Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition


B.Contestabile      Jul 2014








Starting point

         Serge-Christoph Kolm suggests that “Buddhism advocating minimizing dukkha (pain, dissatisfaction) – rather than maximizing sukkha (from which “sugar” comes) may be a kind of negative welfarism.”

         Christoph Fehige, after suggesting that “Maximizers of preference satisfaction should instead call themselves minimizers of preference frustration”, concludes that Buddha is on his side.





Indian cave wall painting of Avalokiteśvara

Ajaṇṭā Caves, 6th century CE.



Type of Problem

What are the common intuitions of negative utilitarianism and Buddhism?




Three intuitions are investigated:

1.      Existence is a good.

This intuition is based on the positive welfare hypothesis, which says that the evolution of sentient beings represents a qualitative and quantitative expansion of welfare.


2.      Non-existence is the smaller evil.

This intuition is based on the negative welfare hypothesis which says the following:

a.      There is no world with positive total welfare. The positive utilitarian intuition is a distorted perception of the risk-benefit ratio, caused by the interest to survive.

b.      Suffering increases in the course of evolution. Happiness increases as well, but – seen from an impartial perspective – less than suffering, so that the totals turn increasingly negative.

The negative welfare hypothesis is compatible with the Noble Truths of Buddhism, which claim that an expansion of desires is tied to an expansion of suffering. The major versions of negative utilitarianism agree with the intuition that – so far – global suffering cannot be compensated by happiness.


3.      Non-existence is a perfect state.

This intuition is based on the expulsion (from paradise) hypothesis which says the following:

a.     The universe was in a perfect state until sentient life started to emerge.

b.    The average life satisfaction – seen from an impartial view – decreased in the course of evolution.

c.     At some point (global) suffering could not be compensated by happiness any more.

The expulsion hypothesis is a weaker form of the negative welfare hypothesis, because it does not exclude that the early species had and – as far as they survived – still have a positive total welfare. But sooner or later in the course of evolution the intensity of pain reached a level which made it impossible to compensate suffering by happiness. The expulsion hypothesis is compatible with negative preference utilitarianism and with those versions of Buddhism, which adopted the Hindu Brahman.




Negative utilitarianism and Buddhism share the following intuitions:

         Negative utilitarianism – understood as an umbrella term – models the asymmetry between suffering and happiness and therefore accords with the Buddhist intuition of universal compassion.

         The Noble Truths of Buddhism accord with the negative utilitarian intuition that (global) suffering cannot be compensated by happiness.

         Some forms of Buddhism and negative utilitarianism share the intuition that non-existence is a perfect state.






Full Text


The full text was published 2014 in


Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 15, Issue 2


pp. 298-311






Further Reading


For more information about Buddhist Intuitions see

         The Denial of the World from an Impartial View

         On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics:

o   Page 108: Non-existence as a perfect state

o   Page 111: Non-existence as the lesser evil


For more information about Negative Utilitarianism see

         Negative Utilitarianism and Justice

         Negative Utilitarian Priorities

         Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering

         Why I’m (Not) a Negative Utilitarian