Negative consequentialism

Negative consequentialism is a view in ethics, according to which the most important thing is to reduce negative things (such as suffering). This is because, for this view, bad things are much more morally important than good things. Negative consequentialism is therefore a type of suffering-focused ethics.

Negative consequentialism is a type of consequentialism. Consequentialism is a family of views in ethics according to which decisions about how to live should be determined by whether good or bad things will or might happen depending on what we do. For example, suppose that a certain theory claims it is right to act in ways that reduce suffering and increase happiness, and wrong to do otherwise. Suppose, further, that the reason why this theory defends this is simply that suffering is bad and happiness good. Then this view would be consequentialist. But suppose that the reason were a different one (for instance, that we think this is what is commanded by religion, custom, or some imperative unconnected to what is good or bad). Then that view would not be consequentialist.

Consequentialist views differ depending on what they consider to be good and bad and to what extent. Negative ones are those that claim that negative things, especially suffering, are most important.

Negative consequentialist views have important consequences for all beings who can suffer. Due to this, they entail rejecting animal exploitation and support reducing wild animal suffering. They also support paying special attention to reducing the risks that in the future there will be huge amounts of suffering, also known as suffering-risks, or s-risks for short.

Types of negative consequentialism

There are direct and indirect forms of consequentialism. Direct negative consequentialist views imply that we should act in ways that reduce negative things. Direct negative consequentialist views can claim that we should act according to a rule, or a certain feature that typically reduces negative things, or that would reduce negative things under ideal circumstances.1

A negative consequentialist could accept that there are good things in the world but still claim that it is much more important morally to reduce the bad things than it is to increase the good things, maybe because the bad things in the world are really, really bad, while the good things are only slightly good. For example, they might say that an hour of pleasure makes the world better by some amount X, but an hour of pain of a similar intensity makes the world worse by 3X. This is called weak negative consequentialism. A weak negative utilitarian might say that an action is right if it reduces suffering as much as possible. Making people happy can also be morally right, but not if that involves increasing suffering by any amount. According to strong negative consequentialism, the only way to make the world a better place is by reducing bad things. Increasing good things has no importance in comparison (the theory might not even consider anything to be good, including happiness).

Negative consequentialist theories can also differ in what things they consider to be bad:

(1) According to views accepting negative hedonism, suffering is bad.

(2) According to tranquilism, suffering is bad and the state of tranquility resulting from not suffering is good.

(3) According to antifrustrationism, satisfied preferences are morally neutral, meaning that they don’t make the world any better or any worse, while frustrated preferences on the other hand do make the world worse. From this it would follow that it is right to reduce the number of frustrated desires in the world, though it isn’t a good thing to create new desires which are then satisfied.

Finally, negative consequentialist theories can differ with regard to how we should reduce suffering and whether suffering is the only thing we should be concerned with.

(1) Negative utilitarianism is the view that we should reduce the total amount of suffering, adding together the suffering that all tindividuals endure.

(2) Other views give priority to reducing the most extreme forms of suffering.

(3) Negative consequentialist egalitarians care about both reducing suffering and reducing inequality.

Negative prioritarianism claims that suffering and negative wellbeing are bad, and it generally places more importance on reducing suffering in those who are worst off, even if this doesn’t reduce total suffering by as much as possible.

Negative consequentialism and nonhuman animals

Negative consequentialism, in general, protects those who are most vulnerable and opposes their exploitation for the benefit of others. Animal exploitation inflicts serious harms on nonhuman animals in order to bestow trivial benefits on human beings. The practice of raising animals for meat is a clear example – breeding an animal only to confine her in a factory farm and eventually slaughter her imposes a great deal of physical and emotional suffering on her for her whole life in order to provide a few minutes of pleasure to the human being who eats her. These practices of exploitation should be clearly morally unacceptable for negative consequentialists of any kind. In fact, negative consequentialists should oppose such practices even more strongly than other consequentialists. The benefits for humans that result from this exploitation are much less significant than the harms it causes, so all consequentialists should oppose it. But for negative consequentialists, whether strong or weak, such benefits would count for even less in comparison to the harms they cost.

Furthermore, negative consequentialism doesn’t just tell us to stop harming animals ourselves. Rather, it tells us that we should help all those who are suffering, even if that suffering isn’t caused by human beings. There are much greater numbers of animals living in the wild than there are animals used for food or other human purposes. Every day most of the animals who are born die from natural harms, usually from conditions that can be very painful and possibly frightening, such as hunger, thirst, exposure to the elements, parasites, or predation. They might be attacked and killed by their siblings or parents.

Vastly more animals are born or hatched from eggs than can survive. In the wild, most habitats can only sustain up to one child per parent. If an animal gives birth three times and has six offspring each time, on average sixteen of those offspring will die. And there are egg-laying animals who lay hundreds, thousands or even millions of eggs at a time. Not all will hatch, but if even a small percentage does, that’s an enormous number of deaths. Whenever you hear an estimate of how many animals there are in the wild, say quadrillions or quintillions, that is also the approximate number of animals who die every day because almost all animals die shortly after birth

The overriding moral importance that negative consequentialists place on reducing the badness in the world makes helping those who are suffering, including the massive number of animals who suffer in the wild, of paramount importance.

Finally, negative consequentialism places a lot of importance not just on the situation of the beings who can suffer now or in the near future. According to this view we should also care about what will happen to those beings with the capacity to suffer who will exist in the far future. Due to this, and because there might be forms of future suffering that affect a very large number of beings, preventing risks of future suffering is a priority for these views.2

These risks of future suffering (also known as s-risks) include scenarios where future sentient beings are harmed in massive ways by humans or where they suffer due to other reasons but humans refuse to help them out of a lack of concern for them. While any reasonable ethical theory would prescribe preventing such scenarios, negative consequentialism will do so especially strongly.


Further readings

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

Althaus, D. & Gloor, L. (2019 [2016]) “Reducing risks of astronomical suffering: A neglected priority”, Center on Long-Term Risks [accessed on 12 May 2021].

Baumann, T. (2017) “S-risks: An introduction”, Reducing Risks of Future Suffering, August 15 [accessed on 30 June 2021].

Baumann, T. (2017) “How can we reduce s-risks? ”, Center for Reducing Suffering, [accessed on 30 June 2021].

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

Carlson, E. (2013) Consequentialism reconsidered, Dordrecht: Springer.

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

Contestabile, B. (2021 [2005]) “Negative utilitarianism and justice”, Philosophy as Therapy [accessed on 11 June 2021].

Driver, J. (2011) Consequentialism, London: Routledge.

Gloor, L. (2017) “Tranquilism”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 18 July [accessed on 17 August 2021].

Gloor, L. (2019 [2016]) “The case for suffering-focused ethics”, Center on Long-Term Risk, 26 August [accessed on 15 July 2021].

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

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

Knutsson, S. (2016) “The one-paragraph case for suffering-focused ethics”, Simon Knutsson, Oct. 2 [accessed on 11 June 2020].

Knutsson, S. (2019) “The world destruction argument”, Inquiry, 29 Aug [accessed on 29 June 2021]

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. (2017 [2015]) “Are happiness and suffering symmetric?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering [accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2018 [2015]) “Reasons to promote suffering-focused ethics”, Essays on Reducing Suffering [accessed on 5 February 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2011]) “Risks of astronomical future suffering”, Center on Long-Term Risks [accessed on 12 May 2021].

Tomasik, B. (2019 [2013]) “Three types of negative utilitarianism”, Essays on Reducing Suffering[accessed on 5 February 2021].

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

Vinding, M. (2020a) “On purported positive goods “outweighing” suffering”, Center for Reducing Suffering [accessed on 30 June 2021].

Vinding, M. (2020b) Suffering-focused ethics: Defense and implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica [accessed on 23 May 2021].

Vinding, M. (2020c) “Suffering and happiness: morally symmetric or orthogonal?”, Center for Reducing Suffering [accessed on 30 June 2021].


Notes

1 See Paez, E. (2019) “On the importance of species for rule-consequentialism: A reply to Galvão”, Utilitas, 31, pp. 179-190, in response to Galvão, P. (2016) “Rule-consequentialism and the significance of species”, Utilitas, 28, pp. 396-414.

2 Baumann, T. (2020) “Longtermism and animal advocacy”, Center for Reducing Suffering, [accessed on 30 June 2021]. See also Harris, J. & Baumann. T. (2021a) “Tobias Baumann of the Center for Reducing Suffering on moral circle expansion, cause prioritization, and reducing risks of astronomical suffering in the long-term future”, The Sentience Institute podcast, Sentience Institute [accessed on 14 July 2021]; Harris, J. & Baumann. T. (2021b) “Tobias Baumann of the Center for Reducing Suffering on global priorities research and effective strategies to reduce suffering”, The Sentience Institute podcast, Sentience Institute [accessed on 14 July 2021]