For those who discuss matters of ethics, the conflict between deontology and utilitarianism will be familiar. Classical utilitarianism states that the right action is the one which brings about the greatest amount of happiness or well-being. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that good and bad actions are legitimized in terms of the effects they produce. This construal of ethics differs from deontology, which states that rules or commandments determine right and wrong, and these rules exist apart from consideration of their consequences. In other words, some acts are wrong inherently, regardless of the effects they produce.
There are several ways to see how a deontological formation of ethics is problematic if not entirely untenable. A simple way is through the Trolley Problem, a famous ethical dilemma which illustrates the difference between consequentialist and deontological modes of moral reasoning. In this problem, you are to imagine yourself standing by a railway, at the point where the track diverges into two. Suddenly, you become aware of an incoming train. If you do nothing, the train will continue down one track, killing five railway workers standing there. However, there is a lever directly in front of you, which, if you pull it, will divert the train onto another track, killing one person. For utilitarians, this moral “dilemma” is hardly one; by diverting the train, committing an indirect act of murder, they will save a net four lives, maximizing well-being in this circumstance. Pulling the lever is therefore not only morally permissible, but morally obligatory. For utilitarians, the consequences of pulling or not pulling the lever (killing a person) determine whether it is a moral or immoral act. Deontologists have a more difficult time. By pulling the lever, they will kill a person—and if killing is wrong by its own nature, it must be wrong in all circumstances. To admit that killing is the morally right thing in this situation would be to affirm the utilitarian position. Therefore, if deontologists want to maintain a coherent ethical worldview, they should refuse to pull the lever and let the five people die.
We do seem to intuit that some actions are objectively negative moral acts—like murder. However, this is because acts like murder more reliably lead to negative outcomes (which should seem obvious, as killing someone reduces well-being by definition). The general taboo on murder, therefore, is a result of the negative effects it produces in the world, and does not exist as an a priori rule or assumption (as in deontology).
The Trolley Problem is somewhat limiting because there is an easy escape hatch for deontologists. One need only recognize that not pulling the lever is as much an act of killing as pulling the lever. Whether a deontologist likes it or not, he or she is the deciding factor in whether five people live or one; refusing to do anything does not somehow lessen the moral culpability of letting five people die. Consequently, deontologists could choose to pull the lever without being entirely inconsistent, as they would simply be choosing between the lesser of two evils. (However, notice the smuggle-through-customs import of consequentialist reasoning inherent in the phrase “lesser of two evils.”)
Perhaps a better illustration of the dichotomy between utilitarianism and deontology comes from “Ticking Bomb” dilemmas. In a common example of this thought experiment, you are to imagine yourself in the presence of a known terrorist who has just admitted to placing bombs in the hearts of several American cities. However, he refuses to divulge any additional information relevant to the location of these bombs, aside from telling you that they will explode in a matter of hours. The ethical problem is as follows: is it morally permissible to subject this man to torture methods? For utilitarians, the solution is, again, rather simple: yes, it is morally permissible to subject one fellow to nonlethal discomfort if it has the potential to save thousands of lives. Even if statistics show that torture is an unreliable method of extracting reliable information from people, the smallest possibility that it will work is enough to go through with it. Deontologists, on the other hand, at least in principle, should refuse to torture the individual because torture is wrong. However, simply multiplying the number of bombs (or people on one side of the track) is usually enough to reduce even the most stringent deontologist to a consequentialist.
Although classic utilitarianism is reliable and clarifying model for moral judgment—due to its straightforward moral calculus—there are areas of the moral landscape where it seems to break down. For example, suppose five sadists decide to torture an individual for their pure enjoyment. Under classical utilitarianism, is not maximizing the pleasure of the five preferable to just the one? There are several responses a utilitarian could make in this case. For example, it is a fallacy to weigh the transient pleasure of five people over the much more continuous and severe trauma of one, simply because there are five entities on one side of the moral equation, and one on the other. Additionally, a utilitarian can look at consequences at a more macro level. Would any of us want to live in a world where it is considered morally permissible for sadistic screwballs to pull people off the streets and subject them to cruelty? What are the chances that represents a world of increased well-being? Although there are several responses a utilitarian could make, this kind of defense seems clunky and superfluous, given how obviously unsavory and transgressive such an act would be.
There is a better basis on which to address moral dilemmas. Negative utilitarianism (NU) is, as its name suggests, an inversion of classical utilitarianism (CU). While normal, regular utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing happiness and well-being, NU is concerned with minimizing avoidable suffering and harm. NU is still a consequentialist position, but it prioritizes concern with suffering over the much more ethereal and at times nebulously defined concept of “well-being.” NU makes short work of the previous sadism case: the resultant bliss of the five is not an operative variable in the moral equation. The only relevant factor is the infliction of harm on the individual, which obviously should be avoided.
If we examine our intuitions about moral decisions, we will find that concern with suffering is much more compatible with how we think about moral acts. For example, suppose you are walking down the street, and you see a child drowning in a pond off to your right. It is a moral imperative, in any form of consequentialist reasoning, or moral reasoning in general, to save the child and prevent suffering. However, suppose you are walking down the street, and you see the same child playing in a sandbox. Is it a moral duty to take the child out for ice cream to maximize his or her well-being? Clearly not. Although it would certainly be a benevolent act, it seems clear that the domain of moral consideration is predominantly concerned with the reduction of harm. Although both negative and classical utilitarians come up with the same solution to the Trolley Problem, their reasoning, though chiral, is different. NUs operate under the harm principle, preventing as much death as possible, while CUs attempt to maximize the number of people who can go on to have future positive experiences. It seems odd to talk about happiness and well-being in the context of having to decide how many people to kill.
The standard response to negative utilitarianism is seen by many as a final debunking argument, but it is nonetheless flawed. The argument goes like this: if the ultimate goal of NU is to minimize suffering and harm, then the endgame of NU would be a civilization that, given a chance to destroy itself quickly and painlessly, should opt to do so. Mass euthanasia is plainly the most effective way to reduce future suffering. So why is a negative utilitarian not committed to this ultimate vision? There is a crucial distinction between minimizing suffering and eliminating the possibility of suffering. Even if we assume that we could inflict mass euthanasia upon ourselves in a quick and painless manner, this subverts the entire purpose of ethics. Minimizing suffering only has utility insofar as it provides room for future experiences which, we hope, are positive. Eliminating suffering by eliminating the possibility of future experiences altogether is therefore not a viable move on the moral chessboard.
The ultimate goal of NU is a moral domain free of suffering, but eliminating the moral domain so that it no longer applies is akin to trying to win a game of chess by flipping the board over and flinging the pieces across the room. One can choose to do so, but phrases like “good move” and “bad move” do not apply, because one has acted outside of the rules of chess. The elimination of suffering through mass euthanasia, therefore, is not an outcome that can be coherently referred to as “good” by NU; it represents an abnegation, rather than a fulfillment, of moral duty. Thus, NU, taken within the context of a proper understanding of the role and scope of ethics, does not tend towards a dead or otherwise anesthetized population. Rather, the goal of NU is to reach a state of increased happiness and well-being by way of reducing harm and needless suffering; and as such, it deserves to be taken seriously as a mode of moral reasoning.