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

13 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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  2. Hello existentialgoof

    I trust you are fine and found your blog and exchange recently
    Please accept my 2 cents comments and civilised exchange
    Under the civil theory of rights , solely is the autonomous person who decides if he wants to terminate his life. He is the only one entitled to do that , otherwise it is bracking his autonomy , imposing him an unwanted death as in red nuclear buttom/Armagedon scenario?
    Why shall any “optimist person” will accept this , but also others who value life tackiing through the suffering even with a net greater value ?

    What about the infringed persons who value their suffering despite all odds and wish their life to continue to a natural death cause. Who and why shall decide to terminate those without their consent ? As Sam harris said, efilism will be entitled to kill all people in the sleep to avoid suffering them
    It looks for me that this efilism philosophy is a personal preference to impose death regardless of consent, it is more an authoritarian position on extreme.
    Lastly, the nuclear Armaghedon is anything else but not a painless death. Anyway I got your idea that is a pure anyway philosophical tool, or did I get it wrong please?
    Silviu

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  3. Hello to you existentialgoof,

    I trust you are fine and healthy on these times. I come to your blog from RedIt, not sure if this rebuttal is yours or someone else there:

    My question to you , if you don’t mind being straight : on which theory of rights a small minority , efilism people, can take the rights on a larger one: to all
    by deciding what is the intrinsic, subjective value of suffering versus pain gain or net loss ?

    I think and feel about myself as suffering lately, for example after COVID infections and the side effects , by having haid ache pains I have.
    However, I find that even this life span is valuable for me, that I can overpass , even for short periods these pains , learn from it and enjoy or value the other parts of the life I have .
    I think the right to leave or die must stay within the individuals only, to decide based on their value life assessment and not forced from a 3rd party who can not access my consciousness experience. awareness and feeling such love, empathy , struggling . suferinng has a life value may be more then pure bliss and enjoyment, don’t know that sides fully to compare it at least

    As David Harris said, the efilism could be entitled to kill everyone asleep without suffering . Is that the new doctrine and social thread you are promoting?

    What is suffering can be fixed in near future after all, as transhumanist promote now in “Can Biotehnology Abolish suffering” by David Pierce.

    I want to share with you someone else thoughts close to my understanding:
    In my view, morality is the suggestion of behaviour for the adoption by others. you have understood human behaviour, if you have understood what motivates them, so you can predict majority behaviour.

    For instance i can predict that when cultural fertility is low (viewer people are involved in procreation), then large families will increase and genetic diversity will be lost. We know this from history. the reason why we currently don’t see larger families is, that more people agree with lowering population density.
    But this may change in time.

    So what do you want to achieve?

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    1. Hi there, thanks very much for your comment. In general, I support individual rights, including the right to continue living even if others judge on their behalf that they’d be better off dead. However, in terms of the larger picture, you have to realise that the rights of the individuals who exist NOW is trivial when set against the vast mass of future wellbeing states that would be in jeopardy if we failed to act when the opportunity presented itself. So I certainly think that if you can solve the problem permanently, then this would warrant a special exception being made to the usual rule that you cannot decide on behalf of others. Transhumanist technology might greatly reduce suffering in the future, but that’s a huge “if”. The fact is that nobody is in the position right now to exterminate all sentient life in any case, so there isn’t a decision to be made at this juncture. However, with advances in technology, you have to also understand that nothing is guaranteed to improve, but there is also huge liability that this technology will be used to turn society into a hellish, dystopian surveillance state from which escape even via suicide is impossible, and one may be forced to have one’s lifespan extended for hundreds of years without consent (on the basis of the reasoning that no rational person can choose to commit suicide, therefore no rational person could choose to have a shorter lifespan than the maximum, because all of pessimistic philosophy is thought to be delusional psychosis to suicide prevention fanatics who currently number in the majority).

      As for that post you linked me to, there is someone on Reddit who was constantly asking me to address other people’s comments from elsewhere on Reddit, and eventually I got fed up of that, so am not intending to respond.

      I have another blog post coming on efilism (which addresses this issue about when it is permissible to decide on behalf of others), but I’ve been a bit becalmed on the blog work recently, as I have been busy with moving house.

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  4. Hello again

    I do not think I understand your point here:
    “However, in terms of the larger picture, you have to realise that the rights of the individuals who exist NOW is trivial when set against the vast mass of future wellbeing states that would be in jeopardy if we failed to act when the opportunity presented itself. So I certainly think that if you can solve the problem permanently, then this would warrant a special exception being made to the usual rule that you cannot decide on behalf of others.”

    Are you saying that you are still justified in your believes that killing people while asleep or any such utopian idea its still worth taking the path and the rights to leave for others?
    How are you able to asses the wellbeing of any individuals except yours if you are not able to even grasp a bit of his/her consciousness experience, his values, believes to pretend to substitute his/her decisions and from particular to a most general/ picture to all people?

    You are still justified in your believes that without the consent of any people you are entitled to murder all , you will act properly?Why do you think you are in a better of position to asses intrinsic personal life experience of anybody else to substitute with your 3rd party opinion ?

    I gave you a personal example, where suffering still have value ,regardless of a 3d party opinion and this is currently entitled and protected by the civil rights: the right to leave.

    Why do not kill yourself by proving the theory of efilism you are promoting(not that I wish you to do that, don’t get me wrong)

    Cheers
    S.C

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    1. Thanks for your response, Silviu. I am not advocating for killing anyone for their own good, who doesn’t consent. The only reason that I would advocate for any killing at all would be in order to prevent future imposition of life without consent being obtained. I would say that if you can prevent a vastly greater number of violations of consent (e.g. imposing life on progeny) in the future by acting against the consent of those in the present, then you are logically and ethically obligated to do that. Why is the consent of those alive at the moment worth so much more than all of those who would otherwise exist in the future without their consent? There’s no logical reason why you should privilege the small sliver of time which constitutes the present over the vast, illimitable expanse of the future. Pressing the ‘red button’ would be like paying £100 today in order to save £1 trillion in the future.

      As for how I’m in the position to judge; well, all of the evidence of my senses leads me to believe that I am not the only entity in existence that experiences suffering. And the only way an entity which can experience suffering can come about is by being brought into existence via procreation. So that’s the mechanism that we need to put a stop to, since you cannot explain how those who aren’t enjoying life deserve to be forced to pay the price for those who do enjoy life (but who wouldn’t miss it if they didn’t come into existence, or even if they died due to someone pressing the red button).

      As for why I don’t kill myself; I very likely would do so if society weren’t so primitive as to put unnecessary impediments in the way of my obtaining a reliable and safe suicide method. I strongly suspect that the reason that they do prevent people like me from suicide is due to the fact that humanity’s prevailing life-affirming philosophy is so weak it cannot withstand any dissent whatsoever, so that dissent must be crushed and the dissenters labelled insane.

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  5. Hi again,

    regarding:
    “Why is the consent of those alive at the moment worth so much more than all of those who would otherwise exist in the future without their consent?”
    Because if you value at least one individual consent as per your initial statement:
    “I support individual rights, including the right to continue living even if others judge on their behalf that they’d be better off dead”
    then it logically follows that you do not arrive to the opposite conclusion for a larger group, regardless how large. and future generation are abstract in the current logical ground, you can not assign any value of suffering/pleasure but even if you can, I question your value system and the compass you are quick to judge the taking lives of the others.

    In my personal experience people value more striving for their personal growth and their close ones like family and friends values and less for the net value of pain versus pleasure diagnostic.
    I might be wrong for some or even for one,
    hence I can not pretend I am better of taking their lives, do you feel comfortable going ahead ?

    Regarding yours
    “if society weren’t so primitive as to put unnecessary impediments in the way of my obtaining a reliable and safe suicide method”.

    There are safe and less painfull methods out there, no need for me to promote any since I want to take in front value the suffering as existential strive to leave and consider it on a personal ground only if its worth having or not a personal choice and not an imposition against others

    A suicidal person wouldn’t care whether the act is legal or not; an act can be morally but not legally right, but even the question of its moral right is irrelevant to the point at issue, which is just that most people implicitly give their consent to having been born, by not being suicidal.

    You and you can take an informed demissions only about our personal lives but I would never agree to leave others to substitute a basic right and decision about my own one.
    And I happen to think is the case for future generation, to decide for themselves and not me, you or anyone else a matter of life and death.
    That is just imposing one believes personal system against all the others at all cost , precluding a basic present right or a future right to leave or die, a personal decission.

    Don’t you think that is something very personal and intimate to decide for himself?
    And from personal to the general , if “P” then “Q”, while you are saying
    if “P(personal)” then NOT “Q(general)” – you see the logical fallacy here?

    I say the best we can do is be tragic heroes since primitive nature wins in the end: we will all die ; the question is whether a partial victory is sufficiently worthy to provide a superior alternative to the effective termination of our species through AN. May be the future generation will win against suffering against the odds you raised by using nano and biotechnology and AI, improved medicine , finding other habitat planet or fixing the current state of the planet. Don’t know, but I have no ground to decide for any by myself, but you are comfortable to kill all and excuse yourself now.

    Take care and fight with the suffering, might be worth beating it up!

    Good night!

    Like

    1. I do value the consent of the individual and of larger populations. But it doesn’t have absolute value, and if I refuse to do anything to solve the issue of suffering that would entail violating consent, then I’m enabling a vastly greater number of violations of consent. There is no perfect way to extricate ourselves from this issue, so you are compelled to solve it the most efficient way possible. How people value their own lives is up to them. That’s not the issue here. The issue is with imposing life on those who cannot consent and who may not share the same value system and might not find life to be worth the cost. That’s what has to be prevented. If we could guarantee that nobody could reproduce and anyone who wanted to die could opt out, then there would be no need to entertain a ‘red button’ solution.

      Suicide is legal where I come from, at least de jure legal. However, it inhabits an odd legal grey area whereby a suicidal person is acting lawfully if they kill themselves within the privacy of their own homes, and yet, the authorities may use any level of force necessary in order to prevent that suicide. So making suicide a legal right would be very important to ensure that nobody may legally foil my plans to commit suicide, providing that I’m not doing so in a way that will endanger others. As for the moral judgements of others, I don’t care about that. I only care about legally having the right to have the government abstain from interfering. See my other post on the right to die for more information.

      You also cannot retrospectively consent to being born. That’s a nonsense idea. And just because you haven’t committed suicide, or aren’t even suicidal, that doesn’t mean that you are enjoying life and that it wasn’t an extremely harmful imposition.

      There should be no more impositions of life, so we cannot just keep saying that it’s up to future generations to decide whether life is worth it, and if it isn’t…well, then they’re just stuffed because suicide prevention measures will probably be even more draconian and invasive by then.

      I’m not sure what you’re saying is a logical fallacy. I don’t want to end the existence of sentient life because I’m suicidal personally. I want to do it in order to prevent the problem from being perpetuated onto others who didn’t have a say in being dragged into it.

      If I would know that I’m going to prevent more suffering than I cause, then I absolutely would feel comfortable making the executive decision, because it is one that is demanded by logic.

      Like

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