By Simon Knutsson
Published Sep. 5, 2019


Lars Bergström (born 1935) is Professor emeritus of practical philosophy at Stockholm University. Simon interviewed Lars on August 29, 2019, took notes during the interview and wrote this text. Lars then checked the text and approved the publication of it.


SK Based on what you have written about consequentialism in Bergström (1995; 1996), I get the impression that you are sympathetic to consequentialism, but with caveats. For example, in Bergström (1995) you talk about ‘a more modest utilitarianism’ and you suggest that a utilitarian retreat and consider utilitarianism as a decision method, a part of a decision method, a rule of thumb, or as a moral rule among other moral rules.

LB It has often been the case that consequentialists regard consequentialism as a criterion of moral rightness. I view consequentialism in the opposite way as a decision method or as a rule of thumb. I write about these things in my latest book Varats dunkla skrymslen (Bergström 2018). My normative stance is that one can consider consequentialism as long as it does not conflict with, for example, keeping promises and speaking the truth. My morality is similar to normal common-sense morality.

SK I would not call you a utilitarian or a consequentialist.

LB No, I am not. It comes back to that we do not know what is meant by alternative actions. There are no criteria for picking out the relevant set of alternatives. What are the alternative actions to that I came to our meeting today? One cannot get an overview of the alternatives.

SK So you are not a utilitarian and not a consequentialist. I would label you some kind of pluralist.

LB Yes, one could say that. W. D. Ross is the philosopher whose morality comes closest to mine.

SK But if there are these different moral rules such as to not manipulate others and to not neglect present suffering, how do we weigh them against one another and get action guidance? I think conflicts between, for example, utilitarianism and such common-sense rules occur on a daily basis. For example, when one considers what one should prioritise or what behaviour is okay in order to accomplish some greater goal.

LB See my latest book (Bergström 2018), especially the chapter on utilitarianism.

SK You have debated in writing with both the pessimist Ingemar Hedenius [1908–1982] and the classical utilitarian Torbjörn Tännsjö. Was Ingemar your teacher?

LB No. He was in Uppsala and I was in Stockholm. We had some contact during that time but not so much. I was invited to Uppsala to discuss the final draft of Sven Danielsson’s dissertation. When I came to Uppsala as a professor, Ingemar and I had our controversies, but in general our relation was very friendly.

SK Were you the teacher of Torbjörn Tännsjö?

LB Yes. Formally, it was Harald Ofstad who was professor at the time. But informally I was very involved. Torbjörn writes in his autobiography that I was his teacher.

SK Let us turn to your text titled Pessimismens konsekvenser, which translates to ‘The consequences of pessimism,’ (Bergström 1978). You write,

In philosophical contexts, usually the term ‘pessimism’ is rather used for the view that the human life is something evil and that it therefore would be better that humanity did not exist. It is this kind of pessimism which I shall here take interest in…. Pessimism is thus a value judgment rather a prediction. It is of course neither obvious nor uncontroversial, but it is also not clearly implausible. On the contrary, there is quite a bit that speaks for its correctness. (Bergström 1978, 24–25)[1]

You also discuss the norm Hedenius formulated and endorsed which he called ‘the norm of the weight of evil’ (Swedish: normen om det ondas vikt). Hedenius (1955, 99–101) writes,

There is a peculiarity about applying the rule of weighing good and evil against each other. How many just remedies counterbalance the amount of notorious ills, so that the situation in its entirety may be called good?…. Is the evil sufficiently horrible, it appears to be able to wipe out the good from the picture and make continued calculation redundant.…  The worst in life, the fate of the completely unhappy, the uninterrupted, infernal suffering, the hopeless humiliation, a child who is slowly tormented to death—I cannot see that all beauty in the world or even the most exceptional thoughts can ‘counterbalance’ such, and neither that other humans’ happiness or culture can do it…. I thought recently that a value calculation needs to precede any judgment about the value of life and that every such judgment always needs to be postponed because our ignorance about life prohibits us from making the required calculation. But it appears that this seemingly obvious thought does not matter. A completely different state seems to settle the issue: that the calculation itself gets jammed as we try to weigh the worst in life—that the evil is so heavy. Have we once opened our eyes for evil’s real nature, it dominates so that welfare devices and symphonies disappear into the periphery. The happy cannot say to the unhappy: you shall be glad that I am happy. But the unhappy can say to the happy: you must mourn that I am unhappy. The eyes of the tormented follow us, and they forbid us to explain away the fact that life is evil…. One can call this the norm of the weight of evil.

He also states the norm or principle in his later reply to your Pessimismens konsekvenser. He says,

The principle of the weight of evil is such a premise. It says that the humans’ lives on Earth, in history, in the present and in the future contain so horrible states and events that nothing of the good, which occur on the side, and not the sum of all good has such a weight that it can counterbalance this infernal evil, so the humans’ lives on the whole could be regarded as anything other than an evil institution in the universe. (Hedenius 1979, 152–53)

You write,

Pessimism follows from the norm of the weight of evil, and the norm of the weight of evil seems rather plausible…. Pessimism seems, in other words, rather plausible. (Bergström 1978, 26)

You also write,

As far as I can see, it makes no greater difference whether after us and until the extinction of humanity there would come 10 or 100 completely happy generations, but it makes a substantial difference whether after us there would come 10 or 100 unhappy generations. As long as all humans are happy it is rather insignificant how many they are, but the more who suffer or are unhappy the worse it is. (Bergström 1978, 25-26)

That last passage sounds like the Asymmetry in population axiology. That is, roughly the idea that the existence of more happy beings does not make the world better but the existence of more beings with negative well-being makes the world worse.

LB Yes, I agree with the Asymmetry. That term was not coined when I wrote that text.

SK Hedenius (1955, 99–101; 1979) finds that the implication of his pessimism and his moral principles, which sound consequentialist, is that one ought to blow up the world, which he finds absurd. He wishes to stick with his pessimism so he sees that implication to be a reason to doubt or modify his moral principles (i.e., roughly, his consequentialism). On the contrary, you argue that pessimism about the future does not imply that one ought to see to that humanity goes extinct (Bergström 1978). A main reason you bring up is that we can accomplish a future with more good than evil so that is what we should do. For example, you write,

But as far as I can see it also does not follow from future pessimism that we ought to annihilate humanity. Because it does not follow from future pessimism that we cannot accomplish a future that on the whole contains more good than evil, and which thus has positive value for its own sake. And if we can accomplish such a future, then we should do it, rather than annihilating humanity! (Bergström 1978, 30)

In his reply to your text, Hedenius (1979) wonders what you mean by ‘can’ here. I wonder about that too. Do you, for example, mean that it is possible or sufficiently likely that we would create a future that is good on the whole?

LB I did not mean possibility or probability. I meant that there is an alternative action that would make the future good.

SK Do you mean that if everyone or, say, all politicians worked to make the future good, we or they can make it good? Hedenius (1979, 163) similarly writes, ‘What he [Bergström] means by can is unclear. Does he mean the hypothetical scenario that if all humans or all politicians or all … make an effort, then humanity will get such a problem-free life that the principle of the weight of evil will no longer apply to any states or events in humanity’s situation?’

LB Yes, roughly. There is an action alternative that would make the future good, but we will not do that.

SK But if we consider individuals. Does an individual really have an action alternative that would make the future good? I mean, you or I alone could not make the future good.

LB Yes, many individuals would need to be involved to accomplish that.

SK Or did you mean some kind of rule consequentialism of roughly the kind ‘act according to the rules that would lead to the best results if everyone acted according to them’?

LB No. I thought in act-utilitarian terms.

SK So there is the question of applying principles to individuals or groups. What should humanity do versus what should this particular individual do?

LB Yes. You are right. Hedenius should have replied that he cannot make the future good, so he ought to make humanity go extinct, according to the combination of his pessimism and his moral principles.

SK Or did you perhaps think that if Hedenius tried to make the future good, there is a perhaps tiny but sufficient likelihood that he would succeed? So trying to make the future good would be optimal from his perspective?

LB No, I did not think that. I did not mean that the expected value of Hedenius trying is sufficient. And it sounds implausible that it would be optimal given the norm of the weight of evil.

SK Regarding the norm of the weight of evil, do you endorse the following idea? There is a finite amount of bad things which cannot be counterbalanced by any amount of good things.

LB Well. There is a difference between when what is on the positive side of the scale is realistic and when one allows for complete happiness and infinite time. In the latter case, it is difficult to have any intuitions. As long as we are dealing with rather realistic situations I agree. There is nothing realistic that could happen that could counterbalance the bad. But I am then speaking about what has been. The future could be milder. In any case, Hedenius is counting on that in the future there will be enough bad things so that the future will be bad on the whole.

SK Was Hedenius a consequentialist? An article about his normative ethics (Petersson 2009, 57) says that Hedenius used the term nyttomoralen (literally: ‘utility morality’) for the version of utilitarianism that he defended. But if I recall correctly, Hedenius also spoke of other values than well-being such as beauty.

LB He spoke of other value such as Mozart’s music. It is unclear whether he meant that those things are valuable for their own sake. If I recall correctly, he used to say he was a utilitarian; maybe he also said he was a consequentialist.

SK Maybe he was a utilitarian in Moore’s sense of ideal utilitarianism. That is, in the sense that allows for other values besides well-being.

LB Perhaps. Hedenius considered himself a consequentialist. But he could not accept utilitarianism because of the objection that it implies that one should blow up the world. But it never became entirely clear where his normative ethics ended up.

SK One reply to the world destruction argument is that there are rules of the kind you endorse nowadays. For example, moral rules against violence such as killing everyone.

LB Sure, but Hedenius sees the world exploder as a problem for utilitarianism. In my Pessimismens konsekvenser, I reason from a utilitarian standpoint. I was a utilitarian at that time.

SK So it was your common perspective that you reasoned from in that text?

LB Yes.

SK How did you view the world destruction objection at that time? I guess that you do not care much about the objection now given your current morality.

LB At that time I did not think about pluralism. Or perhaps more correctly, I was not entirely clear about the difference. In my bachelor’s thesis (trebetygsuppsats) I wrote about normative ethics. I had a norm that humanity must not end.

SK Did that include, for example, that humanity must not end by humans deciding to stop having children?

LB Yes. Humanity’s survival was a higher value (överordnat värde). It was not especially utilitarian.

At the time of writing Pessimismens konsekvenser, I reasoned in utilitarian ways but I still raised objections to utilitarianism. My attitude was that it was the best theory at the moment but it has unresolved weaknesses such as the value of life.

SK: What do you think of the idea that even if a theory is the best available at the moment, one need not act according to it, if there is no satisfactory theory? Say that the theory has repugnant implications. One can say that there is no good enough theory. One can wait for a better one, and follow common-sense rules like those you endorse nowadays.

LB Yes. Even if a theory is best, one need not act according to it. I think I would have said the same around the time of writing Pessimismens konsekvenser, but I do not really recall.

SK I want to turn to your text ‘Interpersonal utility comparisons’ (Bergström 1982). Were you a utilitarian at that time?

LB About the same as at the time of Pessimismens konsekvenser. I had no better theory but I still saw errors and weaknesses with utilitarianism.

SK In ‘Interpersonal utility comparisons,’ you endorse an idea of quantifying well-being and happiness based on just noticeable differences. One just noticeable difference in, say, happiness, is one unit of happiness. I wonder whether you regard that idea as a factual discovery versus a moral or normative judgment. That is, the first, factual way to think about it is that we have, for example, a utilitarian criterion of rightness that tells us to optimise a sum of something, say, pain. One can think that there is a quantity of this thing that is to be optimised and we can discover facts about it and how to quantify. The second is that the quantification of, say, pain is a normative or evaluative judgment. It is a further specification of the moral theory that elaborates on what we should care about.

LB Regarding just noticeable differences, it is a moral decision that this should be what is relevant. That is how I thought. It is not a factual discovery. It is doubtful whether one can view it as a factual matter.

SK But how is one to understand just noticeable differences? So, okay, a just noticeable difference is a hedon. For example, a fish who is stuck in a net. How many noticeable differences does this fish experience?

LB It sounds appealing to accept just noticeable differences. I sketched technical methods in that paper.

SK You mean like the H-meter you talk about there? I thought your view in that paper was that even if we had, say, all the neurological knowledge we could wish for, one still needs to calibrate the H-meter. One would still face further questions of whether that state of mind of that person is 2 hedons or 200 hedons, and how many another person experience compared to the first person.

LB One could look at differences in behaviours. If there is no difference in behaviour there is no just noticeable difference.

SK That sounds problematic. The idea that as long as there is no behaviour change, there is no change in the pain experienced. And consider the fish who is stuck. I guess maybe one could try to detect muscle movements or the like and count that as behaviour changes.

LB I do not believe much in just noticeable differences nowadays. I am not so sure about it. It is theoretically a bit appealing, but there are measurement problems.

SK One can distinguish between practical measurement challenges and that the idea is unclear. I mean, on the one hand, practical measurement challenges such as that it is practically difficult to measure the just noticeable differences in the real world. The technology would be complicated, etc. On the other hand, I find the idea of just noticeable differences unclear. What is a just noticeable difference? Is a just noticeable difference counted based on how the individual would have answered a hypothetical question about whether the person noticed a difference? But then what about humans who cannot answer such questions due to disabilities? And what about other species who could never report answers?

LB One starts with those who can answer, for example, the humans who can answer. Then one looks at similarities with other beings and one can assume that it is about the same for them. One would generalise. It is more difficult with fish.

SK I guess one can maybe generalise from humans to other animals, given that we are fairly similar.

LB I have not thought much about the topic since 1982. I was not thrilled about the solution (just noticeable differences). I could not think of anything better. I was invited to a conference in memory of Moritz Schlick and Otto Neurath. Neurath had written about interpersonal comparisons, so I figured I could write about that. It has often been like that. I have been invited to a conference and then I have had to come up with something to talk about.

SK Hedenius wrote about the world destruction argument in his book Fyra dygder published 1955, and then R. N. Smart wrote about the argument in his article from 1958 (Smart 1958). The book Fyra dygder looks like a collection of essays. Do you know if Hedenius discussed that argument before 1955?

LB He collected earlier essays and published them as a book. Ann-Marie Henschen-Dahlquist has created a Hedenius bibliography. You can also check out Svante Nordin’s book about Hedenius.


Bergström, Lars. 1978. ‘Pessimismens Konsekvenser’. In En Filosofibok Tillägnad Anders Wedberg, 24–34. Stockholm: Bonniers.

———. 1982. ‘Interpersonal Utility Comparisons’. Grazer Philosophische Studien 16: 283–312.

———. 1995. ‘Utilitarismens Fel Och Förtjänster’. Filosofisk Tidskrift, no. 4.

———. 1996. ‘Reflections on Consequentialism’. Theoria 62 (1–2): 74–94.

———. 2018. Varats dunkla skrymslen. Stockholm: Thales.

Hedenius, Ingemar. 1955. Fyra dygder. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag.

———. 1979. ‘Pessimismen Omigen’. In Frågor Om Livets Mening, edited by Lars Bergström, 150–69. Lund: Prisma.

Petersson, Bo. 2009. ‘Ingemar Hedenius Moralfilosofi: Normativ Etik’. Filosofisk Tidskrift 30 (2): 57–76.

Smart, R. N. 1958. ‘Negative Utilitarianism’. Mind 67 (268): 542–43.


[1] The interview was in Swedish. All translations from Swedish speech and text to English are by Simon.

Lars Bergström on pessimism, ethics, consequentialism, Ingemar Hedenius, and quantifying well-being