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Why I’m (Not) a Negative Utilitarian

 

A Review of Toby Ord’s Essay

 

B.Contestabile   First version 2016    Last version 2022

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.     Introduction

2.     Types of Negative Utilitarianism

2.1  Absolute and Lexical NU

2.2  Weak NU

2.3  Moderate NU / Weak Lifetime NU

2.4  Lexical Threshold NU

2.5  Theoretical versus Practical Priority

3.     Practical Implications

4.     Conclusion

 

References

Appendix: Terminology Summary

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting point

In his essay Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian, Toby Ord shows himself surprised to see that some of his friends and acquaintances in the effective altruism community identify as Negative Utilitarians, although negative utilitarianism is discarded in mainstream philosophical circles.

 

 

Type of problem

Is negative utilitarianism (NU) an implausible theory?

 

 

Result

Versions of NU which override compensation (of suffering by happiness) within the same person (like Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU) could be called implausible theories [Gustafsson], but not versions of NU which question compensation across different persons (like the moderate NU).

 

The moderate NU is a metric within hedonistic utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate” metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism. Prioritarianism is usually associated with positive totals, NU with negative totals.

- In prioritarianism total welfare can turn negative because of a weighting function.

- In the moderate NU the total can turn negative because of the metric of the hedonistic scale.

 

The rationality of a negative total is investigated in

- The Denial of the World from an Impartial View (analytical arguments)

- Is There a Prevalence of Suffering? (empirical arguments)

 

The most common objection against NU is the world destruction argument, according to which NU implies that if someone could destroy the world, it would be his/her duty to do so. Adherents of NU, who recognize the totalitarian potential as a problem, amend their theory with human rights. Such an anti-totalitarian, suffering-focused ethics corresponds to a political party or movement within a democratic system.

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Introduction

 

 

Starting point

In his essay Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian, Toby Ord shows himself surprised to see that some of his friends and acquaintances in the effective altruism community identify as Negative Utilitarians, although negative utilitarianism (NU) is discarded in mainstream philosophical circles.

 

 

Type of problem

Is negative utilitarianism an implausible theory?

 

 

 

2.  Types of Negative Utilitarianism

 

Negative utilitarianism (NU) is an umbrella term for all types of utilitarianism which model the asymmetry between suffering and happiness [Fricke, 14]. For more information about this definition see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

 

2.1      Absolute and Lexical NU

 

Toby Ord defines these versions as follows:

 

 

Absolute NU

Only suffering counts.

The Absolute NU corresponds to the original NU as defined by R.N.Smart; see Negative Utilitarianism.

The term absolute means that the moral significance of suffering is absolute, that there is no other criterion for ethical action.

 

The Absolute NU is confronted with the following objections:

1.     Since happiness has no value, non-existence is the best possible state of affairs:

Would it really be better that life had never arisen if the only unpleasant experience that would otherwise occur is a pinprick? Surely some pains are too trivial to matter significantly [Pearce 2005].

A variation of the Pinprick Argument is the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion.

2.     It is counter-intuitive to deny the ethical value of compensations/trade-offs in cases like the birth of a child, cosmetic surgery etc. [Fricke, 16] and even more in the case of a pinprick (think of a vaccination).

 

The Absolute NU is reminiscent of the Nirodha interpretation of the Pali Canon, which says that the cessation of suffering is the sole intrinsic good [Breyer]. It is unclear, however, if the term suffering includes minor pain and disturbances in this context. Buddhists strive for an undisturbed mental state in meditation, but they compensate/trade happiness and suffering in daily life.

 

A different idea is to accept intra-personal compensation, but only up to a certain threshold. For information on this approach see chapter 2.4.

 

The axiology radically changes if non-existence is given the metaphysical value of perfection. Measured against perfection, all human lives have negative value. In this case the term suffering is interpreted/replaced by imperfection. For information on this approach see Negative Preference Utilitarianism.

 

 

Lexical NU

Suffering and happiness both count, but no amount of happiness (regardless of how great)

can outweigh any amount of suffering (no matter how small).

Happiness has moral value, but the minimization of suffering has an absolute priority over the maximization of happiness.

 

As long as suffering exists, the objections against the Absolute NU also apply to the Lexical NU.

 

Derek Parfit [Parfit, 337] and Clark Wolf [Wolf, 63] express their discomfort with the classical utilitarian accumulation of suffering and happiness across different people. But both philosophers do not question intra-personal compensation/trades.

For information about asymmetric population ethics see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.

 

 

 

2.2      Weak NU

 

 

Definition

Toby Ord’s definition of the Weak NU goes as follows:

Suffering and happiness both count, but suffering counts more. There is an exchange rate between suffering and happiness or perhaps some nonlinear function which shows how much happiness would be required to outweigh any given amount of suffering [Ord].

The term suffering counts more distinguishes the Weak NU from classical utilitarianism. Toby Ord applies his definition to intra-personal compensations (in contrast to the moderate NU, chapt.2.3).

 

Fig.1

Inline image 1

 

 

This diagram stems from Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian [Ord]

 

 

But what is the horizontal scale supposed to represent? There is no obvious natural unit of suffering or happiness to use. It might be possible to have a consistent scale in the happiness direction and a separate consistent scale in the suffering direction, but it is very unclear how they are both supposed to be on the same scale. This is what would be needed for Weak NU to be a coherent theory and for the diagram to make any sense [Ord].

Let’s have a closer look at this argument:

 

 

The incoherence argument

Psychometrics confirms that positive and negative affect carry different information and need to be separately measured and analyzed [Diener]. Toby Ord speaks of an incoherence argument against the Weak NU. But “separately measured” does not mean that the above horizontal axis becomes meaningless:

-      Happiness and suffering are comparable; otherwise compensations/trade-offs would be impossible. If happiness and suffering are comparable, then they can be arranged on the same scale.

-      The scale of happiness and the scale of suffering touch each other, at the point where suffering and happiness are zero.

Obviously there is no incoherence or discontinuity in a mathematical sense [MathsisFun]. The horizontal axis is not a peculiarity of NU, it is borrowed from classical utilitarianism. The problem is of a different nature:

-      Classical utilitarianism assumes that suffering and happiness have intrinsic moral value. But given the same event, these values can be different for each individual. Also the aggregation function, which says if (and how) suffering is compensated by happiness, can be different for each individual (Furthermore the function is dynamic, but we don’t need to elaborate on that for the purpose of this paper).

-      The Weak NU assigns moral value by the two (green) linear utility functions. The values of suffering and happiness have to be modified accordingly, before they enter the aggregation function. This modification, however, has unpleasant consequences. Following an example:

 

 

The worse-for-everyone argument

A person is watching a film and feels hungry. Should he/she leave the cinema and appease hunger or watch the end of the film? The person comes to the conclusion, that net well-being is positive, if he/she stays in the cinema. However, the Weak NU would multiply the values of happiness and suffering with a weighting factor and come to a different conclusion:

For example, in some cases the Weak NU will say that it is immoral to watch the end of the film while you are really hungry, even if this tradeoff increases your wellbeing, because the suffering counts more morally [Ord].

In other words:

-      the personal evaluation asks for staying in the cinema because this option increases net well-being

-      the Weak NU overrides the personal evaluation and asks for leaving the cinema.

Toby Ord speaks of a worse-for-everyone argument against all versions of NU. That is not entirely correct.

-      In the Absolute NU watching the end of the film is worse for everyone, because happiness (watching the film) is completely devaluated. Only suffering (being hungry) counts.

-      In the Weak NU, however, the weighting function could be such that the net well-being is positive for some persons (those who suffer less from being hungry, and who feel more pleasure watching the film).

Decisive is the fact that the Weak NU overrides individual valuations in completely implausible cases. This is reason enough to refute this version. A similar refutation can be found in Fabian Fricke’s article [Fricke, 14-16]. The Weak NU is theoretically weak: nomen est omen.

 

 

Risk-aversion versus risk-neutrality

So far we assumed that suffering and happiness are known in taking a decision. The general case, however, is a comparison of opportunities and risks. Could the Weak NU be defended by introducing the concept of risk-aversion? Following an example with probabilities:

Suppose you live in New York City and are offered two jobs at the same time. One is a tedious and badly paid job in New York City itself, while the other is a very interesting and well-paid job in Chicago. But the catch is that, if you wanted the Chicago job, you would have to take a plane from New York to Chicago (e.g. because this job would have to be taken up the very next day). Therefore there would be a very small but positive probability that you might be killed in a plane accident) [Angner, 5]

Let us assume the various outcomes can be evaluated with the following numbers [Angner, 25]:

 

 

Now, the rational course of action depends on the probabilities assigned to the two relevant events. If the agent has determinate probabilities over the two events, it is easy to confirm that she should take the job in Chicago so long as the probability of a plane crash is less than one percent, and stay in New York if it greater than one percent; if the probability is exactly one percent, she is indifferent, and is rationally permitted to take either job [Angner, 13].

 

 

Harsanyi uses a similar example to show that high risk-aversion is irrational in everyday situations [Harsanyi]:

o   The majority assigns e.g. -89 to the plane crash (instead of -890) and therefore takes the job in Chicago. Harsanyi associates this behavior with risk-neutrality, utility maximization and rationality.

o   A minority assigns e.g. -8900 to the plane crash (instead of -890) and therefore – with the same assumptions about probabilities – denies the job in Chicago. Harsanyi associates this behavior with high risk-aversion and irrationality.

But possibly the minority is just more sensitive for suffering. From the external perspective the minority’s behavior seems to be risk-averse, but from the inner perspective it is risk-neutral. The minority feels suffering stronger and therefore acts as rational as the majority. To override individual attitudes towards risk is as questionable as overriding the individual evaluation in the cinema example. Ord’s Weak NU is an implausible version of NU.

 

 

The better-for-everyone argument

We have excluded Absolute NU, Lexical NU and the Weak NU because they override intra-personal compensations/trade-offs.

There is a reverse case, however, where positive utilitarianism overrides intra-personal evaluation. The worse-for-everyone argument against NU has a mirror image in the better-for-everyone argument against positive utilitarianism. The following diagram refers to the QALY axiology, which is used in hospitals (Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia):

 

Fig.2

 

Demonstration of quality-adjusted life years for two individuals (A and B)

 

 

The vertical axis does not contain negative values. Death has value zero, so that it is better for everyone to be alive. Voluntary Euthanasia is necessarily immoral, because it destroys positive value instead of eliminating negative value. NU, in contrast, asks for an axiology which allows negative values. It maintains that overriding the personal evaluation in the hospital is as questionable as overriding the personal evaluation in the cinema example above. If a person feels that his/her suffering cannot be compensated with happiness [Fricke, 18], then NU assigns a negative well-being to this person and not – like most QALY models – a low positive value. The situation is then characterized by a choice between the two evils suffering and death. For the purpose of NU a scale which does not know negative numbers (e.g. a point scale from 1 to 10) has to be converted into a signed scale.

 

 

 

2.3  Moderate NU / Weak Lifetime NU

 

In the above example with the jobs in New York and Chicago we assumed that everyone strives to maximize his/her utility (respectively strives to minimize his/her negative utility). But maximizing individual utility may not be the best strategy for maximizing the societies’ total utility. In the above example it may e.g. be better for the person to take the job in Chicago, but worse for the global climate, because of the environmental impact of aviation. Morally right – in a strict consequentialist sense – is only the action which maximizes the societies’ total utility. For that reason we shift the focus from the individual level to the public policy level.

 

 

Definition

The moderate NU is a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate” metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism (This corresponds to one of the definitions of NU in Utilitarianism, Wikipedia).

 

In other words: The moderate NU takes into account both happiness and suffering, but weights suffering more than happiness. It is moderate as compared to the strict NU [Caviola 2022, 5, 20], which doesn’t count happiness at all.

 

 

Comparison with the Weak NU

Above definition basically coincides with the Weak NU (chapter 2.2), but the terms have a different meaning. On the public policy level we only consider the compensation of suffering by happiness across different persons. On this level

-      the term happiness is a synonym for life-satisfaction, positive welfare and lifetime well-being.

-      the term suffering stands for uncompensated suffering [Fricke, 18] and is a synonym for negative welfare.

The Weak NU’s “exchange rate or nonlinear function” (chapt.2.2) corresponds to the “compassionate” metric in the moderate NU. The moderate NU uses a nonlinear function, because it makes the theory functionally equivalent with prioritarianism.

 

 

Comparison with the Weak Lifetime NU

The Weak Lifetime NU is defined as follows:

Experiences of positive and negative well-being are given the same weight within a life, but negative lifetime well-being counts more than positive lifetime well-being for moral value. According to Weak Lifetime Negative Utilitarianism, you should maximize the sum total of positive and negative lifetime well-being with the negative lifetime well-being multiplied by a certain constant greater than 1 [Gustafsson, 8]

 

This definition largely coincides with the moderate NU:

-      The term lifetime well-being in the Weak Lifetime NU corresponds to the term life satisfaction in the moderate NU. The Weak Lifetime NU and the moderate NU are both concerned with compensation across different persons only.

-      The “multiplication with a certain constant greater than 1” in the Weak Lifetime NU corresponds to the “compassionate metric” in the moderate NU. The moderate NU uses a nonlinear function instead of a multiplier, because it makes the theory functionally equivalent with prioritarianism.

For more information about the moderate NU see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

Against negative utilitarianism

Johan Gustafsson claims having refuted negative utilitarianism with the following example [Gustafsson, 3]:

You have a choice between the following outcomes, where the same people live for the same duration:

(A) Everyone gets a century of pure bliss followed by a pinprick.

(B) Someone gets a century of torture, and everyone else gets a century of no pleasure and no pain.

Given a large enough population, you ought to choose (B) over (A) according to Negative Utilitarianism. Yet (A) seems more choice-worthy than (B) on, basically, any plausible moral metric.

 

In the moderate NU we compare the life satisfaction respectively lifetime well-being of the persons in (A) and (B). A century of pure bliss followed by a pinprick is an extremely happy life, which makes (A) extremely attractive. Even an empty world would be preferable to (B). Refutations of NU only work

-      for versions which override compensation (of suffering by happiness) within the same person (like Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU)

-      but not for versions which make compensation more difficult across different persons (like the moderate NU and the Weak Lifetime NU).

In order to refute the moderate NU one has to refute prioritarianism, because the two theories are functionally equivalent. For a defense of prioritarianism see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.

 

If the moderate NU and prioritarianism are functionally equivalent, why don’t we just use prioritarianism? In practice it makes no difference indeed. But in theory – according to John Broome – prioritarianism is obsolete, and not utilitarianism, see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.

 

 

Semantics

If the moderate NU is “only a metric” within modern hedonistic utilitarianism: What is the reason for using a special term for this metric?

The reason is that utilitarianism, similar to prioritarianism, is associated with positive totals:

-      In classical utilitarianism the hedonistic scale is linear and symmetric. The theory does not exclude negative totals, but in practice most utilitarians assume that, given the current state of affairs, total welfare is positive.

-      In the moderate NU the hedonistic scale is non-linear and asymmetric. The theory does not exclude positive totals, but it considers that, given the current state of affairs, total welfare might be negative. The intuition that “global suffering cannot be compensated by happiness” turns global welfare negative, so that the maximization of happiness turns into a minimization of suffering.

 

Fig.3

 

Rationality

Intuitions with regard to global welfare are controversial:

-      The majority, in particular prioritarians and classical utilitarians, think that the happy majority can outweigh the suffering minority (Fig.3 metric 1)

-      Buddhists, Gnostics, Schopenhauer, Popper and antinatalists do not share this intuition (Fig.3 metric 2)

The majority considers the latter people to be highly risk-averse or even irrational, but possibly the majorities’ perception of risk is distorted.

-      Analytical arguments for the rationality of a negative global welfare can be found in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

-      Empirical arguments can be found in Is There a Prevalence of Suffering?

 

 

Acceptance

There is a well-known moral intuition that we should prioritise helping the worse off and this is much more widely accepted than NU (…). Such an intuition can be accounted for in the theories of Prioritarianism, Egalitarianism, and Sufficientarianism [Ord].

The moderate NU is functionally equivalent with prioritarianism, so that Ord’s objection does not apply. For more information about the moderate NU see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

 

2.4  Lexical Threshold NU

 

 

Definition

Suffering and happiness both count, but suffering can only be compensated up to a certain threshold.

 

 

Intra-personal threshold

A generally valid threshold for intra-personal compensation encounters the following problems:

1.     The capability to compensate suffering by happiness depends on the constitution, the environment, and the biography of the concerned individual (compare with the worse-for-everyone argument in chapter 2.2).

2.     The sensitive for suffering is an individual matter as well. From the external perspective a person’s behavior may seem to be risk-seeking or risk-averse, but from the inner perspective it can be risk-neutral (compare with Risk-version versus risk-neutrality in chapter 2.2)

 

 

Inter-personal threshold

The idea of a generally valid threshold makes more sense for inter-personal compensation (compensation between different persons). In this context

-      the term suffering means uncompensated suffering [Fricke, 18], respectively negative welfare

-      the term happiness means life satisfaction, respectively positive welfare.

Above definition then says that the negative welfare (of one, several, or many persons) can only be compensated by (other people’s) positive welfare up to a certain threshold. If this threshold is exceeded, then the happy part of the population doesn’t count any more in a utilitarian aggregation.

 

How can we know the welfare of a person? In an ideal case the data come from surveys and focus groups [Broome, 261], but in cases of severe suffering this kind of data collection is often impossible. We don’t know under what circumstances the welfare of a specific person turns negative, but we can declare a certain magnitude of negative welfare as a threshold for inter-personal compensation. The intuition that the extreme suffering of a single person is reason enough to deny the world, is a border case of such a threshold. Toby Ord cites the following example:

 

The Lexical Threshold NU stems from a deep sense of compassion at the sheer scale and intensity of suffering in the world. No amount of happiness or fun enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify (outweigh) the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz [Pearce].

The term compassion in this example clarifies that it refers to the compensation across different persons. The horrors of Auschwitz consist of a large number of people with negative welfare. The example also illustrates that in cases of extreme suffering the negative welfare must be estimated and cannot be collected by means of surveys.

 

 

Comparison with the moderate NU

The moderate NU agrees that the compensation of suffering by other people’s happiness is limited. But it defines the threshold indirectly. Depending on the kind of suffering the happiness needed in order to compensate suffering may be immense. At some point the compensation becomes virtually impossible so that the result is the same as in the Lexical Threshold NU. The indirect definition has the advantage that Ord’s continuity argument [Ord] does not apply.

 

Example

In Fig.4 the notion of a maximum refers to the point scales of surveys [World Happiness Report, 15].

-      metric 3 is designed in such a way that a majority of happy persons cannot outweigh a minority of suffering persons.

-      metric 4 is designed in such a way that a vast majority of maximally happy persons cannot outweigh the suffering of a single person

 

Fig.4

 

The metrics 1, 2, 3 and 4 (Fig.3 and Fig.4) illustrate an increasing reluctance to compensate suffering by other people’s happiness. In the moderate NU it is possible to continuously downgrade happiness and upgrade suffering, in analogy to prioritarianism. In particular, if the magnitude of suffering matches the horrors of Auschwitz, then the metric can be designed in such a way, that it satisfies the above Lexical Threshold intuition (i.e. that compensation becomes impossible). Since the metrics are flexible enough to satisfy the Lexical Threshold intuition in all practical cases, the moderate NU solves Tomasik’s problem with the three inconsistent intuitions [Tomasik].

 

 

The rationality of compensation

Pearce’s intuition about the horrors of Auschwitz is challenged by Ord as follows:

I don't agree about whether these quantities of suffering, vast though they are, can be outweighed by the positive side of human experience [Ord].

Who is closer to a realistic view?

-      For analytical arguments in favor of Pearce see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

-      For empirical arguments see Is There a Prevalence of Suffering?

 

 

 

2.5  Theoretical versus Practical Priority

 

Toby Ord uses two definitions for the practical priority of (the avoidance of) suffering:

Weak Practically-Negative Utilitarianism = Classical Utilitarianism with the empirical belief that it in many common cases it is more effective to focus on alleviating suffering than on promoting happiness [Ord].

Does it make sense to use the term negative utilitarianism for an empirical belief or a cost-benefit analysis within the classical utilitarian axiology? It probably adds to clarity, if we reserve the term negative utilitarianism for the application of an asymmetric scale, as in the moderate NU (chapter 2.3). An asymmetric scale constitutes a theoretical priority of (the avoidance of) suffering [Fricke, 14].

 

Strong Practically-Negative Utilitarianism = Classical Utilitarianism with the empirical belief that suffering outweighs happiness in all or most human lives [Ord].

The term “in …human lives” (as opposed to “across …human lives”) makes clear that this definition addresses the compensation of suffering and happiness within the same person. Again, it is rather confusing to use the term negative utilitarianism for an empirical belief within the classical utilitarian axiology. The Weak NU (as described in chapter 2.2) systematically increases the weight of suffering, and decreases the value of happiness within an intra-personal compensation and is therefore clearly different from classical utilitarianism.

 

 

 

3.  Practical Implications

 

 

Population ethics

Another potential cause for confusion is the interrelation between NU and population ethics. You may think that a clear case for NU is comparing the alleviation of present suffering with the creation of new happy lives. However, this case brings in changing populations, which is the topic of population ethics. The intuition might not be to do with suffering and happiness per se, but to do with the lack of value in creating new lives in comparison to improving existing ones. If this is what guides you, then you should consider views such as Presentism or Critical Level Utilitarianism, which deny that adding a happy life is good, while agreeing that adding happiness to existing people is good and even that preserving the life of existing people is good [Ord].

The idea that adding a life with positive welfare does not make a population better (also called Prior existence utilitarianism or Asymmetry) has a theoretical deficiency [Arrhenius, 137] and is not supported by the moderate NU.

 

The negative utilitarian view – according to which the present global suffering cannot be compensated by happiness – has the following consequences:

1.     From a strictly hedonistic perspective a world without humans is preferable to a world with negative total welfare. The most common argument against NU is the world destruction argument, according to which NU implies that if someone could destroy the world, it would be his/her duty to do so. The totalitarian potential, however, is not a peculiarity of NU, but a characteristic of consequentialism in general [Knutsson]. Adherents of NU, who recognize the totalitarian potential as a problem, amend their theory with human rights. In practice the non-existence of humans is no realistic option. We only have a choice between more or less suffering populations. In the current situation a reduction of the world population not only reduces the total amount of suffering, but probably also the average level of suffering; see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering. Furthermore there might be a life-friendly, technological solution to the problem of suffering (as promised by some transhumanists).

 

2.     From a NU point of view the utilitarian life evaluations have to be reformed. Almost all OECD countries now use a life evaluation on a 0 to 10 rating scale [World Happiness Report, 15], which is interpreted as a linear point scale. Linear scales don’t account for the asymmetry between happiness and suffering. Examples: OECD Better Life Index, Satisfaction with Life Index, Where-to-be-born Index, World Happiness Report.

For more information about NU indices see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

 

NU logo

 

Moral killing

Many advocates of NU claim that on average human lives have net negative intrinsic moral value (…) This implies that much healthcare and lifesaving is of enormous negative value. It says that the best healthcare system is typically the one that saves as few lives as possible, eliminating all the suffering at once. [Ord]

-      There is an empirical argument against this scenario. A health care system with above characteristics would provoke an immense distress and eventually produce more suffering than it pretends to avoid. One could argue that empirical arguments against moral killing are not convincing under all circumstances, but similar deficiencies can be found in classical utilitarianism and prioritarianism, see the section about Human rights and the higher purpose in Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

-      Hospitals often use an axiology which does not know negative well-being, the so-called qalys (see chapter 2.3). In this case we are confronted with a reversed kind of theoretical deficiency. A horribly suffering patient cannot escape from his/her situation by voluntary euthanasia, because non-existence is defined as worst case.

Adherents of NU, who recognize the totalitarian potential as a problem, amend their theory with human rights. An anti-totalitarian health care system (in the spirit of Karl Popper) respects the individual’s will to extend lifetime, as well as the right to palliative care and voluntary euthanasia in well-defined and controlled situations which prevent abuse.

 

 

Utopias

There is also a type of example that is phrased in terms of whether it would be right or wrong to create a utopia if the very foundation of that utopia required the forced suffering of the innocent during its construction [Ord].

Again, this kind of conflict can be found in all consequentialist ethics. Strictly speaking one would have to distinguish between anti-totalitarian and totalitarian negative utilitarians, prioritarians, classical utilitarians etc., where the anti-totalitarian respect human rights. However, if we talk – like Toby Ord – about negative utilitarians within the community of effective altruism, then we do not need this specification, because we know that this community respects human rights.

 

 

Ethical priorities

The positive utilitarian approach seeks to increase total welfare, where welfare usually means “economic welfare measured by the GDP”. From a negative utilitarian point of view an increase in the world’s GDP is (ethically) worthless

-      if it does not correlate with an increase in life satisfaction (see Short History of Welfare Economics)

-      if it is caused by expanding the population at the cost of the quality of life (see The Repugnant Conclusion).

-      if it has to be “paid for” by excessive risks (see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering)

-      if the magnitude of suffering cannot be reduced (see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice).

For more information about ethical priorities see Negative Utilitarian Priorities.

 

 

 

4. Conclusion

 

Versions of NU which override compensation (of suffering by happiness) within the same person (like Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU) could be called implausible theories [Gustafsson], but not versions of NU which question compensation across different persons (like the moderate NU).

 

The moderate NU is a metric within hedonistic utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate” metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism. Prioritarianism is usually associated with positive totals, NU with negative totals.

-      In prioritarianism total welfare can turn negative because of a weighting function.

-      In the moderate NU the total can turn negative because of the metric of the hedonistic scale.

 

The rationality of a negative total is investigated in

-      The Denial of the World from an Impartial View (analytical arguments)

-      Is There a Prevalence of Suffering? (empirical arguments)

 

The most common objection against NU is the world destruction argument, according to which NU implies that if someone could destroy the world, it would be his/her duty to do so. Adherents of NU, who recognize the totalitarian potential as a problem, amend their theory with human rights. Such an anti-totalitarian, suffering-focused ethics corresponds to a political party or movement within a democratic system.

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgment

 

I would like to thank Brian Tomasik and Simon Knutsson for their helpful comments and suggestions during the review of this paper.

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

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2. Arrhenius Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosopy, Uppsala: University Printers

3. Breyer Daniel (2015), The Cessation of Suffering and Buddhist Axiology, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol.22

4. Broome John (2004), Weighing Lives, Oxford University Press, Paperback version 2006

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Appendix: Terminology Summary

 

The paper Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian [Ord] does not discuss all versions of negative utilitarianism.

In our review and in the following table we adopt Toby Ord’s terminology as far as possible.

 

 

1) An intra-personal threshold is the kind of suffering, which makes the individual compensation by happiness impossible. Negative welfare is equal to uncompensated suffering by definition [Fricke, 18].

 

2)  Negative total utilitarianism (with happiness as second priority) can be seen as Lexical Threshold NU, where the inter-personal threshold equals negative welfare. In this case a single person with negative welfare is sufficient to make the compensation with other people’s happiness impossible. A different possible threshold is mentioned in chapter 2.4.

 

3)  The term “negative total utilitarianism” emphasizes the public policy view and the difference to negative average utilitarianism.

The term “classical NU” emphasizes the hedonistic view, as opposed to the preference-based view [Chao, 58].

The term “strict NU” emphasizes the difference to the moderate NU, where happiness is not completely devaluated.

 

4) In Negative Preference Utilitarianism perfect life satisfaction has zero moral value; imperfect life satisfaction has negative moral value. In Negative Total Utilitarianism positive welfare has zero moral value, negative welfare has negative moral value.

 

5) Note that the terms happiness and suffering have a different meaning on the individual and public policy level. On the public policy level the term happiness refers to life satisfaction, quality of life, well-being or positive welfare. For information about NU on the public policy level see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.