Whether one considers the absence of sentience bad or neutral — or indeed as good as can be — will tend to matter a lot for one’s ethical and altruistic priorities. Specifically, it can have significant implications for whether one should push for smaller or larger future populations.
I used to be a classical utilitarian. That is to say, I used to agree with the statement “we ought to maximize the net amount of happiness minus suffering in the world”. And given this view, I found it a direct, yet counterintuitive implication that the absence of sentience is tragic, and something that we ought to minimize by bringing about a maximally large, maximally happy population. My aim in this essay is to briefly present what I consider the main reason why I used to believe this, and also to explain why I no longer hold this view. I am not claiming that the reasons I had for endorsing my past view are shared by other classical utilitarians, yet I suspect they could be, at least by some.
The Reason: Striving for Consistency
My view that the absence of sentience is tragic and something that we ought to prevent mostly derived, I believe, from a wish to be consistent. Given the ostensibly reasonable view that death is bad, it would seem to follow, I reasoned, that since death merely amounts to a discontinuation of life — or, seen in a larger perspective, a reduction of the net amount of sentience — the reduction of sentience caused by not giving birth to a new happy life should be considered just as bad as the end of a happy life. This was counterintuitive, of course, yet I did not, and still do not, consider immediate intuitions to be the highest arbiters of moral wisdom, and so it did not seem that weird to accept this conclusion. The alternative, if I were to be consistent, would be to bring my view of death in line with my intuition that the absence of sentience is not bad. Yet this was too implausible, since death surely is bad.
This, I believe, was the reasoning behind my endorsing a moral obligation to produce a large, happy population. To not create such a large population would, in some ways, be the moral equivalent of committing genocide. My view is quite different now, however.
My Current View of My Past View
I now view this past reasoning of mine as akin to a deceptive trick, like a math riddle where one has to find where the error was made in a series of seemingly valid deductions. You accept that death is tragic. Death means less sentient life than continued life, other things being equal. But a failure to bring a new individual into the world also means less sentient life, other things being equal. So why would you not consider a failure to bring an individual into the world tragic as well?
My current response to this line of reasoning is that death indeed is bad, but that it is not intrinsically bad. What is bad about death, I would argue, is the suffering and preference frustration that it involves, not the discontinuation of sentience per se (after all, a discontinuation of sentience occurs every night we go to sleep, which we rarely consider bad, much less tragic). This view is perfectly consistent with the view that it is not tragic to fail to create a new individual. Unlike the death of an existing person, the non-creation of a new person does not involve suffering, preference frustration, uncompleted life projects, and so on for the uncreated person.