I believe that the pains and pleasures of others are just as important as my own, whether I like them or not. But I know someone who argues otherwise, and thinks that it’s a matter of complete indifference what happens to anyone who you dislike. I obviously disagree with this, but can’t effectively argue against it. How would a utilitarian handle this?

  • As @ Yuri mentioned the concept of ubuntu, a similar one is: "one cannot be clean when everything around one is dirty." This pretty much summarizes everything.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 8 at 11:46
  • This is not particularly tied to utilitarianism, nevertheless one cannot be happy when people around him are not happy, since one influences the other. As some note: our wellbeing passes through the wellbeing of others.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 8 at 11:52

2 Answers 2


Some (all?) pre-civilization languages had words that denote a certain long forgotten concept. In Zulu that word is ubuntu, and it can be roughly translated as "I cannot be happy when others are sad." This is obviously true with respect to one's family, as it used to be true with respect to one's tribe. In our interconnected world, however, the same rule expands to cover every person on this planet. Even the people we don't particularly like -- or, perhaps, especially the people we don't like.

It's easy to see how this might work once we assume that every person has a relationship with themselves, and that this relationship mirrors their relationships with others. That's why we should strive to improve our relationships with those we don't like much -- because we often place ourselves near the top of that list. This can help.

  • +1 for "ubuntu". A similar argument is that "one cannot be clean when everything around her is dirty".
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 8 at 9:08
  • I wonder what the connection to computers is?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 8 at 13:20
  • @ScottRowe -- I suppose an open-source project can be regarded as a community whose members derive satisfaction from helping each other. Commented Mar 8 at 18:24
  • Ok, I was thinking it was something like, "I cannot be happy when others are using an OS developed by a huge corporation that charges fees and almost entirely controls the market for decades", but your answer is more likely correct :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 8 at 19:15
  • 1
    @ScottRowe -- This world is still a mess. But that's why it pays to remember the better angels of our nature and try and build on that. Commented Mar 8 at 20:24
  • If you're indifferent to the suffering of people you dislike, this may encourage people who dislike you to similarly be indifferent to your suffering (or see it positively). This probably wouldn't be great for you: they wouldn't make any attempt to stop any suffering you may experience now or in future (or they may cause it themselves, with intentional malice or accidental indifference).

    So it's arguably in your own best interest to try to minimise the suffering of others, whether you like them or not.

  • More generally, if you're indifferent to the suffering of others, people may be less concerned with your suffering, given a "you reap what you sow" kind of mindset.

  • People you dislike have friends and family who you may not dislike, and the suffering of the person you dislike could negatively affect those people. This could be from the emotional effect of seeing a loved-one suffer, or they could more directly be affected by the suffering, e.g. if someone you dislike becomes paralysed, their spouse and kids may be left caring for them, and may experience financial difficulties and related stress.

    Even just seeing or being aware of suffering could negatively affect others.

  • Someone's suffering may create a strain on society and inhibit this person from contributing to society, which is worse for everyone (including you).

  • I don't know that I dislike anyone enough to be indifferent to their suffering (nor see it positively). I can't turn my empathy on and off based on whether I like someone.

  • Right, the most selfish thing you can possibly do is to care as much for others as you can.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 8 at 13:19

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