(I would like to briefly mention that in this essay I am concerned specifically with Hedonistic Negative Utilitarianism. To see why this critique does not apply to Negative Preference Utilitarianism, see the comment by Brian Tomasik below).
In this post, I should like to provide a critique of Negative Utilitarianism. Negative Utilitarianism is an Ethical Theory most notably defended by David Pearce, Magnus Vinding, and Brian Tomasik. Negative Utilitarianism is like more traditional forms of Utilitarianism in that it is an outcome-oriented ethic, but it is unique in the fact that it attaches a distinctively moral weight only to suffering. In effect, this means that the Negative Utilitarian does not see a moral imperative in increasing pleasure; rather, they see a moral imperative only for reducing suffering.
We can see from this definition that, on the surface level at least, Negative Utilitarianism appears to be a fitting ethic for Veganism. Indeed, I myself have even been drawn toward it in the past. But I no longer feel compelled to be a Negative Utilitarian, since I am convinced that in the end, it is incorrect. The reason that I feel this way is because of an analogy that Gary Yourofsky appealed to in this video (at around the 13-minute mark). Yourofsky obviously was not using this analogy to criticize Negative Utilitarianism as such, but it can very easily be used for this purpose.
The argument goes as follows: Suppose that we have a man, call him Todd, who has an insatiable urge to rape women. But, since Todd is a convinced Negative Utilitarian, he recognizes the amount of suffering that this would cause. However, Todd has just hit upon a clever idea. By slipping a date rape drug into a woman's drink, and by taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that neither she nor her friends and family will ever find out that Todd had raped her, he can fulfill his fantasy while causing quite literally no suffering at all. Todd then concludes that raping a woman in this fashion is consistent with Negative Utilitarianism and is thus wholly justified. But of course, raping a woman in this fashion is not justified at all. Thus, Negative Utilitarianism is false.
Now let us see what we have here. This scenario has been set up in just the right way such that we can be ensured that no suffering will occur. Indeed, it will be just as if nothing at all had happened to the woman. So we have an act that is permissible according to Negative Utilitarianism. But, at least as far as I see it, the act is morally reprehensible. Of course, actual Negative Utilitarians might agree with me on this, but any reason they provide for doing so will be a mere add-on to Negative Utilitarianism proper.
Let us see what we can draw from our conclusion. Like all versions of Utilitarianism, Negative Utilitarianism is an outcome-oriented school of thought in ethics. In addition, it holds that the only things that can strictly speaking be called good or bad are states of the world, with the experiential states of individuals being counted as a special case. Taking this in mind, we can very easily see how the act we have described above would be considered permissible on the Negative Utilitarian ethic. For the Negative Utilitarian denotes as 'good' all those states of the world that lack suffering, and denotes as 'bad' all those states of the world that contain suffering. In our scenario, there is a total lack of suffering. This leads us to the next point. In contrast to Utilitarians, those of a Deontological persuasion consider acts themselves to be the only things that can strictly speaking be called right or wrong, regardless of whether they have good or bad consequences. Thus, Deontology gives the correct answer with regard to our scenario; namely, Todd has committed a morally repugnant act, regardless of the suffering (or lack thereof) involved.
(I would also like to point out that this line of reasoning can also be used to critique Utilitarianism more broadly. Indeed, all we need to do is modify the example such that the rapist receives infinitely more pleasure from the act than the victim does in suffering. Even with this in mind, I would still say that what the man has done in our example is morally reprehensible.)
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