The pleasure-versus-pain calculation of modern morals – Mero Moment, 6/10/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Head of Epikouros (Roman, AD 100-120) - Epikouros (341-270 BC) was founder of the Epicurean philosophy that pleasure (emotional tranquility and absence of pain) was the greatest good.

Head of Epikouros – founder of the Epicurean philosophy that pleasure (emotional tranquility and absence of pain) was the greatest good.

Every year since 2001, the Gallup organization has surveyed Americans regarding the moral acceptability of 19 social issues. These social issues range from birth control to extramarital affairs, from divorce to suicide and from human cloning to medical testing on animals.

Of the 19, the most morally acceptable behavior is the use of birth control, even across party lines. Largely accepted, although with less consistency across party lines, are divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, stem cell research, gambling, the death penalty, buying and wearing animal fur, out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality and medical testing on animals.

Coming at this list from the other direction, extramarital affairs, cloning humans, polygamy and suicide are seen by Americans as highly unacceptable. Three issues were found to be largely unacceptable: sex between teenagers, pornography and the cloning of animals. Interestingly, the most contentious social issues of the day – the two issues that divide society right down the middle – are abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.

I mentioned in a previous commentary that one author calls this new moral acceptance “utilitarian hedonism” – a fancy term to describe the growing sentiment in society that pleasure is an intrinsic moral good and a moral pursuit. Now, this isn’t a new idea. Utilitarian ethics have been around as long as selfish people and were canonized as a science into polite society nearly two centuries ago. Some of the old believers even created a calculus of pleasure and pain intended to identify, measure and weigh nearly every human action to maximize pleasure and reduce pain.

This all gets rather silly. But there is a growing fascination with pleasure as a political credo. The Gallup poll attempts to measure the degree to which modern Americans accept behavior that gives pleasure and reject behavior that gives pain. Again, the most morally acceptable behavior in the Gallup survey is the use of birth control. While civil libertarians like to get misty-eyed about the right to control one’s own body, in this other context, birth control is more about pain relief. Unsupported unwed mothers are viewed as a stain on a progressive society, especially in an age of inexpensive and widely available birth control.

Polygamy also is viewed as harming woman and children but it doesn’t have a pill to make it go away. Its only prescription is legal prohibition on the conduct. Public opinion behind each of the 19 categories in the Gallup survey is highly predictive in terms of pleasure and pain.

Up until recently, most people haven’t viewed morality in relative terms, let alone as a calculus. Most Americans are people of faith who tend to see the world as a whole and not in pieces. Indeed, many people connect all of these issues. If you have a problem with extramarital affairs, you should have some problem with sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality. If you frown upon suicide and abortion, you would think that the death penalty wouldn’t be so popular either.

Pleasure-and-pain morality, I think, feels easy for people increasingly confused by progressive times. The harder morality always has come from the Bible. It argues that life should be infused with meaning, dignity and potential, and our job is to discern those deeper meanings. We conservatives often stress in our political philosophy what it means to be a human being – and once you’ve acquired that meaning it’s pretty tough to separate these social issues.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Receive the Mero Moment each week directly to your iTunes by clicking here.

– See more at: http://sutherlandinstitute.org/blog/hypnotized-by-the-minimum-wage-mero-moment-6314/#sthash.40VC1hUR.dpuf

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