This article is written like a personal reflection, personal essay, or argumentative essay that states a Wikipedia editor's personal feelings or presents an original argument about a topic. Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style. (February 2024) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)

Suffering-focused ethics are those views in ethics according to which the reduction of suffering should be a key priority or our only aim. Those suffering-focused ethics according to which the reduction of suffering should be a key prioritiy are pluralistic views that include additional aims, such as the prevention of other disvaluable things like inequality, or the promotion of certain valuable things, such as pleasure. Nevertheless, to be regarded as suffering-focused ethics, these views must prioritize reducing preventable suffering over these other aims.[1]

Different suffering-focused ethics

'Suffering-focused ethics' is an umbrella term that includes different normative positions sharing the common feature of giving priority to the reduction of suffering. According to negative consequentialism, we should act so that we bring about those situations in which there is less suffering. A particular type of negative consequentialist view is negative utilitarianism. According to this view, we should try to bring about situations containing smaller amounts of aggregate suffering, adding up everyone's suffering as having equal value (no matter whose such suffering is).[2]

Other suffering-focused ethics, however, differ significantly from suffering-focused consequentialist views. According to suffering-focused deontological ethics, the moral duty to reduce suffering is particularly relevant. For this reason, it will typically override other moral duties (although the duty to reduce suffering might be overriden by our other duties in certain cases). Moreover, this duty should be followed even if someone could bring about a better situation by violating it.[3]

Finally, there are suffering-focused ethics that focus on the moral character of an individual. On these views, the primary aim of a moral agent should consist in having a sound moral character. On certain suffering-focused character-based ethics, such a moral character may be that of the moral agent with the attitudes and dispositions of a virtuous suffering reducer. However, on other views of this kind it may be that of the moral agent with the attitudes and dispositions of a caring suffering reducer.[4]

Suffering-focused ethics vs. negative ethics

Some suffering-focused views have historically been categorized as 'negative' in the philosophical literature. This nomenclature originated from the idea that these views prioritize the reduction of negative value over the promotion of positive value.[5][6][7] While the term 'negative' continues to be widely used when referring to positions such as negative consequentialism and negative utilitarianism, the use of the term 'suffering-focused ethics' has increased during the 21st century. One reason for this increase is that the term 'suffering-focused ethics' describes more accurately the commonalities between the wide range of different suffering-focused views that currently exist.[8]

How relevant is suffering?

Suffering-focused ethics can be differenciated in virtue of how much room they leave for promoting values that differ from the reduction of suffering. On some suffering-focused ethics, there is no room for positive values, given that only negative ones matter.[9] In contrast, other views, such as tranquilist views, are compatible with the existence of positive values. However, on these views, positive values only have instrumental significance, that is, they are only good insofar as they prevent suffering.[10]

According to other suffering-focused positions called lexical views, no amount of other values can matter more than reducing suffering (lexicality in theory of value is the idea that certain values trump over others).[11] These views, unlike the previous ones, are compatible with valuing positive things intrinsically. Nevertheless, on these views, reducing suffering should always take precedence over the promotion of these positive things.

Finally, there are moderate suffering-focused views. According to these views, the reduction of suffering is more important than the promotion of other values and the prevention of other disvalues, although the promotion and reduction of these values and disvalues is also very important.[12]

Arguments in favor of suffering-focused ethics

Some philosophers have endorsed suffering-focused views because they consider that these are the only views that can solve some problems in the field of population ethics, such as the asymmetry. According to this asymmetry, there is no obligation to bring into existence an individual who we can expect to have a good life, but there is an obligation not to bring into existence an individual who we can expect to have a bad life.[13][14][15][16][17] It is possible to account for this asymmetry by accepting that there is an obligation to create happy lives, or by accepting that there is no obligation not to create unhappy lives. However, both options, especially the latter, are highly counterintuitive. Nevertheless, given that on suffering-focused ethics avoiding the creation of suffering has precedence over the promotion of happiness, these views can provide a very intuitive solution to this problem.[18][19]

Suffering-focused views also account for another widespread intuition, namely, that it is permissible not to benefit others but, instead, it is mandatory to avoid causing them to suffer. In particular, most people believe that it would be wrong to cause an unknown individual to enjoy some pleasure by causing another one to undergo a suffering that is only slightly lower in intensity or duration.[20]

It is also argued that there is a qualitative asymmetry between happiness and suffering that warrants prioritizing suffering reduction: suffering is inherently urgent and in severe cases unbearably bad. In contrast, a neutral absence of pleasure or any other proposed intrinsic value does not constitute an urgent problem that needs to be immediately "relieved".[21][3][22]

Another argument in favor of prioritizing the reduction of suffering would be that suffering, including extreme suffering, is present in massive amounts in the world and can be easily reduced, while bliss and extreme pleasure are much more scarce and hard to cause.[23] This view finds precedents in the positions held by Buddhists and by 19th century philosophers.[24][25]

See also


  1. ^ Gloor, L. (2019) "The case for suffering-focused ethics", Center on Long-Term Risk.
  2. ^ Animal Ethics (2014) "Negative Consequentialism", Ethics and Animals
  3. ^ a b Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and Moral Responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Adams, Carol J. (1996) "Caring about Suffering: A Feminist Exploration", in Donovan, Josephine & Adams, Carol J. (eds.), Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, Continuum, New York, 1996, pp. 170–196.
  5. ^ Acton, H. B. & Watkins, J. W. N. (1963) "Symposium: Negative utilitarianism", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 37, pp. 83-114.
  6. ^ Smart, R. N. (1958) "Negative utilitarianism", Mind, 67, pp. 542-543.
  7. ^ Sikora, R. I. (1976) "Negative utilitarianism: Not dead yet", Mind, 85, pp. 587-588.
  8. ^ Vinding, M. (2020) Suffering-focused ethics: Defense and implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica.
  9. ^ Griffin, J. (1979) "Is unhappiness morally more important than happiness?", The Philosophical Quarterly, 29 (114), pp. 47-55.
  10. ^ Gloor, L. (2017) "Tranquilism", Center on Long-Term Risk.
  11. ^ Gustaf Arrhenius & Wlodek Rabinowicz - 2015 - In Iwao Hirose & Jonas Olson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory. New York, USA: Oxford University Press USA. pp. 225-248.
  12. ^ Tomasik, B. (2013) "Three types of negative utilitarianism", Essays on Reducing Suffering
  13. ^ Elstein, Daniel J. (2005) "The Asymmetry of Creating and Not Creating Life", The Journal of Value Inquiry, 39, 49–59. doi:10.1007/s10790-006-7256-4.
  14. ^ Algander, Per (2012). "A Defence of the Asymmetry in Population Ethics", Res Publica, 18 (2): 145–57. doi:10.1007/s11158-011-9164-0
  15. ^ Bradley, Ben (2013) "Asymmetries in Benefiting, Harming and Creating", The Journal of Ethics, 17,37–49. doi:10.1007/s10892-012-9134-6.
  16. ^ Narveson, Jan (1978) "Future People and Us". In R. I. Sikora and Brian Barry, eds., Obligations to Future Generations, Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 38–60.
  17. ^ Frick, Johann David (2014) Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People': A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics, PhD Dissertation, Cambridge: Harvard University.
  18. ^ Benatar, D. (2006) Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ Rozas, M. (2021) "Two asymmetries in population and general normative ethics", Etikk I Praksis, 1, 41-49.
  20. ^ Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and Moral Responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  21. ^ Vinding, Magnus (2020). "1: Asymmetries Between Happiness and Suffering". Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications. Ratio Ethica. ISBN 9798624910911.
  22. ^ Pearce, David (2005). "The Pinprick Argument". Archived from the original on January 25, 2021.
  23. ^ Pearce, D. (2010) "Why be negative?", The Hedonistic Imperative.
  24. ^ Goodman, C. (2009) Consequences of compassion: An interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  25. ^ Schopenhauer, A. (2014) On the Suffering of the World, London: Penguin.

Further reading