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Anarchism and Negative Utilitarianism: A Possible Synthesis?


A great deal of time was spent pondering how to begin this essay. Given the scope of the concepts at hand, there did not seem to be any way to properly introduce my ideas to the reader. So I decided to begin with the hackneyed postmodern device known as self-reference, thus absolving myself of the burdensome duty of being creative [end humor sequence]. Since most of the readership, which undoubtedly consists entirely of people I coaxed through facebook to follow a link here, is probably uninitiated in one or more of these concepts, it is necessary to explain each of them on the course presenting my own ideas.

What the H-E-double hockey sticks is anarchism anyway? In short, anarchism is a political philosophy promoting anarchy. The word “political” is used here only for the sake of clarity as to what domain of human experience we are discussing, that is, the domain of power relations. If we define politics as the exercise of power in a social context, we might conclude that anarchism is distinctly anti-political in nature. What is anarchy, then? Unfortunately, the term has been co-opted by so many different “political” and political factions (usually by using the prefix anarcho- in conjunction with another political philosophy that renders the anarchy part all but functionally irrelevant) that a precise definition of anarchy is elusive if not impossible. However, I’m going to attempt, ever so delicately, to construct a working definition. The most convenient way to begin this process is to define our terms negatively—to state what anarchy is not. Anarchy is not chaos.

What anarchy is—as Pierre-Joseph Prouhon, the first self-proclaimed anarchist, stated in his 1849 book Confessions of a Revolutionary, “Anarchy is order.” Anarchy, to Proudhon, was a state of society where every individual was liberated from the explicit tyranny of the state and the implicit tyranny of wage labor. Where each person owned the product of his or her labor and could buy or sell these products in a free market of voluntary transactions. Where social institutions consisted of free, non-hierarchical associations between individuals. No gods and no masters, to quote the man himself. Indeed, Proudhon’s vision of anarchy is a far cry from roving gangs of GG Allin fans dressed in bondage gear driving around on motorcycles and stealing gasoline from defenseless peasantfolk. Not only is anarchy order, order liberated from the inefficiencies and injustices of government, but it is flourishing. It is a system where a person can achieve their highest potential, unfettered by the burdens of arbitrary laws and law enforcement, exploitation of labor and creativity, and land monopolies that make subordinate employment a necessary condition for existence.

Today, much discrepancy exists between the far “wings” of anarchism: anarcho-capitalists on the far “right” generally define anarchism solely as the abolition of the state. At the risk of sounding glib, many anarcho-capitalists have no reservations about filling the vacuum left by the abolition of the state with every sort of private tyranny imaginable—corporatism, feudalism, etc.—based on absolutist property claims that could only be considered valid within the context of a system of state privilege (see my last essay, “The Ethics of SimCity”), thus creating what amounts to a de-facto state. Anarcho-communists on the far left tend to be completely indistinguishable from Marxists with the exception of favoring direct action over political. Sometimes. Anarcho-communists fall into the same trap of state apologetics that anarcho-capitalists do, though much more explicitly. As near as I can tell, anarcho-communists favor the abolition of capitalism as the primary means to anarchy and abolition of the state a secondary consideration at best. Contemporary anarchist thinker Alex Strekal explains these phenomena as overemphases on economic preference on the extreme left and right within the anarchist spectrum that marginalize anarchism itself ( Still, this is all very confusing for someone that is trying to understand what anarchism is. But looking at the commonalities between the various strains of anarcho-isms, we can glean that what fundamentally characterizes anarchism is an opposition to authority and a desire for liberty. And that is precisely what attracted me to anarchism in the first place.

Recently, however, I’ve taken a great interest in the ethical theory of negative utilitarianism, originally conceived by Karl Popper and expanded upon most notably by David Pearce, the author of “The Hedonistic Imperative” (available online in full at Negative utilitarianism is distinct from utilitarianism first formulated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th century. Both theories are rooted in the hedonic principle, the seeking of pleasure and happiness and avoidance of pain and suffering that motivates the actions of sentient organisms. While utilitarianism propounds the ethical principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, negative utilitarianism propounds “the least suffering for the least number”. These two ethical theories at first appear to be opposite conclusions of the hedonic principle, but Karl Popper strongly believed that happiness and suffering are not symmetrical experiences in their ethical implications, contrary to the belief of the utilitarians. Pain avoidance (physical or psychological) is a much stronger drive in an organism than is pleasure-seeking; the unpleasant experience of suffering overshadows the rewards of happiness and it is only logical to assess the moral worth of each accordingly.

Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, is troubling in its possible implications. For example, if we are dealing with a population with access to a certain amount of resources, there is no logical reason why all of the resources could not be concentrated into the hands of a few. Maximizing the amount of resources each person had until increasing their wealth no longer increased pleasure or happiness, saturating their hedonic circuitry if you will, while leaving most people with little or nothing would in no way contradict the basic principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. The greatest number would simply be very small. Since the symmetry between happiness and suffering is assumed, one could argue that the vast happiness enjoyed by the privileged few justifies the suffering, the starvation and poverty, incurred upon the masses via this monopolization of resources. If this doesn’t seem blatantly wrong, then you either have no conscience or a severely distorted view of the nature of existence. This would only make sense if all of the people involved comprised a hive-mind that experienced the aggregate sum of all the pain and pleasure input by its individual agents. A preposterous scenario. This problem does not exist in negative utilitarianism. Since minimizing suffering is a higher priority than maximizing happiness and there is no qualitative symmetry between the two experiences, skewing the resource distribution in order to grant privilege is not morally equivalent to more egalitarian patterns of distribution.

We are speaking entirely in the abstract of course, as agents of an omnipotent state that utilizes individuals toward particular ends. What I’m attempting to do is essentially is establish common ground between anarchism and negative utilitarianism, or rather, place NU within the anarchist framework. The two are not necessarily incompatible since negative utilitarianism has no specific scope, what population is included within the least number experiencing the least suffering. Abolitionism, the eradication of suffering in all sentient life, can be seen as the logical conclusion of NU. This, however, does not mean that NU must be applied on a universal scale. In fact, since our reach is technically limited to the sentient life on Earth, it would be impossible to eradicate all suffering assuming that life exists elsewhere in the universe. This is why I say that NU has no specific scope, because it is impossible to carry out consistently as an ethical imperative since our capacity to reduce suffering is confined to our knowledge of other sentient beings in existence, physical access to them, and the technical ability to eliminate suffering. This physical limitation is not a problem if NU is viewed through an anarchist lens, where positive obligations do not exist. The ethical imperative then, the negative obligation, becomes simply to not inflict harm or suffering on other beings. This sounds vaguely like the non-aggression principle espoused by voluntaryists. A major difference here is that NU actually provides a philosophically valid basis for not inflicting suffering based on the hedonic principle whereas voluntaryists believe that the NAP is axiomatic without any philosophical basis for that belief. Another major difference is that NU provides an exception to the rule of not inflicting suffering when doing so would prevent greater suffering already being inflicted. For example, hunting down and killing, in the most painless manner possible, a known murderer to prevent further victimization would be a morally right course of action, even if doing so meant aggressing upon them when they had not harmed you in particular. Of course, you could not be forced to take that course of action, which is what makes this synthesis of anarchism and negative utilitarianism distinct from pure NU, where the ethical imperative is levied as a positive obligation. This would naturally lead to a state that is empowered to assure that suffering is minimized, but that would in practice lapse into what a state always is; a machine of tyranny that prevents flourishing and tramples dissent. Perhaps then, the anarchist approach to negative utilitarianism is much more consistent with the reduction of suffering than pure NU as obligation.

To sum up this synthesis as briefly as possible: the premise of negative utilitarianism can serve as a solid basis for ethics in anarchism. Suffering is an experience that can be and so often is unimaginably horrible to sentient organisms and its abolition is certainly a socially desirable goal. The consistent application of NU as an imposed obligation, though, is impossible and might even lapse into a state that acts counter to NU’s own goals. Certainly, the construction of a society where hierarchy and obligation are opposed would result in drastically reduced suffering. And the flourishing resulting from liberty, technological and social advancement, would be conducive to abolitionism, the abolishment of suffering in all sentient life through designer drugs, surgical, chemical, or nanotechnological manipulation of the limbic system, and ultimately, a radical redrafting of the genome. Thus anarchism could be seen as a strategy for negative utilitarianism. Frankly, I was surprised that the union of negative utilitarianism and anarchism was not (to my knowledge) already conceived of before I wrote this. Many of the conclusions I drew here may be met with criticism with negative utilitarians and anarchists alike (if anyone was actually reading this, I mean), but it seems to me that the goals of the two are not so different and a strategic synthesis of the two would be mutually beneficial. Constructive feedback is welcome.