K. Sreeman Reddy

My ethical beliefs and the suffering monster

People are not obliged to be intelligent or creative or rich or influential or attractive or muscular or tall or to do only legal things etc. But there is one thing that people are obliged to and it is being ethical. So, everyone has an obligation to think about ethics and choose a consistent ethical theory that they think is the best. In this post, I will explain why I believe in an ethical theory called “Threshold Deontology”. Towards the end, I will give a reductio ad absurdum argument called the “suffering monster” (inspired by “utility monster” but slightly different due to the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering) that explains why the theory I believe in is incomplete. But this theory is enough for practical purposes.

My ethical beliefs

Negative utilitarianism

As far back as I can remember, I was always a negative utilitarian (till 2021), even before I heard its name.

Classical utilitarianism tells us to maximize utility. Utility can be increased by increasing the pleasure or decreasing the suffering; both are considered equally important.

Siddhartha Gautama (as an atheist, I do not call him “The Buddha”) explained that desires are the origin of suffering in his “Four Noble Truths”. Because of this, since childhood, I always had a negative view of pleasures, especially sensual pleasures. Siddhartha’s statement is an exaggeration because there is suffering that is not caused by desires, like deaths due to tornadoes, etc. But, I still think his statement is an important contribution to philosophy and it strongly supports that reducing suffering is more important than increasing pleasure.

But, there is a more proper argument for this called Benatar’s asymmetry argument1.

PresenceAbsence
Presence of pain (Bad)Absence of pain (Good)
Presence of pleasure (Good)Absence of pleasure (Not bad)

As the above table explains, the presence of pain is a much bigger issue than the absence of pleasure. Popper was the first to realize this in 1945 and he then proposed negative utilitarianism.

“I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. Both the greatest happiness principle of the Utilitarians and Kant’s principle ‘Promote other people’s happiness ..’ seem to me (at least in their formulations) wrong on this point which, however, is not completely decidable by rational argument. In my opinion 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. (A further criticism of the Utilitarian formula ‘Maximize pleasure’ is that it assumes, in principle, a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering—such as hunger in times of an unavoidable shortage of food—should be distributed as equally as possible.)”

Karl Popper

Consistency

In the original trolley problem, like most people, I too once thought that we should kill 1 person to save 5 people. But then, when I read the below slight modification of the trolley problem, I thought 1 person should not be killed to save 5 people.

The Transplant problem: A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

My intuition said that in the above problem, the healthy young traveler should not be murdered. So, I understood my beliefs were inconsistent. Most people also answered similarly to me. So, most people are also inconsistent in their ethics. Most people also think about The Fat Man problem as similar to The Transplant problem and different from the original problem.

I think the reason most people have inconsistent ethics is because of the lack of ethics in school curriculums. As I mentioned at the beginning, ethics is something everyone must know, and physics or chemistry or maths is not something that everyone needs to know. So, every high school curriculum should teach ethics as a subject, just as they teach science and maths. There are many good books which can be used to teach ethics. One particularly good book that I can recommend is Introduction to Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Contemporary Issues By Chhanda Chakraborti. It is a very good book and can be divided into parts and can be taught over several years of high school. The only section where I know more than the author is section 5.3.5 Non-human Rights. In that section, she wrote some incorrect things. She says Peter Singer is an animal rights philosopher. But he is not. We can’t blame her because Peter Singer is widely called “the father of animal rights”. But he is only a welfarist. Singer proclaims that meat-eating may be permissible if “farms really give the animals good lives, and then humanely kill them, preferably without transporting them to slaughterhouses or disturbing them. In Animal Liberation, I don’t really say that it’s the killing that makes [meat-eating] wrong, it’s the suffering.” This quote should make it clear; he is a welfarist based on negative utilitarianism.

The real people who started animal rights philosophy are Tom Regan and Gary L. Francione (both independently). For example, you can see The Six Principles of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights. As Tom Regan explains in the below quote, because of his 1983 book, there was more philosophical research about animal rights in the next 20 years than all of previous human history combined.

“Philosophers have written more about animal rights in the past twenty years than their predecessors wrote in the previous two thousand. Not surprisingly, disagreements abound. To begin with, among those who challenge attributing moral rights to animals are philosophers who operate within well-worn moral traditions in Western thought. Peter Singer (1975, 1999) and Carl Cohen (1986, 1996, 1997) are representative. Singer follows in the tradition of the nineteenth-century English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who ridicules moral rights as “nonsense upon stilts.” For both Bentham and Singer, not only nonhuman animals but also humans lack moral rights. This is half-true, maintains Cohen. Animals, he argues, most certainly do not have moral rights, but Bentham and Singer err when they deny that humans have them. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Cohen, not just some but all humans possess basic rights, including the rights to life and to bodily integrity.” [ Regan (2001), p. 67.]

Tom Regan

Threshold deontology

Once I understood that I was not consistently a negative utilitarian, I had to find a better ethical theory to believe in. I thought about believing in rights, but only approximately. I think in the 1 vs 5 trolley problem, we should not kill 1 person to save 5 people because we should respect the right of that one person. But if we change the number $5$ to $N\to \infty$ (some large number like billion or trillion), then I think it is ok to kill one person to save that many people. So, I thought from the beginning that rights are only approximate. So, in the “large N” approximation, we should use negative utilitarianism instead of rights theory. But what is the exact critical value of $N$ at which this transition happens? I don’t know! What I am considering here is called Combining negative utilitarianism with rights (CNUWR).

But in CNUWR, you can ask where these rights come from. Certainly, they can’t be arbitrary. One way to explain these rights is in the style of rule utilitarianism (until now, I have only talked about act utilitarianism). We can adopt those rights, which reduce a lot of suffering. For example, the right not to be treated as the property of all sentient beings.

But, there is another slightly better and very similar theory called Threshold Deontology. One main difference between them is that in CNUWR, the rights are absolute. Rights are constraints in CNUWR, and we have to reduce suffering without violating these constraints. CNUWR, like any absolute deontological theories, has a big problem. Staunch deontologists like Kant would never do anything they consider bad, even if it means the entire world will perish. I think such a view is ridiculously stupid.

“Better the whole people perish than that injustice be done.”

Immanuel Kant

Threshold Deontology solves this problem. You can have a maxim like “Do not lie”. You can’t lie for trivial things like pranks or to earn a little money, etc., according to it. But things are permitted after a threshold, like a lie that can save a sentient being’s life. Of course, there should be different thresholds for violating different maxims. For example, saving a single sentient being is enough of a threshold to lie. But saving a single sentient being is not enough threshold to murder another sentient being. But if you can save a billion sentient beings by killing a single sentient being, then that murder is morally justifiable even though you are violating the right of a sentient being. Determining exact thresholds is a problem that I will talk at the end.

After the thresholds, I will follow negative utilitarianism. But before that, what kind of deontology should I follow? One option is to following Kantian ethics, which is based on his Categorical Imperative. One nice thing about the Categorical Imperative is that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI. This is something I think is intuitively true. A perfectly rational being will never do anything immoral.

Tom Regan also follows Kantian ethics. But another option to define maxims is, as mentioned before, in the style of rule utilitarianism. I think there is not much practical difference in how we define these maxims. So, I don’t have a preference.

The suffering monster

In 2022, just after I started believing in threshold deontology, I read Robert Nozick’s2 utility monster. I understood that if I slightly change his argument, that can be a counter-example to threshold deontology.

The suffering monster argument: Imagine a monster that has $\infty$ jealousy. Every time it sees a sentient being living its life, it will suffer $\infty$ because it is not the only sentient being existing. Assuming the threasolds of threshold deontology are finite, this would mean that we need to consider negative utilitarianism as the suffering is $\infty$. If such an organism ever sees me, will it become my moral obligation to kill my self?

Intuitively, it should be clear that it is not my moral obligation. So, threshold deontology is an incomplete theory.

Conclusion

Even though the suffering monster is a counter-example, of course, you don’t see things like utility monsters, suffering monsters, etc, in your daily life. So, for most practical purposes, it is a good theory. We next discuss a much bigger problem to threshold deontology.

Precise thresholds

How do we define precise thresholds?

The fact that thresholds must exist within deontological theories and these are not ad hoc was argued in The Rationality of Threshold Deontology by Michael S. Moore. But, we have no proper rational method to find these thresholds.

The trolley problem is actually a very simple looking problem as we only have two options (we can either pull the lever or do nothing) and one parameter (the ratio of the number of people on one track to the other). But even in the simplest example, I couldn’t provide the precise threshold or critical value after which we should follow negative utilitarianism. This reminds me of the question of how many atoms are required to define the temperature of a system. Of course, one could say $\infty$ because, strictly speaking, thermodyamics assumes the thermodynamic limit. But thermodynamics works well even if we have a finite number of particles like an Avogadro constant number of particles. But it doesn’t work if our system has just 1 particle. In this case, we don’t have a precise threshold. Maybe similarly, in the case of the trolley problem, we don’t have a precise threshold. Maybe threshold deontology is an approximation of a continuous theory, which starts with deontology and ends with negative utilitarianism, but instead of abrupt thresholds, there are continuous theories in between. I will next talk about this Mythical theory that completes these 2 theories.

M-theory

I believe in moral realism (objective morality). So, I think there is a unique objective ethical theory. Let’s call it M(oral) theory or just M-theory in short. Like we only know the physics M-theory in the weak coupling limit, we know the ethics M-theory only in certain limits. In one limit, it becomes deontology and in another, it becomes negative utilitarianism, but instead of abrupt thresholds, there are continuous theories in between.

As mentioned before, the trolley problem is a very simple problem as we only have two options and one parameter. We can, of course, think about more complicated problems where we have many options that depend on many parameters. In these general cases, it will be very hard to know what the ethics M-theory says us to do. In science, we are lucky we have a very useful method, the scientific method, even though we don’t really know why this method works so well (See: Problem of induction). Even then, we still haven’t defined the physics M-theory. In ethics, we don’t even have any method like the scientific method. So, the ethics M-theory will probably be understood long after the physics theory.

I want to reiterate again that despite all this, threshold deontology is more than enough for daily situations.

  1. Benatar used this argument in the context of antinatalism. I can never accept antinatalism because I can’t accept that my birth is immoral for reasons similar to the Self-Respect Movement. I have always found that antinatalism is a very logical argument and failed to find a mistake. But in 2022, when I read Nozick’s experience machine I was happy because I think it solves the issue of antinatalism. He used it to argue against utilitarianism. But the argument tries to explain that there is something inherently positive about existing in reality. And that can also be used to argue against antinatalism. Nagel also thinks that experiencing reality is inherently positive.

    “All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born.”

    “There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. … The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.”

    Thomas Nagel 

  2. Random fact: Robert Nozick died on the exact day I was born, 2002-01-23. I think he was a very good philosopher, but unfortunately, he was a speciesist. 

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