Whether one considers the absence of sentience bad or neutral — or indeed as good as can be — can 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. Which 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 counter-intuitive implication that the absence of sentience is tragic, and something 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 the reasons I had for believing this 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 we ought to prevent mostly derived, I believe, from a wish to be consistent. Given the ostensibly reasonable assumption 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 counter-intuitive, 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 do it 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 it causes; 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.
As I have argued elsewhere, it is somewhat to be expected that we humans consider the death of a close relative or group member to be tragic and highly worth avoiding, given that such a death would tend, evolutionarily speaking, to have been costly to our own biological success in the past. In other words, our view that death is tragic may in large part stem from a penalizing mechanism instilled in us by evolution to prevent us from losing fellow assets who served our hidden biological imperative — assets who had invested a lot into us and whom we had invested a lot into in return. And I believe that my considering the absence of sentience tragic was, crudely speaking, a matter of extending this penalizing mechanism so that it pertained to all insentient parts of the universe. An extension I now consider misguided. I now see nothing tragic whatsoever about the fact that there is no sentient life on Mars.
There may, of course, be other reasons why a classical utilitarian, including my past self, would consider the absence of sentience tragic. For instance, it seems reasonable to suspect us, or at least many of us, to have an inbuilt drive to maximize the number of our own descendants, or to maximize the future success of our own tribe (the latter goal would probably have aligned pretty well with the former throughout our evolutionary history). It is not clear what would count as “our own tribe” in modern times, yet it seems that many people, including many classical utilitarians, now view humanity as their notional tribe.
A way to control for such a hidden drive, then, would be to ask whether we would accept if the universe were filled up with happy beings who do not belong to our own tribe. For example, would we accept if our future light cone were filled up by happy aliens who, in their quest to maximize net happiness, replaced human civilization with happier beings? (i.e. a utilitronium shockwave of sorts.) An impartial classical utilitarian would happily accept this. The question is whether a human classical utilitarian would too?