Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Pragmatic utilitarianism

Why some types of suffering deserve more attention than others

This is the fifth of a series of articles defending a compatibilist interpretation of utilitarianism, which can be reconciled with all major moral theories. In the previous article, I explain why rules are important for utilitarians.

Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. According to this view, if an action doesn’t cause any suffering, it should be morally permissible. But what if an action that relieves the suffering of person A causes suffering to person B? One could argue, for example, that being gay is not really that harmless because, after all, conservative parents really do suffer when they find out their child is gay. I could respond by saying that the suffering of suppressing one’s own homossexuality is much more severe than that of upset parents, which I do believe is true. But something still feels incomplete about this answer. What if a bisexual person has a very large family and they’re all very sensitive conservatives? Could it be more ethical to repress one’s own bisexuality and only date people of the opposite sex in order to protect one’s family from the shame of having a non-straight child?

I don’t think so. It just feels like the suffering of some people is more legitimate than the suffering of others. But that is not a utilitarian argument. It seems like an ad hoc, self-serving, unjustified postulation, and I’ve always felt uncomfortable using it as an argument, especially because according to utilitarianism everybody’s suffering counts equally. So what could make one type of suffering more or less legitimate? What do we do when I say one type of suffering is more legitimate than another, but another person thinks it’s the other way around?

The truth is, although our propensity to suffer as a result of certain events is in many cases innate and hard to change, in other cases it is largely cultural, and therefore easily circumvented. The propensity towards homosexual behavior, for example, has been present in human populations throughout our entire history, and its strength has been so powerful that even our most violent attempts to suppress it have failed miserably. The fact that people are willing to risk brutal deaths in order to practice homosexuality shows how unbearable it must be to repress one’s own sexuality. It is no wonder that suicide is so common among LGBT youth when compared to the general population.

Homophobia, on the other hand, is far from being a universal phenomenon across human populations. It was virtually non-existent in ancient cultures that accepted homosexuality, such as the ancient Greek culture, and it is quickly disappearing in modern society, especially in the urban areas of the most developed countries. In the long-term, therefore, it is obvious that as a society we should work to eliminate homophobia to prevent the suffering of LGBT+ people, not repress homossexuality to protect the feelings of homophobes. This is simply the only feasible solution to this conflict of interest.

If you’re gay, therefore, and you can afford to deal with the backlash, it is probably better for yourself, for the gay community, and for society in general if you come out to your family, even if you know they will suffer in the process. It is not something cruel, but rather something brave. It may bring you discomfort in the short-term, but it will likely bring inner-peace in the long-term, besides having a positive impact on society. This is, I believe, the general rule that minimizes suffering most effectively in the long-run. There is no need to appeal to problematic notions such as the higher legitimacy of certain kinds of suffering over others.

To destroy a man there should certainly be some better reason than mere dislike to his Taste, let that dislike be ever so strong.

— Jeremy Bentham


Sometimes it seems like, no matter what we do, somebody will suffer. Although everybody’s suffering counts equally according to utilitarianism, some types sufferings are harder to prevent or remedy. A pragmatic approach to utilitarianism, therefore, provides a solution to this dilemma. If you have to cause suffering, prefer a type of suffering that is easier to overcome. There are support groups for parents of LGBT children. It’s better to join them than to join a support group for parents whose children committed suicide.



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Ariel Pontes

Ariel Pontes

Philosophy, science, secular humanism, effective altruism.