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.