Negative Utilitarianism: An Overview
Most utilitarian theories deal with producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Negative utilitarianism (NU) requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number. Proponents like Karl Popper, Christoph Fehige and Clark Wolf argue that this is a more effective ethical formula, since, they contend, the greatest harms are more consequential than the greatest goods. Karl Popper also referred to an epistemological argument: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i. e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness. ”(Karl R. Popper,1945) Most forms of utilitarianism hold that we ought to do that which maximises the good and minimises the bad. There is some disagreement about what the good and the bad are– whether the good is people being happy and the bad is people being unhappy, or the good is people getting what they want and the bad is people not getting what they want, or whatever–but most utilitarians agree that whatever the good and the bad are, we ought to bring about as much of the former and as little of the latter as is possible.
Negative utilitarians disagree. Negative utilitarians are concerned only with minimising the bad. They don’t think we ought to maximise the good and minimise the bad, and that when we must choose between the two we must weigh the difference that we can make to the one against the difference that we can make to the other; rather, negative utilitarians hold just that we ought to minimise the bad, that we ought to alleviate suffering as far as we are able to do so.
Suppose that I have a choice to make: I can either make the happiest man in the world even happier than he already is, or I can alleviate some of the suffering of the unhappiest man in the world. Suppose further that the difference that I can make to the happy man is much greater than the difference that I can make to the unhappy man. Most utilitarians would say that in this case I ought to help the happy man. As I can make a greater difference to the life of the happy man than I can make to the life of the unhappy man, it is the happy man whom I should help.
Negative utilitarians disagree. Negative utilitarians hold that it is more important to alleviate suffering than it is to promote pleasure, and that I should therefore always choose to alleviate suffering rather than promote pleasure when forced to choose between the two. In most supporters of moderate NU the preference to survive is stronger than the wish to be freed from suffering, so that they refuse the idea of a quick and painless destruction of life. Some of them believe that, in time, the worst cases of suffering is defeated and a world of minor suffering can be realized.
The big problem with negative utilitarianism is that it appears to require the destruction of the world. The world contains much suffering, and the future, presumably, contains a great deal more suffering than the present. Each of us will suffer many calamaties in the course of our lives, before those lives finally end with the suffering of death. There is a way, however, to reduce this suffering: we could end it all now. With nuclear weapons technology, we have the capability to blow up the planet, making it uninhabitable.
Doing so would cause us all to suffer death, but death is going to come to us all anyway, so causing everyone to die will not increase the suffering in the world. Causing us to die now, though, will decrease the suffering in the world; it will prevent us from suffering those calamaties that were going to plague us during the remainder of our lives. Destroying the planet, then, will reduce the suffering in the world. According to negative utilitarianism, then, it is what we ought to do. That, though, is surely absurd. Negative utilitarianism, therefore, is false.