The Principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering

This essay was first published as a chapter in my book Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? which is available for free download here. The chapter that precedes it makes a general case for suffering-focused ethics, whereas this chapter argues for a particular suffering-focused view.


The ethical view I would advocate most strongly is a suffering-focused view that centers on a core principle of Sympathy for Intense Suffering, or SIS for short, which roughly holds that we should prioritize the interests of those who are, or will be, in a state of extreme suffering. In particular: that we should prioritize their interest in avoiding such suffering higher than anything else.[1]

One can say that this view takes its point of departure in classical utilitarianism, the theory that we should maximize the net sum of happiness minus suffering. Yet it questions a tacit assumption, a particular existence claim, often held in conjunction with the classical utilitarian framework, namely that for every instance of suffering, there exists some amount of happiness that can outweigh it.

This is a deeply problematic assumption, in my view. More than that, it is peculiar that classical utilitarianism seems widely believed to entail this assumption, given that (to my knowledge) none of the seminal classical utilitarians — Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick — ever argued for this existence claim, or even discussed it.[2] Thus, it seems that the acceptance of this assumption is no more entailed by classical utilitarianism, defined as the ethical view, or views, expressed by these utilitarian philosophers, than is its rejection.

The question of whether this assumption is reasonable ties into a deeper discussion about how to measure and weigh happiness and suffering against each other, and I think this is much less well-defined than is commonly supposed (even though the trickiness of the task is often acknowledged).[3] The problem is that we have a common sense view that goes something like the following: if a conscious subject deems some state of suffering worth experiencing in order to attain some given pleasure, then this pleasure is worth the suffering. And this common sense view may work for most of us most of the time.[4] Yet it runs into problems in cases where the subject deems their suffering so unbearable that no amount of happiness could ever outweigh it.

For what would the common sense view say in such a situation? That the suffering indeed cannot be outweighed by any pleasure? That would seem an intuitive suggestion, yet the problem is that we can also imagine the case of an experience of some pleasure that the subject, in that experience-moment, deems so great that it can outweigh even the worst forms of suffering, which leaves us with mutually incompatible value claims (although it is worth noting that one can reasonably doubt the existence of such positive states, whereas, as we shall see below, the existence of correspondingly negative experiences is a certainty).[5] How are we to evaluate these claims?

The aforementioned common sense method of evaluation has clearly broken down at this point, and is entirely silent on the matter. We are forced to appeal to another principle of evaluation. And the principle I would argue we should employ is, as hinted above, to choose to sympathize with those who are worst off — those who are experiencing intense suffering. Hence the principle of sympathy for intense suffering: we should sympathize with, and prioritize, the evaluations of those subjects who deem their suffering unoutweighable, even if only for a brief experience-moment, and thus give total priority to helping these subjects. More precisely, we should minimize the amount of such experience-moments of extreme suffering.[6] That, on this account of value, is the greatest help we can do for others.

This principle actually seems to have a lot of support from common sense and “common wisdom”. For example, imagine two children are offered to ride a roller coaster, one of whom would find the ride very pleasant, while the other child would find it very unpleasant, and imagine, furthermore, that the only two options available are that they either both ride or neither of them ride (and if neither of them ride, they are both perfectly fine).[7] Whose interests should we sympathize with and favor? Common sense would appear to favor the child who would not want to take the ride. The mere pleasure of the “ride-positive” child does not justify a violation of the interest of the other child not to suffer a very unpleasant experience. The interest in not enduring such suffering seems far more fundamental, and hence to have ethical primacy, compared to the relatively trivial and frivolous interest of having a very pleasant experience.[8]

Arguably, common sense even suggests the same in the case where there are many more children who would find the ride very pleasant, while still only one child who would find it very unpleasant (provided, again, that the children will all be perfectly fine if they do not ride). Indeed, I believe a significant fraction of people would say the same no matter how many such “ride-positive” children we put on the scale: it would still be wrong to give them the ride at the cost of forcing the “ride-negative” child to undergo the very unpleasant experience.[9]

And yet the suffering in this example — a very unpleasant experience on a roller coaster — can hardly be said to count as remotely extreme, much less an instance of the worst forms of suffering; the forms of suffering that constitute the strongest, and in my view overwhelming, case for the principle of sympathy for intense suffering. Such intense suffering, even if balanced against the most intense forms of pleasure imaginable, only demands even stronger relative sympathy and priority. However bad we may consider the imposition of a very unpleasant experience for the sake of a very pleasant one, the imposition of extreme suffering for the sake of extreme pleasure must be deemed far worse.

The Horrendous Support for SIS

The worst forms of suffering are so terrible that merely thinking about them for a brief moment can leave the average sympathetic person in a state of horror and darkness for a good while, and therefore, quite naturally, we strongly prefer not to contemplate these things. Yet if we are to make sure that we have our priorities right, and that our views about what matters most in this world are as well-considered as possible, then we cannot shy away from the task of contemplating and trying to appreciate the disvalue of these worst of horrors. This is no easy task, and not just because we are reluctant to think about the issue in the first place, but also because it is difficult to gain anything close to a true appreciation of the reality in question. As David Pearce put it:

It’s easy to convince oneself that things can’t really be that bad, that the horror invoked is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than this here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. Hazy images of Orwell’s ‘Room 101’ barely hint at what I’m talking about. The force of ‘inconceivably’ is itself largely inconceivable here.[10]

Nonetheless, we can still gain at least some, admittedly rather limited, appreciation by considering some real-world examples of extreme suffering (what follows are examples of an extremely unpleasant character that may be triggering and traumatizing).

One such example is the tragic fate of the Japanese girl Junko Furuta who was kidnapped in 1988, at the age of 16, by four teenage boys. According to their own trial statements, the boys raped her hundreds of times; “inserted foreign objects, such as iron bars, scissors and skewers into her vagina and anus, rendering her unable to defecate and urinate properly”; “beat her several times with golf clubs, bamboo sticks and iron rods”; “used her as a punching bag by hanging her body from the ceiling”; “dropped barbells onto her stomach several times”; “set fireworks into her anus, vagina, mouth and ear”; “burnt her vagina and clitoris with cigarettes and lighters”; “tore off her left nipple with pliers”; and more. Eventually, she was no longer able to move from the ground, and she repeatedly begged the boys to kill her, which they eventually did, after 44 days.[11]

An example of extreme suffering that is much more common, indeed something that happens countless times every single day, is being eaten alive, a process that can sometimes last several hours with the victim still fully conscious of being devoured, muscle by muscle, organ by organ. A harrowing example of such a death that was caught on camera (see the following note) involved a baboon tearing apart the hind legs of a baby gazelle and eating this poor individual who remained conscious for longer than one would have thought and hoped possible.[12] A few minutes of a much more protracted such painful and horrifying death can be seen via the link in the following note (lions eating a baby elephant alive).[13] And a similar, yet quicker death of a man can be seen via the link in the following note.[14] Tragically, the man’s wife and two children were sitting in a car next to him while it happened, yet they were unable to help him, and knowing this probably made the man’s experience even more horrible, which ties into a point made by Simon Knutsson:

Sometimes when the badness or moral importance of torture is discussed, it is described in terms of different stimuli that cause tissue damage, such as burning, cutting or stretching. But one should also remember different ways to make someone feel bad, and different kinds of bad feelings, which can be combined to make one’s overall experience even more terrible. It is arguably the overall unpleasantness of one’s experience that matters most in this context.[15]

After giving a real-world example with several layers of extreme cruelty and suffering combined, Knutsson goes on to write:

Although this example is terrible, one can imagine how it could be worse if more types of violence and bad feelings were added to the mix. To take another example: [Brian] Tomasik often talks about the Brazen bull as a particularly bad form of torture. The victim is locked inside a metal bull, a fire is lit underneath the bull and the victim is fried to death. It is easy to imagine how this can be made worse. For example, inject the victim with chemicals that amplify pain and block the body’s natural pain inhibitors, and put her loved ones in the bull so that when she is being fried, she also sees her loved ones being fried. One can imagine further combinations that make it even worse. Talking only of stimuli such as burning almost trivializes how bad experiences can be.[16]

Another example of extreme suffering is what happened to Dax Cowart. In 1973, at the age of 25, Dax went on a trip with his father to visit land that he considered buying. Unfortunately, due to a pipeline leak, the air over the land was filled with propane gas, which is highly flammable when combined with oxygen. As they started their car, the propane ignited, and the two men found themselves in a burning inferno. Dax’s father died, and Dax himself had much of his hands, eyes, and ears burned away; two thirds of his skin was severely burned.[17]

The case of Dax has since become quite famous, not only, or even mainly, because of the extreme horror he experienced during this explosion, but because of the ethical issues raised by his treatment, which turned out to be about as torturous as the explosion itself. For Dax himself repeatedly said, immediately after the explosion as well as for months later, that he wanted to die more than anything else, and that he did not want to be subjected to any treatment that would keep him alive. Nonetheless, he was forcibly treated for a period of ten months, during which he tried to take his life several times.
Since then, Dax has managed to recover and live what he considers a happy life — he successfully sued the oil company responsible for the pipeline leak, which left him financially secure; he earned a law degree; and got married. Yet even so, he still wishes that he had been killed rather than treated. In Dax’s own view, no happiness could ever compensate for what he went through.[18]

This kind of evaluation is exactly what the ethical principle advocated here centers on, and what the principle amounts to is simply a refusal to claim that Dax’s evaluation, or any other like it, is wrong. It maintains that we should not allow the occurrence of such extreme horrors for the sake of any intrinsic good, and hence that we should prioritize alleviating and preventing them over anything else.[19]

One may object that the examples above do not all comprise clear cases where the suffering subject deems their suffering so bad that nothing could ever outweigh it. And more generally, one may object that there can exist intense suffering that is not necessarily deemed so bad that nothing could outweigh it, either because the subject is not able to make such an evaluation, or because the subject just chooses not to evaluate it that way. What would the principle of sympathy for intense suffering say about such cases? It would say the following: in cases where the suffering is intense, yet the sufferers choose not to deem it so bad that nothing could outweigh it (we may call this “red suffering”), we should prioritize reducing suffering of the kind that would be deemed unoutweighable (what we may call “black suffering”). And in cases where the sufferers cannot make such evaluations, we may say that suffering at a level of intensity comparable to the suffering deemed unoutweighable by subjects who can make such evaluations should also be considered unoutweighable, and its prevention should be prioritized over all less intense forms of suffering.

Yet this is, of course, all rather theoretical. In practice, even when subjects do have the ability to evaluate their experience, we will, as outside observers, usually not be able to know what their evaluation is — for instance, how someone who is burning alive might evaluate their experience. In practice, all we can do is make informed assessments of what counts as suffering so intense that such an evaluation of unoutweighability would likely be made by the sufferer, assuming an idealized situation where the sufferer is able to evaluate the disvalue of the experience.[20]

 

I shall spare the reader from further examples of extreme suffering here in the text, and instead refer to sources, found in the following note, that contain additional cases that are worth considering in order to gain a greater appreciation of extreme suffering and its disvalue.[21] And the crucial question we must ask ourselves in relation to these examples — which, as hinted by the quote above by Knutsson, are probably far from the worst possible manifestations of suffering — is whether the creation of happiness or any other intrinsic good could ever justify the creation, or the failure to prevent, suffering this bad and worse. If not, this implies that our priority should not be to create happiness or other intrinsic goods, but instead to prevent extreme suffering of this kind above anything else, regardless of where in time and space it may risk emerging.

Objections to SIS

Among the objections against this view I can think of, the strongest, at least at first sight, is the sentiment: but what about that which is most precious in your life? What about the person who is most dear to you? If anything stands a chance of outweighing the disvalue of extreme suffering, surely this is it. In more specific terms: does it not seem plausible to claim that, say, saving the most precious person in one’s life could be worth an instance of the very worst form of suffering?

Yet one has to be careful about how this question is construed. If what we mean by “saving” is that we save them from extreme suffering, then we are measuring extreme suffering against extreme suffering, and hence we have not pointed to a rival candidate for outweighing the superlative disvalue of extreme suffering. Therefore, if we are to point to such a candidate, “saving” must here mean something that does not itself involve extreme suffering, and, if we wish to claim that there is something wholly different from the reduction of suffering that can be put on the scale, it should preferably involve no suffering at all. So the choice we should consider is rather one between 1) the mixed bargain of an instance of the very worst form of suffering, i.e. black suffering, and the continued existence of the most precious person one knows, or 2) the painless discontinuation of the existence of this person, yet without any ensuing suffering for others or oneself.

Now, when phrased in this way, choosing 1) may not sound all that bad to us, especially if we do not know the one who will suffer. Yet this would be cheating — nothing but an appeal to our faulty and all too partial moral intuitions. It clearly betrays the principle of impartiality,[22] according to which it should not matter whom the suffering in question is imposed upon; it should be considered equally disvaluable regardless.[23] Thus, we may equivalently phrase the choice above as being between 1) the continued existence of the most precious person one knows of, yet at the price that this being has to experience a state of extreme suffering, a state this person deems so bad that, according to them, it could never be outweighed by any intrinsic good, or 2) the discontinuation of the existence of this being without any ensuing suffering. When phrased in this way, it actually seems clearer to me than ever that 2) is the superior choice, and that we should adopt the principle of sympathy for intense suffering as our highest ethical principle. For how could one possibly justify imposing such extreme, and in the mind of the subject unoutweighable, suffering upon the most precious person one knows, suffering that this person would, at least in that moment, rather die than continue to experience? In this way, for me at least, it is no overstatement to say that this objection against the principle of sympathy for intense suffering, when considered more carefully, actually ends up being one of the strongest cases for it.

Another seemingly compelling objection would be to question whether an arbitrarily long duration of intense, yet, according to the subject, not unoutweighable suffering, i.e. red suffering, is really less bad than even just a split second of suffering that is deemed unoutweighable, i.e. black suffering. Counter-intuitively, my response, at least in this theoretical case, would be to bite the bullet and say “yes”. After all, if we take the subject’s own reports as the highest arbiter of the (dis)value of experiential states, then the black suffering cannot be outweighed by anything, whereas the red suffering can. Also, it should be noted that this thought experiment likely conflicts with quite a few sensible, real-world intuitions we have. For instance, in the real world, it seems highly likely that a subject who experiences extreme suffering for a long time will eventually find it unbearable, and say that nothing can outweigh it, contrary to the hypothetical case we are considering. Another such confounding real-world intuition might be one that reminds us that most things in the real world tend to fluctuate in some way, and hence, intuitively, it seems like there is a significant risk that a person who endures red suffering for a long time will also experience black suffering (again contrary to the actual conditions of the thought experiment), and perhaps even experience a lot of it, in which case this indeed is worse than a mere split second of black suffering on any account.

Partly for this latter reason, my response would also be different in practice. For again, in the real world, we are never able to determine the full consequences of our actions, and nor are we usually able to determine from the outside whether someone is experiencing red or black suffering, which implies that we have to take uncertainty and risks into account. Also because, even if we did know that a subject deemed some state of suffering as “merely” red at one point, this would not imply that their suffering at other moments where they appear to be in a similar state will also be deemed red as opposed to black. For in the real world it is indeed to be expected that significant fluctuations will occur, as well as that “the same suffering”, in one sense at least, will be felt as worse over time. Indeed, if the suffering is extreme, it all but surely will be deemed unbearable eventually.

Thus, in the real world, any large amount of extreme suffering is likely to include black suffering too, and therefore, regardless of whether we think some black suffering is worse than any amount of red suffering, the only reasonable thing to do in practice is to avoid getting near the abyss altogether.

Bias Alert: We Prefer to Not Think About Extreme Suffering

As noted above, merely thinking about extreme suffering can evoke unpleasant feelings that we naturally prefer to avoid. And this is significant for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that thinking deeply about extreme suffering might put our mental health at risk, and hence that we have good reason, and a strong personal incentive, to avoid engaging in such deeper thinking. Second, in part for this first reason, it suggests that we are biased against thinking deeply about extreme suffering, and hence biased against properly appreciating the true horror and disvalue of such suffering. Somewhat paradoxically, (the mere thought of) the horror of extreme suffering keeps us from fully appreciating the true scope of this horror. And this latter consideration is significant in the context of trying to fairly evaluate the plausibility of views that say we should give special priority to such suffering, including the view presented above.

Indeed, one can readily tell a rather plausible story about how many of the well-documented biases we reviewed previously might conspire to produce such a bias against appreciating the horror of suffering.[24] For one, we have wishful thinking, our tendency to believe as true what we wish were true, which in this case likely pulls us toward the belief that it can’t be that bad, and that, surely, there must be something of greater value, some grander quest worth pursuing in this world than the mere negative, rather anti-climatic “journey” of alleviating and preventing extreme suffering. Like most inhabitants of Omelas, we wishfully avoid giving much thought to the bad parts, and instead focus on all the good — although our sin is, of course, much greater than theirs, as the bad parts in the real world are indescribably worse on every metric, including total amount, relative proportions, and intensity.

To defend this wishfully established view, we then have our confirmation bias. We comfortably believe that it cannot really be that bad, and so in perfect confirmation bias textbook-style, we shy away from and ignore data that might suggest otherwise. We choose not to look at the horrible real-world examples that might change our minds, and to not think too deeply about the arguments that challenge our merry conceptions of value and ethics. All of this for extremely good reasons, of course. Or at least so we tell ourselves.[25]

Next, we have groupthink and, more generally, our tendency to conform to our peers. Others do not seem to believe that extreme suffering is that horrible, or that reducing it should be our supreme goal, and thus our bias to conform smoothly points us in the same direction as our wishful thinking and confirmation bias. That direction being: “Come on, lighten up! Extreme suffering is probably not that bad, and it probably can be outweighed somehow. This is what I want to believe, it is what my own established and comfortable belief says, and it is what virtually all my peers seem to believe. Why in the world, then, would I believe anything else?”

Telling such a story of bias might be considered an unfair move, a crude exercise in pointing fingers at others and exclaiming “You’re just biased!”, and admittedly it is to some extent. Nonetheless, I think two things are worth noting in response to such a sentiment. First, rather than having its origin in finger pointing at others, the source of this story is really autobiographical: it is a fair characterization of how my own mind managed to repudiate the immense horror and primacy of extreme suffering for a long time. And merely combining this with the belief that I am not a special case then tentatively suggests that a similar story might well apply to the minds of others too.

Second, it should be noted that a similar story cannot readily be told in the opposite direction — about the values defended here. In terms of wishful thinking, it is not particularly wishful or feel-good to say that extreme suffering is immensely bad, and that there is nothing of greater value in the world than to prevent it. That is not a pretty or satisfying story for anyone. The view also seems difficult to explain via an appeal to confirmation bias, since many of those who hold this view of extreme suffering, including myself, did not hold it from the outset, but instead changed their minds toward it upon considering arguments and real-world examples that support it. The same holds true of our tendency to conform to our peers. For although virtually nobody appears to seriously doubt that suffering has disvalue, the view that nothing could be more important than preventing extreme suffering does not seem widely held, much less widely expressed. It lies far from the narrative about the ultimate mission and future purpose of humanity that prevails in most circles, which runs more along the lines of “Surely it must all be worth it somehow, right?”

This last consideration about how we stand in relation to our peers is perhaps especially significant. For the truth is that we are a signalling species: we like to appear cool and impressive.[26] And to express the view that nothing matters more than the prevention of extreme suffering seems a most unpromising way of doing so. It has a strong air of darkness and depression about it, and, worst of all, it is not a signal of strength and success, which is perhaps what we are driven the most to signal to others, prospective friends and mates alike. Such success signalling is not best done with darkness, but with light: by exuding happiness, joy, and positivity. This is the image of ourselves, including our worldview, that we are naturally inclined to project, which then ties into the remark made above — that this view does not seem widely held, “much less widely expressed”. For even if we are inclined to hold this view, we appear motivated to not express it, lest we appear like a sad loser.

 

In sum, by my lights, effective altruism proper is equivalent to effectively reducing extreme suffering. This, I would argue, is the highest meaning of “improving the world” and “benefiting others”, and hence what should be considered the ultimate goal of effective altruism. The principle of sympathy for intense suffering argued for here stems neither from depression, nor resentment, nor hatred. Rather, it simply stems, as the name implies, from a deep sympathy for intense suffering.[27] It stems from a firm choice to side with the evaluations of those who are superlatively worst off, and from this choice follows a principled unwillingness to allow the creation of such suffering for the sake of any amount of happiness or any other intrinsic good. And while it is true that this principle has the implication that it would have been better if the world had never existed, I think the fault here is to be found in the world, not the principle.

Most tragically, some pockets of the universe are in a state of insufferable darkness — a state of black suffering. In my view, such suffering is like a black hole that sucks all light out of the world. Or rather: the intrinsic value of all the light of the world pales in comparison to the disvalue of this darkness. Yet, by extension, this also implies that there is a form of light whose value does compare to this darkness, and that is the kind of light we should aspire to become, namely the light that brightens and prevents this darkness.[28] We shall delve into how this can best be done shortly, but first we shall delve into another issue: our indefensibly anthropocentric take on altruism and “philanthropy”.


 

(For the full bibliography, see the end of my book.)

[1] This view is similar to what Brian Tomasik calls consent-based negative utilitarianism: http://reducing-suffering.org/happiness-suffering-symmetric/#Consent-based_negative_utilitarianism
And the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) appears founded upon a virtually identical principle: http://www.preventsuffering.org/
I do not claim that this view is original; merely that it is important.

[2] And I have read them all, though admittedly not their complete works. Bentham can seem to come close in chapter 4 of his Principles of Morals and Legislation, where he outlines a method for measuring pain and pleasure. One of the steps of this method consists in summing up the values of “[…] all the pleasures on one side and of all the pains on the other.” And later he writes of this process that it is “[…] applicable to pleasure and pain in whatever form they appear […]”. Yet he does not write that the sum will necessarily be finite, nor, more specifically, whether every instance of suffering necessarily can be outweighed by some pleasure. I suspect Bentham, as well as Mill and Sidgwick, never contemplated this question in the first place.

[3] A recommendable essay on the issue is Simon Knutsson’s “Measuring Happiness and Suffering”: https://foundational-research.org/measuring-happiness-and-suffering/

[4] However, a defender of tranquilism would, of course, question whether we are indeed talking about a pleasure outweighing some suffering rather than it, upon closer examination, really being a case of a reduction of some form of suffering outweighing some other form of suffering

[5] And therefore, if one assumes a framework of so-called moral uncertainty, it seems that one should assign much greater plausibility to negative value lexicality than to positive value lexicality (cf. https://foundational-research.org/value-lexicality/), also in light of the point made in the previous chapter that many have doubted the positive value of happiness (as being due to anything but its absence of suffering), whereas virtually nobody has seriously doubted the disvalue of suffering.

[6] But what if there are several levels of extreme suffering, where an experience on each level is deemed so bad that no amount of experiences on a lower level could outweigh it? This is a tricky issue, yet to the extent that these levels of badness are ordered such that, say, no amount of level I suffering can outweigh a single instance of level II suffering (according to a subject who has experienced both), then I would argue that we should give priority to reducing level II suffering. Yet what if level I suffering is found to be worse than level II suffering in the moment of experiencing it, while level II suffering is found to be worse than level I suffering when it is experienced? One may then say that the evaluation should be up to some third experience-moment with memory of both states, and that we should trust such an evaluation, or, if this is not possible, we may view both forms of suffering as equally bad. Whether such dilemmas arise in the real world, and how to best resolve them in case they do, stands to me as an open question.
Thus, cf. the point about the lack of clarity and specification of values we saw two chapters ago, the framework I present here is not only not perfectly specific, as it surely cannot be, but it is admittedly quite far from it indeed. Nonetheless, it still comprises a significant step in the direction of carving out a clearer set of values, much clearer than the core value of, say, “reducing suffering”.

[7] A similar example is often used by the suffering-focused advocate Inmendham.

[8] This is, of course, essentially the same claim we saw a case for in the previous chapter: that creating happiness at the cost of suffering is wrong. The principle advocated here may be considered a special case of this claim, namely the special case where the suffering in question is deemed irredeemably bad by the subject.

[9] Cf. the gut feeling many people seem to have that the scenario described in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas should not be brought into the world regardless of how big the city of Omelas would be. Weak support for this claim is also found in the following survey, in which a plurality of people said that they think future civilization should strive to minimize suffering (over, for instance, maximizing positive experiences): https://futureoflife.org/superintelligence-survey/

[10] https://www.hedweb.com/negutil.htm
A personal anecdote of mine in support of Pearce’s quote is that I tend to write and talk a lot about reducing suffering, and yet I am always unpleasantly surprised by how bad it is when I experience even just borderline intense suffering. I then always get the sense that I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about when I am talking about suffering in my usual happy state, although the words I use in that state are quite accurate: that it is really bad. In those bad states I realize that it is far worse than we tend to think, even when we think it is really, really bad. It truly is inconceivable, as Pearce writes, since we simply cannot simulate that badness in a remotely faithful way when we are feeling good, quite analogously to the phenomenon of binocular rivalry, where we can only perceive one of two visual images at a time.

[11] https://ripeace.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/the-murder-of-junko-furuta-44-days-of-hell/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Junko_Furuta

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcnH_TOqi3I

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc63Rp-UN10

[14] https://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/maneaters.html

[15] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement

[16] http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement

[17] Dax describes the accident himself in the following video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3ZnFJGmoq8

[18] Brülde, 2010, p. 576; Benatar, 2006, p. 63.

[19] And if one thinks such extreme suffering can be outweighed, an important question to ask oneself is: what exactly does it mean to say that it can be outweighed? More specifically, according to whom, and measured by what criteria, can such suffering be outweighed? The only promising option open, it seems, is to choose to prioritize the assessments of beings who say that their happiness, or other good things about their lives, can outweigh the existence of such extreme suffering — i.e. to actively prioritize the evaluations of such notional beings over the evaluations of those enduring, by their own accounts, unoutweighable suffering. What I would consider a profoundly unsympathetic choice.

[20] This once again hints at the point made earlier that we in practice are unable to specify in precise terms 1) what we value in the world, and 2) how to act in accordance with any set of plausible values. Rough, qualified approximations are all we can hope for.

[21] http://reducing-suffering.org/the-horror-of-suffering/
http://reducing-suffering.org/on-the-seriousness-of-suffering/
http://www.simonknutsson.com/the-seriousness-of-suffering-supplement
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyA_eF7W02s&

[22] Or one could equivalently say that it betrays the core virtue of being consistent, as it amounts to treating/valuing similar beings differently.

[23] I make a more elaborate case for this conclusion in my book You Are Them.

[24] One might object that it makes little sense to call a failure to appreciate the value of something a bias, as this is a moral rather than an empirical disagreement, to which I would respond: 1) the two are not as easy to separate as is commonly supposed (cf. Putnam, 2002), 2) one clearly can be biased against fairly considering an argument for a moral position — for instance, we can imagine an example where someone encounters a moral position and then, due to being brought up in a culture that dislikes that moral position, fails to properly engage with and understand this position, although this person would in fact agree with it upon reflection; such a failure can fairly be said to be due to bias — and 3) at any rate, the question concerning what it is like to experience certain states of consciousness is a factual matter, including how horrible they are deemed from the inside, and this is something we can be factually wrong about as outside observers.

[25] Not that sparing our own mental health is not a good reason for not doing something potentially traumatizing, but the question is just whether it is really worth letting our view of our personal and collective purpose in life be handicapped and biased, at the very least less well-informed than it otherwise could be, for that reason. Whether such self-imposed ignorance can really be justified, both to ourselves and the world at large.

[26] Again, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain makes an excellent case for this claim.

[27] And hence being animated by this principle is perfectly compatible with living a happy, joyous, and meaningful life. Indeed, I would argue that it provides the deepest meaning one could possibly find.

[28] I suspect both the content and phrasing of the last couple of sentences are inspired by the following quote I saw written on Facebook by Robert Daoust: “What is at the center of the universe of ethics, I suggest, is not the sun of the good and its play of bad shadows, but the black hole of suffering.”

Suffering, Infinity, and Universe Anti-Natalism

Questions that concern infinite amounts of value seem worth spending some time contemplating, even if those questions are of a highly speculative nature. For instance, if we assume a general expected value framework of a kind where we evaluate the expected value of a given outcome based on its probability multiplied by its value, then any more than an infinitesimal probability of an outcome that has infinite value would imply that this outcome has infinite expected value. And hence that the expected value of such an outcome would trump that of any outcome with a “mere” finite amount of value.

Therefore, on this framework, even strongly convinced finitists are not exempt from taking seriously the possibility that infinities, of one ethically relevant kind or another, may be real. For however strong a conviction one may hold, maintaining only an infinitesimal probability that infinite value outcomes of some sort could be real seems difficult to defend.

Bounding the Influence of Expected Value Thinking

It is worth making clear, as a preliminary note, that we may reasonably put a bound on how much weight we give such an expected value framework in our ethical deliberations, so as to avoid crazy conclusions and actions; or simply to preserve our sanity, which may also be a priority for some.

In fact, it is easy to point to good reasons for why we should constrain the influence of such a framework on our decisions. For although it seems implausible to entirely reject such an expected value framework in one’s moral reasoning, it would seem equally implausible to consider such a framework complete and exhaustive in itself. One reason being that thinking in terms of expected value is just one way to theorize about the world among many others, and it seems difficult to justify granting it a particularly privileged status among these, especially given a tool-like conception of our thinking: if all our thinking about the world is best thought of as a tool that helps us navigate in the world rather than a set of Platonic ideals that perfectly track truths in a transcendent way, it seems difficult to elevate a single class of these tools, such as thinking in terms of expected value, to a higher status than all others. But also given that we cannot readily put numbers on most things in practice, both due to a lack of time in most real-world situations and because, even when we do have time, the numbers we assign are often bound to be entirely speculative, if at all meaningful in the first place.

Just as we need more than theoretical physics to navigate in the physical world, it seems likely that we will do well to not only rely on an expected value framework to navigate the moral landscape, and this holds true even if all we care about is to maximize or minimize the realization of a certain class of states. Using only a single style of thinking makes us inherently vulnerable to mistakes in our judgments, and hence resting everything on one style of thinking without limits seems risky and unwise.

It therefore seems reasonable to limit the influence of this framework, and indeed any single framework, and one proposed way of doing so is by giving it only a limited number of the seats of one’s notional moral parliament; say, 40 percent of them. In this way, we should be better able to avoid the vulnerabilities of relying on a single framework, while remaining open to be guided by its inputs.

What Can Be the Case?

To get an overview, let us begin by briefly surveying (at least some of) the landscape of the conceivable possibilities concerning the size of the universe. Or, more precisely, the conceivable possibilities concerning the axiological size of the universe. For it is indeed possible, at least abstractly, for the universe to be physically finite, yet axiologically infinite; for instance, if some states of suffering are infinitely disvaluable, then a universe containing one or more of such states would be axiologically infinite, even if physically finite.

In fact, a finite universe containing such states could be worse, indeed infinitely worse, than even a physically infinite universe containing an infinite amount of suffering, if the states of suffering realized in the finite universe are more disvaluable than the infinitely many states of suffering found in the physically infinite universe. (I myself find the underlying axiological claim here more than plausible: that a single instance of certain states of suffering — torture, say — are more disvaluable than infinitely many instances of milder states of suffering, such as pinpricks.)

It is also conceivable that the universe is physically infinite, yet axiologically finite; if, for instance, our axiology is non-additive, if the universe contains only infinitesimal value throughout, or if only a freak bubble of it contains entities of value. This last option may seem impossibly unlikely, yet it is conceivable. Infinity does not imply infinite repetition; the infinite sequence ( 1, 0, 0, 0, … ) does not logically have to contain 1 again, and indeed doesn’t.

In terms of physical size, there are various ways in which infinity can be realized. For instance, the universe may be both temporally and spatially infinite in terms of its extension. Or it may be temporally bounded while spatially infinite in extension, or vice versa: be spatially finite, yet eternal. It should be noted, though, that these two may be considered equivalent, if we view only points in space and time as having value-bearing potential (arguably the only view consistent with physicalism, ultimately), and view space and time as a four-dimensional structure. Then one of these two universes will have infinite “length” and finite “breadth”, while the opposite is true of the other one, and a similar shape can thus be obtained via “90 degree” rotation.

Similarly, it is also conceivable (and apparently plausible) that the universe has a finite past and an infinite future, in which case it will always have a finite age, or it could have an infinite past and a finite future. Or, equivalently in spatial terms, be bounded in one spatial direction, yet have infinite extension in another.

Yet infinite extension is not the only conceivable way in which physical infinity may conceivably be realized. Indeed, a bounded space can, at least in one sense, contain more elements than an unbounded one, as exemplified by the cardinality of the real numbers in the interval (0, 1) compared to all the natural numbers. So not only might the universe be infinite in terms of extension, but also in terms of its divisibility — i.e. in terms of notional sub-worlds we may encounter as we “zoom down” at smaller scales — which could have far greater significance than infinite extension, at least if we believe we can use cardinality as a meaningful measure of size in concrete reality.

Taking this possibility into consideration as well, we get even more possible combinations — infinitely many, in fact. For example, we can conceive of a universe that is bounded both spatially and temporally, yet which is infinitely divisible. And it can then be infinitely divisible in infinitely many different ways. For instance, it may be divisible in such a way that it has the same cardinality as the natural numbers, i.e. its set of “sub-worlds” is countably infinite, or it could be divisible with the same cardinality as the real numbers, meaning that it consists of uncountably many “sub-worlds”. And given that there is no largest cardinality, we could continue like this ad infinitum.

One way we could try to imagine the notional place of such small worlds in our physical world is by conceiving of them as in some sense existing “below” the Planck scale, each with their own Planck scale below which even more worlds exist, ad infinitum. Many more interesting examples of different kinds of combinations of the possibilities reviewed so far could be mentioned.

Another conceivable, yet supremely speculative, possibility worth contemplating is that the size of the universe is not set in stone, and that it may be up to us/the universe itself to determine whether it will be infinite, and what “kind” of infinity.

Lastly, it is also conceivable that the size of the universe, both in physical and axiological terms, cannot faithfully be conceived of with any concept available to us. So although the conceivable possibilities are infinite, it remains conceivable that none of them are “right” in any meaningful sense.

What Is the Case? — Infinite Uncertainty?

Unfortunately, we do not know whether the universe is infinite or not; or, more generally, which of the possibilities mentioned above that are true of our condition. And there are reasons to think that we will never know with great confidence. For even if we were to somehow encounter a boundary encapsulating our universe, or otherwise find strong reasons for believing in one, how could we possibly exclude that there might not be something beyond that boundary? (Not to mention that the universe might still be infinitely divisible even if bounded.) Or, alternatively, even if we thought we had good reasons to believe that our universe is infinite, how can we be sure that the limited data we base that conclusion on can be generalized to locations arbitrarily far away from us? (This is essentially the problem of induction.)

Yet even if we thought we did know whether the universe is infinite with great confidence, the situation would arguably not be much different. For if we accept the proposition that we should have more than infinitesimal credence in any empirical claim about the world, what is known as Cromwell’s rule (I have argued that this applies to all claims, not just [stereotypically] “empirical” claims), then, on our general expected value framework, it would seem that any claim about the reality of infinite value outcomes should always be taken seriously, regardless of our specific credences in specific physical and axiological models of the universe.

In fact, not only should the conceivable realizations of infinity reviewed above be taken seriously (at least to the extent that they imply outcomes with infinite (dis)value), but so should a seemingly even more outrageous notion, namely that infinite (dis)value may rest on any particular action we do. However small a non-zero real-valued probability we assign such a claim — e.g. that the way you prepare your coffee tomorrow morning is going to impact an infinite amount of value — the expected value of getting the, indeed any, given action right remains infinite.

How should we act in light of this outrageous possibility?

Pascallian and Counter-Pascallian Claims

The problem, or perhaps our good fortune, is that, in most cases arguably, we do not seem to have reason to believe that one course of action is more likely to have an infinitely better outcome than another. For example, in the case of the morning coffee, we appear to have no more reason to believe that, say, making a strong cup of coffee will lead to infinitely more disvalue than making a mild one will, rather than it being the other way around. For such hypotheses, we seem able to construct an equal and oppositely directed counter-hypothesis.

Yet even if we concede that this is the case most of the time, what about situations where this is not the case? What about choices where we do have slightly better reasons to believe that one outcome will be infinitely better than another one?

This is difficult to address in the absence of any concrete hypotheses or scenarios, so I shall here consider the two specific cases, or classes of scenarios, where a plausible reason may be given in favor of thinking that one course of action will influence infinitely more value than another. One is the case of an eternal civilization: our actions may impact infinite (dis)value by impacting whether, and in what form, an eternal civilization will exist in our universe.

In relation to the (extremely unlikely) prospect of the existence of such a civilization, it seems that we could well find reasons to believe that we can impact an infinite amount of value. But the crucial question is: how? From the perspective of negative utilitarianism, it is far from clear what outcomes are most likely to be infinitely better than others. This is especially true in light of the other class of ways in which we may plausibly impact infinite value that I shall consider here, namely by impacting the creation of, or the unfolding of events in, parallel universes, which may eventually be infinitely numerous.

For not only could an eternal civilization that is the descendant of ours be better in “our universe” than another eternal civilization that may emerge in our place if we go extinct; it could also be better with respect to its effects on the creation of parallel universes, in which case it may be normative for negative utilitarians to work to preserve our civilization, contrary to what is commonly considered the ultimate corollary of negative utilitarianism (and this could also hold true if the temporal extension of our civilization is bound to be finite). Indeed, this could be the case even if no other civilization were to emerge instead of ours: if the impact our civilization will have on other universes results in less suffering than what would otherwise be created naturally. It is, of course, also likely that the opposite is the case: that the continuation of our civilization would be worse than another civilization or no civilization. And I must admit that I have no idea what is more likely to be the case.

So in these cases where reasons pointing more in one way than another plausibly could be found, it is not clear which direction that would be. Except perhaps in the direction that we should do more research on this question: which actions are more likely to reduce infinitely more suffering than others? Indeed, from the point of view of a suffering-focused expected value framework, it would seem that this should be our highest priority.

Ignoring Small Credences?

One may be skeptical of my claim above: can it really be true that the considerations, or at least my considerations, in the case of the continuation of civilization cancel out exactly? Is there not even the smallest difference? Not even a hunch?

In his paper on infinite ethics, Nick Bostrom argues that such an exact cancellation seems extraordinarily unlikely, and that small tips in balance seem to have counter-intuitive, if not catastrophic, consequences:

This cancellation of probabilities would have to be perfectly accurate, down to the nineteenth decimal place and beyond. […]

It would seem almost miraculous if these motley factors, which could be subjectively correlated with infinite outcomes, always managed to conspire to cancel each other out without remainder. Yet if there is a remainder—if the balance of epistemic probability happens to tip ever so slightly in one direction—then the problem of fanaticism remains with undiminished force. Worse, its force might even be increased in this situation, for if what tilts the balance in favor of a seemingly fanatical course of action is the merest hunch rather than any solid conviction, then it is so much more counterintuitive to claim that we ought to pursue it in spite of any finite sacrifice doing so may entail. The “exact-cancellation” argument threatens to backfire catastrophically.

I do not happen to share Bostrom view, however. Apart from the aforementioned bounding of the influence of expected value thinking, there are also ways to avoid such apparent craziness of letting our actions rest on the slightest hunch from within the expected value framework: disregarding sufficiently low credences.

Bostrom is skeptical of this approach:

As a piece of pragmatic advice, the notion that we should ignore small probabilities is often sensible. Being creatures of limited cognitive capacities, we do well by focusing our attention on the most likely outcomes. Yet even common sense recognizes that whether a possible outcome can be ignored for the sake of simplifying our deliberations depends not only on its probability but also on the magnitude of the values at stake. The ignorable contingencies are those for which the product of likelihood and value is small. If the value in question is infinite, even improbable contingencies become significant according to common sense criteria. The postulation of an exception from these criteria for very low-likelihood events is, at the very least, theoretically ugly.

Yet Bostrom here seems to ignore that “the value in question” is infinite for every action, cf. the point that we should maintain some small credence in every claim, including the claim that any given action may effect an infinite amount of (dis)value.

So in this way, no action we can point toward is fundamentally different from any other. The only difference is just what our credence is that a particular action may make “an infinite difference”, or that it makes “the greatest infinite difference”, compared to any other action. And when it comes to such credences, I would argue that it is utmost reasonable to ignore sufficiently small ones. In my view, to not do that would be the ugly thing, for the following reasons:

First, one could argue that, just as most models of physics break down beyond a certain range, it is reasonable to expect our ability to discriminate between different credence levels to break down when we reach a sufficiently fine scale. This is also well in line with the fact that it is generally difficult to put precise numbers on our credence levels with respect to specific claims. Thus, one could argue that we are way past the range of error of our intuitive credences when we reach the nineteenth decimal place.

This conclusion can also be reached via a rather different consideration: one can argue that our entire ontological and epistemological framework itself cannot be assumed credible with absolute certainty. Therefore, it would seem that our entire worldview, including this framework of assigning numerical values, or indeed any order at all, to our credences, should itself be assigned some credence of being wrong. And one can then argue, quite reasonably, that once we reach a level of credence in any claim that is lower than our level of credence in, say, the meaningfulness of ascribing credences in this way in the first place, this specific credence should be ignored, as it lies beyond what we consider the range of reliability of this framework in the first place.

In sum, I think it is fair to say that, when we only have a tiny credence that some action may be infinitely better than another, we should do more research and look for better reasons to act on rather than to act on these hunches. We can reasonably ignore exceptionally small credences in practice, as we indeed already do every time we make a decision based on calculations of finite expected values; we then ignore the tiny credence we should have that the value of the outcomes in question is infinite.

Infinitarian Paralyses?

Another thing Bostrom treats in his paper, actually the main subject of it, is whether the existence of infinite value implies, on aggregative consequentialist views, that it makes no difference what we do. As he puts it:

Aggregative consequentialist theories are threatened by infinitarian paralysis: they seem to imply that if the world is canonically infinite then it is always ethically indifferent what we do. In particular, they would imply that it is ethically indifferent whether we cause another holocaust or prevent one from occurring. If any non-contradictory normative implication is a reductio ad absurdum, this one is.

To elaborate a bit: the reason it is supposed to be indifferent whether we cause another holocaust is that the net sum of value in the universe supposedly is the same either way: infinite.

It should be noted, though, that whether this really is a problem depends on how we define and calculate the “sum of value”. And the question is then whether we can define this in a meaningful way that avoids absurdities and provides us with a useful ethical framework we can act on.

In my view, the solution to this conundrum is to give up our attachment to cardinal arithmetic. In a way, this is obvious: if you have an infinite set and add finitely many elements to it, you still have “the same as before”, in terms of the cardinality of the set. Yet, in another sense, we of course do not get “the same as before”, in that the new infinite set is not identical to the one we had before. Therefore, if we insist that adding another holocaust to a universe that already contains infinitely many holocausts should make a difference, we are simply forced to abandon standard cardinal arithmetic. In its stead, we should arguably just take our requirement as an axiom: that adding any amount of value to an infinity of value does make a difference — that it does change the “sum of value”.

This may seem simplistic, and one may reasonably ask how this “sum of value” could be defined. A simple answer is that we could add up whatever (presumably) finite difference we make within the larger (hypothetically) infinite world, and to then consider that the relevant sum of value that should determine our actions, what has been referred to as “the causal approach” to this problem.

This approach has been met with various criticisms, one of them being that it leaves “the total sum of value” unchanged. As Bostrom puts it:

One consequence of the causal approach is that there are cases in which you ought to do something, and ought to not do something else, even though you are certain that neither action would have any effect at all on the total value of the world.

I fail to see the appeal of this criticism, however, not least because it is deceptively phrased. For how is the “total value of the world” defined here? It is not the case that “the total value of the world” is left unchanged on every possible definition of these terms; it just is on one particular definition, indeed one we have good reason to consider implausible and irrelevant. And the reason was that it implies that adding another holocaust makes no difference to the “total value of the world”. It then seems a strange move to say that it counts against a theory that it holds the prevention of finitely many holocaust to be normative because this has no “effect at all on the total value of the world” — by this very implausible definition. If forced to choose between these two mutually exclusive starting points — adding a holocaust makes a difference to the total value of the world or it does not — I think it is an easy choice. If we can help alleviate the extreme suffering of just a single being, while keeping all else equal, this being will hardly agree that “the total value of the world” was left unchanged by our actions. Not in any sensible sense.

More than that, I also think that for an ethical theory to say that we should ignore whatever lies outside our sphere of influence should not be considered a weakness, but rather a strength. Imagine by analogy a hypothetical Earth identical to ours, with the two exceptions that 1) it has been inhabited by humans for an eternal and unalterable past, over which infinitely many holocausts have taken place, and 2) it has a finite future; the universe it inhabits will end peacefully in a hundred years. Now, if people on this Earth held an ethical theory that does not take this unalterable infinite past into account, and instead focuses on the finite future, including preventing holocausts from happening in that future, would this count against that theory in any way? I fail to see how it could, and yet this is essentially the same as taking the causal approach within an infinite universe, only phrased more “unilaterally”, i.e. more purely in temporal rather than spatio-temporal terms.

Another criticism that has been leveled against the causal approach is that we cannot rule out that our causal impact may in some sense be infinite, and therefore it is problematic to say that we should just measure the world’s value, and take action based on, whatever finite difference we make. Here is Bostrom again:

When a finite positive probability is assigned to scenarios in which it is possible for us to exert a causal effect on an infinite number of value-bearing locations […] then the expectation value of the causal changes that we can make is undefined. Paralysis will thus strike even when the domain of aggregation is restricted to our causal sphere of influence.

Yet these claims actually do not follow. First, it should again be noted that the situation Bostrom refers to here is in fact the situation we are always in: we should always assign a positive probability to the possibility that we may effect infinite (dis)value. Second, we should be clear that the scenario where we can impact an infinite amount of value, and where we aggregate over the realm we can influence, is fundamentally different from the scenario in which we aggregate over an infinite universe that contains an infinite amount of value that we cannot impact. To the extent there are threats of “infinitarian paralysis” in these two scenarios, they are not identical.

For example, Bostrom’s claim that “the expectation value of the causal changes that we can make is undefined” need not be true even on standard cardinal arithmetic, at least in the abstract (i.e. if we ignore Cromwell’s rule), in the scenario where we focus only on our own future light cone. For it could be that the scenarios in which we can “exert a causal effect on an infinite number of value-bearing locations” were all scenarios that nonetheless contained only finite (dis)value, or, on a dipolar axiology, only a finite amount of disvalue and an infinite amount of value. A concrete example of the latter could be a scenario where the abolitionist project outlined by David Pearce is completed in an eternal civilization after a finite amount of time.

Hence, it is not necessarily the case that “paralysis will strike even when the domain of aggregation is restricted to our causal sphere of influence”, apart from in the sense treated earlier, when we factor in Cromwell’s rule: how should we act given that all actions may effect infinite (dis)value? But again, this is a very different kind of “paralysis” than the one that appears to be Bostrom’s primary concern, cf. this excerpt from the abstract of his paper Infinite Ethics:

Modern cosmology teaches that the world might well contain an infinite number of happy and sad people and other candidate value-bearing locations. Aggregative ethics implies that such a world contains an infinite amount of positive value and an infinite amount of negative value. You can affect only a finite amount of good or bad. In standard cardinal arithmetic, an infinite quantity is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of any finite quantity.

Indeed, one can argue that the “Cromwell paralysis” in a sense negates this latter paralysis, as it implies that it may not be true that we can affect only a finite amount of good or bad, and, more generally, that we should assign a non-zero probability to the claim that we can optimize the value of the universe everywhere throughout, including in those corners that seem theoretically inaccessible.

Adding Always Makes a Difference

As for the infinitarian paralysis supposed to threaten the causal approach in the absence of the “Cromwell paralysis” — how to compare the outcomes we can impact that contain infinite amounts of value? — it seems that we can readily identify reasonable consequentialist principles to act by that should at least allow us to compare some actions and outcomes against each other, including, perhaps, the most relevant ones.

One such principle is the one alluded to in the previous section: that adding something of (dis)value always makes a difference, even if the notional set we are adding it to contains infinitely many similar elements already. In terms of an axiology that holds the amount of suffering in the world to be the chief measure of value, this principle would hold that adding/failing to prevent an instance of suffering always makes for a less valuable outcome, provided that other things are equal, which they of course never quite are in the real world, yet they often are in expectation.

The following abstract example makes, I believe, a strong case for favoring such a measure of (dis)value over the cardinal sum of the units of (dis)value. As I formulate this thought experiment, this unit will, in accordance with my own view, be instances of intense suffering in the universe, yet the point applies generally:

Imagine that we have a universe with a countably infinite amount of instances of intense suffering. We may visualize this universe as a unit ball. Now imagine that we perform an act in this universe that leaves the original universe unchanged, yet creates a new universe identical to the first one. The result is a new universe full of suffering. Imagine next that we perform this same act in a world where nothing exists. The result is exactly the same: the creation of a new universe full of suffering, in the exact same amount. In both cases, we have added exactly the same ball of infinite suffering. Yet on standard cardinal arithmetic, the difference the act makes in terms of the sum of instances of suffering is not the same in the two cases. In the first case, the total sum is the same, namely countably infinite, while there is an infinite difference in the second case: from zero to infinity. If we only count the difference added, however— the “delta universe”, so to speak— the acts are equally disvaluable in the two cases. The latter method of evaluating the (dis)value of the act seems far more plausible than does evaluation based on the cardinal sum of the units of (dis)value in the universe. It is, after all, the exact same act.

This is not an idle thought experiment. As noted above, impacting the creation of new universes is one of the ways in which we may plausibly be able to influence an infinite amount of (dis)value. Arguably even the most plausible one. Admittedly, it does rest on certain debatable assumptions about physics, yet these assumptions seem significantly more likely than does the possibility of the existence of an eternal civilization. For even disregarding specific civilization hostile facts about the universe (e.g. the end of stars and a rapid expansion of space that is thought to eventually rip ordinary matter apart), we should, for each year in the future, assign a probability strictly lower than 1 that civilization will go extinct that year, which means that the probability of extinction will be arbitrarily close to 1 within a finite amount of time.

In other words, an eternal civilization seems immensely unlikely, even if the universe were to stay perfectly life-friendly forever. The same does not seem true of the prospect of influencing the generation of new universes. As far as I can tell, the latter is in a ballpark of its own when it comes to plausible ways in which we may be able to effect infinite (dis)value, which is not to say that universe creation is more likely than not to become possible, but merely that it seems significantly more likely than other ways we know of in which we could effect infinite (dis)value (though, again, our knowledge of “such ways” is admittedly limited at this point, and something we should probably do more research on). Not only that, it is also something that could be relevant in the relatively near future, and more disvalue could depend on a single such near-future act of universe creation than what is found, intrinsically at least, in the entire future of our civilization. Infinitely more, in fact. Thus, one could argue that it is not our impact on the quality of life of future generations in our civilization that matters most in expectation, but our impact on the generation of universes by our civilization.

Universe Anti-Natalism: The Most Important Cause?

It is therefore not unthinkable that this should be the main question of concern for consequentialists: how does this impact the creation of new universes? Or, similarly, that trying to impact future universe generation should be the main cause for aspiring effective altruists. And I would argue that the form this cause should take is universe anti-natalism: avoiding, or minimizing, the creation of new universes.

There are countless ways to argue for this. As Brian Tomasik notes, creating a new universe that in turn gives rise to infinitely many universes “would cause infinitely many additional instances of the Holocaust, infinitely many acts of torture, and worse. Creating lab universes would be very bad according to several ethical views.”

Such universe creation would obviously be wrong from the stance of negative utilitarianism, as well as from similar suffering-focused views. It would also be wrong according to what is known as The Asymmetry in population ethics: that creating beings with bad lives is wrong, and something we have an obligation to not do, while failing to create happy lives is not wrong, and we have no obligation to bring such lives into being. A much weaker, and even less controversial, stance on procreative ethics could also be used: do not create lives with infinite amounts of torture.

Indeed, how, we must ask ourselves, could a benevolent being justify bringing so much suffering into being? What could possibly justify the Holocaust, let alone infinitely many of them? What would be our answer to the screams of “why” to the heavens from the torture victims?

Universe anti-natalism should also be taken seriously by classical utilitarians, as a case can be made that the universe is likely to end up being net negative in terms of algo-hedonic tone. For instance, it may well be that most sentient life that will ever exist will find itself in a state of natural carnage, as civilizations may be rare even on planets where sentient life has emerged, and because even where civilizations have emerged, it may be that they are unlikely to be sustainable, perhaps overwhelmingly so, implying that most sentient life might be expected to exist at the stage it has existed on for the entire history of sentient life on Earth. A stage where sentient beings are born in great numbers only for the vast majority of them to die shortly thereafter, for instance due to starvation or by being eaten alive, which is most likely a net negative condition, even by wishful classical utilitarian standards. Simon Knutsson’s essay How Could an Empty World Be Better than a Populated One? is worth reading in this context, and of course applies to “no world” as well.

And if one takes a so-called meta-normative approach, where one decides by averaging over various ethical theories, one could argue that the case against universe creation becomes significantly stronger; if one for instance combines an unclear or negative-leaning verdict from a classical utilitarian stance with The Asymmetry and Kantian ethics.

As for those who hold anti-natalism at the core of their values, one could argue that they should make universe anti-natalism their main focus over human anti-natalism (which may not even reduce suffering in expectation), or at the very least expand their focus to also encompass this, apparently esoteric position. Not only because the scale is potentially unsurpassable in terms of what prevents the most births, but it may also be easier, both because wishful thinking about “those horrors will not befall my creation” could be more difficult to maintain in the face of horrors that we know have occurred in the past, and because we do not seem as attached and adapted, biologically and culturally, to creating new universes as we are to creating new children. And just as anti-natalists argue with respect to human life, being against the creation of new universes need not be incompatible with a responsible sustainment of life in the one that does exist. This might also be a compromise solution that many people would be able to agree on.

Are Other Things Equal?

The discussion above assumes that the generation of a new universe would leave all else equal, or at least leave all else merely “finitely altered”. But how can we be sure that the generation of a new universe would not in fact prevent the emergence of another? Or perhaps even prevent many infinite universes from emerging? We can’t. Yet we do not appear to have any reason for believing that this is the case. As noted above, all else will often be equal in expectation, and that also seems true in this case. We can make counter-Pascallian hypotheses in both directions, and in the absence of evidence for any of them, we appear to have most reason to believe that the creation of a new universe results, in the aggregate, in a net addition of a new universe. But this could of course be wrong.

For instance, artificial universe creation would be dwarfed by the natural universe generation that happens all the time according to inflationary models, so could it not be that the generation of a new universe might prevent some of these natural ones from occurring? I doubt that there are compelling reasons for believing this, but natural universe generation does raise the interesting question of whether we might be able to reduce the rate of this generation. Brian Tomasik has discussed the idea, yet it remains an open, and virtually unexplored, research question. One that could dominate all other considerations.

It may be objected that considerations of identical, or virtually identical, copies of ourselves throughout the universe have been omitted in this discussion, yet as far as I can tell, including such considerations would not change the discussion in a fundamental way. For if universe generation is the main cause and most consequential action to focus on for us, more important even than the intrinsic importance of the entire future of our civilization, then this presumably applies to each copy of ourselves as well. Yet I am curious to hear arguments that suggest otherwise.

A final miscellaneous point I should like to add here is that the points made above may apply even if the universe is, and only ever will be, finite, as the generation of a new finite pocket universe in that case still could bring about far more suffering than what is found in the future light cone of our own universe.

Implications for Artificial Intelligence in Brief

The prospect of universe generation, and the fact that it may dominate everything else, also seems to have significant implications for our focus on the future of artificial intelligence, one of them being, as hinted above, that altruists should perhaps not focus on artificial intelligence as their main cause (and why we should be careful about claiming that it is clear that they should, as we may thereby risk overlooking crucial considerations). For instance, if artificial intelligence is sufficiently unlikely to ever “take over” in the way that is often feared, or if focusing directly on researching or arguing against universe generation has higher expected value.

Moreover, it suggests that, to the extent altruists indeed should focus primarily on artificial intelligence, this would be to the extent that artificial intelligence will determine the rate of universe generation in the universe. This might be the main thing to focus on when implementing “Fail-Safe” measures in artificial intelligence, or in any kind of future civilization, to the extent implementation of such measures is feasible.

 

In conclusion, the subjects of the potential to effect infinite (dis)value in general, and of impacting universe generation in particular, are extremely neglected at this point, and a case can be made that more research into such possibilities should be our top priority. It seems conceivable that a question related to such a prospect — e.g. should we create more universes? — will one day be the main ethical question facing our civilization, perhaps even one we will be forced to decide upon in a not too distant future. Given the potentially enormous stakes, it seems worth being prepared for such scenarios — including knowing more about their nature, how likely they are, and how to best act in them — even if they are unlikely.

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