From the Pabs Archives: The ‘Summat Different’ Principle

November 27, 2012

One of the all-time greats from the original Pabs…

The ‘Summat Different’ Principle

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The history of this philosophical principle dates back to the early 21st Century, originating from D. Woolley. There are no written records to date explaining its functions, so the following is an attempt to sketch out the principle as an important step in contemporary ethical debate.

The principle is one that aims at the promotion of pleasure for an individual or group, where the value of the activity is to be found in its relative uniqueness to the subject’s totality of experiences.

In this way, it can be seen as a descendant of Aristotle’s thoughts on virtue ethics, where a ‘good citizen’ espouses key virtues such as honesty, strength, courage etc. Achieving a balance of these virtues at every moment is the means to overall happiness, or eudaimonia. The right way to act is established through achieving the mean of 2 extremes. A good citizen, on being approached by a bottle-wielding drunk, will respond not by running away crying (weakness), nor by charging in with a knife (foolhardiness), but with a considered, perhaps diplomatic intervention that results in minimal violence and resolves an immediately dangerous situation (courage).

The ‘Summat Different’ principle is one such mean of virtues that requires an important calculation. Its practical application can be seen in terms of choices of agents. Where the application is applied correctly, it will contribute to ones experience of eudaimonia, as it is in itself one of the contributory virtues.

Consider the following example, where our agent must choose between an old experience, one indeed from which he had derived some pleasure, versus choosing a new experience, one where the pleasure gained is unknown. The assumption with the theory is that the choice that provides the most pleasure is the right choice:

In the example:

X is the agent
Y is the act of going to a known drinking establishment close to ones home (where pleasure had previously been experienced)
Z is the act of visiting a previously unvisited drinking establishment (where there had been no prior experience of pleasure)

Previously, the utilitarian would have made a direct and logical jump from X to Y.

The ‘Summat Different’ principle allows us to jump form X to Z without committing a falsehood, and despite apparent paradox, maximising the pleasure of the agent.

This is achieved with a number of key assumptions:

– That there is inherent value in the experience of something new
– That the agent is sound of mind
– That the agent has the ability to judge
– That the choice that provides the most pleasure is the right choice

There is, however, a potential problem. At some stage, Y will have been Z – the agent at some stage would have visited the drinking establishment close to home for the first time, where it would have been an unchartered pleasure-seeking activity.

But this indeed is the beauty and strength of the principle: Woolley is highlighting the flaws of the lazy utilitarian. To derive greater pleasure in this one must choose Z for there to be Y. The more Z, the more pleasure is to be experienced.

Of course the principle requires a careful calculation on the part of the agent. The assumptions are key. Only a foolhardy agent would assume that Woolley means that to choose Y in every instant will be the right choice. Note:

That the agent is sound of mind
That the agent has the ability to judge

These assumptions rule out a ‘tabula rasa’ of decisions. This allows us to rule out ill-considered evenings spent in a Wetherspoons pub, but rather assumes a level of sound judgement, where the agent has at his expense a collection of empirical data, through the use, for example, of modern internet facilities or a verbal recommendation from a trusted agent (also of sound mind and judgement.)

In this way the principle goes further than previous ethical theories and provides the pleasure-seeking citizen with a useful tool to navigate his or her way through what are sometimes challenging ethical territories. The ‘Summat Different’ principle highlights not only the inadequacy of supine utilitarian logic, but actively encourages ethical responses that are both necessary and virtuous


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