In his recently published non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror the contemporary horror writer Thomas Ligotti takes Karl Popper’s “negative utilitarianism” to its ultimate conclusion:
One who did not balk entirely was the Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper, who in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) did have a thing or two to say about human suffering. Briefly, he revamped the Utilitarianism of the nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness.” Popper remolded this summation of a positive utilitarianism into a negative utilitarianism whose position he handily stated as follows: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.” Taken to its logical and most humanitarian conclusion, Popper’s demand can have as its only end the elimination of those who now suffer as well as “counterfactual” beings who will suffer if they are born. What else could the “elimination of suffering” mean if not is total abolition, and ours? Naturally, Popper held his horses well before suggesting that to eliminate suffering would demand that we as a species be eliminated. But as R.N. Smart famously argued (Mind, 1958), this is the only conclusion to be drawn from Negative Utilitarianism. (p.73)
It is not likely that Popper would have agreed with such an antinatalist interpretation of his work but we should not be surprised about it. Such unintended consequences are basically implied in ethical views that seek to maximize a value or state of affairs for humanity as a whole. It inevitably leads to a teleological concept of society and tortuous attempts to construct some kind of optimal social welfare function where the suffering of one person is weighed against the suffering of another person. Not surprisingly, Popper followed his ethical views with his idea of “piecemeal social engineering” to generate a “social technology” to improve the world.
An alternative to Popper’s “negative utilitarianism” and “piecemeal social engineering” would be to think about ethics and politics “from the ground up” as Thomas Hobbes attempted:
Hobbes’s contemporaries understood politics as something descended from the ages or the heavens, but Hobbes built politics from the ground up. Self-interested individuals, craving protection for their lives, contracted to create sovereign states.
In this view morality is not the imposition of a set of values that a particular person happens to like but a mechanism to coordinate activity between humans. Contemporary Hobbesian philosophers like David Gauthier and Jan Narveson do not seem to agree with Hobbes about the necessity of Big Government (or in the case of Narveson, the need for Government at all) but Hobbes’ secular conception of morality as mutual advantage remains intact.
Thomas Hobbes was considered an atheist and reductionist by his enemies:
Hobbes’s snide irreligion, once the main complaint against him, may now commend him to those who perpetually fear the supposed return of theocracy. His tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts flatters our present eagerness to explain every aspect of human conduct in biological terms. Hobbes was also acutely suspicious of democracy. He considered it a breeder of faction
In light of Ligotti’s book it should also be noted that Thomas Hobbes was a determinist (albeit not a “hard determinist”). As such, the Hobbesian enterprise can also be conceived as a project to explain how social norms emerge and change.
As for suffering, most people do not think that a life that includes suffering is not worth continuing, or creating, but look at other interests and the quality of life as a whole as well. As antinatalists like David Benatar have argued, quality of life is not just a simple matter of subtracting (expected) negative things in life from (expected) positive things in life. But such an argument can be developed in both a pessimist and an optimist direction – two possibilities that do not receive equal treatment in Benatar’s work.