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APOCALYPSE NOW?

applied negative utilitarianism?

In future it will be technically feasible to abolish the biological substrates of suffering. But should we do so?

One argument sometimes made against the abolitionist project is that the easiest way to abolish suffering would be to blow up the world. This is exactly the objection raised against the ethic of negative utilitarianism (NU). (cf. R.N. Smart, `Negative utilitarianism', Mind LXVII, 1958). Although contested, this apocalyptic implication is commonly taken as a reductio.

In fact just such a scenario has been contemplated in earnest - albeit in a game-theoretic context of primate power politics rather than compassionate NU. In the 1950s, RAND strategist Herman Kahn, author of Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962), proposed a "Doomsday Machine". The (notional) Doomsday Machine consisted of a computer linked to a stockpile of interlinked hydrogen bombs. At the signal of an impending nuclear attack from a rival superpower, the device was programmed to detonate the entire stockpile. Earth would thus be bathed in a life-destroying nuclear fallout. Kahn's vision was parodied in filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964). Whatever the purpose or practicalities of such a Doomsday Machine, a world-destroying scenario is sometimes taken as a knockdown argument against NU - and the abolitionist project as a whole.

Yet by way of analogy, consider, say, chronic pain syndrome (CPS). The easiest way to abolish the suffering caused by CPS might be to euthanize its victims. Is this argument a reductio of what might otherwise seem a hugely worthy goal?

No. We can (almost) all agree that it would be wonderful if medical research can eradicate chronic pain syndrome. But the pursuit of its abolition should presumably be subject to certain constraints, e.g. not killing people, not performing unethical experiments, etc. The same holds for the wider abolitionist project.

One needn't be a negative utilitarian to be an abolitionist - or indeed any kind of utilitarian at all.


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