The Denial of the World from an Impartial View


B.Contestabile       Jan. 2016








Starting point

“And remember, he who rebukes the world is rebuked by the world.” (Kipling, 116)

The above quote describes the mechanism which ensures that the affirmation of the world prevails. Positively minded people have a better survival value and the survivors are always right. But are the survivors also the winners? Not from a Buddhist point of view, which suggests that we should rather leave the wheel of reincarnation.







Type of Problem

         Is our perception of suffering and risk distorted?

         How would an impartial observer valuate the world?




         Two metaphors with the same structure (a happy majority and a suffering individual) but different messages are examined. The first suggests denying the world out of compassion; the second suggests limiting compassion and affirming the world.

         Using an impartial perspective, the issue of compassion is transformed into an issue of risk. After this transformation the denial of the world can be expressed in terms of uncertainty-aversion.




From a strictly hedonistic and impartial perspective it is uncertain if life’s chances outweigh the risks. There is no indisputable metric for measuring risks and no reliable forecast. Given this uncertainty the denial of the world cannot easily be dismissed as being irrational.






Full Text


The full text was published online on Jan.17, 2016 in


Contemporary Buddhism










Thomas Metzinger’s questions of Jan.5, 2017






1.      Why is the topic restricted to humans? Presently there are about 60 billion farm animals suffering for the meat industry. And there is a much higher number of sentient wild animals suffering through causes such as disease, injury, starvation, natural disasters, and killings by other animals.


The topic is restricted for the following reasons:

         The metaphors used in the article relate to humans.

         The cited theories (Harsanyi, Rawls, Levi) relate to humans as well.

         Thesis: If it can be shown that the denial of the human world is not irrational, then the inclusion of sentient animals will not change the picture.



2.      Human individuals – with some possible exceptions like the Buddha – are not able to experience perfect empathy. There is empirical evidence that the perception of suffering is distorted by evolutionary mechanisms.


The article does not question the empirical evidence, but it looks for a normative scope of influence. Striving for an “objective” evaluation of suffering implies using the best possible information. The impartial and empathic observer is a thought experiment for people who are conscious that their everyday perception of suffering is distorted. Similarly Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a thought experiment for people who look for an “objective” view on justice. The reception of Rawls’ theory has demonstrated that thought experiments and metaphors develop a certain normative force.



3.      The experimental evidence that uncertainty aversion is independent of risk-aversion has become more plausible in the light of recent brain research. Karl Friston’s mathematical models suggest that the brain permanently strives to minimize uncertainty (predictive coding). Uncertainty-aversion is a part of the brain’s deep structure (see e.g. Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty, 2016).


Susan Hurley’s arguments (Natural Reasons 1989, 372–382) can indeed be reinforced by the results of actual cognitive science.



4.      Does the paper insinuate that we should deny the Casino? Would it not be a naturalistic fallacy to draw this conclusion?


The paper does not draw such a conclusion, see page 53:


In Rawls’ and Harsanyi’s concepts the observer is at the same time a lawmaker. In our case, however, the observer’s only task is to compare the populated world with an empty world from a strictly hedonistic and impartial point of view. The ethical consequences of the evaluation are beyond the scope of this paper.


The positive or negative evaluation of the casino by the utilitarians follows from evaluative premises (e.g. surveys) and is therefore not a naturalistic fallacy. The paper suggests that the global balance could be negative, but does not raise a claim. The mindset is Socratic scepticism.



5.      Does the paper deliver an argument for negative utilitarianism?


Most utilitarians consider the Buddhist world view to be irrational, because they think that the global balance of subjective life satisfaction is positive. The paper suggests that the symmetric and linear metric of surveys on life satisfaction – seen from an “objective” view – represents a distortion. They paper delivers an argument for negative utilitarianism insofar, as this distortion should be corrected. For more information on this topic see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.



6.      Should negative utilitarians deny the Casino?


For some thoughts on negative utilitarian population ethics see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering.




Further Reading


For more information about the evaluation of non-existence see


Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition

         Page 303: Non-existence as the lesser evil

         Page 306: Non-existence as a perfect state