First of all, I don't think that morality is objective as I'm a proponent of moral anti-realism. That means that I don't believe that there is such a thing as "objective utility" that you could objectively measure.

But, to use your terms, I also believe that there currently exists more "disutility" than "utility" in the world. I'd formulating it this way: I think there exists more suffering (disutility, disvalue, etc.) than happiness (utility, value, etc.) in the world today. Note that this is just a consequence of my own personal values, in particular my "exchange rate" or "trade ratio" between happiness and suffering: I'm (roughly) utilitarian but I give more weight to suffering than to happiness. But this doesn't mean that there is "objectively" more disutility than utility in the world.

For example, I would not push a button that creates a city with 1000 extremely happy beings but where 10 people are being tortured. But a utilitarian with a more positive-leaning trade ratio might want to push the button because the happiness of the 1000 outweighs the suffering of the 10. Although we might disagree, neither of us is "wrong".

Similar reasoning applies with regards to the "expected value" of the future. Or to use a less confusing term: The ratio of expected happiness to suffering of the future. Crucially, this question has both an empirical as well as a normative component. The expected value (EV) of the future for a person will both depend on her normative trade ratio as well as her empirical beliefs about the future.

I want to emphasize, however, that even if one thinks that the EV of the future is negative, one should not try to destroy the world! There are many reasons for this so I'll just pick a few: First of all, it's extremely unlikely that you will succeed and will probably only cause more suffering in the process. Secondly, planetary biocide is one of the worst possible things one can do according to many value systems. I think it's extremely important to be nice to other value systems and promote cooperation among their proponents. If you attempted to implement planetary biocide you would cause distrust, probably violence and the breakdown of cooperation, which will only increase future suffering, hurting everyone in expectation.

Below, I list several more relevant essays that expand on what I've written here and which I can highly recommend. Most of these link to the Foundational Research Institute (FRI) which is not a coincidence as FRI's mission is to identify cooperative and effective strategies to reduce future suffering.

I. Regarding the empirical side of future suffering

II. On the benefits of cooperation

III. On ethics

I would add that -- according to MWI -- even if you succeed at planetary biocide, it simply means you are removing life from those Everett branches where humanity is able to successfully accomplish planetary biocide. Which are coincidentally also the branches which have highest chance to eliminate or reduce the suffering in the future.

It would be quite sad if the last filter towards achieving paradise would be that any civilization capable of achieving the paradise would realise that it is not there yet and that the best course of action is to kill itself.

Net Utility and Planetary Biocide

by madhatter 1 min read9th Apr 201743 comments


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.