The Worst of All Possible Universes

by Benjamin Studebaker

As a utilitarian, whenever moral philosophy comes up, I always find myself having to answer some hypothetical designed to show how very clearly and obviously all morality cannot merely be about consequences by engaging some emotional, intuitive moral feeling meant to be common to all people. Too often, utilitarians accept this constant defensive position against all other values as their lot. Today I’d like to go on the offensive with a moral hypothetical of my own–the case of the worst of all possible universes.

Take any value deemed important by opponents of utilitarianism–autonomy, motivation, property rights, whatever floats your boat. Now imagine that if we follow through on that principle, the consequence will be a universe that is, in every other respect aside from that principle, as bad as possible.

The most common objection I hear is that we should not use people as means to ends. The trolley case is the common example. Here’s how it works. A trolley is coming down a track, where it will hit five people. However, you can throw a bystander in front of the trolley so that the trolley only kills that bystander, saving the five. Here you’re supposed to have the moral intuition that using one person without his consent to save five others in this way isn’t right.

As I’ve said before of the trolley case, it takes advantage of people’s moral ambivalence about murdering people, which they have picked up through their moral education as children. We are constantly told that murder is wrong, always wrong, don’t murder. So when we are put in a position in which murdering seems logically right, our instinct is to find some emotional work-around, and that’s this principle of “not using people as means”. What we need to do is break this work around, throw the light on it and show it to be obviously misguided. How can we do that? We raise the stakes with “the worst of all possible universes”.

Instead of the trolley case, let’s imagine the worst of all possible universes that nonetheless includes the value that people are not to be used as means. This is a universe in which people are not used as means, but in every other respect it is as bad as you can imagine, and then some. Every second spent in the worst of all possible universes every single cell in your body feels like it is being tortured in the extreme. Not only is there constant infinite physical pain, but there is constant infinite mental pain–everyone is insane, depressed, and experiences terrifying hallucinations. Everyone constantly feels on the brink of starvation, driving people to eat, but all the food is nonetheless so horrible and painful to eat that no one can manage to keep it down. If there’s any aspect of life that doesn’t involve using people as means to ends, it’s totally awful. Every value besides the one in question (in this case, using people as means) is inverted as far as possible. Oh, and one more thing–no matter how bad it gets, you cannot manage to die. There is no escape; it goes on forever. Oh, and let’s throw this in too–you are driven by an unknown, indefatigable, irresistible hormonal force  to have sex from which you can derive no pleasure and only further pain, bringing children into this universe, children whose entire lives will consist of this same suffering, and for which you will feel infinitely responsible even though your compulsion to have sex was outside your ability to self-regulate.

Now imagine that our universe is about to become the worst of all possible universes that nonetheless includes the value that people are not to be used as means is about to become reality, unless one specific individual pushes a button. However, this individual is under some incentives. If he pushes the button, he will himself be killed, even though the rest of us will be spared the worst of all possible universes. If however he refuses to push the button, he will go to the best of all possible universes while the rest of us are condemned to the worst. Rightly or wrong, this individual refuses to push the button, because he is a misanthrope and an egoist and considers only his own welfare to be of any value. However, while we do not have access to the button itself, we do have access to a coercion device via a remote controller. The coercion device cannot push the button, but it can force our misanthropic egoist to push it. In so doing, we would use this individual as a means to our end, sacrificing him to save all of us from forever being condemned to the worst of all possible universes.

So how can the anti-utilitarian respond to this? Condemning everyone to the worst of all possible universes for an eternity to avoid using the misanthropic egoist is utterly mad and surely wrong. Well, I anticipate that what they would argue that, so long as the moral principle they value is preserved, the worst of all possible universes save that value cannot be that bad. This can be done only by expanding the principle. So say, instead of a principle of “don’t use people as means”, the principle is “liberty”. Liberty could be taken in both positive and negative senses (positive meaning people are enabled to do what they desire, negative meaning people are free from coercion) and an ever-expanding list of other moral values could be subsumed under liberty through its positive and negative aspects so as to diminish the awfulness of the worst of all possible universes. To this, I have two responses:

  1. Can natural pain or misery really be said to be a violation of liberty?
  2. Doesn’t this eventually make the liberty principle indistinct from the principle of utility?

If I may expand on each in turn…

We usually say someone’s liberty is infringed only when a person coerces them or denies them opportunity. If the natural conditions of the universe were such that we were simply miserable no matter what we did, could we really say that we had our liberty infringed upon? It is simply the nature of our reality, there is no tyrant upon whom we can place blame.

But suppose that the proponent of liberty finds a workaround such that all instances of pain are deemed infringements on liberty regardless of their natural or man-made origin. At this point, all kinds of pain are taken to be instances in which liberty is infringed. But wait a moment–isn’t that more or less the utilitarian position? Utilitarians believe that pain is bad and that we should avoid it. If the lover of liberty calls all pain the absence of liberty, is he not just calling utility by another name? Think of it this way, say I have a list of some values:

  • Safety
  • Liberty
  • Equality
  • Pleasure
  • Knowledge
  • Health

What the utilitarian does is take all of these values and subsume them under one principle, “utility”. Utility counts all of these values as contributory to it, but it does not allow any one of them to be king over the others. A healthy person is better off than an unhealthy person, but if, in order to be perfectly healthy, we have to  completely negate liberty and live as slaves, there is some degree to which too much health would not be of net benefit. The utilitarian balances all of these values against each other, and, while there’s lots of room for disagreement among utilitarians as to which values are more important or to what degree various values bring about good consequences, no utilitarian completely discounts one or more values in favour of others. The only king is consequences, all others are humble servants.

But what do non-utilitarians do? One of two things:

  1. Assert one of these values to be the king of all others. Say liberty is the king–all other values take a back-seat, never to receive any consideration if they would compromise liberty in the slightest. It doesn’t matter if liberty makes us all ignorant, or in constant pain, or in terrible health, or very unequal, or what have you.
  2. Assert more than one of these values to be joint kings of all the others. Say liberty and knowledge together are kings–the trouble with this is that inevitably liberty will contradict knowledge and then we have no logical moves. If both values are infinitely important such that infringement is moral sacrilege, a contradictory case just invalidates the moral view.

The second move always runs into a contradiction eventually and breaks down, so what the non-utilitarian has to do is take the first view and then hold the other values to be mere forms of the first value. So instead of health being different from liberty, health is a kind of liberty. Do this enough times, however, and you’re already taking into account so many values in your liberty calculus that you might as well be making a utility calculus. If liberty is health, knowledge, equality, pleasure, and safety, liberty is no longer defined in such a way that it is distinct from “the good” in general. At this point, the anti-utilitarian is an anti-utilitarian in name only, and should cease his denial and openly acknowledge his position.

One final thought–this “worst of all possible universes” is bizarrely similar to hell. Christianity is perhaps quite utilitarian–the reason you do not do evil in Christianity is to avoid going to hell, to the worst of all possible realms. And what makes something a sin in Christianity? The fact that you can be sent to hell for it, to the worst of all possible realms, this and this alone is sufficient. Some Christians dispense with hell and use heaven, the best of all possible realms, as a positive incentive by itself, but moral behaviour in Christianity is still ultimately derived from bringing about good or bad consequences–either going to heaven or to hell. If you do not believe in heaven or hell, you are left practising the Christian morality purely on the basis that you believe god wants you to, even though you do not believe you will be rewarded or punished, which is a rather strange and arbitrary reason to behave a given way. Doing something purely because you have been told to do it sounds rather slave-like. No, a belief in heaven and/or hell is a necessary component for the Christian morality to be reasonable.