Should you go watch a comedy, or continue reading this article? Instead of appealing to principles (“thou shall not watch TV too often”), a long tradition of philosophers, starting with Bentham and Mill, recommended a simple answer: Do what makes you happier. Their further and more radical step was to assert that, by happiness, one really means “pleasure”, and that all choices in life should be solved in a similar way. Bentham called it “felicific calculus”, and Mill spelled it out like this:
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure”
This utilitarian recommendation raises many objections. Most often, utilitarianism is accused of denying the value of altruism and diminishing the higher principles of charity by promoting merely self-interested conduct. Maximising pleasure was sometimes seen as recommending behaviour more worthy of animals than humans. The appeal of the theory, however, starts with a simple argument: Given that there is no risk of pain attached, for you or anyone else, why shouldn’t the best choice be the one that generates more pleasure? Who would recommend choosing the less pleasurable option?
The weakness of the utilitarian starting point, its opponents often think, rests on its implausibility: Humans cannot always calculate the pleasure attaching to all the possible consequences of all their actions before they act — it would take so long that they would never act. Utilitarian calculations, the objection goes, are beyond human computational power.
This factual objection combines with more conceptual ones: Even if we had the capacity, what would it mean to compare, say, the pleasure of reading this article with the pleasure of laughing at the comedy? How many minutes of laughter are as good as satisfying one’s curiosity? As Amartya Sen put it, the “measurability of individual welfare” across diverse choices and actions is a fundamental problem for utilitarian theories. And if one cannot measure welfare within one individual, how could we even envisage comparing welfare across individuals, as the utilitarians wanted to do at the social and political levels.
Both its psychological implausibility and its fundamental conceptual flaws seem to make the utilitarian recommendation a non-starter.
The real obstacle, however, might be our philosophical tendency to judge things from how they seem: in other words, judgements about pleasure tend to be based on our conscious experience of it. From a phenomenological point of view, it seems that pleasures are incomparable: the pleasure we derive from laughing feels very different from the pleasure we derive from learning something new. Eating chocolate, listening to Bach, having sex or receiving many “likes” on Instagram are all pleasurable experiences, but each seems to bring a different kind of pleasure. We also know how much pleasure a certain object brings only once we experience it, but predicting this from the armchair seems a much more complicated matter. Will the comedy be funny – and will it bring more fun than reading this essay to the end? Will buying the red jumper bring more happiness than getting the pair of shoes?
Conscious experience however only creates difficulties at the conscious level. For our brains, comparing pleasures is automatic and straightforward.
Several brain regions are involved in determining whether an object or action is pleasurable or will provide a pleasant outcome. They consist of cortical regions in the frontal part of the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) but also deep brain regions such as the ventral striatum, amygdala and insula. Each of these regions has its own role in the valuation process, which ranges from perceiving a pleasurable object, selecting an action, and anticipating the pleasure of a given choice, to experiencing a pleasant outcome. Though these different brain regions perform specialised computations in the value process, they estimate all types of pleasurable objects or actions in the same way. For Mill, this was “quantities of pleasure”; for Bentham, “hedons”. For contemporary neuroscience, this “common currency” is called “reward”. Whatever the type of object, for instance food, drink, money or music, the brain computes the value of consuming or experiencing them in a comparable way.
Realising that the value of all our actions is represented in the same way in the brain defuses the traditional objections to utilitarianism and offers a plausible mechanism for utilitarian calculations. Neither computational power, nor incomparability of experiences seems to stop the brain from comparing apples and oranges, jumpers and comedies, or even larger choices. By moving beyond the complexities of subjective pleasures, neuroscience is making utilitarianism an accurate rule-based way to capture how we deal with our choices.
These discoveries still do not solve all philosophical questions: Saying that we are equipped with a neural, utilitarian comparison scale does not mean that its results are normatively right. We might not be entitled to compare all actions on a single scale of reward – and perhaps sometimes we should be stopped from doing it. But comparing is what we tend to do. This realisation rings true with the utilitarian ambition to bring morality down to a manageable human scale, away from obedience to ethereal principles. Mill and his successors all intended to connect philosophy to the realities of the mind, though perhaps it is the realities of the brain they should have been more concerned with.
By making the utilitarian calculation more plausible, neuroscientific research however brings difficulties that its philosophical originators did not envisage. Reward processing may be related to subjective pleasure and well-being, albeit it in a complex way. Reward does not even need to be conscious, and it does not always influence our conduct through the mediation of consciousness or reflective choices. It is also involved in the reinforcement of certain pathways and the forming of habits. Eventually, it explains how addictions are formed and maintained. Repeated drug intake triggers neural changes in the reward system, especially the striatum and midbrain dopamine neurons, which makes the brain more reactive to drug cues, and less sensitive to non-drug rewards. Contrary to classical utilitarians, neuroscientists show that following the most rewarding or pleasurable path is then not always synonymous with reflectively choosing it.
Counting which points revealed by neuroscience count in favour of the utilitarian team, and which are against it, might require patience – it’s not the most interesting exercise. Neuroscience rarely settles the score, in and of itself, and some of the fine-grained details of the reward system are still to be unveiled. What is surer, at a larger scale, is that neuroscience is transforming one of the key historical battlegrounds on which the disputes between utilitarians and anti-utilitarians have long taken place: whether or not utilitarian calculation is selfish.
Reward processing, even in a single brain, is not the narrowly self-centred process assumed in philosophical debates. How much reward we derive from a certain object does not just depend on our inner states, and the properties of the object: It also takes into account what others do and think. The brain regions associated with reward processing are less active if the object we evaluate isn’t something that other people like, and increases if it lines up with their preferences. For instance, the pleasure derived from watching an attractive face is decreased if we are told that others do not find it so likable. Our own utility calculations, in this respect, are not just based on our own experience.
For the right interpretation here we need to look closely at the empirical results: it is not that we only change our experience or preferences based on other people’s evaluations, which could be a mere superficial conformism. Our tendency to follow what others think was known well before neuroscience. The most novel part is to see that the reward-related areas involved in evaluating a certain object respond also to what others choose. One of these areas, the ventral striatum, is more active when there is agreement with others about which song is preferred. This sometimes corresponds to a change in our conscious, subjective valuation of the song, but not necessarily. Why this activation matters is that, in the long run, it determines how we learn about the value of objects: that is, in part, through others.
To be fair, classical utilitarianism had considered that our own utility calculations would be influenced by others. What it did not envisage is that this influence would be embedded in our own pleasures. Social recommendations and influences were seen as a late corrective to our slow or uncertain utility calculations: It was, to quote Mill, a “secondary principle” of conduct. We can, and certainly should use, the opinions of others to guide us, when our own calculations wander: “The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that (….) persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another.” However, the influence of others does not come through pleasure, but from culture, discussion, and reasoning. Like sailors going to sea, we do defer to others who have calculated the tides and tools to navigate the world. As Mill writes, “Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions of wise and foolish.”
But Mill was wrong here: Social influence is not necessarily like sailing recommendations, which we consult in the abstract, and it may act directly on our reward system. Others weigh on our conduct through the primary principle of utilitarianism, and just not a secondary one. Information from others is transformed into a reward value, which is integrated with the reward of an object. That others agree or disagree with our choices is represented in reward related brain regions and consists of a reward in itself.: It will change the total reward we derive from a positive or negative outcome. What’s more, the reward derived from the object and the reward derived from others, though they correspond to distinct processing, are combined into a single value in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). If you chose to read this article, it was then not necessarily only because it was more pleasurable to you than watching a comedy; your utilitarian calculation here might have accounted for the social reaction to your preferred option.
Altogether, many results from neuroscience suggest that our brains are both utilitarian calculators, and non-individualistic. The very system that helps us determine the value of our own choices draws on information from others. But can we use this “social tuning” of the reward system in the brain to conclude that following our own utility makes us more socialist than individualist? This would probably make Mill and Bentham turn in their graves.
The direct influence of others on one’s inner pleasure has certain benefits at the group level, as it makes us behave in more similar ways and helps with coordination. However, it does also advance individual interests, in roughly the ways that advice and recommendations did for Mill: it helps reduce uncertainty when our own evaluation process does not lead to an obvious choice.
Recent neuroscientific research does not really help here with the question of our self-interested inclination. Its real lesson is that, contrary to what both utilitarians and their opponents thought, the coordination of our interests with those of others does not always require complex higher-order representations, rules and adjustments. 0It already happens as we learn to value things and choose our own actions. Does this make us social utilitarians, prone to coordinate with others, or ultra-utilitarians, using others as a direct means to promote our own rewards? The labels do not follow, but the question is intriguing.
There is one worry here, which we have not yet discussed. Is there something in the new branch of utilitarian models supported by neuroscience which is specific to humans? Utilitarians could think that complex calculations of utilities were specific to humans, and non-available to non-human animals. Our capacity to reflect over our own pleasures, and to choose rationally among them brought us well above the other animals. It is still different for a human and a pig to be guided by pleasure, and better “to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, Mill famously observed. But does this conclusion hold once rational and explicit calculations of utilities are shown to draw on rapid neural computations of reward? What is going on in the human brain is similar to what is going in some non-human animals. Nothing distinctively human seems necessary to determine a utilitarian choice. More challenging, social coordination through the tuning of the reward systems in the brain happens not just in humans, but also in social animals like rodents and non-human primates.
Does neuroscience tell us specifically about humans here? This is the type of question which requires both philosophers and neuroscientists, and which feeds our own research. How our brains process reward might not be unique to humans, but the way we represent ourselves as persons is; so is the way we communicate about our own pleasures and values. Consciousness and reflection might not be necessary, but they remain hugely relevant, and even more fascinating when it comes to human decisions. Neuroscience shows that the reward we derive from a piece of music is partly determined by what others like. What does it mean for the way we reflect on our own pleasure? How personal are our own choices then?
The social aspects of utilitarianism have always been a source of concerns. As Bernard Williams famously objected, if pleasure is the core value for a utilitarian, and if we always need to adjust our core values to others, to make society work, then autonomy and integrity are threatened. Williams thought that this made utilitarianism “neglect the extent to which [someone’s] projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.”
What neuroscience seems to suggest is that adjustment of our plans by others is done for us, implicitly and automatically. We can’t really see in the brain a place where our core values would be solely “our own”. What does integrity mean, if the very processes which decide our own conduct are constantly influenced by others?
Being influenced by others has had a bad press in philosophy, at least in Western philosophy, partly because of an insistence on the integrity and autonomy of self-contained individuals. In the past, it could have seemed that neuroscience would help with this agenda. We each carry an individual brain in our individual skulls, after all. However, neuroscience increasingly suggests that our brains do not draw the lines between ourselves and others in the way we think.
Undeniably, Williams was right: we do picture some of our decisions as our own. We more closely identify with some preferences, values and choices, than others. But is this ever going to capture a real difference? If our evaluations are directly learned with and from others around us, do we necessarily make a mistake by calling them strictly “our own”? Williams thought that we should consider personal values as what each individual will “take seriously at the deepest level, as what his life is about”. Deep in the brain, at least, reward and social influence determine much of our choices, including those we represent as our most serious and personal decisions. Metaphors like the “deep self”, and ideas of an untouched core of personal values do not look promising.
This is where neuroscience, we think, offers a healthy support to philosophy: it enriches philosophical questions, but it does not bring pre-determined answers. It is above all helping philosophers, both in their questions and answers, to abandon some unhelpful metaphors, like the idea that utility is “calculated” as if solving a complicated arithmetic problem, or that we can soundly refer to “deep” interests that would be purely our own..