Universal Subjectivism: An Ethical Theory for the 21st Century

Universal subjectivism is an ethical theory ultimately aimed at decreasing suffering and promoting happiness.

Philosophy for a Better World

“Philosophy for a Better World,” by Floris van den Berg, emphasizes that today the near-term future is our greatest challenge: our affluent western lifestyle will soon exceed the limits of the earth's sustainable capacity and must soon change drastically to ward off a worldwide environmental collapse.

Cover Courtesy Prometheus Books

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In Philosophy for a Better World (Prometheus Books, 2013), Dutch philosopher Floris van den Berg proposes a new ethical theory, called universal subjectivism, which can be adopted by anyone regardless of religious or philosophical orientation. It takes into consideration the universal capacity for suffering and, through raising awareness, seeks to diminish that suffering and increase happiness. With consistent and crystal clear moral reasoning, van den Berg shows that the world can be organized to ensure more pleasure, beauty, justice, happiness, health, freedom, animal welfare, and sustainability. The excerpt below comes from chapter 1, “Introduction to a Better World.”

On the whole, we don’t take the ethical and ecological consequences of our daily activities into account: taking the car to work, eating meat, flying to our holiday destination, wearing cotton shirts, buying strawberries in winter, acquiring hardwood garden furniture, eating fish, using plastic bags in stores. There are ethical and ecological objections to each of these examples. Without our being aware of it, our lifestyle does an immeasurable amount of damage to human beings, animals, and nature. Everyday actions therefore have to be assessed on the basis of their moral acceptability. Alas, the conclusion is that almost nothing we do can stand up to an ethical analysis. And that is frustrating. A lot of (unnecessary) suffering attaches to our way of life. The ethical investigation of your own lifestyle can lead to a disturbing experience, an ethical gestalt switch. Suddenly you’re no longer the hero of your own life story but the villain.

The job of philosophers is searching for blind spots in our knowledge and epistemological methods on the one hand, and for blind spots in our ethics on the other. Philosophers are explorers in the realm of ideas. During the last few decades their explorations have turned up many new ethical blind spots. That has led to emancipation movements and action groups on behalf of homosexuals, women, unbelievers, animals, the environment, and future generations. But how do you find such blind spots? After all, you can’t perceive your own. By searching actively, with the help of guidelines and theoretical insight, you can succeed in finding new moral blind spots. When such a blind spot has been located, it is important to solve the problem. For example, in his book Animal Liberation in the early 1970s, the philosopher Peter Singer focused attention on the suffering of animals in intensive factory farming.

Less Suffering, More Happiness

This book explains the theory of what I call universal subjectivism. This is an ethical theory that everyone can apply quite simply to the search for blind spots and to finding the ways of making them disappear. The point of departure is the capacity for suffering. The issue is to diminish suffering and promote happiness.

The summit of 2500 years of philosophical writing is a three-word sentence in a footnote in a book by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832): “Can they suffer?” These three words are the most profound and important words in all of the history of philosophy.

Bentham points to the essential issue in ethics, that is, the capacity for suffering. What matters is not the possession of certain faculties, such as thinking or speaking, but the capacity of being able to suffer.

Bentham concludes that, from this perspective, the way human beings treat animals is unethical: “The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity [hairiness] of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum [the large heavy bone at the base of the spine], are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?

Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”

Human society could be arranged a good deal better than it is.

This book investigates how the world could be made more pleasing, better, more just, more beautiful, happier, healthier, freer, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more sustainable than it is now.

How could there be less suffering and more happiness? For this purpose, I have designed a politico-philosophical theory called universal subjectivism. This ethical theory is a stepping-stone toward looking at the world and exposing problems. Contemporary philosophers such as John Rawls, Peter Singer, A. C. Grayling, Paul Cliteur, and Paul Kurtz are an important source of inspiration. This theory is not a panacea for every problem. It can make many problems visible and it can also be used to solve them. That there will be problems left over is yet another reason to keep looking for solutions. My concern is to decrease suffering and to promote happiness. Universal subjectivism offers a guiding principle for ethical action.

The need for a theory is urgent, but the need for action is even more pressing. There is an unbelievable amount of suffering in the world, and a great deal of that suffering is easily preventable provided there is a collective will to do so. One of the greatest moral problems in the United States, as in other western countries—factory farming—could be solved simply by immediately passing a law prohibiting factory farming while simultaneously stimulating and subsidizing small-scale and environmentally friendly raising of cattle and other animals. Every day people die of starvation, although there is enough food to feed the population of today’s world; everyday people die because of a lack of medication, although the medication could have been supplied easily. A huge problem is the future: humans are ruining the earth on an unprecedented scale, and the limits of the earth’s capacity will soon be reached. It is five minutes to twelve. The time has come for action and for establishing priorities. The human lifestyle has to change drastically. How and why—that is what I will examine in this book. This is an urgent ethical appeal. If, after reading this book, the reader continues with business as usual, it means the message hasn’t registered. Come on: wake up!

Do something!

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Philosophy for a Better World by Floris van den Berg and published by Prometheus Books, 2013.