Friday, January 27, 2006


Negative Utilitarianism - A Manifesto

The doctrine of 'negative utilitarianism' (which I call 'negative utility' or 'NU' for short) requires as its sole purpose, a reality encompassing the least amount of suffering as possible throughout the universe. However before justifying this objective in our following discussion, it may be necessary to first understand what exactly is meant by 'suffering'.
The notion of what suffering is in accordance with NU will probably differ markedly from its conventional usage. It shall be defined very broadly as pertaining to any experience of discomfort, stress, torture, etc., or else any other feeling of the sort. Even if that feeling may seem only arbitrary, vague, or whatever else, it shall still be deemed as 'suffering', or else 'pain'.
Importantly, it is not categories or adjectives of pain such as those mentioned above which concern us here. Likewise, types of pain such as mental, physical, etc. are to be considered as peripheral to the concept of suffering itself. Rather, what concerns us is one dimensional, because pain, like numbers, can be equally present in all forms of experience. More specifically, only that immediate and (shall we say) undeniably "negative" experience per se can intrinsically be regarded as 'suffering' in its own right, such that it's existence cannot be refuted, whatever the circumstances.
Although we just referred to pain as "negative" (for want of a better word, but more on that later), this term is not to be taken in an emotive or subjective sense, but rather as an objective description of a phenomenon opposed to all other phenomena by its very nature. For instance, if one were to have their teeth filed down while conscious, it is not their emotive appraisal of their anguish (eg. "I deserve or hate this") but the actual dimension of suffering which counts as negative. Likewise, it is beside the point if pain occurs to me or someone else, whether that subject is guilty or innocent, animal or human, or whatever else, for all these things are merely contingent, albeit incidental matters of fact, rather than the actual dimension of suffering per se. For such facts by themselves make no difference to the ontological status or reality of suffering. Thus, in any instance, whether pain co-exists with pleasure, is desired by a sado-masochist or is inflicted upon someone perceived as "deserving" of it or not, pain is present all the same and thereby negative.
Before we continue, it should be noted that there are two differing continua comprising pain - that of 'intensity' and 'duration'. Suffering must partake of both simultaneously, for it could not exist without either. Hence I shall designate the term 'magnitude' as a collective term for these continua. Using these criteria, a precise measurement of pain is possible in theory, though this be complicated by certain considerations. Namely, intensity comprises a greater part of magnitude exponentially, than does duration. (This is discussed later in more detail, but at any rate, the elimination of pain takes priority for that which is of a greater magnitude).
It is difficult to explicitly state why suffering should be eliminated, for along with other rules of logic, this represents a 'first principle' which is either comprehended or not. Explaining the concept of pain to someone who hasn't experienced it would be impossible, let alone why it should be eliminated. Although presumably everyone knows what suffering is, the required insight concerning NU does not readily follow, perhaps due to the ego's inaccurate conception of pain, or more obviously because the ego is overwhelmingly preoccupied with illusions of meaning or value. The best we can do is attempt to first of all expose these illusions in order to sway the ego into acknowledging the validity of NU, so bear with me for a while as I stray from the topic.
When we speak of value or values, we are really giving expression to states of affairs that are seen to either should or should not be, for arguably, every intentional phenomenon is brought about as a result of its perceived value. Yet curiously enough, things which are valued (as well as things which are not) can all be reduced to contingent matters of fact. Furthermore, although they may seem compatible, objects of value share an arbitrary relationship in their attachment to value judgements, as it is always logically possible that they may be detached from them and conjoined virtually anywhere.(Many people can't come to grips with this idea because their own values are more compelling to them than any objective rationale, while having been exposed to only a limited range of values renders all other competing values as seemingly inconceivable.)
Arguably, the arbitrariness of values account for the infinity of contradictions which comprise our patchwork of moral systems. Yet the one thing all values have in common is that they're comprised entirely of what we ourselves are comprised of - namely, sense impressions. These impressions may vary in their arrangement, but all of them happen to be interpreted as purposeful in some way, such that we are in effect slaves to our own values. Like all other material objects, sense impressions and values can only exist as random points in an infinitely variable continuum of absolute givens (space, time, shape, size, composition, etc.). Since these impressions are existent (and therefore material) objects, they must all be reducible to these criteria, no matter how concrete or indeterminate they might appear.
Since the above contingencies are variable to an infinite degree, they are always relative. Any state of affairs which they comprise are insubstantial when considered alongside an infinity of possible alternatives. As such, all facts are inevitably as they are, simply because their various positions along the continuum make them as legitimate a possibility as any other. Thus to moralize in relation to any of these facts (eg. "x deserves y because of z") is merely to synthesize them in some random way and is about as pointless as being indignant towards a circle for being round.
The inescapable conclusion from all this is that 'everything is nothing' (ie. is insubstantial). Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that sense impressions (or whatever) should either entail the values conferred upon them or be logically prescriptive because of them. For to accept any one set of values legitimates all other possibilities to the effect that 'anything goes' - hence the human condition.
I bore you with this because it illustrates that one can say the same applies to NU, since our awareness of it is likewise comprised merely of sense impressions. Indeed, we would appear to succumb to the paradox of pure nihilism, but for one logical exception. That is, we are not concerned with sense impressions per se, but rather, the (a priori) logic or reason which we abstract from them. But that's not to say we necessarily need to know of logic in the first place, for unlike value, logic has nothing to do with how we feel towards it. It persists whether we deny it or not (for the very act of denial makes its existence all the more clear). It is, so to speak, an abstract reality, a series of logico-mathematical rules existing independently of us and without contradiction in the very way that numbers do. In a strictly non-subjective sense, logic 'describes' reality, but when left open to possibilities, it 'prescribes' it as well, and in both regards, values never play an active part. As such, there is no 'right and wrong', 'good and evil' or 'positive and negative' as I like to think, but only degrees of 'correct and incorrect' states of affairs. Indeed, the only logically correct prescriptive is the reality of NU (ie. the existence of the least pain possible). Our discussions of NU, like all else, should simply be a means to this end and nothing more.
The previous few paragraphs may have no direct relation to the validity of NU, but if they serve to nihilate our preoccupation with value, it remains to be seen that suffering is the only phenomenon that actually 'bothers' us in any real or logical sense. Indeed, everything else is trivial by comparison and curiously enough, without pain, there wouldn't be anything the matter. And even if somebody thought there was, so what? Their value-laden beliefs would be of no consequence - not that they necessarily are anyway. If I find the concept of NU unsavoury, the pain of my disgust is the problem, not NU, and so it goes for all value judgements.
(Positive) utilitarians might argue that the promotion of pleasure or happiness is just as important as NU, simply because they happen to value "feeling good". However, even if they were right (which they aren't), priority should nonetheless be given to NU, for in any case, better there be no suffering at all than the existence of pleasure, since the latter, like all else, is purely trivial by comparison. Indeed, pleasure should not even feature as an end in itself, for whether it exists or not, either way it's no loss. One can readily go without pleasure, for if it's not known it's not missed. Furthermore, in the face of suffering, the existence of pleasure is a completely frivolous and indifferent matter. Only pain is intrinsically incorrect and only its absence can properly be regarded as a correct state of affairs.
NU does not advocate either the absence or the existence of pleasure for its own sake. Like all else, pleasure is correct only insofar as it is a means to reduce suffering, as in the way music reduces stress. (Likewise, some suffering is correct only if it is necessary to reduce suffering of a greater magnitude). This may sound harsh, but probably because of our misconceptions, since many of us believe that without pleasure there is only pain (eg. boredom or melancholy), and vice versa. Yet, while this may often be true of our own lives, it is not necessarily the case, for it is quite conceivable for both pleasure and suffering to be simultaneously non-existent, such as in the absence of all life.
However, NU only becomes reality when all other states of affairs serve as an effective means to it in a purely pragmatic fashion. As such it would be counter-productive to eliminate all known life if there is a strong possibility of greater suffering in some unforeseen 'afterlife' (eg. reincarnation or hell). The same argument would apply if the organisms which comprise life (eg. people) have the potential to eliminate greater suffering elsewhere in the universe (yet alone their own pain). Therefore, in order to bring about NU, it is crucial that the most effective course of action be formulated in advance (Which arguably might include much research to expose the nature of suffering, as well as education, debate and the like, but more on that later).
As there are many factors which influence the pervasiveness of NU, these must be accorded their correct priorities. For although most of us are already advancing NU in some way (mostly through hedonism), the result is usually marginal and offset by sufferings of a greater magnitude. We mentioned earlier that the elimination of such suffering (ie. of greater magnitude) takes priority, and because this is an integral part of NU, it is crucial to firstly understand the dimensions which (at least in theory) make its measurement possible. Only then can we hope to proceed in the most logically correct manner in order that NU becomes reality.


We ask now that you turn your attention to the graph. It illustrates the principle explained earlier, namely the measurement of pain's magnitude in terms of both intensity and duration, whereby 'magnitude' collectively refers to both these dimensions and thus the actual degree of suffering experienced. (Because intensity can also measure pleasure (as well as pain) the former is normally measured by units called 'hedons' and the latter by 'dolors'. But since hedons don't directly concern us, we shall avoid confusion by using the term 'intensity' only insofar as it pertains to dolors).
In reference to the graph, one may be deceived into thinking that intensity and duration are equal multiples of magnitude, such that any point along each axis need simply be multiplied with its counterpart in order to obtain the magnitude. Yet it is clear that objectively, intensity forms a larger component of magnitude than duration. This is particularly the case where intensity is considerably high, hence its exponential influence on magnitude (which should be shown as a curve).
To illustrate this point, let's assume for argument's sake that one hundred dolours is equivalent to experiencing torture. As such, it would be more logical to experience a mild ten dolors over 100 minutes than vice versa (ie. 100 dolors over ten minutes), assuming that one were forced to choose between the two. And this is despite that fact that both choices would each yield an excruciating (though false) magnitude of 1,000, had we simply multiplied intensity with duration. (I wont estimate any actual magnitudes as they still elude me). Yet although intensity comprises the more dominant part of magnitude, in certain cases (which remain unclear), the influence of intensity may be superseded by prolonged duration. For instance, it is arguable that the experience of 100 dolors over one minute is preferable to being irritated by 10 dolors for the rest of eternity.
To confuse things further (believe me, it does), a 'fourth dimension' (ie. a manifold one called the 'minds' axis) operates in conjunction with the others. The dimensions discussed so far can only refer to suffering in linear form and as such are only restricted to single instances - namely that of individual minds. For it is only in a purely 'immediate' or 'existential' sense that pain (like all sense impressions) is experienced uniformly by only one particular mind (or consciousness) at any given moment. (Hence I am only aware of my own pain and no one else's). And yet, although I do not experience it, suffering may equally be present elsewhere in other minds (assuming they exist) which are likewise independent of each other's contents. Thus in reality, suffering exists in a plural state as separate occurrences (ie. amongst separate minds), rather than as a homogenous unit. And it is these which are numbered individually upon the 'minds' axis. (It should also be stressed that we are here concerned only with the suffering inside each mind, rather than minds per se).
Although suffering may occur in separate minds, these are all nonetheless identical phenomena insofar as they are subject to the same underlying principles of NU, and may only differ individually in their degree of intensity, duration and magnitude. Yet in the same way that duration cannot directly be multiplied by intensity to form magnitude, it is likewise the case that the various magnitudes of each mind cannot be multiplied by the number of minds in order to obtain an overall or net magnitude encompassing all those minds. For if that were the case, 100 separate minds, each suffering from (let's say) a mild magnitude of ten, would in effect comprise an excruciating magnitude of 1,000, which would be nowhere remotely near to the actual magnitude suffered. Nonetheless, there is at least one way to obtain the overall magnitude, namely as follows:
All the minds can be 'added together' (as it were) to comprise their combined duration. For it is perfectly logical to say that 100 minds, each suffering for ten minutes, comprise 1000 minutes of suffering (which is analogous to 100 labourers, each working for 10 hours, comprising 1,000 man hours). This manoeuvre involves simply adding or aligning each mind consecutively alongside one another in linear fashion for the length of their combined duration, thereby eliminating the need for an explicit 'minds' axis. Thus with one less dimension to think about, we are now free to calculate the overall magnitude as before, such that it be influenced by duration and intensity in the usual manner rather than being quantified out of all proportion.
An exact measurement of magnitude remains somewhat elusive, while the graph is still only a crude concept. In addition, there remains the dilemma faced by the actual measurement of pain, as well as the practical implications of eliminating it most effectively. Nonetheless, the above exposition may at least provide some insight into revealing an exact ratio between intensity, duration and the so-called 'minds' axis in their fusion of magnitude. If this were ascertained, NU could be simplified to an exact equation and priority could then be given to reduce suffering of a higher magnitude. This is a most urgent objective, especially when considering the possible existence of astronomical magnitudes which could make all the hells on this earth dwindle by comparison.


It is perhaps only when the great bulk of humanity is convinced of the validity of NU and is motivated in whatever way necessary to make it happen, that it will be most pervasive. Although this process may appear untenable or naive, on the contrary, many of the conditions enabling it to occur are already in place and should naturally lead to the eventual popularisation of NU (perhaps in the form of a "NU age", if you pardon the pun). Although if this does eventuate, care must be taken to avoid the stifling influence of blind ideology, personal whims or the like, for it would be pointless to have the concept of NU parodied as another empty fad without the reality of NU taking place.
It may be argued that historically, values are periodically displaced under the influence of nihilism, only to be replaced by another set of values. Indeed, the current human condition is largely compatible with, as well as much in favour of nihilist sentiments. Since much of the twentieth century has culminated towards this stage and and we continue to be globalised by it, we are currently presented with an ideal opportunity to neutralize the prescriptive influence of all future values and advance NU in their place. This shouldn't prove too difficult for (unlike many existing political doctrines) the simplicity of NU as a principle should be readily conducive to understanding and consensus. Furthermore, water-tight arguments (including those which explicate the many contradictions and other follies of values) can potentially serve to systematically thwart criticism - rational or otherwise.
In advocating NU, one can avoid alienating people by maintaining a non-partisan stance based purely upon logical and pragmatic objectives, in the same way that scientific institutions supposedly do. Potentially, NU can appeal to as well as transcend all classes, creeds, etc., particularly as people are susceptible to disillusionment with the values they hold. Furthermore, the immersion of civilization in cyberspace presents a huge opportunity for disseminating information among the masses without the distortion of self-interested institutions such as corporations, universities or the media, nor the need for limited 'artisan labour' such as seminars or petty activism.
Of course I'm not exactly adding to human knowledge with any of the above, as these issues have probably been documented many times already. So instead of placing too much emphasis on 'reinventing the wheel' and articulating ideas of which I remain largely ignorant, much more emphasis needs to be directed towards obtaining relevant feedback from around the globe and synthesizing this into a logical plan for action, whatever that might be. Therefore comments, constructive criticisms or other information relating to NU, nihilism or whatever is always welcome.