Negative utilitarianism

form of utilitarianism which states that reducing suffering has priority over increasing happiness

Negative utilitarianism is a form of negative consequentialism that can be described as the view that we should minimize the total amount of aggregate suffering, or that we should minimize suffering and then, secondarily, maximize the total amount of happiness.

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  • Whatever the future holds, negative utilitarian ethics will presumably still fail to resonate with the overwhelming majority of the population - especially after our emotional well-being increases as the adoption of enhancement technologies gathers pace. So perhaps the most effective way for a negative utilitarian to promote his/her ethical values is not to proselytize under that label at all. Instead, the negative utilitarian may find it instrumentally rational to give weight overtly to the "positive" values of ordinary classical utilitarians, preference utilitarians/preference consequentialists, and the far wider community of (mostly) benevolent non-utilitarians who share an aversion to "unnecessary" suffering. The indirect approach to NU is likely to yield the greatest payoff. Only by our striving to promote "positive" goals as well, and campaigning for greater individual well-being, is the ethic of NU ever likely to be realized in practice.


  • The principle of negative utilitarianism is an inevitable consequence of empathy, of an awareness of the real significance of others’ subjective mental states. As a general principle, and avoiding absolutist interpretations of it that consider any amount of suffering bad, I believe that it is the essential, fundamental and ultimately most meaningful ethical stance from which to approach the issues we are faced with as a global society.
    • Jonathan Leighton, The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe (2011), ch. 9
  • Negative utilitarianism implies that we “should” be prepared to take measures to relieve suffering, at least of the extreme kind, even if there is some cost. This principle is likely to be less popular among some who have been fortunate and talented enough to end up on the positive side of the happiness scale, as well as with extreme libertarians, as it seems to imply a need for the sacrifice of wealth and personal happiness. Fortunately, happiness and wellbeing need not be a zero-sum game, and this fact can be exploited by those seeking to relieve suffering, for example, by granting intangible yet real benefits such as recognition and respect to those who engage in altruism.
    • Jonathan Leighton, The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe (2011), ch. 9


  • A strong duty to relieve suffering that does not discriminate between species would require radical changes in the ways that we relate to other animals. It would, for example, require an end to the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are annually subjected to extreme suffering in order to supply humans with meat and other products at the lowest possible cost. It would also raise difficult questions about the practice of experimenting on animals to obtain medical benefits for humans. These cases, much discussed in the literature on animal ethics, involve suffering that is inflicted by human beings. But a species-blind duty to relieve suffering would also make it a prima facie requirement to save animals from suffering brought upon them by natural conditions and other animals.


  • Ethical negative-utilitarianism is a value-system which challenges the moral symmetry of pleasure and pain. It doesn't question the value of enhancing the happiness of the already happy. Yet it attaches value in a distinctively moral sense of the term only to actions which tend to minimise or eliminate suffering. This is what matters above all else.
  • Negative-utilitarianism is only one particular denomination of a broad church to which the reader may well in any case not subscribe. Fortunately, the program can be defended on grounds that utilitarians of all stripes can agree on. So a defence will be mounted against critics of the theory and application of a utilitarian ethic in general. For in practice the most potent and effective means of curing unpleasantness is to ensure that a defining aspect of future states of mind is their permeation with the molecular chemistry of ecstasy: both genetically precoded and pharmacologically fine-tuned. Orthodox utilitarians will doubtless find the cornucopian abundance of bliss this strategy delivers is itself an extra source of moral value. Future generations of native ecstatics are unlikely to disagree.
  • The negative utilitarian might reply that this formulation of the problem is misleading. We do not live in a notional world where only a pinprick, minor pains, or even just "mild" suffering exists. In the real world, frightful horrors as well as humdrum malaise occur every day. The intensity of suffering is sometimes so dreadful that its victims are prepared to destroy themselves to bring their torment to an end. Each year, some 800,000 people across the planet kill themselves while in the grip of suicidal despair. Tens of millions of people are severely depressed or suffer chronic neuropathic pain. By way of contrast, the genteel conventions of an ethics seminar in academic philosophy, or the scholarly technicalities of a journal article, simply fail to come to terms with the enormity of what's at stake. To talk of a "pinprick" is to trivialise the NU ethical stance.
  • [P]lanning and implementing the extinction of all sentient life couldn't be undertaken painlessly. Even contemplating such an enterprise would provoke distress. Thus a negative utilitarian is not compelled to argue for the apocalyptic solution.
  • I think there’s an asymmetry. There’s this fable of Ursula Le Guin, short story, Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. We’re invited to imagine this city of delights, vast city of incredible wonderful pleasures but the existence of Omelas, this city of delights depends on the torment and abuse of a single child. The question is would you walk away from Omelas and what does walking away from Omelas entail. Now, personally I am someone who would walk away from Omelas. The world does not have an off switch, an off button and I think if one is whether a Buddhist of a negative utilitarian, or someone who believes in suffering-focused ethics, rather than to consider these theoretical apocalyptic scenarios it is more fruitful to work with secular and religious life lovers to phase out the biology of suffering in favor of gradients of intelligent wellbeing because one of the advantages of hedonic recalibration, i.e. ratcheting up hedonic set points is that it doesn’t ask people to give up their existing values and preferences with complications.
  • I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Both the greatest happiness principle of the Utilitarians and Kant's principle, "Promote other people's happiness...", seem to me (at least in their formulations) fundamentally wrong in this point, which is, however, not one for rational argument. [...] In my opinion [...] human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.
  • We should realize that from the moral point of view suffering and happiness must not be treated as symmetrical; that is to say, the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer, and the attempt to prevent suffering.


  • [W]e might think of the creation of an unsatisfied preference as putting a debit in a kind of moral ledger of debits and credits. The satisfaction of the preference merely cancels out the debit. This ‘debit model’ of the ethical significance of preferences has the advantage of explaining the puzzling asymmetry in our obligations regarding bringing children into existence [...] We consider it wrong to bring into existence a child who, because of a genetic defect, will lead a thoroughly miserable existence for a year or two and then die; yet we do not consider it good or obligatory to bring into existence a child who, in all probability, will lead a happy life.


  • From my perspective it seems obvious that reducing suffering is the highest priority. I think many people agree that this goal is really important, especially in the abstract, even if they don't have the physical or emotional resources directly to invest in it much themselves. I also think that people in comfortable conditions who do have the resources to work toward reducing suffering can become caught up in entertaining distractions, and because they don't feel the extent of suffering in the world on a daily basis, they assume it has lower priority than they would if they had more direct access to it.
  • [W]hen I see or imagine extreme suffering – such as being eaten alive or fried to death in a brazen bull – it seems overwhelmingly apparent that preventing such experiences is the most important thing in the world, and nothing else can compare.
    This intuition seems clear enough to most of us when we imagine the suffering happening nearby. If someone was being tortured in a way that could be prevented in the room next door, few of us would hesitate to stop whatever we were doing and go help. But when distance and uncertainty stand in the way, this intuition fades, and people become preoccupied with goals like ensuring interesting, complex, and awesome futures. Of course, I get plenty distracted as well – doing so is only human, and it’s necessary for our emotional wellbeing. But I know in my heart that these other pursuits are only instrumentally valuable, and nothing besides reducing extreme suffering really matters when people and animals are being tortured as we speak.
  • [T]he world is a very dark place. While many moments of people's lives are filled with laughter and accomplishment, some moments are filled with depression, anxiety, or extreme and unrelenting agony. And the lives of most non-human animals are far worse. It's easy to become upset and hopeless: Why don't other people care about extreme suffering? How can they not see how important it is compared with other, more trivial things in life?
  • The arbitrariness of interpersonal and inter-person-moment comparisons of utility is perhaps my favorite way to think about negative utilitarianism. It's not a moral tragedy if someone experiences a pinprick but still, during that moment, is overall happy to be alive. The moral force of negative utilitarianism comes from instances of extreme suffering that, to the person afflicted, feel so bad that the person wishes the world had never existed. These are the kinds of intense preferences where it feels genuinely morally unclear how to weigh these preferences against the pro-existence preferences of other people or other person-moments.


  • In sum, the claim that negative utilitarianism would imply that death is generally normative ignores almost everything about the reality of our condition, including the broader context in which we find ourselves. Zooming all the way out, we find ourselves in a young universe, less than 15 billion years old, in which sentient life may be able to emerge for 100-1000 billion years into the future, which means that the main implication of the negative utilitarian ethic is not that our highest goal should be to end our own existence as quickly as possible, as some have suggested. No, ideally, what we should do according to negative utilitarianism is to become intelligent stewards of the world who prevent suffering from blighting our future. And even if this cosmic goal lies beyond practical possibility, it remains true that the only realistic option we have when it comes to reducing suffering is to impact human civilization in a positive direction – bettering the ideas, values and practices of humanity. Killing people and other sentient beings is surely the last thing we should do in order to succeed in this endeavor, and the very first thing to do if we want to fail.
  • [C]onsider the practical implications of the following two moral principles: 1) we will not allow the creation of a single instance of the worst forms of suffering […] for any amount of happiness, and 2) we will allow one day of such suffering for ten years of the most sublime happiness. What kind of future would we accept with these respective principles? Imagine a future in which we colonize space and maximize the number of sentient beings that the accessible universe can sustain over the entire course of the future, which is probably more than 10^30. Given this number of beings, and assuming these beings each live a hundred years, principle 2) above would appear to permit a space colonization that all in all creates more than 10^28 years of [extreme suffering], provided that the other states of experience are sublimely happy. This is how extreme the difference can be between principles like 1) and 2); between whether we consider suffering irredeemable or not. And notice that even if we altered the exchange rate by orders of magnitude — say, by requiring 10^15 times more sublime happiness per unit of extreme suffering than we did in principle 2) above — we would still allow an enormous amount of extreme suffering to be created; in the concrete case of requiring 10^15 times more happiness, we would allow more than 10,000 billion years of [the worst forms of suffering].

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