Hedonistic Utilitarianism When an Idea Becomes an Epidemic -Khaled Hossain Arman


Religion has been put on trial since the era of Enlightenment and now sent to the museum of history, being thought that it poisons everything, as titled a book by the atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens. In lieu of that, the Western civilization considers a number of ideals sprang out of the Enlightenment to be able to successfully replace the divine religions, including Islam and Christianity. While the heydays of religions cost humans their lives and properties, those ideals are claimed to bring peace and prosperity. But a careful examination of the ideals will reveal that many of them, in fact, turned out to be far less efficacious than some cosmic notions. Throughout the paper, I sought to examine to what extent one of the ideals failed to serve humankind, and instead became an epidemic, though the question remains whether it will show a minimum of endeavor to exterminate the epidemic.
The European Enlightenment era triggered the scientific revolution which helped us transform our lives in an unprecedented way; as in the language of Martin Rees, “Anyone from Boyle’s seventeenth century would be astonished by the modern world-far more than a Roman would have been by Boyle’s world (Rees, 2018).” It enabled us to save lives from famine, war, and pandemic. But simultaneously, the Enlightenment era instigated such a thought process, breeding a number of ideologies; adopting which people are succumbing to fates that are neither unavoidable nor inevitable. What will be the future of humanity with such a way of thinking? Will it be able to live a happy and healthy life or just survive pathetically?

2. A Nagging Statistics
According to the report of Guttmacher Institute published in July 2020, on an average, roughly 121 million unintended pregnancies occurred each year from 2015 to 2019 and of these, at least 61% ended in abortion, translating the amount 73 million per year. The officially reported case of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) in the US, as asserted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April 2021, skyrocketed to 2.5 million in 2019, reaching all-time high for 6th consecutive year and increasing nearly 30% between 2015 and 2019. The most abominable part of the STDs within this timeframe was that syphilis among the newborns quadrupled sharply. The sinless newborn babies suffer from the acts of its parents! Worth concerning is the fact that the rates of gonorrhea among the homosexual and bisexual men were 42 times that of the heterosexuals and they make up almost half of all primary and secondary syphilis cases!
The global cases for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI), according to the report made by the WHO in June 2019, amount to more than 1 million per day. 376 million new infections with at least 1 of 4 STIs (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis) are estimated to occur every year. More than 500 million people are believed to have genital infection with Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and nearly 300 million women with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Since the start of Coronavirus pandemic, the UNAIDS states, almost 80 million people have been infected with HIV and roughly 36.3 million died of it.
Around $400 billion is spent on illegal drug abuse per year which causes more than 750,000 deaths per year throughout the globe and is responsible for over 585,000 premature deaths by increasing particular diseases and injury. Illicit drug uses include smoking, alcohol consumption and substance use like amphetamine, cocaine and opioids; the three leading illegal drugs pervaded in the US. 9 million people die a year because of hunger, where almost 3 million people yield to obesity related diseases every year. Globally, at least 1 billion people are over-weighted (whose BMI exceeds 25kg/m2) and among them, at least 300 million of them are recognized clinically obese (whose BMI is over 30kg/m2). Weight loss programs have turned into a supermarket in the US which annually, as Schlosser says, accounts to over $60 billion and healthcare cost for obesity related diseases amounts to no less than $240 billion a year (Schlosser, 2001).

3. The Epidemic
The aforementioned depiction indicates to only one epidemic: hedonistic utilitarianism; and though rooted in the Enlightenment era spearheaded by the Western civilization, it is now spreading throughout the entire humankind. Hedonistic utilitarianism is, according to Thomas Mautner “a utilitarian theory which assumes that the rightness of an action depends entirely on the amount of pleasure it tends to produce and the amount of pain it tends to prevent” (Mautner, 1997). Under this definition, “a utilitarian society recognizes actions to be morally right insofar as they produce and promote physical satisfaction and actions to be morally wrong insofar as they cause affliction.” As a society, the west has taken this criterion into consideration to create its moral compass and help its people acquire as much happiness as possible throughout their lives.
But this notion of life isn’t without shortcomings. Jeremy Bentham, the father of hedonistic utilitarian idea, couldn’t realize the extent to which such liberty may cause the annihilation of human race. Plus, John Stuart Mill, who developed the idea alongside Bentham, didn’t edict for any action that will cause harm to the committers shortly after being satisfied. Again, these two Enlightenment intellectuals couldn’t come up with any verdict for actions due to which the balance of ‘social order’ will be ruined in the long run. They failed to fathom that the performances of the unleashed libertarians may, indeed, cause human extinction in not-too-far future.

3.1 A Biological Error
Noam Chomsky stated that humans could be a kind of “biological error”; “because they used their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves … because of the power the species has developed (Chomsky, 2003)”. This destruction is a collective act, but because of the Western notion of liberty, human is now actually exterminating itself individually at the first place and its own kind in the second.
The reasons for death toll pictured in the statistics are some of the ways through which humankind is perishing itself, as they embrace hedonistic utilitarianism, and they could doubtlessly be averted exploiting the pre-Enlightenment ideals. Our moral deviation, which triggered unrestricted sexual behaviors, is now causing numerous STDs and STIs, which were nonexistent in the years when religions would dominate our lives. As morality became subjective in the utilitarian west, actions that produce ephemeral ecstasy are now considered to be morally right, but we can’t grasp the “invisible harm” they cause in the long run and the “threat” they pose for our societal prowess. Our reluctance to adopt religious spirituality might well be the reason for which we resort to harmful drugs whenever we got depressed which were somewhat unnecessary in the era while religion was an inseparable part of human lives. Again, such an umpteen number of obesity-related diseases wouldn’t appear in the pre-modern society, when people were much satisfied with less sustenance.

3.2 Violence
The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker asserted that violence has really declined over the years because of the Enlightenment, yet he couldn’t dare, even for once, to praise us getting kinder, gentler and nicer day by day (Pinker, 2011). His assertion partly holds the reality of the 21st century. Violence like rape and child abuse, murder and assassination, conquest and genocide, homicide and pogrom, torture and mutilation has been rare to nonexistent in the west, Pinker concludes.
In the pre-modern society, almost all rape was performed as “legitimate spoils of war.” The warmongers would rape the women in the battlefield not because of their sexual appetite, but because of their tendency “to dishonor other men” (Ljungqvist, 2015). To mitigate their lechery, they could have mated with their wives or the harlots of brothel in the dark street of their city. Medieval Historians fail to trace the pervasiveness of rape either because rape was too common to be mentioned in medieval literatures or there were too few incidents of rape to be found.
However, Dr. Hans Jacob Orning, historian at the University of Oslo, asserts that, “Scandinavian sagas indicate that rape was not very widespread, even if sources are, of course, not comprehensive.” “If we look at Scandinavia, there is no evidence that rape was more common in the Middle Ages than in the two centuries that followed.” Ljungqvist agrees. Remarkably, the following two centuries belonged to the Enlightenment era. But in Sweden, one of the Scandinavian countries, recently experience an increase of rape for about 75% after it changed the law, changing the definition of rape as sexual activity without consent and requiring the prosecutors to prove the use or threat of violence or coercion: from 190 in 2017 to 333 in 2019. Even though the law was now on behalf of the victim, incidents of rape had roller-coastered. But it was supposed to go downstream.
In the medieval era, thinking of raping a woman or girl anywhere in Europe was almost impossible; because the church was in an authoritarian charge of punishing people. In Muslim empires too, it was inconceivable; since the Khilafah system of governance used to conduct hudud for the criminals, under which a rapist will be sentenced to death by the Khalifah himself or any of his territorial representatives. So, the heinous acts of raping and torturing declined because the amount of war seems to decline and war patterns have changed. It has hardly anything to do with our being non-violent and morally upright. It’s not that our inner demons inside us have grossly been overcome by the better angels we possess; rather it’s just that our inner demons can’t always afford to find a place where it can be unleashed and make us violent-like again. These acts are still in vogue in some of the prisons of the world where, though less in number compared to that of the medieval era, individuals, regardless of sexes, are convicted to unending torture and sexual violence.
Even as a part of warfare, raping was obviously a barbaric and ruthless act. But the medieval people were civilized enough not to rape any woman of their community or society which is far more common today and this is what makes us savage. According to the same statistics following shortly, 55% of sexual assaults in the US occur at or near the victim’s home and 12% at or near relative’s home. Again, rape, no matter what the reason is, is undoubtedly a violent act. But the medieval conquistadors would rape women in the battlefield not because of their debauchery which now became more intense and the main reason for rape being socially widespread.
The following statistics of the US makes it clear and we have to rethink whether we are being kinder, gentler and more non-violent, since we have ways to assuage our profligacy free of violence; but not, of course, without a price. When in the medieval era most rape would happen in the warring grounds which proved that the rapist was vengeful and wanted to humiliate his opponent, people in the 21st century rape in spite of having freedom of extra-marital consensual sexual activity and despite the government enforcing laws that are inconvenient to the rapists. In Sweden, perhaps, the increase is due to the vengeance to the government: like grieving, “How dare the authority change the law? Let’s now rape in mass to teach them a lesson.” It’s really time to rethink if we are really getting less violent and less vindictive.

3.3 Death through Self-help
As for murder, it seems that humans are now less willing to kill each other. Rather, he likes to commit suicide or do suicidal activities that will cause his own death. None but human himself, be it directly or indirectly, is solely and individually responsible for the death toll shown in the statistics in the first page.
Remarkably, along with these preponderance of death in own hands, the rate of suicide per year is around 8 million and it is expected to exceed this year, reaching almost 10 million. The reasons for suicide are economic insecurity, mental health and well-being, and overall life dissatisfaction. Living with the notion of hedonistic utilitarianism, people in the west were supposed to be the happiest people in the world. But they are now-a-days preferring assisted suicide, aka Euthanasia, as a means of ending their lives. In Switzerland, the rate of euthanasia has risen more than fourfold in little more than a decade, with 187 in 2003 and 965 in 2015. The Netherlands reported 6585 voluntary euthanasia in 2017 – roughly 4.4% of the total number of deaths in the country. In Belgium, the rate of euthanasia increased significantly between 2007 and 2013, from 1.9% to 4.6% of its total deaths, but in 2003, it corresponded only to 0.2% (Dierickx, 2016). This statistics shows that even though human claims to be gentler and kinder with others, he can’t help being violent with himself.
Steven Pinker argued that the trend of suicidal death is actually declining and he did it by depicting the history of suicide in three countries: the US, Switzerland and England (including Wales), where suicide was more common in the past than it is today. He also claimed that this “trend has been downward in Europe and there are currently no Western European welfare states in the world top ten for suicide rates (Pinker, 2018)”. True. But this downstream trend is affected by some important variables which shouldn’t remain unidentified.
Firstly, death rate in these countries, along with the birth rate, is itself declining. In 1900, the death rate in the US was slightly more than 1700 per 100,000; since then it has been declining and toppled to only 800 in 2011. But in 1900, 10 people per 100,000 committed suicides while, according to the graph demonstrated by Pinker, around 12 per 100,000 dead Americans killed themselves in 2018. Which rate is higher? The one representing the 21st century, of course! Secondly, while suicide in Switzerland fell down to less than 13 in 2017; assisted-suicide, as it is demonstrated earlier, has exponentially increased.
Of course, in some cases, people choose Euthanasia to eliminate the long-lasting pain of diseases like cancer. Most importantly, countries in the Western Europe have been experiencing an upsurge of Islam, a belief system which is evidently against the notion of hedonistic utilitarianism. In 10 years, starting from 2001 to 2010, the Muslim population of UK rose massively. In 2001, the Muslim population of UK was 1.6 million which almost doubled in 2010, amounting to 2.9 million. This trend of conversion to Islam is, more or less, true for the US, Switzerland and the rest of the Western European countries. Britain accounts 5200 conversion to Islam a year, Germany and France 4000.
As a religion which teaches its followers that they have to live in the world not for what they wish to do but for something else, Islam must have played a vital role in the decline of suicidal trends (had the case been truly so) across the Western European countries. Opposing the concept of hedonistic utilitarianism, it mandates that Muslims should never kill themselves, no matter how harsh tribulations they face throughout their lives. But, that, of course, doesn’t mean that Muslims around the world do not commit suicide at all; they also share a considerable number of suicides each year.

While failing to justify why “the world’s most suicidal countries are Guyana, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Lithuania” even though they are moderately rich countries, Pinker points out that, “(in the US) suicide rates rise sharply during adolescence” and that the rate stays “put for males before shooting up in their retirement years (Pinker, 2018)”. This is again quite worrying! Because the adolescences are the first recipient of individual freedom and the aged males are the most beneficiary of this Western idea. So, in a sense, the adolescences that get to enjoy such a degree of personal liberty for the first time and the aged males who get to enjoy this the most were supposed to be the happiest of all Americans and thus, they should not have even thought about killing themselves.
But why is the case different than what it ought to be? Is it the fact that the adolescences can’t tolerate the Western degree of freedom? Are the aged males exhausted getting happier day by day? However, Pinker, finally, admits the harsh truth, “American women have become unhappier just as they have been making unprecedented gains in income, education, accomplishment, and autonomy …. Anxiety and some depressive symptoms may have increased in the postwar decades, at least in some people. And none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become” (Pinker, 2018). But living with the ideal of Enlightenment, alongside the countries where suicide is prevalent and euthanasia is being rapidly widespread, the individually free adolescences, the retired liberal senior citizens, and the autonomous women were supposed to be happy!

4. Humanistic Morality
As for the decline of homicide and genocide, abortion has replaced the vacuum. According to humanistic morality, killing people is an immoral act, because it hurts people, it causes pain for the dying person. But murdering an unborn child that is alive and breathe, but can’t feel pain because its nociceptors are still not constructed, is not an immoral act; hence not a crime! Can we really trust the west with such a notion of morality? I guess not. In the US, rulings for abortion went through several changes over the past few decades. Throughout the world where abortion is legal, one can do it within 20 weeks of fertilization of the human embryo and it’s not considered as a crime. Because, according to our most updated knowledge of embryology, the embryo still lacks nociceptors. But when the nociceptors are formulated after the period, abortion is regarded as a crime in many countries. But in the US, even after 20 weeks of fertilization, under the Federal Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2005, the Americans have the option of choosing anesthesia or other pain-reducing drugs administered directly to the pain-capable unborn child.
The purpose of administering such drugs is clear: “to eliminate the capacity of the unborn child to experience pain during the abortion procedure.” It’s so gentle and so kind of the west that it considers the pain of an unborn child! But what if one day killing a man full of flesh and blood becomes legal in the west and then throughout the world with the pretext that the killer will first ensure that the man feels no pain because he will be anesthetized or be administered pain-reducing drugs and then be killed in the same way an unborn child is killed? Penetrating or crushing the skull, for example. Who can guarantee human security from such a reasonable pretext? Moreover, the effect of genocide of unborn child in the mother’s womb has been that birth rate in the US and around the other westernized countries is awfully going downwards. Again, STIs during pregnancy may cause in the birth of child with a wide range of harmful effects, including eye infection, pneumonia, brain damage, acute hepatitis, meningitis and chronic liver disease, which can lead to scarring of the liver.
It is thanks to the other countries of the world that the world population is not on the wane. World fertility rate lowered to 2.4 per woman, where in Europe it is even lower than that: 1.53 only. What if, in future, total human number is outpaced by the number of artificial intelligence, cyborg or trans-human? Human intelligence will undoubtedly superseded by that of artificial intelligence. But what if the other power, attributes, and capabilities of entire humanity which is already breeding diseased child are surpassed by that of what humans will create? We will doubtlessly become subservient to our handmade creatures.

5. Happiness
Gross National Happiness Index published by the UN Sustainable Development is explained under nine domains: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Among these variables, psychological wellbeing and health is rapidly moving downwards day by day and acceleration in drug abuse, and growing numbers of suicide and euthanasia are evidences of this downfall. Human body has been abode to numerous diseases related to obesity, sexuality and drug abuse like never before, making human vulnerable to life-long dissatisfaction.
Again, living standards has been on the wane in some regions and on sharp increase in the others, and the difference between standards of these two regions is far wider than ever because of discriminatory distribution of wealth which roots can be traced in the advent of colonial system. This, in turn, is causing extreme poverty and economic insecurity in African countries like Lesotho, Kiribati; both of which are ranked among the top 10 suicidal countries.
Moreover, some third world countries are now experiencing the so-called global problem of climate change. Global warming because of climate change is not really a global problem in the sense that it is solely caused by the industrialization of the west since the industrial revolution. But, now the entire world has to drag the environmental crisis due to which some countries face droughts, some experience rise in sea level and people are vehemently affected by and displaced because of these. In brief, this collapse in our nature becomes another important source of unhappiness for countless people around the world.

Furthermore, due to rapid globalization, local culture has been on the verge of extinction in a number of countries since the inception of colonial era. According to Wole Akande, “Starting in the sixteenth century, Western adventurers made a conscious effort to undermine the cultural heritage of various peoples around the world; this has been accomplished by imposing Western religion and cultural practices on those with a different way of life.” Under this process what we may dub as westernization, people suddenly “appear to be imbibing materialistic and individualistic values previously associated with Western culture.” (Akande, 2002), and again they hardly afford to be resilient to this cultural aggression.
In some countries, local mode of governance has widely been inflicted by the US interference where it is determined to establish secular democracy, liberal ethics and its so-called doctrine of human rights which contribute to large scale civil war in those countries. If we consider all these variables that went through negative variation from time to time and place to place, the conclusion drawn will probably be that we are actually going back to the era of historical entropy with the fact that agents of entropy found in historicity are just replaced by some unrecognized, but undeniable agents. Homicide and genocide now take place in the mother wombs; deaths and malnutrition due to famine are replaced by obesity-related illnesses and deaths, wartime death toll by suicidal death, and epidemic mortality by diseases related to and death because of extensive drug abuses. And, all of these deaths are inherently due to hedonistic utilitarianism, for which the Enlightenment era is to be blamed.

So, with this portrayal at our knowledge, can we really believe that people are getting happier day by day or are they becoming unhappy? Is human society moving towards a less violent and more peaceful destination or towards a worse circumstance? Does human have a better future with the hedonistic utilitarian notion of life or he will be heading to the age of extinction in future? Can he get along with this idea of liberty and ensure his existence or he will feel discomfort with what he is turning into? For say; a self-acclaimed “god” (Homo Deus, in the language of Yuval Noah Harari); yet a miserable “monster”!
It takes us to another question of whether the pre-modern people were unhappy or less happy; or the pre-modern society was peaceless or less peaceful. With less exposure to illicit drugs, restriction in sexual life, and fewer amounts of recipe and less developed food culture, was humankind living a pathetic life? Or, to ask the question more precisely, between the modern peoples and the pre-modern ones, who are happier? True, people in the middle age would recurrently experience events like Crusades, Inquisition, famine, and pandemics which caused millions of people suffer excruciating pain. But, if we take into account the physical health and mental sentiment of modern people, we can evidently make a stringent conclusion that the living condition of pre-modern people was hardly worse than that of modern ones, that the former was subjected to the harshness of nature while the latter make their own lives pathetic for nothing, that we are hardly better off than our medieval ancestors; even though scientific innovations and technological inventions could have made our lives much happier than we are today.
Of course, medical science in today’s era has so developed that we have cure for almost all sorts of diseases and deaths due to STDs and STIs has been on the wane; in the US, death rate of women aged between 15 and 44 has decreased from 5.3% in 1999 to 2.7% in 2010 (McElligott, 2014). Moreover, we found a potential vaccine for Coronavirus within the soonest time ever recorded in history. But how wise is it to, at first, be infected by some parasites with our own hands and then get some medics for it? Does it not make life costlier and unhealthier, because some of the diseases like the HPV last really long which causes people drag the parasite inside them for the rest of their lives? The consequence of this has been that global healthcare expenditure surged; according to the OECD report of July, 2021 based on 16 countries, expense in healthcare rose from 7.8% of total GDP in 2005 to 9.9% in 2020. In 2000, as the World Bank reports, the per capita healthcare expenditure was only $479.83 and it increased to $1111.082 in 2018. In Bangladesh, people used to spend $11 in 2004, but in 2018, their expense amounts to $42 which shares 2.3% of its GDP. Evidently, this pinnacling expenditure for healthcare can be traced in hedonistic utilitarianism.
Thanks to scientific inventions, technological innovations and societal alteration triggered by the era of Enlightenment, we are now living in a life of affluence and far fewer people die in famine and hunger. We have even managed to harvest hundred-fold crops and grain using the same amount of lands. Now, one may wonder how the cornucopia of wealth is related to the decline of a certain aspect of our humanity. Because of the gigantic amount of wealth we have procured, we are focusing more to make a gargantuan physical health than to maintain a better spiritual health. Very few people are actually paying heed to what they are putting in their bodies and what they are feeding their souls. As it is a proven fact of science that a certain degree of starvation is actually favorable for our health, we should have instead focused our attention to how we can have a viable spirit to withstand the painstaking mental condition of our lives. The amounts of dollar the Americans spend a year for weight-loss program and treatment of obesity-related diseases is more than enough to feed the hunger-stricken people around the world.

6. The Collapse of the West?
One may wonder about the “invisible harm and threat” due to hedonistic utilitarianism I mentioned earlier and may even delineate it as a delusion. But the reality is such that it can make the Western civilization collapse in near future. The social anthropologist Dr. Joseph Daniel Unwin traced a positive correlation between the cultural achievement of a people and the sexual restraint they observe. He claimed so after studying 80 primitive tribes and 6 known civilizations through 5000 years of history. He said, “Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation (Unwin, 1934)”. It is doubtless that people, both the western and westernized, utilize their individual freedom to have sexual pleasure the most due to which we can notice a tremendous uprising of homosexuality and other deviant sexual behavior in the West. This thesis may be criticized as illusory, but Aldous Huxley spoke of the book “as a work of the highest importance. (Huxley, 1946)” Elsewhere Dr. Unwin further said, “After a nation becomes prosperous, it becomes increasingly liberal with regard to sexual morality and as a result loses its cohesion, its impetus and its purpose. (Unwin, 1927)” An evident picture of the Western civilization! Though the loss of cohesion and impetus is “invisible” right now and will most probably remain so in future, “the effect” according to Dr. Unwin “is irrevocable.”

7. Conclusion
So, what’s the healing? Is there any cure at our disposal for the epidemic? Yes, there is. Do we already have a remedy for it? Yes, we do. No wonder, the cure is the same belief that many Europeans are now embracing and pre-supposedly due to which they afford to find a true meaning of their life and they avow to live not for them only, but for the meaning and for whoever attributes it on them. Enlightenment, which uprooted religion from human lives, wasn’t that good for humans, after all.
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About the author:
The author is a post-graduate of International Relations from the University of Chittagong. Working as a freelance researcher, he has recently been awarded a scholarship from Ibn Haldun University in Turkey and admitted to the Master’s program of Civilization Studies. His research interests include religion, history, human, civilization, politics and future.
The author can be reached at karman147@hotmail.com