A common criticism against negative utilitarianism is that it has absurd implications when it comes to death, namely that death, even by means of murder, is a good thing because it amounts to a reduction of suffering. Yet, as I shall argue in this brief essay, this absurd conclusion does not follow. Indeed, negative utilitarianism provides us with as strong reasons to oppose death as any moral framework.
The claim that death generally leads to a reduction of suffering is a dubious one to say the least. It’s of course true that being dead entails no suffering, and hence that by being dead, a person is obviously not suffering any harm. Yet the criticism above does not merely refer to ‘death’ in the sense of being dead, but also to the process of dying, which is virtually never a harm-free process, but often an extremely painful one; and forcing this process upon someone by murdering them rarely makes it less so. Attempts to invoke notions of a ‘painless death’ will not negate this point, as a painless death is rare at most, and even attempts to carefully manufacture such a death have often resulted in the exact opposite, as grim reports of people who ingested cyanide reveal (to pick just one example out of many). Death is not easy to bring about, and bringing about a painless one is much harder still.
“But death is inevitable, so would negative utilitarianism not recommend that we bring it about sooner rather than later?”
The fact that death is inevitable does not negate the harm involved in the process of dying, nor does it imply that bringing it about sooner rather than later would result in less harm. One obvious reason is that attempts to end life can go horribly wrong, and thereby end up bringing about much more suffering upon a person than s/he would otherwise have endured, for instance by causing shortly lasting, but intense suffering much worse than the suffering that would have been endured over many years of even a very bad life, or by causing permanent disability and misery for a person who survives the attempt to bring about death, which is not uncommon for people who have attempted suicide or been attempted murdered. These are real risks involved when it comes to ending life, and ones that cannot be overlooked in any serious analysis of the matter.
Another thing that should not be forgotten in such an analysis is the larger context in which we find ourselves. For, after all, negative utilitarianism is not just about minimizing suffering for one individual, but about minimizing suffering for all individuals. And when we take this larger context into account, we see more reasons why negative utilitarianism would not generally recommend that we bring death upon ourselves or others, but in fact rather oblige us to do the opposite: to sustain life.
One reason this is so, in the case of humans, is that human individuals live in communities in which they are depended upon, and for which they provide great value. Not only are the actions of individuals indispensable for society to function peacefully and with minimal friction, they also help bring about progress on various fronts, in everything from the attainment of new knowledge to the development of new ideas and technologies, progress that in turn relieves suffering and makes life go better for others. In this sense, most people are assets, or at the very least potential assets, with respect to the goal of reducing suffering, and the simple truth is that the best way, indeed the only realistic way, to pursue this goal is to collaborate with these assets and to foster their potential – to impact human civilization in a positive direction, which, needless to say, killing oneself or others is most unlikely to accomplish.
The communities that depend on us is of course not just the broader society in which we find ourselves, but also our local communities – our friends and families – for whom we provide company and comfort, and for whom our death would be a considerable harm, a harm that must also be taken into account before recommending death as a way of reducing suffering. So while it is true that being dead does not amount to a harmful state for the person who is dead, it does for those who knew and depended on that person; they do suffer from the absence of that person, often intensely so. And, to refer this back to the suggestion that negative utilitarianism should recommend killing people, this harm will only be amplified greatly when that person’s death is caused by murder.
The suggestion that negative utilitarianism recommends killing people, and sentient beings in general, is indeed an absurd one. Even discounting the points made above, just how many aspects of the actual social and societal consequences of the murder of beings for the sake of “sparing them” from suffering must one overlook in order to claim such a course of action ideal with respect to the goal of reducing net suffering? Just considering the chaos, violence and gross disrespect for sentience that would inevitably follow from attempts to realize such a misguided plan for reducing suffering should suffice to make the inherent failure of this approach more than clear.1
In sum, the claim that negative utilitarianism would imply that death is generally good ignores almost everything about the reality of our condition, including the broader context in which we find ourselves. Zooming all the way out, we find ourselves in a young universe, less than 15 billion years old, in which sentient life may be able to emerge for 100-1000 billion years into the future, which means that the main implication of the negative utilitarian ethic is not that our highest goal should be to end our own existence as quickly as possible, as some have suggested. No, ideally, what we should do according to negative utilitarianism is to become intelligent stewards of the world who prevent suffering from blighting our future. And even if this cosmic goal lies beyond practical possibility, it remains true that the only realistic option we have when it comes to reducing suffering is to impact human civilization in a positive direction – bettering the ideas, values and practices of humanity. Killing people and other sentient beings is surely the last thing we should do in order to succeed in this endeavor, and the very first thing to do if we want to fail.
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1. It is also worth noting that, at least to my knowledge, no negative utilitarian has ever proposed such an approach, and every negative utilitarian I have seen discuss the issue has indeed strongly condemned it. It seems to only be the opponents of negative utilitarianism who insist that killing beings would be the ideal way to reduce suffering.
Magnus Vinding (2015)
Consciousness Realism (2016)
Suffering-Focused Ethics (2020)
The Abolitionist Project
'Better Never To Have Been'
R.N. Smart's reply to Popper
Utilitronium Shockwaves and the Fate of the Cosmos