Aug 272011

It is fairly normal and natural to associate negative utilitarianism — the doctrine that we should minimize the amount of suffering in the world — with antinatalism. The reasoning from the one to the other is (or seems) pretty straightforward. Everyone, even very happy, fortunate people, can be expected to have at least some suffering in their lives. So if we add people to the world, we add suffering to the world. Therefore we should refrain from adding new people to the world.

Under many realistic conditions this reasoning is likely to be sound, but there can be exceptions which are worthy of attention if different people have complementary existences. Consider a simple (if fanciful) example. On Planet Eden there is only one person, Lonely Adam. In his life there will be ten units of suffering. Much of Lonely Adam’s suffering is due precisely to the fact that he is lonely. If he had a companion, he would have only five units of suffering in his life. Suppose a Utilitarian Demiurge oversees Planet Eden and has the capacity to create Cheerful Eve, who will have only one unit of suffering in her life. In a hypothetical Eden containing both Lonely Adam and Cheerful Eve, there will be therefore 5 + 1 = 6 units of suffering, which is less than the ten units Adam would otherwise have had to bear. The Utilitarian Demiurge would thus seem to have a compelling reason for creating the new person Cheerful Eve.

It might be objected that there is something obnoxious about the creation of Cheerful Eve, for example that Cheerful Eve is being somehow treated as a means to relieve Lonely Adam’s suffering. Kantians think this is a lethal objection. I see this “problem” as a general feature of consequentialist ethical theories and tend to be unimpressed by it. It is certainly not the case that Cheerful Eve is just some sort of object here — her suffering does count in any sensible deliberation about what to do (it would be forbidden to create her, for example, if her life would contain six units of suffering). More generally it seems easily justifiable to interfere with people’s existences all the time. If we humanely incapacitate a serial rapist (say, by warehousing him a in virtual reality for the rest of days where he can assault NPCs rather than real people to his heart’s content), then we are surely in some sense treating as a means for achieving the well-being of others (most importantly his would-be future victims). But seriously, I don’t have a problem with that, not even if he simply couldn’t have helped being a serial rapist to begin with.

If we consider interpersonal complementarities, we can even specify conditions under which the continued creation of new people seem like a good idea. Consider an imagined World of Progress. Every new person suffers some in their existence and so by coming into existence adds to the world’s stock of suffering. But unlike in our world where new people suffer about as much (and sometimes more) than existing people, in the World of Progress the suffering of new people declines on the margin the following fashion. That is, the first new person added will have a units of suffering in her life, the second new person will have ar2 units (r < 1), the third ar3, and so forth.

It doesn’t take a math genius (which is lucky for me, as I am not one) to see that what we have here is a convergent geometric series.

It has a sum that is a finite value. If it is also a property of the World of Progress that the amount of suffering reduced in people existing before the creation of the first new person by means of having the sequence of new people come into existence, then we have constructed a set of conditions under which we would want to create an infinite number of new people, even if we accept negative utilitarianism and even if each new person adds some suffering to the world.

I must say this strikes me as a counterintuitive result. I very much doubt it has any immediate applicability to the world we actually live in, although there are possible worlds in which it matters.

Something like this result might motivate what I have called in commentary discussion with CM and JasonSL the High Threshold View,, that is, the view that it is not wrong to create new people if they will have a very high quality of life (or, in negative utilitarian terms, very little suffering in their lives). After all (to the extent that we have negative utilitarian intuitions, anyway) there is at least some argument for bringing into existence people who will experience little suffering (like Cheerful Eve) and help relieve the suffering of others. The more suffering they have in their lives, the more dubious the argument for their being brought into existence becomes. There might also be a link to the attractions of posthumanism here: the better our technology, the more our world would resemble a World of Progress (which does look a bit like what I’ve called Future P, although it is not necessarily identical to it) and the less the world we actually, and unfortunately, have to live in.

 Posted by at 16:53

  8 Responses to “Negative utilitarianism and antinatalism: an exception”

  1. Why wouldn’t a “Utilitarian Demiurge” just kill Adam?

    • Good objection.

      One could take the view — as David Benatar apparently does — that being killed means suffering an evil, although this view sits rather uneasily with the sort of views that underlie negative utilitarianism, at least as long as Adam is killed instantly and painlessly and experiences no anticipation or premonition that he is going to die and there’s no one else around to experience deprivation or bereavement at his death (and assuming further that the Utilitarian Demiurge doesn’t suffer from it either). I’m not sure whether I accept the view that death is an evil completely independently of whatever experiences attend it and indeed, incline to reject it.

      Alternatively this question introduces a reductio of negative utilitarianism, at least in a pure form. Many people think it would clearly be wrong to do something that would cause sentient life to just wink out (pressing “the Big Red Button,” as it were). If one accepts that argument, then one should seek a modified view at the very least — either that there should be side constraints on the pursuit of negative utilitarian goals, or that one should accept some elements of standard utilitarianism back into the picture.

      • You could argue that being killed is bad for someone because it deprives them of a future that is, on balance, worth experiencing. If Lonely Adam’s future is not worth experiencing, then killing him does him a favor.

        If, on the other hand, Lonely Adam’s future is worth experiencing even though he currently experiences 10 units of suffering, we have to abandon negative utilitarianism — there must be good in his life that outweighs the suffering.

        The only difficult situation, it seems to me, is when creating Eve takes Adam from a life that isn’t worth continuing to a life that is. If Eve’s life is not worth experiencing, then my preferred solution is to kill Adam. If Eve’s life *is* worth experiencing, then the demiurge should create her.

        I disagree with Benatar’s view that killing people (painlessly and instantly) is wrong even when their lives are not worth continuing (assuming no-second order effects like promoting fear in society, harming the killed person’s loved ones, etc.). If what counts are subjective experiences (as opposed to stuff like a life narrative, the pursuit of goals, etc.), then killing someone deprives them of positive future experiences and relieves them of negative future experiences. If, by whatever metric, someone’s negative future experiences outweigh their positive ones, then killing them does them a favor.

        All of this analysis presumes that there can be lives worth creating or continuing. I happen to hold this view, but I also place the threshold for such a life much higher than most people do — high enough that I consider myself an antinatalist, or at least, a “mininatalist” or “paucinatalist”.

        What’s problematic for us mortals who can’t (or won’t) go around killing people with lives not worth continuing is what attitude to have toward creating people with lives not worth creating who will nonetheless relieve great amounts of suffering in others. If by creating someone who will have a life that is worse than neutral by a single stomach ache, we take a thousand Austrian-Basement lives to neutrality, then we should create this person.

        I think it’s possible to be a quantitative consequentialist without trying to optimize a universal utility function. With regard to creating and destroying lives, the rules are as follows:
        – Depriving persons of net positive futures is wrong.
        – Depriving non-persons of net positive futures is not wrong — there’s no person to experience the would-have-been positive future.
        – Relieving persons of net negative futures is right (but killing people has very large negative second-order effects, substituting one’s own judgement is problematic, and by doing things that our intuition tells us is wrong, we tend to become worse persons. A world in which high-thresholdists or negative utilitarians go around killing people would be a worse world on the whole.)
        – Relieving non-persons of net negative futures is also right — there *would* be a person to experience the negative future (this is Benatar’s asymmetry).

        I think Benatar’s mistake is an unjustified move from the asymmetry as regards the creation of lives to an asymmetry as regards the things in those lives that make them better or worse. Good things can counterbalance bad things, but the current state of affairs is that on the whole, they don’t.

        (And then there are second-order effects: how a person’s existence affects others. But this comment is already really long.)

  2. This is only tangentially related to your (interesting) point, but this gives structure to a conflict I have been thinking about:

    There are some goods/features of our world that are finite (fossil fuels, amount of sunlight hitting the earth) and must be distributed among the population. For these goods/features, new people always increase suffering for those already in existence. (Whether the pleasure of the new people outweigh this, a priori morally or empirically, is another question; classical economics defines this as not-an-externality by presuming that the pleasure of new people outweighs their effects on already-existing people.)

    There are other goods/features of our world that are either not finitely limited, or increase with population along at least some regions of the population function (attractive sex partners, literature). (Of course, with increasing population also comes increasing competition for at least some of these resources . . . )

    The Bryan Caplans of the world seem only willing to recognize the second type of good/feature, and imagine that the first does not exist.

  3. That is, the first new person added will have a units of suffering in her life, the second new person will have ar2 units (r < 1), the third ar3, and so forth.

    You’re missing the ar term. Doesn’t affect your argument, but, for correctness. . ..

  4. Right on both…thanks.

  5. It is wrong to treat people as means to an end.

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