Why I'm Not
a Negative Utilitarian
I have been surprised to see that some of my friends and acquaintances
in the effective altruism community identify as Negative Utilitarians.
Negative Utilitarianism (NU) is treated as a non-starter in mainstream
philosophical circles, and to the best of my knowledge has never
been supported by any mainstream philosopher, living or dead . This
is quite an amazing lack of support: one can usually find philosophers
who support any named position. On considering the theory in some
detail, I cannot help but agree that the philosophical community
has got this one right.
I'm therefore writing this note to those
of you who are tempted by NU to show you some of the unsatisfactory
consequences it has, and to try to convince you that it is indeed
NU comes in several flavours, which I will
outline later, but the basic thrust is that an act is morally right
if and only if it leads to less suffering than any available alternative.
Unlike Classical Utilitarianism, positive experiences such as pleasure
or happiness are either given no weight, or at least a lot less
weight. (In what follows, I use the word 'happiness' to stand in
for whatever aspects of life might be thought to have positive value).
I shall not argue against the Utilitarian
part of this. I am very sympathetic towards Utilitarianism, carefully
construed. While it is not widely accepted, it has a very strong
intellectual tradition and is supported in various forms by some
of the most prominent philosophers alive and dead. What I shall
argue against is the asymmetry between suffering and happiness in
NU, which is something that I do not think can be plausibly and
The idea of NU appears to mainly trace
back to some remarks made by Karl Popper in The Open Society
and Its Enemies .
'there is, from the ethical point of view,
no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and
pleasure… In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral
appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call
to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway. A further
criticism of the Utilitarian formula ‘Maximize pleasure’
is that it assumes a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows
us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But,
from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure,
and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure.
Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should
demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for
The context of these remarks was an attempt
by Popper to construct three practical principles for public policy.
He places minimising suffering alongside the principles of tolerating
the tolerant and resisting tyranny.
R. N. Smart wrote a response 
in which he christened the principle 'Negative Utilitarianism' and
showed a major unattractive consequence. A thorough going Negative
Utilitarian would support the destruction of the world (even by
violent means) as the suffering involved would be small compared
to the suffering in everyday life in the world. J. J. C. Smart (the
brother of R. N.) makes the same argument in Utilitarianism:
For and Against .
The reason most of us see to support the continuation of humanity
is that there is some kind of positive value in it, but this kind
of response is not available to a hardline Negative Utilitarian
who is simply trying to minimise suffering.
Popper responded to R. N. Smart by saying
that he supposed Smart's unpleasant conclusion would indeed follow
from accepting Minimise Suffering as a criterion of right action,
but that it was never meant this way. It was just meant as one of
three rules of thumb, and only meant for public policy, not individual
action . Popper was
not, therefore, a Negative Utilitarian (nor any other kind of Utilitarian).
This has pretty much been the end of the
debate in the academic philosophical literature about NU. Its main
role in the academy is as a position that is sometimes mentioned
as a rival to Classical Utilitarianism in introductory classes,
then shown to be open to severe critiques and discarded.
Types of Negative Utilitarianism
Before outlining my objections to NU I
need to distinguish between several different strengths of NU, since
they each have some unique problems, as well as some problems in
common. I take all forms of NU to combine some form of consequentialism
(i.e. that the right act is the one that leads to the best outcome)
with an axiology (i.e. a definition of which outcomes are better
than which others). I stratify the types of NU by how much emphasis
its axiology places on suffering over happiness.
Only suffering counts.
Suffering and happiness both count, but
no amount of happiness (regardless of how great) can outweigh any
amount of suffering (no matter how small).
Lexical Threshold NU
Suffering and happiness both count, but
there is some amount of suffering that no amount of happiness can
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
The above are all types of true NU. However
some people with Negative Utilitarian intuitions don't support any
of them. They instead agree that there is a theoretical symmetry
between suffering and happiness and thus support the theory of Classical
Utilitarianism. However, in a wide variety of practical cases they
agree with the Negative Utilitarians in the moral focus on suffering.
I'll outline two forms of this:
Strong Practically-Negative Utilitarianism
Classical Utilitarianism with the empirical
belief that suffering outweighs happiness in all or most human lives.
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.
Objections to Negative Utilitarianism
I'll argue against all four theoretical
forms of NU and also against the first practical form. I won't argue
agains the weak practical form as I think it is perfectly reasonable
and would be supported by almost all Classical Utilitarians. Indeed,
I think it is the best way to account for Negative Utilitarian intuitions
within a solid theory.
It is always quite difficult to argue against
many forms of a view simultaneously as there is normally some kind
of change that can be made to create a new form which the argument
doesn't engage with. Sometimes this change is to a legitimate and
independently motivated new version of the view. Sometimes it is
just adding an epicycle.
In this essay, I'm trying to argue in good
faith to help my friends see some serious problems with their views,
so I hope that the reader (whether friend or stranger) will take
the argument in this way. The point is not whether there is some
kind of acrobatics or extreme bullet biting that would enable one
to avoid each of the arguments I give, but whether they make you
think that a once promising theory is looking increasingly like
a bad thing to bet the future of our world on.
Absolute NU — The indifference
Absolute NU is completely indifferent to
happiness (over and above any merely instrumental effects it has
on reducing suffering). Suppose there were a world that consisted
of a thriving utopia, filled with love, excitement, and joy of the
highest degree, with no trace of suffering. One day this world is
at threat of losing almost all of its happiness. If this threat
comes to pass, almost all the happiness of this world will be extinguished.
To borrow from Parfit's memorable example, they will be reduced
to a state where their only mild pleasures will be listening to
muzak and eating potatoes. You alone have the power to decide whether
this threat comes to pass. As an Absolute Negative Utilitarian,
you are indifferent between these outcomes, so you decide arbitrarily
to have it lose almost all of its overflowing happiness and be reduced
to the world of muzak and potatoes.
I think this example pretty much speaks
for itself. You would have to be crazy to choose the world devoid
of happiness, but Absolute NU says this is just as good and doesn't
mind whether you choose it or not. This outcome would be catastrophically
worse for all individuals, making Absolute NU a devastatingly callous
As this argument only affects Absolute
NU, I imagine that pretty much all people of a Negative Utilitarian
persuasion who hear it would at least move to Lexical NU, which
accepts that happiness can at least break ties, avoiding this argument.
(This is analogous to the case of distributional principles in ethics,
where all supporters of maximin have moved to leximin.)
Lexical NU — The pinprick argument
Lexical NU is willing to sacrifice arbitrarily
large amounts of happiness to avoid a single pinprick. It therefore
succumbs to examples very similar to the one above. For example,
suppose one of the lucky people in the utopia of love, excitement,
and joy, were to have a tiny amount of suffering amidst their sea
of happiness — in a moment of carelessness in their heavenly
garden, they prick their thumb on a rose thorn. It is only a very
small pain, and they find that it is already outweighed by the pleasure
of smelling that very rose. Lexical NU says that it is so important
to avoid that pinprick that it would be obligatory to destroy all
that is good about their world and force the inhabitants down to
the muzak and potatoes lives, if we could thereby avoid that pinprick.
Once again, this outcome would be catastrophically
worse for all the individuals (including the one whose suffering
we are trying to avoid!). It is not possible to construe this as
respectful of the interests of individuals. Lexical NU is thus also
a devastatingly callous theory.
A natural retreat for the proponent of
Lexical NU is to accept that a pinprick is too small an amount to
suffering to warrant sacrificing everything of value to avoid. They
can instead hold that there is at least some level of suffering
where this would make sense.
Lexical Threshold NU — The continuity
As far as I understand, David Pearce supports
a version of Lexical Threshold NU :
'It stems instead 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 the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz. Nor can
it outweigh the sporadic frightfulness of pain and despair that
occurs every second of every day.'
I share David's sense of horror at Auschwitz.
An estimated 1.3 million people died there amidst unfathomable emotional
and physical suffering. I can also see that there is a vast amount
of suffering in the world every day, though my access to this second
fact is more through a process of calculation rather than raw horror.
I don't agree though about whether these
quantities of suffering, vast though they are, can be outweighed
by the positive side of human experience. One problem with making
headway in such a debate is that our intuitions become pretty useless.
There are 7 billion people in the world today and it appears to
me that the average life has a non-negligible amount positive wellbeing
(and has net positive moral value if you think those things are
different). I thus think there is a lot of value worth
of happiness in the world.
Is it enough to make a single year outweigh
the horrors of Auschwitz? I don't have a strong intuition, but I
think this is mainly because I'm comparing the suffering of millions
with the quality of life of billions. This is a hard thing to have
a proper intuition about, since our internal representations of
these quantities are basically the same: we find it hard to feel
differently about the suffering of one million or the suffering
of one billion. This makes me distrust my intuitions, especially
as this comes up all the time with millions and billions, so doesn't
seem to be a particularly moral feature of my intuition. I'd like
to divide each number by one million and make the simplified comparison,
but I gather that David Pearce thinks that is not an analogous question.
However, there is an argument which allows
us to make serious headway in resolving the disagreement. If you
believe in Lexical Threshold NU, i.e. that there are amounts of
suffering that cannot be outweighed by any amount of happiness,
then you have to believe in a very strange discontinuity in suffering
or happiness. You have to believe either that there are two very
similar levels of intensity of suffering such that the slightly
more intense suffering is infinitely worse, or that there is a number
of pinpricks (greater than or equal to one) such that adding another
pinprick makes things infinitely worse, or that there is a tiny
amount of value such that there is no amount of happiness which
could improve the world by that level of value.
The argument goes like this. We can imagine
a long sequence of levels of intensity of suffering from extreme
agony down to a pinprick, each of which differs from the one before
it by a barely detectable amount. If we want to avoid the discontinuity
in the badness of the intensity of suffering, then the suffering
of a million people at the extreme agony intensity level must be
only finitely many times as bad as the suffering of a million people
at the next intensity level down, which is only finitely many times
as bad as the suffering at the next level, and so on all the way
down to the level of the pinprick. This implies that suffering at
the very high intensity level is only finitely times worse than
the suffering at the pinprick level.
Moreover unless, there is to be a case
where n+1 people getting a pinprick is infinitely worse than n people
getting a pinprick (for n greater than or equal to 1), we can run
a similar argument moving from a million people receiving a pinprick
down to a single person and show that the former must only be finitely
many times worse than the latter. We thus get the conclusion that
while a million people in agony is terrible, it is still only finitely
times as bad as a single person receiving a pinprick.
Because we are not discussing strict Lexical
NU, we know that the badness of a single person suffering a single
pinprick can be outweighed by some amount of happiness. For concreteness,
let's imagine that the happiness of a happy year of life with no
suffering is enough to outweigh a pinprick (it seems implausible
to reject this, but if you do, then choose some other example).
It follows that the goodness of stopping a million people
suffering in agony is only finitely many times as good as a happy
year of life.
Now we can build upwards again. Unless
there is a tiny amount of value such that no amount of additional
happiness can ever be worth that amount of value, then we can imagine
an increasing chain of valuable states of nature, starting with
a happy year of life and ending with something X times better (for
any X), which proceeds by tiny steps of value. Since we can always
add enough happiness to move through this progression, there must
be an amount of happiness X times better than a year of a happy
life. There must therefore be an amount of happiness so valuable
that it is more valuable than avoiding a million people being in
extreme agony, contradicting Lexical Threshold NU.
Lexical Threshold NU must therefore accept
some kind of discontinuity. Either that there are two very similar
levels of intensity of suffering such that the slightly more intense
suffering is infinitely worse, or that there is a number of pinpricks
(greater than or equal to one) such that adding another pinprick
makes things infinitely worse, or that there is a tiny amount of
value such that there is no amount of happiness which could improve
the world by that level of value.
All of these options look very unintuitive
to me — especially when we had reason to doubt the intuition
about large number cases which originally motivated the Lexical
Threshold view. However, they are not quite so bad as the earlier
problems besetting the advocates of Absolute and Lexical NU. I can
imagine someone biting one of these bullets if they really needed
to. If so, they should make sure to read the 'worse-for-everyone'
argument, which is even harder to stomach.
Some proponents of this view would perhaps
instead be tempted to modify their view, so that for any amount
of suffering, there is always some amount of happiness that can
outweigh it, but that this may be a vast amount of happiness, because
suffering matters more from a moral point of view than does happiness.
This is the view that I've called Weak NU.
Weak NU — The incoherence argument
A major problem with Weak NU is that it
appears to be incoherent. What could it mean for suffering to matter
more than happiness? It suggests an image such as this:
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.
The only things I can think of to put these
on the same scale are:
1) How morally good/bad it is.
2) How much it contributes to an individual's
Classical Utilitarians typically use (1)
or (2) to set this scale, and since Classical Utilitarianism holds
the moral value of an outcome to be the sum of the individuals'
wellbeing, it doesn't much matter whether they define this with
(1) or (2).
Weak Negative Utilitarians can't use (1)
to set this scale, as otherwise they would have to say that a unit
of happiness is just as morally important as a unit of suffering
and they would just be Classical Utilitarians. I therefore think
that the only coherent version of Weak NU is to use (2) to set the
common scale between suffering and happiness. However, if they do
so, they (along with all other Negative Utilitarians) fall victim
to what I think is the main argument against NU.
All forms of NU — The worse-for-everyone
In their day to day lives, people make
tradeoffs between happiness and suffering. They go to the gym, they
work hard in order to buy themselves nicer food, they sprint for
the bus to make it to the theatre on time, they read great books
and listen to beautiful music when they could instead be focusing
on removing suffering from their lives. According to all commonly
held theories of wellbeing, such tradeoffs can improve people's
However, there is a big problem for NU
in how it assesses these tradeoffs. Absolute NU and Lexical NU say
that no such tradeoff can be moral, as does Lexical Threshold NU
if the amount of suffering is greater than its threshold. Weak NU
says that some such tradeoffs can be moral, but if it accepts (2),
it must claim that there are tradeoffs which are good for the individual
but morally bad overall. For example, if you think that happiness
is only a tenth as morally important as suffering, and are using
the contribution of happiness and suffering to wellbeing as your
measuring stick, then you must think that very many tradeoffs that
successfully improve an individual's wellbeing are morally bad —
even if they don't affect the wellbeing of anyone else.
Indeed, suppose that there was a situation
in which all individuals want to accept 5 wellbeing units of suffering
in order to gain 10 wellbeing units of happiness. This would be
in everyone's interest. However, Weak NU would say that it was impermissible,
and that it is instead obligatory to prevent it (for very weak versions
of NU with exchange rates less than 2 to 1 a new example can easily
be constructed). NU is thus not a theory that supports the overall
interests of individuals. It may support each of the components
of their wellbeing in isolation, but it is biased between them in
a way that is counter to promoting their wellbeing. In this way
it systematically harms people.
It might be rare to have a case where everyone
is made worse off at once, but there are greatly many lesser cases.
For example, in some cases it 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.
Other things being equal, you are obligated to prevent your friends
and family improving their wellbeing through their judicious tradeoffs
too. I find this to be an absurd consequence.
Note that Absolute or Lexical NU could
avoid this if they said that happiness didn't contribute to wellbeing
at all, or that it only broke ties, but this would be a crazy view
about what is good for someone. Lexical Threshold NU could avoid
this in cases below its threshold if it said that happiness and
suffering were equally important below that level, but this would
create a particularly odd kind of discontinuity and wouldn't seem
to satisfy their intuitions either.
Implausible practical implications
Many advocates of NU claim that on average
human lives have net negative intrinsic moral value. This must be
true of Absolute NU, Lexical NU, and Strong Practically-Negative
Utilitarianism. It is also the kind of thing that advocates of Lexical
Threshold NU and Weak NU tend to say. However, this has some really
For example, it implies that other things
being equal it would be good if people get murdered or if one's
mother were to die. Things are not always equal, and you may perhaps
think that in many cases the bad secondary effects are enough to
outweigh the benefits of the people dying. I find this difficult
to believe since according to NU, one's mother's death is astoundingly
good: roughly as good as eliminating all of her suffering and having
her live out the rest of her live in constant bliss. It seems unlikely
to me that the pain of family members' grief would outweigh this
great 'benefit' (particularly if you remember that your mother would
otherwise experience such grief too, and that she would otherwise
die at a later date inflicting almost the same amount of grief on
loved ones). However, even if secondary effects always conspire
to restore a semblance of normality, a Negative Utilitarian would
still have to believe that it is great for the person when they
get murdered and would be great overall if only people didn't react
so badly to it. This is a large bullet to bite.
Similarly, it also 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. This turns healthcare
policy debates on their heads and means we shouldn't be emulating
France or Germany, but should instead look to copy failed states
such as North Korea.
This list could easily be extended, either
focusing on the fact that many forms of NU would prefer almost everyone
dead, or on the fact that they would resist people making happiness/suffering
tradeoffs which are in those people's interests.
I hope by now I've shown that there are
a number of serious looking problems for NU. If you were a supporter
of some form of NU, then perhaps you are trying to work out some
way to hold onto your view, or to invent a new variant that manages
to avoid some of the most serious arguments. Before you do, I'd
like to invite you to consider some of the reasons that you might
have initially become interested in NU and see if there aren't other
views that would fit those intuitions just as well but without such
Typical examples that motivate NU can be
be captured by other views. For example, in the earlier quotation,
'human suffering makes a direct moral appeal,
namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase
the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway'
Popper's example involves removing suffering
from someone rather than adding happiness to someone who is already
happy. It thus involves two contrasts. One is between improving
the lot of a worse-off person or a better-off person, and one is
between improving a life through the addition of happiness or the
removing of suffering. There is a well known moral intuition that
we should prioritise helping the worse off and this is much more
widely accepted than NU. Perhaps this is what is lying behind people's
intuitions that they should help the suffering person over the happy
To test this, consider a case where the
you could avoid minor suffering in the life of someone who has been
extremely fortunate and is very happy, or you could bestow some
happiness to someone whose life is truly wretched. If you would
prefer to grant the happiness in this case, or if you even feel
much more uncertain about it, then that is an indication that you
were at least partly motivated by concerns for the worst off rather
than the primacy of relieving suffering. Such an intuition can be
accounted for in the theories of Prioritarianism, Egalitarianism,
and Sufficientarianism. I think that these theories are themselves
flawed (which goes beyond the scope of this essay), but I find them
much more plausible than NU.
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. Again I don't support these alternative theories, but they
are much more supported in the philosophical community than NU.
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. I agree that
there is an intuition of something abhorrent here, but this intuition
is normally taken to be a non-consequentialist one. The problem
seems to be something to do with the unsavoury connection between
the joys of the utopia and the forced suffering. For example, it
would still seem problematic if the utopia involved less suffering
overall than the alternative society, and this cannot be squared
with a move to NU. I think there is also something similar going
on in David Pearce's remark that a large amount of happiness wouldn't
'justify' Auschwitz. Justifying it involves some kind of close and
deliberate connection that isn't involved in mere 'outweighing',
and NU is only supposed to be concerned with outweighing.
Another intuition which I think is at the
core of many putative arguments for NU, is that there is a moral
obligation to prevent suffering, but no obligation to increase happiness.
Indeed, this intuition is shared by many people who think that happiness
is good and that it can outweigh suffering. It is normally taken
to be an intuition in favour of non-consequentialist theories, which
say that increasing happiness is still morally valuable, but it
is super-erogatory (above and beyond duty).
In contrast, versions of NU that claim
it is not obligatory to increase happiness accord happiness no moral
value whatsoever — something that most people find very implausible.
Note also that NU cannot just claim that there is no obligation
to increase happiness. If it does that, then since it is consequentialist,
it must also hold that there is no problem in destroying it, and
that we are indeed obligated to destroy happiness if we can therefore
avoid some suffering. I don't support non-consequentialism, but
I do think it fits our intuitions better than NU here, and I find
it more plausible than NU overall. Moreover, the rest of the philosophical
community finds it exceedingly more plausible than NU overall.
Finally, Classical Utilitarianism can of
course make sense of many of the intuitive cases that lead people
to support NU, if we take care to consider the practical effects
that typically go along with the cases. For example, the decision
procedure (or rule of thumb) of focusing on eliminating suffering
seems to lead to more Classical Utilitarian value than addressing
suffering and happiness in equal measure. As another example, adding
happiness to those who are already happy seems to typically lead
to less Utilitarian value than using the same resources to alleviate
suffering. However, whether you move on to Classical Utilitarianism,
or somewhere else, I would certainly urge you to reconsider whether
NU with its remarkable downsides is the best theory for fitting
[Posted 28 Feb 2013. Last updated
1 Mar 2013]
 Note that while Benatar, Schopenhauer, and Buddhism are all
strongly against suffering, none of them actually espouse Negative
Utilitarianism. The former's view is to do with population ethics
and the latter two do not even appear to be Consequentialists of
 Karl Popper, The Open Society and
Its Enemies, vol. 1. Routledge. pp. 284–285 (see also
note 6 to chapter 5)
 R. N. Smart. 'Negative Utilitarianism',
Mind 67:542–3. 1958.
 J. J. C. Smart. Utilitarianism:
For and Against. pp. 28–30.
 Karl Popper, The Open Society and
Its Enemies, vol. 2. Addenda I. 13.
 David Pearce, 'Why be negative?', http://www.hedweb.com/negutil.htm