Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter

 

 

 

 

Negative Preference Utilitarianism

 

B.Contestabile   First version 2014   Last version 2021

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.  Introduction

2.  Basics

3.  Definition

4.  NPU with Metaphysics

5.  NPU without Metaphysics

6.  Conclusion

 

References 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

Starting point

Negative preference utilitarianism (NPU) is based on antifrustrationism, an axiology which postulates that perfect preference satisfaction has the same moral value as the non-existence of preferences.

 

 

Type of problem

- Is NPU a form of Buddhism?

- Can NPU work without metaphysical assumptions?

 

 

Result

- NPU can be seen as a later form of Buddhism, which adopted the Hindu concept of a Brahman.

- NPU is counter-intuitive, as long as we do not adopt a metaphysical value like cosmic consciousness. More reliable than metaphysical speculations are the findings of contemporary biology: Approximately 99.9% of each human’s genome is permanently being reborn. That is reason enough to focus on the suffering in the present world.

 

 

 

 

 

1.  Introduction

 

 

Starting point

Negative preference utilitarianism is based on antifrustrationism, an axiology which holds that perfect preference satisfaction has the same moral value as the non-existence of preferences.

 

 

Type of problem

-      NPU a form of Buddhism?

-      Can NPU work without metaphysical assumptions?

 

 

 

2. Basics

 

 

Preferences

There are two definitions of the term preference:

1)    In preference utilitarianism (and most philosophical papers) the term means desire. Associated terms are interest, attachment, motivation, goal, reason to act etc. Desires are tied to emotions and control behavior.

2)    In welfare economics (microeconomics in particular) and social choice the term defines a preference of ordering. The context is a choice between any variables that affect social welfare, mostly a choice between products or services.

Example: A consumer has a preference (desire) for apples. The same consumer also has a preference (desire) for oranges. If we say that the consumer prefers apples to oranges, then we rank preferences. The ranking is a preference in the economist sense.

Today’s economists instinctively think comparative; philosophers seem not to (Ethics out of Economics, page 9)

Mostly the context discloses which interpretation makes sense.

 

 

Preference utilitarianism

-      Preference utilitarianism is usually seen as an alternative to hedonistic utilitarianism. There is a connection between the two theories, however, because preference-satisfaction is a kind of happiness and preference-frustration is a kind of suffering.

-      Preferences have to be ordered; otherwise the theory is meaningless [Broome 1999, 9-10]. In this paper we consider life satisfaction to be the highest order preference.

-      The term life satisfaction entails a cognitive evaluation (and not merely an affect), but emotional states are closely related to life evaluations [World Happiness Report 2013, 10]. Life satisfaction is a kind of happiness.

 

 

Antifrustrationism

NPU is based on antifrustrationism. Antifrustrationism can be characterized by the following statements:

-      What matters about preferences is not that they have a satisfied existence, but that they don’t have a frustrated existence [Fehige, 518]. The only moral value is the absence of frustration.

-      Since non-existence implies no frustrations, it is considered to be the best possible state of affairs, a perfect state. Non-existence is given the same moral value as perfect preference-satisfaction.

Christoph Fehige, the inventor of antifrustrationism, explicitly refers to Buddhism [Fehige, 518, 522]. However, as we will see later in this chapter, this reference is only justified for some forms of Buddhism.

 

 

 

3. Definition

 

1.     NPU minimizes the aggregated difference to perfect life satisfaction in a population [Fricke, 20]. Classical utilitarianism, in contrast, minimizes the (negative) difference to a neutral life (Table 1).

2.     In classical utilitarianism non-existence (death) is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year).

Similarly, in NPU, the non-existence of preferences (death) is given the value zero.

Since non-existence (despite its perfection) is given the value zero, no life can be worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4].

 

Table 1

Col. 2: Ron Anderson created a suffering measure by reversing the scale used in Gallop’s life satisfaction index [Anderson].

Col. 4: The NPU scale corresponds to Anderson’s scale but uses negative numbers.

 

 

Classical

Utilitari-

anism

Suffering

Measure

[Anderson]

Description

adapted from [Gallup]

NPU

+5

0

happy

0

+4

1

-1

+3

2

-2

+2

3

-3

+1

4

-4

0

5

neutral

-5

-1

6

suffering

-6

-2

7

-7

-3

8

-8

-4

9

-9

-5

10

-10

 

 

Criticism

(1)  A theory about welfare that denies the possibility of lives worth living is quite counter-intuitive [Ryberg, 140-141].

Even an almost perfect life is given a negative value (so called Reverse Repugnant Conclusion).

 

(2)  NPU implies that a perfect life of 1 year has the same value as a perfect life of 100 years [Stanford, chapter 2.4]

 

How can human happiness be devaluated relative to non-existence?

We start with a concept which associates non-existence with a (higher) metaphysical value, the so-called Brahman.

 

 

 

4. NPU with Metaphysics

 

 

Hedonistic Brahman

In Hinduism meditation is done to realize union of one's self, one's ātman, with the omnipresent and non-dual Brahman (Hinduism, Wikipedia). Insofar as the Brahman is described as bliss [Raju, 54, 228] it is justified to depict it on the hedonistic scale. The idea of a perfect, impersonal and spiritual form of existence was adopted by some forms of Buddhism. In the following we will use the term perfectionist Buddhism for these forms, because they consider non-existence to be a perfect state (and not only as the lesser evil). The Nirwana experience is seen as a chance to get into touch with the Brahman in analogy to Hindu meditation.

The highest level of meditation is leading to a state, which the Buddha said is actually a subtle form of happiness (more sublime than pīti and sukha) also called a form of non-sensual happiness (Dhyana in Buddhism, Wikipedia)

 

In perfectionist Buddhism human happiness is devaluated relative to non-existence as follows:

The Nirvana resembles non-existence insofar as the ego is dead. One can imagine the death of the ego as the beginning of an impersonal spiritual form of existence within a transcendent reality. If finally the decomposition of the material ego into this spiritual form of existence is seen as a goal, then it becomes clear that the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion is not counter-intuitive for a Buddhist. Buddhism strives for a painless accordance with the inevitable. Non-existence of the ego is the only paramount preference which can absolutely and permanently be satisfied. Our intuition of perfect preference-satisfaction is characterized by the imagination of a land of milk and honey. According to Buddhism, this intuition is completely misleading. In the real world perfect preference-satisfaction can only be approached by eliminating preferences. The closeness of perfect preference-satisfaction (in the Buddhist sense) and non-existence is the key to escape the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion [Contestabile 2010, 108].

 

This is not yet the NPU axiology, because happiness has still a positive sign.

Human happiness is devaluated indeed, but only relative to the (divine) eternal bliss (Fig.1):

 

Fig.1

Human happiness is transient, whereas the Brahman lasts forever

 

 

 

Non-hedonistic Brahman

A non-hedonistic Brahman is described as “perfection beyond emotions”, “indescribable Absolute” [Fowler, 7] or “cosmic consciousness” (and not as “eternal bliss”). It is given the hedonistic value zero, in order to express that it is neither happiness, nor suffering. Since the cosmic consciousness overrules human happiness, the latter has to be expressed in negative numbers. This is the NPU axiology as concretized in Table 1, col.4

 

The idea of a cosmic consciousness is as old as philosophy, but has become topical again [Chalmers]:

-        The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived interest in panpsychism. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does. The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

-        The most popular empirically based argument for panpsychism stems from evolution. This argument begins with the assumption that evolution is a process that creates complex systems out of pre-existing properties but yet cannot make "entirely novel" properties.

(Panpsychism, Wikipedia)

There is no absolute nothingness; the void is a theoretical construct.

 

 

 

5. NPU without Metaphysics

 

It is unknown how many Buddhists believe that the Nirwana exists as a celestial realm outside of the human mind.

Nirvāṇa is a term found in the texts of all major Indian religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. It refers to the profound peace of mind that is acquired with moksha and the liberation from samsara (…). The idea of moksha is connected to the Vedic culture, where it conveyed a notion of “immortality” or “timelessness”, and a notion of being "unborn", or "at the still point of the turning world of time" (…). The hope for life after death started with notions of going to the worlds of the Fathers or Ancestors and/or the world of the Gods or Heaven (Nirwana, Wikipedia).

 

Buddha avoided metaphysical speculations in general and rejected the existence of an eternal soul (atman) in particular [Fowler 1999, 81] [Webster 2005, 96]. Following an example from the Alagaddupama Sutta:

'This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, and eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity' — Isn't it utterly and completely a fool's teaching?" (…)

"Thus, monks, any form or consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

 

Could NPU work without metaphysical assumptions? Even if there is no cosmic consciousness, non-existence is still characterized by a kind of perfection: the absolute absence of frustrations.

1.     Is the absence of minor frustrations sufficient to claim a moral superiority of non-existence? The absence of even minor frustrations corresponds to a perfect life. If non-existence is associated with the utilitarian value zero (and not with the perfection of a cosmic consciousness), then it is counter-intuitive to claim a moral superiority of non-existence (Reverse Repugnant Conclusion).

2.     The absence of severe suffering, however, could be sufficient to claim a moral superiority of non-existence. In classical utilitarianism a life with negative welfare is not worth living by definition. If global welfare turns negative, then non-existence becomes the lesser evil (but not a perfect state). The confrontation with severe suffering (not minor frustration) marks the beginning of Buddhist reasoning (see Four sights). The axiology which corresponds to this description is the moderate NU and not NPU.

 

A different idea is to look at life from the end (the ancient Memento Mori):

1.     One could postulate that life has no value, for the simple reason that it is destined to decay:

 

 

Is there any meaning in my life

that would not be destroyed

by the inevitable death that awaits me?

 

[Tolstoi, 44]

 

 

If everyone shares this view then there are no lives with positive value (as in NPU). But the normative claim that the individual life is worthless because of its mortality is counter-intuitive for most people. Parents, in particular, often imagine living on in their children.

2.     One could postulate that – in order to avoid frustration – it makes sense to desire the inevitable decay and death (The Stoic Amor Fati). But this strategy, although intellectually comprehensible, is in complete contradiction to the biological intuitions. If there is no vision of a cosmic consciousness after death (chapter 4) it is counter-intuitive for most people to desire decay and death.

 

 

 

6. Conclusion

 

-      Negative preference utilitarianism can be seen as a later form of Buddhism, which adopted the Hindu concept of a Brahman.

-      NPU is counter-intuitive, as long as we do not adopt a metaphysical value like cosmic consciousness. More reliable than metaphysical speculations are the findings of contemporary biology: Approximately 99.9% of each human’s genome is permanently being reborn [Embacher]. That is reason enough to focus on the suffering in the present world.

 

 

 

References

 

1.     Anderson Ron (2012), Human Suffering and Measures of Human Progress, Presentation for a RC55 Session of the International Sociological Association Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina

2.     Broome John (1999), Ethics out of Economics, Cambridge University Press, UK

3.     Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.11, No.1, 103-113, Routledge, London

4.     Fehige Christoph (1998), A Pareto Principle for Possible People, in C. Fehige and U. Wessels, eds., Preferences, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter

5.     Fowler Merv (1999), Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic, Brighton

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

7.     Gallup (2009), Understanding How Gallup Uses the Cantril Scale, available from https://news.gallup.com/poll/122453/understanding-gallup-uses-cantril-scale.aspx

8.     Raju, P.T. (1992), Philosophical Traditions of India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi

9.     Ryberg, J. (1996), “Is the Repugnant Conclusion Repugnant?”, Philosophical Papers, XXV, 161-177.

10.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016), The Repugnant Conclusion

11.  Tolstoi L.N. (1882), Meine Beichte (übersetzt von R.Löwenfeld), Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1978

12.  Webster David (2005), The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon, RoutledgeCurzon, London

13.  World Happiness Report (2013), Edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, The Earth Institute, Columbia University Press, New York