Aug 252011

It’s quite common to distinguish between negative utilitarianism and other forms of utilitarianism.  Both are consequentialist doctrines, but with this apparent distinction:  standard versions of utilitarianism tell us that we should be maximizing something good, such as a sum total of pleasures minus pains (e.g. in Jeremy Bentham’s version) or some average of preference satisfaction across individuals (e.g. in John Harsanyi‘s quasi-contractualist version).  Negative utilitarianism tells us instead that we ought to be minimizing the amount of something bad, usually something like human suffering.

I’ve met many people who find negative utilitarianism more intuitively appealing than the standard versions of the doctrine.   I often have the same intuition, though as with most of my intuitions I wonder whether it should be treated as reliable.  It does somehow seem to me easier to defend our abandonment of other moral desiderata that seem at least plausible (examples: protecting people’s rights, or ensuring equality across persons) when our reason for doing so is framed as “preventing someone’s suffering” than as as “allowing someone else to gratify desires or achieve pleasure.”  And negative utilitarianism is an important motivator for many (though certainly by no means all) forms of antinatalism.   If people are loci of suffering, then a very good way of preventing suffering is preventing those loci from coming into being in the first place.

That said, I often wonder how distinct negative utilitarianism is from standard utilitarianism.

One global skeptical argument against the distinction might go like this:  one form of suffering is deprivation.  Desire thwarted can be a source of considerable suffering: ask anyone who’s ever experienced romantic or professional failure how much it hurts. (And if you should ever experience both at the same time, you will know what it’s like to go to bed for months at a time hoping you won’t wake up. Trust me on this.) And even when there are no thwarted desires, a life in the absence of pleasures is likely to seem pretty stale and tedious, itself plausibly a low-level form of suffering.

Now if we push this argument far enough for existing people, we could end up with a variant of average maximizing utilitarianism. The greater the pleasure, the greater the magnitude of the deprivation, and hence the greater the magnitude of the suffering. The minimizing doctrine is just the maximizing doctrine with a a minus sign in front. And if we push still further to all possible pleasures for all potential persons, then we have something that would look very much like the extensional equivalent of classical utilitarianism, and we’d be obliged to bring into existence all those people who have lives at least barely worth living so that they won’t be deprived of good things, thus straight back to the Repugnant Conclusion.

The argument sketched in the preceeding paragraph seems far too strong to be right. Surely not every good thing that we might have had but didn’t counts as a deprivation, at least not in the sense of a “deprivation that causes suffering,” even if many do. I don’t get to experience the exotic gardens of Alpha Centauri 5, perhaps, but it seems very odd to say that I’m suffering from not doing so. It’s probably better to suggest that only those deprivations which are somehow present to our understanding or consciousness are sources of suffering.

Now if that’s the case, then there really is a distinction between negative and standard utilitarianism, because negative utilitarianism will give us distinctly different life-advice in that negative utilitarianism will advice us against tying to form desires or aspirations other than those related to preveting suffering. Standard utilitarians might want us to go to Alpha Centauri, if that’s actually something within our means, if the gardens are pleasant enough. But negative utilitarianism would have us stay in our garden at home, unless we’re suffering in it and the garden in the stars is our only relief. Negative utilitarianism would thus give us life-advice that is Epicurean in nature (Epicurean in the sense Epicurus himself might endorse it: seek to eliminate pain and have simple, cheap pleasures.)

Now this doesn’t mean that negative utilitarianism is hostile or even indifferent to pleasure-seeking, just that it is likely to treat it as a means rather than an end in life. Here are some examples of how that might be so:

Frustration avoidance. We might be better off getting rid of many of our desires, but good with that. Many of our desires are very stubborn. We’re better off trying to find cheap, non-destructive ways of gratifying them, and helping others to do likewise. In this spirit, I very much admire a commenter on Robin Hanson’s famous (notorious?) “Unsexy Men” post, who averred

I’m so darn nurturing, but not sexy, so what I do is go over to my sister’s house and play with her little babies until I am all out of love, then I go home and watch amazing porn in peace and quiet. It’s a good life, I hope all the unsexy men adapt as well.

Epicurus and I would probably advise him to save time for making some good adult friends, but I think he might be on the right track.

Boredom avoidance. Boredom might not run very deep as a form of suffering (usually, there are probably exceptions), but it still manages to weigh heavily on the world by being spread very widely. You will know this if you’ve ever been bored. Again, it seems like good advice is to find cheap and non-destructive ways of not being bored, and this probably is an area where self-cultivation will help. Also, making friends, an activity much in the Epicurean spirit.

Pleasure-in-prospect. Many of the things in life that are painful or unpleasant, at least a a low level, are somewhat less so when there is some short-term pleasure in the future, or at least so my introspection seems to tell me. It’s no fun going to work — that’s a place of alternating boredom and anxiety — but somehow it usually seems less bad when there’s dinner with friends after, or a vacation next week, or even just a fun blog post I can write when I can find a moment of being less busy.

So there’s likely some distinction between negative and standard utilitarianism. The negative variant of the doctrine seems more likely to lead us toward antinatalism and away from things like the Repugnant Conclusion. Both are opposed to suffering, both are friendly to pleasure, albeit for different reasons. Each at least appears to give somewhat different life advice.

 Posted by at 13:52

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