Ambitious utilitarians must concern themselves with death

post by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-10-25T10:41:41.269Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

And I don't mean that they must concern themselves with death in the sense of ending death, or removing its sting through mental backups, or delaying it to the later ages of the universe; or in the sense of working to decrease the probability of extinction risks and other forms of megadeath; or even in the sense of saving as many lives as possible, as efficiently as possible. All of that is legitimate and interesting. But I mean something far more down to earth.

First, let me specify more precisely who I am talking about. I mean people who are trying to maximize the general welfare; who are trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number; who are trying to do the best thing possible with their lives. When someone like that makes decisions, they are implicitly choosing among possible futures in a very radical way. They may be making judgments about whether a future with millions or billions of extra lives is better than some alternative. Whether anyone is ever in a position to make that much of a difference is another matter; but we can think of it like voting. You are at least making a statement about which sort of future you think you prefer, and then you do what you can, and that either makes a difference or it doesn't.

It seems to me that the discussions about the value of life among utilitarians are rather superficial. The typical notion is that we should maximize net pleasure and minimize net pain. Already that poses the question of whether a life of dull persistent happiness is better or worse than a life of extreme highs and lows. A more sophisticated notion is that we should just aspire to maximize "utility", where perhaps we don't even know what utility is yet. Certainly the CEV philosophy is that we don't yet know what utility really is for human beings. It would be interesting to see people who took that agnosticism to heart, people whose life-strategy amounted to (1) discovering true utility as soon as possible (2) living according to interim heuristics whose uncertainty is recognized, but which are adopted out of the necessity of having some sort of personal decision procedure.

So what I'm going to say pertains to (2). You may, if you wish, hold to the idea that the nature of true utility, like true friendliness, won't be known until the true workings of the human mind are known. What follows is something you should think on in order to refine your interim heuristics.

The first thing is that to create a life is to create a death. A life ends. And while the end of a life may not be its most important moment, it reminds us that a life is a whole. Any accurate estimation of the utility of a life is going to be a judgment of that whole.

So a utilitarian ought to contemplate the deaths of the world, and the lives that reach their ends in those deaths. Because the possible futures, that you wish to choose between, are distinguished by the number and nature of the whole lives that they contain. And all these dozens of people, all around the world of the present, ceasing to exist in every minute that passes, are examples of completed lives. Those lives weren't necessarily complete, in the sense of all personal desires and projects having come to their conclusion; but they came to their physical completion.

To choose one future over another is to prefer one set of completed lives to another set. It would be a godlike decision to truly be solely responsible for such a choice. In the real world, people hardly choose their own futures, let alone the future of the world; choice is a lifelong engagement with an evolving and partially known situation, not a once-off choice between several completely known scenarios; and even when a single person does end up being massively influential, they generally don't know what sort of future they're bringing about. The actual limitations on the knowledge and power of any individual may make the whole quest of the "ambitious utilitarian" seem quixotic. But a new principle, a new heuristic, can propagate far beyond one individual, so thinking big can have big consequences.

The main principle that I derive, from contemplating the completed lives of the world, is cautionary antinatalism. The badness of what can happen in a life, and the disappointing character of what usually happens, are what do it for me. I am all for the transhumanist quest and the struggle for a friendly singularity, and I support the desire of people who are already alive to make the most of that life. But I would recommend against the creation of life, at least until the current historical drama has played itself out - until the singularity, if I must use that word. We are in the process of gaining new powers and learning new things, there are obvious unknowns in front of us that we are on the way to figuring out, so at least hold off until they have been figured out and we have a better idea of what reality is about, and what we can really hope for, from existence.

However, the object of this post is not to argue for my special flavor of antinatalism. It is to encourage realistic consideration of what lives and futures are like. In particular, I would encourage more "story thinking", which has been criticized in favor of "systems thinking". Every actual life is a "story", in the sense of being a sequence of events that happens to someone. If you were judging the merit of a whole possible world on the basis of the whole lives that it contained, then you would be making a decision about whether those stories ought to actually occur. The biographical life-story is the building block of such possible worlds.

So an ambitious utilitarian, who aspires to have a set of criteria for deciding among whole possible worlds, really needs to understand possible lives. They need to know what sort of lives are likely under various circumstances; they need to know the nature of the different possible lives - what it's like to be that person; they need to know what sort of bad is going to accompany the sort of good that they decide to champion. They need to have some estimation of the value of a whole life, up to and including its death.

As usual, we are talking about a depth of knowledge that may in practice be impossible to attain. But before we go calling something impossible, and settling for a lesser ambition, let's at least try to grasp what the greater ambition truly entails. To truly choose a whole world would be to make the decision of a god, about the lives and deaths that will occur in that world. The future of our world, for some time to come, will repeat the sorts of lives and deaths that have already occurred in it. So if, in your world-planning, you don't just count on completely abolishing the present world and/or replacing it with a new one that works in a completely different way, you owe it to your cause to form a judgement about the totality of what has already happened here on Earth, and you need to figure out what you approve of, what you disapprove of, whether you can have the good without the bad, and how much badness is too much.

13 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-10-25T12:08:15.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am all for the transhumanist quest and the struggle for a friendly singularity, and I support the desire of people who are already alive to make the most of that life. But I would recommend against the creation of life, at least until the current historical drama has played itself out - until the singularity, if I must use that word.

If we stop making new people, who is it who will gain new powers, learn new things, figure out the unknowns, and create this singularity? Do you think it is so imminent that the current generation will do it?

"Don't do anything until we have it all worked out" is a recipe for doing nothing, ever.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-10-25T23:09:57.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see no prospect that a significant fraction of the human race will become avowed antinatalists any time soon. And even supposing that as much as half of the human race did so... under present conditions, that would mean that the reproducing population of the Earth was still 4 billion, which would just take us back to the mid-1970s, a cohort which was enough to get us to where we are today. So there's no antinatalist threat to the singularity.

Replies from: RichardKennaway
comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-10-26T07:23:09.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Urging a bad policy is not excused by the unlikeihood of anyone taking it seriously. That only reduces the size of the step in the wrong direction.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-10-29T17:04:47.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't want to get provoked into arguing too strongly for antinatalism, because I do think it is futile to prioritize it. I am an antinatalist, but I am also a transhumanist, and the antinatalism definitely comes second, because there is no prospect of the human race just deciding to stop reproducing, whereas it would take a disaster to stop some sort of singularity from occurring, so efforts on that front have more meaning.

I will make one observation about arguing the merits of a "policy" that effectively has no chance of ever being implemented. Because ultra-low-probability outcomes require outlandish scenarios for their realization, such a dialogue is liable to be driven by the whims of the parties to the discussion, who will just conjure up whatever scenarios suit their current agenda. If I want to say that universal antinatalism is worth it, I will produce scenarios with a happy ending. If you want to say it's a bad idea, you'll produce scenarios where it turns out badly. If I want to make a show of considering both sides, I might produce my own bad scenarios. Consideration of outlandish possible worlds can have value as thought experiments and as a way to know one's own preferences, but it doesn't directly determine the merits of anything practical.

So, I could paint a picture of the human race adopting antinatalism and then still engineering a friendly singularity before it dies out, or I could even speak with passion of the evils of life and the very real perils that still lie ahead, and then I could paint a different picture where antinatalism triumphs and a singularity doesn't occur, but where it's still for the best because the human race, relieved of the burden of hope, manages to find some peace in its final days. But it would be easy enough to spin counter-scenarios where things remain bad, or even where there are new forms of badness brought on by the political and cultural triumph of antinatalism.

But what all these scenarios, good and bad, have in common, is that they are not going to happen. I expect the cultural profile of antinatalism to increase in the coming years, it may become a vigorously debated concept, especially given the population declines in some wealthy countries. I can imagine a posthuman world, cut loose from the old modes of life and death, taking the idea more seriously. But human beings, as they are, deciding en masse to end the cycle? I just don't see it.

So the merit of recommending against reproduction is not to be decided by one's attitude towards the possibility of everyone on Earth adopting this advice, regardless of whether one prefers to imagine this in happy or in sad terms, because all such scenarios are of vanishingly small probability. It should instead be judged by the consequences of antinatalism becoming part of the common cultural vocabulary, and the choice of many, but not all, people.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-29T17:08:03.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't want to get provoked into arguing too strongly for antinatalism, because I do think it is futile to prioritize it. I am an antinatalist, but I am also a transhumanist, and the antinatalism definitely comes second, because there is no prospect of the human race just deciding to stop reproducing, whereas it would take a disaster to stop some sort of singularity from occurring, so efforts on that front have more meaning.

One interesting thought experiment I had, once, while contemplating antinatalism -- depending on your estimate of when the singularity occurs, it's very interesting to try and determine just how stringently antinatalism would have to be followed for the extinction of humanity to occur before the singularity happened.

Of course, how antinatalism spreads in the next century or so influences how many people are around to immanentize the eschaton, but the margin of error on your everyday singularity estimate is already too large to bother with second-order effects.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-10-25T13:36:55.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first thing is that to create a life is to create a death. A life ends. And while the end of a life may not be its most important moment, it reminds us that a life is a whole.

This sounds like a vacuously "deep" assertion. What would the negation mean — "A life is not a whole"? A life is part of something larger? A life is more than one thing?

Replies from: janos, khafra
comment by janos · 2012-10-25T14:48:37.127Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One good negation is "the value/intrinsic utility of a life is the sum of the values/intrinsic utilities of all the moments/experiences in it, evaluated without reference to their place/context in the life story, except inasmuch as is actually part of that moment/experience".

The "actually" gets traction if people's lives follow narratives that they don't realize as they're happening, but such that certain narratives are more valuable than others; this seems true.

comment by khafra · 2012-10-25T20:08:23.903Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I think about having children, and I wonder if they'd be happy, overall, I visualize my own childhood and think about ways it could be different; and I think about my adulthood and how my childhood affected it. I don't remember ever thinking about the aging and death of my counterfactual kids; or how the process of senescence and death--which I have no subjective idea about--would affect the total utility of their lifespan.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-10-25T20:23:14.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that the discussions about the value of life among utilitarians are rather superficial.

This should not surprise you; the discussions about morality among utilitarians are rather superficial.

and the disappointing character of what usually happens

It seems to you that lives are usually not worth living? This should be cause for immediate concern about the structure of your life; philosophical troubles can wait.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-10-26T23:43:34.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the discussions about morality among utilitarians are rather superficial

In your opinion, who does have the most insight into morality?

It seems to you that lives are usually not worth living?

That's the angst of antinatalism: can one say "these lives should not have been created" and "these lives are still worth living"?

You once wrote "life on the farm is, for most, horrible". Would you still agree with that? Does it imply that antinatalism is correct in societies where most people are farmers?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2012-10-27T01:30:45.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In your opinion, who does have the most insight into morality?

Game theorists.

can one say "these lives should not have been created" and "these lives are still worth living"?

Yes, but why would one want to?

You once wrote "life on the farm is, for most, horrible". Would you still agree with that?

Yes. I will note that it was in the context of a rural America vs. an industrial America; given that real choice between potential states, I saw far more glory and happiness in the latter than the former.

Does it imply that antinatalism is correct in societies where most people are farmers?

No, because choices should be made in the context of the real alternatives facing the decision-maker. Agricultural lives may be worse suited to the preferences of most people than industrial lives, and industrial lives may be worse suited to the preferences of most people than post-singularity lives, but the choice facing any potential parent in any of those ages is "would I prefer another human related to me in era X, or not?" rather than "what era would I like my child to be born in?"

comment by TimS · 2012-10-25T14:16:16.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the difference between this point and the general concerns underlying the Repugnant Conclusion?

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-10-25T18:13:15.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your post negated in two words:

Value relativity.

You're deciding what you value. That's not necessarily what other people value.

You assert that life is disappointing. I don't find mine so. Nor are any others of those whose lives you personally find disappointing obliged to find their lives disappointing, either. They can find meaning and value where they choose.

I'll take what I can get; I find value in it. If the thought of an ending is so bitter that one cannot countenance beginning, however, no amount of longevity will ever impart meaning, for even an eternal life is merely a sequence of things which begin and end in turn.