How Could an Empty World Be Better than a Populated One?

First written: 11 Apr. 2016; Last update: 2 Oct. 2017

Leslie (1998) writes that when “discussing whether the universe was created by a benevolent deity, philosophers regularly point out that our world might be considered an ethical disaster, something of negative value, because of all the misery it contains.”1 In addition, “scores of [professional philosophers] recognize no moral call to keep the human race in existence.”2 Related ideas have been discussed extensively in philosophy, sometimes for millennia. This essay briefly surveys the different ideas, and concludes that instead of trying to ensure that humanity survives, we should prioritize making the future less bad, in case it will contain sentient life. Most importantly, we should avoid causing astronomical amounts of extreme suffering.

The topic of this essay is important as one consideration out of many when prioritizing limited altruistic efforts and resources; for example when asking, should we worry about the future having no sentient life, and if so how much should we worry about it compared to other things we have to worry about, such as preventing extreme suffering? The purpose of this essay is to present to a general audience ideas from the philosophical literature that are important for altruism and policymaking. Many are unaware of these ideas, partly because the ideas are located in niche texts that may be old, hard to find, expensive or written in foreign languages.

Other versions of this piece

Peacefulness and cooperation

Kappa Andromedae Star Chart No Labels I do not claim that one should try to bring about an empty world. Even if an empty world would be better than a populated one, there are decisive reasons to avoid doing things that those with other values would strongly object to. In particular, one should never use violence. Those who are worried about the future being negative should focus on open moral debate and on cooperative, positive-sum trades with people with different goals.

The past

One idea is that the past has been worse than an empty world. More specifically, the idea could be stated as follows:

History: Considering history up until now, and disregarding the future, it would have been better if the world had never existed in the first place.3

This is a plausible and weak (modest) claim. Even Derek Parfit, whom I would describe as very optimistic, appears to be on the fence. He is “weakly inclined to believe that the past has been in itself worth it” but adds that “this may be wishful thinking.”4 Parfit focuses on human history, and I wonder whether, when making this judgement, he includes considerations about non-human animals who have been harmed by humans or suffered in the wild due to non-human causes.5 If one includes non-human animals, it is probably easier to say that the past has been worse than an empty world.

The present

A related idea concerns the current state of the world, which one could phrase as follows:

Current world: A state of emptiness is better than the current world.

This is also a plausible and weak claim, given the extent of misery in the world. Several philosophers agree, for example, philosophy professor Joseph Mendola at University of Nebraska–Lincoln, who says that “our real world is in fact worse than nothing.”6

The past, present and future as a whole

Alternatively, one can consider the past, the present and the future as a whole, and ask, as Parfit (2011) does, “Will human history have been, on the whole, worth it?”7 Or, to state the idea as a claim rather than a question and to avoid the focus on humans,

Past, present and future: The past, the present and the future as a whole will have been worse than an empty world.8

From a practical standpoint it is of limited interest whether the past and the present have been and are worse than an empty world,9 because we cannot do anything about the past. We can only affect the future. The past and the present can tell us something about how the future is likely to be, but from a practical perspective, the most interesting question is how the future will be. Even if the past has been so bad that the past and the future will have been bad on the whole, the future could still, depending on one's values, be better than an empty future.10 In the next section, I will focus only on the future.

The future

Will life not be worth living?

An old idea is that human or other sentient life is such that it is generally or always the case that it would be better if we did not exist. Plato ascribed the following words to Socrates more than two thousand years ago:

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things—either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night.11

Similarly, Nietzsche tells the ancient story of King Midas asking the wise Silenus “what was best of all and most desirable for man.” To which Silenus replied that best is “not to be born” and that “the second best for you, however, is soon to die.”12 Similar ideas can, for example, be found in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, who said that “the world is hell.”13 All this may sound strange, but as ideas from the philosophical literature, I don’t react to them that way. These are familiar old ideas that I don’t think would shock the professional philosophers that I know. Anyhow, to endorse some version of the idea that an empty world would be better than a populated one, there is no need to accept such a strong idea as that of, for example, Silenus—that it is best not to be born, and second best to die soon. One can believe that life is generally worth living and that it is good for most humans to have been born.

If one regards ideas such as those just mentioned of Socrates, Silenus and Schopenhauer as being about human nature or the nature of sentient life on Earth, one can object that the future might bring about radical improvements. Parfit (2011) says,

Many Pessimists assumed that the nature of human life is fixed, so that what is true now will always be true. For the earliest Pessimists, such as Buddha and some ancient Greeks, that may have been a reasonable assumption. By the mid nineteenth Century, however, it should have been clear that human existence could be radically transformed. Though the world started to become uglier, anaesthetics were discovered. We shall soon be able to prevent most human suffering.

We live during the hinge of history. Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast. We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors.14

David Pearce’s Abolitionist Project comes to mind, which calls for the use of biotechnology to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world. One can be skeptical, as Brian Tomasik is, about whether suffering will be abolished. At least, it is possible that it will not be. Nevertheless, the point remains that new technology and the possibility of future minds that are very different from ours imply that one cannot simply say that because human and sentient life on Earth is worse than non-existence, life will continue to be so in the far future. However, one can still argue that even if such improvements are imaginable, the future will still be worse (or no better) than an empty world. This will be discussed in the rest of this essay.

Can nothing be better than an empty world?

A strong claim is that

Nothing can be better than an empty world: An empty world is as least as good as any possible hypothetical state of the world.

That is, even if all suffering would be abolished, and the world would only be populated by minds who are much better off than humans and other animals on Earth are, the world could never be better than an empty world. Regardless of which utopia one paints, an empty world would be at least as good. In other words, an empty world is perfect. For example, Fehige (1998) proposes antifrustrationism and explicitly says that “nothing can be better than an empty world.”15 Similarly, Lukas Gloor advocates a theory that he calls ‘tranquilism.’ According to tranquilism, experiences that are subjectively free from problems are flawless and perfect. Since it is a theory about the value of different experiences, it is compatible with the idea that other things are valuable, such as beauty, justice or preference satisfaction. But if only experiences have final value, then tranquilism implies that nothing can be better than dreamless sleep, non-existence or an empty world.

Can the far future counterbalance horrors that are almost certain to occur in the near future?

A less strong claim about the future is that it could, in principle, be better than an empty future, but that the near future will almost certainly contain horrors such as torture that cannot be counterbalanced by good things in the future. One could state this idea as follows:

Badness in near future cannot be counterbalanced: Badness that will almost certainly occur in the near future cannot be counterbalanced by goodness in the future, so the future will almost certainly be worse than an empty future.

Philosopher Ingemar Hedenius (1908–1982) would probably have agreed with that claim, or at least been sympathetic to it. He said that there are some evils, such as extreme suffering, that are so bad that he could not see that they could be counterbalanced by anything good.16 Tomasik’s Consent-based negative utilitarianism also plausibly implies that horrors, such as torture, that are almost certain to occur in the near future, cannot be counterbalanced by any good in the future, and hence that the future will almost certainly be worse than an empty world. Consent-based negative utilitarianism says that if someone is suffering so badly that she would at that moment not “agree to continue the suffering in order to obtain something else in the future” then that suffering cannot be counterbalanced by any good things.17

What is the expected value of the future?

Some would reject Nothing can be better than an empty world and Badness in the near future cannot be counterbalanced, and assume that a world could, in principle, be better than an empty world, and that the horrors that are almost certain to occur in the near future could, in principle, be outweighed by good things in the future. Such people may want to estimate the expected value of the future.18 A corresponding claim could be the following:

Expected value: Future perpetual emptiness has higher expected value than a populated future.

To assess the plausibility of the claim, one would consider the likelihood of different possible futures and their values.

Is it enough to claim that the future might be good?

Estimating the expected value of the future as a whole might be more or less daunting depending on one’s values, but Parfit suggests that there might be an easier way out. I find what he says puzzling so I will quote him at length.

In deciding what we ought to do, we don’t need to know whether the future will be worth it, or is likely to be worth it. It may be enough to ask

Q5: Might the future be worth it?

It may even be enough to ask

Q6: Will the near future be in itself worth it?

This second question is easier to answer. If the answer is Yes, we need not ask whether the rest of the future might be, or is likely to be, worth it. We could leave those questions to our descendants.

Suppose instead that the near future will not be in itself worth it, but will be worse than nothing. That might become true, for example, if we inflict great damage on the biosphere, by global overheating or in some other way, so that, for this and the next few generations, life would be bleak. We would then need to ask whether the rest of the future might be worth it. If the answer was No, it would be best if human history ended soon. We would not need, in Williams’s phrase, to annihilate the planet. It would be enough if none of us had children.

It is clear, however, that the further future might be worth it. Partly for this reason, even if the near future would be very bleak, we should not end human history. It might be claimed that, if our children’s lives would be likely to be worse than nothing, we ought not to impose such burdens on them. But that is not, I believe, true. Even if our children’s lives would be worse than nothing, they might decide to bear such burdens, as many people have earlier done, for the sake of helping to give humanity a good future. We could justifiably have children, letting them decide whether to act in this noble way, rather than making this decision on their behalf, by never having children.19

There are several problems with what Parfit says here, and it is an important passage because it is a part of the buildup to his conclusion that “what now matters most is that we avoid ending human history.”20

One problem is the part “even if our children’s lives would be worse than nothing, they might decide to bear such burdens” to help bring about a good future. The problem is that many children will die young in terrible ways before having a conception of whether they would have preferred to never have been born. Moreover, some adults will suffer so that they will prefer to never have existed, and would not consent to bear their burdens for the sake of the future. Parfit is presumably aware of this and his premise must be that such foreseen non-consensual extreme suffering is acceptable because the future might be (very) good. All in all, Parfit’s idea that our children might decide to bear burdens of misery does not do much work in his argument. Rather, his core premise is that it is so important to ensure the continuation of humanity that he believes that it is acceptable that many will suffer extremely along the way whether or not they would have approved of being born.

A second problem with what Parfit writes is his suggestion that we leave questions of whether the future will be positive or negative to our descendants. He probably hopes that our descendants will make good related decisions, at least not worse than we would, because they will have more information, or at least a longer history to base their decisions on, and they might have improved their ethical thinking. But if one holds a minority view that one expects to stay a minority view, there is seemingly little hope that our descendants will act on it and make what oneself would consider to be good decisions, and there is a high risk that they will do the opposite. For example, if one holds a minority view such as antinatalism, according to which it is wrong to have children, one might have little hope that future generations will act on it, in part because evolutionary selection works against antinatalist views—those who are opposed to reproduction don’t reproduce while those who are in favor reproduce and spread their genes.21

The third and main problem with Parfit’s argument is that by sticking around, we increase the risk that humans will accidentally or intentionally cause a future that is much worse than an empty world. This could happen in a number of ways; for example, through a new social movement, a tyrannical world government, all kinds of competitive forces (such as economic), ways that we have not thought of yet, or humans might create an unstoppable artificial intelligence that embarks on creating a horrible future.22 In other words, continuing to exist and giving our descendants the option to decide whether to stick around for even longer, because the future might be (very) good, carries the cost and risk that people in that “extra” period will cause an outcome that is much worse than an empty world.23 This point holds even if all our close descendants would live wonderful lives (which they almost certainly will not). Parfit does not bring up this crucial cost and risk of us sticking around, but this risk supports my view that the expected value of the future is negative and worse than an empty world.

In conclusion, instead of focusing our efforts on ensuring that humanity survives, we should prioritize making the future less bad, in case it will contain sentient life. We should try to make it more likely that our descendants will be in a better position to get the big decisions right—most importantly that they avoid causing astronomical amounts of extreme suffering.24

References

  • Beiser, Frederick C. (2016). Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860–1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bergström, Lars. (1978). “Pessimismens konsekvenser.” In En filosofibok tillägnad Anders Wedberg, 24–34. Stockholm: Bonniers.
  • Fehige, Christoph. (1998). “A Pareto Principle for Possible People.” In Preferences, edited by Christoph Fehige and Ulla Wessels, 508–43. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Ungated.
  • Gloor, Lukas. (2017). “Tranquilism.” https://foundational-research.org/tranquilism/.
  • Hedenius, Ingemar. (1955). Fyra dygder. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag.
  • Hedenius, Ingemar. (1984). “Pessimismen omigen.” In Frågor om livets mening, edited by Lars Bergström, 150–169. Uppsala: Filosofiska studier.
  • Leslie, John. (1998). The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. New York: Routledge.
  • Mendola, Joseph. (2006). Goodness and Justice: A Consequentialist Moral Theory. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1923). The Birth of Tragedy: Or, Hellenism and Pessimism, third ed. Translated by WM. A. Haussmann. Edinburgh/London: Foulis.
  • Parfit, Derek. (2011). On What Matters, vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Pearce, David. (2007). “Review: Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar.” http://www.abolitionist.com/anti-natalism.html.
  • Plato. (2008). Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Ungated.
  • Tomasik, Brian. (2015). “Are Happiness and Suffering Symmetric?” http://reducing-suffering.org/happiness-suffering-symmetric/.
  • Tännsjö, Torbjörn. (2015). Filosofisk tröst: En bok om döden. Stockholm: Thales.
  • von Wright, Georg Henrik. (1997). “Repliker.” In Framsteg, myt, rationalitet, edited by Bengt Molander och May Thorseth, 165–76. Göteborg: Daidalos.

Notes

  1. Page 172.  (back)
  2. Leslie (1998, 184). Examples of related views (by me, not Leslie) include von Wright (1997, 175), which says that “... I cannot ... find it ‘scandalous’ that there are humans (philosophers), who do not consider themselves able to answer Yes to the question of whether it is good that humanity survives” (my translation). Original passage in Swedish: “Och därför kan jag inte med Leslie (kanske också Tännsjö) finna det »skandalöst» att det finns människor (filosofer), som inte anser sig kunna svara Ja på frågan om det är bra att mänskligheten överlever.” Another example is Bergström (1978, 25), which says, “As far as I can see, it makes no greater difference whether after us and until the extinction of humanity there would come 10 or 100 completely happy generations, but it makes a substantial difference whether after us there would come 10 or 100 unhappy generations” (my translation). Original passage in Swedish: “Såvitt jag kan se spelar det ingen större roll om det efter oss och fram till mänsklighetens utdöende skulle komma 10 eller 100 fullkomligt lyckliga generationer, men det spelar en avsevärd roll om det efter oss skulle komma 10 eller 100 olyckliga generationer.”  (back)
  3. Similarly, Parfit (2011, 609) writes, “Q1: Has the past been in itself worth it? To focus on this question, we can imagine learning that some massive asteroid will soon hit the Earth, thereby ending human history. We can then ask whether, compared with what has actually happened, it would have been either better or worse if human history had never occurred, because no human beings had ever existed.”  (back)
  4. Parfit (2011, 612).  (back)
  5. Parfit (2011) says, “This chapter analyses whether, given the horrors of the past, human history has been worth it. The badness of suffering casts doubt on the goodness of the world. In asking whether human history has been worth it, we are asking whether the horrors and the suffering have been outweighed, so that human history has been, on the whole, good.”  (back)
  6. Mendola (2006, 269).  (back)
  7. Page 612.  (back)
  8. This idea is discussed by Bergström (1978, 28).  (back)
  9. Except when considering terraforming, ancestor-simulations, and the like (as Bostrom writes, an ‘ancestor-simulation’ is a computer simulation of “the entire mental history of humankind”). Thanks to Brian Tomasik for making this point.  (back)
  10. Bergström (1978, 29) makes essentially this point, as does Parfit (2011, 613–14): “Our practical question is Q4: What ought we to do? To answer this question, we don’t need to know either whether the past was worth it, or whether the whole of history will have been worth it. Suppose that the past was in itself so bad that, even if the future will be very good, human history will not have been worth it. If that were true, it would have been better if human beings had never existed. But that truth would have no practical implications. If the future would be worth it, we should not give up now.”  (back)
  11. Plato (2008).  (back)
  12. Nietzsche (1923, 34).  (back)
  13. Quoted in Beiser (2016, 46).  (back)
  14. Pages 615–16.  (back)
  15. Page 521.  (back)
  16. “The worst in life, the fate of the completely unhappy, the uninterrupted, infernalistic suffering, the hopeless humiliation, a child who is slowly tormented to death—I cannot see that all beauty in the world or even the most exceptional thoughts can ‘counterbalance’ such, and neither that other humans’ happiness or culture can do it” (Hedenius 1955, 100). My translation. Original passage in Swedish: “Det värsta i livet, de fullkomligt olyckligas öde, det oavbrutna, infernaliska lidandet, den hopplösa förnedringen, ett barn som långsamt plågas till döds — jag kan inte se att all skönhet i världen eller ens de utomordentligaste tankar kan ’uppväga’ sådant, och inte heller att andra människors lycka och kultur kan göra det.” See also Hedenius (1984).  (back)
  17. Tomasik (2015), section “Consent-based negative utilitarianism?”  (back)
  18. People who accept Nothing can be better than an empty world or Badness in the near future cannot be counterbalanced can also consider the expected value of the future, and would presumably quickly conclude that it is negative.  (back)
  19. Parfit (2011, 614–15).  (back)
  20. Parfit (2011, 620).  (back)
  21. Thanks to Brian Tomasik for making essentially the point in this paragraph. The idea that there is evolutionary selection pressure against antinatalist dispositions has been presented earlier by Pearce (2007).  (back)
  22. This passage has benefited especially from discussion with Brian Tomasik.  (back)
  23. Adriano Mannino makes a similar point in his presentation “How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Makes Philosophy Honest” at 46:14 into the video. The presentation was published on YouTube March 14, 2016.  (back)
  24. This essay draws heavily on, and has benefited from, Bergström (1978), Parfit (2011) and Tännsjö (2015). I am grateful to Brian Tomasik, David Althaus and Caspar Oesterheld for helpful comments.  (back)

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