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The following are excerpts from a new essay by Simon Knutsson:


I explain parts of my moral view briefly. I also talk about some arguments for and against my view. The basics of my moral view include that one should focus on reducing severe suffering and behave well, and these basics get us pretty far in terms of how to act and be in real life.


My moral view is suffering-focused in the sense that it emphasises the reduction of suffering and the like. My view might differ from other suffering-focused views in the following ways: 

  • I do not pick or try to formulate an overarching moral theory. Instead, my moral view is intentionally fairly non-theoretical.
  • I think of ideas about how one should be, such as the idea that one should be considerate, as more primitive and fundamental to morality than some others seem to think of them. Many others agree that one should be like that, but perhaps for different reasons, such as that being like that has the best consequences.
  • My take on what should be reduced for its own sake is perhaps unusually pluralistic—it is most important to reduce extreme suffering, but it also makes sense to reduce, for example, gruesome violence, ruined lives and life projects, and acts such as ignoring harms.
  • My view could be labelled a pitch-black philosophical pessimism located towards the end of a philosophical optimism–pessimism spectrum. In my view, there is no positive value and no positive quality of life, and there are no positive experiences. An empty world is the best possible world, the world is terrible, and the future will almost certainly be appalling. (Of course, we should still try to make the world and the future less awful.)
  • I am sceptical of categorical notions such as ‘good’ and ‘positive value’, and I instead prefer comparative notions such as ‘better’ and ‘worse’.
  • I don’t think much in terms of uncertainty about moral principles or evaluative judgments; rather, I tend to think in terms of to what extent I accept or agree with specific ideas about morality and value.

I think that the following are some of the advantages of my moral view: By being light on theory, it avoids pitfalls that high-level moral theories can have. It also takes suffering seriously, is overall reasonable, and lacks implausible implications such as when a view recommends that a clearly immoral act should be carried out. And my moral view is quite action-guiding in real life. This talk about advantages may sound like academic niceties, but most of the points have great practical importance. For example, it is crucial to direct one’s attention and efforts to those who are or will be extremely badly off.

Disadvantages of overarching moral theories

I don’t identify as a particularist or antitheorist, but I doubt the importance of overarching moral theories, and at least some of them seem to have drawbacks. That is, it seems we can do without high-level moral theories, and the following are three disadvantages that high-level moral theories can have (a caveat is that some high-level theories might be innocuous, and almost all examples of disadvantages I have observed concern consequentialist moral theories).

The first disadvantage is when someone accepts a problematic implication of their favourite moral theory with the justification that “all moral theories have counterintuitive implications”. The person holds that something is permissible even though one would normally think of it as immoral or even monstrous. But if all existing moral theories are so problematic, we need not choose any of them. Such acceptance of a theory’s problematic implications might be due to mistakenly thinking there is a great need to pick one of the existing moral theories.

The second disadvantage is that some people seem to internalise the moral theory and come to view the immoral acts as appropriate and desirable, period, and act accordingly. In contrast, one may view the actions as merely undesirable prescriptions of the most promising but still unsatisfactory moral theory.

The third disadvantage is that some have passive, wavering stances and behaviour on plain moral issues seemingly at least in part because their moral theory does not prescribe the obvious answer. For example, it is very difficult to assess the overall consequences of some behaviour that is usually considered clearly immoral, and the consequentialist remains agnostic and passive.





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'It also takes suffering seriously, is overall reasonable, and lacks implausible implications such as when a view recommends that a clearly immoral act should be carried out.' 

'In my view, there is no positive value and no positive quality of life, and there are no positive experiences.'

The view obviously does have "implausible" implications, if that means "implications that conflict with what seems obvious to most people at first glance". Few people agree that "pleasure" and "happiness" are totally worthless in themselves. They easily identify experiences they think are good! People easily classify some pleasures as more or less intense (insofar as that is being denied, which isn't completely clear.) I'm sure Knutsson would argue that his views aren't really implausible, because if people worked through his arguments in a rational and unbiased way, they'd see he was right. But that's what everyone else says about the counterintuitive parts of their theories too! Maybe people agree with the negative utilitarian idea that some suffering is so bad that no amount of pleasure can compensate for it, or don't really think its good to bring happy people into existence, but those are both distinct from the claim that no experiences are good for people who are already here. 

For example people have given arguments with plausible premises for many "harsh" sounding classical utilitarian conclusions, even though those conclusions are not themselves plausible to most people. I.e. for example, (roughly, may not be completely accurate characterization of Chappel's argument) that it follows from the idea that it's never wrong to bring about the course of events that a benevolent impartial observer would desire happen on any reasonable moral theory to the conclusion that sometimes you should kill one to save five: https://rychappell.substack.com/p/a-new-paradox-of-deontology  Nonetheless, I think it's still reasonable to call the conclusion of this argument an "implausible" consequence of Richard's views, for the same reason as 'there is no motion' is implausible even if you find the premises of some version of Zeno's paradox all look plausible. (Though obviously "you should kill one to save five in some moral dilemmas" or even "no experiences are good" are less implausible than "motion" doesn't exist.) 

EDIT: I suppose if it turned out ordinary people sometimes accept moral antirealism, there might be a sense in which 'no experiences are good' is not "implausible". But that's not really much help to Knutsson, because I take it he wants his view to contain nothing implausible "from a moral perspective", however exactly we understand that. 

The view obviously does have "implausible" implications, if that means "implications that conflict with what seems obvious to most people at first glance".

I don't think what Knutsson means by "plausible" is "what seems obvious to most people at first glance". I also don't think that's a particularly common or plausible use of the term "plausible". (Some examples of where "plausible" and "what seems obvious to most people at first glance" plausibly come apart include what most people in the past might at first glance have considered obvious about the moral status of human slavery, as well as what most people today might at first glance say about the moral status of farming and killing non-human animals.)

Few people agree that "pleasure" and "happiness" are totally worthless in themselves.

Note that Knutsson does not deny that pleasure and happiness are worthwhile in the sense of being better for a person than unpleasure and unhappiness (cf. "What about making individuals happier? Yes, we should do that."). Nor does he deny that certain experiences can benefit existing beings (e.g. by satisfying certain needs). What he argues against is instead that pleasure and experiential happiness are something "above" or "on the other side of" a completely undisturbed state.

As for the claim about "few people" (and setting aside that majority opinion is hardly a good standard for plausibility, as I suspect you'd agree), it's not clear that this "few people" claim is empirically accurate, especially if it concerns the idea that pleasure isn't something "above" a completely undisturbed state. The following is an apropos quote:

The intuition that the badness of suffering doesn’t compare to the supposed badness of inanimate matter (as non-pleasure) seems very common, and the same goes for the view that contentment is what matters, not pleasure-intensity [cf. Gloor, 2017, sec. 2.1]. There are nearly 1.5 billion Buddhists and Hindus, and while Buddhism is less explicit and less consequentialist than negative utilitarianism, the basic (though not uniform) Buddhist view on how pleasure and suffering are being valued is very similar to negative utilitarianism; Hinduism contains some similar views. Ancient Western philosophers such as Epicurus and some Stoics proposed definitions of “happiness” in terms of the absence of suffering.

(On Buddhism and Epicureanism, see e.g. Breyer, 2015; Sherman, 2017; and the recent review of minimalist views of wellbeing by Teo Ajantaival.) 

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