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Negative Preference Utilitarianism


B.Contestabile   First version 2014   Last version 2024





Table of Contents




1.  Introduction

2.  Basics

3.  Definition

4.  NPU with Metaphysics

5.  Critique of Metaphysical Beliefs

6.  NPU without Metaphysics

7.  Conclusion









Starting point

Negative preference utilitarianism (NPU) is based on antifrustrationism, an axiology which postulates that perfect preference satisfaction has the same moral value as the non-existence of preferences.



Type of problem

- Is there a relation between NPU and Buddhism?

- Can NPU work without metaphysical assumptions?




- NPU associates non-existence with perfection, as well as certain forms of Buddhism.

- Without metaphysical assumptions NPU is counter-intuitive for most people.






1.  Introduction



Starting point

Negative preference utilitarianism (NPU) is based on antifrustrationism, an axiology which holds that perfect preference satisfaction has the same moral value as the non-existence of preferences.



Type of problem

- Is there a relation between NPU and Buddhism?

- Can NPU work without metaphysical assumptions?




2. Basics




There are two definitions of the term preference:

1)    In preference utilitarianism (and most philosophical papers) the term means desire. Associated terms are interest, attachment, motivation, goal, reason to act etc. Desires are tied to emotions and control behavior.

2)    In welfare economics (microeconomics in particular) and social choice the term defines a preference of ordering. The context is a choice between any variables that affect social welfare, mostly a choice between products or services.

Example: A consumer has a preference (desire) for apples. The same consumer also has a preference (desire) for oranges. If we say that the consumer prefers apples to oranges, then we rank preferences. The ranking is a preference in the economist sense.

Today’s economists instinctively think comparative; philosophers seem not to [Broome 1999, 9].

Mostly the context discloses which interpretation makes sense.



Preference utilitarianism

Preference utilitarianism is usually seen as an alternative to hedonistic utilitarianism. The main difference is the following:

-      Hedonistic utilitarianism assumes that the happiness and suffering of all individuals is cardinally measurable and can be aggregated.

-      Preference utilitarianism rejects this assumption.

In his dissertation Social Choice and Individual Values Kenneth Arrow proved that there is no democratic decision process which aggregates individual preferences into an unambiguous result [Kleinewefers, 48-52].The difficulties in the aggregation are caused by the assumption that individual preferences are not comparable and therefore not cardinally measurable. There is, however, a way to circumvent Arrows’ finding:

1.     Preferences have to be ordered; otherwise, the theory is meaningless [Broome 1999, 9-10]. In this paper we consider life satisfaction to be the highest order preference.

2.     There is a connection between hedonistic utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism, because preference-satisfaction is a kind of happiness and preference-frustration is a kind of suffering. If we consider only degrees of life satisfaction – as practiced in surveys [World Happiness Report 2013, 10] – then we have a basis for utilitarian aggregation.




NPU is based on antifrustrationism. Antifrustrationism can be characterized by the following statements:

-      What matters about preferences is not that they have a satisfied existence, but that they don’t have a frustrated existence [Fehige, 518]. The only moral value is the absence of frustration.

-      Since non-existence implies no frustrations, it is considered to be the best possible state of affairs, a perfect state. Non-existence is given the same moral value as perfect preference-satisfaction.

Christoph Fehige, the inventor of antifrustrationism, explicitly refers to Buddhism [Fehige, 518, 522].




3. Definition



Comparison with classical utilitarianism

-      In classical utilitarianism non-existence is seen as a neutral state because it is neither happiness nor suffering. A neutral state is given the value zero on the hedonic scale [Broome 2004, 257]. In NPU, both, the non-existence of preferences and perfect preference-satisfaction are given the value zero.

-      Since NPU assigns the value zero to perfect preference-satisfaction, no life can have positive value [Stanford, chapter 2.4]. In classical utilitarianism there are lives with positive value (see Table 1).

-      NPU minimizes the aggregated difference to perfect life satisfaction in a population [Fricke, 20]. Classical utilitarianism, in contrast, minimizes the (negative) difference to a neutral life.


Table 1 Hedonic scale

-      Col. 2: Ron Anderson created a suffering measure by reversing the scale used in Gallup’s life satisfaction index [Anderson].

-      Col. 4: The NPU scale corresponds to Anderson’s scale but uses negative numbers.










adapted from [Gallup]








































The fact that the NPU scale contains only negative numbers doesn’t mean that there is no compensation between happiness and suffering. Take the example of a mini population, consisting of two persons:

-   Classical utilitarianism: Jim’s well-being level is +4; Pam’s is -3; overall well-being is +1.

-   NPU: The same logic is applied, but the result is transformed into the NPU-scale: overall well-being is -4.

Furthermore, there are intra-personal compensations which make contributions to the highest order preference (life satisfaction).



Comparison with Buddhism

NPU strives to minimize preference-frustration (suffering), instead of maximizing preference-satisfaction (happiness). It makes accordingly sense to sacrifice happiness (chances) in order to avoid suffering (risk). Happiness can be sacrificed by eliminating preferences, and not creating new ones. If we replace the term preference by the term desire this strategy corresponds to the instructions given by the Noble Truths of Buddhism [Contestabile 2010, 105-106]:

-      First Noble Truth: “Life is inseparably tied to suffering.”

-      Second Noble Truth: “The cause of suffering are attachments (desires) in a world where everything changes, nothing is permanent.”

-      Third Noble Truth: “Suffering can be terminated by ending human desire.”

Ending human desire, however, is in conflict with the biological goal to survive and expand (see God’s Utility Function). Because of the biological forces the elimination of desires produces suffering as well. Buddha reached the Nirwana in a state of relaxation, after a long journey through material and spiritual landscapes, and not as a result of painful ascetic exercises. He practiced the latter for several years, but eventually rejected them in favor of a middle way of moderation between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification (Middle Way, Wikipedia).




(1)  A theory about welfare that denies the possibility of lives worth living is quite counter-intuitive [Ryberg, 140-141].

Even an almost perfect life is given a negative value [Stanford, chapter 2.4].


(2)  NPU implies that a perfect life of 1 year has the same value as a perfect life of 100 years [Stanford, chapter 2.4]

In other words: 99 years of non-existence have the same value as 99 perfect years.


How can (imperfect) human happiness be devaluated relative to non-existence?

We start with a concept which associates non-existence with a (higher) metaphysical value, the so-called Brahman.




4. NPU with Metaphysics



Hedonistic Brahman

In Hinduism meditation is done to realize union of one's self, one's ātman, with the omnipresent and non-dual Brahman (Hinduism, Wikipedia). Insofar as the Brahman is described as bliss [Raju, 54, 228] it is justified to depict it on the hedonic scale. The idea of a perfect, impersonal and spiritual form of existence was adopted by some forms of Buddhism. The Nirwana experience is seen as a chance to get into touch with the Brahman in analogy to Hindu meditation.

The highest level of meditation is leading to a state, which the Buddha said is actually a subtle form of happiness (more sublime than pīti and sukha) also called a form of non-sensual happiness (Dhyana in Buddhism, Wikipedia)


In Buddhism human happiness is devaluated relative to non-existence (of the ego) as follows:

The Nirvana resembles non-existence insofar as the ego is dead. One can imagine the death of the ego as the beginning of an impersonal spiritual form of existence within a transcendent reality. If finally, the decomposition of the material ego into this spiritual form of existence is seen as a goal, then it becomes clear that the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion is not counter-intuitive for a Buddhist. Buddhism strives for a painless accordance with the inevitable. Non-existence of the ego is the only paramount preference which can absolutely and permanently be satisfied. Our intuition of perfect preference-satisfaction is characterized by the imagination of a land of milk and honey. According to Buddhism, this intuition is completely misleading. In the real world perfect preference-satisfaction can only be approached by eliminating preferences. The closeness of perfect preference-satisfaction (in the Buddhist sense) and non-existence is the key to escape the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion [Contestabile 2010, 108].

Human happiness is devaluated relative to the (divine) eternal bliss. It can only match the Brahman temporarily (Fig.1):



Human happiness is transient, whereas the Brahman lasts forever



The concept of a Brahman is compatible with the antifrustrationist axiom. The non-existence of life is given the same moral value as perfect preference-satisfaction (viewed over the same period of time).

-       If non-existence is given the maximum value (divine bliss), then imperfect human happiness can be expressed in lower positive numbers.

-       If non-existence is given the value zero, however (as in NPU), then imperfect human happiness must be expressed in negative numbers (Table 1, col.4)



Non-hedonistic Brahman

A non-hedonistic Brahman is described as “perfection beyond emotions”, “indescribable Absolute” [Fowler, 7] or “cosmic consciousness” (and not as “eternal bliss”). It can be given the hedonistic value zero, in order to express that it is neither happiness, nor suffering. Since the value of cosmic consciousness overrules imperfect human happiness, the latter must be expressed in negative numbers (Table 1, col.4).


The idea of a cosmic consciousness is as old as philosophy but has become topical again [Chalmers]. Contemporary physics says that there is no absolute nothingness; the void is a theoretical construct.

-      The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived interest in panpsychism. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does. The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

-      The most popular empirically based argument for panpsychism stems from evolution. This argument begins with the assumption that evolution is a process that creates complex systems out of pre-existing properties but yet cannot make "entirely novel" properties.

(Panpsychism, Wikipedia)

Today, the idea of cosmic consciousness is mainly supported by philosophers who doubt that consciousness can be fully explained by physics. However, the question of the cosmic consciousness’ existence must be distinguished from the question of its evaluation. To equate the moral value of cosmic consciousness with the one of perfect human happiness is a strong normative claim. Not all forms of Buddhism consider non-existence to be a perfect state. Some emphasize that it is simply beyond the categories of human thought.




5. Critique of Metaphysical Beliefs



The belief in an eternal soul

Buddha avoided metaphysical speculations in general and rejected the existence of an eternal soul (atman) in particular [Fowler 1999, 81] [Webster 2005, 96]. Following an example from the Alagaddupama Sutta [Thanissaro 2004]:

'This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, and eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity' — Isn't it utterly and completely a fool's teaching?" (…)

"Thus, monks, any form or consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

Obviously, Buddha was aiming at a painless dissolution of the self, and not at the preservation and perfection of the self.



The doctrine of rebirth

The painless dissolution of the self is a difficult task. According to Buddha the cycle of rebirth is determined by the law of Karma, which says that all our actions, done deliberately through body, speech or mind, have consequences beyond our actual life. Unless an individual is redeemed, some characteristics of the self survive after death, are reborn and recreate suffering again and again. If we associate “some characteristics” with genetic and epigenetic inheritance, then the doctrine is not so far from contemporary biology [Contestabile 2018, 238-240]. Buddha did not participate in metaphysical speculations about the different planes of existence, as shown in the picture below:



Ein Bild, das Zeichnung, Bild, Kunst, Kreis enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung



The four great islands, from a Burmese Buddhist cosmology manuscript

British Library, Or.14004, f.27



Today the findings of genetics and epigenetics have demystified the karmic law. The ancient instructions to avoid rebirth have the character of a religious belief.



The belief in heaven

It is unknown how many Buddhists believe that the Nirwana exists as a celestial realm outside of the human mind.

Nirvāṇa is a term found in the texts of all major Indian religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. It refers to the profound peace of mind that is acquired with moksha and the liberation from samsara (…). The idea of moksha is connected to the Vedic culture, where it conveyed a notion of “immortality” or “timelessness”, and a notion of being "unborn", or "at the still point of the turning world of time" (…). The hope for life after death started with notions of going to the worlds of the Fathers or Ancestors and/or the world of the Gods or Heaven (Nirwana, Wikipedia).


According to the Nirodha interpretation of the Pali Canon Buddha was convinced that pari-nirvāṇa [Breyer, 535] is the key to the cessation of rebirth, and therefore the key to the cessation of suffering. Did Buddha associate the cessation of rebirth with the beginning of a new (impersonal) form of existence within a cosmic consciousness? We don’t know because he did not elaborate on metaphysical issues [Thanissaro 2013, chapt.5]. Possibly he was influenced by Samkhya, a dualistic school of Indian philosophy [Baus] which was taught to the young Buddha by Āḷāra Kālāma [Ruzsa, Chapter 1]. According to this doctrine there is an eternal, indestructible form of consciousness, which is different and independent from any conception of the self. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth can be attained by leaving the ego and immersing in this consciousness. The Buddhist “deathless” and the Hindu “immortality” are a translation of the same word in Pali/Sanskrit: amata [Batchelor, 89]. However, if there is indeed a cosmic consciousness, it may be very different from the state of the mind experienced in meditation. To associate it with human ideas of perfection has the character of a religious belief.



Beliefs and truth

The beliefs discussed in this chapter cannot be proven wrong, but natural scientists would call them implausible hypotheses. They are implausible because they make more assumptions than necessary to explain the natural phenomena; they violate the principle of parsimony.

We could also take a psychological approach and investigate the interests behind beliefs. All the above beliefs alleviate the fear of death and are therefore suspected to serve this interest.

The need, respectively wish to believe in something is not just an inadequate reason to believe it, but it is always and in itself – if there is no independent evidence – a counterargument to believe it [Tugendhat, 191].




6. NPU without Metaphysics



The absence of suffering

Could the perfection of non-existence be justified by the absence of suffering, respectively frustrations?

1.     The absence of even minor suffering is a nice property of non-existence, but it must be “paid for” by the complete absence of happiness. The Reverse Repugnant Conclusion says that it is counter-intuitive to assign a higher moral value to non-existence than to an almost perfect human life [Stanford, chapter 2.4]. It is questionable whether Buddhism would ever have emerged in a basically happy world with only minor suffering.

2.     The absence of severe suffering, however, could be sufficient to claim a moral superiority of non-existence. The confrontation with severe suffering (not minor frustration) marks the beginning of Buddhist reasoning (see Four sights). In classical utilitarianism and in the moderate NU a life with negative welfare is not worth living (by definition). If welfare turns negative, then non-existence becomes the lesser evil. But non-existence is never considered to be a perfect state as in NPU.

The elimination of desires (preferences) is not a peculiarity of NPU, it is a universal strategy to avoid suffering (risks), independent from the evaluation of non-existence and independent from the ancient doctrines of rebirth. The knowledge how to reach the meditative state called Nirwana has an immense therapeutic potential, independent of the controversial metaphysical dimension.



The reversal of evolution

The fact that the intensity of pain increases in the course of evolution (see The Biological Evolution of Pain) raises the question if the overall hedonistic state gets better, the more we go back in evolution. Can we describe the reversal of evolution (and the corresponding elimination of preferences) as a process which converges towards non-existence (of egos) and towards hedonistic perfection? Here are some thoughts on this question:

1.     Let us assume the balance of pain and pleasure is negative in animal species as it is with humans (see Is There a Predominance of Suffering?). Under these premises it is likely that – by going back in evolution – the overall hedonistic state converges towards zero instead of perfection.

2.     It has been suggested that “minimal phenomenal experience” (as experienced in meditation), allows a glimpse into the experience of simple animals or represents a kind of "memory" of an earlier stage of evolution. But even if meditation does indeed open a door to earlier mental states, the impressions could be misleading. Meditation is a state of calm, and mirrors only one aspect of this (possibly) better world. Even the hypothetical cosmic consciousness could be dynamic.

3.     No matter if (in the reversal of evolution) the balance of positive and negative experiences improves indeed, we must consider that during such a process the intensity of the experiences converges towards zero. If the end state (the inanimate world) is reached, we can only assign positive value by entering the realm of metaphysics.



The inevitability of death

A different idea is to look at life from the end (the ancient Memento Mori):

1.     One could postulate that life has no value, for the simple reason that it is destined to decay:





Is there any meaning in my life

that would not be destroyed

by the inevitable death that awaits me?


[Tolstoi, 44]





If everyone shares this view, then there are no lives with positive value (as in NPU). But the normative claim that the individual life is worthless because of its mortality is counter-intuitive for most people. Some even assign value to life because it does not last forever. Others identify themselves with a family, a community, a religion etc., i.e. with values that transcend the individual life.

2.     One could postulate that – in order to avoid frustration – it makes sense to desire the inevitable decay and death (The Stoic Amor Fati). But this strategy, although intellectually comprehensible, is in complete contradiction to the biological intuitions. If there is no vision of a cosmic consciousness or an eternal bliss after death (chapter 4) it is counter-intuitive for most people to desire decay and death.



Intuitions and truth

In reddit.com we found the following comment:

Too often in philosophy, counter-intuitive is taken to mean wrong.


In this chapter we discussed the following intuitions:

-      the intuition that non-existence is better than an almost perfect life (Reverse Repugnant Conclusion)

-      the intuition that life is worthless because of its mortality, and

-      the intuition that it makes sense to desire the inevitable decay and death.

All these intuitions are considered to be incomprehensible or irrational by the majority. But they are value judgments and not truth claims.




7. Conclusion


- NPU associates non-existence with perfection, as well as certain forms of Buddhism.

- Without metaphysical assumptions NPU is counter-intuitive for most people.






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