Net Utility and Planetary Biocide
I’ve started listening to the audiobook of Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World, which is both highly recommended and very unsettling. The essays on non-human animals, for example, made me realize for the first time that it may well be possible that the net utility on Earth over all conscious creatures is massively negative.
Naturally, this led me to wonder whether, after all, efforts to eradicate all consciousness on Earth—human and non-human—may be ethically endorsable.This, in turn, reminded me of a recent post on LW asking whether the possibility of parallelized torture of future uploads justifies killing as many people as possible today.
I had responded to that post by mentioning that parallelizing euphoria was also possible, so this should cancel things out. This seemed at the time like a refutation, but I realized later I had made the error of equating the two, utility and disutility, as part of the same smooth continuum, like [-100, 100] ∈ R. There is no reason to believe the maximum disutility I can experience is equal in magnitude to the maximum utility I can experience. It may be that max disutility is far greater. I really don’t know, and I don’t think introspection is as useful in answering this question as it seems intuitively to be, but it seems quite plausible for this to be the case.
As these thoughts were emerging, Singer, as if hearing my concerns, quoted someone or other who claimed that the human condition is one of perpetual suffering, constantly seeking desires which, once fulfilled, are ephemeral and dissatisfying, and therefore it is a morally tragic outcome for any of us to have emerged into existence.
Of course these are shoddy arguments in support of Mass Planetary Biocide, even supposing the hypothesis that the Earth (universe?) has net negative utility is true. For one, we can engineer minds somewhere in a better neighborhood of mindspace, where utility is everywhere positive. Or maybe it’s impossible even in theory to treat utility and disutility like real-valued functions of physical systems over time (though I’m betting it is). Or maybe the universe is canonically infinite, so even if 99% of conscious experiences in the universe have disutility, there are infinite quantities of both utility and disutility and so nothing we do matters, as Bostrom wrote about. (Although this is actually not an argument against MPB, just not one for it). And anyway, the state of net utility today is not nearly as important as the state of net utility could potentially be in the future. And perhaps utilitarianism is a naive and incorrect ethical framework.
Still, I had somehow always assumed implicitly that net utility of life on Earth was positive, so the realization that this need not be so is causing me significant disutility.