Hostility to Life and the Minimization of Suffering
by Socrethics First version 2005 Last version 2018
Table of Contents
2.1 The Asymmetry between Suffering and Happiness
2.4 Asymmetric Axiologies
3.1 Prior Existence Utilitarianism
3.2 Prioritarianism with Positive Totals
4.1 Prioritarianism with Negative Totals
4.2 Negative Utilitarianism
6.1 The Veil of Ignorance
6.2 The City of Omelas
6.3 The Battle of Interpretations
There are two moral types of hostility to life:
1. Moral killing
2. The moral ideal of childlessness
The first issue is investigated in Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.
In this paper we concentrate on the second.
Classical utilitarianism has the deficiency, that it favors expansion at the cost of the quality of life, see Repugnant Conclusion. Unconditional expansionism is a characteristic of the utility function of biology (the maximal proliferation of genes). It not only leads to lives with minimal welfare, but also to lives with negative welfare. The ethical goal to minimize suffering – which does not favor this expansion – conflicts with biological forces.
Type of problem
1. Does the asymmetric maximization of happiness have a life-hostile potential?
2. Does the minimization of suffering necessarily lead to a life-hostile theory?
3. Do life-hostile theories minimize suffering?
Asymmetric maximization of happiness:
In prior existence utilitarianism the creation of new lives can theoretically be stopped, if it serves the actual generation.
Minimization of suffering:
If there is a technological solution to the problem of suffering, then the minimization of suffering does not lead to a life-hostile theory. This result is valid for both prioritarianism and negative utilitarianism
Life-hostile theories go with cultural pessimism. But even then: If the degree (level) of suffering increases in a shrinking population, then childlessness may not be the best strategy. This result is valid for both Buddhism and antinatalism.
Risk-averse and compassionate cultures have a life-hostile potential insofar, as they may not be able to survive in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate cultures. If it were possible to reach a global consensus, however, this life-hostile potential disappears.
There are two moral types of hostility to life:
1. Moral killing
2. The moral ideal of childlessness.
The first issue is investigated in Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.
In this paper we concentrate on the second.
Classical utilitarianism has the deficiency, that it favors expansion at the cost of the quality of life, see Repugnant Conclusion. Unconditional expansionism is a characteristic of the utility function of biology (the maximal proliferation of genes). It not only leads to lives with minimal welfare, but also to lives with negative welfare. The ethical goal to minimize suffering – which does not favor this expansion – conflicts with biological forces. The following comic illustrates this conflict:
Type of problem
1) Does the asymmetric maximization of happiness have a life-hostile potential?
2) Does the minimization of suffering necessarily lead to a life-hostile theory?
3) Do life-hostile theories minimize suffering?
The ethical goal to minimize suffering is guided by compassion (chapter 2.2) and risk-aversion (chapter 2.3). As compared to social contract theory it seems to be built on emotions. But these emotions have a cognitive aspect. Compassion and risk-aversion
▪ reflect the asymmetry between suffering and happiness (chapter 2.1)
▪ are a rational answer to the fact that a significant part of our self exists in others (chapter 2.2)
From the perspective of Rawls’ Original Position compassion and risk-aversion are the same.
1. Life is subordinated to the law of thermodynamics and destined to decay. Suffering is unavoidable because of accidents, defeats, illnesses and aging. Happiness is avoidable; it can be terminated at any point in time.
2. States in which the organism is well-functioning are lower entropy than dysfunctional states. There is evolutionary pressure to assign pain to dysfunction [Shulman]
1. There are genetic defects which cause immense suffering (e.g. Sickle-cell disease). No corresponding phenomenon is known which causes immense happiness.
2. There are more cases of chronic pain than cases of long-lasting pleasure.
3. Due to evolutionary pressure, creatures are capable of experiencing more intense pain than pleasure. The pleasure of orgasm is less than the pain of deadly injury, since death is a much larger loss of reproductive success than a single sex act is a gain [Shulman].
Recent results from the neurosciences demonstrate that pleasure and pain are not two symmetrical poles of a single scale of experience but in fact two different types of experiences altogether, with dramatically different contributions to well-being. These differences between pleasure and pain and the general finding that “the bad is stronger than the good” have important implications for our treatment of nonhuman animals. In particular, whereas animal experimentation that causes suffering might be justified if it leads to the prevention of more suffering, it can never by justified merely by leading to increased levels of happiness [Shriver].
1. It is easy to make someone unhappy but much less easy to make that person happy again. It is easier to produce suffering than to produce happiness.
Bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena (see Bad Is Stronger Than Good).
2. A repetition of painful experiences leads to higher sensitivity, a repetition of pleasant experiences leads to lower sensitivity.
3. Given an initial level of happiness it is more likely to return to this level after a happy event (like marriage), than after an unhappy event (like divorce) [Diener].
4. There is a kind of suffering which causes irreversible damage to the psyche. There is no kind of happiness which causes irreversible stability to the psyche.
5. Technological as well as natural risks are probably underestimated; see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering. The repression of the extreme cases of suffering and the repression of death are necessary conditions to lead a decent life.
For more examples see Negativity Bias, Wikipedia.
The following asymmetry in the acceptance of suffering and happiness seems to improve the survival value of the community:
▪ It is more difficult to take part in other people’s suffering than to take part in other people’s joy.
▪ A person who masters his/her grief gets more recognition than a person who remains controlled in the hour of triumph.
▪ Compassion and tears are considered to be a sign of weakness (unless the emotions express admiration for heroic people). Conversely happiness is
interpreted as a sign of strength so that people don’t hesitate to show it.
[Smith, chapter 1, section 3].
2. The “law” of diminishing marginal utility and the logarithmic effect of absolute income on happiness (see Easterlin Paradox) may have their reason in the psychological asymmetry between suffering and happiness
4. In prospect theory, loss aversion refers to people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains (loss aversion, Wikipedia).
5. A loss creates a greater feeling of pain compared to the joy created by an equivalent gain, see Behavioral Finance.
Physical embodiment, impermanence and transience prevent any permanent satisfaction of preferences. The phenomenology of suffering is not a simple mirrorimage of happiness, mainly because it involves a much higher urgency of change. In most forms of happiness this centrally relevant subjective quality which I have termed the “urgency of change” is absent, because they do not include any strong preference for being even more happy. In fact, a lot of what we describe as “happiness” may turn out to be a relief from the urgency of change. The subjective sense of urgency, in combination with the phenomenal quality of losing control and coherence of the phenomenal self, is what makes conscious suffering a very distinct class of states, not just the negative version of happiness. This subjective quality of urgency is also reflected in our widespread moral intuition that, in an ethical sense, it is much more urgent to help a suffering person than to make a happy person even happier [Metzinger, 254-255].
The best known description of an asymmetry between happiness and suffering is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
▪ In Western philosophy the Buddhist view was taken up by Schopenhauer.
▪ In contemporary ethics happiness is not devaluated as radically as in Buddhism, but the existence of an asymmetry is hardly contended.
Following some examples:
1) The ethical goal:
The positive utilitarian imperative to "maximize happiness" is insatiable, while the negative utilitarian command to "minimize misery" is satiable: no matter how much happiness we have, the positive principle tells us that more would always be better. But the negative principle ceases to generate any obligations once a determinate but demanding goal has been reached: if misery could be eliminated, no further obligation would be implied by the negative principle [Wolf].
2) Risk ethics considers chances as well, but the emphasis is on the risks. There is no symmetrical “ethics of chances”.
3) Ethical priorities
The normative claim that an increase of welfare is more deserving at low levels of welfare than at high levels can be found in numerous publications [Broome 2004, 224] [Lumer, 6] [Holtug, 13] [Mayerfeld] [Chauvier].
Following some citations:
▪ 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 [Popper, 235, note 6(2) ].
▪ I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness (…). 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 [Popper, 284].
▪ It is more important to relieve suffering than to increase (already happy people’s) happiness. We can retain this important intuition (…) by giving more weight to negative welfare than to positive welfare by, for example, incorporating some version of the Priority View in our axiology [Arrhenius 2000, 138].
▪ Even classical utilitarians admit that in most cases the reduction of suffering should have a higher priority than the promotion of happiness [Fricke, 14]
It is easier to find a consensus on the kinds of suffering to be combated, than on the kinds of happiness to be promoted.
Empathy is a psychological concept that describes the ability of one person (the so called observer) to feel in another person (the target). Most contemporary empathy researchers agree that two different aspects of empathy have to be distinguished: the cognitive and the affective aspect [Davis]:
1. One speaks of cognitive empathy, if the outcome of an empathic process is that the observer knows what the target feels.
2. One speaks of affective empathy, if the observer feels something while perceiving the target
Empathy might be created by mirror neurons in the human brain [Goldstein, 321], i.e. by a function which enables imitation learning and dissolves the barrier between the self and others (i.e. enhances the perception of the self). It has been speculated that empathy may be an essential part of the cause of moral and social behavior in humans and animals (see e.g. the research of Tania Singer).
- if the law-maker is conscious, that his role of observer (of suffering) can turn into the role of the target.
- if the law-maker thinks rational
Cognitive empathy gets support from recent discoveries in biology. There is a close genetic relation between all humans.
On average, in DNA sequence, each human is 99.9% similar to any other human (Human Genetic Variation).
The characteristics of an individual is also formed by the environment and by chance (not only by genes), but the phenotype and the socially caused differences belie the wide commonalities. There are good reasons to claim that the 0.1% genomic difference of and the life story form individuality, but why should the other 99.9% not be an important part of our “self”? The higher the degree of suffering, the more we are all alike, i.e. the peculiarities of an individual’s gene combination and life story become unimportant.
A person can also apply cognitive empathy to him-/herself. It is a cognitive achievement to look into the future and think about one’s destiny. It is possible to consider the person one will be in the future like a different person. In this case the look into the future is similar to an empathic process. As far as the observer knows what the target (in this case the person, that observer will be in the future) feels, it is an example of cognitive empathy.
1) If the person is conscious that his/her “role of observer” will turn into the “role of the target” and
2) if the person thinks rational
then the Golden Rule can be applied within the same person.
Not only the person we will be in the future, but also the person we were in the past may appear to us like a different person.
Personalities change. You are not the person you were as a child, or even last year [Young, 29]. Four to eight weeks of psychotherapy and even a single session of consuming magic mushrooms can have a big effect on personality. As a scientific concept, the idea of a “true self” is not tenable [Young, 31].
If an elder person looks at his/her own past self, then
- the difference in time (different life phases, change of physical appearance and character traits) is experienced like
- a difference in space (other persons with different physical appearance and character traits).
The position of the ego becomes relative.
This may lead to the insight that we could be a different person, or any other person and – as a consequence – that the suffering of others is as real and as important as one’s own suffering.
Usually in the morning we wake up and remember our names, our occupation and our plans. We do not question our identity [Hampe 2014, 396].
▪ But sometimes we wake up in a foreign place and temporarily lose orientation. If this place (e.g. a hotel with a certain piece of furniture or painting) resembles a place where we have been in the past, then it can make us believe – for a moment – that we are in a different stage of our life.
▪ A similar phenomenon is known from dreams. In dreams it is not uncommon to have the consciousness of a younger, or older, or even unfamiliar person.
▪ Others suffer from a nightly stroke, lose a part of their memory and wake up as a permanently changed person. Whereas these people usually feel that they have lost something, others don’t:
People with retrograde amnesia, for example, can lose memories from before the accident or illness that caused it, while retaining the ability to lay down new memories. They do not feel as if their self has been wiped out [Young, 32].
▪ Again others can reconstruct with memory flashes, how they developed step by step the feeling of a self – a kind of awakening from the void.
We have no control over these different kinds of awakening.
The “self” is a transient and contingent phenomenon [Hampe 2014, 403] which – metaphorically spoken – can change, emerge or end every night.
The Other Self
If you awake in the morning
and clearly recall the past
then you are still the same
and your self is secured by its history.
But if you wake up with new eyes
and slowly begin to see
then you are no more the same
and your other self died with its memories.
Compassion is affective empathy in response to other people’s suffering. The more cognitive empathy is accompanied by affective empathy, the more it controls behavior.
- The closer the relation to the suffering individual, the more affective empathy becomes dominant. The root of compassion is the biological utility function and the corresponding family relations. But the feeling of closeness can also emerge independent of the family. The more intense the suffering of an individual, the less he/she is a competitor, rival or opponent. It is easier to stay emotionally distant; if the victim is self-responsible for his/her suffering, but only up to a certain point. In extreme cases of suffering the judgment prevails, that nobody deserves such a fate. The saying “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy” catches the essence of this phenomenon.
- If the feeling of closeness is lacking, then affective empathy often causes a spontaneous refutation, urging the observer to turn away. We don’t want “something like that” to exist. It disturbs, strikes as unpleasant or frightens.
It is known, that personal experiences of suffering enhance the capability to feel compassion. It is not required though, that these experiences must be exactly the same or have the same intensity as the ones of a victim. Personal experiences of suffering also change the attitude towards one’s own risks. A person who acts against his/her own interests is either not informed or irrational. In the latter case an empathic moral law could be used to protect the person from him/herself. But most people refuse a corresponding restriction of autonomy.
Example: A person sometimes changes his/her character within lifetime in such a way, that he/she seems to be a different person. The “person of age 15” does not much care about the “person of age 50” and smokes e.g. fully conscious of the risk of lung cancer. This lack of compassion within the same person is similar to the one across different persons.
Would the world become a better place, if we could feel the suffering of others more? That depends on the way empathy is applied. In everyday life empathy is biased and encourages unjust decisions [Bloom]. If empathy is combined with impartiality, however, then the corresponding decisions are based on cost-benefit analysis and do not favor a particular group of people (see Negative Utilitarian Priorities).
The Open Philanthropy Project proposes radical empathy, i.e. an extension of empathy to all sentient beings. In the past we often discarded major sources of suffering because of our lack of knowledge.
Definition of Risk
In order to define risk, one has to define situations like loss, catastrophe or undesirable outcome. Risk can be expressed in terms of financial loss, suffering, risk of dying etc. This definition makes clear, that risk can only be valuated relative to a goal. If not mentioned otherwise in this paper, the term risk relates to suffering.
Definition of Risk-aversion
1) Risk-aversion is
- the preference for a more certain, but lower, expected payoff (e.g. a bank account with a low but guaranteed interest rate).
- opposite to a higher, but less certain expected payoff (e.g. stocks)
For an example see Interactive Tutorial on Risk-Aversion.
The opposite of risk-aversion is risk-tolerance.
3) A person is risk-seeking if it is attracted to risk, i.e. he/she prefers an investment with a lower expected return but greater risk, to a no-risk investment with a higher expected return. Example: A bungee-jumper pays for risk.
Expected utility theory
The concept of risk-aversion was first introduced in the context of expected utility theory.
The expected utility theory generally accepts the assumption that individuals are risk averse, meaning that the individual would refuse a fair gamble (a fair gamble has an expected value of zero), and also implying that their utility functions are concave and show diminishing marginal utility. The risk attitude is directly related to the curvature of the utility function:
- risk neutral individuals have linear utility functions
- risk seeking individuals have convex utility functions
- risk averse have concave utility functions.
The degree of risk aversion can be measured by the curvature of the utility function (Expected utility hypothesis, Wikipedia)
Prioritarianism models the asymmetry between suffering and happiness (chapter 3.2).
An increase of welfare is more deserving at low levels of welfare than at high levels [Broome 2004, 224] [Lumer, 6].
The cognitive aspect of risk-aversion
According to which criteria can we say that we learn something in life? To what extent is the perception of risk in the second half of life "more true" or "more realistic" than in the first half? Is this perception not just a mirror of the personal situation, as in the first half of life? There is undoubtedly a strong part of the evaluation which reflects the current situation. But the evaluations in the second half of life additionally have a comparative and cumulative character. Earlier evaluations can be corrected:
- The young people’s phantasy of an unlimited expansion of capacities is gradually corrected. Advice concerning the transience of power and love has no effect on adolescents, but only the experience of personal failure.
- There are not only transcendent experiences of happiness, but also transcendent experiences of suffering. In traumatic experiences the affected person is offset in a world of nightmares, which cannot be intellectually understood and assessed. The feeling of invulnerability which is inherent to the youthful (and still undefeated) observer is abruptly rebutted in the trauma. The "being out-of-oneself" of pain often induces a strategy of avoidance and a lower-risk way of living. A traumatic experience can change the character of a person even in early youth. But the usual course of things is an increase of traumatic experiences towards the end of life, whereby the world of nightmares slowly becomes real. Risk-aversion grows with negative experiences and – in the course of life – the proportion of negative surprises (accidents, illnesses, loss of close persons etc.) increases relative to the positive ones. As a consequence older people are more prudent than young ones, independent of the initial attitude and the individual sensitivity.
- The feeling that life lasts almost indefinitely, that death is far away, is gradually corrected by physical decay. In old age a kind of reversal situation arises as compared to the adolescence. The body, which was a source of joy, becomes a source of suffering. For young people the body procures a feeling of freedom, for old people it becomes a prison. The mind, which is locked in the body, looks for an escape.
One experiences happiness as a gift
and later realizes that it was a credit.
There is a controversial discussion about the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation, i.e. about the capability to adapt (get used) to suffering. Adaptation depends on the kind of happiness or suffering. Prospect Theory e.g. discovered specific curves for risk-aversion in the context of monetary wins and losses. But the suffering involved in losing money is not representative for other kinds of suffering. The intensity of physical pain has an exponential dimension. As far as extreme pain goes with mortal danger, it makes no sense – from an evolutionary perspective – to get used to it.
There are basically two ways to implement asymmetric axiologies:
(1) Asymmetric notion of a life worth living.
- Prior Existence Utilitarianism (chapter 3.1)
- Buddhism (chapter 3.1)
- Antinatalism (chapter 5.2)
(2) Weighting functions or asymmetric hedonistic scales.
- Prioritariansm (chapter 3.2 and 4.1)
- Modern Negative Utilitarianism (chapter 4.2)
(A) The axiologies described so far upgrade the weight of suffering.
(B) But there is also an asymmetry in favor of happiness, the so-called existence bias:
Except from cases like physical suffering and/or mental depression the existence bias generates a permanent feeling of satisfaction to exist. The capability to forget negative events, to limit compassion and to look optimistic into the future improves a persons’ biological fitness. The majorities’ perception of suffering and risk is accordingly distorted. The axiologies used for statistics about life satisfaction often do not even contain negative numbers. Examples: Hospital axiology, Satisfaction with Life Index, World Happiness Report etc.
As a consequence there is a competition between axiologies of type (A) and axiologies of type (B). This competition is illustrated in chapter 6.
Synonyms: Prior existence view, Asymmetry [Arrhenius 2000, 137]
In the prevalent classical utilitarian concept, the so called total view, the risks of additional people are justified by their chances. The total view, as shown in the Mere Addition Paradox, is confronted with the Repugnant Conclusion.
Prior existence utilitarianism avoids the Repugnant Conclusion (proliferation of lives with minimal welfare), because a possible positive value of new lives is not counted as a reason for bringing them into existence [Singer][Benatar].
In prior existence utilitarianism the actual population is benefited by the Asymmetry principle:
1) The well-being of possible people doesn’t count as a reason for bringing them into existence. However, their probable misery counts as a reason for not bringing them into existence [Arrhenius 2000, 115].
2) Adding a life with positive welfare neither makes a population better nor worse, other things being equal. Adding a life with negative welfare makes a population worse, other things being equal [Arrhenius 2000, 137].
The competing total view maintains that there is an inconsistency in prior existence utilitarianism:
If the pain a possible child will experience is a reason against bringing it into the world, why is the pleasure a possible child will experience not a reason for bringing it into the world?
The standard answer is that unborn children don’t suffer from missed opportunities. There are indeed children who say that they are grateful to their parents for having brought them into existence, and that they would have been wronged if they hadn’t been born. But the obvious reply is that, had they not been brought into existence, they also couldn’t have been wronged.
In other words:
▪ The absence of pain is good
▪ The absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure
As a consequence:
▪ We are responsible for the probable misery of future people, but
▪ we have no moral duty to procreate because unborn people do not suffer from missed opportunities.
(Better if it had never been, David Benatar,)
Following a graphical representation of this argument:
This diagram was taken from the internet (Author: unknown)
Prior existence utilitarianism emphasizes that the situation of an existing suffering person doesn’t get better by adding happy people to the population. Disregarding the happiness of possible people, however, creates a problem in the comparison of populations:
Is it counter-intuitive to claim that, other things being equal, we make a population better by creating an extra person with very high welfare? Consider the following two populations: “A” consists of a number of people with very low positive welfare and “B” is a population of the same size as “A” but made up of people with very high welfare. If we have a choice of either adding the A-people or the B-people then the Asymmetry Principle claims that “A” and “B” are equally good or incomparable [Arrhenius 2000, 137]
I think that one of the motivating ideas underlying Asymmetry has to do with the weight of suffering: It is more important to relieve suffering than to increase (already happy people’s) happiness. We can retain this important intuition underlying Asymmetry (perhaps the main intuition underlying it) by giving more weight to negative welfare than to positive welfare by, for example, incorporating some version of the Priority View in our axiology. This move yields that in general, we have a stronger moral reason to refrain from creating people with negative welfare, or to increase the welfare of existing suffering people, than to create people with positive welfare, but it avoids the disagreeable implications of the Asymmetry Principle. [Arrhenius 2000, 138]
Let’s assume that the actual population size can only be maintained, if the consumption of resources (energy, raw materials, food, water etc.) is dramatically reduced. In such a case prior existence utilitarianism promotes maintaining the actual level of welfare at the cost of the population size. Theoretically the creation of new lives can be stopped, if it serves the actual generation.
1. In economics prioritarianism is based on the Pigou-Dalton principle:
Following a suggestion by Pigou (1912), Dalton proposed the condition that a transfer of income from a richer to a poorer person, so long as that transfer does not reverse the ranking of the two, will result in greater equity (Hugh Dalton, Wikipedia)
The theory assumes that total equity has a positive sign before and after the redistribution.
2. Karl Popper denied the compensation of suffering by happiness [Popper] and is therefore associated with negative utilitarianism, but a complete devaluation of happiness does not conform to his intentions:
- Popper used the term pain, and not the terms inconvenience or disturbance when he spoke about the moral dubiety of compensation. The context of his note was the fight against the greatest and most urgent evils of society [Popper, 158]. He never denied compensation in minor cases of suffering.
- If we assume that the moral weight of suffering people is higher than the one of happy people then it becomes difficult to compensate severe cases of suffering. Not because the process of compensation is denied or because happiness has no value, but simply because happiness doesn’t have enough value.
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 [Popper, 235]
This citation suggests that happiness has less priority (value) than the avoidance of suffering; it doesn’t say that happiness has no priority (value).
3. Prioritarians hold that an outcome’s goodness is a function of overall well-being across all individuals, with extra weight given to worse off individuals. This view first appeared under the name “the priority view” in Derek Parfit’s renowned 1991 article “Equality or Priority.” But the idea dates back to Temkin’s 1983 Ph.D. thesis, where it was presented under the name “extended humanitarianism.” And the word “prioritarianism” first appears in Temkin’s “Equality, Priority, and the Leveling Down Objection” (Larry Temkin, Wikipedia)
For the purpose of this paper we can use the terms utility, quality of life, welfare and well-being as synonyms.
▪ In a wider (hedonistic) context, prioritarianism is based on compassion respectively sympathy [Lumer, 2] and risk-aversion. The goal is to maximize general welfare and not only economic welfare (equity). Even classical utilitarians admit that there is an asymmetry in the intuitions about suffering and happiness. They agree that in most cases the reduction of suffering should get a higher moral priority than the increase of happiness, but they insist that there are cases where a minority has to sacrifice themselves in order to increase the happiness of the majority [Fricke, 14].
▪ Prioritarianism or the Priority View is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism thus resembles utilitarianism. Indeed, like utilitarianism, prioritarianism is a form of aggregative consequentialism; however, it differs from utilitarianism in that it does not rank outcomes solely on the basis of overall well-being (Prioritarianism, Wikipedia)
▪ Prioritarianism preserves the efficiency of utilitarianism and a particular concern for those badly off. It doesn’t exclusively concentrate on total welfare but also accounts for an unjust distribution [Lumer].
▪ The core idea of the Priority View is that gains in welfare matter more, the worse off people are, and losses in welfare matter less, the better off people are [Arrhenius 2000, 110]. Prioritarianism defines an axiology for societies with the same number of people [Arrhenius 2000, 110]
Prioritarianism has two aspects
1. In a history of social welfare happy people get less moral weight than suffering people. The devaluation of happiness is a measure for compassion (sympathy, solidarity).
2. In decisions under uncertainty, happy outcomes are morally devaluated relative to unhappy outcomes. The devaluation is a measure for risk-aversion. The decision about the goodness of outcomes conforms to expected utility theory.
For a representative in the Original Position the devaluation is the same in both cases. The measure for compassion in histories corresponds to the measure for risk-aversion in decisions under uncertainty.
History of social welfare
Social welfare is the accumulated well-being of all members of the society.
Imagine a two-person society: its only members are Jim and Pam. We compare the following two histories:
- In society 1, Jim's well-being level is 44 (blissful); Pam's is -32 (hellish); overall well-being is +12.
- In society 2, Jim's well-being level is 4; Pam's is 2; overall well-being is +6.
Prioritarians would say that society 2 is better or more desirable than society 1 despite being lower than society 1 in terms of overall well-being. Bringing Pam up by 34 is weightier than bringing Jim down by 40.
Prioritarianism is arguably more consistent with commonsense moral thinking than utilitarianism when it comes to these kinds of cases, especially because of the prioritarian's emphasis on compassion. It is also arguably more consistent with common sense than radical forms of egalitarianism that only value equality (adapted from Prioritarianism, Wikipedia).
Different Prioritarian Welfare Functions correspond to different degrees of compassion.
How can we valuate welfare in such a way, that society 2 in above example is preferable to society 1?
Roughly, the idea is that we should maximize welfare, but gains in welfare matter more, the worse off people are, and losses in welfare matter less, the better off people are (…). Another way to express this intuition is to say that the marginal value of welfare is diminishing [Arrhenius 2000, 106]. One can achieve this result by applying a strictly increasing concave transformation to the numerical representation of people’s welfare before summing them up [Arrhenius 2008, 8]
Strictly increasing concave transformation means the following: The lower the welfare of an individual is relative to the others, the more weight it gets in the accumulation and vice-versa [Holtug, 13]. The total of all weights (percentages) equals 1 (respectively 100%).
+25 till +50
-25 till +25
-25 till -50
If we apply this weighting function then positive values greater than 25 are cut into half and negative values smaller than -25 doubled:
- In society 1, Jim’s well-being becomes 44/2 = 22, Pam’s -32*2 = -64 and overall well-being -42.
- In society 2, overall well-being is unchanged +6.
Society 2 is now clearly preferable to society 1.
Maximization under conditions of risk
Instead of looking at a history of welfare we can also look into the future and compare possible societies. Prioritarianism represents a compromise between Bayes and Maximin. The more weight is given to the worst case, the more the maximization of utility converges towards Maximin (see A Drink from the Group, Livia Levine).
In order to illustrate the conditions of risk we take the same example as above but assume that there is a choice between society 1 and 2. For a representative in the Original Position the probability is 50% to become Jim and 50% to become Pam:
- In society 1 we have a 50% probability for well-being 44 and a 50% probability for -32 so that the expected welfare amounts to +6.
- In society 2 we have a 50% probability for well-being +4 and a 50% probability for +2 so that the expected welfare amounts to +3.
Under these circumstances the representative would chose society 1, despite of the considerable risk of a hellish life. This corresponds to a risk-neutral strategy.
However, if we transform the values as depicted above, then
- In society 1 we have a 50% probability for well-being +22 and a 50% probability for -64 so that the expected welfare amounts to -21.
- In society 2 the expected welfare is unchanged +3.
Society 2 is now clearly preferable to society 1. The transformation increases the (relative) value of the risks and decreases the (relative) value of the chances. This corresponds to a risk-averse strategy.
Comparison with egalitarianism
Prioritarianism is not vulnerable to the so-called Leveling Down Objection. According to this objection it cannot in any respect, be better to increase equality when this means lowering the welfare of some and increasing the welfare of none (Prioritarianism, Nils Holtug).
The difference between egalitarianism and prioritarianism is the subject of a complex theoretical discussion.
1. John Broome: Equality versus Priority, A useful distinction
2. Marc Fleurbaey (2001), Equality versus Priority, How relevant is the distinction?
3. Nils Holtug (2004), Prioritarianism
Comparison with classical utilitarianism
Prioritarianism is challenged by classical utilitarianism. Instead of applying a weighting function (as in the table above) the revaluation can be realized within the metric of the hedonistic scale. The problem consists in finding a universally valid metric for assigning numbers to each degree of happiness and suffering. This problem, however, concerns classical utilitarianism as well as prioritarianism. John Broome maintains that an appropriate metric makes the priority view obsolete. Why should we measure the degree of suffering and then apply a weighting function? Why not define the degree in such a way, that it expresses the moral value (weight) we want to give it?
If the priority view should turn out to be untenable, that would not be the failure of a substantive view that the good of worse-off people deserves priority. It would simply be because we have no metric for a person’s good that is independent of the priority we assign it [Broome 1991, 222].
For the suffering people it doesn’t make a difference which technique is used, as long as the asymmetry in the priority of (the avoidance of) suffering and happiness is accounted for. The reason for using a prioritarian weighting function is a practical one. Existing measurements of life satisfaction are based on classical utilitarian metrics.
- The Eurobaromenter survey e.g. asks “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the life you lead?”
- The World Values Survey asks “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, not at all happy?”
- Still another survey asked: “How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” where answers are indicated on a 7-point scale ranging from “completely satisfied” to “completely dissatisfied”.
Point scales insinuate a linear metric. Only a prioritarian weighting function (applied to these point scales) can account for the asymmetry between suffering and happiness.
▪ A prioritarian weighting function can only be applied to changes in welfare, but not to changes in population size. Prioritarianism defines an axiology for comparing societies with the same number of people [Arrhenius 2000, 110].
▪ If two populations with the same weighting function are compared, however, then the Repugnant Conclusion applies as well as in classical utilitarianism.
Prioritarianism has a life-hostile potential insofar, as a highly risk-averse and compassionate society may not be able to survive in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate societies. If prioritarianism is based on a global consensus, however, this life-hostile potential disappears.
In the area of distributive justice (distribution of economic welfare) prioritarianism cannot yield negative totals.
In the context of general welfare, however, it is possible to
- decrease the moral value of the happy majority and to
- increase the moral value of the suffering minority
in such a way, that total welfare turns negative.
The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
The relative priority of (the avoidance of) suffering expresses a consensus on compassion and risk-aversion. If total welfare turns negative then the maximization of happiness turns into a minimization of suffering.
The following table shows
1. how total welfare can turn negative, if an exponential weighting function is applied
2. how the measurement of life satisfaction with a 5-point scale can be converted into a cardinal scale.
x = welfare in units of 20%
w = moral weight
(x times w)
+30 till +50
+10 till +30
-10 till +10
-30 till -10
-50 till -30
Total 1000 persons
Exponential weighting functions have e.g. been proposed by [Lumer].
In this example there are many more happy people than suffering ones, but (because of the exponential weighting function) total welfare turns negative (-1011).
The numbers in above table and the weighting function are just an example to illustrate the mechanism of valuation. They can be modified or replaced as long as total welfare remains negative.
Comparison with classical utilitarianism
The following picture shows a very simplified population, with a happy majority and a suffering minority:
§ Classical utilitarianism: The suffering of the minority is compensated by the happiness of the majority, so that total welfare is positive.
§ Prioritarianism: The application of a weighting function (as demonstrated in the table above) turns total welfare negative.
Classical utilitarianism Prioritarianism with
Comparison with negative utilitarianism
Instead of applying a weighting function the revaluation can be realized within the metric of the hedonistic scale. If negative values are given a high negative number and positive values a low positive number, then total welfare turns negative as well as in prioritarianism.
Prioritarianism is functionally equivalent to the Modern Negative Utilitarianism, see chapter 4.2.
With respect to the life-hostile potential it does not matter, if negative total welfare is caused
▪ by a weighting function (as in prioritarianism) or
▪ by the metric of the hedonistic scale (as in negative utilitarianism).
Insofar the following investigation also applies to prioritarianism with negative totals.
Negative utilitarianism (NU) is an umbrella term for ethics which models the asymmetry between suffering and happiness [Fricke, 14].
NU includes concepts that
1. assign a relative priority to the avoidance of suffering: Modern Negative Utilitarianism
2. assign an absolute priority to the avoidance of suffering: Negative Total Utilitarianism
3. consider non-existence to be the best state of affairs: Negative Preference Utilitarianism
The Modern NU is functionally equivalent to prioritarianism:
§ In prioritarianism total welfare can turn negative because of a weighting function.
§ In the Modern NU the total can turn negative because of the metric of the hedonistic scale.
See chapter 4.1.
The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
The Noble Truths of Buddhism accord with the negative utilitarian intuition that (global) suffering cannot be compensated by happiness, see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition. But whereas Buddhism is basically pessimistic, NU is open to both cultural pessimism and optimism.
The figure below shows different populations with negative total welfare
▪ population size represented by column width
▪ average level of negative welfare represented by column height.
In above example social welfare = (population size) x (average level of welfare) of the optimistic scenario is slightly more negative than the one of the nomadic society, so that the nomadic society would have to be preferred. This result, however, is counter-intuitive to most people and is called Negative Repugnant Conclusion [Broome 2004, 213]. In order to avoid the Negative Repugnant Conclusion one has to disregard the population size and focus on the average level of welfare [Chao].
Theoretically negative average utilitarianism has a theoretical deficiency as well, because
▪ a single person with a certain level of suffering (e.g. -6 points on a -10 point scale) is morally worse than
▪ a huge population with a minimally lesser (average) level of suffering (e.g. -5.9 points)
But in the comparison of nations this argument does not apply.
There are additional theoretical deficiencies [Arrhenius, 54-57], but despite of that average utilitarianism is the most popular axiology among welfare economists [Arrhenius, 53]. It allows comparing the welfare of nations and is easy to understand for politicians and voters. A change in the population size
- is morally good, if the average increases
- is morally bad, if the average decreases
Following a comparison of the nomadic with the high-tech societies:
a) Optimistic scenario: Long-term sustainability can be reached despite of the current population growth. The growing world population with its increasing competition and specialization leads to a technological boost in the health care sector and eventually to a lower average level of suffering (middle of above picture). If cultural evolution is seen as a project which reduces the average level of suffering (where otherwise it would persist) and if the success of this project requires a larger number of contributors, then it makes sense to expand the population.
b) Pessimistic scenario: The growing world population leads to a shortage of resources, migration, social conflicts and wars (right hand side of above picture).
Most biologists and sociologists see overpopulation as a serious threat to the quality of human life (Human Overpopulation, Wikipedia)
Each new person makes demands on the earth’s resources, leaving less for the rest of us. So on the average, each new person diminishes the lifetime wellbeing of the rest of us [Broome 2005, 400].
Obviously the moral value of a certain change in the population-size depends on the scenario of the future.
For arguments in favor of cultural optimism and pessimism see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
An empty population is (by definition) preferable to a population with negative average welfare. Above scenarios are based on the thesis that it is impossible to eradicate humanity by global voluntary childlessness or by a conscious violent self-destruction (for the latter see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice). Under these premises negative average utilitarianism is
▪ life-friendly if the state of affairs can be improved with the current or a larger population (optimistic scenario above)
▪ life-hostile if the state of affairs cannot be improved (pessimistic scenario above) and if the shrinking population does not worsen the state of affairs.
In the unlikely case that negative welfare can be eradicated one day (e.g. by transhumanism) the life-hostile potential completely disappears.
The Noble Truths
Following a brief description of the teachings:
- First Noble Truth: “Life is inseparably tied to suffering.”
- Second Noble Truth: “The cause of suffering are attachments (desires) in a world where everything changes, nothing is permanent.”
- Third Noble Truth: “Suffering can be terminated by ending human desire.”
- Forth Noble Truth: “Human desire can be ended by following the Eightfold Path.”
The liberation from suffering fulfills a requirement of the summum bonum (the highest good):
It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
At its origin (which is Theravada) the Buddhist concept concentrated on individual salvation. But the Eightfold Path is tied to the doctrine of reincarnation and therefore implies a concept of justice: a deviation from the Eightfold Path produces reincarnation and corresponding continuous suffering. The dependency of salvation on ethical knowledge induced a controversial debate in early Buddhism. Is there a moral obligation to actively promote ethical knowledge? The idea of a global missionary activity rose up with the Mahajana movement in the 2nd century.
The first Noble Truth has two roots:
1. The fact that the world is transient – that we finally have to give up all attachments – that we are destined to decay.
2. The experience of suffering, combined with cultural pessimism (the intuition that suffering cannot be culturally defeated).
It was prophesied by the Five Forest Brahmana that Siddhartha would become a great chakravartin or "universal monarch". However, if he saw four signs, he would instead become a great sage. After hearing this, Buddha’s father King Suddhodhana tried to keep Siddhartha shielded from the outside world so that he would never see the four signs and become a powerful ruler instead (Suddhodhana, Wikipedia).
But one day the future Buddha managed to leave the palace unnoticed by the guards. On his excursion to the outside world he was confronted with four situations which he understood as signs:
- In the first situation he was shocked by the condition of an old man.
- In the second situation he got to know the suffering of a sick man
- In the third situation he was confronted with a cadaver
- In the fourth situation he was impressed by the calmness of a monk
When he realized, that he was exposed to illness, aging and death as everybody else, he left his wife and his son and went to the jungle where he spent six years in rigorous asceticism, hoping to find a solution to the problem of suffering. This legend suggests that transience and decay is at the root of Buddhism. Only the insight into unrealistic emotional attachments can liberate from suffering. With Zarathustra’s “all joy wants eternity” deception is pre-programmed. We can also replace eternal happiness by the (non-hedonistic) survival at any price or the wish that the most loved persons don’t have to die; the result will be the same. The normative imposition of the reality principle to society is of course a questionable undertaking. But we have to imagine this principle as guideline or warning (as practised in Buddhism) and not as coercion. The reality principle is a reminder of transience, like the Buddhist destruction of sand mandalas or the Christian „Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris“ (“Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”). It prevents from building castles on sand.
This shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
a star at dawn,
a bubble in a stream,
a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
a phantom of a dream.
Diamond Sutra [Fowler, 1]
According to the legend of the four signs the direct confrontation with suffering and transience marks the beginning of the Buddhist reasoning.
The legend says that Buddha’s father tried to keep him from seeing the four signs. That does not exclude that he provided him with an otherwise realistic education. It is plausible to assume that the young Buddha was familiar with the implications of war:
Siddhartha Gautama was born into the kshatriya varna, or caste, of ancient India/Nepal. This was the caste of the warriors, the rulers and aristocrats of ancient India. A typical upbringing of a kshatriya male included study of the Vedas (the earliest religious texts of India) and the study of archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, etc. Although the Buddha’s early life may sound very pampered (…) it would have been very unlikely that Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodhana, would have neglected to provide this rigorous training for the presumptive heir of a small, regional power (and he did not become a world-renouncer until he was about age 29). We may see evidence of this in the language that the Buddha used in expressing Dharma: martial imagery and terms like “charioteer”, “sword and shield,” “war elephants”, “banners,” “fortress,” “archers”, “arrows”, “poisoned arrows,” are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one’s delusions and the oppositions of others (Jeanette Shin, The Buddha as Warrior).
Independent of Buddha’s biography, the cruelties of war played a decisive role in the acceptance and proliferation of Buddhism:
In about 260 BCE the Indian emperor Ashoka waged a bitterly destructive war against the state of Kalinga (…). He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had started, out of a desire for conquest (Ashoka, Wikipedia)
The experience of this war is mentioned as a reason for Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism and the subsequent worldwide expansion of this philosophy from about 250 BCE.
Buddhism is a holistic philosophy. The high significance of compassion indicates that life is interpreted as a whole, that the extreme suffering of certain individuals is seen as the inevitable product of a complex system of causes and effects (in Buddhist terms the working of karma within the realm of samsara). The Buddhist intuition says that suffering on earth surpasses the tolerable level and will persist in the future (see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition). There is only a chance to escape. Liberation has to come from inside.
René Magritte La Promesse
The moral ideal of childlessness
From a Buddhist point of view the creation of egos is a misconception. The suffering which is produced by the transience of the ego can only be alleviated by weakening the attachment to the ego. So why create an ego in the first place? Once the ego is created, its perception is distorted by the will to survive. To ask the actual generation if it evaluates life positively is like asking an addict about his/her preference for drugs. Why should we create a state which forces us to interpret suffering in an endurable way? Buddhist and Hindu monks pursue the moral ideal of childlessness. Hindu monks believe that nothing detracts the human soul more from the path of liberation than the birth of a child (see Hinduismus), a claim that makes sense in the light of genetic reincarnation. The idea that incarnation is undesirable was taken up by Schopenhauer, who is considered to be one of the spiritual fathers of antinatalism.
▪ Antinatalism is the philosophical position that asserts a negative value judgement towards birth. It has been advanced by figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Brother Theodore and David Benatar. Schopenhauer, in his essay On the Suffering of the World clearly advocates childlessness.
For Schopenhauer’s direct quote click here.
▪ Similarly, Benatar argues from the hedonistic premise that the infliction of harm is generally morally wrong and therefore to be avoided, and the intuition that the birth of a new person always entails nontrivial harm to that person, that there exists a moral imperative not to procreate (Antinatalism, Wikipedia).
▪ In Prior Existence Utilitarianism (chapter 3.1) childlessness is a possible means to maximize the welfare of the existing population. In antinatalism childlessness is rather a means to minimize suffering. Philosophical mentors of antinatalism like Sophocles, Philipp Mainländer, Emil Cioran and Peter Wessel Zappfe suggest that the sign of total welfare is negative.
This world is not a place that can be recommended to a child
......not if you love the child.
For an introduction into antinatalist thinking see
1. Better Never to Have Been by David Benatar
2. How to Live As an Antinatalist, Wikipedia
3. Antinatalismus by Karim Akerma
We have to account for risk when evaluating the decisions about new lives. Antinatalists maintain that our perception of risks and chances is distorted by the will – respectively the unconscious coercion – to survive [e.g. Benatar, chapter 3].
1. In daily life many risks are repressed because the imagination of a constant horrible threat (like accidents, earth quakes, strokes etc.) paralysis all activity. Opinion surveys about happiness [Frey] rely on this repression. But the seemingly scientific regularity of daily life is an illusion; the power of contingency is omnipresent [Hampe 2006]. Experiences with contingency might have contributed to the concept of the Hindu Maja, the imagination that we live in an illusory world and that our perception is distorted. The unconscious part of the psyche ignores all risks which are not accessible by the senses.
2. Parents expose their children to a world, where – according to actual science – life does not have any higher meaning:
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference [Dawkins, 80-85]
Current research also suggests that we have a distorted perception of our free will (see An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Freedom of Will). Individuals are basically evolution’s puppets, no matter if they have the feeling to be in control.
3. The mercilessness of nature and the omnipresence of risk are overruled by all kinds of beliefs. Believers of the revealed religions maintain that we are not legitimated to evaluate life or they assume that there is an omniscient god who knows the sense of suffering and doesn’t disclose it to humans. The belief in salvation and the hope that suffering will be compensated by happiness in an ulterior world also contribute to the preference for existence and possibly explain the fact that religiousness correlates positively with the fertility rate of a population [Blume].
4. The degree of risk-aversion, the weighting of the risks and the decision-making in procreation are an individual matter and cannot be delegated to an ethical committee. But it is evident that (even among non-believers) the perception of risks and chances is systematically distorted because the decision to have children is usually taken at an emotional peak of one’s life. From a biological point of view it makes sense to couple procreation with a spontaneous conviction to do the right thing and (at the same time) with a loss of reason and realism:
a. Deciding for parenthood entails subscribing to the human condition. In a state of infatuation it is almost impossible to apprehend what it means to get old and ill and what it means having to die (see empathy gap).
b. Parents imagine their children to become happy. The risk of extreme suffering is often completely neglected or repressed. It is true that the future is unpredictable but it is only the course of life which is unknown and not the immanent risks. The risks are known by statistical data throughout human history. There are attempts to calculate the value of life [e.g. Ackermann, chapter 4] [Fischer] but no attempt has been made to calculate the (negative) value of extreme suffering. The probability may be small but the risk remains and can only be eliminated by renouncing to procreation.
c. If the children suffer then most parents suffer as well. If the children stray from the right path (e.g. by becoming drug-addicted) then they may not only destroy their own life but also the life of their parents.
d. Statements of Holocaust survivors who managed to (later) lead a happy life are taken as examples that all kinds of suffering can be overcome. But overcoming horrible experiences does not mean that one would like to be reborn and go thru the same experiences again.
5. Another distortion concerns the imagination that the life of the children and grandchildren is somehow a continuation of one’s own life. Dynasties resemble pocket-size utopias. The individuals are comforted by the idea that their characteristics will survive within the dynasty. But is that true?
We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes, but that aspect of us will be forgotten in 3 generations. Your child, even your grandchild may bear a passing resemblance to you, perhaps in a talent for music, in the color of her hair. But as each generation passes the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes which is anyone of us, is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendent of Will the Conqueror yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes [Dawkins].
The human genetic individuality corresponds to only 0.1% of the genome (see Human Genetic Variation). These genetic peculiarities are cut in half with each of the following generations. The idea to preserve an individual’s characteristics by building a dynasty proves to be irrational. If we consider the ego as a project in which we have to invest, then we must conclude that this project has no future. Presently it seems that even the characteristics of humanity as a whole will become meaningless. Artificial intelligence and robots may soon surpass humans [Rees, 86].
Why are distorted perceptions not corrected by experience?
A major reason is the fact that experience is systematically annihilated by death. Culture – with the exception of Buddhism – does not have a long-term memory with regard to suffering. The suffering created by past wars, epidemics, natural catastrophes etc. is forgotten as quickly as the fate of extremely suffering individuals.
Why are distorted perceptions not corrected by evolution?
Certain distorted perceptions obviously have a survival value and improve the Darwinian fitness. It seems for instance that the repression of future suffering improves the survival value. If you knew that you will be terribly hurt (or even have to die) tomorrow in a car accident, then the search for happiness would become unimportant. In fact we are in a similar situation at all times. Only the kind of suffering that awaits us and the date of death are unknown. The repression of this thought allows us to lead a decent life.
§ Parents not only repress the risk to create possible victims, they also repress the risk to create possible offenders. The aggressive potential of human nature not only threatens fellow humans but also other species and the ecological equilibrium. A small aspect of this aggressive potential is demonstrated by the killing of animals for food (for an example see Blood of the Beasts).
We will never experience
an acceptable world, for,
in an acceptable world,
humans do not exist.
Adapted from Bernd Zeller
§ Transhumanism and other utopias claim that the worst kinds of suffering will be besieged one day. The suffering of the children therefore has to be seen in a wider context. Procreation is a contribution to a long-term project. If this project promises the eradication of major suffering (whereas otherwise it would persist forever) then the suffering of the children can be regarded as a necessary sacrifice. Insofar secular utopias function like religious promises. But all depends on the quality of the forecast.
The more mankind’s destiny is uncertain, the less it is legitimate to (ab)use children for a secular project of salvation.
For an estimation of future risks see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
1) If there are good reasons to assume that the chances of a possible child surpass the risks, it is ethically defensible to create this specific life, even if life’s risks in general surpass its chances. For an application of decision theory to life’s risks and chances in general see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View
2) Why should the actual generation get the task to annihilate the immense will to survive built up by all previous generations? Why should the actual generation be responsible for the decision of the next generation to have children? The task to eliminate all future risks cannot be burdened to a single generation. Even if we adopt the moral demand for risk-reduction, the task of the actual generation is to reduce risk and not to completely eliminate risk.
Example: Consider the family like a pocket size population. In this case a population policy for reducing risk could be the following:
a) If the possible parents do not severely suffer from childlessness, then they should abstain from procreation, because the next generation might suffer more from childlessness than the possible parents of the actual generation.
b) It is defensible to have a child, if at least one of the parents suffers severely from childlessness.
c) It is defensible to have two children, if both parents suffer severely from not having an additional child.
3) According to antinatalism it is always morally right to stay childless, no matter what the consequences are for the remaining population. This claim is contested by population ethics:
a) If antinatalism aims at the minimization of suffering then childlessness is just one among many possible means. If the degree of suffering increases in a shrinking population, for example, and threatens to persist on a higher level than before, then childlessness may not be the best strategy.
b) As long as it cannot be shown that cultural optimism is irrational, it is defensible to pursue a secular project of salvation. A voluntary extinction of humanity (as propagated by VHEM) is unrealistic. There is only a choice between more or less suffering populations.
4) Concerning the suffering that is caused by cultural pessimism see Der Tod und das Leben danach [Scheffler], reviewed by Michael Hampe [Hampe 2015]
At the beginning of chapter 2 we mentioned that – seen from the perspective of Rawls’ Original Position – compassion and risk-aversion are the same.
Intentionally or not, Rawls original position has an affinity to the Hindu concept of reincarnation. With respect to the term “veil of ignorance” (an allusion to the Sanscrit “avarana” or “veil of Maya”) it is allowed to speculate that Rawls was inspired by old Indian philosophy. Hindus imagine that a soul which descends into the body comes under the influence of cosmic delusion called Maya. Individual delusion or ignorance creates ego-consciousness. Rawls’ individual behind the veil of ignorance corresponds to a Hindu soul, waiting for incarnation, see Secular Buddhism and Justice.
Hinduism and Buddhism developed reincarnation ethics based on the knowledge around the 6th century BC. Recent discoveries in biology have shown that a contemporary interpretation of reincarnation could bring the concept back to life. Ever since the close genetic relation between all sentient beings is known, compassion seems to be more rational and reincarnation less counter-intuitive. If the idea of individual souls waiting for reincarnation is replaced by the idea of the gene-pool, then nothing is left which couldn’t be reconciled with a scientific world view.
Obviously Rawls’ concept can be interpreted as a reincarnation metaphor if the term reincarnation addresses genes and not individual souls. The same 99.9% of the human genome are incarnated over and over, see Human Genetic Variation. Life stories can be very different although genes perfectly match (see Twin Study). But despite of varying life stories most people consider 99.95% (children) and 99.925% (grandchildren) of their genome to be an essential part of their self. Why not 99.9%?
Under the conditions of reincarnation we would attempt to preserve our multigenerational experience in order to make an undistorted estimation of risks and chances. We can consider the reincarnations like a continuous stream of experiences similar to the different stages in the life of an individual. Because of the asymmetry between suffering and happiness we would become increasingly risk-averse. In particular, at some point in our stream of experience, we would know traumatic suffering not only intellectually but also emotionally. Traumatic suffering leaves irreversible traces in the memory, similar to irreversible physical injuries. After countless reincarnations (which can be seen as a learning process), we may come to the conclusion – in accordance with Hinduism and Buddhism – that the best decision is to quit the wheel of reincarnation.
In real life, however, the transfer of experience between the reincarnations is prevented by death. The destruction of memories is a destruction of experience and a destruction of risk-aversion. Optimism awakes again with each new generation. Retreat-oriented ways of living and the ethical ideal of childlessness are accordingly associated with irrationality or depression.
The only significant difference to this ancient model is a possible technological salvation from suffering. Currently, however, the technological risks grow as rapidly as the chances; see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
In her novel The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Ursula K.LeGuin describes a city whose well-functioning depends on the suffering of a child [LeGuin]. The suffering child is a symbolic representation of the suffering minority. The child is used as a symbol to express the innocence of the victims. In a certain sense, the most suffering individuals pay the price for all others who suffer less or are happy.
The inhabitants of Omelas who believe, that the suffering of the child persists or even increases with evolution can be divided in the following two groups:
1) The ones who walk away from Omelas: Buddhist monks, Antinatalists and other people, who retire from life. Hindus who attempt to leave the wheel of reincarnation.
2) The ones who try to destroy Omelas: Militant negative utilitarians or other people, who combat life.
The inhabitants of Omelas who believe, that the suffering of the child decreases with evolution can be divided in the following two groups:
2. The ones who believe in salvation: The supporters of various revealed religions
The future of the city
A technological eradication of suffering is unlikely in the near future. The people who nevertheless accept Omelas “as it is” and comply with the state of affairs don’t contribute to the global termination of suffering. Since conciliatory inhabitants have a better Darwinian fitness than life-hostile ones, Omelas will remain populated, even if the suffering of the child persists or increases.
The fact that the majority of people adheres to a belief in progress, or to the consolations of religion, indicates that the increasing awareness of vulnerability and transience (due to accidents, diseases, age, death of close persons, etc.), is difficult to cope with. The proliferation of constructions of meaning such as the eschatology, the myth of the expulsion from paradise and the longing to retrieve it (keyword: Paradise Engineering) speak a clear language. Interesting is also the evaluation of the world in Hinduism and Buddhism. If the highest goal of a culture is the liberation from the cycle of rebirths, then it is obvious that this cycle has a negative connotation.
To deal with the negative experiences and to legitimize the status quo (i.e. the actual value system), every culture develops epics (myths) which describe and aestheticize the natural catastrophes and the (Dionysian ) power struggles from a distant (Apollonian) perspective. The truth thus has two sides:
1. The balance of happiness and suffering with a possibly negative result [Johnson].
2. The ability to repress suffering, aestheticize the world and construct meaning with a positive result. The positive result can, if necessary, be transferred to the future by means of scenarios of progress and/or salvation. Behind the positive interpretations of the world is the will to survive, but also the fact that epics are written by observers (winners) and revelations by "Chosen Ones". The need for positive interpretations is immense, and the people who are able to find such an interpretation get a correspondingly high reward. Given the above situation of interests, there is reason to suspect that the perception is manipulated:
The need, respectively wish to believe in something is not just an inadequate reason to believe it, but it is always and in itself – if there is no independent evidence – a counter-argument to believe it [Tugendhat 2007, 191]
Each of the two basic interests survival and liberation from suffering is able to interpret the world in a radically different manner (as lawyers do):
▪ Liberation from suffering: The example of voluntary euthanasia demonstrates that the value of survival can be measured within a hedonistic framework. The interest to survive is non-hedonistic, but can be reinterpreted within the framework of motivational hedonism.
▪ Survival: No matter what kind of ethics we denote as “rational” or “higher”, it is impossible to control the forces of evolution globally and long-term. Life creates and destroys ethical systems. Ethics can always be interpreted in an evolutionary context.
(Early) Buddhism, for example, may be effective in the reduction of suffering, but it succumbs in the competition with life-affirming ethics, see e.g. the Decline of Buddhism in the Indian Subcontinent. At the borders of life-affirming cultures, however, the Buddhist truths re-emerge, because the expansion of life is followed by an expansion of suffering, see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition. This mechanism could only stop in the unlikely case of a technological salvation.
1) Asymmetric maximization of happiness:
a) In prior existence utilitarianism the creation of new lives can theoretically be stopped, if it serves the actual generation.
b) Prioritarianism has a life-hostile potential insofar, as a highly risk-averse and compassionate society may not be able to survive in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate societies. If it were possible to reach a global consensus, however, this life-hostile potential disappears.
2) Minimization of suffering:
If there is a technological solution to the problem of suffering, then the minimization of suffering does not lead to a life-hostile theory. This result is valid for both prioritarianism and negative utilitarianism.
3) Life-hostile theories:
Life-hostile theories go with cultural pessimism. But even then: If the degree (level) of suffering increases in a shrinking population, then childlessness may not be the best strategy. This result is valid for both Buddhism and Antinatalism.
4) Cultural evolution:
Risk-averse and compassionate cultures have a life-hostile potential insofar, as they may not be able to survive in the competition with risk-tolerant and less compassionate cultures. If it were possible to reach a global consensus, however, this life-hostile potential disappears.
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