Negative utilitarianism

ethical theory; a form of negative consequentialism

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.

For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment's human suffering? —Albert Camus

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  • For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment's human suffering?
  • I believe that most of us tend to underrate the evilness of suffering. The reason is that it is difficult for us, when not actually suffering, to recollect what suffering really is. We employ numerous psychological mechanisms to conceal from our consciousness the true nature or meaning of suffering, to falsify and deny it. We do this without renouncing the word, however. The word comes to designate, in our minds, only a faint copy or superficial image of the real thing; but having forgotten what the original is, we mistake it in the copy. We ascribe to "suffering" a certain gravity of evil; but it is slight compared to what we would ascribe to suffering itself, if we could only recall its true meaning.
  • The falsification of suffering is everywhere—in movies, in poetry, in novels, on the nightly news. Accounts of disaster routinely veer from a discussion of the agony and plight of the victims (which quickly becomes tiresome) to the description of some moving act of kindness or bravery. Often it is these descriptions that affect us the most and that provoke the greatest outburst of emotion. These are the images we often take away and that become our image of "suffering." Suffering comes to be closely associated with stirring images of hope in adversity, acts of moral heroism and touching kindness, gestures of human dignity, sentiments of noble sympathy and tremulous concern, the comfort and consolation of tears. It turns into something beautiful. It becomes poetry. People begin to refer to "sublime suffering." Suffering, in other words, becomes just exactly what it is not.
  • ... suffering cries out for its own abolition ... .
  • 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.
  • The study of Ethics would, no doubt, be far more simple, and its results far more "systematic," if, for instance, pain were an evil of exactly the same magnitude as pleasure is a good; but we have no reason whatever to assume that the Universe is such that ethical truths must display this kind of symmetry ... .
  • 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.
  • No amount of happiness enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz. [...] Nor can the fun and games outweigh the sporadic frightfulness of pain and despair that occurs every second of every day. For there's nothing inherently wrong with non-sentience or [...] non-existence; whereas there is something frightfully and self-intimatingly wrong with suffering.
  • 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.
  • Let us compare the callousness / compassion of classical utilitarianism and NU. / [I]magine if a magic genie offers me super-exponential growth in my bliss at the price of exponential growth in your agony and despair. If I'm a classical utilitarian, then I am ethically bound to accept the genie's offer. Each year, your torment gets unspeakably worse as my bliss becomes ever more wonderful. Indeed, the thought I'm ethically doing the right thing increases my bliss even further! By generating so much net bliss, I'm the most saintly person who ever existed! If you knew how incredibly superhumanly wonderful I'm feeling, then you'd realise that my super-bliss easily offsets your tortured despair. Your tortured despair is a trivial pinprick in comparison to my super-exponentially growing bliss! / Of course, as a real-life negative utilitarian, I'd politely decline the genie's offer. / But if you win me over to classical utilitarianism, I'll accept. / Which is the callous choice?
  • 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.
  • That thousands had lived in happiness and joy would never do away with the anguish and death-agony of one individual; and just as little does my present well-being undo my previous sufferings. Therefore, were the evil in the world even a hundred times less than it is, its mere existence would still be sufficient to establish a truth that may be expressed in various ways, although always only somewhat indirectly, namely that we have not to be pleased but rather sorry about the existence of the world; that its non-existence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something which at bottom ought not to be, and so on.
  • I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole of creation. I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.
  • The fact that in nature one creature may cause pain to another, and even deal with it instinctively in the most cruel way, is a harsh mystery that weighs upon us as long as we live. One who has reached the point where he does not suffer ever again because of this has ceased to be a man.
  • [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.
  • Being forced to endure torture rather than dreamless sleep, or an otherwise neutral state, would be a tragedy of a fundamentally different kind than being forced to “endure” a neutral state instead of a state of maximal bliss.
    • Magnus Vinding, Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications (2020)
  • Closely connected with this is the interesting question whether in general pleasure can be a countervailing equivalent for pain, and what coefficient or exponent must be assigned to a degree of pleasure to counterbalance for consciousness an equal degree of pain. Schopenhauer, citing the verse of Petrarch, “Mille piacer’ non vagliono un tormento (a thousand pleasures are not worth one pain),” makes the eccentric assertion that altogether a pain can never be balanced by any degree of pleasure; that therefore a world in which pain can occur at all is, under all circumstances, with ever so much preponderating happiness, worse than none. This view could hardly be supported; whether, however, there do not lie in it a core of truth so far as the co-efficient necessary for equivalence does not at all need to be = 1, as is usually assumed, that were well worthy of consideration.
    • Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscious, translated by William Chatterton Coupland.
  • But even in our large towns we read ever and anon of cases of literal dying of hunger. Can the gluttony of a thousand gourmands outweigh the torments of one starving human being?
    • Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscious, translated by William Chatterton Coupland.

See also

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