Universal Subjectivism: An Ethical Theory for the 21st Century

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

| September 2013

  • “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
  • 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.
    Photo By Fotolia/dendron

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.

9/30/2013 3:59:13 PM

"new" theory. sounds like a repackaging of the 4 noble truths taught by the buddha just a few years back.

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