[ Question ]

Why do you reject negative utilitarianism?

byTeo Ajantaival4mo12th Feb 20196 comments

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(Crossposted on LessWrong)

Absolute negative utilitarianism (ANU) is a minority view despite the theoretical advantages of terminal value monism (suffering is the only thing that motivates us “by itself”) over pluralism (there are many such things). Notably, ANU doesn’t require solving value incommensurability, because all other values can be instrumentally evaluated by their relationship to the suffering of sentient beings, using only one terminal value-grounded common currency for everything.

Therefore, it is a straw man argument that NUs don’t value life or positive states, because NUs value them instrumentally, which may translate into substantial practical efforts to protect them (compared even with someone who claims to be terminally motivated by them).

If the rationality and EA communities are looking for a unified theory of value, why are they not converging (more) on negative utilitarianism?

What have you read about it that has caused you to stop considering it, or to overlook it from the start?

Can you teach me how to see positive states as terminally (and not just instrumentally) valuable, if I currently don’t? (I still enjoy things, being closer to the extreme of hyperthymia than anhedonia. Am I platonically blind to the intrinsic aspect of positivity?)

And if someone wants to answer: What is the most extreme form of suffering that you’ve experienced and believe can be “outweighed” by positive experiences?

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Therefore, it is a straw man argument that NUs don’t value life or positive states, because NUs value them instrumentally, which may translate into substantial practical efforts to protect them (compared even with someone who claims to be terminally motivated by them).

By my understanding, a universe with no conscious experiences is the best possible universe by ANU (though there are other equally good universes as well). Would you agree with that?

If so, that's a strong reason for me to reject it. I want my ethical theory to say that a universe with positive conscious experiences is strictly better than one with no conscious experiences.

What have you read about it that has caused you to stop considering it, or to overlook it from the start?

This response seems unlikely to be a crux for you, but I don't often see it written explicitly, so I'll mention it anyway in case someone reading hasn't thought of it:

Negative utilitarianism implies that you would prefer to destroy a universe with an unbounded amount of certain positive experience, if that would prevent an infinitesimal chance of one speck of dust getting in someone's eye.

This means that a negative utilitarian will basically always prefer that the universe is destroyed, since there will always (I suspect) be uncertainty about which things suffer (1 is not a probability).

Toby Ord gives a good summary of a range of arguments against negative utilitarianism here.

Personally, I think that valuing positive experiences instrumentally is insufficient, given that the future has the potential to be fantastic.

When I know someone closely, I value their life and experiences, intrinsically. I don't feel as if I wish they had never been born, nor do I wish to kill them.

And it's straightforward to presume that, with people who I don't know closely, I would feel similarly about them if I knew them well.

So if I want to treat people consistently with my basic inclinations, I should not be NU towards them.