review of Jonathan Leighton’s book The Tango of Ethics

Leighton is arguing for an ethical framework he calls “xNU+”, a form of negative utilitarianism which aims to

…prevent as much suffering as possible, especially intense or extreme suffering, while also avoiding excessive conflict with our deepest intuitions, namely, to survive and thrive, and to avoid causing direct harm or concentrating suffering.

Surprisingly (to me), he claims to reject moral realism. In his view, statements about “right” or “wrong” or what we “ought” to do can only have meaning if we define those words in terms of other concepts. They may “connote a feeling of moral duty”, or “be used to persuade”, or “indicate whether an action complies with a specific ethical theory”, among other possibilities; but they cannot denote any fundamentally normative truths.

…the point of the [xNU+] framework is not to determine what actions are “right” and “wrong” in a moral sense—…I consider such a framing misleading or meaningless—but rather, to try to align our goals and actions with compassion and rationality while navigating with conflicting moral instruments.

Yet Leighton does seem to believe in some form of irreducible objective value:

“Good” and “bad”, while also open to debate about how to use them, are basic descriptors of situations and subjective experience that often map directly to happiness and suffering. As philosopher Jamie Mayerfeld (1999, p. 19) wrote, “We know what it means to ‘feel bad’ without breaking it down into simpler elements, and we know that ‘feeling bad overall’ means the same as ‘suffering.’ That may be as far as the search for a definition can take us.”

There is a huge difference between evaluating two situations and determining that one is objectively better than the other, and labelling someone’s actions as either “right” or “wrong” in a morally judgemental way—even if a situation was improved or made worse by their actions. We still need to explore what makes situations better or worse, but this is ultimately an exercise in description, not prescription in the moral realist sense I just described.

I don't have an airtight argument against it, but I’m not convinced that evaluation and prescription can be separated this neatly. Consider the terms "good" and "bad" when used as "basic descriptors of ... subjective experiences". I assume "good" refers to whatever property the feelings of (for example) contentment, excitement, and having-an-orgasm have in common. And "bad" refers to what the feelings of (for example) loneliness, boredom, and being-burned-alive have in common.

Now ask: why do we say the "good" experiences are better than the "bad" ones? It's not just an assertion of similarity—it's not like saying red objects are redder than green ones. I think this notion of "better" may be inseparable from the notion of preferability or desirability. If so, for X to be objectively better than Y, it would have to be objectively more desirable than Y—which would have to mean either that everyone does in fact prefer X over Y (which seems implausible for almost any X and Y), or that everyone ought to prefer X over Y. The latter puts us back in the realm of prescription, but it seems correct to me.

Imagine someone who understands what suffering is like and who experiences suffering in exactly the same way you do, but whose brain is wired so that they always choose to act in whatever way they think will cause them the most suffering. Aren’t those choices mistakes? Isn't that what it means to recognize that suffering is intrinsically bad: that anyone who doesn't think it should be avoided is wrong?

In addition to disconnecting value ("good"/"bad") from normativity ("ought"), Leighton also downplays the moral significance of value. More important in his view is the notion of intrinsic urgency:

Someone with a mild skin irritation would obviously prefer it to be treated sooner rather than later, but it's not terribly urgent. Someone screaming in pain from terminal cancer needs pain relief urgently. The urgency is actually inherent to the suffering—a property intimately associated with it. With intense suffering there is literally an "urgent need".

Compare with Sharon Rawlette, the champion of my preferred meta-ethical view, who builds her ethical system on the felt qualities of goodness and badness. That leads her to classical utilitarianism: maximize good feelings minus bad feelings. Leighton instead builds his on the felt quality of urgency, leading him to a form of negative utilitarianism: minimize feelings that have an urgent need for relief.

Without ceding to the urge to use moral language by trying to bridge "is" to "ought", the concept of urgency creates a factual bridge between the passive—and incomplete—observation of a phenomenon and the associated need for active engagement. It is this need for action that makes urgency so relevant to ethics. If there's no urgency whatsoever—present or foreseeable—there's no need to change things.

I think the term “need” is pretty loaded here. What’s the difference between a need and a desire? In ordinary language, a “need” could indicate something you’d die without, or something you can’t complete a particular goal without, but those meanings obviously aren’t applicable here.

Instead, saying you “need” to do something could be another way of saying you “ought” to do it, or have a decisive reason to do it. But that’s just moral realism hidden behind a different vocabulary. Which is fine—I’m a moral realist, after all—but it’s not clear that “urgency” is the only thing which can give rise to a “need” in this sense of a decisive-reason-to-act. As discussed above, I think good experiences have an inherent desirability which also gives us a reason to want—and by extension, pursue—them. Say you have to choose between (a) a world of nothingness and (b) a world with many people where everyone is continuously experiencing happy moments of awe, triumph, intimacy, etc. It’s true that bringing (b) about doesn’t feel urgent; yet it still seems there is something about (b) that demands it be chosen. It’s hard for me to believe that someone could be indifferent between (a) and (b) and not be making some sort of mistake, just as someone who was indifferent between nonexistence and being burned alive would be making a mistake. Even if we change (b) to additionally include one person who has a really intense toothache for ten minutes, it still seems to me that choosing (a) would be a mistake. Suffering and happiness both provide reasons for action, and suffering doesn’t always provide the stronger reason.

To respect Leighton’s resistance to moral realism, we could instead interpret “need” as referring to an intense desire, or to a strong disposition to seek/avoid something, or to what it feels like to be aware that you have such a disposition. So to say that suffering involves an “urgent need” for relief would be to say: whenever someone suffers, the sufferer feels it’s very important to stop the suffering. But if we regard this as a mere descriptive fact, it’s unclear why it has more importance than feelings of intense desire for good experiences. Suppose at 10am I’m experiencing excruciating pain accompanied by absolute certainty that it would be better to die rather than continue living. Then, at 11am, I have a really uplifting conversation with friends during which I’m absolutely certain that it was worth living through the pain so that I could experience the joy of this interaction. Why should my disposition at 10am be given more weight than my disposition at 11am?

Though I remain skeptical, the discussion of urgency vs value did help me understand the appeal of negative utilitarianism better.

Edited 2023-05-11: the sentence that begins "Even if we change (b)..." replaces another sentence that began "This remains true if we change (a)...". The old sentence was a misstatement; the new sentence is what I meant.