Sunday, 16 January 2011

In Search of Negative Utilitarianism

Negative utilitarianism is the moral theory that the only criterion of the rightness of an action is the extent to which it minimises suffering or pain[1]. In other words, in any given circumstance, the right action is the one that minimises unhappiness.[2] This, of course, stands in contrast to the ‘classical’ utilitarian doctrine of Bentham and Mill that the right action is the one that maximises happiness, where happiness is taken to mean the overall balance of pleasure and pain.

Since its first clear formulation by Karl Popper in 1945, negative utilitarianism has generally been taken merely as a logical possibility, before being swiftly disregarded as incoherent or counterintuitive (see JJC Smart’s treatment in Utilitarianism: For and Against). Indeed, there is something puzzling about a philosophy that holds that pain in the sole moral bad in the world, but which gives no moral consideration to pleasure. I agree that such an ethical system is problematic. Consequently, I think that pure negative utilitarianism is implausible. However, I wish to discuss a few ways in which ‘positive’ utilitarians may become de facto negative utilitarians.

The basic utilitarian ‘Greatest Happiness’ Principle can be broken down into two propositions:

A: The more pleasure an action causes, the better it is
B: The more pain an action causes, the worse it is

The classical utilitarian uses both propositions in evaluating the rightness of an action. In assessing an action, they must calculate both the pleasure and the pain it entails, and the net value of pleasure minus pain represents the salient ethical consequence of that act. By contrast, the negative utilitarian only accepts proposition B, and ignores proposition A.

This move, on the face of it, seems rather peculiar. Why should anybody committed to the proposition that pain is bad not also hold the view that pleasure is good? In fact, I do not think that any advocate of negative utilitarianism actually does deny that pleasure is good. However, there are three reasons why they may nonetheless ignore proposition A. The first reason is pragmatic: pain is seen as easier to identify or eradicate. The second is that pain has lexical priority over pleasure: the maximisation of pleasure, on this view, is a worthwhile moral project, but it is subordinate to the obligation to minimise suffering. While both of these positions are in practice negative utilitarian, neither can accurately be described as negative utilitarian theories, since both in theory can ascribe some positive value to happiness. However, I wish to argue that a negative utilitarianism that gives no weight to happiness is in fact possible, for there is a third reason to deny proposition A: if we believe that happiness does not exist or is unattainable, then the proposition is redundant.

Pragmatic Negative Utilitarianism

There are a number of reasons why a classical utilitarian might consider negative utilitarianism to be a more practical or desirable guide to action. They might be motivated by an empirical belief that in the world we live in it is far easier to relieve suffering than to bring about happiness. This might be because of the large numbers of people (and animals) in the world living dire and unfortunate lives. If most of the world are suffering, it is necessary to relieve that suffering before we set about making them positively happy. Some might hold that it is better to focus our efforts on easing pain because of our relative lack of knowledge regarding how to make people happy

Indeed, it is fairly clear from Karl Popper’s initial formulation of negative utilitarianism that he personally advocated it at least partly out of practicality and pragmatism Rather than denying that happiness is of any moral importance, he simply suggests that “the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer”. Moreover, his reluctance to advocate active promotion of happiness is linked to contingent human fallibility and his fears for personal liberty: “‘Maximise happiness’, in contrast, seems to be apt to produce a benevolent dictatorship”. Popper is not saying that promoting happiness would not be good, just that we are unlikely to be very successful.

Though nobody has been as explicit about it, there is a strong argument to suggest that most utilitarians have been and are de facto negative utilitarians (although with exceptions, like Richard Layard). Take, for example, the most prominent utilitarian voice in contemporary applied ethics, Peter Singer. The causes to which he devotes his energies have, by and large, been efforts to reduce suffering, rather than increase happiness. His defence of euthanasia seeks to ameliorate the pain of the terminally ill; his fight against global poverty that of the destitute; and his vegetarianism intends to ease the suffering of animals.

Nevertheless, pragmatic negative utilitarianism cannot be classed as genuine negative utilitarianism. If the likes of Singer could be convinced of a guaranteed method of increasing pleasure that produced pleasure more efficiently than pain can be eradicated, they would be bound by principle to devote their efforts to that. The fact that they could, under certain circumstances, be as concerned with pleasure as with pain quite clearly demonstrates that they are not really negative utilitarians.

Lexical Prioritisation of Suffering

Another ethical theory which looks a lot like negative utilitarianism is Clark Wolf’s ‘impure consequentialist theory of obligation’. This theory suggests that the reduction of suffering should have lexical priority over increasing happiness. Our only moral obligation is to diminish unhappiness. However, while Wolf suggests that promoting happiness is not obligatory, he still believes it to be morally good. This implies that all acts that increase happiness are supererogatory: desirable, but not morally required. This philosophy is obviously inconsistent with negative utilitarianism because it explicitly embraces proposition A.

However, most utilitarians do not believe in supererogation, insisting that we are always obliged to perform the action that is morally best. A more orthodox utilitarian, who subscribed to this view, but accepted the lexical priority of reducing suffering over promoting happiness would believe something very similar to negative utilitarianism. If duty A has lexical priority over duty B, then we have to totally fulfil all the requirements of duty A before we should consider duty B. Thus the lexically negative utilitarian would have to eradicate unhappiness before their moral obligations impelled them to look to increase happiness. Since eradicating unhappiness seems like an impossible task, the lexically negative utilitarian is, for practical purposes, the same as negative utilitarianism. Of course, this should not obscure the fact that lexically negative utilitarians would still accept proposition A, it is just that they are unlikely to ever be in a position to act on it.

Personally, I have to include myself among those holding the ‘marginalist prejudice’ Wolf dismisses. I simply cannot see how, if happiness has any value, this value will always be trumped by the need to decrease unhappiness. The very idea of lexical priority demands testing with extreme cases. The lexical prioritisation of suffering means that a world in which all are ecstatically happy but for occasional headaches is worse than a world in which people exist in a state of perpetual physical and emotional numbness

Wolf’s rationale for this move is his commitment to Parfit’s “Compensation principle: One person's burdens cannot be compensated by benefits provided for someone else”. Wolf assumes that everybody shares this intuition, but again it does not stand up to extreme counter-examples. If I offer to make every person in your home town (except you) a millionaire if I can pinch your arm, then surely most people’s moral intuition is that the minimal sacrifice is worth bearing. Consequently, I cannot see how the lexical prioritisation of proposition B over A can be justified.


There is yet a third reason why proposition A might be rejected. If we believe that happiness is illusory or unattainable, then there is nothing to give moral weight to. Proposition A is rendered meaningless or redundant. The most famous proponent of such pessimism in Western philosophy is Arthur Schopenhauer. To better understand the reasoning behind the pessimistic denial of happiness, it is instructive to investigate his treatment of the concept.

The first premise of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that existence, for all living creatures, entails striving. We are all particular manifestations of the will to life, and as such, we are all perpetually consumed by desires of one sort or another, which tend generally to our survival and reproduction as a species (Note the striking parallels with evolutionary biology). For Schopenhauer, ‘happiness’ consists in the satisfaction of the will, in the fulfilment of our desires.

Now it is unclear from Schopenhauer’s philosophy how this specialised use of the term ‘happiness’ relates to the more common meaning of happiness as a positive feeling or disposition. On one reading, Schopenhauer seems to deny that happiness in this second sense is ever possible: Schopenhauer scholar Christopher Janaway calls this the ‘negativity of satisfaction’ thesis. Alternatively, Schopenhauer may merely be saying that the satisfaction of preferences produces positive feelings only rarely and/or fleetingly.

With the ‘negativity of satisfaction’ thesis, Schopenhauer suggests that happiness is an illusion:

"All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive….satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want….consequently, we are only in the same position as we were before this pain or suffering appeared."

"We feel pain, but not painlessness; care, but not freedom from care; fear, but not safety and security. We feel this desire as we feel hunger and thirst; but as soon as it has been satisfied, it is like the mouthful of food that has been taken, and which ceases to exist for our feelings the moment it is swallowed."

Schopenhauer’s core assertion is that attaining what we strive for never produces any positive feeling, but all that we experience is absence of the longing or suffering that we felt before. When we fall in love, all we experience is the absence of loneliness. When we win a game, all we feel is respite from the fear of losing. Life, for Schopenhauer, is nothing but suffering after suffering, broken up by the occasional period of numbness. The pursuit of happiness is a “hunt for game that does not exist”.

It is interesting to place this argument in the context of Bentham’s definition of pleasure: “I call pleasure every sensation that a man would rather feel at that instance than feel none”. But as we’ve seen, Schopenhauer, according to the negativity of satisfaction thesis, would insist that it is impossible to have a sensation that is better than feeling none at all. The reason that we are inclined to seek ‘pleasure’ is simply because the satisfaction of preferences allows us to feel nothing at all. Thus on Schopenhauer’s account, pleasure (which of course utilitarians take to be equivalent to happiness) does not exist.

It appears as though finally we have a genuine form of negative utilitarianism that denies proposition A, and grants no weight to happiness. Anyone who accepts pessimism (negativity of satisfaction), hedonism (pain is the sole metric of value in the universe) and consequentialism (the rightness of action depends only on the extent to which it maximises value) seems committed to negative utilitarianism.

It could still be objected, however, that the negativity of satisfaction is just an empirical, rather than a logically necessary claim. It is therefore contingent on certain facts about the world. We could imagine another or future world in which happiness as a positive emotion is possible. Would the pessimist negative utilitarians be willing to grant happiness any moral weight in such a world? If the answer is yes, then pessimistic negative utilitarianism, like lexically negative utilitarianism, is only adopted on practical grounds.

It may be objected that Schopenhauer would not accept hedonism and consequentialism, the central elements of utilitarianism, since his ethical theory is closer to a form of virtue ethics. Even if this is the case, it does not undermine my general argument. All I sought to show is negative utilitarianism is conceivable. Since there have been people who have accepted the precepts if utilitarianism and people who have accepted the negativity of satisfaction thesis, there is no reason why a person could not affirm both. Such a person, I contend, would be committed to negative utilitarianism.

However, it is interesting to note that in the arguments discussed here, Schopenhauer comes incredibly close to espousing negative utilitarianism. Janaway notes that “An undefended assumption in his argument is a stark form of hedonism: something adds positive value to life if and only if it involves a felt pleasure, while something contributes negative value if and only if it involves a felt pain”. Indeed, Janaway explicitly portrays Schopenhauer as a negative utilitarian, in all but name: “we see that Schopenhauer has done something quite bizarre: he has used as the test of value a hedonic calculus in which each felt pain accumulates points on the down side of life, but where the total figure for satisfaction is permanently set at zero”. What is this ‘bizarre hedonic calculus’ but the negative utilitarian’s metric of value?!

Of course, for Schopenhauer’s view to fully morph into negative utilitarianism, he would need to accept consequentialism, which he does not, to my knowledge. Yet in showing that Schopenhauer’s philosophy is so concordant with hedonism, we have brought the pessimist and the utilitarian one step closer to the unification we seek.

At some points, Schopenhauer even looks to be arguing for the lexical priority of suffering over happiness, quoting Petrarch: “A thousand pleasures do not compensate for one pain”. He continues,

“For 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…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 the bottom ought not to be."

Schopenhauer accepts the essential proposition of lexical negative utilitarianism: that no amount of happiness can make up for the mere existence of unhappiness.

Fascinatingly, Schopenhauer appears to embrace the supposedly repugnant conclusion R.N. Smart takes to undermine negative utilitarianism:

"Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds."

Schopenhauer’s dogged insistence that it would be better if the world had never existed surely means that he would embrace a simple and painless way to put humanity out of its misery. Once again, it is Schopenhauer’s philosophy that contains the tools necessary to defend negative utilitarianism and render it plausible.


Negative utilitarianism will almost certainly remain extremely unattractive to vast majority. It is most reasonable as a rule of thumb for ‘positive’ utilitarians concerned by the difficulties of making people happy. For it to be a stronger philosophical commitment, it is necessary to accept either that no amount of pleasure can make up for the merest suffering or that happiness is an illusion, beyond our grasp. Neither of these are likely to become widely held beliefs. However, enough people have been convinced of these ideas that negative utilitarianism is far from as absurd as has often been made out.

Notice the varying ‘purity’ of these different versions of negative utilitarianism. Pragmatic negative utilitarianism, as a subordinate rule of thumb to ‘positive’ utilitarianism, would cease to exist if we knew how to make people happy as easily as we know how to ease their suffering. Lexical negative utilitarianism would cease to be equivalent to classical negative utilitarianism if all the suffering in the world were to end. Pessimistic negative utilitarianism would collapse into positive utilitarianism in a world where happiness existed. Given the diminishing probability of these conditions being met (from the perspective of the advocates of these positions), it seems the pessimism produces a ‘purer’ version of negative utilitarianism than the lexical version. Both, in turn, are ‘purer’ than pragmatic negative utilitarianism. However, none of these doctrines actually go as far as to say that happiness, were it to exist, is of no moral significance. Consequently, the search for ‘pure’ negative utilitarianism goes on

[1] or unhappiness: these are all taken to be equivalent
[2] for scalar negative utilitarianism read: the more an action reduces net suffering, the more right it is


  1. More of this sort of thing please. So good to hear your philosophizing in one coherent essay rather than over msn posts. I wonder how much of this material will be in your phd as well?

  2. Whats the point of writing all this big paragraphs when you're not even rigorous. You have just your opinions as a basis for giving a logical argument and that is just fruitless.