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Why I’m (Not) a Negative Utilitarian

 

A Review of Toby Ord’s Essay

 

B.Contestabile     admin@socrethics.com       First version Jan 2016    Last version Apr 2016

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.      Introduction

2.      Types of Negative Utilitarianism

2.1  Absolute and Lexical NU

2.2  Weak NU

2.3  Modern NU

2.4  Lexical Threshold NU

3.      Practical Implications

4.      Conclusion

 

References

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting point

In his essay Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian, Toby Ord shows himself surprised to see that some of his friends and acquaintances in the effective altruism community identify as Negative Utilitarians, although negative utilitarianism is discarded in mainstream philosophical circles.

 

 

Type of problem

Is negative utilitarianism (NU) an implausible theory?

 

 

Theory

Versions of NU which overrule compensation within the same person (like Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU) could be called implausible theories, but not versions of NU which question compensation across different persons (like Modern NU).

 

Modern NU is a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism, which is functionally equivalent to prioritarianism.

- Prioritarianism does not exclude negative totals, but is usually associated with distributive justice and positive totals.

- Modern NU, conversely, does not exclude positive totals, but NU is usually associated with negative totals.

 

The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

 

 

Practice

From a strictly hedonistic perspective a world without humans is preferable to a world with negative total well-being. But the non-existence of humans is no realistic option. We only have a choice between more or less suffering populations. If there is a life-friendly way to turn the total positive (e.g. transhumanism) then the Modern NU is not hostile to the existence of life.

 

The Modern NU requires human rights as a side constraint, but the same applies to positive utilitarianism and prioritarianism.

 

From a NU point of view the utilitarian ranking of nations has to be reformed. The current indices suggest that negative well-being and traumatic events can easily be compensated.

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Introduction

 

 

Starting point

In his essay Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian, Toby Ord shows himself surprised to see that some of his friends and acquaintances in the effective altruism community identify as Negative Utilitarians, although negative utilitarianism (NU) is discarded in mainstream philosophical circles.

 

 

Type of problem

Is negative utilitarianism an implausible theory?

 

 

 

2.  Types of Negative Utilitarianism

 

 

 

2.1       Absolute and Lexical NU

 

Negative utilitarianism (NU) originates in Karl Popper’s notes on ethics [Popper, Volume I, Chapter 9, Note 2, 167]:

A further criticism of the Utilitarian formula “Maximize pleasure” is that it assumes, in principle, a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all [Popper, Volume I, Notes to Chapter 9, Note 2, 317].

The context of Popper’s notes on ethics was the fight against the greatest and most urgent evils of society. The statement “From the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure ….” Has to be associated with traumatic cases of suffering (like the horrors of Auschwitz) and not with the pain of a pinprick.

It is counter-intuitive to deny compensations/trade-offs in cases like the birth of a child, cosmetic surgery etc. [Fricke, 16]. Ord dedicates a considerable part of his paper to the refutation of the Absolute and Lexical NU, possibly because the term negative utilitarianism (NU) originally referred to these versions (see e.g. R.N.Smart, Negative Utilitarianism). But Absolute NU and Lexical NU are simply misinterpretations of Popper’s notes on ethics.

 

 

 

2.2       Weak NU

 

 

Definition

Ord’s definition of the Weak NU goes as follows:

Suffering and happiness both count, but suffering counts more. There is an exchange rate between suffering and happiness or perhaps some nonlinear function which shows how much happiness would be required to outweigh any given amount of suffering [Ord].

The term suffering counts more distinguishes the Weak NU from classical utilitarianism. The latter assumes that suffering and happiness have equal weight. Ord applies this definition to intra-personal compensations.

 

Inline image 1

 

 

This diagram was taken from Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian

 

 

But what is the horizontal scale supposed to represent? There is no obvious natural unit of suffering or happiness to use. It might be possible to have a consistent scale in the happiness direction and a separate consistent scale in the suffering direction, but it is very unclear how they are both supposed to be on the same scale. This is what would be needed for Weak NU to be a coherent theory and for the diagram to make any sense [Ord].

 

 

The incoherence argument

Psychometrics confirms that positive and negative affect carry different information and need to be separately measured and analyzed [Diener]. Ord speaks of an incoherence argument against the Weak NU. But “separately measured” does not mean that the above horizontal axis becomes meaningless:

1.      Happiness and suffering are comparable; otherwise there would not be compensations/trade-offs. If happiness and suffering are comparable, then they can be arranged on the same scale.

2.      The scale of happiness and the scale of suffering touch each other, at the point where suffering and happiness are zero.

There is no incoherence or discontinuity in a mathematical sense.

         Classical utilitarianism assumes that suffering and happiness have intrinsic moral value, so that they can simply be aggregated.

         The Weak NU assigns moral value by the two (green) linear utility functions. The values of suffering and happiness have to be modified before they can be aggregated. Every person has his/her own exchange rate between happiness and suffering and the Weak NU overrides this rate by a factor. This modification, however, has unpleasant consequences. Following an example:

 

 

The worse-for-everyone argument

A person is watching a film and feels hungry. Should he/she leave the cinema and appease hunger or watch the end of the film? The person comes to the conclusion, that net well-being is positive, if he/she stays in the cinema. However, the Weak NU would multiply the values of happiness and suffering with a weighting factor and come to a different conclusion:

For example, in some cases the Weak NU will say that it is immoral to watch the end of the film while you are really hungry, even if this tradeoff increases your wellbeing, because the suffering counts more morally [Ord].

In other words:

         the personal evaluation asks for staying in the cinema because this option increases net well-being

         the Weak NU overrides the personal evaluation and asks for leaving the cinema.

Ord speaks of a worse-for-everyone argument against all versions of NU. This could be misunderstood. Let us assume the cinema shows a lenghty period film and after a while all spectators – besides enjoying the film – suffer from fatigue:

         In the Absolute NU watching the end of the film is worse for everyone, because happiness is completely devaluated.

         In the Weak NU watching the end of the film is only worse for persons with a corresponding exchange rate between suffering and happiness.

Independent of Ord’s wording the cinema example is a valid example to illustrate the implausible mechanism of the Weak NU. A similar refutation can be found in Fabian Fricke’s article [Fricke, 14-16].

 

 

Risk-aversion versus risk-neutrality

So far we assumed that suffering and happiness are known in taking a decision. The general case, however, is a comparison of chances and risks. Could the Weak NU be defended by introducing the concept of risk-aversion? Following an example with probabilities:

Suppose you live in New York City and are offered two jobs at the same time. One is a tedious and badly paid job in New York City itself, while the other is a very interesting and well-paid job in Chicago. But the catch is that, if you wanted the Chicago job, you would have to take a plane from New York to Chicago (e.g. because this job would have to be taken up the very next day). Therefore there would be a very small but positive probability that you might be killed in a plane accident) [Angner, 5]

Let us assume the various outcomes can be evaluated with the following numbers [Angner, 25]:

 

 

 

 

Plane crashes

Plane does

not crash

Take job in New York

 

1

1

Take job in Chicago

 

-890

10

 

 

Now, the rational course of action depends on the probabilities assigned to the two relevant events. If the agent has determinate probabilities over the two events, it is easy to confirm that she should take the job in Chicago so long as the probability of a plane crash is less than one percent, and stay in New York if it greater than one percent; if the probability is exactly one percent, she is indifferent, and is rationally permitted to take either job [Angner, 13].

 

 

 

 

Plane crashes

1%

Plane does

not crash 99%

Total utility

Take job in New York

 

1 x 0.01 = 0.01

1 x 0.99 = 0.99

0.01 + 0.99 = +1.0

Take job in Chicago

 

-890 x 0.01 = -8.9

10 x 0.99 = 9.9

-8.9 + 9.9 = +1.0

 

 

Harsanyi uses a similar example to show that high risk-aversion is irrational in everyday situations [Harsanyi]:

         The majority assigns e.g. -89 to the plane crash (instead of -890) and therefore takes the job in Chicago. Harsanyi associates this behavior with risk-neutrality, utility maximization and rationality.

         A minority assigns e.g. -8900 to the plane crash (instead of -890) and therefore – with the same assumptions about probabilities – denies the job in Chicago. Harsanyi associates this behavior with high risk-aversion and irrationality.

But possibly the minority is just more sensitive for suffering. From the external perspective the minority’s behavior seems to be risk-averse, but from the inner perspective it is risk-neutral. The minority feels suffering stronger and therefore acts as rational as the majority. To override individual attitudes towards risk is as questionable as overriding the individual evaluation in the cinema example.

 

 

 

2.3  Modern NU

 

So far we assumed that everyone strives to maximize his/her individual utility. But maximizing individual utility may not be the best strategy for maximizing the societies’ total utility. In above example it may e.g. be better for the person to take the job in Chicago, but worse for the global climate, because of the environmental impact of aviation. Morally right – in a strict consequentialist sense – is only the action which maximizes the societies’ total utility.

 

 

Individual versus society level

Karl Popper later clarified that his notes on ethics were only meant for public policy, not individual action:

I also suggested that the reduction of avoidable misery belongs to the agenda of public policy (which does not mean that any question of public policy is to be decided by a calculus of minimizing misery) while the maximization of one’s happiness is to be left to one’s private endeavour. (I quite agree with those critics of mine who have shown that if used as a criterion, the minimum misery principle would have absurd consequences) [Popper, Volume II, Addenda 13, 438]

 

In the following we adopt Popper’s view and abstain from defining a utility function for intra-personal compensations/trade-offs. We will assume that individual well-being is assessed by means of surveys on subjective well-being (as in happiness economics) and not by means of calculation as in neoclassical economics [Hirata, 26]. In this context the term happiness is a synonym for life-satisfaction, well-being and positive welfare. The term negative welfare stands for uncompensated suffering [Fricke, 18].

For the purpose of NU surveys have to use a hedonistic scale with positive and negative numbers. The following example shows that such scales are not self-evident.

 

 

The better-for-everyone argument

We have excluded Absolute NU, Lexical NU and the Weak NU because they override intra-personal compensations/trade-offs.

There is a reverse case, however, where positive utilitarianism overrides intra-personal evaluation. The worse-for-everyone argument against NU has a mirror image in the better-for-everyone argument against positive utilitarianism. The following diagram refers to the QALY axiology, which is used in hospitals (Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia):

 

 

Demonstration of quality-adjusted life years for two individuals (A and B)

 

 

The vertical axis does not contain negative values. Death has value zero, so that it is better for everyone to be alive. Voluntary Euthanasia is necessarily immoral, because it destroys positive value instead of eliminating negative value. NU, in contrast, asks for an axiology which allows negative values. It maintains that overriding the personal evaluation in the hospital is as questionable as overriding the personal evaluation in the cinema example above. If a person feels that his/her suffering cannot be compensated with happiness [Fricke, 18], then NU assigns a negative well-being to this person and not – like most QALY models – a low positive value. The situation is then characterized by a choice between the two evils suffering and death. For the purpose of NU a scale which does not know negative numbers (e.g. a point scale from 1 to 10) has to be converted into a signed scale.

 

 

Definition

The modern NU is a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism, which assigns a higher weight to the avoidance of suffering than to the promotion of happiness. The moral weight of suffering can be increased by using a "compassionate" metric, so that the result is the same as in prioritarianism.

Modern hedonistic utilitarianism is associated with the work of John Broome in this paper [Broome].

 

 

Semantics

If the modern NU is “only a metric” within modern hedonistic utilitarianism: What is the reason for using a special term for this metric?

The reason is that utilitarianism – similar to prioritarianism – is associated with positive totals:

         In classical utilitarianism the hedonistic scale is linear and symmetric. The theory does not exclude negative totals, but in practice most utilitarians assume that – given the current state of affairs – total well-being is positive.

         The modern NU maintains that symmetric scales are a distortion of reality. The theory does not exclude positive totals, but it considers that – given the current state of affairs – total well-being might be negative. The intuition that “global suffering cannot be compensated by happiness” turns global well-being negative, so that the maximization of happiness turns into a minimization of suffering.

 

 

 

Rationality

Intuitions with regard to global well-being are controversial:

         The majority – in particular prioritarians and classical utilitarians – think that seven billion happy people can outweigh the extreme suffering of a minority.

         Buddhists, Gnostics, Schopenhauer, Popper and many antinatalists do not share this intuition.

The majority considers the latter people to be highly risk-averse or even irrational, but possibly the majorities’ perception of risk is distorted. The rationality of the negative utilitarian intuition is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

 

 

Acceptance

There is a well-known moral intuition that we should prioritise helping the worse off and this is much more widely accepted than NU (…). Such an intuition can be accounted for in the theories of Prioritarianism, Egalitarianism, and Sufficientarianism [Ord].

Ord obviously refers to the acceptance of the Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU. The Modern NU, however, is functionally equivalent with prioritarianism. For more information about the Modern NU see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

 

2.4  Lexical Threshold NU

 

 

The threshold intuition

The Lexical Threshold NU can be characterized by the following intuition:

No amount of happiness or fun enjoyed by some organisms can notionally justify the indescribable horrors of Auschwitz [Pearce].

The Modern NU accepts the intuition that suffering can be counterbalanced by happiness, but maintains that – depending on the kind of suffering – very much happiness may be needed. If the happiness amount needed is immense, then the Modern NU approximates the Lexical Threshold NU. That solves in practice (not in theory) Tomasik’s concern with the three inconsistent intuitions.

 

 

The continuity argument

The Modern NU can model the case in particular, where the happiness amount needed to counterbalance global suffering does not exist on this planet. If global well-being turns negative, then the maximization of happiness turns into a minimization of suffering. The rationality of this intuition is confirmed in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View. Consequently the Lexical Threshold NU is dismissed because of the continuity argument [Ord] and not because the underlying intuition is irrational.

 

 

 

3.  Practical Implications

 

 

Population ethics

Another potential cause for confusion is the interrelation between NU and population ethics. You may think that a clear case for NU is comparing the alleviation of present suffering with the creation of new happy lives. However, this case brings in changing populations, which is the topic of population ethics. The intuition might not be to do with suffering and happiness per se, but to do with the lack of value in creating new lives in comparison to improving existing ones. If this is what guides you, then you should consider views such as Presentism or Critical Level Utilitarianism, which deny that adding a happy life is good, while agreeing that adding happiness to existing people is good and even that preserving the life of existing people is good [Ord].

The idea that adding a life with positive welfare does not make a population better (also called Prior existence utilitarianism or Asymmetry) has a theoretical deficiency [Arrhenius, 137].

 

The negative utilitarian view – according to which the present global suffering cannot be compensated by happiness – has the following consequences:

         From a strictly hedonistic perspective a world without humans is preferable to a world with negative total well-being. However, as David Pearce emphasizes, the non-existence of humans is no realistic option. We only have a choice between more or less suffering populations. If there is a life-friendly way out of suffering (e.g. transhumanism), then the Modern NU is not hostile to the existence of life, see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering.

         From a NU point of view the utilitarian ranking of populations has to be reformed. The current indices suggest that negative well-being and traumatic events can easily be compensated. The Modern NU, in contrast, strengthens the awareness that the suffering minority pays the price for the happiness of the majority. It can reveal cases in particular, where the average well-being improves and the situation of the most suffering minority worsens. For more information about NU indices see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

 

           NU logo

 

Moral killing

Many advocates of NU claim that on average human lives have net negative intrinsic moral value (…) This implies that much healthcare and lifesaving is of enormous negative value. It says that the best healthcare system is typically the one that saves as few lives as possible, eliminating all the suffering at once. [Ord]

         The (painless and secret) elimination of lives with negative well-being is a theoretical deficiency indeed, but similar deficiencies can be found in positive utilitarianism and prioritarianism. Adherents of consequentialism, who recognize the totalitarian potential as a problem, amend their theory with human rights, see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

         Hospitals often use am axiology which does not know negative well-being, the so-called qalys (see chapter 2.3). In this case we are confronted with a reversed kind of theoretical deficiency. A horribly suffering patient cannot escape from his/her situation by voluntary euthanasia, because non-existence is defined as worst case. An anti-totalitarian health care system (in the spirit of Karl Popper) should respect the individual’s will to extend lifetime, as well as the right to palliative care and voluntary euthanasia in well-defined and controlled situations which prevent abuse.

 

 

Utopias

There is also a type of example that is phrased in terms of whether it would be right or wrong to create a utopia if the very foundation of that utopia required the forced suffering of the innocent during its construction [Ord].

This is another reason for amending the theory with human rights. In NU, where suffering is seen as the evil per se, the elimination of suffering becomes the ethical priority per se. The concentration of all activities on the reduction of suffering, however, is in conflict with the biological meaning of life:

How could the main point of human life be the elimination of evil? (…) The same could be said of the idea that helping others is the only thing that really gives meaning to life. If no one’s life has any meaning in itself, how can it acquire meaning through devotion to the meaningless lives of others? [Nagel, 217]

The biological nature of humans suggests that a reasonable philosophy of life has to acknowledge and reconcile diverging values:

We should certainly try to harmonize our lives to some extent with how we think the world should be. But there is no necessity to abandon all values that do not correspond to the objective standpoint, even though this may be possible as a personal choice – a choice of self-transcendence [Nagel, 173].

 

 

Semantics

Strictly speaking one would have to distinguish between moderate and radical negative utilitarians, prioritarians, positive utilitarians etc., where the moderate respect human rights. However, if we talk about negative utilitarians within the community of effective altruism, then we do not need this specification, because we know that altruists respect human rights. The same is true for optimistic negative utilitarians in the environment of transhumanism and for pessimistic negative utilitarians in the environment of Buddhism.

 

 

 

4.  Conclusion

 

 

Theory

         Versions of NU which overrule compensation within the same person (like Absolute NU, Lexical NU and Weak NU) could be called implausible theories, but not

         versions of NU which question compensation across different persons (like Modern NU)

Modern NU is a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism, which is functionally equivalent to prioritarianism.

         Prioritarianism does not exclude negative totals, but is usually associated with distributive justice and positive totals.

         Modern NU, conversely, does not exclude positive totals, but NU is usually associated with negative totals.

The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

 

 

Practice

         From a strictly hedonistic perspective a world without humans is preferable to a world with negative total well-being. But the non-existence of humans is no realistic option. We only have a choice between more or less suffering populations. If there is a life-friendly way to turn the total positive (e.g. transhumanism) then the Modern NU is not hostile to the existence of life.

         The Modern NU requires human rights as a side constraint, but the same applies to positive utilitarianism and prioritarianism.

         From a NU point of view the utilitarian ranking of nations has to be reformed. The current indices suggest that negative well-being and traumatic events can easily be compensated.

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgment

 

I would like to thank Brian Tomasik and Simon Knutsson for their helpful comments and suggestions during the review of this paper.

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

1.      Angner Erik (2002), Revisiting Rawls: A Theory of Justice in the light of Levi’s theory of decision, Final version (2004), Theoria 70(1), pp.3-21, Wiley-Blackwell, New Jersey

2.      Arrhenius Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosopy, Uppsala: University Printers

3.      Diener, Ed, and Robert A. Emmons. 1984. “The Independence of Positive and Negative Affect.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47: 1105–1117.

4.      Fricke Fabian (2002), Verschiedene Versionen des negativen Utilitarismus, Kriterion Nr.15, pp.13-27

5.      Harsanyi John C. (1975), Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls’ Theory, American Political Science Review 69: 594-606.

6.      Hirata Johannes (2004), Happiness and Economics, Discussion Papers of the Institute for Business Ethics No.99, University of St.Gallen, Switzerland

7.      Nagel Thomas (1986), The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press

8.      Ord Toby (2013), Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian

9.      Pearce David, Negative Utilitarianism: Why be negative?

10.  Popper Karl R.(1945) The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume I / II, Routledge Classics, London, UK, 2003