Essay:Memetics and utilitarianism

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Essay.svg This essay is an original work by AndyChrist (talk) 19:16, 11 June 2018 (UTC).
It does not necessarily reflect the views expressed in RationalWiki's Mission Statement, but we welcome discussion of a broad range of ideas.
Unless otherwise stated, this is original content, released under CC-BY-SA 3.0 or any later version. See RationalWiki:Copyrights.
Feel free to make comments on the talk page, which will probably be far more interesting, and might reflect a broader range of RationalWiki editors' thoughts.

The objective of this essay is to explain how a change in memetics can result in societal improvements. To intelligibly discuss this issue, one must utilize some sort of philosophy to explain what constitutes a societal improvement. As I am a utilitarian, I will be using the greatest happiness principle as this objective.[note 1] I find memetics and utilitarianism to be quite useful when discussing cultural issues such as what should be done about guns or how to address sexual violence.

My model of utilitarianism[edit]

To visualize the greatest happiness principle of a group, let us consider one of the simplest cases… a group of three people. These three people can be depicted as line segments and arranged into an equilateral triangle with an H on one end and an S on the other end. The H stands for happy and the S stands for sad. The best case scenario is getting everyone as close to the H's as possible and the worst case scenario is having everyone close to the S's. So what about the issue of egalitarianism/equality? Well in both our best case and our worst case scenarios, our subjects have equality as they are either equally happy or equally sad. You can visualize the level of equality by intersecting the points of happiness on the respective line segments. If the intersection of these points forms an equilateral triangle, then one has equality. If it is some other shape, then one does not.

Model of Utilitarianism1.jpeg

Now let us apply a thought experiment to this model. Three people are stranded on a raft and on this raft there are three bottles of water. What should these survivors do? For the following scenarios, we are going to assume perfect knowledge which obviously doesn’t hold true, but it makes things a lot simpler to think about.

Scenario 1 - Drinking one bottle of water will enable all three people to live.[edit]

The modeling of this scenario is simple. Give one bottle to each person. This is egalatarian and it is just according to the greatest happiness principle. Everyone is as happy as they can be given that they were stranded on a raft.

Scenario 2 - Drinking one and a half bottles of water is required for the people to live long enough for them to be rescued.[edit]

In this scenario, being egalitarian and evenly distributing the water will cause all three people to die. From the utilitarian perspective, that is not the best outcome. Instead treating people unequally and having two out of the three people live is the best outcome. Egalitarians such as Rawls and other moral philosophers often criticize utilitarians for taking such a stance because it doesn't respect "human dignity" or some other variation of this kind of argument. My response is typically something like "And having three people die instead of one is respecting human dignity?" It seams like an unfair criticism of utilitarianism from my perspective, but I suppose other people are entitled to their own version of reality.

Scenario 3- Even drinking all three bottles of water doesn’t allow anyone to live.[edit]

In this scenario, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot what one does as they are all going to die from dehydration so you might as well distribute the water equally and give the survivors more time to bake in the sun.

The point of this exercise was to show that equality and justice don’t necessarily coincide from a utilitarian’s perspective. Ideally utilitarians want both just and egalitarian solutions, but when that is not possible, justice overrides equality.

Model of Utilitarianism2.jpeg

This type of model can be used for any number of people. All one is doing is arguing that one should maximize happiness and distribute it as equally as possible.

Memetics and societal improvement[edit]

I suspect many people who come to this site are already familiar with what a meme is, but here is a brief explanation in case you are unfamiliar. A meme is term coined by Richard Dawkins to describe the ideas, behaviors, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture. These memes can evolve over the course of time, much like genes. Often times these memes are seen as jokes which they often are, but they have a more serious side as well. The example I like to use is radioactivity.

Companies used to sell all kinds of radioactive products such as radioactive water, radioactive cosmetics, and even radioactive condoms because there was a cultural meme that radioactivity was good for you.[1] Then this cultural idea changed. Why? Well it changed because of the Soviet Union. It became difficult to sell the idea that radioactivity was good for you when you had the government telling people about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and nuclear winter. This memetic change from “Radioactivity is good for you.” to “Radioactivity is bad for you” caused a cultural change that can be seen as a social improvement as people were no longer intentionally drinking radioactive water or wearing radioactive condoms.

Yeah... Hiding from a nuclear blast will work...
Radior: For when you want to look positively radiant!

In terms of our utilitarian model, the memetical change from "Radioactivity good for you." to "Radioactivity is bad for you." resulted in us going from a less optimal solution to a solution closer to the greatest happiness principle. In other words, it went farther away from the S's and closer to the H's and thus it constituted a societal improvement.

Now proving that not drinking radioactive water resulted in a societal improvement is a bit more difficult. This is where I turn to Bayes theorem and other ways of conducting epistemology. In any case, the way I view ethics at the societal level is that we need to promote the memes that are conducive to the greatest happiness principle such as "Radioactivity is bad for you." and eliminate those memes that are counterproductive such as "Radioactivity is good for you."

See Also[edit]




External links[edit]

Radioactive Condoms


  1. It should be noted that I differ slightly from classic utilitarianism as I use empowerment instead of happiness so technically my objective is “the greatest empowerment principle.” Plus I am a Bayesian, not a Benthamite. In any case, for the purposes of this essay, I will stick with utilitarian convention and use the greatest happiness principle as the societal objective.