Negative utilitarianism (NU) is a version of utilitarianism whose standard account holds that an act is morally right if and only if it leads to less suffering than any of its alternatives. NU was originally presented as an alternative to classical utilitarianism, which regards suffering and happiness as equally important, and is a leading example of a suffering-focused view, a broader family of ethical positions that assign primary—though not necessarily exclusive or overriding—moral importance to the alleviation of suffering.
Types of negative utilitarianism
As noted, the standard form of NU requires agents to minimize suffering. However, several variants to this canonical version have been proposed. These variants result from revising standard NU along one or more dimensions.
The first and most commonly discussed dimension of variation concerns the relative moral weight accorded to suffering and happiness. Standard NU may be regarded as a “strong” form of NU, holding that no amount of happiness can ever count for more than any amount of suffering. By contrast, “weak” versions of NU hold instead that a given quantity of suffering counts for more than a corresponding quantity of happiness, but accept that large enough quantities of happiness can in principle outweigh any quantity of suffering (Griffin 1979; Arrhenius & Bykvist 1995; Ord 2013; Knutsson 2019). Strong NU views may be further subdivided into lexical NU and absolute NU, which either affirm or deny, respectively, that happiness counts for something (Ord 2013). On strong lexical NU, of two outcomes equally unpleasant, one counts for more than the other if it is the more pleasant of the two; whereas on absolute strong NU both outcomes count equally. Between strong lexical NU and weak NU, there is room for an intermediate or hybrid form of NU, sometimes called lexical threshold NU (Ord 2013; Tomasik 2013), according to which there is some amount of suffering that no amount of happiness can outweigh, but otherwise suffering can be outweighed by a large enough amount of happiness.
A second dimension of variation concerns whether or not NU is formulated in hedonistic terms. Standard NU is hedonistic in that it makes a claim about the relative moral weight of suffering and happiness. But versions of NU have also been formulated in terms of preferences, rather than hedonic states. These preferentist NU views hold that the frustration of a preference counts for more than its satisfaction. (How much more will depend on the type of NU–strong absolute, strong lexical, lexical threshold, or weak–that preferentism is combined with.) More generally, NU may be presented as a broader theory about negative and positive wellbeing: on this variant, what is bad for a person counts for more than what is good for a person–regardless of whether these goods and bads are hedonic states, preferences, something else, or a combination thereof.
A third dimension of variation relates to the location of the boundary demarcating the states which are morally contrasted. Standard NU holds that the location of this boundary coincides with hedonic neutrality. But some hedonistic negative utilitarians have instead defended a view on which the boundary is below neutrality. On this view, sometimes called “critical-level (hedonistic) NU”, the contrast is not between suffering and happiness, but rather between intense enough suffering and other hedonic states. This view also admits a formulation in terms of preferences, or wellbeing more generally.
Finally, different versions of NU may be obtained depending on whether NU is regarded as a criterion of rightness or as a decision procedure. Standard NU is generally understood to provide a criterion of rightness, that is, as a specification of the conditions under which acts are right or wrong. But NU may instead be interpreted as a decision procedure, that is, as a practical guide for choosing how to act. The claim here is that agents deliberating about what to do should strive to minimize suffering. Someone who is not a standard NU may still defend NU as a decision procedure if they think that following this procedure is more likely to result in acts that better conform to the requirements of morality, whatever those are. This view is analogous to some forms of prioritarianism or egalitarianism, where outcomes that benefit the worst off, or that promote a more equal distribution of resources, are favored not because intrinsic value is placed on priority or equality, but instead because following these principles generally produces better outcomes.
Arrhenius, Gustaf & Krister Bykvist (1995) Future Generations and Interpersonal Compensations: Moral Aspects of Energy Use, Uppsala: Uppsala University.
Griffin, James (1979) Is unhappiness morally more important than happiness?, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 29, pp. 47–55.
Knutsson, Simon (2018) Thoughts on Ord’s “Why I’m not a negative utilitarian”, Simon Knutsson’s Blog, July.
Knutsson, Simon (2019) The world destruction argument, Inquiry, pp. 1–20.
Ord, Toby (2013) Why I’m not a negative utilitarian, Toby Ord’s Blog, February 28.
Tomasik, Brian (2013) Three types of negative utilitarianism, Essays on Reducing Suffering, March 23.