Negative utilitarianism

Version of utilitarianism which replaces the maximization of good by the minimization of evil.

Supporters of the theory, who include Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994), say that by aiming at removing evils rather than achieving positive goods we shall avoid the disadvantages of utopianism usually incurred by those who try to plan for a perfect world.

To take an extreme example, it is alleged that one might well increase either the total happiness or the average happiness by simply killing off the unfit and others.

H B Acton and J W N Watkins, ‘Negative Utilitarianism’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary volume (1963);
K R Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945)


The term “negative utilitarianism” was introduced by R. N. Smart in his 1958 reply to Karl Popper’s book[9] The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945.[10] In the book, Popper emphasizes the importance of preventing suffering in public policy.[11] The ideas in negative utilitarianism have similarities with ancient traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism.[12] Ancient Greek philosopher Hegesias of Cyrene has been said to be “one of the earliest exponents of NU [Negative Utilitarianism].”[13] In more recent times, ideas similar to negative utilitarianism can be found in the works of 19th century psychologist Edmund Gurney who wrote:

Enough suffering will always remain to make the question of the desirability … of their sojourn on earth a question which numbers will answer … in the negative…. When we forget pain, or underestimate it, or talk about people ‘getting used to it’, we are really so far losing sight of what the universe, which we wish to conceive adequately, really is.[14]


Like other kinds of utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism can take many forms depending on what specific claims are taken to constitute the theory. For example, negative preference utilitarianism says that the utility of an outcome depends on frustrated and satisfied preferences. Negative hedonistic utilitarianism thinks of utility in terms of hedonic mental states such as suffering and unpleasantness.[6] Negative Average Preference Utilitarianism[15] makes the same assumptions on what is good as negative preference utilitarianism, but states that the average number (per individual) of preferences frustrated should be minimized. Versions of (negative) utilitarianism can also differ based on whether the actual or expected consequences matter, and whether the aim is stated in terms of the average outcome among individuals or the total net utility (or lack of disutility) among them.[16] Negative utilitarianism can aim either to optimize the value of the outcome or it can be a satisficing negative utilitarianism, according to which an action ought to be taken if and only if the outcome would be sufficiently valuable (or have sufficiently low disvalue).[17] A key way in which negative utilitarianisms can differ from one another is with respect to how much weight they give to negative well-being (disutility) compared to positive well-being (positive utility). This is a key area of variation because the key difference between negative utilitarianism and non-negative kinds of utilitarianism is that negative utilitarianism gives more weight to negative well-being.

The weight of evil (disutility)

Philosophers Gustaf Arrhenius and Krister Bykvist develop a taxonomy of negative utilitarian views based on how the views weigh disutility against positive utility.[18] In total, they distinguish among 16 kinds of negative utilitarianism.[19] They first distinguish between strong negativism and weak negativism. Strong negativism “give all weight to disutility” and weak negativism “give some weight to positive utility, but more weight to disutility.”[20] The most commonly discussed subtypes are probably two versions of weak negative utilitarianism called ‘lexical’ and ‘lexical threshold’ negative utilitarianism. According to ‘lexical’ negative utilitarianism, positive utility gets weight only when outcomes are equal with respect to disutility. That is, positive utility functions as a tiebreaker in that it determines which outcome is better (or less bad) when the outcomes considered have equal disutility.[21] ‘Lexical threshold’ negative utilitarianism says that there is some disutility, for instance some extreme suffering, such that no positive utility can counterbalance it.[22] ‘Consent-based’ negative utilitarianism is a specification of lexical threshold negative utilitarianism, which specifies where the threshold should be located. It says that if an individual is suffering and would at that moment not “agree to continue the suffering in order to obtain something else in the future” then the suffering cannot be outweighed by any happiness.[23]

Other distinctions among versions of negative utilitarianism

Thomas Metzinger proposes the “principle of negative utilitarianism”, which is the broad idea that suffering should be minimized when possible.[24] Mario Bunge writes about negative utilitarianism in his Treatise on Basic Philosophy but in a different sense than most others. In Bunge’s sense, negative utilitarianism is about not harming.[25] In contrast, most other discussion of negative utilitarianism takes it to imply a duty both not to harm and to help (at least in the sense of reducing negative well-being).[26]

Tranquilist axiology, closely related to negative utilitarianism, states that “an individual experiential moment is as good as it can be for her if and only if she has no craving for change.”[27] According to tranquilism, happiness and pleasure have no intrinsic value, only instrumental value. From this perspective, positive experiences superficially appear to have intrinsic value because these experiences substitute for, distract from, or relieve suffering or dissatisfaction that an agent would have otherwise faced in the absence of such experiences.

The benevolent world-exploder

In the 1958 article where R. N. Smart introduced the term “negative utilitarianism”, he argued against it, stating that negative utilitarianism would entail that a ruler who is able to instantly and painlessly destroy the human race, “a benevolent world-exploder”, would have a duty to do so.[28] This is the most famous argument against negative utilitarianism,[7] and it is directed against sufficiently strong versions of negative utilitarianism.[29] Many authors have endorsed this argument,[30] and some have presented counterarguments against it. Below are replies to this argument that have been presented and discussed.

Cooperation between different value systems

One possible reply to this argument is that only a naive interpretation of negative utilitarianism would endorse world destruction. The conclusion can be mitigated by pointing out the importance of cooperation between different value systems.[31] There are good consequentialist reasons why one should be cooperative towards other value systems and it is particularly important to avoid doing something harmful to other value systems.[32] The destruction of the world would strongly violate many other value systems and endorsing it would therefore be uncooperative. Since there are many ways to reduce suffering which do not infringe on other value systems, it makes sense for negative utilitarians to focus on these options. In an extended interpretation of negative utilitarianism, cooperation with other value systems is considered and the conclusion is that it is better to reduce suffering without violating other value systems.[33]

Eliminating vs. reducing disutility

Another reply to the benevolent world-exploder argument is that it does not distinguish between eliminating and reducing negative well-being, and that negative utilitarianism should plausibly be formulated in terms of reducing and not eliminating.[34] A counterargument to that reply is that elimination is a form of reduction, similar to how zero is a number

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