What’s the Ethical Principle Guiding Thanos’ Snap?

With Avengers Endgame upon us, I decided to reflect on Thanos’ motivations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll be jumping right into the ethics behind the motivation for Thanos’ snap.

What was he thinking?

Thanos sought to reduce suffering in populations by halving their current size. This plan has significant problems, to say the least. Even assuming that overpopulation is a concern for the various life forms of the MCU, population dynamics are complex and arbitrarily reducing populations without regard for specific conditions — like growth rate, resource consumption, etc. — is at best idiotic. Economists and biologists have torn apart the logic of Thanos’ plan so I’m not here to do that. I’m more interested in looking at what principles might be motivating Thanos.

Regardless of how ill-conceived his plan was, at the crux of it is a desire to minimize suffering on a massive scale. One could say that Thanos acted on a maximizing principle that sought to minimize suffering. This roughly falls under the purview of a normative ethical position called negative utilitarianism (NU).

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical position that says we should seek out actions that maximize happiness or wellbeing for the greatest number of people. In contrast, NU says we should seek out actions that minimize suffering for the greatest number of people. The reasons for why reducing suffering is more important than producing happiness in populations might differ slightly depending on how NU is articulated. However, one key reason for this is that proponents of NU suggest there is a natural asymmetry between suffering and pleasure. This asymmetry has been articulated in philosophies as old as Jain and Buddhism, and certain facets of NU might exist in these philosophies.

As a brief aside, readers of this blog might recall that I mentioned negative utilitarianism briefly in my antinatalism post. It’s important to note that not all proponents of NU are antinatalists and not all antinatalists use NU (or negative consequences in general) to justify their arguments against having children. For example, David Benatar’s point about how people don’t consent to being born is an appeal to a deontological intuition rather than a consequentialist one.

Breaking down negative utilitarianism

How would a principle like NU require us to act? Well, at its most extreme we’d be required to act exactly as Thanos. This form of negative utilitarianism can be thought of as an absolutist or “strong” NU which suggests that the value of pleasure is morally neutral, so we’re not obligated to do things that benefit people outside of reducing their suffering. And it turns out the fastest way to reduce suffering is eliminating anyone who can suffer.

In fact, in a reply to Karl Popper, the philosopher who is credited with formalizing NU in contemporary philosophy, the philosopher Roderick Ninian Smart proposes a thought experiment (“the benevolent world-exploder”) that is similar to Thanos’ snap:

Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds.

Smart’s reply was seen as a challenge to articulate why NU isn’t a principle that necessarily requires us to act in such a destructive way. In response, NU proponents say we can act to reduce suffering without going to such extremes. They argue that NU is not incompatible with other ethical principles such as preferences or rights, which is why Smart’s benevolent destroyer can come across as a strawman for someone who finds some aspects of NU appealing.

NU takes on different flavors depending on what types of conditions are specified when formulating a NU principle. Some of these conditions include:

  • What is the weight of (dis)utility? How much weight should a formulation of NU give to suffering over happiness? Does a trade-off exist between negative experiences and positive ones? If absolutely no trade-offs exist, then any sort of benevolent destroyer appears more reasonable under NU because reducing suffering would be the only option for improving the wellbeing of populations.
  • Should we accept a total minimization/maximization principle? If we assume that happiness is morally neutral, we’re still faced with the question of the extent to which we are required to minimize suffering. Are we obligated to completely eliminate suffering or reduce it to an acceptable level? It is true that a goal of total minimization of suffering that gives no moral weight to happiness might lead to the world-exploder scenario. In the same vein, though, a total maximizing utilitarianism would be okay with the repugnant conclusion — discussed this blog’s 2018 Halloween post — or a replacement of everyone in the world with different but much happier people who don’t currently exist. This serves to illustrate that NU isn’t special in leading to unpalatable conclusions when taken to an extreme.
  • What role do preferences play? Just like utilitarians, proponents of NU can distinguish between minimizing (negative) hedonic or subjective states or experiences and minimizing frustrated or unachieved preferences. If what a NU proponent should care about is preferences rather than feelings, destroying life may be far from an optimal solution because “decimating” or otherwise painlessly annihilating a population might frustrate many people’s natural preference to live.
  • Moral side constraints. Negative utilitarianism like utilitarianism can be formulated in a way to respect ethical side constraints, such as human or animal rights, or other ethical concerns that we might not want violated. A formulation of NU taking this into account can only minimize suffering insofar as it respects these constraints. No matter how painless, annihilation definitely doesn’t respect these constraints.

Like Smart’s benevolent destroyer, Thanos’ snap takes none of the conditions into consideration, making him a pretty bad (negative) utilitarian under many formulations of NU.

If you want to see objections to Smart’s world-exploder, you can read some of them here.

Making Thanos a better negative utilitarian

Let’s say you’re committed to some version of NU, and you acquire the infinity gauntlet or have Thanos’ ear. Can you do a better version of Thanos’ snap?

Some viewers of Infinity War point out that an infinity gauntlet should be able to increase the number of resources in the universe. For the purpose of this thought experiment, I’m going to prevent that, not just because it wouldn’t be fun, but because I don’t think the gauntlet works that way in the MCU. Maybe Endgame will show us if this is actually true.

If I had to stay close to the spirit of how Thanos was portrayed while changing his actions, I could imagine him having the option to alter hearts and minds. If resource conflict will necessarily cause conflict for the populations of the MCU, just make it so that everyone is satisfied with using less. Reducing the desire to produce meat while creating a zeal for sustainable technologies would go far in reducing suffering in the universe (and between Stark and Wakanda, the latter’s pretty much already happening in the MCU). Sure, this would frustrate people’s existing preferences and would make Thanos a dictator, but it’s at least a little better than the snap, right?

Anyway, feel free to leave your answers in the comments, or share them on Facebook or Twitter @Philosimplicity.