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Negative consequentialism

Consequentialists accept that, in order to decide upon a course of action, we must first weigh up the interests of different individuals who would be affected were a particular action to be carried out. Negative consequentialism is the version of consequentialism that focuses on reducing harms. It has this focus because it assumes that there aren’t things of positive intrinsic value, while there are things of negative intrinsic value. Therefore, in deciding on whether to act in a particular way, a negative consequentialist would consider what harms it would cause, eliminate, increase or decrease.

According to negative consequentialism, the need to reduce suffering as much as possible must always take priority over anything else. There is no possible amount of benefit that can compensate for the existence of suffering.

One form of negative consequentialism is negative utilitarianism. Other possible forms of negative consequentialism include negative prioritarianism, negative consequentialist egalitarianism and, in general, any consequentialist position according to which there is no positive value to consider.

To see the differences between standard forms of consequentialism and negative consequentialism we can consider the case of negative utilitarianism. There are many significant differences between negative utilitarianism and standard utilitarianism, though they do share some common ground.

The three ideas that define standard utilitarianism are:

(1) What is good for individuals is that the amount of happiness (or satisfaction of desires) be as high as possible. The amount of happiness is equal to the amount of positive happiness minus the amount of suffering (or frustration of desires).

(2) What is best overall is that the total sum of happiness be as high as possible.

(3) We should act in ways that increase the total sum of happiness.

The three ideas that define negative utilitarianism are:

(1) What is good for individuals is that the amount of suffering (or frustration of desires) be as low as possible.

(2) What is best overall is that the total sum of suffering be as low as possible.

(3) We should act in ways that decrease the total sum of suffering as much as possible.

Unlike standard utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism considers there to be no amount of positive experience that can compensate for any amount of suffering. According to standard utilitarian theory, suffering can be acceptable if it brings about an even greater amount of positive happiness. This would never be acceptable according to negative utilitarianism.

Accordingly, in a number of cases, negative utilitarianism would defend decisions similar to those employed in other consequentialist theories such as egalitarianism and prioritarianism, but different from those in standard utilitarianism.  In standard utilitarianism, for instance, if there was the possibility of bringing great happiness to someone at the cost of inflicting a comparatively small level of suffering to someone else, it would be acceptable. Negative utilitarianism, along with egalitarianism, would reject this option.

What about other negative consequentialist views? Negative prioritarianism focuses on reducing suffering but giving extra weight to those who are suffering most. Negative consequentialist egalitarianism also focuses on reducing suffering and on reducing inequality.

There are some instances in which negative utilitarianism reaches different conclusions from those reached by egalitarianism, negative egalitarianism, prioritarianism or negative prioritarianism.  For example, take a situation in which if we acted in a certain way, one individual would be subjected to considerable pain and another would not, whereas if we acted in a different way, both individuals would suffer, but to a lesser extent than the individual in the first example. In other words, in the latter example, the suffering would be meted out equally and the effect on each individual would be reduced; the pain would not all be inflicted on just one of them. According to negative utilitarianism, if the total suffering of the two individuals would be the same as the suffering experienced by one of them in the first example (because the two people would each suffer half as much), we would have to be indifferent to either possible outcome. However, a position such as egalitarianism (or negative egalitarianism) considers the situation in which only one individual suffers to be worse, as this individual would be in a far worse predicament compared to the one they would both be in were they to share the burden. In this instance, negative utilitarianism operates in a similar manner to standard utilitarianism because it only considers a total amount and not its distribution.

There is another position that rejects increasing happiness if it entails the infliction of suffering, but this position is distinct from negative consequentialism. To people holding this view, it’s unacceptable to inflict suffering in order to increase happiness not because they only value reducing suffering, or because they value reducing suffering more than anything else, but because they simply consider it morally wrong to harm others for any reason. This is a deontological, or non-consequentialist view, as opposed to consequentialist theories.

In practice, negative consequentialism is a theory that generally protects the most vulnerable and opposes their exploitation for the benefit of others if it results in their suffering. Since nonhuman animals are capable of suffering, according to negative consequentialism it is morally unacceptable to harm animals or cause them any kind of suffering for human benefit.  For this reason, animal exploitation is morally unacceptable.

According to negative consequentialism such as negative prioritarianism, negative utilitarianism, and negative consequentialist egalitarianism, we should also help animals who are suffering. Even if their suffering is not due to exploitation by humans, we should help them whenever it is possible to do so as long as it does not cause considerable suffering to others.

Further readings

Acton, H. B. & Watkins, J. W. N. (1963) “Symposium: Negative utilitarianism”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 37, pp. 83-114.

Benatar, D. (2006) Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence, New York: Oxford University Press.

Chao, R. (2012) “Negative average preference utilitarianism”, Journal of Philosophy of Life, pp. 55-66.

Contestabile, B. (2013 [2005]) “Negative utilitarianism and justice”, Philosophy as Therapy [accessed on 11 June 2016].

Gloor, L. (2017) “Tranquilism”, Center on Long-Term Risk [accessed on 21 August 2017].

Gloor, L. (2019 [2016]) “The case for suffering-focused ethics”, Center on Long-Term Risk [accessed on 15 July 2017].

Goodman, C. (2009) Consequences of compassion: An interpretation and defense of buddhist ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Griffin, J. (1979) “Is unhappiness morally more important than happiness?”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 29 (114), pp. 47-55.

Keown, D. (2005) Buddhist ethics: A very short introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

Knutsson, S. (2016)“The One-Paragraph Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics”, Simon Knutsson [accessed on 11 June 2020].

Knutsson, S. (2019) “The world destruction argument”, Inquiry.

Mayerfeld, J. (1996) “The moral asymmetry of happiness and suffering”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 34, pp. 317-338.

Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and moral responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pearce, D. (2010) “Why be negative?”, The Hedonistic Imperative [accessed on 16 October 2012].

Pearce, D. (2017) Can biotechnology abolish suffering?, North Carolina: The Neuroethics Foundation.

Sikora, R. I. (1976) “Negative utilitarianism: Not dead yet”, Mind, 85, pp. 587-588.

Smart, R. N. (1958) “Negative utilitarianism”, Mind, 67, pp. 542-543.

Suffering Focused Ethics Resources (n.d.).

Tomasik, B. (2013) “Three types of negative utilitarianism”, Reducing Suffering [accessed on 5 February 2017].

Tranöy, K. E. (1967) “Asymmetries in ethics: On the structure of a general theory of ethics”, Inquiry, 10, pp. 351-372.

Vinding, M. (2020) Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica.

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