Cosmic Utilitarianism

Disclaimer: this blog post has no relation to Serious Philosophy. It contains only the opinions of the author, and therefore is not meant to be taken as an authoritative commentary.

According to Wikipedia, which we all know is THE best source of credible information anywhere in the world, Utilitarianism is “the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.”

So we can see that in Serious Philosophy, the term Utilitarianism refers to morality, and, by extension, the consequences of that morality and the motives of performing any action. There are many rhetorical contortions that brainy scholars have gone into over the ages, and I have no desire (or, frankly, patience) to revisit those arguments. But I do want to borrow the term and change its orientation a little. Everything in life happens for a reason. Whether you believe in a divine persona or not, there is an underlying assumption that something beyond our control is at work in our daily lives, shaping our ends, rough-hew them how we will. People and things enter and exit our lives, and we are not always the conscious instigators of the revolving door that is variously attributed to god, to fate or to luck.

I’d like to propose that it is the forces of the universe (which I think of collectively as God, though of course everyone has different convictions and opinions on this) that conspire to work the revolving door, and the basis for entrance or exit of entities into or out of our life is the use that they have for us. While this may seem to be just another form of fatalism, it moves beyond passive acceptance of events in our lives to the reframing of those events in our minds as having taken place to serve some purpose for us. This reframing process moves us from passive receptors to active learners who seek to understand the basic utility of all events, working on the assumption that all these events have a utility for us that is shaped by cosmic forces.

A couple of examples might help. When I was in school I had a particular pen that I carried in my pencil case for every exam. I didn’t use it to write with, but made sure I always had it with me because I was convinced that it brought me luck. I have no idea how this particular perception came about. Possibly because someone I admired as academically successful had given it to me and I thought some of that intelligence would rub off on me! When I did well, I was convinced that it was because of the pen, though of course it was the confidence that possession of the pen gave me which pushed me to study hard, think clearly, and write relevantly. At some point I must have lost the pen. It didn’t happen very dramatically or anything. I just realised one day that I had written a few exams without it in my pencil case, and when I searched for it, I couldn’t find it. By then of course my confidence in my own ability had grown. I didn’t need the pen anymore. It had served its purpose in my life and moved on- maybe into a wastebasket by mistake, but that hardly matters. There are no coincidences in life and everything happens for a reason.

I have also had people who started out as part of my innermost circle of love and trust but then drifted away until they are today no more than passing acquaintances at best or total strangers at worst.  Of course it hurts when this happens. We become attached to the people in our lives and the partition is never easy. It makes us question them, ourselves, relationships, life, love. But this questioning process is an important one. After the anger, the denial, the grief and the acceptance comes understanding. If people come into our lives it is because we have important lessons to learn from them, and they from us. When they leave us, it is because we have each learned what we needed to. Or perhaps because it is only in the separation that the lesson can be learned. Either way the relationship is utilitarian, and the forces behind it are cosmic. For every relationship that has broken up new ones have formed. For example, each blood sister who left my life has been replaced with what I call a soul sister. We do not share parents, but we are kindred spirits, and the universe brought us together because we needed each other.

This all seems so simple as to almost qualify as a blinding flash of the obvious. That’s because it is, especially when we are talking in the abstract. But where I think articulation of the theory helps is when we need to face the events in our life with equanimity- not jumping up for joy when something/one comes into our lives, not collapsing into a sodden heap when something/one leaves our lives. I would be the first to admit that I am far from achieving this ideal state. But applying the theory of cosmic utilitarianism- in however delayed a manner after my first impulsive reactions- is at least contributing something to the learning process.

4 thoughts on “Cosmic Utilitarianism

  1. Good Morning! I too wholeheartedly believe in this learning process. The more disillusioned I get, the greater my learning,I feel. Isn’t that exactly the teachings of The Bhagvad Geeta, viewing the events of our life with equanmity. Teachings of The Bhagvad Gita as it was and is still being drilled into us everyday by my Dad.

  2. Yes I admit my whole outlook seems to be based on this philosophy. What I find comforting in the Gita is that there is an assumption that the learning takes time- even a whole lifetime, if not more. You don’t have to feel like a loser if you haven’t learned the lesson or reached the ideal. Only if you don’t try.

  3. Thanks Shobha – another insightful post! The thing I find comforting about the cosmic aspect of learning is that it produces (or can produce) gratefulness and appreciation rather than resentment and disappointment during times in which things seem to be going sideways and people seem to be heading for the door. Not suggesting you’ll feel warm fuzzies in the first few moments after discovering you’ve walked the length of the shopping mall with toilet paper stuck to your shoe (speaking figuratively…no, wait, that actually happened…) but seeing everything and everyone as part of a larger whole helps to keep the good/bad evaluation in perspective.

    1. In total agreement. Of course :). As you say, it’s hard to immediately see the bigger picture and feel the gratitude, but I like to think that it gets easier with practice, as the philosophy becomes the lens through which we view the world.

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