity when we refuse to ourselves make moral judgments, and allow others to take our moral decisions for us. For example, a soldier might willingly join up to fight in a war, but somewhere down the line he might decide that the war isn't worth fighting - because it is clearly being lost, or too many people are being killed, or it isn't a winnable war, or he believes he was duped into fighting for an unjust cause, or whatever -, then that soldier loses his moral integrity if he continues to fight the war, and continues to obey his superiors' orders. The right thing for such a soldier to do is to desert, and perhaps to shoot any military policemen who try to stop him. Moral integrity must always be based upon doing what one believes one should do, not doing what other people believe one should do.

As for shooting people who park on double yellow lines, one must ask what is the value of double yellow lines in London. And the answer in general would seem to be that they are intended to preventing parked cars obstructing the flow of traffic, and costing travellers time while they wait in traffic jams. Very likely the loss in time of shooting parking offenders (the remainder of their lives) would not be outweighed by the sum small gains in time to car and truck drivers. Once again, the question is posed as a spurious either-or dilemma, when there are plenty of other alternatives, such as fining persistent parking offenders (which is what actually happens) or banning them from driving. But this example also illustrates one problem of laws in general, which is that the point of laws against parking on double yellow lines is to make life easier for other drivers, and they are not just to be an arbitrary law to be obeyed regardless. The point is not to obey laws: the point is to save time.

Then there is Rawls' objection to Utilitarianism.

The main problem with utilitarianism, as Rawls sees it, is that it allows the rights of some people to be sacrificed for the greater benefit of others, as long as the total happiness is increased. Rawls (and many others) see this as unacceptable. Rawls called his alternative to utilitarianism Justice as Fairness. *

Yet Idle Theory is deeply concerned with justice, arguing that idleness should be distributed as equally as possible. It argues for an essential human equality, in that time passes at the same rate for everyone, regardless of their wealth or status. And it argues prudentially that social idleness should be distributed equally, because in an interdependent society, the suffering of one part of society will inevitably affect the remainder.

The Economics of Happiness and Idleness

Utilitarianism developed in the late 19th century something of a full-blown economic theory in the form of neo-classical economics, which sought to maximize social happiness or welfare or satisfaction or utility. One of the most fundamental problems of neo-classical economics is that happiness is incommensurable, however much economic theorists might prefer to ignore this fact, and proceed as if it were. The result is that neo-classical economic theory is fundamentally flawed.

Idle Theory sets out the outlines of an economic theory which seeks to maximize social idleness. And just as Idle Theory chops ethics in half, so also economics. The primary economy of a society is concerned to maximize and equalise social idleness. Given idle time, a secondary economy may appear, in which toys and amusements and games are exchanged. This secondary economy may more or less correspond with the happiness-generating neo-classical economics.

Postscript: The Intensity of Pleasure

In Idle Theory, idleness is not identical with happiness. Idle people may well be unhappy people. Idle time is simply time which people can freely dispose of as they choose. Happiness and pleasure are quite different from idleness.

But perhaps there is a way of resolving this problem, and in doing so align Idle Theory rather more closely to the Utilitarianism it so resembles.

In Bentham's Utilitarian 'felicific calculus' pleasures had intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. [link] In Idle Theory, idle time most certainly has duration. And if idle time is something to be enjoyed in the future, how soon it will be enjoyed determines its propinquity or closeness. And idle time is subject to uncertainty. Chance events may result in the deferral of future idle time. Idle time may also be enjoyed by a great number of people, and so have great extent. And idle time may be mixed with busy time, as when someone is working in a leisurely manner, or when work is frequently interspersed with intervals of idleness, and is thus more or less 'pure'. Absent from this, however, is any sort of intensity about idle time. Idle time has no intensity.

However, as idle people engage themselves in one activity or other, they will either concentrate wholly on one activity, or attend to a variety of different activities at the same time, dividing their attention between them, doing a little of one and then a little of the other, like someone who is watching television, stroking a cat, and talking to someone in the room.

What people do in their idle time has the nature of pleasure, simply because they are doing as they please. Now it may be that Benthamite 'intensity' roughly corresponds to the rate at which idle time is devoted to some activity, ranging from rapt concentration to distracted interest. That is, when idle time is 100% devoted to some activity, it is a high-inensity pleasure. And when they give something only passing attention, it is a low-intensity pleasure. The owner of a work of art may not gaze upon it for hour on end, but it may catch his attention for a few seconds every day, and in doing so afford a low intensity pleasure over many months or years. Intensity here is simply the fraction of idle time that is devoted to some pleasurable (i.e. chosen) activity

High intensity pleasure does not necessarily mean high value pleasure. Ultimately. in idle time, the sum of intensities of diferent pleasure adds up to unity. There is no sense in which it is in any way 'better' to be spellbound by a thriller to the exclusion of all else than to be enjoying the pleasures of conversation, food, scenery, and weather at the same time.

1. RolloTM: a small cylindrical chocolate sweet, filled with soft toffee, which comes in packets of ten or so.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Dec 2004