Negative Utilitarian Priorities

 

B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com        First version 2005   Last version 2015

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.      Introduction

2.      UNO Sustainable Development Goals

2.1  Definition

2.2  Criticism

3.      Copenhagen Consensus

3.1  Definition

3.2  Cost-Benefit Analysis

3.3  Criticism

4.      Negative Utilitarian Approach

4.1  Definition

4.2  Cost-Benefit Analysis

4.3  Comparison with the Copenhagen Consensus

4.4  Comparison with Human Rights Priorities

4.5  Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals

5.      Conclusion

 

Appendix

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting point

The UNO Sustainable Development Goals are taken as a basis for defining global ethical priorities, because they represent the result of intense discussions among a considerable number of experts. The UNO experts are supposed to represent the majority of the world population.

The Copenhagen Consensus uses welfare economics as a basis and criticizes the UNO priorities as being ineffective.

For a definition of negative utilitarianism see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

Type of problem

What difference does it make, if global ethical priorities are based

- on the goal to maximize total welfare or

- on the goal to improve the welfare of the worst-off?

 

 

Method

The main difference between the Copenhagen Consensus and the negative utilitarian approach is the following:

- The Copenhagen Consensus seeks to increase global welfare, where welfare is measured in terms of the GDP. The focus is on development aid.

- The negative utilitarian approach concentrates on the minority of the worst-off. The term welfare is used in a general sense (life satisfaction) and not reduced to economic welfare.

As opposed to the Copenhagen Consensus we maintain that the ranking of investments cannot be based on a calculus because the system is too complex and the priorities depend on each other. Since there is no way to quantify variables, the priorities are presented in the form of theses.

 

 

Result

The most efficient policy to reduce suffering is probably defined in the United Nations Responsibility to Protect.

With regard to private initiative the following priorities have to be considered:

- Contribute to peacebuilding

- Disclose the abuse of power

- Eradicate torture

- Implement the right to palliative care and legalize voluntary euthanasia

- Improve ethical knowledge

None of these activities appears within the top 19 priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus.

 

The Copenhagen Consensus and negative utilitarianism agree in the following priorities:

- Make family planning available to everyone

- Guarantee a decent standard of nutrition and health care

 

 

 

 

 

1. Introduction

 

 

Starting point

         The UNO Sustainable Development Goals are taken as a basis for defining global ethical priorities, because they represent the result of intense discussions among a considerable number of experts. The UNO experts are supposed to represent the majority of the world population.

         The Copenhagen Consensus uses welfare economics as a basis and criticizes the UNO priorities as being ineffective.

         For a definition of negative utilitarianism see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

Type of problem

What difference does it make, if global ethical priorities are based

         on the goal to maximize total welfare or

         on the goal to improve the welfare of the worst-off?

 

 

 

 

2. UNO Sustainable Development Goals

 

 

2.1  Definition

 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a proposed set of targets relating to future international development. They are to replace the Millennium Development Goals once they expire at the end of 2015. The SDGs were first formally discussed at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 (Rio+20).

 

As of March 2015, there were 17 proposed goals:

1.      End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2.      End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3.      Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

4.      Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5.      Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6.      Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7.      Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8.      Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9.      Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

10.  Reduce inequality within and among countries

11.  Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12.  Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13.  Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14.  Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15.  Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

16.  Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17.  Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

 

As at March 2015, there were 169 proposed targets for these goals and 304 proposed indicators to show compliance.

 

(Sustainable Development Goals, Wikipedia)

 

 

 

2.2          Criticism

 

The Copenhagen Consensus criticizes the UNO strategy on the following grounds:

 

1.       The forces of the market should be used to improve economic and social development.

2.       The UNO does not concentrate on a manageable number of targets and indicators

3.      The UNO targets do not consider the relation between cost and benefit.

 

 

 

 

3. Copenhagen Consensus

 

 

3.1  Definition

 

Copenhagen Consensus is a project that seeks to establish priorities for advancing global welfare using methodologies based on the theory of welfare economics, utilizing cost-benefit analysis (Copenhagen Consensus, Wikipedia)

 

Cost and benefit are calculated

         in terms of US dollars or

         as a percentage of the GDP.

 

 

3.2  Cost-Benefit Analysis

 

The world will spend $2.5 trillion in development aid from 2015-2030, and the UNO targets will influence a large part of that spending. Making just one target better can do hundreds of billions of dollars worth of good (Copenhagen Consensus, Homepage)

 

According to Björn Lomborg – the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus – the UNO targets need to be trimmed:

“Having 169 targets is like having no targets at all.”

 

 

Reduction to 75 targets

Mr Lomborg commissioned some 60 teams of economists, plus representatives from the UN, NGOs and business, to review the proposed targets to work out which would generate the most benefit per dollar spent (…).

 

Following the 75 targets with the most promising cost-benefit ratio:

 

 (Copenhagen Consensus, The Economist Jan 24th 2015)

 

 

Reduction to 19 targets

An Expert Panel including two Nobel Laureates reviewed above list and identified the 19 targets that represent the best value-for-money in development over the period 2016 to 2030, offering more than $15 back on every dollar invested:

 

People

Lower chronic child malnutrition by 40%
Halve malaria infection
Reduce tuberculosis deaths by 90%
Avoid 1.1 million HIV infections through circumcision
Cut early death from chronic diseases by 1/3
Reduce newborn mortality by 70%
Increase immunization to reduce child deaths by 25%
Make family planning available to everyone
Eliminate violence against women and girls

 

Planet

Phase out fossil fuel subsidies
Halve coral reef loss
Tax pollution damage from energy
Cut indoor air pollution by 20%

 

Prosperity

Reduce trade restrictions (full Doha)
Improve gender equality in ownership, business and politics
Boost agricultural yield increase by 40%
Increase girls’ education by 2 years
Achieve universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa
Triple preschool in sub-Saharan Africa

 

For a graphic overview click here.

 

(Nobel Laureates Guide to Smarter Global Targets to 2030)

 

 

 

3.3  Criticism

 

Defenders of the Sustainable Development Goals argue that their greatest virtue lies in getting countries involved in any development scheme underpinned by proper reporting and peer review. Economic purity must sometimes be sacrificed to secure broad agreement on a set of global goals. Mr Lomborg’s work is “very naive”, says Jeffrey Sachs, another economist with strong views about what works in international development. (The Economics of Optimism, The Economist, Jan 24th 2015)

In some cases the cost of political resistance is unclear or discarded:

Examples:

         The proposal to liberalize trade faces political resistance. Overcoming such resistance increases the cost of implementation and makes it impossible to calculate a priority. Nevertheless, the issue is classified among the top 19 priorities (full Doha).

         Higher standards of governance (better institutions, less corruption and bribery) are of paramount importance in our context. Again it is impossible to estimate the cost of implementation and calculate a priority. But interestingly – in this case – the Copenhagen Consensus decided to exclude the issue from the top 19 priorities.

         The Sustainable Development Goals are difficult to implement in times of war and political instability. International peace and security should get an accordingly higher priority (chapter 2.1, goal 16). Again, the variables of this target cannot be quantified.

 

 

 

 

4. Negative Utilitarian Approach

 

 

4.1  Definition

 

In analogy to the Copenhagen Consensus (chapter 3.2) the negative utilitarian approach attempts to answer the following question:

 

What would be the best ways to reduce the worst kinds of suffering, supposing that $2.5 trillion are at disposal?

 

The negative utilitarian approach presented in this paper does not raise claims (in contrast to the Copenhagen Consensus). It intends to induce a Socratic discussion about a different view on global ethical priorities. For a definition of negative utilitarianism see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

4.2  Cost-Benefit Analysis

 

 

Method

         As opposed to the Copenhagen Consensus we maintain that the ranking of investments cannot be based on a calculus. The system is too complex and the activities depend on each other. Since there is no way to quantify variables, the priorities are presented in the form of theses.

         Some non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are listed, which support the proposed priorities. The quality of NGO’s can be controlled by means of charity navigators [Appendix].

 

 

International peace and security

Thesis: International peace and security is a prerequisite for social stability and any attempt, to improve the situation of the most suffering minority.

 

Torture in particular is difficult to eradicate as long as

         weapons of mass destruction are proliferated

         terrorism spreads out

         civil and religious wars persist

Examples of peace-building organizations: International Peace Institute, Interpeace, Swisspeace

 

A means to reduce the incidence of religious wars is the promotion of critical rational thinking:

 

 

 

 

Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.

 

Peter Ustinov

 

 

 

 

 

Economic and social development

The efficiency of development aid is a controversial matter; see Short History of Welfare Economics.

 

Thesis 1: Disclosing the abuse of power has the highest cost-benefit ratio

Examples:

         Organizations which fight corruption and criticize the quality of governance:

Global Integrity, Transparency International.

         Organization which analyze the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses:

Global Witness, Quality of Government Institute

Fighting the abuse of power may be more efficient than distributing charity. Fair trade may be more efficient than traditional aid.

 

 

Thesis 2: The avoidance of overpopulation is the most efficient strategy to prevent suffering.

 

There is a biological pressure to expand populations at the cost of the quality of life.

According to projections, the world population will continue to grow until at least 2050; reaching 9 billion in 2040 (see Infographic The Seventh Billion). These projections are disputed:

1.      The theory of demographic transition holds that, after the standard of living and life expectancy increase, family sizes and birth rates decline. However, as new data has become available, it has been observed that after a certain level of development the fertility increases again (Wikipedia, Overpopulation).

2.      Latest projections are 11.2 instead of 9.1 billion for 2100, see Robert Engelman, Africa’s Population, Scientific American, Feb.2016.

Depending on which estimate is used, human overpopulation may or may not have already occurred (Wikipedia, Overpopulation).

Examples of organizations which promote sustainability:

Population Council, Population Action International, DSW, Negative Population Growth.

 

 

Humanitarian aid

Thesis: A decent standard of nutrition and health care has a high short term evidence of return on investment (in terms of reduced suffering). This evidence justifies the high priority of humanitarian aid in a cost-benefit analysis.

 

The access to the victims of political and armed conflicts is the biggest challenge within the domain of humanitarian aid. There are two different strategies in this context:

1)      Political neutrality. In many cases this has proven to be the best strategy in order to get access to the victims of armed conflicts.

Example: International Committee of the Red Cross

2)      Analyze the causes of humanitarian catastrophes and combine aid with moral pressure.

Example: Medecins sans frontières.

 

 

Human rights

Thesis 1: Extreme suffering like torture can only be prevented by implementing human rights worldwide.

 

1)      Prerequisites for the implementation of human rights and democracy are a free press and an efficient political opposition. Only a pluralistic political system guarantees the protection of minorities.

2)      Human rights organizations analyze the causes of human rights violations and put governments under moral pressure. This approach indirectly supports most of the other priorities mentioned in chapter 4.2.

Examples of human rights organizations:

1)      General: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch

2)      Specific:

a)      World Organization against Torture, Association for the Prevention of Torture

b)      Free the Slaves, Anti-Slavery

c)      Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists

d)     Women’s rights: AHA Foundation, FJS Foundation

 

Thesis 2: In countries with an advanced implementation of human rights the priority should be given to the right for palliative care and the legalization of voluntary euthanasia.

 

Voluntary euthanasia helps to avoid some of the worst kinds of suffering. However,

         active euthanasia violates the law in the United States and all European countries except Holland and Belgium,

         passive euthanasia violates the law in the United States and all European countries except Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.

Only voluntary euthanasia is discussed here. Palliative care and the fight against depression have ethical priority, but active and passive euthanasia should be legalized in well-defined and controlled situations which prevent abuse. The valuation of an individual’s life and death is tied to an individual biography and to an inner perspective which cannot fully be understood by others.

Right to die societies are locally organized, see World Federation.

 

 

Ethical knowledge

Thesis: The improvement of ethical knowledge has the highest cost-benefit ratio in the fight against suffering.

 

         We know little about the counterproductive mechanisms and undesirable side-effects of technological and social change. For examples see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.

         We know little about the interdependency of ethical activities:

o   Under what circumstances does economic and social development improve the human rights situation?

o   What is the efficiency of peace and anti-power-abuse activities versus humanitarian aid?

o   What is the efficiency of avoiding overpopulation as compared to the other mentioned activities?

 

 

 

International peace

and security

 

Economic and social

development

 

Human rights

 

Humanitarian aid

 

 

The exploration and proliferation of ethical knowledge is the task of practical philosophy (decision theory, ethics and political philosophy).

Examples of organizations which strive to improve ethical knowledge:

         Effective Altruism Foundation, EA Wikipedia

         Giordano Bruno Foundation

         International Humanist and Ethical Union

         Algosphere

         Foundational Research Institute

         Socrethics

 

 

 

4.3  Comparison with the Copenhagen Consensus

 

The main difference between the Copenhagen Consensus and the negative utilitarian approach is the following:

         The Copenhagen Consensus seeks to increase global welfare, where welfare is measured in terms of the GDP.

         The focus of the negative utilitarian approach is on the minority of the worst-off. The term welfare is used in a general sense (life satisfaction) and not reduced to economic welfare.

 

Following some practical examples to illustrate the difference:

 

From a negative utilitarian point of view an increase in the world’s GDP is (ethically) worthless

         if it does not induce a corresponding increase in life satisfaction (see Short History of Welfare Economics)

         if it is caused by expanding the population at the cost of the quality of life (see The Repugnant Conclusion).

         if it has to be “paid for” by unpredictable risks (see On the Perception of Risk and Benefit)

         if the number of the suffering people cannot be reduced (see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering).

 

The advantage of the GDP consists in being a measurable criterion. Economic and social development and humanitarian aid are directly linked to the GDP, whereas the effect of peace and human rights activities are hard to calculate. The Copenhagen Consensus discards political in favor of economic priorities. The method dictates the result (see chapter 3.3).

 

 

 

4.4  Comparison with Human Rights Priorities

 

 

Non-violent strategies

The support of NGO’s – as proposed in this paper – is a non-violent strategy. We will now check how the negative utilitarian priorities in chapter 4.2 (which were derived from the goal to reduce the worst kinds of suffering) relate to human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration:

1.      International peace and security: Wars make it impossible to implement human rights. Peacebuilding organizations therefore indirectly support human rights.

2.      Economic and social development: Overpopulation threatens human rights by causing wars, epidemics, famine, destruction of the biosphere etc.

3.      Humanitarian aid: Civil and political rights lose their appeal without a decent standard of nutrition and health care (Art.25)

4.      Human rights: The eradication of torture (Art.5) is a main issue within human rights.

5.      Ethical knowledge: The right to ethical knowledge is a part of free education (Art.26).

 

The right to palliative care and the legalization of voluntary euthanasia are controversial issues outside of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

Since all negative utilitarian priorities directly or indirectly support human rights, they also conform well to the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities (DHDR). The DHDR transforms human rights into a legal system (Art.1-2):

1.      Reduction of civil and religious wars (Art.3-7)

2.      Avoidance of overpopulation. Family planning serves a sustainable environment (Art.9)

3.      Decent standard of nutrition and health care (Art.8)

4.      Eradication of torture (Art.21-25)

5.      Right to ethical knowledge (Kap.3-5 and 7-12).

 

Conclusion: The negative utilitarian approach does not contradict human rights, but it prioritizes claims within the DHDR.

 

The negative utilitarian priorities are just one of many attempts to distinguish between more and less important issues within human rights. John Rawls concentrated on civil and political rights, i.e. the protection of minorities and the avoidance of totalitarian regimes.

The unprincipled proliferation of human right claims in international documents (e.g. the right to periodic holidays with pay, stated in article 24 of the Universal Declaration) explains why Rawls began to pursue more austere approaches (Human Rights and Duties of Assistance).

 

 

Justified violence

The monopoly of violence of the state is hard to refute as long as the state respects human rights. Also attempts to assassinate a tyrant like Hitler seem to be justifiable. But in many cases the complexity and non-predictability of the system does not allow to check the moral preconditions for the use of violence: Experience has shown that a war, once initiated, starts to develop a momentum of its own and spreads into unforeseen directions, so that it is impossible to know if the suffering caused is smaller than the suffering prevented. Even liberation movements, after an initial phase of perfect moral legitimation, often degenerate and adopt the brutality of the oppressors. It is dangerous to make general statements about situations which justify violence. Most cases require a separate and detailed analysis.

Examples:

1)      The Risk and Deficiencies of Unsanctioned Humanitarian Intervention, Jim Whitman

2)      The Politics of Impartial Activism, Bronwyn Leebaw

3)      50 Years after Hiroshima, John Rawls

 

A global consensus under the title “Responsibility to Protect” has recently (2005) been reached concerning the prevention of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing:

 

The responsibility to protect is a norm or set of principles based on the idea that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility (…)

If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force (…). The authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rests solely with United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly (Responsibility to Protect, Wikipedia).

 

 

 

4.5  Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals

 

 

Globalization

In the following we will investigate what happens to ethical priorities, if we extend the planning horizon beyond the Sustainable Development Goals (2030). So far the priorities were stamped by the needs of underdeveloped countries, a result which can be justified as follows:

1)      Objective data suggest that underdeveloped nations suffer more than developed ones

2)      Subjective suffering correlates with objective suffering in underdeveloped nations

(see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice, Implementation)

If globalization progresses as it did since the last Millennium, then we have reason to assume that the preferences of all nations converge. Today’s priorities will (hopefully) become less pressing and the prolongation of lifetime will gain in importance. Under these circumstances the ethical priority of medical research gets into the picture.

 

 

Medical research

We start with an example, where medical research already got resources within the Millennium Development Goals:

The development of a vaccination against HIV/AIDS and malaria was weighed against emergency aid. Within the time frame of 15 years the development of a vaccination was realistic so that a part of the resources was assigned to the corresponding research.

As life expectancy increases on a global level, the incidence of cancer, strokes, Parkinson’s disease and dementia increases as well. If we extend the planning horizon far enough, then in all these areas medical research has to be weighed against emergency aid. Should research get the entirety of resources because the prevented suffering in the future is much bigger than the necessary sacrifices in the present?

 

 

Skepticism

There are reasons for not extending the planning horizon into the far future. The effect of emergency aid is guaranteed and measurable, whereas the result of research is uncertain. Not only because the researchers could fail, but also because many unswayable factors influence the result. There might be a war, a social revolution, a decay of the high-technology culture or a natural catastrophe destroying the whole effort of research. The more we plan into the future the more we have to account for uncertainty. For the reasons given in The Cultural Evolution of Suffering (Skepticism) the fight against suffering should not be accompanied with the optimistic kind of messages we find in marketing and sales. It is a matter of intellectual honesty to admit that the future is uncertain and that the risks are immense. Practical philosophy is not supposed to deliver another utopia which justifies actual suffering by future happiness. It may be impossible to improve the status quo, it may even be impossible to break the evolutionary trend towards higher levels of suffering.

 

This leads us back to population ethics. Negative utilitarianism asks for a reduction of the population size

         if the current situation cannot be improved

         if the shrinking population does not worsen the situation

Details see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering

 

For organizations which facilitate remaining childless see Childless sites.

A voluntary extinction of humanity (as propagated by VHEM) is unrealistic. There is only a choice between more or less suffering populations.

 

 

 

5. Conclusion

 

The most efficient policy to reduce suffering is probably defined in the United Nations Responsibility to Protect.

With regard to private initiative the following priorities have to be considered:

         Contribute to peacebuilding

         Disclose the abuse of power

         Eradicate torture

         Implement the right to palliative care and legalize voluntary euthanasia

         Improve ethical knowledge

None of these activities appears within the top 19 priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus.

 

The Copenhagen Consensus and negative utilitarianism agree in the following priorities:

         Make family planning available to everyone

         Guarantee a decent standard of nutrition and health care

 

 

 

Appendix:

Quality Control of Non-Governmental Organizations

 

1)      England: Giving What We Can

2)      Germany: DZI, Spenden.De

3)      Switzerland: ZEWO

4)      USA

a)      American Institute of Philanthropy

b)      BBB Wise Giving Alliance

c)      Charity Chooser

d)     Charity Navigator

e)      GiveWell

5)      International: Top 100 Best NGO’s

 

 

 

Further Reading

 

1.      Anderson Ron, World Suffering

2.      Effective Altruism Foundation

3.      Giving What We Can, Myths About Aid

4.      Pearce David, The Hedonistic Imperative

5.      Pogge Thomas, Rawls Theory in Practice

6.      Union of International Associations, Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential