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THE PINPRICK ARGUMENT


Negative Utilitarianism

A counterintuitive consequence of negative utilitarianism (NU) is that it would seem to entail destroying the world rather than permitting its miseries to continue. If the destruction could be accomplished painlessly, then a negative utilitarian is logically compelled to accept this consequence. No amount of happiness, the negative utilitarian may argue, can outweigh the horrors of Auschwitz, or the recurrent tragedies of personal life.

However, planning and implementing the extinction of all sentient life couldn't be undertaken painlessly. Even contemplating such an enterprise would provoke distress. Thus a negative utilitarian is not compelled to argue for the apocalyptic solution. S/he may still privately believe that it would have been better if the world had never existed. This is a separate issue.

A more serious challenge to the intellectual coherence of NU is the Pinprick Argument. Would it really be better that life had never arisen if the only unpleasant experience that would otherwise occur is a pinprick? Surely some pains are too trivial to matter significantly?

A negative utilitarian could respond that the pain from a pinprick is of a qualitatively different nature than the pain of, say, bone cancer, or bereavement, or torture, or the mass cruelties of genocide. A pinprick or its equivalent doesn't involve suffering - with its terrible baggage of emotional distress.

Yet this response to the Pinprick Argument seems ad hoc. It undermines the purity of the NU ethic. For where is the supposed cut-off point? When does pain become real suffering? How much mild pain/suffering is morally permissible? Who should determine these limits? If the avoidance of pain or suffering is accounted more morally important than happiness, but happiness is not accounted wholly morally negligible, then how can their relative importance be quantified? How can well-being and suffering be made commensurable? What kind of metric should be used? Should the fate of the world rest on an arbitrary, or at least a conventional, cut-off point on the pleasure-pain axis?

The negative utilitarian might reply that this formulation of the problem is misleading. We do not live in a notional world where only a pinprick, minor pains, or even just "mild" suffering exists. In the real world, frightful horrors as well as humdrum malaise occur every day. The intensity of suffering is sometimes so dreadful that its victims are prepared to destroy themselves to bring their torment to an end. Each year, some 800,000 people across the planet kill themselves while in the grip of suicidal despair. Tens of millions of people are severely depressed or suffer chronic neuropathic pain. By way of contrast, the genteel conventions of an ethics seminar in academic philosophy, or the scholarly technicalities of a journal article, simply fail to come to terms with the enormity of what's at stake. To talk of a "pinprick" is to trivialise the NU ethical stance.

This accusation may be true. Nonetheless, it's unclear how the intellectual coherence of NU can be restored. Less austere versions of NU are all intellectually messy. Weakened variants of the principle may capture our intuition that getting rid of a certain amount of suffering has more moral urgency than adding a "corresponding" amount of happiness without discounting the moral value of happiness altogether. This sounds more plausible. However, hybrid ethical systems that give weighted priority to the relief of suffering over the promotion of happiness no longer embody pure NU. In theory, the negative utilitarian could bite the bullet and claim that even a pinprick is too much. But here it is the negative utilitarian who risks trivialising the moral seriousness of the NU ethic. A professed willingness to sacrifice the world to avert a mere pinprick violates our deepest moral intuitions.

Admittedly, it is unclear why intuition should be any better guide in ethics than it has been in folk physics or folk psychology. Our moral intuitions have been systematically biased by natural selection in ways that tend to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes. Thus our moral intuitions are "deep" in the sense of being strongly felt rather than well-grounded, insightful or profound. Yet (almost) everybody would treat a bullet-biting response to the Pinprick Argument as the reductio ad absurdum of strict NU. Indeed most philosophers have reckoned that any amount or intensity of suffering [though not necessarily their own] is a price worth paying for the precious gift of life, calling into question the sanity of anyone who suggests otherwise. The problem here is that while (almost) all of us have experienced the negligible pain of a pinprick, our judgement that there could be no suffering so unbearable that it justifies bringing the world to an end is not a claim we would be prepared to explore empirically. Tragically, thousands of people each year who have greater experience show that they disagree. Some kinds of suffering are so atrocious they can quite literally compel assent to NU - regardless of one's prior ethical views.

The classic rebuttal of NU, a doctrine whose implications are baldly alleged to be "wicked" and "absurd", is R.N. Smart, `Negative utilitarianism', Mind LXVII, 1958, pp.542-3; see also J.J.C. Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge UP: 1973, pp.28-9.

The Pinprick Argument is commonly conceived as a problem purely for the negative utilitarian. But an analogous argument confronts the "positive" utilitarian too. Once again, imagine a God-like superbeing with the power either to save or to extinguish the world - but this time governed by a classical utilitarian ethic. Imagine summating the pleasures and pains of all sentient creatures and discovering they are finely balanced. By the same token, the addition of a single pinprick's worth of pain apparently mandates world destruction. Whatever our value-scheme, can a trivial prinprick really bear such apocalyptic significance?

Direct versus Indirect Negative Utilitarianism

The world is not going to end any time soon, painlessly or otherwise. Human beings - or our immediate post-human descendants - will shortly colonise the solar system and (possibly) beyond, rendering most extreme catastrophe scenarios moot. Asteroid impacts, global warming, viral pandemics, bioterrorism or thermonuclear war may cause immense suffering and loss of life; but they will not kill everyone, or even sterilise the home planet. Nor will sentient life be brought to an end by collective human design. This is because it is psychologically and sociologically unrealistic for negative utilitarians to expect to convince most people of naïve NU. If a policy recommendation is certain to fail, and if plotting it would merely cause further suffering, then the sophisticated negative utilitarian is ethically obliged to act and argue against it. Collective global suicide is impossible. No "doomsday device" will (probably) ever get built. So the misguided negative utilitarian who argues for a wholesale compassionate nihilism is at best wasting his or her time. S/he also misconstrues the practical policy implications of NU. Life-lovers will always tend to out-reproduce negative utilitarians, if only because life-affirming alpha males are likely to accrue more power, influence and greater reproductive opportunities than angst-ridden and depressive negative utilitarians. Believers in direct NU can scarcely go forth and multiply, since reproduction entails creating more suffering. Thus negative utilitarianism remains among the world's rarer ethical belief systems. Some forms of "status quo bias" are ineradicable. One might even expect that most advocates of NU will get weeded out of the gene-pool. Perhaps no more than a few hundred - or at most a few thousand - persons scattered across the globe currently acknowledge the NU title. They are unlikely ever to be effectively organised or led.

However, as the biotechnology revolution unfolds, it is possible that negative utilitarianism will prevail, albeit under a different description. Three particular developments are worth noting here.

First, within the next few years it is likely that neuroscientists will elucidate the final common pathway of pleasure in the brain. Once its molecular signature is identified, then happiness may be modulated, enriched, controlled and amplified effectively without limit; pure pleasure shows no physiological tolerance. Therapies to eradicate the molecular substrates of unpleasantness will probably follow too, permitting lifetimes of unalloyed bliss, or at least gradients of adaptive well-being. Initially, such interventions may be used by biological psychiatrists to treat conditions such as refractory "antidepressant-resistant" depression. But ever-richer varieties of "super-soma" are bound to leak out from the pharmaceutical grey market to the wider world via the burgeoning scientific counterculture. Whatever its guise, super-soma or its equivalents will inevitably prove extraordinarily popular. The Internet will vastly expand its international appeal and channels of distribution. Today, an apt objection to the use of most illicit recreational mood-boosters is that they are ineffective and self-defeating. Contemporary fast-acting euphoriants activate the hedonic treadmill, not subvert it: street drugs typically give rise to more suffering, not less. But the advent of safer, cleaner, sustainable mood-brighteners that "re-set" our emotional thermostats obviates this objection. Less obviously, the advent of safe, sustainable empathogens will defeat the argument that drug-taking is inherently "selfish". Rationally-designed empathogens and entactogens promise to enrich our conception of mental health, introspective self-knowledge and social intelligence. Admittedly, talk today of "safe and sustainable" pleasure-drugs is liable to ring hollow given the dirty street drugs and crude mood-brightening medications currently available. The historical performance of Big Pharma in psychiatric medicine has been chequered at best. By the same token, even the most enlightened underground chemists have opened up a Pandora's Box of surprises. Yet mental pain is destined to become medicalised, optional, and perhaps one day obsolete.

Second, we are on the brink of a reproductive revolution of "designer babies". Within the next few decades, prospective parents will routinely start to choose the genetic makeup and personalities of their future children. The nastier alternative alleles and allelic combinations bequeathed by natural selection will be progressively edited out of the gene-pool as evolution ceases to be effectively random and "blind". Our evolutionary trajectory as a species will be shaped instead by quasi-rational agents. In future, novel designer genes and allelic combinations will be chosen in deliberate anticipation of their probable behavioural effects. When tomorrow's parents opt not to have depressive or anxiety-ridden children, most of such parents-to-be may have no grandiose ethical system in mind, let alone universal NU. But as the reproductive revolution spreads across the globe, the collective outcome of such acts of individual parental choice may be similar to the fruits of grand utopian design. The great majority of parents will aspire to have superintelligent, happy, beautiful, affectionate kids. In turn, their superintelligent, happy, beautiful, affectionate kids will presumably want enriched children of their own - and from a much higher baseline of mental health. Thus the natural "set point" of our emotional well-being will be genetically ratcheted upwards, both individually and, statistically, for the "unnaturally" evolving (post-)human species as a whole. Older humans trapped with legacy wetware may opt for somatic gene therapy as personalised medicine matures. Meanwhile, selection pressure against some of the nastier traits adaptive in our Darwinian past will be intense. Subtle functional analogues of pain and anxiety in the guise of gradients of diminished well-being will (probably) be retained to preserve our informational sensitivity to noxious stimuli and sustain critical insight; but the textures of raw suffering as we understand it today may be banished to evolutionary history.

Third, developments in single-celled protein technologies will soon enable us to grow genetically-engineered "vat food" that's at least as tasty as flesh from intact non-human animals. If so, then the process will presumably be scalable without limit. Critically, such vat-food will be cheaper. Given market economics, then on this scenario the factory farming "industry" will undergo world-wide collapse - or at least convert to the more efficient model. In fact there's a fair chance we'll witness global veganism by the second half of the century. The moral arguments for a cruelty-free diet will seem more cogent when their acceptance no longer demands renouncing the accustomed taste of some of our favourite foods. Elsewhere, Mother Nature, red-in-tooth-and-claw, won't disappear so swiftly. Yet at current rates of habitat destruction, no large mammals will survive in the wild later this century. Vestiges of old order may remain elsewhere in the living world; but the residual forms of suffering, if any, that will be permitted in our wildlife parks or the deep oceans are far from certain. If we conclude that unpleasant states of consciousness are morally unacceptable, then genetic engineering, quantum computing and nanorobotics can be harnessed to redesign the global ecosystem and rewrite the vertebrate genome. The exponential growth of computing power to run complex simulations may eventually make such ecosystem transformation trivial. A technologically and ethically advanced civilisation can eradicate suffering in all sentient life.

* * *

It need scarcely be stressed that the three scenarios sketched above are speculative. No less speculative is the bioconservative prediction that we will opt to sustain suffering indefinitely.

Whatever the future holds, NU ethics will presumably still fail to resonate with the overwhelming majority of the population - especially after our emotional well-being increases as the adoption of enhancement technologies gathers pace. So perhaps the most effective way for a negative utilitarian to promote his/her ethical values is not to proselytize under that label at all. Instead, the negative utilitarian may find it instrumentally rational to give weight overtly to the "positive" values of ordinary classical utilitarians, preference utilitarians/preference consequentialists, and the far wider community of (mostly) benevolent non-utilitarians who share an aversion to "unnecessary" suffering. The indirect approach to NU is likely to yield the greatest payoff. Only by our striving to promote "positive" goals as well, and campaigning for greater individual well-being, is the ethic of NU ever likely to be realized in practice.

If the abolitionist project succeeds, whatever its ultimate time-scale, then should the negative utilitarian be morally satisfied with such an outcome? In an important sense yes: s/he will have discharged all his or her moral responsibilities. If this epoch-making transition in the history of life on Earth comes to pass, then it will be a revolution far more momentous and profound than anything to date. Moreover, unlike positive utilitarianism or so-called preference utilitarianism - neither of which can ever be wholly fulfilled - NU seems achievable in full.

The contrast is instructive. According to the felicific calculus of the positive utilitarian, advanced biotechnology mandates the molecular manufacture of happiness/value on a prodigious scale no less than the eradication of suffering. Indeed the impending biotech revolution ethically commits the classical "hedonistic" utilitarian to creating hypertrophied pleasure centres that generate levels of emotional well-being orders of magnitude more intense than anything accessible today. It is hard to express this implication soberly and without taint of sensationalism. Such a revolutionary application of the classic utilitarian ethic is a consequence that its originators can never have anticipated. Bentham and his contemporaries assumed that the felicific calculus would be most fruitfully applied via socio-political and legislative reform.

Looking to the future, what is the theoretical individual maximum of well-being/happiness/pleasure? Pleasure scientists don't know. It is presumably hard for organic nervous systems to sustain successive "warm" quantum coherent states beyond a given size and fleeting duration before thermally-induced decoherence sets in, ruling out a phenomenology of Jupiter-sized pleasure centres. But in our current state of ignorance, quantum mechanical accounts of upper bounds to the unity of consciousness are unavoidably speculative. Bolder conjectures on the theoretical maximum of pleasure/value in the cosmos won't be pursued here.

By contrast, negative utilitarianism doesn't enjoin a never-ending amplification of our reward circuitry. In practice, most negative utilitarians would probably find such discussions morally frivolous. Here at least NU is closer to common sense - and perhaps the ethics and metaphysics of the Stone Age. However, there is a sense in which any satisfaction on the part of the negative utilitarian who envisages completion of the abolitionist project is misplaced. Strictly, the notion that suffering can be abolished rests on a pre-scientific conception of time. On the "block universe" scenario of modern physics, the horrors of the world perpetually occupy the spatiotemporal coordinates they do. All here-and-nows [tenselessly] exist and are equally real. The suffering characteristic of primordial life on Earth is not going to disappear from space-time. The intrinsic negative value of such suffering is ineradicable. Suffering - perhaps extreme agony beyond our comprehension - may also be located inaccessibly in other lifeforms elsewhere in the Multiverse. Worse, if eternal chaotic inflation scenarios of cosmology are correct, then the exponential increase of googols of "pocket universes" must spawn the exponential growth of suffering too - and possibly all manner of evils that humans haven't even conceptualised. Optimists may cherish Michael Faraday's dictum, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature"; but conversely, nothing is too terrible to be true if it is consistent with the laws of nature either. So the negative utilitarian may still believe that it would have been better if nothing existed at all. Less bleakly, in the vast expanse of space-time we informally call "the future", it is quite possible that beyond the 22nd Century, say, no suffering whatsoever exists in our little island universe, or if it does, then it exists only in a vanishingly low-density region of the universal wave function. [for a more pessimistic analysis, see Suffering in the Multiverse.]

So what will become of NU? If our genetically enriched descendants are by their very nature blissfully happy, then it is unlikely that they will explicitly endorse a negative utilitarian ethic, even assuming that their conceptual scheme is commensurable with our own. Psychologically superwell minds may find it constitutionally impossible to take NU from the bygone era seriously. The very possibility of NU may be cognitively closed off to them. Mature post-Darwinian consciousness may feel self-intimatingly valuable beyond anything we can grasp today. Indeed posterity may enjoy norms of lifelong, multi-dimensional mental health too wonderful for present-day concepts to describe or even name. But if suffering of any kind, and even the merest "pinprick" of discomfort, becomes neurochemically impossible - perhaps replaced by information-theoretic gradients of well-being - then negative utilitarianism itself will have become irrelevant: a redundant historical curiosity. If so, it's an irrelevance that contemporary utilitarians should welcome.

DP (2005)
[ See also the debate on NU ]

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