Negative utilitarianism

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....

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