By Simon Knutsson
First written June 14, 2016; last substantial update July 1, 2018; addition of a source September 24, 2022


In 2013, Toby Ord published an essay called “Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian” on his website.1Archived Sep. 24, 2015. He tries to convince readers that negative utilitarianism (NU) is implausible. However, the essay is an inadequate place for understanding NU and the pros and cons of NU. One reason is that the essay makes strong claims without making sufficient caveats or pointing the reader to existing publications that challenge the claims. To avoid creating misconceptions, Ord should either have added caveats of the kind “I am not an expert on NU. This is my current thinking, but I haven’t looked into the topic thoroughly.” Or, if he was aware of the related literature, he should have pointed the reader to it. Moreover, I disagree with many of the statements and arguments in his essay. I hope that readers don’t rely on Ord’s uncharitable description of NU and its implications, and instead seek out texts about NU from both advocates and opponents of NU.

The purported lack of support for negative utilitarianism

Ord’s claims about the purported lack of support for NU is a good example of where he should have added caveats or referred the reader to sources that would challenge his claims. For example, Ord says,

Negative Utilitarianism (NU) is treated as a non-starter in mainstream philosophical circles, and to the best of my knowledge has never been supported by any mainstream philosopher, living or dead [1]. This is quite an amazing lack of support: one can usually find philosophers who support any named position.

Tingsten o HedeniusHowever, NU has been supported by mainstream philosophers:2I assume that by ‘mainstream philosopher,’ Ord means something like a person with a PhD in philosophy, or who has worked in academia as a philosopher. If we would use a wider sense of ‘philosopher,’ as I think we should, we could count more philosophers who have supported NU. Gustaf Arrhenius and Krister Bykvist say that they “reveal” themselves “as members of the negative utilitarian family.”3“Our point of departure was the firm intuition that unhappiness and suffering have greater weight than happiness. By taking this stand we revealed ourselves as members of the negative utilitarian family. The problem was then to find out which members of this family we want to join, and to spell out why we do not want to be as some of our siblings.” Arrhenius and Bykvist (1995, 115). Similarly, they say, “we believe that disutility has greater weight than utility. The overall aim with this part of our essay is to give an account of this weight, which means that we shall try to formulate a welfarist act-consequentialism that takes seriously the weight of disutility. In other words, we are looking for an acceptable negativist utilitarianism.” Arrhenius and Bykvist (1995, 20). J. W. N. Watkins describes himself as “sort of negative utilitarian.”4“I AM anti-evil rather than pro-good, and I regard all suffering as bad. So I am a sort of negative utilitarian (though I also regard as bad some things which need not involve suffering).” Acton and Watkins (1963, 95). Clark Wolf defends what he calls ‘negative critical level utilitarianism’ for social and population choices. The principle says that “population choices should be guided by an aim to minimize suffering and deprivation.”5Wolf (1996, 273, 276). Thomas Metzinger proposes the ‘principle of negative utilitarianism.’6 “In terms of a fundamental solidarity of all suffering beings against suffering, something that almost all of us should be able to agree on is what I will term the ‘principle of negative utilitarianism’: Whatever else our exact ethical commitments and specific positive goals are, we can and should certainly all agree that, in principle, and whenever possible, the overall amount of conscious suffering in all beings capable of conscious suffering should be minimized. I know that it is impossible to give any truly conclusive argument in favor of this principle. And, of course, there exist all kinds of theoretical complications—for example, individual rights, long-term preferences, and epistemic indeterminacy. But the underlying intuition is something that can be shared by almost everybody: We can all agree that no additional suffering should be created without need. Albert Camus once spoke about the solidarity of all finite beings against death, and in just the same sense there should be a solidarity of all sentient beings capable of suffering against suffering. Out of this solidarity we should not do anything that would increase the overall amount of suffering and confusion in the universe—let alone something that highly likely will have this effect right from the beginning.” Metzinger (2003, 622). Ingemar Hedenius held a view similar to negative utilitarianism. According to his form of consequentialism, some sufferings cannot be counterbalanced by goods.7He held that both positive and negative well-being have moral weight, that negative well-being has more weight than positive, and that there is some evil so bad that he could not see that any amount of good can counterbalance it. He would not qualify as a utilitarian because he held that there are other values than well-being, but his view was still similar to negative utilitarianism. My understanding of his philosophy is mainly based on Hedenius (1955) and Petersson (2009). Caveats include that Hedenius seems to say that the consequentialism needs to be modified and limited in scope, and that he does not seem to provide a final and conclusive formulation of the modified theory. Joseph Mendola proposes a modification of utilitarianism that “resembles … negative utilitarianism.”8Mendola (1990, 86). Emphasis in original of ‘negative’ omitted. His principle prescribes that “we are to look to the worst possible outcomes in evaluating actions and institutions” and “to ameliorate the condition of the worst-off moment of phenomenal experience in the world.”9Mendola (1990, 86).

Others have expressed support for NU who are not philosophers by occupation. For example, Henry Hiz, professor at the Department of Linguistics at University of Pennsylvania, writes that “utilitarianism failed, but what is sometimes called ‘negative utilitarianism’ avoids many of the shortcomings of classical utilitarianism. It is a good candidate for an ethics that expresses the Enlightenment tradition.”10Hiz (1992, 423). Similarly, he said, “There is much misery in the world. People suffer pain and torture, they are hungry, cold, exhausted, ill, humiliated, and afraid. To act ethically is to lessen such misfortunes for as many peoples as possible: nothing else belongs in ethics” (page 421). In addition, after the publication of Ord’s essay, Stevan Harnad, Professor of cognitive science at University of Quebec at Montreal and University of Southampton, defends what Yew-Kwang Ng says may be called a form of negative utilitarianism.11Ng (2016, 8). Harnad argues that “only pain matters morally. To maximize welfare is to minimize pain.”12Harnad (2016, 1). And that “the only welfare calculations that matter are the ones that minimize pain, factoring in pleasure only to the extent that being deprived of pleasure may sometimes be painful.”13Harnad (2016, 2). See the Wikipedia entry on NU for more literature.

Related to the purported lack of support for NU, Ord mentions Buddhism, but quickly ends the discussion with the statement that it “does not even appear to be Consequentialists of any stripe.” But, for example, Charles Goodman, an expert on Buddhist ethics, says about Buddhist thinker Santideva that it seems “difficult to deny” that “he is a consequentialist of some kind.”14“in light of the evidence I have presented, that he [Santideva] is a consequentialist of some kind seems difficult to deny.” Goodman (2009, 103). It has also been discussed whether Santideva should be interpreted as a negative utilitarian.15Goodman (2009, 101-102). If Goodman is correct that Santideva was a consequentialist, his ethics either was NU, or at least had much in common with NU.

In light of all this, I would expect that when Ord states that NU has, “to the best of my knowledge … never been supported by any mainstream philosopher, living or dead,” he would add a caveat such as “(but I haven’t looked into it thoroughly),” or bring up and say why these apparent cases of philosophers supporting NU or similar views do not qualify.

In addition, Ord could have mentioned that when philosophers use the phrase ‘negative utilitarianism,’ they usually seem to have in mind strong NU, which is only concerned with reducing suffering. However, Ord’s essay is also about weak NU, which gives weight to both happiness and suffering, but more weight to suffering. As a consequence, the purported lack of support for NU among philosophers may be about strong NU. For instance, Smart (1958), which coined the term NU and presented the most discussed argument against NU (that one, purportedly, would have an obligation to blow up the world), seems to refer to strong NU.

It appears to be more of an open question what philosophers would say about weak NU.16It might depend on what we take weak NU to mean more exactly. Weak NU is similar to prioritarianism, and a philosophy professor recently told me that “everyone” is a prioritarian nowadays.17In email correspondence. I don’t write the professor’s name because I haven’t asked for permission to share the content of our conversation. In addition, James Griffin said that he believes that Karl Popper “answered for the majority” when Popper said that

there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness…. Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway…. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all.18Griffin (1979, 47) quoting Popper (1966, 284-5).

Based on this, it seems that weak NU might have wide appeal: weak NU in the sense of a utilitarian view that is, in principle, more concerned with reducing suffering than promoting happiness.

Of course, to the extent that utilitarianism in general has limited appeal, one should not expect a version of utilitarianism like weak NU to have wide appeal. Tännsjö (2000) says, “Few people today seem to believe that utilitarianism is a plausible doctrine at all.”19Page 75. But at least what Griffin calls the Weak Negative Doctrine could plausibly have wide appeal.20Griffin (1979, 47). E.g., Rachels (2001, 235, n. 49) supports a related idea: “Suffering’s disvalue is greater than ecstasy’s value, I would say, for one is better off having a neutral experience than suffering and enjoying ecstasy for equal durations.” It says that we have obligations both to promote happiness and to eliminate suffering, but that “promoting happiness is a slighter obligation than eliminating suffering.” The Weak Negative Doctrine is important to anyone who cares about others’ well-being: it can be plugged into a utilitarian framework and amount to weak NU, but it is also compatible with non-utilitarian views.21Regarding historical support for NU, one can note that the phrase ‘negative utilitarianism’ is fairly recent, coined as late as 1958, which means that NU has had a shorter time to gather supporters than traditional utilitarianism.

The world destruction argument

Ord endorses the most common argument against negative utilitarianism – the world destruction argument. He writes,

A thorough going Negative Utilitarian would support the destruction of the world (even by violent means) as the suffering involved would be small compared to the suffering in everyday life in the world.

It is peculiar that Ord endorses this argument despite the fact that similar arguments have been made against the position he is “very sympathetic towards” – that is, “Utilitarianism.” I gather that he means that he is very sympathetic to a form of total utilitarianism in which happiness and suffering have equal weight. But, according to Jamieson (1984, 218),

Many philosophers have rejected TU [total utilitarianism] because it seems vulnerable to the Replacement Argument and the Repugnant Conclusion…. The Replacement Argument purports to show that a utilitarian cannot object to painlessly killing everyone now alive, so long as they are replaced with equally happy people who would not otherwise have lived.

In other words, the objection to Ord’s position is roughly that it implies that it would be right to kill everyone or destroy the world, as long as sufficient amounts of well-being could thereby be brought about. It would be interesting to hear what Ord’s reply to this challenge is and why he believes that his form of utilitarianism is in a better position than negative utilitarianism to reply to such world destruction objections.

A common type of objection to utilitarianism is that it implies that it would be right to do terrible things, and utilitarians have given various replies to such objections. These replies could be used by negative and other utilitarians in response to world destruction objections. Ord should have either not endorsed the world destruction argument against negative utilitarianism or explained why his form of utilitarianism is less vulnerable than negative utilitarianism to such objections. For more, see my draft paper The World Destruction Argument, which is the most thorough text on this argument.


When discussing Lexical Threshold NU, Ord says,

If you believe in Lexical Threshold NU, i.e. that there are amounts of suffering that cannot be outweighed by any amount of happiness, then you have to believe in a very strange discontinuity in suffering or happiness. You have to believe either that there are two very similar levels of intensity of suffering such that the slightly more intense suffering is infinitely worse, or that there is a number of pinpricks (greater than or equal to one) such that adding another pinprick makes things infinitely worse, or that there is a tiny amount of value such that there is no amount of happiness which could improve the world by that level of value.

I believe that this statement is false, and I will explain why, but in any case, I wish that Ord would have pointed the reader to the related ongoing philosophical discussion about value superiority and lexicality. See, for instance, my essay “Value Lexicality,” my research proposal on value superiority, and the references listed there.

Why do I believe that this statement is false? First, consider Ord’s talk about a slightly more intense suffering being “infinitely worse” than a slightly less intense suffering, and about the addition of a pinprick making things “infinitely worse.” I think this talk about infinity is supposed to make Lexical Threshold NU sound implausible, but this talk is both unclear and something a Lexical Threshold NU need not endorse. What a Lexical Threshold NU can say is merely that there is some suffering that is worse than some other things, no matter how many of them there are. To say that the more important suffering is thereby “infinitely worse” is an extra step that the Lexical Threshold NU need not agree with.

Second, consider Ord’s statement, “You have to believe either that there are two very similar levels of intensity of suffering such that the slightly more intense suffering is infinitely worse, or that there is a number of pinpricks (greater than or equal to one) such that adding another pinprick makes things infinitely worse” (my emphasis). Here Ord seems to assume that if there is a threshold it must be sharp in the sense that it kicks in between two very similar intensity levels of suffering or by the addition of one single pinprick. However, one can, for example, hold that there are different orders or levels of suffering and that the separation between them is not sharp in the way Ord describes it. There are different versions of such non-sharp distinctions, but here is just a simple example to illustrate. Say that someone claims that there are bald and non-bald humans, must that person hold that there is some sharp line such that if one adds a single hair, a person would go from bald to non-bald? This is a typical illustration of vague terms such as ‘bald,’ and non-sharp differences between levels of value have been described both in terms of vagueness and in other ways (see, e.g., Qizilbash 2005; Knapp 2007; Parfit 2016; Nebel 2017, sec. 4.2; Handfield and Rabinowicz 2017).

Third, perhaps Ord overlooks versions of Lexical Threshold NU, according to which the value of happiness grows less and less as the amount of happiness increases. For example, the value of happiness could have a ceiling, say 1 million value “units,” such that there is some suffering that the happiness could never counterbalance, e.g., when the disvalue of the suffering is 2 million disvalue units. The happiness could still counterbalance some suffering though, e.g., when the disvalue of the suffering is 500,000 disvalue units (my talk of number of units here is just a simplification for illustration).22Compare the diminishing marginal value views in Carlson (2000) and Rabinowicz (2003), although formulating the kind of view I am discussing here in terms of diminishing marginal value may not be the most plausible route. Maybe Ord intends to cover such views with the option that “there is a tiny amount of value such that there is no amount of happiness which could improve the world by that level of value.” I find that statement hard to understand and ‘tiny’ is, of course, an unclear term. The ceiling of or cap on the value of happiness would not need to be “tiny,” although one could perhaps say that at some amount of happiness, larger total amounts would only be a tiny bit more valuable.

Weak negative utilitarianism

In the subsection called “Weak NU — The incoherence argument,” Ord says, “A major problem with Weak NU is that it appears to be incoherent. What could it mean for suffering to matter more than happiness?” I agree that it is not obvious how weak NU and traditional utilitarianism are to be distinguished, but, as I argue here, if it is a problem, it is as much of a problem for traditional (non-negative) utilitarianism. I don’t see how Ord’s section “Weak NU — The incoherence argument” is an argument against weak NU. I hope that reading that section in combination with my essay “What Is the Difference Between Weak Negative and Non-Negative Ethical Views?” would clarify and support that what Ord writes does not undermine weak NU. At least it does not undermine weak NU more than it undermines traditional utilitarianism, which Ord says that he is very sympathetic towards.

The worse-for-everyone argument

Day to day life tradeoffs between happiness and suffering

Ord presents what he calls “the worse-for-everyone argument” against “all forms of NU.” It starts as follows:

In their day to day lives, people make tradeoffs between happiness and suffering. They go to the gym, they work hard in order to buy themselves nicer food, they sprint for the bus to make it to the theatre on time, they read great books and listen to beautiful music when they could instead be focusing on removing suffering from their lives. According to all commonly held theories of wellbeing, such tradeoffs can improve people’s lives. However, there is a big problem for NU in how it assesses these tradeoffs.23All references to Ord are to his essay “Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian.”

However, a problem with the argument is that these are not clearly cases of tradeoffs between happiness and suffering, and hence all forms of NU can agree that such trades can improve people’s lives (if the trades are suffering for suffering), or at least do not prohibit them (if the trades are between states of happiness or neutral states).

One can reasonably claim, as some philosophers would, that none of these examples involve suffering; that a typical healthy person does not fall below zero when working out, working hard or sprinting for the bus. If that’s true, all forms of NU would allow the behavior in these examples.

Alternatively, if one sets the zero point on a happiness or hedonic scale higher such that the examples actually do involve suffering, all forms of NU can accept such suffering because it tends to reduce other suffering.24For ideas similar to the ones I present in this section, see the “Negative Utilitarianism FAQ,” section 2.2.10 “Doesn’t everyone constantly accept suffering in order to be happy at a later time, e.g. when people go through a painful workout at the gym?” and Brian Tomasik’s video “How Cravings Influence Happiness-vs.-Suffering Trades.” This is most clear in the long run: Even someone who only aims to minimize suffering in her life (and who is committed to living it), should probably exercise in part because it prevents sleep and health problems. Similarly, keeping a good job, even if it requires working hard,25Although working is probably better for one’s well-being than being unemployed, there are of course several ways in which a job can make oneself feel bad. For example, a job can be monotonous or boring, one can have colleagues or supervisors that one does not get along with, the work can lead to injuries and health problems. Work-related health problems occur in many jobs such as office jobs (e.g. back and shoulder pain) and among hair dressers (due to standing up with raised arms, working with chemicals, and so on). It is easy to see how it can make sense, from the perspective of minimizing one’s own suffering, to work hard during studies and at work to get and keep a job that is better in such aspects (and additional aspects). plausibly makes one feel better (or less bad) in the long run.26The same goes for listening to music and reading great books. Of course, a guideline for minimizing suffering in a real human life that will last 80 years may very well include having interests, hobbies, listening to music, reading fiction and so on.

Some of Ord’s examples are phrased to capture an isolated tradeoff: to work hard in order to buy nicer food, and to sprint for the bus to make it to the theater on time. However, even if working hard and sprinting were cases of suffering, all forms of NU can agree that such tradeoffs can improve people’s lives, depending on the details. For example, if the absence of the nicer food result in worse health, disappointment or unpleasant meals, or if the nicer food creates a satisfaction after the meal that keeps bad feelings in check for longer.

Another example from Ord, to “watch the end of the film while you are really hungry,” fails for the same reasons. I assume this example does not hinge on the possibility of being happy and suffer at the same time. Several philosophers who argue for the importance of suffering believe that the key morally relevant mental state is one’s total experiential state at a point in time.27For example, Mayerfeld (1999, 14-16) and Bengt Brülde. Such a conception does not allow for a person to be happy and suffer on the whole at the same time. So I interpret the example as saying that a person is watching a film while being so hungry that one’s overall experience is unpleasant, but that during the end of the film, she would enjoy it so much that her overall experience would be pleasant despite being so hungry. Would any form of NU prohibit watching the whole film? Again, it depends on the details. If leaving the film would result in a frustration about not knowing how it ended or dissatisfaction about having left, all forms of NU can prescribe watching the whole film. If we stipulate that leaving in the middle of the film would not result in any bad feelings or negative well-being, Absolute and Lexical NU would prescribe leaving. But that stipulation seems to make the example unrealistic. In real life, leaving a film that one would want to finish watching despite being so hungry that parts of the experience has been overall unpleasant, would probably cause some negative mental states afterward, such as disappointment, frustration or a feeling of failure. With the stipulation, the prescription to leave does not seem absurd. It sounds sensible that it is imprudent to go through periods that are unpleasant on the whole in order to watch the end of the film when one would not feel bad in any way if one left in the middle of it to alleviate the unpleasant hunger.28One point that Ord makes right after his film example is that “other things being equal, [according to NU,] you are obligated to prevent your friends and family improving their wellbeing through their judicious tradeoffs too. I find this to be an absurd consequence.” There are several things to be clear about here: (a) All forms of utilitarianism would sometimes override people’s own (even idealized) opinions about what is good and bad for them, unless what is good and bad for them is understood in terms of their (possibly idealized) preferences or opinions. This gets into the big debate between preferentialism about well-being versus other theories of well-being, such as hedonism. Both sides have pros and cons, and respecting the autonomy and preferences of people is a key attractive feature of preferentialism. But that doesn’t settle the debate. If Ord favors a preference-based theory of well-being (as a part of his utilitarianism), that position is also open to objections. (b) NU would prescribe to override some individuals’ opinions about what is good and bad for them, at least in hypothetical scenarios, but in practice, an NU can argue that it is best to let people make their own choices. For example, I doubt that an NU in real life would prescribe that, as Ord puts it, you should “prevent your friends and family improving their wellbeing through their judicious tradeoffs.”

It is not easy to come up with examples from daily life of tradeoffs between happiness and suffering because they are so intertwined: Company and relationships prevent loneliness, and sometimes reduce feelings of meaninglessness. Entertainment prevents boredom. Fun and variation can be supported by all forms of NU, in part because relationships without them are likely to become bad, which is an important source of unhappiness. And so on and so forth. Clean cases of trading suffering for happiness can perhaps be found when an already fine experience is “amplified” at the expense of suffering, but without any other effects on suffering. A rather clean example may be to earn extra money by working as a test subject for a medical company. To get paid to be made temporarily sick and experiencing short-term suffering, in order to only spend the money to “amplify” already fine experiences, for example to buy champagne rather than a decent sparkling wine.29We can assume that the monetary cost of the upgrade is low so that the money gotten from being ill for a day can buy much champagne. But even then the example is not completely clean: the more pleasant experience of the champagne, and perhaps the stronger and better memory of it, may keep away more bad feelings after the experience. In any case, if some forms of NU imply that it is imprudent to accept disease only to get champagne, that’s a reasonable implication.

In conclusion, an argument against NU to the effect that it fails when assessing real life tradeoffs between happiness and suffering would need to show better examples of such failures than Ord’s text does. I’ve taken a cleaner example—disease for champagne—but in that case NU’s prescription seems reasonable.

Prescribing what is worse for the affected individuals

Ord’s worse-for-everyone argument against Weak NU (which gives weight to both happiness and suffering, but more weight to suffering) is not so much that it prohibits tradeoffs like working hard to buy nicer food, since “Weak NU says that some such tradeoffs can be moral.” Rather, the argument is that if happiness and suffering are quantified so that their magnitude is understood in terms of how good or bad they are for an individual (how much they contribute to the individual’s positive or negative well-being), and if NU assigns more moral weight to a given magnitude of suffering than to the same magnitude of happiness, then what NU (including Weak NU) prescribes as morally right can make things worse for all the affected individuals. Tännsjö (2015) makes a similar argument against prioritarianism: Imagine a patient who, if saved, would have a positive net sum of happiness minus suffering of +100 in the remainder of her life. A prioritarianism that gives more moral weight to suffering such that the morally weighted sum would be −1 would say that we should not save the person’s life although it would be worth living from a prudential point of view.30Pages 246-7.

There are at least two positions that an NU can take that are not threatened by this objection from Ord and Tännsjö.

  1. Suffering is morally worse than happiness is morally good. Moreover, suffering is worse for an individual than happiness is good for an individual.
  2. There is no such thing as value for an individual.31The terms ‘prudential value,’ ‘personal value’ and ‘value-for’ seem to be used in the philosophical literature to refer to value for an individual.

To be clear, I think one would normally come to one of those positions on independent grounds, not in order to avoid the objection from Ord and Tännsjö. Avoiding it is a bonus.

The following is an example of position (1): Happiness and suffering are factual psychological mental states. A unit of happiness is a just noticeable difference, and a unit of suffering is a just noticeable difference. A unit of suffering has more disvalue for an individual than a unit of happiness has positive value for an individual. Moreover, a unit of suffering has more moral disvalue than a unit of happiness has positive moral value. Position (1) can take different forms. For example, others have advocated ways to quantify happiness and suffering (understood as factual attributes) other than the idea of just noticeable differences. For example, Jamie Mayerfeld argues that we can intuitively determine which specific suffering is of roughly the same magnitude as some specific happiness.32Mayerfeld (1999).

Tännsjö discusses a formulation of prioritarianism along the lines of (1), according to which the weighted sum of suffering and happiness (−1) is also the answer to whether life is worth living from a prudential perspective. Again, such a formulation would not be threatened by his objection because it would say that the patient’s life is not worth living, and that we should not save it.33Pages 247-248. He rejects such a formulation for what are in my view weak reasons, but I won’t go into them here.

Ord does not discuss the possibility of (1) when presenting the worse-for-everyone argument, I guess because he in the previous section states that

there is no obvious natural unit of suffering or happiness to use. It might be possible to have a consistent scale in the happiness direction and a separate consistent scale in the suffering direction, but it is very unclear how they are both supposed to be on the same scale.

First a detail that Ord would most likely agree with: it may be confusing to talk about ‘natural units’ because to phrase NU along the lines of (1), one doesn’t really need a common natural unit for happiness and suffering; it is sufficient to be able to say that a given magnitude of suffering is of the same magnitude as some specific happiness.34Even if that is not possible, there is an interesting question of how one should understand weak NU, and one can perhaps still formulate NU along the lines of (1). I tend to agree with Ord that it is unclear how happiness and suffering are supposed to be measurable on the same scale, but others, such as Bergström, Mayerfeld, Tännsjö and probably Ng, disagree and believe happiness and suffering are factual attributes measurable on a single ratio scale.35Bergström (1982), Mayerfeld (1999), Tännsjö (2000), Ng (2015) and Ng (2016).

It’s worth noting that Lexical Threshold NU (which I consider to be a version of weak NU) does not seem to require measurability of happiness and suffering on a single scale. Lexical Threshold NU can say that there is some suffering (some magnitude or intensity, or some amount), which cannot be counterbalanced by any happiness.36Happiness and suffering are here still understood in purely factual terms. In other words, some suffering has more disvalue than any amount of happiness has positive value. Such a position seemingly does not rest on that suffering and happiness are measurable on a single scale. Similarly, although not exactly analogously, the position that some suffering has more disvalue than any amount of heat has value, does not rest on that suffering and heat are measurable on a single scale.37One might ask: doesn’t Lexical Threshold NU require that suffering that does not reach the threshold is measurable on the same scale as happiness? Not necessarily. The position is that some suffering has more disvalue than any happiness has positive value. How milder or smaller amounts of suffering are to be compared to happiness is a different question to which a good answer may or may not exist. The magnitude or amount of suffering that cannot be counterbalanced by happiness can seemingly be defined ostensively, that is, roughly: “that thing over there is suffering that cannot be counterbalanced.”

Position (2), that there is no value for individuals, is not threatened by Ord and Tännsjö’s objection, because without such value, what NU prescribes as morally right cannot be bad for individuals. An example of position (2) could be the view that there are factual processes going on in individuals’ brains, and we can make moral prescriptions about that we should reduce some processes and perhaps promote others. But there is no distinct kind of “value for individuals.” There are facts, and there are our statements about what should be done (or about what is good and bad from a moral point of view), that’s all.

To summarize: Ord argues against NU that if magnitudes of happiness versus suffering are understood in terms of how good and bad they are for an individual, then all forms of NU, including Weak NU, can prescribe actions that make things worse for the affected individuals. However, there are at least two positions that an NU may take that this argument does not apply to.

Practical implications

In the section “Implausible practical implications,” Ord presents dubious, uncharitable and borderline inaccurate objections against NU.

Death and murder

Ord says that “according to NU, one’s mother’s death is astoundingly good.” First, let’s consider his use of ‘good’ here, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that the NU in question holds that it is worse for her mother to continue to live than to die. The mother dying is still not good in the sense that it has positive value, which makes his use of ‘good’ borderline inaccurate. The death is only “good” in the sense that, for example, we might say that it was “good” that a moose who had been hit by a car was euthanized (assuming the moose would otherwise have died more painfully). It is more clear and charitable to use the phrase ‘less bad.’

Second, let’s turn to Ord’s claim that, according to NU, one’s mother’s death would be ‘astoundingly’ less bad than continued living. And let’s still assume that the NU in question holds that it is worse for her mother to continue to live than to die. In essence, I think Ord’s usage of ‘astounding’ has unfortunate rhetorical effects. His claim relies on that the mother’s remaining life would have been astoundingly bad (according to NU). That’s definitely not how I would describe my mother’s well-being, even if I assume a strong NU perspective and I only count negative well-being, in which case I would use words like ‘moderately’ bad.

Third, why does Ord talk about one’s mother rather than any typical human? That choice may very well drag in misleading considerations about lack of love and the like. An NU or traditional utilitarian can of course feel very sad about the death of a loved one, and both could be accused of being “cold and calculating” (as utilitarianism has historically been accused of). For example, it could be argued that a traditional utilitarian (Ord says that he is “very sympathetic towards Utilitarianism”) must believe that the death of his old, suffering, incurable mother is “astoundingly good.” I think this would be a weak accusation of the traditional utilitarian, who could reply, “We’ll, I’m not happy about my mother’s death, it is only astoundingly good in the sense that her death prevented suffering.” An NU can reply similarly to Ord.

Fourth, Ord doesn’t bring up well-known theories of well-being that an NU can endorse that calls Ord’s claims into question. For example, suppose that fulfilled aversions and disrupted life projects are very bad for an individual. Consider a 25-year-old NU whose life goal is to reduce suffering, and who has many plans and ambitions. A notion of well-being in terms of aversions, preferences and life projects could imply that it is better for her to continue living, assuming that dying at age 85 rather than at, say, age 30 would fulfill less aversions and cause less disruption of her life projects.

Fifth, when Ord says “according to NU,” I take it that he means something like, “this is what I believe that NU implies; NUs themselves may (and likely would) deny this, but they do not understand or will not admit what their theory actually implies.”

In conclusion, Ord’s claim that “according to NU, one’s mother’s death is astoundingly good” consists of uncharitable and borderline inaccurate terms. It also requires some caveats, and may mainly have a misleading rhetorical effect. My points also apply to his similar claim that “a Negative Utilitarian would … have to believe that it is great for the person when they get murdered.”

Healthcare system like failed states

Ord claims that the practical implications of NU include that we should copy the healthcare policy of failed states. He writes,

[NU] says that the best healthcare system is typically the one that saves as few lives as possible, eliminating all the suffering at once. This turns healthcare policy debates on their heads and means we shouldn’t be emulating France or Germany, but should instead look to copy failed states such as North Korea.

I’m puzzled by this claim. It doesn’t seem like a practical implication of NU at all. If one was the strongest form of NU and became the head of the Swedish government or health care system, should one try to change the system so that it would be more like the one in North Korea? That seems like a very bad idea from an NU perspective. I wonder how Ord calculates when he concludes that making Sweden’s health care system more like North Korea’s would reduce suffering.38I am grateful to Brian Tomasik, Lukas Gloor and David Althaus for helpful discussions.

Other replies to the essay

Other replies to Ord’s essay include:


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