Negative Utilitarianism – Why suffering is all that matters

Pessimistic philosophies such as antinatalism, efilism and the universal right to die are widely rejected on a number of grounds and this blog intends to explore many of these arguments in due course to find where they are lacking. In this post, I will be addressing the claim that these philosophies place too much emphasis on suffering, and pay insufficient regards to the putative positive aspects of life, such as joy, love and meaning.

The core pillar of my argument is one that has been promulgated by the Youtube philosopher inmendham in a large number of the thousands of videos that he has made since joining Youtube in May 2007. Namely, that suffering is the only source of value in the universe, and thus all ethics should be focused on minimising, if not eliminating suffering.

There are many philosophers who explore negative utilitarian themes, however this is generally considered to be a very unpopular ethical theory, as even such controversial ethicists as Peter Singer believe that procreation can be justifiable if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child will have a good life. Even David Benatar is reluctant to characterise himself as a negative utilitarian, and whilst he opposes procreation on the basis of the axiological asymmetry, he has publicly rejected promortalism.

The reason to assert that suffering is the only source of intrinsic value is obvious. Whilst most people do value their lives, they value their lives on the basis of their feelings. Therefore, whilst life is considered a wonderful gift to many people, who hope to live as long as possible, to the chronically suicidal person, life is seen as an unasked for burden and a malediction.

If one rejects the duality of body and mind, as most atheists would do, then a person yet to be born, or a person who was born but is now dead, is incapable of ascribing any value to life at all. Similarly, as both inmendham and David Benatar point out, the planet of Mars is not apparently being tormented in any way by the absence of living beings enjoying pleasure. Therefore, one would logically have to conclude that pleasure has instrumental value, because living organisms have an innate desire for pleasure and aversion to suffering. The extremes of pleasure and pain are the two opposing poles of sentient experience, and the further you get away from one pole, the closer you get to the opposite pole. Just as Sisyphus valiantly struggled to push the boulder towards the top of the hill in order to earn his short period of respite at the top before the boulder rolled back down; as individuals, we must be constantly striving towards the pole of pleasure. If our efforts to do so fall short, then we will inexorably find ourselves inexorably pulled towards the magnetic pole of suffering. Suffering is the default condition of life, as one will find oneself in suffering if one fails to expend adequate effort in seeking comfort.

As creatures with diverse interests and dispositions, external stimuli will not always elicit the same value response from all people, and this is because the external factors that affect how we feel have only instrumental value or disvalue in inducing either a positive or a negative feeling. It is only the feelings themselves which have intrinsic value, and thus ‘suffering’ is tautologous with ‘bad’. Without the capacity to experience the feeling of suffering, then the concept of ‘badness’ itself cannot exist in the universe. When you get down to the core of trying to explain why pain is bad, it is impossible to do so without merely referring back to the ineffable sensation itself. It is for this same reason that we could explain to another human being our need for aspirin when we are experiencing a severe headache, by just referring to the mutually understood sensation of pain; but we would not be able to explain to a non-sentient AI (if such could exist) why we need this relief, as due to the sensation itself being ineffable, we would be incapable of reducing it to concepts that would be understandable to an intelligence that had no direct experience of it. In much the same way, we would not be able to describe the colour blue to someone who was blind from birth.

In my years of debating on Reddit, a great deal has been made of the subjectivity of suffering by moral nihilists, who greet this fact as a welcome ethical loophole to excuse a multitude of unethical acts, especially procreation, and perhaps more importantly, afford them some form of psychological protection from the unsettling philosophical implications of the realisation that they live in a universe which is coldly indifferent to their own wellbeing, and by the fact that they were evolved through unintelligent forces with no concept of mercy or fairness; and live in a world in which, by and large, mercy and fairness have little to do with the actual outcomes which obtain.

Moral nihilism is the psychopath’s charter, but also an untenable philosophy. It is the argument that, if objective morality does not exist, then there’s no compelling reason to pay any regard to the impact that one’s actions may have on the suffering of another, unless one’s actions were being constrained by the character weakness of empathy.

However, as much as moral nihilism is correct in a very narrow sense, it is also untenable in real human affairs. Moral nihilism is how the animal kingdom operates, and how nature and evolution have always operated. There was no benevolent guiding force which created these beings, and they have very limited capacity for morality themselves, and for structuring cohesive societies based on mutual interests.

Humans, on the other hand, have realised that life can be made a little easier for virtually everyone, if we co-operate and respect the ‘golden rule’ to not do unto others as one would not want done unto oneself. Unless you are unchallenged as the most powerful person on the planet; untrammelled moral nihilism is not going to work in your favour, because as much as you would be capable of bulldozing over the feelings of others in order to obtain what you desire; they would be able to do the same to you. In a world in which the rules of ethics have broken down and might makes right, the end result is a perpetual state of anarchic war, which will be sure to be unsatisfactory to virtually everyone concerned. It would be otiose to propound a philosophy of morality that you will abandon when it does not suit your own interests.

Invoking Hume’s is/ought gap, as moral nihilists are wont to do, does not meaningfully detract from the validity of pessimistic philosophies such as antinatalism, as one always feels that one ‘ought’ to avoid unnecessary suffering; and if one recognises that to be the case for oneself, then there’s no logical defence for creating meaningless new lives that will serve no purpose other than to perpetuate the existence of sensations that are intrinsically negative.

As an antinatalist and efilist, would I be willing to die on the hill of negative utilitarianism? Yes, I would, in the most literal sense. As I’ve explained above, I only have any use for my life whilst I still have it. Therefore, if the Benevolent World Exploder came tonight and instantaneously eradicated all sentient life on the planet, then it would not be possible for me to register any qualms about its decision to act without my consent. Consent is only important when the potential outcomes of one’s actions are going to cause harm, and a scenario in which life was eradicated painlessly at the push of a button would do nothing other than remove harm from existence.

David Benatar would argue that annihilation is itself a harm; however this can only be true in an abstract sense. And if I’m dead and everyone else is dead, then whom is left over to worry about abstract harms? Why should I be concerned about a “harm” that nobody will ever have to experience? Why worry about my interests being frustrated, when the only rational set of interests it would be possible for me to have would be concerned with trying to navigate a path, for myself, and/or for others, through the treacherous terrain of life, with the least amount of suffering (and therefore the maximum amount of the polar opposite of suffering, pleasure) possible? This is the point at which Mr Benatar unfortunately ran into some difficulties in his debate with Sam Harris. Harris correctly pointed out that the badness arising from the frustration of one’s interests to continue living do not accrue in any realm of physical reality (in Harris’ and Benatar’s physicalist universe) and thus it is difficult to understand how Benatar believes that he is able to remain logically consistent whilst avoiding this logical conclusion of his antinatalist arguments.

Some philosophers have posited a “deprivation account” of the badness of death as a refutation of Epicureanism; however, again, this relies on the existence of some kind of abstract harm that is not experienced. I will devote a separate post to the deprivation account in order to explain its shortcomings in more detail; having debated this at length on Reddit.

To conclude this post, my thesis is that if one accepts an atheistic and materialistic conception of reality, then there can be no such thing as a good or a bad that is not defined exclusively by the feelings of sentient organisms. There is no basis for having a preference between two different outcomes outside on the impact that those outcomes are going to have on the feelings of yourself, or other sentient organisms. The gulf which exists between pleasure and pain is what drives preference; and if not guided by this, then all choices would be as arbitrary as the result of a meaningless coin toss.

Even in cases where we are driven by the motivation to preserve life (the source of all suffering), our motivation comes from the fact that we are evolved to associate suffering with existential danger, due to the fact that most of the things which induce suffering are harmful to the wellbeing of ourselves or our loved ones, and therefore in the wild, would have been most likely to have reduced our chances of being able to successfully replicate our DNA and protect our family to ensure that they were able to continue on our bloodline. Our instinct to preserve life is based on crude instincts, with which we were endowed by unintelligent forces. Not because life has inherent value.

Unfortunately, as the result of unintelligent and non-rational forces; natural selection is an arena within which the most effective tools are not necessarily the ones that best represent the interests of rational beings. There is no more effective tool to motivate organisms to preserve their bloodline than one which elicits genuine value as punishment for failing to do so. It is as a result of this that we find ourselves in the position today where most of humanity is still incapable, or unwilling, to recognise the trick that has been played on them by the forces of natural selection. Only when we allow ourselves to outsmart the unintelligent forces of natural selection will humanity realise that the only rational course for us to pursue is that of the extinction of ourselves, and of all life. We can then realise that, in a game in which nobody can win, the best option left to us is to cut our collective losses.

Please feel free to use the comment section below for further discussion. Comments will be reviewed prior to publication, however providing you demonstrate that you are intending to debate in good faith and does not endorse or promote violence or self harm in any way, your comment will not be deleted or altered. Alternatively, if you have a Reddit account, please feel free to discuss these topics further on r/BirthandDeathEthics or r/DebateAntinatalism. Please subscribe by email to be notified of future content, using the form below:

existentialgoof – 10th September 2021

6 comments

  1. Would you agree that when a person’s life has more positive value (in this case pleasure, happiness, joy) than negative value, then life is worth continuing for said person?
    What do you think of a person who embraces it’s suffering as means to get or achieve a higher value for this person’s mindset?

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. First of all, I will say that I’m sceptical of the idea that it is possible for a person’s life to contain more pleasure than suffering, but I’m just going to put that to one side, because it’s not something that I’m 100% certain of. For the sake of discussion, we’ll suppose that it is possible for pleasure to outweigh displeasure. Even in this case, the person can not know what the future will contain. It could be that they’ll have a stroke tomorrow that will leave them paralysed and suffering grave indignity for the rest of their lives. Or any one of myriad different ways that life can go horribly awry.

      As for those who embrace suffering; I would argue that they tend to do it on order to reduce suffering over the long term. Striving towards this higher value that you describe might be the way to give them a sense of meaning, which would allow them to avoid the desolation that comes from living a meaningless life. People choose suffering today because they know that a life without suffering is impossible, but that by choosing a little suffering today, they can avoid a great deal of suffering tomorrow.

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      1. If every “positive” joy and pleasure is merely the consequence of fixing the “needs” and deprivations that DNA installed inside us, how are you still uncertain that pleasure isn’t just a lesser form of suffering?

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      2. Thank you for your answer, I’m new to all this, and I have given it a lot of thought into it for the last couple of weeks.
        I consider myself a person with little amount of pain in my everyday, I have got some really painful downs across my life, but I’m standing in a optimist position, so it’s inevitable to feel intrigued by this kind of philosophy. Now while I don’t agree all lives would be better off dead than alive by the amount of individual suffering and future uncertainty, I do agree that death is a better path to people that feel under a terrible amount of unavoidable pain, and I support their choice for a painless death and encourage their families to understand their decision.
        Now, since I’m new to all this, I don’t now if this idea has been talked about before, but I believe that a life’s quality of suffering/joy should be judged as in it’s current state, not taking into account past situations.
        My reasoning for this is that while certainly the past shapes us the way we are now, and that remembering past events can give us pain/pleasure, our physical and mental sensibilities are more focused in the present, and we define our mood in relation to how we feel in the moment, and it doesn’t take into consideration past events, unless they were recent.
        With this in mind, I would argue that saying that a person should off himself because he had a painful and terrible past, but now is having a happy life. Same for the opposite, where someone maybe si currently going to living hell, and it doesn’t seem it will get better, but his childhood was delightful and fantastic.
        In other words I wouldn’t take a whole person’s entire amount of pain or joy in order to say wether he should continue his life or not, but rather his current one and how he feels about it.
        Now, you said that you don’t believe that pleasure can outweight suffering, but focusing solely on pain, would you agree with this statement?

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        1. If someone’s enjoying life now, but was miserable in the past, then I’m not saying that should vitiate their enjoyment of life now. But just as they fell upon hardship in the past, so could the fall into hardship in the future, and their window of contentment may only be a temporary respite. So the past suffering needn’t mar the enjoyment of the present (and in fact, may enhance the pleasure of the present by contrast), but if one is wise, it should provide context and should caution against becoming complacent. I’m glad that you support the choice of those who are suffering to end their lives, free from interference. If everyone was as compassionate and progressive as to support that, then I think that the amount of suffering for people alive would be greatly reduced.

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