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.
- 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.
- David Pearce, "The Pinprick Argument" (2005)
- 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.
- David Pearce, "AI Alignment Podcast: The Metaethics of Joy, Suffering, and Artificial Intelligence with Brian Tomasik and David Pearce", Future of Life Institute, Aug 16. 2018
- 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.
- Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1952)
- 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.
- Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1952)
- [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.
- Insect suffering
- Intensive animal farming
- Suffering-focused ethics
- Wild animal suffering