Friday, October 5, 2012

Preference utilitarianism

A common alternative to classical utilitarianism is that of preference utilitarianism. This typically arises out of opposition to the tendency for various moral theories to treat opposing views in terms of pathology. For example a utilitarian might believe that one can be mistaken as to what is actually in their best interests - they might see the forcible altering of the physical, chemical and electrical makeup of the brain of any contrarian to be a good thing. A preference utilitarian would reject such intervention.

However, there is ambiguity as to how this theory should operate. Specifically, it could do any of the following or a combination thereof.

1. Satisfy all preferences currently in existence
2. Create and satisfy as many preferences as possible
3. Prevent the emergence of any unsatisfied preferences

Point 2 is, however, incompatible with the foundational principle of preference utilitarianism alluded to in the opening paragraph.

Consider which of the the following is better: a life that contains no preferences or one that contains many preferences all of which are satisfied. One who believed in point 2 would say that the latter was better while others might say that neither was. The way in which the incompatibility arises is the way in which the lack of preferences is pathologised just as in the hedonistic case. The the very state of having no preferences might be seen as misguided because their life would allegedly be much better if they had fulfilled preferences even though the person who has no preferences clearly disputes this. As an amusing aside, one who believed in point 2 would have to concede that the advertising industry is one of the best of all; being that which creates and fulfills preferences.

If point 2 is rejected while the others hold then I needn't carry on this post any further; preference utilitarianism has become negative in its formulation and thus antinatalism is already implied. The preferences of people to procreate surely cannot outweigh the sheer magnitude of stifled preferences that result from them. The other fine details are not of great importance as with all negative moral theories.


  1. I'm sure this new morality will be insanely popular in Bizarro World.

  2. I believe the 'Preference Utilitarianism' formula should be reserved for sound minded adults and precocious minors capable of comprehending the risk equations they exist under, while 'Negative Utilitarianism' should still be prescribed for the rest of sentience (all of wildlife, comatose humans).

    I've been searching for AN posts on 'Preference Utilitarianism' for ages. This is the first one I found, which is really bizarre as Negative Utilitarianism prescribes an equal opportunity indexing of harm, so if it's applied to all of humanity, preventing two ''Glad I was born'' humans from being born is viewed as more productive than preventing one ''Wish I was never born'' human from being born (barring non-proximate consequences).

    Most YouTube ANs don't even contemplate this sequencing. Very irksome.

  3. The post is indeed about preference utilitarianism but it in no way was motivated by or attempted to resolve the situation you described. In fact, preference utilitarianism in its purest manifestation doesn't really have anything to say about it at all. It depends how the theory weighs different preferences.