Monday, May 6, 2019

Why Negative Utilitarianism is Wrong

(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.)

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post. :)

    As you point out, that criticism applies equally to classical utilitarianism or any form of purely hedonist consequentialism. However, there are forms of consequentialism to which it doesn't apply. For example, if you care at least somewhat about preferences regardless of whether an agent knows that its preferences have been violated, then you can restore a common-sense conclusion regarding your thought experiment. And it seems that preference violation is precisely the reason that a deontologist would oppose the behavior in the thought experiment in the first place.

    So you could still be a negative preference utilitarian (or a mixed hedonistic and preference negative utilitarian, as in my case).

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to write in.

      As far as your reply goes, I absolutely agree with you, and it was a slip-up on my part to not make it clear that I was referring to Hedonistic Negative Utilitarianism in particular. I suppose that I just naturally view Preference Utilitarianism to be a merely 'diluted' form of Utilitarian theory, but I recognize that it is a prominent school of thought in the tradition.

      I will put a brief note at the top of the post making this absolutely clear.

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    2. Sounds good. No worries. :)

      The preference view does get quite weird, and it's difficult to know how seriously to take it beyond common-sense cases. For example, according to preference utilitarianism, there's some nontrivial moral cost to digging up mummies because they wanted to remain in their tombs. It's somewhat bad to make fun of Ahura Mazda because this violates the preferences of large numbers of past (and a few present) Zoroastrians. And so on.

      I feel like when many people incorporate respect for preferences into their morality, they usually focus on the preferences of living people, especially people with enough power to seek revenge. Given that animals can't seek revenge, they're a good counterexample, although other humans can seek revenge on behalf of animals.

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    3. "...according to preference utilitarianism, there's some nontrivial moral cost to digging up mummies because they wanted to remain in their tombs. It's somewhat bad to make fun of Ahura Mazda because this violates the preferences of large numbers of past (and a few present) Zoroastrians. And so on."

      Those are interesting examples. So I am assuming that the preference utilitarian will necessarily have to violate some preferences when they undertake any course of action, and therefore they will have to take this into account when weighing the options? Because it seems to me that any far-fetched preference we can think could at least plausibly be held by some people at some time.

      "Given that animals can't seek revenge, they're a good counterexample, although other humans can seek revenge on behalf of animals"

      I used to think this too, but then I came across a very interesting book called "Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance" by Jason Hribal. He mentions numerous cases wherein animals seem to seek revenge. Of course, a lot of it is anecdotal and the charge of anthropomorphism is always there, but it is worth consideration at the very least.

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    4. > it seems to me that any far-fetched preference we can think could at least plausibly be held by some people at some time.

      Yeah. This is especially true when considering extraterrestrials. And if you believe in a sufficiently big universe or a multiverse, then all physically possible preferences exist somewhere. Of course, we should weight preferences by their numerosity, so many of these weird preferences will get small weight.

      I'm curious how deontologists avoid paralysis at things like this. Everything you do violates someone's rights, etc. But I guess they probably have their own ways of "being reasonable" regarding such problems.

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  2. You misunderstand the utilitarian use of the word "suffering."

    When we say suffering, we refer to anything that the person (or animal) deems undesirable. Getting raped, even if you don't realize it, is definitely undesirable, and thus can be classified under suffering.

    Stupid, horribly thought out article.

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    1. Many thanks for writing in.

      Please note that, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this article is strictly aimed at Hedonistic Negative Utilitarianism. 'Suffering' as you define the term would include the preferences of the being under question.

      As Brian Tomasik explained above, my post does not apply to Preference Negative Utilitarianism.

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  3. Well then your article title is completely misleading, as it's a criticism not of negative utilitarianism, but of hedonistic utilitarianism.

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    1. That is why there is always more to an article than just the title.

      I agree that my original choice for a title was mistaken, but I will leave it as is, because I would like to make the various slip-ups and twists-and-turns in my thought visible to everyone.

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