Minimalist Axiologies: Alternatives to 'Good Minus Bad' Views of Value

(Every part of this series builds on the previous parts, but can also be read independently.)

Minimalist views of value (axiologies) are evaluative views that define betterness solely in terms of the absence or reduction of independent bads. For instance, they might roughly say, “the less suffering, violence, and violation, the better”. They reject the idea of weighing independent goods against these bads, as they deny that independent goods exist in the first place.

Minimalist moral views are views about how to act and be that include a minimalist view of value, instead of an offsetting (‘good minus bad’) view of value. They reject the concept of independently positive moral value, such as positive virtue or pleasure that could independently counterbalance bads.[1]

This series explores minimalist views that are impartial and welfarist (i.e. concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings), with a focus on highlighting some neglected (positive) features of these views.

Sequence summary

1. “Positive roles of life and experience in suffering-focused ethics”:

  • Even if we assume a purely suffering-focused view, it’s wise to recognize the highly positive and often necessary roles that various other things may have for the overall goal of reducing suffering.
  • These include the positive roles of autonomy, cooperation, nonviolence, as well as our personal wellbeing and valuable skills and experiences.
  • Suffering-focused moral views may value these things for different reasons, but not necessarily any less in practice, than do other moral views.

2. “Minimalist axiologies and positive lives”:

  • Minimalist axiologies define goodness in entirely relational or ‘instrumental’ terms, namely in terms of the minimization of bads such as suffering.
  • These views avoid many problems in population ethics, yet the minimalist notion of (relationally) positive value is entirely excluded by the standard, restrictive assumption of treating lives as isolated value-containers.
  • Minimalist views become more intuitive when we adopt a relational view of the overall value of individual lives, that is, when we don’t track only the causally isolated “contents” of these lives, but also their (often far more significant) causal roles.

3. “Peacefulness, nonviolence, and experientialist minimalism”:

4. “Minimalist extended very repugnant conclusions are the least repugnant”:

  • It has been argued that certain “repugnant conclusions” are an inevitable feature of any plausible axiology.
  • Yet based on a ‘side-by-side’ comparison of different views, it appears that offsetting views share all the most “repugnant” features of minimalist views while introducing additional sources of repugnance.
  • Overall, the comparison suggests that the conclusions faced by minimalist views are the least repugnant.

5. “Minimalist views of wellbeing”:

6. “Varieties of minimalist moral views: Against absurd acts”:

  • Minimalist moral views are sometimes alleged — at least in their purely consequentialist versions — to recommend absurd acts in practice, such as murdering individuals or choosing not to save people’s lives so as to prevent their future suffering. Yet there are various reasons why the most plausible versions of minimalist moral views — including their purely consequentialist versions — do not recommend such acts.
  • These acts would be opposed by minimalist versions of nonconsequentialist views like virtue ethicsdeontologysocial contract theory, and care ethics.
  • Consequentialist reasons against such acts can be derived from extra-welfarist and extra-experientialist axiologies, which may consider violence or violation to be inherently bad, as well as from rule and multi-level consequentialism, which highlight the instrumental reasons for respecting autonomy, cooperation, and nonviolence.[2]
  1. ^

    Others may define “minimalist moral views” more broadly to include views that reject independently positive or offsetting moral value without endorsing minimalist axiological claims of any kind (e.g. views that lack an axiology). Such views might include versions of fully nonconsequentialist views that entail only moral claims that are “minimalist in flavor”, such as that we have moral reasons to reduce vice, harm, violations, and so on.

  2. ^

    The latter reasons are arguably relevant for all plausible minimalist moral views to the degree that they contain a consequentialist component.