Hide table of contents

First published in 2023. Updated in 2024. Readable as a standalone post. Chapter 1 in “Minimalist Axiologies: Alternatives to ‘Good Minus Bad’ Views of Value”.


Problems with “good minus bad” views

What is wellbeing? Hedonistic views typically define it as pleasure minus pain. Preference-based views might define it as the difference between our fulfilled and unfulfilled preferences. Finally, objective list views might posit a number of independent goods and bads that each contribute to our overall wellbeing.

These “good minus bad” views of wellbeing all face a shared challenge, as they all rely on an offsetting theory of aggregation. That is, they assume that any independent bads can always be counterbalanced or offset by a sufficient addition of independent goods, at least within the same life. (Consider Figure 1.1.)

This offsetting premise has more problems than are commonly recognized, including the often sidelined question of what justifies it in the first place.[1] In population ethics, it plays a key role in generating moral implications such as ‘Creating Hell to Please the Blissful’.[2] At the individual level, the offsetting premise implies that a rollercoaster life that contains arbitrary durations of unbearable agony and a sufficient amount of non-relieving goods (Figure 1.2) has greater wellbeing than does a completely untroubled life. These issues highlight the importance of exploring alternative conceptions of wellbeing that do not rely on the offsetting premise.

Figure 1.1. All else equal, can agony always be offset by adding enough happy moments elsewhere, even within a life?
Figure 1.2. The supposedly positive balance of a rollercoaster life of unbearable agony plus a sufficient amount of non-relieving goods.

Minimalist alternatives

Minimalist views work without the concept of independent goods. Instead, they define things that make our life go better for us in entirely relational terms, via the absence of sources of illbeing. In other words, minimalist views take a fully relational approach to positive value, and thereby avoid the problems that are specific to the offsetting premise.[3]

Minimalist views are often overlooked in existing introductions to wellbeing theories, which tend to focus only on the variety of “good minus bad” views on offer.[4] Yet not only do minimalist views deserve serious consideration for their comparative merits, they can also be positively intuitive in their own right.[5]

In particular, minimalist views can make sense of the practical tradeoffs that many of us reflectively endorse, with no need for the offsetting premise in the first place. And because many minimalist views focus on a single common currency of value, they are promising candidates for resolving conflicts between multiple, seemingly intrinsic values. By contrast, all “good minus bad” views are still pluralistic in that they involve at least two distinct value entities.[6]

Although minimalist views do not employ the concept of an independent good, they still provide principled answers to the question of what makes life better for an individual. And in practice we would be wise to consider the narrow question of what is ‘better for oneself’ within the broader context of what is ‘better overall’. In this context, all non-egoistic minimalist views agree that life can be worth living and protecting for its overall positive roles.[7]

In this chapter, I briefly explore the variety of minimalist views of wellbeing, not to provide an exhaustive survey, but to give a sense of their diversity and intuitive appeal.

For instance, experientialist minimalist views, such as tranquilism, align with the “experience requirement”, which is the intuition that our wellbeing cannot be directly affected by things outside our experience.[8] In contrast, extra-experientialist minimalist views, such as antifrustrationism or objective list minimalism, reject the experience requirement.[9] Thus, they can align with the intuition that premature death can leave us worse off, such as when it results in frustrated preferences, violation of autonomy, or ruined life projects.[10]

The next section will outline some of the main problems with the offsetting premise of “good minus bad” views. The rest will explore what might be the most intuitive ways to think of wellbeing without it.

Reasons to doubt the offsetting premise: A brief overview

The offsetting premise posits that any independent bads can always be counterbalanced or offset by a sufficient addition of independent goods. To motivate the exploration of minimalist views of wellbeing, this section will briefly outline some of the main reasons to doubt the offsetting premise.[11]

  1. Lack of comprehensive defenses:[12] Major defenses of offsetting views lack comprehensive defenses of the offsetting premise, even though this premise has been rejected in various ways and faces additional challenges compared to minimalist views. (These various rejections and challenges are outlined below.)
  2. Problems with existing defenses:[13] Existing defenses of the offsetting premise often rely on thought experiments intended to show that alternative views would have implausible implications.[14] Yet these defenses tend to be unconvincing for a number of reasons. Specifically, they …
    1. … are confounded by various other issues and practical intuitions that are not supposed to influence our judgment in the relevant cases.[15]
    2. … often assume the existence of “higher” states above a subjectively flawless or completely undisturbed state to begin with. Yet a strong case can be made that a completely undisturbed state is rarely if ever reached during our waking hours, and that a completely undisturbed state is plausibly the hedonic ceiling.[16]
    3. … rarely address extra-experientialist minimalist views that avoid the purportedly implausible implications without relying on the offsetting premise.[17]
    4. … rarely attempt to show that the implications of minimalist views would be worse than those of offsetting views. A ‘side-by-side’ comparison provides reason to think that the opposite is the case: that the minimalist implications are the least repugnant.[18]
  3. Various views reject the premise:[19] The offsetting premise has been rejected in various ways, such as by the views below. (The first two will not be explored further in this chapter.)
    1. Incommensurate value entities:[20] Some philosophers hold that pleasure has intrinsic value, but deny that pleasure can compensate for suffering.[21]
    2. Lexical priority views centered on severe bads:[22] Lexical views grant categorical priority to certain value entities relative to others. Such views are often centered on severe bads.[23] For instance, many people have the intuition that torture-level suffering cannot be counterbalanced by any purported good.[24]
    3. Minimalist views:[25] Minimalist views entirely reject the notion of independent goods, and instead understand good in relational terms.[26] Closely associated is the normative view that ethics is about solving problems and not about creating unneeded goods that do not relieve anyone’s burden (“non-relieving goods”).[27]
  4. Additional challenges compared to minimalist views:[28] It is widely accepted that severe bads can outweigh milder ones, such as when we prioritize severe suffering over minor pains in triage situations. Yet this notion of “negative outweighing”, shared by both offsetting and minimalist views, is fundamentally different from the additional offsetting premise, according to which problematic states like severe suffering could be “canceled out” or “made up for” by the creation of unneeded goods elsewhere. The offsetting premise thus faces the additional challenges of how to justify …
    1. … that subjectively unbearable agony, or any bads at all, could be counterbalanced by non-relieving goods (as well as what these goods are, and why some of them are better than others).[29]
    2. … why a rollercoaster life of “unbearable agony plus a sufficient amount of non-relieving goods” (Figure 1.2) has greater wellbeing than a completely untroubled life.
    3. … why offsetting views would be more plausible in the context of population ethics, where a strong case can be made that they share all the most “repugnant” features of minimalist views while introducing additional sources of repugnance.[30]
  5. A priori reasons to doubt phenomenological dual opposites:[31] Offsetting views are sometimes defended with reference to a phenomenologically opposite counterpart to suffering. Yet the idea of such dual opposite dimensions of experience is less parsimonious and less simple than a view without such opposites.[32] Additionally, it is unclear whether the notion of phenomenological opposites even makes sense, and what it would be like for two experiential states to be dual opposites.
  6. Lack of introspective evidence:[33] A direct argument against the existence of a phenomenological counterpart to suffering is that, for many of us, introspection yields no sign of such a counterpart. When we introspectively examine various candidates of positive experiences, we seem to find no phenomenological properties that would render them dual opposites of suffering.[34] (Readers are encouraged not to take this claim on authority, but to earnestly pursue this introspective exercise themselves.)
  7. Deflationary or debunking explanations for why we might believe in a positive counterpart:[35] There are reasonable alternative explanations for the belief in a positive counterpart to suffering:
    1. A misprojection of our common tendency to think in terms of positive and negative real numbers:[36] We tend to think in terms of real numbers and basic addition, since they offer a powerful conceptual framework that is perfectly valid in many contexts. Consequently, we might project these numbers onto our experiences, even if introspection or other evidence might ultimately fail to support such a conceptual representation in this domain.[37]
    2. Confusion between relative and absolute “pluses”:[38] We might mistake a reduction in discomfort, boredom, or the like (a relative “plus”) for a genuinely positive experience (an absolute “plus”), when in fact the latter may not exist.[39]

The variety of minimalist views

Experientialist views

Experientialist views say that our wellbeing cannot be directly affected by things outside our experience.[40] Experientialist minimalist views define wellbeing as the degree to which we are free from experiential sources of illbeing, such as pain, suffering, disturbance, or a visceral non-acceptance of our current experience. Such views often draw inspiration from the Buddhist or Epicurean philosophical traditions.

At first glance, the various kinds of experientialist minimalist views may seem to differ in only semantic or aesthetic ways. And perhaps they are more similar to each other than are extra-experientialist views. Yet they still differ substantially in how they understand the nature of experiential wellbeing.

For instance, some views might say that the unpleasant quality of an experience is intrinsically bad for us in an objective or ‘attitude-independent’ way, regardless of our own stance on it. By contrast, other views are more subjective or ‘attitude-sensitive’. That is, they might equate wellbeing with things like how much we ourselves wish for our experience to change: the less, the better. Tranquilism, in particular, posits that no experience is inherently desirable nor undesirable, and focuses instead on our subjective need for change.[41]

Buddhist minimalism

Some minimalist views of wellbeing are based directly on Buddhist ideas. For instance, according to philosopher and scholar of Buddhism Daniel Breyer, the Pāli Buddhist tradition understands wellbeing as consisting in the cessation of dukkha (suffering, ‘dis-ease’, dissatisfaction), with other factors being good for us only insofar as they contribute to the cessation of dukkha.[42]

Epicurean minimalism

Similar minimalist views may be inspired by the Epicurean tradition. For instance, a kind of minimalist hedonism results from rejecting the concept of positive pleasure at the descriptive level, and adopting instead these Epicurean-inspired concepts of kinetic and static pleasures:[43]

  1. Kinetic pleasure: “Kinetic pleasure is the active removal of a pain”.[44] It is “what results from fulfilling a desire” or when a “lack or need is being removed”.[45] It is what we usually call pleasure, yet it is actually not an independent good but rather a temporary relief from a prior experiential disturbance.
  2. Static (katastematic) pleasure: Static pleasure is the upper limit that the kinetic, remedial pleasure leads up to, “a condition of absolute contentment in mind and body”.[46] There is no higher pleasure: “The limit of pleasure is reached with the removal of all pain”; freedom from all pain is the summit of pleasure.[47]

Together, these concepts are taken to cover all experiences of pleasure. For instance, “joy is active, the removal of mental pain, while tranquillity is the static state of being without [any] distress”.[48] Thus, there are ultimately just more or less disturbed experiential states, and according to Epicurean-inspired minimalist views, greater wellbeing consists in reducing our experiential disturbances. (For more on this, see Appendix 1.)

Contraction-based minimalism

In various interviews and conversations, meditator Roger Thisdell has outlined a minimalist view of wellbeing that is rooted in his own phenomenological observation. The view is formulated in the following terms.[49]

  1. Contraction versus pleasure: All experiences contain some level of unpleasantness or disturbance, which Thisdell calls ‘contraction’. This contraction exists at a more concrete, phenomenologically pinpointable level than does pleasure. Pleasure is, on closer inspection, more like a comparative judgment or evaluation that occurs after experiencing a relief from contractive pressure.[50]
  2. Betterness and cessation: As one feels less and less contraction (and thus more expansion), one feels better and better. Yet, the complete absence of disturbance is only achieved in moments when all experiences and phenomenology cease. According to Thisdell, this undisturbed state is what meditators call ‘cessation’, which is beginning to be studied in neuroscience.[51]


Tranquilism as proposed by Lukas Gloor is a view of wellbeing inspired by Buddhist and Epicurean ideas. It understands wellbeing in the following way.[52]

  1. Wellbeing and cravings: Wellbeing is the degree to which we are free from cravings, which are defined as need-based, visceral desires to change something about our current experience. Cravings are what make an experience bad for us. For instance, the sensation of pain, without any craving for it to end, is not intrinsically bad according to Gloor.[53]
  2. Optimal states: Optimal states are free from aversive components and from cravings for more pleasure. They include states of contentment such as meditative tranquility and flow states, as well as all subjectively flawless states of inner peace, dreamless sleep, and non-consciousness.[54]
  3. Pleasure and cravings: Pleasure, understood as a sensation that increases our hedonic level, can be valuable for its roles in preventing and protecting against the formation of cravings. But the absence of unneeded pleasure is entirely unproblematic. A pleasureless state of consciousness, if free from all cravings, is considered perfectly optimal and happy.[55]

In other words, tranquilism emphasizes our ‘inside view’ and considers all subjectively untroubled states as optimal because they are not experienced as suboptimal. By contrast, an offsetting hedonism entails the ‘outside view’ that more pleasure would always be better for us, even if we do not crave or desire it.[56]

Extra-experientialist views

Preferentialist views

Offsetting preferentialism holds that (1) satisfied preferences are good for us, (2) frustrated preferences are bad for us, and (3) the former can offset the latter.[57]

In contrast, professor of philosophy Christoph Fehige has defended a view called antifrustrationism, which holds only the second premise:

We don’t do any good by creating satisfied extra preferences. What matters about preferences is not that they have a satisfied existence, but that they don’t have a frustrated existence. … Maximizers of preference satisfaction should instead call themselves minimizers of preference frustration.[58]

A similar view has been expressed in the past by Peter Singer: “The creation of preferences which we then satisfy gains us nothing. We can think of the creation of the unsatisfied preferences as putting a debit in the moral ledger which satisfying them merely cancels out.”[59]

The main difference between experientialist minimalist views and Fehige’s view is that, according to the latter,

People need not be aware of their preferences; what counts is rather the attitude they would have towards something if they fully represented it.[60]

See also the explanation and defense of ‘negative ideal preference utilitarianism’ found in the Negative Utilitarianism FAQ.[61]

Conditional interests versus teleological goods

Closely related to preferentialist minimalist views are views centered on conditional interests, as defended by philosopher Johann Frick.[62] These views are structurally similar to Fehige’s view, except they apply to interests rather than preferences.[63][64] 

Frick’s view gives us reason to be skeptical of the concept of intrinsic value, as it criticizes the “teleological view of wellbeing”, which holds that wellbeing is something to be “promoted” in an unconditional sense.

In Frick’s words (emphases mine):

According to the teleologist, the appropriate response to what is good or valuable is to promote it, ensuring that as much of it exists as possible …

Next, note that viewing some value F as to be promoted implies that there is no deep moral distinction between [1] increasing the degree to which F is realized amongst existing potential bearers of that value, and [2] creating new bearers of that value.[65]

In contrast, Frick argues that we never have unconditional reasons to bring about new instances of wellbeing as a teleological good.[66] What instead matters is individuals’ degree of wellbeing conditional on their existence, that is, whether their interests are satisfied or violated if they exist.

Thus, by analogy to how Fehige’s view was about the minimization of frustrated preferences, one can understand Frick’s view to be about the minimization of violated interests. That is, we have reasons to satisfy interests so that they are not violated, but we have no reasons to create new satisfied interests, all else being equal.[67]

Objective list views

Lastly, there are minimalist versions of objective list views. Objective list views of wellbeing typically claim that various objective goods contribute independently to our wellbeing, where these objective goods may include things like personal achievements, knowledge, and autonomy.

Minimalist versions of objective list views can retain largely the same list of objective goods, yet the important difference is that they construe these “goods” purely in terms of the absence of bads. As described by Vinding regarding the purported objective goods of autonomy and virtuous conduct:

For example, rather than seeing autonomy as an objective good that can bring our wellbeing above some neutral level, the absence of autonomy is seen as an objective bad that detracts from our wellbeing, placing us below a neutral or unproblematic state of wellbeing; and having full autonomy can at most bring us to an untroubled or unproblematic level of wellbeing. … Rather than seeing virtue as an objective good that contributes positively to wellbeing, vice is seen as an objective bad that contributes negatively, and virtue may be understood as the mere absence of vice (cf. Kupfer, 2011; Knutsson, 2022a, sec. 4). And so on for any other purported objective good.[68]

The list of objective bads that matter independently to our wellbeing may include things like compromised health, false beliefs, ignorance, premature death, uncompleted life projects, being constrained, being discriminated against, being exploited, being manipulated, being subjected to violence, and so on.

Objective list views need not entail that such objective conditions are the only things that matter to our wellbeing, but merely that certain objective conditions also matter. Thus, one may think that our wellbeing consists in both our objective conditions and our experiential states.

This brings us to a more general point, namely that the individual views explored in this chapter need not be endorsed as standalone views, but can also be combined into a wide variety of minimalist hybrid theories of wellbeing. For example, one may endorse a minimalist hybrid view according to which our experiential states, preferences, conditional interests, and objective conditions all contribute independently to our wellbeing.

This gives a sense of the potential flexibility and variety of minimalist views of wellbeing, and a sense of how there are many reasonable alternatives to “good minus bad” views.


I am grateful for helpful comments by Eleos Arete Citrini, Anthony DiGiovanni, Barry Grimes, Simon Knutsson, Winston Oswald-Drummond, Michael St. Jules, Roger Thisdell, and Magnus Vinding.


Anonymous. (2015). Negative Utilitarianism FAQ. utilitarianism.com/nu/nufaq.html

Breyer, D. (2015). The cessation of suffering and Buddhist axiology. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 22, 533–560. blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2015/12/Breyer-Axiology-final.pdf

Chappell, R. Y. & Meissner, D. (2023). Theories of Well-Being. utilitarianism.net/theories-of-wellbeing

Crisp, R. (2021). Well-being. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition). Stanford University. plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/well-being

DiGiovanni, A. (2021b). Tranquilism Respects Individual Desires. anthonydigiovanni.substack.com/p/tranquilism-respects-individual-desires

Fehige, C. (1998). A Pareto Principle for Possible People. In C. Fehige & U. Wessels (Eds.), Preferences (pp. 508–543). Walter de Gruyter. fehige.info/pdf/A_Pareto_Principle_for_Possible_People.pdf

Fletcher, G. (2016). The Philosophy of Well-Being: An Introduction. Routledge. doi.org/10.4324/9781315745329

Fox, J. I. (2022). Does Schopenhauer accept any positive pleasures? European Journal of Philosophydoi.org/10.1111/ejop.12830

Frick, J. (2014). ‘Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People’: A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics (Doctoral dissertation). Harvard University. dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/13064981/Frick_gsas.harvard.inactive_0084L_11842.pdf

Frick, J. (2020). Conditional Reasons and the Procreation Asymmetry. Philosophical Perspectives, 34(1), 53–87. doi.org/10.1111/phpe.12139

Gloor, L. (2016). The Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics. longtermrisk.org/the-case-for-suffering-focused-ethics

Gloor, L. (2017). Tranquilism. longtermrisk.org/tranquilism

Gloor, L. (2022). Population Ethics Without Axiology: A Framework. forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/dQvDxDMyueLyydHw4

Gómez-Emilsson, A. (2021). A Conversation with Roger Thisdell about Classical Enlightenment and Valence Structuralism. qri.org/blog/classical-enlightenment-and-valence-structuralism

Knutsson, S. (2015). The ‘Asymmetry’ and extinction thought experiments. simonknutsson.com/the-asymmetry-and-extinction-thought-experiments

Knutsson, S. (2016c). Value lexicality. simonknutsson.com/value-lexicality

Knutsson, S. (2019). Epicurean Ideas about Pleasure, Pain, Good and Bad. simonknutsson.com/epicurean-ideas-about-pleasure-pain-good-and-bad

Knutsson, S. (2021b). The world destruction argument. Inquiry, 64(10), 1004–1023. doi.org/10.1080/0020174X.2019.1658631

Knutsson. S. (2022a). Pessimism about the value of the future and the welfare of present and future beings based on their acts and traits. simonknutsson.com/pessimism-value-future-welfare-acts-traits

Knutsson, S. (2022b). Undisturbedness as the hedonic ceiling. simonknutsson.com/undisturbedness-as-the-hedonic-ceiling

Knutsson, S. (2023a). My moral view: Reducing suffering, ‘how to be’ as fundamental to morality, no positive value, cons of grand theory, and more. centerforreducingsuffering.org/research/my-moral-view-reducing-suffering-by-simon-knutsson

Knutsson, S. & Thisdell, R. (2023). Roger Thisdell on undisturbedness, positive experiences, and the hedonic peak. simonknutsson.com/roger-thisdell-on-undisturbedness-positive-experiences-and-the-hedonic-peak

Knutsson, S. & Vinding, M. (forthcoming). Introduction to suffering-focused ethics.

Kupfer, J. (2011). When the badness of vice outweighs the goodness of virtue: A moral asymmetry. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 45, 433–441. doi.org/10.1007/s10790-011-9305-x

Laukkonen, R. E. et al. (2023). Cessations of consciousness in meditation: advancing a scientific understanding of nirodha samāpatti. Progress in Brain Research, 280, 61–87. doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2022.12.007

Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2017). Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. doi.org/10.1093/actrade/9780198728795.001.0001

Leighton, J. (2023). The Tango of Ethics: Intuition, Rationality and the Prevention of Suffering. Imprint Academic. goodreads.com/book/show/61889824

Moorhouse, F., Plant, M., & Houlden, T. (2020). The philosophy of wellbeing. happierlivesinstitute.org/report/the-philosophy-of-wellbeing

Perry, L. (Host). (2022, October 6). Roger Thisdell on Centerlessness, Cessations, Defabrication, Valence, and Insight (No. 6) [Audio podcast episode]. youtube.com/watch?v=0EluGc-uf0Q

Prest, S. & Thisdell, R. (2022). Expansion & Contraction (the subtlest experiential distinction). rogerthisdell.com/post/expansion-contraction-the-subtlest-experiential-distinction

Schopenhauer, A. (1819/2012). The World as Will and Idea (Vol. 3 of 3). Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org/files/40868/40868-pdf.pdf

Schopenhauer, A. (1851/2004). The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer: Studies in Pessimism. Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org/files/10732/10732-h/10732-h.htm

Schroeder, M. (2018). Value theory. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition). Stanford University. plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/value-theory

Sherman, T. (2017). Epicureanism: An Ancient Guide to Modern Wellbeing (MPhil dissertation). University of Exeter. ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/32103/ShermanT.pdf

Singer, P. (1980). Right to Life? nybooks.com/articles/1980/08/14/right-to-life

St. Jules, M. (2019a). Conditional interests, asymmetries and EA priorities. forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Sz7FrpdvSduQRSEnu

St. Jules, M. (2019b). Defending the procreation asymmetry with conditional interests. forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/2BWQ4NrCEP7a4vzaW

Tomasik, B. (2015c). A Small Mechanical Turk Survey on Ethics and Animal Welfare. reducing-suffering.org/a-small-mechanical-turk-survey-on-ethics-and-animal-welfare

van der Deijl, W. (2021). The sentience argument for experientialism about welfare. Philosophical Studies178(1), 187–208. doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01427-w

Vinding, M. (2020c). On purported positive goods “outweighing” suffering. centerforreducingsuffering.org/research/on-purported-positive-goods-outweighing-suffering

Vinding, M. (2020d). Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications. Ratio Ethica. magnusvinding.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/suffering-focused-ethics.pdf

Vinding, M. (2022a). Comments on Mogensen’s “The weight of suffering”. centerforreducingsuffering.org/comments-on-the-weight-of-suffering

Vinding, M. (2022b). Critique of MacAskill’s “Is It Good to Make Happy People?”. forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/vZ4kB8gpvkfHLfz8d

Vinding, M. (2022c). Lexicality between mild discomfort and unbearable suffering: A variety of possible views. centerforreducingsuffering.org/lexicality-a-variety-of-possible-views

Vinding, M. (2022e). A phenomenological argument against a positive counterpart to suffering. centerforreducingsuffering.org/phenomenological-argument

Vinding, M. (2022f). Point-by-point critique of Ord’s “Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian”. centerforreducingsuffering.org/point-by-point-critique-of-why-im-not-a-negative-utilitarian

Vinding, M. (2022h). Reply to Gustafsson’s “Against Negative Utilitarianism”. centerforreducingsuffering.org/reply-to-gustafsson

Vinding, M. (2022k). A thought experiment that questions the moral importance of creating happy lives. centerforreducingsuffering.org/a-thought-experiment-that-questions-the-moral-importance-of-creating-happy-lives

Vinding, M. (2023). Minimalist versions of objective list theories of wellbeing. magnusvinding.com/2023/04/10/minimalist-versions-of-objective-list-theories-of-wellbeing

Wolf, C. (1997). Person-Affecting Utilitarianism and Population Policy. In J. Heller & N. Fotion (Eds.), Contingent Future Persons. Kluwer Academic Publishers. web.archive.org/web/20190410204154/https://jwcwolf.public.iastate.edu/Papers/jupe.htm

Appendix: Expanding the Epicurean notion of freedom from all pain

At first, we may find implausible the Epicurean notion that the highest pleasure is freedom from all pain.[69] Yet we might find it more intuitive once we unpack the full meaning of “all pain”. As expanded in Knutsson (2022b, sec. 2.1), a completely undisturbed state is entirely free from any bothersome instances of a long list of things, including:

  • ache, agitation, agony, alienation, angst, anguish, annoyance, anxiety, boredom, compression, confusion, contempt, dejection, depression, desolation, despair, desperation, discomfort, discontentment, disgust, dislike, dismay, disorientation, dissatisfaction, distress, dread, embarrassment, enmity, ennui, envy, fear, frustration, gloominess, grief, guilt, hatred, heartbreak, horror, hopelessness, humiliation, hurting, impatience, indignation, insecurity, irritation, jealousy, loneliness, longing, loathing, loss, malaise, melancholia, nausea, nervousness, pain, panic, queasiness, regret, rejection, remorse, resentment, restlessness, sadness, shame, sorrow, stress, suffering, tension, terror, throb, tiredness, trouble, unease, unsafety, vexation, want, weariness, Weltschmerz, worry;
  • feelings of being or having been betrayed, disliked, exploited, harmed, let down, neglected, treated badly, underappreciated, unloved, unwanted, or used;
  • feelings of being or having been a burden on, bad for, or harmful to others;
  • feelings of meaninglessness;
  • feelings of effort, resistance, and struggle;
  • feeling burdened, constrained, lack of control, overworked, stuck, threatened, unfortunate, unfree, unlucky, or weak;
  • feeling damaged, decaying, declining, defective, ignorant, ill, incompetent, like a bad person, like a failure, like an impostor, low self-esteem, stupid, ugly (or that part of oneself is ugly), unclean, unhealthy, worthless, or of low worth.
Figure A1.1. Two different ways to think of the quality of the same life over time. (Illustration by Simon Knutsson from Knutsson & Vinding, forthcoming.)


  1. ^

    Vinding, 2020c2022e.

  2. ^

    More in Chapter 4.

  3. ^

    I use the term ‘relational value’ as a synonym for ‘instrumental value’ to avoid the latter term’s misleading connotations. These connotations might lead us to perceive this value narrowly or unwisely as “merely instrumental… merely a tool”, or as somehow diminished relative to the actual importance of the value in question. More in 6.2.

  4. ^

    For instance, minimalist views of wellbeing are overlooked in the introductions by Fletcher (2016); the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Crisp, 2021); the Happier Lives Institute (Moorhouse et al., 2020); and Utilitarianism.net (Chappell & Meissner, 2023). But minimalist views of wellbeing have been defended in the philosophical literature, such as by Schopenhauer (1819, “the negative nature of all satisfaction”; 1851, “negative in its character”; see also Fox, 2022, “pleasures of distraction”); Fehige (1998); Breyer (2015); Sherman (2017); and Knutsson (2021b, sec. 3, “about negative well-being”).

  5. ^

    More on the comparative implications of minimalist and offsetting views in Chapter 4 and Chapter 5.

  6. ^

    For some reasons that might motivate a preference for value monism, see the debate between monists and pluralists on the topic of value incommensurability, Schroeder, 2018, sec. 2.2.3.

  7. ^

    More in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6.

  8. ^

    On experientialism about wellbeing, see van der Deijl, 2021.

  9. ^

    Not all objective list views reject the experience requirement, but the ones I examine do, hence the categorization used in this brief chapter.

  10. ^

    In other words, the extra-experientialist minimalist views in this chapter agree that we can have reasons to stay alive even for our own sake, namely to live a life that is better for us than a life cut short. And at the normative level, all minimalist views can support practical reasons to strongly oppose cutting lives short ( These reasons include the preservation of relationally positive roles, lives, and norms.

  11. ^

    The points in this section are summarized mostly from Chapter 4Chapter 5. and Vinding, 2020c2022e. Some of the points may overlap with each other; they are numbered primarily for readability.

  12. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 1.

  13. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 6.

  14. ^

    See Vinding, 2020c, sec. 6.1sec. 6.22022b2022f2022h.

  15. ^

    Such confounders are discussed at least in; Knutsson, 2015; and Vinding, 2022k. These confounders also include misleading framings that are prone to paint a picture that is far from what a minimalist would endorse as an accurate understanding of their views (Vinding, 2020c, sec. 6.1; 2022f, sec. 11sec. 15). For instance, beings may be described as experiencing states of “mere neutrality” — of being “reduced” or “not particularly happy” — where the accurate understanding would be “completely untroubled by any experiential bads” (cf. Knutsson, 2022b; Gloor, 2017, sec. 4.2).

  16. ^

    This argument is made in Knutsson, 2022b. I convey a sense of the main idea in Appendix 1.

  17. ^

    Vinding, 2022a, sec. 2.1.

  18. ^
  19. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 2.

  20. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 2.1.

  21. ^

    Wolf, 1997. Compare also the ‘xNU+’ framework of Leighton, 2023.

  22. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 2.5.

  23. ^

    Knutsson, 2016c, “Lexicality of bads over goods”.

  24. ^
  25. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 2.3.

  26. ^

    More on the relational view of goods in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6.

  27. ^

    More on the view that ethics is about problems in 3.3.4; Vinding, 2020c, sec. 2.4; and Leighton, 2023, chap. 4, “The Notion of Urgency”.

  28. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 4sec. 5.

  29. ^

    Vinding, 2020c, sec. 3.2.

  30. ^

    This case is made in Chapter 4. A counterexample might be replacement arguments (discussed in Chapter 5 and Knutsson, 2021b), where purely consequentialist versions of experientialist minimalist views would imply that there is nothing suboptimal about replacing any world with an empty world (“cessation”). Yet how repugnant are such cessation implications if we already assume a purely consequentialist and experience-focused view? When we properly account for the consequentialist equivalence between cessation and non-creation (5.2.2), this question is equivalent to the question of how repugnant it is to not create any set of experiences for their own sake. And here one may find non-creation to be wholly non-repugnant (4.3.4). By contrast, the replacement implications of consequentialist offsetting views seem worse, including the implication to replace completely untroubled lives with rollercoaster lives (cf. Chapter 45.2.5).

    (Other minimalist views, explored in 1.3.2, may consider cessation suboptimal due to extra-experiential bads such as preference frustration.)

  31. ^

    Vinding, 2022e, sec. 3.1.

  32. ^

    Specifically, the assumption of dual opposites implies a more bloated and less sparse ontology, and goes against old ideals of avoiding unnecessary postulations in our explanatory models. (Thanks to Simon Knutsson for comments on this point.)

  33. ^

    Vinding, 2022e, sec. 3.2.

  34. ^

    Vinding, 2022e, sec. 1.

  35. ^

    Vinding, 2022e, sec. 4.

  36. ^

    Vinding, 2022c, sec. 4.

  37. ^

    And more broadly, our styles of thinking may be influenced by a deep cultural history where it often made practical sense to quickly divide various things into opposite categories, such as ‘good–bad’, ‘positive–negative’, and ‘right–wrong’. But this way of dichotomous, dualistic, or absolutizing thinking is not the only way of thinking, and while it might make sense in mathematical domains, it might be better seen as a practical heuristic elsewhere. We might not even gravitate there ourselves, had we grown up thinking comparatively in terms of betterness relations. See also Knutsson, 2023a, “Scepticism of categorical value notions”, “Thinking comparatively”.

  38. ^

    Vinding, 2022e, sec. 4.

  39. ^

    See Sherman (2017, p. 8, sec. 11.2), Gloor (2017, sec. 2.1), and Knutsson (2022b, sec. 5.2).
    Additionally, Fox (2022) explains how Schopenhauer maintained that all pleasures feel only relatively good, because they are either (1) “pleasures of satisfaction”: satisfying a prior lack or need, or (2) “pleasures of distraction”: reducing our awareness of a lack or need. Both types of pleasure strongly correlate with a relative freedom from felt dissatisfaction, which could explain why we might mistake them for inherently positive experiences instead of just relatively positive changes compared with our preceding states.
    (A third type of “relatively positive experience” could be the prediction-based “anticipation of positive future changes”, namely changes that are desirable for preventing some dissatisfaction that we intuitively care about, even if this dissatisfaction is not currently ours; cf. Gloor, 2017, sec. 4.5; Vinding, 2022e, sec. 7.)

  40. ^

    van der Deijl, 2021.

  41. ^

    Gloor, 2017, sec. 5.

  42. ^

    Breyer, 2015.

  43. ^

    These ideas are traced to their sources and explored much further in Sherman, 2017, and Knutsson, 20192022b.

  44. ^

    Sherman, 2017, p. 53.

  45. ^

    Cf. Knutsson, 2019.

  46. ^

    Sherman, 2017, p. 106.

  47. ^

    Cf. Knutsson, 2022b.

  48. ^

    Sherman, 2017, p. 53.

  49. ^

    Gómez-Emilsson, 2021; Perry, 2022; Prest & Thisdell, 2022; Knutsson & Thisdell, 2023.

  50. ^

    Cf. the Epicurean notion of kinetic pleasure,

  51. ^

    Laukkonen et al., 2023. Regarding how common Thisdell’s view of wellbeing is, Thisdell thinks that many people familiar with deep meditation might agree that there is no higher state than a completely peaceful one, but that many such people might not use an analytical framework that would lead them to compare the value of individual states in this isolated manner (Knutsson & Thisdell, 2023).

  52. ^

    Tranquilism by itself is an experientialist minimalist theory of wellbeing. Yet the author also notes in many places that it is only intended to be a theory of momentary experiential wellbeing and not a standalone moral theory, emphasizing how it is compatible with views that incorporate non-experiential aims.

  53. ^

    Cravings are a specific kind of desire, distinct from preferences and reflection-based desires. Preferences, according to Gloor, are abstract constructs that are present at all times. Desires, in contrast, are seen as preferences that have been “activated” or turned into conscious goals. Cravings are the need-based, visceral desires that we often cannot help but develop. (Gloor, 2017, sec. 2.2)

  54. ^

    Gloor, 2017, sec. 2.1sec. 3.

  55. ^

    Gloor, 2017, sec. 2.1sec. 4.1sec. 4.2sec. 5.

  56. ^

    This respect for ‘inside’ over ‘outside’ desires about experiences is also the focus of two brief defenses of tranquilism by Vinding (2020d, p. 49) and DiGiovanni (2021b).

  57. ^

    Preference-based views are also called “desire theories”, and philosophers tend to use the words “preference” and “desire” interchangeably. But I will speak of “preferentialist views” and “preferences”, to maintain a clear contrast to experientialist desire-based views such as tranquilism.

  58. ^

     Fehige, 1998, p. 518. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifrustrationism. More on antifrustrationism in the context of population ethics in 3.3.

  59. ^

    It is worth noting that Singer (1980) wrote favorably of combining Preference Utilitarianism and Classical Utilitarianism. Yet Singer appears to have moved further toward Classical Utilitarianism in recent years (see e.g. Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2017, chap. 3).

  60. ^

    Fehige, 1998, p. 509.

  61. ^

    Anonymous, 2015.

  62. ^

    Frick, 20142020. Frick’s thesis and paper have also inspired the conditional interest views that have been explored, on the Effective Altruism Forum, by Michael St. Jules (2019a2019b) and Lukas Gloor (2022).

  63. ^

    St. Jules, 2019a.

  64. ^

    To highlight their possible differences: It might be in our interest that we, for instance, acquire more skills, freedom, or access to pain relief, even if we have no preference for it. Or we might prefer to take certain health risks, or undergo certain hardships, that are not in our own best interest.

  65. ^

    Frick, 2020, pp. 63–64.

  66. ^

    By analogy, Frick finds it striking how the teleological promotion approach seems even more problematic for moral values other than wellbeing, such as “[justice,] liberty, equality, fairness, honesty, fidelity, loyalty, promise keeping, gratitude, charity, health, safety, etc.”:

    None of these values appear even remotely plausible as candidates for “promotion” [in the teleological sense]. For instance, while we recognize strong moral reasons to make people free and equal, freedom and equality clearly do not require us to create new people so that they, too, may instantiate these values. [Frick, 2020, pp. 65–66.]

  67. ^

    As Michael St. Jules (2019a) put it: “We accomplish no good by creating and then satisfying an interest, all else equal, because interests give us reasons for their satisfaction, not for their existence or satisfaction over their nonexistence.”

  68. ^

    Vinding, 2023. Minimalist objective list views can also support the view that premature death is bad in many ways: “For not only may these views consider premature death to be bad because it entails many other objective bads (e.g. death would prevent us from completing our life projects), but these views may also see premature death itself as an objective bad.”

  69. ^


Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Thank you for presenting these views! This was very interesting. 

I have some questions of interest to me - apologies if I've missed something and for these being slightly outside of scope.

  1. Can one use these views in a quantification exercise (e.g., cost-effectiveness of interventions in terms of wellbeing), and if so, how would this work?
    1. How distinct would minimalism be from prioritarianism / views focused on reducing suffering?
    2. Couldn't someone still be an offsetter but dislike the roller-coaster life compared to a more neutral life because they add a discount for variance?
  2. To me, antifrustrationism doesn't sound too different from non-minimalist preferentialism. Can you help me understand, please. All the desires I have can create a frustration if not satisfied, whether that desire is to have more board games or to have less pain. Say I have both of these desires satisfied, I've removed 2 units of frustration from the leger / satisfied 2 desires, right? I've resolved the same % of preferences on both views. Or is that me already thinking in minimalist terms that preferentialism is a % of things to resolve?

Thanks, and no worries about the scope! Others may know better about the practical/quantification questions, but I'll say what comes to mind.

1. Rather than assuming positive units, one could interpret wellbeing changes in comparative terms (of betterness/worseness), which don't presuppose an offsetting view. For some existing measures, perhaps this would be only a matter of reinterpreting the data. A challenge would be how to account for the relational value of e.g. additional life years, given that experientialist minimalist views wouldn't consider them an improvement in wellbeing solely for one's own sake (all else equal). This raises the complex question of how to estimate the value of years added to the life of people who don't live for their own sake; presumably the narrow, individual-focused approach wouldn't see it as an improvement (in exp min terms), but then I'd probably search for less narrow approaches in practice.

a. Depends on how they're defined. Purely suffering-focused views would be minimalist. Other suffering-focused views could allow offsetting in some cases. Prioritarianism could mean that we prioritize helping the worst off, but need not specify what counts as helping; for instance, it could still count the addition of 'non-relieving goods' as a form of helping that simply ought to go to the worst off first.

b. Sure, though I guess we could then raise them another life whose moments of unbearable agony are supposedly just barely outweighed by its other moments after accounting for the discounts. (At least for me, the common theme in why I tend to find such implications problematic seems to relate to the offsetting premise itself, namely to how the moments of subjectively unbearable agony presumably don't agree with it.)

2. Perhaps the key difference is that minimalist preferentialism would equate complete preference satisfaction with "0%" preference frustration, whereas offsetting preferentialism would count (at least some) satisfied preferences as somehow positively good beyond their being 0% frustrated. The latter raises the problems of treating preference satisfaction as an independent good that could offset frustration. (Cf. "Making desires satisfied, making satisfied desires" by Dietz, 2023, e.g. the cases in section 2.3.)

Thank you for taking the time to reply. Your responses to 1a and 1b make sense to me. 2 I'm still exploring and turning these ideas around in my mind - thank you for the paper. I wonder if some of this can be tested by asking people about their number of desires, general life satisfaction, % life satisfaction/desires fulfilled. 

If I may, I'd like to expand a bit on number 1.

  • It seems like in terms of extending lives minimalist views have an Epicurean view of the badness of death / value of life? The good of saving a life is only the spillovers (what the person would do to the wellbeing of others, the prevented grief, etc).
  • If we narrow the scope to improving existing lives, is the general conclusion of minimalist wellbeing theories that we should deliver interventions that prevent/reduce suffering rather than add wellbeing? 

It seems like in terms of extending lives minimalist views have an Epicurean view of the badness of death / value of life? The good of saving a life is only the spillovers (what the person would do to the wellbeing of others, the prevented grief, etc).

Solely for one's own sake, yes, I believe that experientialist minimalist views generally agree with the Epicurean view of the badness of death. But I think it's practically wise to always be mindful of how narrow the theoretical, individual-focused, 'all else equal' view is. As I note in the introduction,

in practice, it is essential to always view the narrow question of ‘better for oneself’ within the broader context of ‘better overall’. In this context, all minimalist views agree that life can be worth living and protecting for its overall positive roles.

I also believe that exp min views formally agree with the meaning of your second sentence above (assuming that the "etc" encompasses the totality of the positive roles of the lives saved and of the saving itself). But perhaps it might be slightly misleading to say that the views imply that the goodness of lifesaving would be "only the spillovers" (🙂), given that the positive roles could be practically orders of magnitude more significant than what suffering the life would cause or contain. This applies of course also in the other direction (cf. the 'meat-eater problem' etc.). But then we may still have stronger (even if highly diffuse) instrumental reasons to uphold or avoid eroding impartial healthcare and lifesaving norms, which could normatively support extending also those lives whose future effects would look overall negative on exp min wellbeing views.

Additionally, whether or not we take an anthropocentric or an antispeciesist view, a separate axis still is whether the view is focused mainly on severe bads like torture-level suffering (as my own view tends to be). On such severe bad-focused views, one could roughly say that it's always good to extend lives if their total future effects amount to a "negative torture footprint" (and conversely that the extension of lives with a positive such footprint might be overall bad, depending still on the complex value of upholding/eroding positive norms etc.).

(For extra-experientialist minimalist views, it's not clear to what degree they agree with the Epicurean view of death. That class of views is arguably more diverse than are exp min views, with some of the former implying that a frustrated preference to stay alive, or a premature death, could itself be a severe bad — potentially a worse bad than what might otherwise befall one during one's life. It depends on the specific view and on the individual/life in question.)

If we narrow the scope to improving existing lives, is the general conclusion of minimalist wellbeing theories that we should deliver interventions that prevent/reduce suffering rather than add wellbeing? 

Strictly and perhaps pedantically speaking, theories of wellbeing alone don't imply any particular actions in practice, since the practical implications will also depend on our normative views which many people might consider to be separate from theories of wellbeing per se.

But yeah, if one construes "adding wellbeing" as something that cannot be interpreted as "reducing experiential bads" (nor as reducing preference frustration, interest violations, or objective list bads), I guess it makes sense to say that minimalist wellbeing theories would favor interventions whose outcomes could be interpreted in the latter terms, such as preventing/reducing suffering rather than adding wellbeing as a 'non-relieving good'.

Regarding the existing measures of 'life satisfaction' (and perhaps how to reinterpret them in minimalist terms), I should first note that I'm not very familiar with how they're operationalized. But my hunch is that they might easily measure more of an 'outside view' of one's entire life — as if one took a 3rd person, aggregative look at it — rather than a more direct, 'inside view' of how one feels in the present moment. And I think that at least for the experientialist minimalist views that were explored in the post, it might make more sense to think of such views as being focused on the inside view, i.e. on the momentary quality of one's experiential state (which is explicitly the focus in tranquilism).

A problem with the 'outside view' could be that perhaps it becomes cognitively/emotionally inaccessible to us how we actually felt during times where we might have given a life satisfaction rating of 0/10 (or -5/10, or just a very "low" score), and thus we might effectively ignore their subjective weight (at the time) if we later attempt to aggregate over the varying degrees of frustration/satisfaction during our entire life. And if we as researchers care about how minimalist views would estimate the value of some wellbeing interventions, it's worth noting that people with minimalist intuitions often see a theoretical or practical priority to reduce/prevent the most subjectively bad experiences. So perhaps a better practical wellbeing measure for (experientialist) minimalist views would be something like experience sampling — ideally such that it would capture how much people in fact appreciate the contrast in moving up from the lowest scores (and not only the perhaps relatively 'non-relieving' movement from 7–8, 8–9, or 9–10).

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities