Negative consequentialism

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Negative consequentialism is a version of the ethical theory consequentialism, which is "one of the major theories of normative ethics."[1] Like other versions of consequentialism, negative consequentialism holds that moral right and wrong depend only on the value of outcomes.[2] That is, for negative and other versions of consequentialism, questions such as "what should I do?" and "what kind of person should I be?" are answered only based on consequences. Negative consequentialism differs from other versions of consequentialism by giving greater weight in moral deliberations to what is bad (e.g. suffering or injustice) than what is good (e.g. happiness or justice).[3]

A specific type of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which says that the consequences that matter are those that affect aggregate well-being.[4] Consequentialism is broader than utilitarianism in that consequentialism can say that the value of outcomes depend on other things than well-being; for example, justice, fairness, and equality,[5] or in that it can say that the value of outcomes depend on well-being but not necessarily aggregate well-being (as it happens, for instance, with prioritarianism, which promotes achieving the higher level of happiness minus suffering but giving priority to the well-being of the worse off).[6] Negative utilitarianism is thus a form of negative consequentialism.[7] Much more has been written explicitly about negative utilitarianism than directly about negative consequentialism, although since negative utilitarianism is a form of negative consequentialism, everything that has been written about negative utilitarianism is by definition about a specific (utilitarian) version of negative consequentialism. Similarly to how there are many variations of consequentialism and negative utilitarianism, there are many versions of negative consequentialism, for example negative prioritarianism and negative consequentialist egalitarianism.[8]

G. E. Moore's ethics can be said to be a negative consequentialism (more precisely, a consequentialism with a negative utilitarian component), because he has been labeled a consequentialist,[9] and he said that "consciousness of intense pain is, by itself, a great evil"[10] whereas "the mere consciousness of pleasure, however intense, does not, by itself, appear to be a great good, even if it has some slight intrinsic value. In short, pain (if we understand by this expression, the consciousness of pain) appears to be a far worse evil than pleasure is a good."[11] Moore wrote in the first half of the 20th century before any of the terms 'consequentialism,' 'negative utilitarianism' or 'negative consequentialism' were coined, and he did not use the term 'negative consequentialism' himself.[12] Similarly to Moore, Ingemar Hedenius defended a consequentialism that could be called negative (or could be said to have a negative utilitarian component) because he assigned more importance to suffering than to happiness. Hedenius saw the worst in life, such as infernalistic suffering, as so evil that calculations of happiness versus suffering becomes unnecessary; he did not see that such evil could be counterbalanced by any good, such as happiness.[13]

Philosophy professor Clark Wolf defends "negative consequentialism as a component of a larger theory of justice."[14] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong interprets Bernard Gert's moral system as a "sophisticated form of negative objective universal public rule consequentialism."[15] Jamie Mayerfeld argues for a strong duty to relieve suffering, which is consequentialist in form.[16] He says that "suffering is more bad than happiness is good,"[17] and that "the lifelong bliss of many people, no matter how many, cannot justify our allowing the lifelong torture of one."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peterson 2013, p. vii: "Consequentialism is one of the major theories of normative ethics."
  2. ^ Bykvist 2009, p. 19: "The whole family of utilitarian theories is captured by the equation: Utilitarianism = Consequentialism (nothing but the values of outcomes matter for the rightness of actions) + Welfarism (nothing but well-being matters for the value of outcomes)."
  3. ^ Animal Ethics, Inc. & Negative Consequentialism: “Negative consequentialism is the version of consequentialism that focuses on reducing harms. It has this focus because it assumes that there aren’t things of positive intrinsic value, while there are things of negative intrinsic value. Therefore, in deciding on whether to act in a particular way, a negative consequentialist would consider what harms it would cause, eliminate, increase or decrease.” Arrhenius & Bykvist 1995, p. 115: “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.” Ord 2013: “NU [negative utilitarianism] comes in several flavours, which I will outline later, but the basic thrust is that an act is morally right if and only if it leads to less suffering than any available alternative. Unlike Classical Utilitarianism, positive experiences such as pleasure or happiness are either given no weight, or at least a lot less weight. (In what follows, I use the word 'happiness' to stand in for whatever aspects of life might be thought to have positive value).”
  4. ^ Bykvist 2009, p. 19.
  5. ^ Hooker, Mason & Miller 2000, p. 2: “Other consequentialist theories take other things to be valuable, for example justice, fairness, and equality.”
  6. ^ Parfit 1995, p. 19-22
  7. ^ Animal Ethics, Inc. & Negative Consequentialism: “One form of negative consequentialism is negative utilitarianism.”
  8. ^ Animal Ethics, Inc. & Negative Consequentialism: “According to negative consequentialism such as negative prioritarianism, negative utilitarianism, and negative consequentialist egalitarianism...”
  9. ^ Shaw 1995, p. 46: “Moore is indeed a consequentialist.”
  10. ^ Moore 1951, p. 213.
  11. ^ Moore 1951, p. 212.
  12. ^ Moore died in 1958; the same year that both of the terms 'consequentialism' and 'negative utilitarianism' seem to have been coined. According to Spielthenner 2005, p. 231, "It seems that the term 'consequentialism' has been coined by E. Anscombe in her influential article 'Modern Moral Philosophy' (1958)." Smart 1958 is widely considered to have coined the term 'negative utilitarianism.'
  13. ^ Petersson 2009.
  14. ^ Wolf 2009, p. 360: "For a defence of a negative consequentialism as a component of a larger theory of justice, see Wolf (1999)." That is, see Wolf 1999.
  15. ^ Sinnott-Armstrong 2002, p. 147.
  16. ^ Mayerfeld 1999, p. 116: "The duty to relieve suffering, I have suggested, arises from the badness of suffering." Mayerfeld 1999, p. 117: "The duty to relieve suffering is consequentialist in form."
  17. ^ Mayerfeld 1999, p. 136.
  18. ^ Mayerfeld 1999, p. 178.


Animal Ethics, Inc. "Negative Consequentialism".
Arrhenius, Gustaf; Bykvist, Krister (1995). "Future Generations and Interpersonal Compensations Moral Aspects of Energy Use". Uppsala Prints and Preprints in Philosophy. 21.
Bykvist, Krister (2009). Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hooker, Brad; Mason, Elinor; Miller, Dale E. (2000). Morality, Rules, and Consequences: A Critical Reader. Rowman & Littlefield.
Mayerfeld, Jamie (1999). Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.
Moore, G. E. (1951). Principia Ethica. First edition, originally published 1903. Cambridge: at the University Press.
Ord, Toby (2013). "Why I'm Not a Negative Utilitarian".
Parfit, Derek (1995). Equality or Priority. Kansas: at the University Press.
Peterson, Martin (2013). The Dimensions of Consequentialism: Ethics, Equality and Risk. Cambridge University Press.
Petersson, Bo (2009). "Ingemar Hedenius Moralfilosofi: Normativ Etik". Filosofisk Tidskrift. 30 (2): 57–76.
Shaw, William H. (1995). Moore on right and wrong: The normative ethics of G.E. Moore. Dordrecht: Kluwer, cop.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2002). "Gert contra Consequentialism". In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Audi, eds., Rationality, Rules, and Ideals: Critical Essays on Bernard Gert's Moral Theory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 145–63.
Smart, R. N. (1958). "Negative Utilitarianism". Mind. 67 (268): 542–43. doi:10.1093/mind/lxvii.268.542. JSTOR 2251207.
Spielthenner, Georg (2005). "Consequentialism or deontology?". Philosophia. 33 (1): 217–235.
Wolf, Clark (1999). "Health Care Access, Population Ageing, and Intergenerational Justice". In H. Lesser, ed., Ageing, Autonomy, and Resources (PDF). new York: Ashgate Publishers. pp. 212–45.
Wolf, Clark (2009). "Intergenerational Justice, Human Needs, and Climate Policy". In Axel Gosseries and Lukas H. Meyer, eds., Intergenerational Justice (PDF). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 349–78.

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