Statement X

by zenquaker

Derivative 2: Act to Minimize Harm (The Negative Derivative)

By the Hippocratic Corollary (C3-3) we want to avoid harming other people. It would be nice if we could go through life never hurting anyone, but life is rarely so black and white that we can clearly make that choice. Instead we are presented with gray situations where someone gets harmed no matter what we do. So what do we do in those situations?

One common answer is to maximize happiness. Philosophers call this utilitarianism. I always wonder if I’ve got that name right. It sounds like utilitarianism would be about maximizing utility, which would mean getting rid of useless people. While I think I would enjoy a world with a lot less managers, it doesn’t feel like the right way to go.

But the problem we’re looking at isn’t the absence of happiness, it’s the existence of suffering. Even if we tried to give happiness, we would have to do this through fulfilling desires. As discussed in the Cause Principle (P6), fulfilling desire only leads to more suffering. This is because the fulfillment is rarely as good as we expected (giving us some suffering), and the memory of it feeds more desire (giving us more suffering).

So we need to go the other way. Instead of trying to maximize happiness, we need to try to minimize suffering. Philosopher’s call this negative utilitarianism, which seems like an even weirder name to me. Whatever funky names we might give it, this is the principle (er, derivative) that drives half of my morality. The principle that drives the rest of my morality has to do with the conflict between fulfilling desire causing suffering and the Good Works Corollary (C3-4). But before we get to that I want to go into the consequences of the Negative Derivative.