By Simon Knutsson
Published August 23, 2023

I explain parts of my moral view briefly. I also talk about some arguments for and against my view. The basics of my moral view include that one should focus on reducing severe suffering and behave well, and these basics get us pretty far in terms of how to act and be in real life.

1  Introduction

My moral view is suffering-focused in the sense that it emphasises the reduction of suffering and the like. My view might differ from other suffering-focused views in the following ways:

  • I do not pick or try to formulate an overarching moral theory. Instead, my moral view is intentionally fairly non-theoretical.
  • I think of ideas about how one should be, such as the idea that one should be considerate, as more primitive and fundamental to morality than some others seem to think of them. Many others agree that one should be like that, but perhaps for different reasons, such as that being like that has the best consequences.
  • My take on what should be reduced for its own sake is perhaps unusually pluralistic—it is most important to reduce extreme suffering, but it also makes sense to reduce, for example, gruesome violence, ruined lives and life projects, and acts such as ignoring harms.
  • My view could be labelled a pitch-black philosophical pessimism located towards the end of a philosophical optimism–pessimism spectrum. In my view, there is no positive value and no positive quality of life, and there are no positive experiences. An empty world is the best possible world, the world is terrible, and the future will almost certainly be appalling. (Of course, we should still try to make the world and the future less awful.)
  • I am sceptical of categorical notions such as ‘good’ and ‘positive value’, and I instead prefer comparative notions such as ‘better’ and ‘worse’.
  • I don’t think much in terms of uncertainty about moral principles or evaluative judgments; rather, I tend to think in terms of to what extent I accept or agree with specific ideas about morality and value.

I think that the following are some of the advantages of my moral view: By being light on theory, it avoids pitfalls that high-level moral theories can have. It also takes suffering seriously, is overall reasonable, and lacks implausible implications such as when a view recommends that a clearly immoral act should be carried out. And my moral view is quite action-guiding in real life. This talk about advantages may sound like academic niceties, but most of the points have great practical importance. For example, it is crucial to direct one’s attention and efforts to those who are or will be extremely badly off.

In the remainder of this essay, I will say more about my moral view and arguments for and against it.

2  Consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics

In introductions to normative ethics, one can often read about three approaches to ethics (or three families of moral theories), namely consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. When these three are described briefly, consequentialism might be said to take the moral rightness and wrongness of actions to depend only on the consequences of the actions (or, more specifically, only on the value of the outcomes resulting from the actions).[1] According to deontology, there are other moral considerations. For example, it can be one’s duty to abstain from lying or killing even if these acts would maximise the value of outcomes. And virtue ethics is said to be about how we should be rather than what we should do. Of course, this merely scratches the surface and there are nuances and complications.

There are pros and cons to talking in terms of these three categories. For example, perhaps the use of these categories gives a misleading impression of their clarity and exhaustiveness within the broader topic of ethics.[2] And, of course, it’s not like one must pick one of the three approaches and live by it.

I find it doubtful whether we need any overarching, high-level theory like consequentialism or a certain deontological theory, and I doubt whether it is desirable to embrace one. And it’s not like I accept a pluralist or hybrid overarching theory that, for example, takes aspects of consequentialism and combines them with a principle from deontology and ideas from virtue ethics.

3  Theory, antitheory, generalism, and particularism

There are interesting debates in ethics on theory versus antitheory, as well as on generalism versus particularism.[3] These are large topics and I don’t plan to go into the details in this essay, but here is a peek into parts of those topics. Standard forms of consequentialism are located at the theory and generalism end of the spectrum. Consider a simple form of consequentialism that says that an act is morally right if and only if it results in the best consequences. This theory or principle is ambitious, general, and high-level. It is supposed to apply to all acts in all areas of life. Broadly speaking, generalism and a theoretical way of doing ethics give a fundamental and important role to theories. In contrast, antitheory and particularism do not give moral theories that kind of fundamental, important role. An encyclopedia entry on moral particularism says that “moral principles are at best crutches” and “the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error” (Dancy 2017).

Moral theories and principles can have a range of different forms. Some are more general while others are more local. Local moral theories cover an area of ethics but not all of it. Examples of local theories include just war theory as well as theories in business ethics and health care ethics (Fotion 2014, chaps 5, 7). Similarly, so-called ‘weak theories’ need not be complete in the sense that they need not cover all ethical problems (Fotion 2014, 235, 301, 303). Such local and incomplete theories might be more illuminating and might have fewer drawbacks than general, high-level theories. Still, one can question whether we need any kind of moral theory at all (grand, local, weak, or whatever) and whether moral theories generally have more disadvantages than advantages.[4]

3.1  Disadvantages of overarching moral theories

I don’t identify as a particularist or antitheorist, but I doubt the importance of overarching moral theories, and at least some of them seem to have drawbacks. That is, it seems we can do without high-level moral theories, and the following are three disadvantages that high-level moral theories can have (a caveat is that some high-level theories might be innocuous, and almost all examples of disadvantages I have observed concern consequentialist moral theories).

The first disadvantage is when someone accepts a problematic implication of their favourite moral theory with the justification that “all moral theories have counterintuitive implications”. The person holds that something is permissible even though one would normally think of it as immoral or even monstrous. But if all existing moral theories are so problematic, we need not choose any of them. Such acceptance of a theory’s problematic implications might be due to mistakenly thinking there is a great need to pick one of the existing moral theories.

The second disadvantage is that some people seem to internalise the moral theory and come to view the immoral acts as appropriate and desirable, period, and act accordingly. In contrast, one may view the actions as merely undesirable prescriptions of the most promising but still unsatisfactory moral theory.

The third disadvantage is that some have passive, wavering stances and behaviour on plain moral issues seemingly at least in part because their moral theory does not prescribe the obvious answer. For example, it is very difficult to assess the overall consequences of some behaviour that is usually considered clearly immoral, and the consequentialist remains agnostic and passive.

3.2  What would guide us if not overarching moral theory?

If we avoid overarching moral theories, there are still reasonable lower-level, local principles, such as the Misery Principle that I will state in Section 4. There are also plausible general ideas, such as the idea that an empty world is the best possible world. Such principles and general ideas can give practical guidance.

Even if we were to go further and reject all moral theories and principles, there can still be moral reasons. For example, a reason for doing something can be that it reduces suffering and a reason against it can be that one would fail to pay a debt. And one can still engage in moral deliberation, support and defend one’s moral judgements, and change one’s mind when faced with new reasons. (See, e.g., Dancy 2017.)

This is different from a consequentialist talking about optimal decision procedures in at least the following way: For example, consider a form of utilitarianism according to which an act is morally right if and only if it results in the greatest sum of well-being. From that utilitarian perspective, it is an empirical question which way of making practical decisions results in the greatest sum of well-being. And it might differ a lot for different persons and in different situations. Essentially, one should make practical decisions in whichever way results in the greatest sum of well-being. (See, e.g., Eggleston 2014, 140; Railton 1984, 156.)

In contrast, my view is that the right act need not be the one that results in the greatest sum of well-being, for example, if that act is deceitful. And we should not use whichever decision procedure results in the greatest sum of well-being. Rather, what is right depends on a range of considerations, and when making decisions, one should take these considerations into account and make a sound moral judgement.

Conflict among moral principles and among moral reasons is an old topic. For instance, Ross (1930) presented fundamental principles such as keeping promises and not harming others, and discussed conflicts among them.[5] If there are several principles, a question is what to do when one principle speaks for an action and another principle speaks against it. One option, which I do not favour, is to order the principles lexically so that, for example, the first principle always dominates all the others when there is a conflict among principles (see, e.g., McNaughton 1996, 442–43; Allegri 2022; Veatch 1995, 210–11). It seems more common and reasonable to hold that different principles can generally have different moral weight, or that the balance of principles depends on the specific case (see, e.g., McNaughton 1996, 443–46; Robinson 2010).[6]

When it comes to conflicting moral reasons or considerations for and against different actions in particular situations, the most sensible approach seems similar. That is, the balance of different considerations depends on the specifics of the situation (see, e.g., Dancy 2004, 9–10, 141–44), but we can also say something general about how important various considerations tend to be; for example, reducing extreme suffering tends to be a very important consideration.

4  The basics of my moral view

First, let’s cover what’s most important. I find it to be the horrendous, involuntary things that many individuals go through (e.g., Tomasik 2006; Knutsson 2015b; Vinding 2020b, 64–69). There are sadly too many such horrors to go into here, but just to name a few: mutilations, torture murders, and sexual violence against children (e.g., Johnston 2016).

It is of utmost importance that we prevent and alleviate such horrors. For example, more attention and resources should be spent on preventing them. Generally speaking, we should focus on reducing severe suffering.

There are also related moral principles that sound very reasonable. For example, perhaps we can label the following reasonable principle by Wolf (2004, 63) a sort of local or mid-level principle:

Misery Principle: If people are badly off, suffering, or otherwise remediably miserable, it is not appropriate to address their ill-being by bringing more happy people into the world to counterbalance their disadvantage. We should instead improve the situation of those who are badly off.[7]

Similarly, I think we should try to help those who are badly off and prevent future misery rather than, say, try to increase the number of beings or try to bring about vast amounts of purported value.

Generally speaking, each individual who suffers matters. It is worse when more individuals suffer, when they suffer more severely, and when they suffer for longer. Of course, we should try to be effective when we try to make the world and the future less awful, and when we try to help others.

There are also plenty of ideas about how one should be that seem obvious. For example, as a parent, one should be supportive and understanding rather than aggressive. And as a person, one should be considerate and not, for example, manipulative. I am not saying that we should be like this because it maximises the value of outcomes. And the prescriptions to be like this are not merely rules of thumb. Rather, ideas about what we should be like of the kind that I endorse seemingly have as much claim as anything has to being considered fundamental to morality.

Those are the basics of my moral view. Later in this text, I will write about more aspects of my moral view, but it seems worth separating the most important basics in this section from other, less essential aspects.

5  How far do we get in practice with the basics?

One might think that the basics outlined in the previous section are too incomplete to guide us in real life. But it seems we can get most of the way with just the basics. That is, in practice, focus on reducing misery, suffering, and the like. Be a good person (and teacher or whatever role one has) in obvious ways: be considerate, honest, and so on. Don’t be cunning, ruthless, and the like. These are simple ideas and a main challenge might be to live up to them. For example, it might not be so easy to effectively reduce suffering and be productive over a long period, to be ideally considerate and patient, to never do anything unnecessary that is hurtful, and to stand up for others when it is called for. But we can nevertheless try, and these basic ideas seemingly point out the general direction and they are substantive (they are not empty platitudes).

6  Less essential parts of my moral view

The basics of my moral view that I described above seem most practically relevant, and these basics can get us pretty far regarding how to live our lives. In this section, I explain some other, less essential parts of my moral view. The most important practical prescriptions of my view, such as focusing on reducing suffering and behaving well, do not hinge on the points in the current section.

6.1  No positive value, quality of life, or experiences

We cannot make the world better by adding things to it. Nothing has positive value in itself (i.e., positive final or intrinsic value).[8] For example, if there is empty space or a barren rock planet, we do not improve it by adding sentient beings or anything else to it. Of course, adding something to the world can have beneficial effects (it can have instrumental value), but it does not have positive value in itself.

An empty world is the best possible world.

There is no positive quality of life (i.e., well-being or welfare) and there are no positive experiences and no positive hedonic levels. Again, having a higher quality of life can be better and having certain experiences can have beneficial (“positive”) effects, but they are not inherently positive in themselves.

6.2  Every realistic future is awful

The state of the world is so terrible that it is hard to find words for it. There is such agony, slaughter, violations, and evil in the world. The future might be much worse. Every even remotely realistic future is appalling. Some futures are worse than others, and it is worth trying to avoid the worse ones, but there is no glimmer of hope for a bright future.[9] We can and should strive for a future that is less awful than the alternatives, but it will still be unspeakably awful.

6.3  Other bads beyond suffering

I have said that we should focus on reducing suffering. The word ‘suffering’ might sound abstract and broad. And perhaps there are other things besides suffering that we should also reduce. So, more specifically, what should we reduce? Again, the most important thing to reduce is extreme suffering. That is, the kind of things we think of when we ask which individuals in the world feel the worst or at least feel horrendous. Mild unpleasantness should also be reduced, if possible, but it is much less important. It seems that other things should also be reduced (for their own sake) and that those things also make the world worse (in themselves). For example, confinement, degradation, humiliation, ruined lives and life projects, immorality, acts such as harming others and ignoring harms, traits such as being neglectful, and the fulfilment of aversions (i.e., things being as one doesn’t want them to be).[10] Still, reducing extreme suffering is much more important than reducing, say, the ignoring of harm.

6.4  Reducing problems for existing individuals

What about making individuals happier? Yes, we should do that. In my view, that is the same as reducing problems for them. For example, reducing feelings of the following: ache, annoyance, boredom, discomfort, discontentment, insecurity, loneliness, low self-esteem, being unappreciated, and so on (see Knutsson 2022b). In practice, it is unrealistic to be able to help someone so much that there are no problems left, but one can try to at least reduce the number and severity of the ills others experience. And, of course, by adding individuals to the world we don’t make the added individuals happier.

6.5  Scepticism of categorical value notions

When it comes to value, I am sceptical of thinking in terms of categorical, supposed polar opposites such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘positive’, and ‘negative’. Comparative notions such as ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are easier to accept. For example, it is worse for someone to feel worse, and a world with suffering is worse than an empty world, but I would not say that an empty world would be good.

If one wants to use categorical notions, such as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ value, then ‘negative’ seems more acceptable than ‘positive’. In other words, when it comes to value, it seems more understandable how something can have problems, imperfections, and flaws than how something could have positive value “above” or “on the positive side of” complete flawlessness.

6.6  Degrees of agreement rather than uncertainty

When it comes to statements of the kind that a specific act or motive is morally wrong or that something is worse than something else, I would generally not say that I am uncertain about whether the statement is true or false. I mean, I can be uncertain about the effects of actions, about the empirical facts of a situation, and the like. But if we have the empirical facts on the table and consider the purely moral question of whether a specific act is morally wrong, I would instead say that I have different extents of acceptance of or agreement with the statement that the act is morally wrong.[11]

When it comes to morality and value, an advantage of thinking in terms of degrees of agreement instead of uncertainty about whether a statement is true or false is that degrees of agreement allow for a repertoire of nuanced and precise positions.[12] That is, instead of the only two options being that a value statement is either true or false, and then us being uncertain about which one it is, we can have a precise degree of agreement with the statement, which might be a high degree of agreement but still less than full agreement.

Why does any of this matter? A moral view as a whole bundle including uncertainty about moral and value matters might very well differ from a moral view that instead uses degrees of agreement. A related example is that in Knutsson (2021a), I analyse an argument about value and I assume that a value statement such as ‘a is better than b’ can be true to an intermediate degree between complete truth and complete falsity (and I would interpret such degrees of truth as degrees of agreement). That analysis becomes quite different from the usual discussions of the argument. I also give an example of a systematic way of making value comparisons if one thinks in terms of degrees rather than the binary ‘true or false’.[13]

7  Arguments for and against my moral view

I do not aim to present an exhaustive coverage of the arguments for and against my view. That would be a different, longer text. In this essay and this section, I talk more about arguments for my view than against my view. Here are two reasons why. First, a sensible start is to convey why one might find a view appealing at all, why it’s worth taking seriously, and how someone sympathetic to the view thinks. When that groundwork is done, one can move on to a more critical assessment of all the pros and cons of a view. Second, briefly bringing up objections to one’s view and replying to them risks not doing justice to the objections and the replies. Proper treatment of objections might require much more space and time, and this text is meant to be short. I deal with some related objections in separate texts (e.g., Knutsson 2015a; 2021a; 2021b; 2022b).

I will start with some preliminary remarks about arguments for moral views in general (Section 7.1). I then focus on arguments for and against my moral view in particular. I present an argument for my overall view (Section 7.2), and then turn to arguments for and against some specific parts of my view.[14] I deal with the most important part of my view, namely the moral importance of suffering and the like, in Section 7.3, and then I briefly talk about arguments related to how to be (Section 7.4), hedonic levels and well-being (Section 7.5), and thinking comparatively (Section 7.6).

7.1  Preliminary remarks about arguments for moral views in general

In my experience, the constructive case for any moral view tends to be thin or unconvincing. By ‘constructive case’, I mean the positive, direct arguments for why the moral view is correct or reasonable. I do not mean the defence of the view against objections, or the pointing out of weaknesses in competing moral views. When I say that the case tends to be thin, I am referring to the pattern that reasons or arguments for a moral view quickly boil down to what one simply finds intuitive, plausible, reasonable, or the like. When there is elaborate, constructive reasoning in support of a moral view, it tends to include dubious and shaky assumptions and claims, like an argumentative house of cards that does not amount to a convincing case for the view.

What does that meta-level comment have to do with this essay? I hope it serves as a road map and helps with the assessment of the plausibility of moral views, including mine. For example, as far as I can tell, the positive, direct arguments for my view are mainly thin in the sense that they quickly tie into what one finds reasonable. That’s common in moral philosophy. The more elaborate and complicated reasoning in support of my moral view is more indirect and takes the form of replies to various objections, as well as comparisons with competing moral views. That also seems common in moral philosophy. The state of my moral view seems to be that it is not easily refuted, but it is also hard to make a constructive, direct case for it to someone who disagrees. And, again, this seems to be a standard situation with moral views.

7.2  An argument for my overall view

An argument for my overall view is that it lacks implausible implications. A common type of objection to a moral view is to say that the view implies that it would be right to do something that is clearly immoral. One reason my view lacks implausible implications is that it is fairly non-theoretical, so it lacks a central overarching principle that can have implications. Another reason, I would like to think, is that my view is sensibly formulated so that it avoids recommending immoral acts.

My motivation for having the kind of non-theoretical moral view I have is not to avoid any implication that somewhat similar theories such as negative utilitarianism have been said to have (see, e.g., Knutsson 2021b). Rather, I mainly do not see the need for a high-level moral theory, and having such a moral theory seems much less important than having sensible concrete moral positions and being and behaving accordingly.

7.3  The moral importance of extreme suffering and the like

I think an advantage of my view is that it takes suffering seriously. Ideas about the moral importance of suffering, ill-being, and the like occur over and over among a wide range of thinkers.[15] Why would suffering and the like be especially morally important, and even so overwhelmingly important as they are in my view? (When I say ‘suffering and the like’, I mainly have extreme suffering in mind, but I also include other suffering, ruined lives and life projects, the fulfilment of aversions, and similar things that should potentially be reduced for their own sake, see Section 6.3.)

One class of reasons for the moral importance of suffering and the like concerns certain facts, such as facts about what it is like for the being to have the experience in question. In other words, an experience is morally important in part because of what it is like to have it. Yet relevant facts need not only concern experiences. It is also reasonable to hold that it is morally important to help someone because they are being violated and scarred, and because their life is being ruined.[16]

A related argument is to point to potential biases. If we are biased in ways that make us neglect or overemphasise suffering, perhaps we should adjust our moral view in light of such biases (see, e.g., Vinding 2020b, chap. 7; 2022). For example, we might be ignorant about what it is like to experience extreme suffering and about the moral importance of suffering in part because it is unpleasant to learn about extreme suffering.

It makes sense to present specific cases and descriptions of extreme misery, as I and others have tried to do (e.g., Tomasik 2006; Knutsson 2015b; Vinding 2020b, 64–69). An idea behind that could be that once we better grasp the sheer severity and horror of such cases, we might likewise get a better sense of the importance of reducing such suffering. Or, if one is to accept or reject a moral view, one should at least be informed and familiar with the facts (e.g., the atrocities) that the moral view pertains to.

Still, there is always uncertainty about what others experience. And it seems especially hard to grasp what someone experiences in extreme circumstances. Obviously, reading and watching videos about suffering do not lead to a full understanding of what a specific individual who is brutalised experiences. There are so many examples of experiences that most of us probably cannot understand what they are like to have. A comparatively mild example is that I have experienced regret and self-blame, but I was told of a dad who backed his truck and accidentally ran over and killed his own child. I seemingly have no idea of the kind of regret, self-blame, and so on that this dad felt. And there are plenty of examples of more extreme suffering where it is presumably harder to understand what it is like to experience such things.

Even being a victim or having horrible experiences does not ensure full knowledge of what others experience because different individuals might experience similar conditions and situations differently. In addition, within one’s own life, there are reasons to doubt the reliability of introspection and recall.[17] People’s descriptions of their own experiences are of some use for better grasping what the worst experiences are like. But the usefulness is limited in part because existing descriptions cover such a small share of terrible experiences among a tiny minority of individuals. For example, many individuals did not or could not describe their experiences, such as humans who died horrendous deaths without reporting on their experiences, or beings such as non-human animals who cannot describe their experiences to us.

An objector to my moral view might point to ignorance about others’ experiences and say that increasing the number of pleasant experiences can be more important than I think (so reducing suffering can be comparatively less important than I think). I might fail to appreciate the moral importance of increasing the amount of pleasure because I fail to understand what it is like to experience such pleasure. This is a large discussion and I only have room to briefly touch on it here. I may fail to understand the moral importance of some purportedly positive experiences because I have not had them and I don’t understand what it is like to have them. Some relevant questions include how likely that is and how plausible it is that it contributes to making me greatly mistaken about the moral importance of suffering. I have had a fortunate and pretty normal life, and I have been in the kinds of situations that people tend to say were the best moments in their lives. But, sure, people might experience similar situations differently and there are things I have not done, such as using various drugs (and even if I had used those drugs, someone else who used them might have had a better experience).

Given ignorance about others’ experiences and various reasons why we might, for example, fail to appreciate the horror and moral importance of suffering, what are we to think? One obvious approach, which I try to use, is to take into account as much of the relevant information as possible and estimate what others experience and might experience in the future and judge how morally important that is.

Besides trying to estimate what others experience and might experience, as well as the moral importance of that, we can consider the judgments and consent of those who suffer (see, e.g., Vinding 2020b, chap. 4). For example, consider someone who has suffered severely and holds that this suffering cannot be outweighed by any purported good. They hold that their life, the world, or the future could not be good on the whole if it contains this suffering. The person might also say that they would never consent to go through that experience for anything of merely positive value.[18] This kind of information might help us better understand what the experience was like. But such judgments can also be morally significant in other, separate ways. For example, Tomasik (2015) suggests essentially that if a person-moment would not agree to continue suffering for future person-moments to get future rewards, then that suffering is so bad that it cannot be outweighed. A similar idea from Vinding (2020b, 62) is that we should sympathise with those who experience suffering so intense that they cannot consent to it, and who “consider it unoutweighable by any positive good”. Vinding also talks about how we should “side with the evaluations” of those who are worst off (p. 74). I agree that we should side with those who are badly off, those who do not consent, and those who do not consider their suffering outweighable by purportedly positive things. There is something morally appropriate about respecting them and their view and non-consent, and about not implying that they are wrong (see Vinding 2020b, 69).

Let us turn to a different kind of argument for suffering-focused moral views. The argument is that such a view avoids various problematic stances on tradeoffs. My sort of view on value (simply put: nothing has positive value and suffering and some other things make the world worse) avoids various problematic implications about which outcomes are better or worse than others (see, e.g., Ajantaival 2022). For example, my view does not imply that an outcome containing many lives filled with extreme suffering and many more lives with very high positive welfare is better than an outcome in which everyone has slightly lower but still high positive welfare (see Ajantaival 2022, fig. 5). Similarly, my view on the moral importance of suffering avoids problematic stances such as that we should deprioritise those who suffer, and that a world with purportedly positive value should be brought about at the expense of extreme suffering (including suffering that those who suffer consider unoutweighable and do not consent to).

Another kind of argument for the moral importance of suffering has to do with being in various ways and what our actions reflect. Slote (2007, 31) essentially proposes that an act is morally wrong if and only if it reflects a lack of “fully developed empathic concern for (or caring about) others”. Somewhat similarly, I think that deprioritising, enabling, or ignoring suffering to bring about purported positive value reflects and involves a lack of concern for those who suffer.[19]

A more indirect argument for the moral importance of suffering is to point out the lack of convincing arguments for conflicting ideas such as that suffering can be outweighed (Vinding 2020a; 2020b, 61, 69).

An additional point is that there is something especially obvious about the moral importance of unnecessary extreme suffering among innocent individuals. In other words, the badness and importance of such suffering seem unusually robust, not open to serious doubt in concrete cases, widely accepted, and so on (see, e.g., Kagan 1998, 1. Vinding 2020b, sec. 1.5).

Finally, a seemingly illuminating and fruitful kind of argumentation supporting the moral importance of suffering is to explain why objections are unconvincing (if they are), as I have tried to do (e.g., Knutsson 2015a; 2021a; 2021b).

7.4  How to be

How to act is a morally important question. Another legitimate question is how one should be. Desires, motives, traits, wishes, and the like seem morally relevant in themselves in a way that is irreducible to their consequences.

We can try to assess whether acts exhaust the moral domain by holding them fixed and varying motives and the like. For example, consider people who act morally perfectly but have selfish motives and sadistic desires, and who would harm others severely if given the chance. It seems such persons have moral flaws and that they would have been morally better if they had acted morally perfectly, had benevolent motives, lacked sadistic desires, and lacked dispositions to harm others.

An approach to including motives and the like in the moral domain is to say that their moral qualities depend purely on their consequences (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong 2022, sec. 5). For instance, the view might be that one should have the motive that results in the best consequences. But this approach seems unsatisfactory for at least the two following reasons. First, it is too incidental, unclear, and unlikely that moral motives, traits, and the like have the best consequences. For example, it seems easy to imagine realistic situations where being dishonest and manipulative results in the best consequences (given a range of common ideas about what the best consequences would be). The same goes for being callous and ruthless in the pursuit of the best consequences.

Second, appealing merely to consequences seems to neither explain nor do justice to the moral importance of motives, traits, and the like. It is not that a trait happens to result in the best consequences that alone explains why one should have it. Rather, there seems to be something more fundamentally important about motives, traits, and the like that is irreducible to their consequences.

7.5  Hedonic levels and well-being

I think that undisturbedness is the hedonic ceiling. There are no positive hedonic levels, no positive experiences, and no positive quality of life (i.e., no positive welfare or well-being). In the introduction to my draft “Undisturbedness as the hedonic ceiling”, I give five reasons why one might find it appealing to hold that undisturbedness is the hedonic ceiling. One of the reasons is that all variation in hedonic level can seemingly be accounted for in terms of variation in experienced disturbances. For example, one feels hedonically better when one feels less bored. Another reason is that holding that there are merely disturbances or no disturbances is a more sparse (less bloated) ontology than holding that there are three states: hedonically positive, negative, and neutral experiences. That draft also replies to an objection to the idea that undisturbedness is the hedonic ceiling.

7.6  Thinking comparatively

Thinking comparatively about value involves thinking in terms of better and worse rather than good, bad, positive, negative, and neutral. Here are three arguments for thinking comparatively about value.

The first argument is that thinking comparatively is simple and sparse (see, e.g., Carlson 2016). We can merely use comparative value relations such as ≺ and ∼. We can read ‘a ≺ b’ both as ‘a is worse than b’ and as ‘b is better than a’ since these two readings are formally interchangeable (Hansson 2001, 17–18). Similarly, we can read ‘a ∼ b’ as ‘a is equal in value to b.’ And we do not postulate that things are good, bad, or neutral. Rather, things are related merely by ≺ and ∼.

The second argument is that comparative value notions such as ‘worse’ are clear and understandable. In contrast, the categorical value notions ‘good’ and ‘positive value’ seem more mysterious. It is unclear to me what it would be for something to be above or on the positive side of something that is unproblematic or flawless.

The third argument is the beneficial ramifications of thinking comparatively for philosophical problems. According to Broome (1993, 72–73), “goodness is actually fully reducible to betterness; there is nothing more to goodness than betterness. I think economists are right to think in comparative terms, and they miss nothing by doing so.” And “some philosophers have occasionally found themselves chasing red herrings because they have not had the economist’s instinct to work with comparatives” (Broome 1993, 72). He gives the discussion of the evil of death as “one example of a philosophical discussion that has been sent off the rails by a failure to think comparatively” (Broome 1999, 10).

If we think comparatively, many philosophical issues seem to either dissolve or at least open up for more fruitful treatment. Some topics that can seemingly be treated better by thinking in comparative terms include the Asymmetry in population ethics, pleasure versus pain (or unpleasure), happiness versus suffering, and positive versus negative quality of life (well-being). For example, according to Klocksiem (2010, 1), “several theories of pleasure and pain have substantial difficulty explaining” why pain is the opposite of pleasure. Klocksiem proposes that the oppositeness of pleasure and pain “is explained by the fact that pleasure is good and pain is bad, and that goodness and badness are suitable opposites” (p. 3). But, according to my comparative thinking, pleasure and pain (or unpleasure) are not polar opposites,[20] pleasure is not good, and goodness and badness are not suitable opposites.[21] There does not even seem to be a need for the explanation Klocksiem searches for. Instead, we can focus on what makes the world better or worse.

8  Concluding remarks

In short, the key aspect of my view is that the most important priority is to prevent extreme suffering. It is the most important priority, broadly speaking, but it is not a principle that simply overrides everything else. There are other moral considerations. For example, it is also important to try to get as close as one can to the morally ideal way of being and behaving, not just for instrumental reasons, but for its own sake.

My assessment that the state of the world is terrible and that every realistic future is awful is not meant to convey gloom and resignation. Rather, it can be practically useful, similar to how one usually needs to get a picture of the current situation and future scenarios before making a practical plan. Although the future will almost certainly be appalling, we should, of course, try to make the future less appalling.[22]


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[1] For more on consequentialism, see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong (2022).

[2] Mason (2023) writes: “Traditionally, moral philosophers recognize three different ways of thinking about morality: the deontological way, the consequentialist way, and the virtue ethics way, although there is debate about the cogency of these distinctions.” See also note 1 in Mason’s text. Persson (2006, 135) writes that “the search for a definition of ‘consequentialism’ ends in failure” and elaborates: “It will transpire that there is no feature that all theories we would intuitively call ‘consequentialist’ have in common and that distinguishes them from non-consequentialist theories. The upshot of the present exercise in taxonomy is that there is no satisfactory definition of the term ‘consequentialism’ to be found, but that this is not very regrettable, since such a definition could not in any case capture anything normatively significant.” In the literature on consequentializing (see Portmore 2022), we can read passages such as the following by Brown (2011, 749): “To ‘consequentialize’ is to take a putatively nonconsequentialist moral theory and show that it is actually just another form of consequentialism. Some have speculated that every moral theory can be consequentialized. If this were so, then consequentialism would be empty; it would have no substantive content”. There are also approaches to ethics that have been listed separately from the three categories (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics), such as feminist ethics and the ethics of rights (e.g. Tännsjö 2013, 10). And there are questions concerning what to include in a broad category such as deontology. Driver (2007, 2) writes that contractarian and contractualist ethics “could be considered deontological” (my emphasis). See also, for example, Kagan’s (1998, 73–74) discussion of the definition of deontology.

[3] See, for example, Väyrynen (forthcoming), Robertson (2017), Dancy (2017), Lance, Potrč, and Strahovnik (2008), McNaughton (1988, chap. 13), Ridge and McKeever (2023), Fotion (2014), and Hämäläinen (2015). Lif (2003, sec. 5.2, 5.5) is also interesting.

[4] Here is an attempt to explain what I mean by disadvantages and advantages. I have in mind a moral yardstick. Examples of potential key disadvantages include if the moral theory recommends immoral acts and if someone who thinks in terms of moral theory holds that immoral acts are moral and behaves morally worse. Analogously, potential advantages of a moral theory include if it makes better moral prescriptions or leads to better moral understanding and behaviour. I don’t mean whether thinking in terms of moral theory maximises well-being or value.

[5] For descriptions of Ross’ view, see, e.g., Skelton (2012, sec. 4.1) and Stratton-Lake (2002), and for Ross’ own words, see, e.g., Ross (2002, 18–24, 28).

[6] It seems reasonable to avoid ordering principles lexically in the sense that, for example, reducing suffering or keeping promises is always more important than all other principles and considerations. This seems reasonable in part because even if an act reduces more suffering than the alternative acts, it might not be the right act if it is also, say, manipulative, and if an alternative act would reduce almost as much suffering and have other moral advantages such as not being manipulative. Similarly, keeping promises should presumably not be a principle that is always more important than reducing suffering in part because if one can reduce enough suffering, it might be right to break a promise (see, e.g., Stratton-Lake 2002). A separate question is whether there is, for example, some atrocity, say, the lifelong torture of a million beings, such that preventing it is more important than any promise-keeping. But ‘lexicality’ is probably an ill-suited term for such relationships.

[7] This is an example of an existing principle, which was formulated by Wolf, but I would also agree with other, similar principles one could formulate, such as the following: If beings are badly off, suffering, or otherwise remediably miserable, it is not appropriate to try to bring more happy beings into the world in order to counterbalance their disadvantage or in order to increase the amount of happiness, positive value, or positive welfare (well-being). We should instead improve the situation of those who are badly off.

[8] Final value is the value something has for its own sake (Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2000), which is distinct from instrumental value (the value something has for the sake of something else).

[9] During the remainder of today, there will be many appalling instances of destroyed lives; gruesome violence; agonising, undignified deaths; and so on. This is sufficient to make the future appalling. The horror show will continue tomorrow and the day after that. The only way to avoid an appalling future would be if the world is suddenly and almost instantly drastically changed so that the horrors disappear forever. The likelihood that this would happen now is vanishingly tiny.

[10] For more on the idea that acts, traits, and the like can make the world worse in themselves, see Knutsson (2022a) and the sources mentioned there.

[11] Paris (1997) understands the truth degree an agent would give to a sentence as the ease with which the agent can accept the sentence. I would not say exactly what Paris says, but I do generally think in terms such as degree of acceptance of or agreement with a sentence such as ‘a is morally wrong’ rather than uncertainty about it (assuming that there is complete knowledge of the empirical facts).

[12] I essentially mention this and another advantage in Knutsson (2021a, sec. 1).

[13] Knutsson (2021a) at the end of Section 8 and in Appendix H “A more intuitive structure”.

[14] I have already mentioned some arguments related to moral theory in Section 3, and arguments related to degrees of agreement in Section 6.6. In this section, I deal with arguments related to some other parts of my moral view.

[15] There are many relevant works, including Tranöy (1967), Lazari-Pawłowska (1977), Griffin (1979, 47), Ohlsson (1979), Mendola (1990), Wolf (1996), Arrhenius and Bykvist (1995, 20), Mayerfeld (1999), Rabinowicz (2000), Metzinger (2003, 622), Harnad (2016), and Vinding (2020b).

[16] The way I here appeal to facts about suffering and the like resembles one of the ways in which one may argue about something being intrinsically good, bad, or neutral, according to Rachels (2003, 6), namely “arguing from intrinsic properties” (i.e., “appealing to intrinsic facts about it”).

[17] See Knutsson (2022b, sec. 5.1) and the references there, especially Schwitzgebel (2008; 2021) and Haybron (2007).

[18] When I here say ‘good’ and ‘merely positive value’ I am assuming that these things do not reduce suffering or the like. If they did, it would be a matter of suffering outweighing suffering which is not the question here.

[19] In Knutsson (2022a, sec. 2), I mention related historical ideas. For example, according to van der Lugt (2021, 347), Schopenhauer shares with earlier pessimists “the intuition that optimism neglects or even makes a mockery of the reality of suffering and is therefore morally as well as theoretically in the wrong”. Schopenhauer writes: “optimism … seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable sufferings of mankind”, as quoted in van der Lugt (2021, 347). See also van der Lugt (2021, 126) on Bayle. I likewise note that when Hedenius (1955, 100–101) writes about the weight of evil, he mentions ‘the honest and seeing compassion’ as the noblest passion, that evil dominates once we have opened our eyes to its nature, and he stresses the importance of not closing our eyes.

[20] On polar opposition, see Massin (2014, sec. 2).

[21] There are also other, independent reasons for these ideas of mine besides comparative thinking.

[22] I am grateful to Teo Ajantaival, Tobias Baumann, and Winston Oswald-Drummond for comments on earlier versions of the essay. Magnus Vinding has been exceptionally helpful in many ways. This essay is also published on the Center for Reducing Suffering (CRS) website. Writing this essay was a project during my part-time work for CRS.

My moral view: Reducing suffering, ‘how to be’ as fundamental to morality, no positive value, cons of grand theory, and more