Out of the closet as a Positive Utilitarian

by [anonymous] 4 min read15th Jun 201113 comments


Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.
- George Santayana


Edit: It seems as though people who read this were thinking that I was defending Positive Utilitarianism. This is not at all my intention. I am just suggesting that the class exists, and that it should be OK to express oneself as part of it. It is obviously better to be both a positive and a negative utilitarian than just a positive one. If that was not clear, I hope it is now. My point was just that if someone wanted to be sure that she is an utilitarian before doing some action, but was not feeling confortable because she was actually just a positive utilitarian, now that person would feel the relief that someone else felt the same, and could go about trying to make the world a better place without worrying about lone bystander bias.



It is only in unusual occasions that I find myself as compatible with a label. Back in my wild and reckless youth, I have probably encountered only those memes as acceptably labelling me: Transhumanist, Polyamorist, Immortalist, Extrovert.  

That was it. No political position, no sexual orientation, no teen affiliation, no ethnicity, no nationality, no soccer team, no dress code. No religion.

There are very few one-word things that I feel like I am.

Then along came Utilitarianism. We were presented by transhumanism, and got along somewhat well, I would check out its origins, who was into it as a philosophy, and we seemed to be thinking in the same general direction.

Once we had some problems with regards to vehicles. We call those the trolley problems

From then on I slowly met many transhumanists (keep in mind that I live in Brazil), and in general would identify instantaneously. That did not happen with utilitarians. There was something to utilitarianism that just didn't work for me.

Yesterday, I finally had the sudden realization. It was negative utilitarianism. Everyone these days is a negative utilitarian. They may have come from many realms into utilitarianism (preference or hedonistic, doesn't matter) but eventually they notice that suffering is really really bad and start to think that they ought to do something about it. Some set course towards diminishing it, and I wish them Godspeed. Yet I could not acquiesce in their beliefs, rejoice in their conquests, celebrate their pursuals.

It is arguable, and has been extensively argued, that negative utilitarianism may be a more ethical approach, during our non posthuman times, than it's positive counterpart. This is correct.

Enters Santayana, "Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness."

and also one of few philosophical agreements of the millennia “Ought implies can”

I don't feel good thinking about suffering. I don't like suffering, I don't spontaneously wake up every morning and visit a hospital. I never try to check out what is going on in the nearest slum to see if someone died, and in fact, I don't even read the newspaper, which strikes me as a lot of ephemeral sad information about the things that went so wrong the last fews days that people are willing to read about it. I bet you like horror/suspense movies, I don't.

It doesn't really matter if you are talking about diminishing suffering, relieving pain, decreasing poverty or striking misery. When I read sentences like the previous one, I read “ It doesn't really matter if you are talking about diminishing suffering, relieving pain, decreasing poverty or striking misery.” My brain just doesn't get around this and I don't want it to.

So I finally made peace with it, and would like to go out of the closet now:

Folks, I am a Positive Utilitarian!


For the past several years I have understood evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and read 7 books on happiness because I really care about making other people happy. I've been promoting happiness ever since school time and, like the NY less wrong group, I've optimized for fun around me as much as I could (some day I'll write a post about effective group-happiness increasing techniques, but this is not that day). What attracted me to transhumanism was not how it would cure disease, solve starvation, but it's motto: Better than well. One of the things that caused most shock in my self presentations to the people of the Singularity institute was when I said: I am more of a transhumanist then a singularitarian. Now I know what that meant, it meant that I don't have a barrier against thinking about “better than well” but I do have a barrier against “before someone does it and destroys life as we know it”. This of course, sums up perfectly with the fact that I have rejected joining the X-risk network launched here in Less Wrong


Positive Utilitarianism is not a position I am arguing for within Utilitarianism, please don't abandon the children suffering. But I would like to argue that it is OK in the broad picture of things. It is much better than the vast majority of ethical choices humans make, and probably better than personal hedonism. It is about maximizing the happiness of everyone, near or far, for as long as possible, with most of our strenghts. In the case of Positive Preference Utilitarianism, make that everyone's preferences.


Positive Utilitarianism is not the most ethical position a person can take, and one can see it as a consequence of egocentric utilitarianism, if it is the case that a person became a positive utilitarian because they value their hedons and utilons more than other people's. Sometimes it just is the case that they feel better surrounded by awesomeness and happiness than by civil war, disease and crying innocents, thus their higher value attribution for self-utilons will generate positive utilitarianism.

There are others out there that are like me, that are very strongly cognitively wired against ever letting themselves into this situation(1 min video). Maybe they have engineered their world to be a happy bubble, or otherwise controlled the environment in such ways. Maybe experienced trauma related to suffering, or just can't stand thinking about it.


But if still committed to make the world a better place by the most effective means possible, why are we still hiding? It just so happens that our conditions of emotional possibility are a little different.


Let us abandon our Christian origins and not set the threshold for greatness so high that only the ascetic can be thought of as good.

If you have like me in the past postponed action because there was this internal itch that didn't let you feel comfortable as an utilitarian, call yourself a positive utilitarian, and hold your tools no longer. Open that closet, get comfortable with those awesome negative utilitarians around you and whole heartedly remark: I am a Positive Utilitarian.

It is OK.


Edit: Nisan asked some things for positive utilitarians to do, and it seemed good to put them here -

Write Life-advice kinds of books, in Ferriss/AJ Jacobs style.  Create a Transhumanist Institution to transform Rationalists into Utilitarians into Transhumanists. Organize complex engaging events on facebook for friends that would cause happiness that would not have happened otherwise. Make a lot of people laugh in a conference. Read many books on happiness, and upon request, give people data on how to be happy (count blessings twice a week, force smiles when bored, write 300 words thank you notes and read them outloud, wear botox, etc...) There are so many other things...