Posted by: dacalu | 7 March 2012

My Utility Function

After the rambling I’ve done, I think I need to come clean about my own utility function, or the best I’ve come to articulating it at the core level.  I don’t think it can be produced from the ground up, but I do find it consistent with what has gone before.

After rejecting a generic preference for happiness, obedience, and number of agents, I settled on the idea of optimizing the relationships between agents.  To put it in biblical terms, I would say that I seek to increase the love of every person for God, for neighbor, and for self.  Now, this concept of love, or even of optimizing relationships runs the risk of being vague in the same way that eudaimonia or happiness is vague.  I’ve attempted to correct for this by looking for very concrete products of the type of healthy relationships I value.

Now, Christians will probably be most convinced by arguments from scripture.  Indeed, I think that Christian notions of happiness, fulfillment, and obedience touch on my ideal of optimized relationships.  For that reason, I will begin with a couple passages from scripture.  Empiricists, on the other hand, may be entirely unimpressed.  I would encourage them, rather, to be empiricists and see whether or not my utility function produces the results they want in the lives around them.

The obvious place to start defining love, at least from the perspective of the New Testament, would be I Corinthians 13:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So, in testing for love (I Thessalonians 5:21), I would start with this.  Does the relationship produce patience, not only in the lover, but in those around her?  Does it produce kindness, rejoice in truth, make bearing suffering easier, make heartfelt commitment (πίστις, belief) easier?  I think that love manifests itself in these things.  And, as Paul goes on to say, “love endures.”  It is not a fleeting emotional response, or even a chemically induced feeling in the brain.  Love is a fruitful relationship.

There are other products of love one can look for.  We have the medieval princely virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Charity.  Or the seven gifts – Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel (or Discernment), Courage, Knowledge, Reverence, and Wonder.

Alternatively one might look for the traits currently associated with psychiatric health.  I’m not convinced that this is a perfect match, particularly in the realm of individuation – psychiatry tends to value individual health as separate from communal health.  Still, I think there is something important that can be seen here, in terms of self-actualization, freedom from fear, and ability to interact positively with others.

Buddhist concepts of compassion and Taoist concepts of living in harmony with one’s surroundings fit a similar model.

This is not to say that everyone agrees on the basic model of utility.  Far from it.  I think, however, that a large component of each person’s preferences comes from a common understanding of what healthy and happy means.  al-Ghazzali (Islam), Maimonides (Judaism), and Thomas Aquinas (Christianity) all valued God’s revelation in creation which they felt, properly understood, must match God’s revelation in scripture.  There is no reason to believe that our utility function cannot be arrived at in a way that does not require the doctrines of the church.  (Though I agree with the Anglican Theologian Richard Hooker, who thought that scripture and tradition was a far easier way to find them.)  If you need scripture, try Romans 1:20.

This then is my measure of love, does it show signs of virtue in individuals and communities.  That will be the basis of any preference I have in the moral sense.  That will be the gold standard and rubric against which I judge all else.  Mind you, I think that God is a person (or properly three persons in one), so I lump love of God and love of neighbor together.  I think the two uses of the word must be univocal, must mean the same thing, though they differ in context.


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