Skip to content

Would the End of the World really be so Bad?

As always, we sentient beings on earth are at risk of being wiped out by some global catastrophe. Some of the risks – diseases or meteorites – are old; others – nuclear weapons or global warming – are more recent. They are discussed very well in Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic’s edited collection Global Catastrophic Risks:

In one sense, a catastrophe is just major systematic change. It needn’t be bad. But of course many people believe that the ending of sentient life on this planet would be a catastrophe in the evaluative sense. It would be very bad for most of the sentient beings living at the time of the catastrophe, and bad in some more impersonal sense since it would prevent many potential sentient beings from becoming actual.

Clearly the ending of sentient life isn’t the worst outcome imaginable. That would involve the existence of sentient beings, in great agony. But the question remains whether this kind of catastrophe would be worse than its not happening, with things continuing much as they are.

It’s at least arguable that it would not be worse. Most would accept that it could be good for some individuals – perhaps those with only a short time of intense agony left. But they would also think that the overall suffering in the world is counterbalanced by the good things in the lives of sentient beings, considered as a whole.

This seems very plausible as a claim about the lives of some such beings. But some individuals have lives of an extremely low quality, consisting sometimes of nothing much more than great agony over a fairly protracted period. How are we to weigh the value of all these different lives against one another?

In his An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (1946), the American philosopher C.I. Lewis suggested that we might attempt such comparisons by imagining that we ourselves have to live the lives of all those concerned, in series. It might seem that such a comparison relies on some controversial theory of personal identity. But it need not. Imagine that by some means your own life could be extended hugely, and that you would then be plugged into some machine that would ‘play back’ into your consciousness all the experiences of all sentient beings until there were no more left.

Of course, many of these experiences would be wonderful. But many of them would be very bad indeed. It’s not clear to me that this stream of experiences would overall be better for me than no experiences at all, since the amount of suffering would be so great that perhaps no amount of good experience could counterbalance it. If this is the right view, then a global catastrophe might be something to be welcomed, at least from the impartial or moral point of view.

Share on

17 Comment on this post

  1. What a great issue for discussion. I intuitively agree with your position and find the contrary view baffling. But I have a suspicion that my perspective is equally baffling to people who think that life, or sentient life, is of value in itself and even the source of all value.

    If I go along with the idea that sentience is the source of all value, then I come to the conclusion pointed to in the post above – that as a sentient being I would prefer not to go through continual agony which (whether others consider it meaningful in some way or not) seems to me to be meaningless. I would therefore put a greater value on non-existence, or a negative value on existence, however you prefer to express it.

    However someone who thinks life is meaningful might experience the agony in a qualitatively different way, and the suffering would be meaningful as an experience, and therefore of positive value in some sense which is relevant to them. In which case I have no right or inclination to suggest that it would be better for them not to be born or to be put out of their "misery".

    So the conclusion seems to be that people who wished to die should be able to do so, and this would also satisfy most the person plugged into the machine playing back all the lives lived by everyone.

    But then why should this hypothetical person's subjective experiences be the ultimate arbiter of value? I think it can be justified in terms of giving everyone's experience equal value, however I have a feeling this won't satisfy people who believe that the concept of value only makes sense if it is invested in something outside our own individual consciousness and that I am making some kind of category error. If so, then I would have to have an ironic attitude towards it, since the things which make my life valuable are things I do not experience for myself, but by having this attitude my experience of life as a whole is qualitatively different than it otherwise would have been and makes me desire the continuance of my own life.

    As such I would be happy to continue living (for example so I can care for an infirm relative) BUT I would not be happy to have to live through someone else's choices in that way as I would do if I were hooked up to the hypothetical machine. And I might be guilty for having chosen to go on living like this if I also knew that there would be someone hooked up to such a machine, adding another complication to my choices in and evaluation of my life.

  2. One problem with Lewis's idea is that imagining living someone else's life is a very different experience to actually being them and living their life. What we need in order to get anywhere at all with this kind of question (which is indeed fundamental to ethics, at least for a utilitarian such as myself) is to agree on some definition of happiness that can, at least in principle, be measured objectively.

    Conceptually I don't think this is hard to do, as long as one accepts that there are choices to be made, and not necessarily unique "right" answers as to what those choices should be. Possible indicators could include self-reported levels of happiness ("how happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?"), hormonal indicators, and neural patterns (activity in certain parts of the brain) that appear to be correlated with self-reported levels of happiness. Precisely what we should NOT do is try to imagine how happy we would be leading someone else's lifestyle and then assume that's how happy they are. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in The Happiness Hypothesis, this is the mistake the Buddha made, and thus overestimated the amount of suffering in the world.

    One of the choices, of course, will he where to set the zero level, and the choice we make will determine (along with the evidence of course) whether we see annihilation of sentient life as better or worse than the status quo. Once again I'm mot really convinced there is a right answer to this question, but that doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't make the choice anyway. Of course if we don't want to conclude that annihilation is a good thing we can always seer the zero low enough that the status quo is above it. If it is indeed a choice rather than a question of truth, as I believe, then this would be a perfectly legitimate thing to do.

  3. I have a strong suspicion that the average observer does have a positive life (as evaluated by their own experience) on average, since that seems to be the case among most humans. But then again, I am an optimist and do think that the meaningfulness of life makes a lot of pains acceptable anyway.

    There are also reasons to think that some (post)human descendants might have extremely positive lives because they have designed themselves to have them. In fact, they might be far beyond what is possible for unaugmented humans to enjoy (we just have *one* mesolimbic dopamine bundle, and our pleasures tend to habituate). This would of course complicate the thought experiment since it is not clear what replaying their experiences would mean to the longlived me – he would need to be equally upgraded, raising identity problems and the issue that many ordinary human experiences now are very simple compared to the potential of this mind. But it seems that this kind of posthuman happiness might counterbalance quite a lot.

  4. Thanks for these very interesting responses.

    Arif: Yes, you're quite right — I was assuming that great suffering is bad for individuals, even if they think otherwise. But even if we discount those individuals who do think this, that will leave many billions who don't. It might be said that suffering is good for everyone, because it gives lives meaning. I'm not sure what to make of that. Could the value of the meaning really counterbalance the disvalue of the suffering? (And if it is said that severe agony isn't bad for those experience it — well, I'm not sure what to make of that either!)

    I was also thinking of well-being largely in terms of experiences. As you point out, many people will think that things like genuine accomplishment, knowledge, friendship, and so on are valuable at least partly in respect of their non-experiential aspects. But I think the thought-experiment can handle that. It's not obvious to me that, even if we allow that the accomplishments and so on of future individuals will be valuable for those individuals, their value will counterbalance vast amounts of severe suffering. (The thought-experiment does get tricky at this point, of course, as all the 'accomplishments' etc. would have to be virtual.)

    Peter: I was assuming that, phenomenologically, there would be no difference between the (possible) 'real' experiences and the 'copies'. But I entirely take your cautionary point about judgements of others' well-being. What I'm talking about, however, is, primarily, agonizing and sustained pain. We might be wrong about how unhappy we'd be if we became, say, quadriplegic. But I think we are not wrong to think that severe pain will make us very unhappy (and of course the evidence supports that).

    Anders: It may well be that the vast majority of sentient beings have lives which are overall of positive value. But some don't. And my question is how to weigh the value and the disvalue of these different sets of lives. Your point about posthumans is right: They may have very valuable experiences of a kind we can't conceive of. And they may be immune to pain. But it'll take some time before such beings emerge, and during that time there will be much suffering. It's not clear to me that the valuable posthuman outcome is worth the price of the suffering in the period leading up to it.

    A general point. Most of us are not in severe pain when we consider the disvalue of pain. Next time you are in severe pain — in the dentist's chair, say, or after some very painful operation — try my thought-experiment.

  5. Some further comments from my side.

    @Roger: but how much of the world's population is really in agonizing and sustained pain? Also: I'd be interested in studying further what the evidence concerning the link between severe pain and unhappiness (i.e. depression). Obviously there *is* a link, but I'm not convinced even in this case that the link is as straightforward as might be assumed. My own experience in this field has thankfully been limited so far, but until I learnt Ericsonian self-hypnosis from my GP I did sometime suffer from episodes of gastritis, which were excruciating. I do think that this can be an extremely effective way of reducing the depressive/distressing effect of physical pain. But again I'd be interested to read studies that elucidate these issue in a robust/empirical way.

    @Anders: in addition to the utopian post human scenarios we should also take account of dystopian ones. My instinct tells me that there are many more dystopian futures out there than utopian ones, so we'll have to work hard if we want to actually reach the latter. In this context I think Roger's central thesis – that the "end of the world" is by no means the worst thing that could happen – is valid and important. What we absolutely need to avoid is the Katrina phenomenon: they didn't take measures to cope for a dam-busting hurricane because it was "too unthinkable". We need to look squarely at the dystopian futures and take robust steps to prepare for and avoid them. I think that focusing on the idea that the end of the world is not the worst thing that can happen helps us to do that.

  6. Thanks, Peter. Well, the numbers do count, of course. But it seems at least arguable that *one* year of agonizing pain is enough to outweigh any amount of good. (I wasn't myself advocating this position. But it does seem to me worth taking seriously.) Presumably there's some pain that humans can't control through self-hypnosis, or even drugs (such as that felt as the result of certain metastasized cancers). And of course there is also non-human suffering too (of which one has to accept there is a huge amount).

  7. I'm not sure about the year of agony outweighing any amount of good. Would you say that the existence of purgatory in Dante's Divine Comedy makes the subsequent reward of heaven insufficient? This seems to be an area where people have wildly divergent intuitions and aggregation theories.

    As for the possible posthuman dystopias, they demonstrate the problem of just looking at one realization of the future. The thought experiment assumes that there is a fixed future with certain experiences in it. But both utopias and dystopias are possible, and they might preclude each other. The thought experiment can weigh different possible realizations against each other, but has trouble if they might occur with different probabilities (is 1% chance of a dystopia worse than a 50% chance of a utopia?)

  8. Thanks, Anders. Yes, people do have wildly divergent intuitions about these cases. That's one of the reasons it's odd that there is near consensus on the badness of the end of the world.

    I don't think the thought experiment has to assume a fixed future. Imagine that God is running the show. Then, at the point at which you would otherwise have died, he'll keep you going and immediately start playing back some of the experiences of others into your consciousness. Of course, he'd need to keep you living for many billions of years after all other sentient beings had died, so as to have time to play back all the relevant experiences. It is true, however, that introducing probabilities into these cases of possible discontinuity of value is tricky. Sidgwick noticed this: 'I do not find, in the practical forethought of persons noted for caution, any recognition of the danger of agony such that, in order to avoid the smallest extra risk of it, the greatest conceivable amount of moderate pain should reasonably be incurred' (*Methods of Ethics*, 1907, pp. 123-4, n. 1). But I do think the question of whether there are these discontinuities can be considered independently from probability.

  9. I do agree that the idea that one year of agony outweighs any amount of good is worth taking seriously. Of course there's one surefire way to deal with pain: euthansia/suicide. A weaker version of your "end of the world" idea is simply that we need to destigmatised these.

    Anders I agree that one needs to consider multiple futures. Another complication is that even if we know (or think we know) "probabilities" os different futures occurring, we also need to factor in then power of intention. If we are determined to propel ourselves towards utopian futures and avoid the dystopian ones, then past experience suggests that we will have a greater chance of succeeding than if we don't. To put it more precisely, it is my belief that paths from the Big Bamg to the best futures pass through moments where we visualize those futures and resolve to make them happen, and also moment where we visualize dystopias and resolve to avoid them. What I think Roger's "end of the world" scenario does is to enhance our awareness of the different types of futures that are available, and this I'm itself can help to steel our resolve to aim for the best ones.

  10. Hello there.

    What an oddity – [i]Clearly the ending of sentient life isn’t the worst outcome imaginable. That would involve the existence of sentient beings, in great agony[/i].

    An immediate 'jump cut' is required, before our brains boil off due to some obscure American philosopher:

    #1 "All life is suffering' – Buddah
    #2 "While there's life there's hope, and only the dead have none." – Theocritus
    #3 "It was the Law of the Sea, they said. Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top." Hunter S Thompson

    We'll add some actual reality into this mix now:

    #1 "The Apocalypse happens in slow time" – or, at least, the non-M.A.D. version does. And if we're talking M.A.D., then there's no time for suffering. So what we're discussing is the slow, protracted, drawn out march towards the horizon or Sein-zum-Tode. You're talking, really, about the inevitable process of decay that our genes place upon us, in the immediate bioliberationist stance. The struggle is against death, and for more life. Embrace that, please stop dissembling away from it.

    #2 "Many / few". As we should be aware; 2,000,000,000,000,000 humans live on less than $1 / day. We have failed to improve this number substantially since the 1950's [barring China, and it cost them over 40 million people due to famine / oppression to improve their lot] and we're nearing the end of the green revolution. Simply put: We've run out of time for majority uplift, and most mature commentators note this. And please; let us not fool ourselves. The majority of these poor (and the underlying vastly disproportionate percentage of those being female) [b]had no choice[/b]. They were born; they had little chance to improve their lot (and in many cases, the West actively stopped them – via trade, assassination / force or simple prevention of technology / knowledge) and they struggled and died. So please.. cut the "hypothetical" out of your argument.

    #3 Likewise, please cease this nonsensical feeble attitude that your life has not [b]already[/b] been based on the suffering of others. Any attempt to escape your role in the suffering of others is disingenuous, and unworthy of a philosopher, let alone one who seeks to look at ethics. Your life [b]is[/b] based on exploitation – the only question is what you have / will do with the 'luck of your position'. "You might feel guilty"… how very… pre-Nietzschean… how very… mundane. Either embrace the suffering ("I shall feel their suffering for a million million years" and use it as a justification of hope for humanity) or deny it totally. Don't wishy-washy deny it.

    Anyhow… Reading the rest of the papers. Bioliberation; I'd love some statistics on the % of faculty who are ramping themselves up to the eyeballs in piracetam and other nootropics. Otherwise, this is all pretense.

    1. Not sure exactly what the main point is here. Yes, those of us living a relatively affluent lifestyle are doing so by exploiting the poor of the world in some sense although last time I checked there weren't two quadrillion of them :). So what? That doesn't mean they are all in agony the whole time.

      I THINK the point is that faculty staff in the fhi should either fully embrace bioliberation, in practice as well as theory, or stop talking about it. That's a point of view I guess. Personally I don't care whether Roger and his colleagues take nootropics etc or not, provided that they are honest about it. I think the topics addressed here are incredibly important, whichever side of the debate(s) you're on, and the quality of the debate is high (even if not always as high as I would like). So keep it up!

      1. I'm currently suffering from the condition known as 'Zero stroke', due to the American situation, so you'll have to excuse the quadrillion angle, my mistake. [A joke you'll have to work out on your own].

        As for the commentary… I was playing a rather naughty meta-joke, I'm afraid, amongst some Continental philosophy to chase away the dusty cobwebs of Lewis & his particular pragmatism.

        Look up the faculty members who are linked to the Wellcome Trust, and then look carefully at the position I was answering: the 'correct' response to the OP is 'On an infinite plane, any sensation is better than none, and there are few mental states that cannot be enjoyed <b>barring ennui</b>'. The real issue is not one of sensation, it is of autonomy – control of a situation allows it to be manageable.

        Oh, and I'm deadly serious about the nootropic angle: I'd love the opportunity to snaffle as many upgrades as humanly possible ('in the name of science', if we must give ethical excuses), however our civilisation is prehistoric about the possibility. Which is extremely short-sighted, given that other Nations are not; as noted around here, many top flight scientists are moving to more Eastern realms to actually do any proper work. So yes: experimentation is 100% of the procedure for uplift / bioliberalisation. If you're not into that, then you're merely interested in the control (of others) aspects, in which case I have only a vague sense of ironic doublespeak about the whole title of the blog.


        It seems your blog doesn't actually do HTML tags, or humour?

        1. Interesting. I just don't agree that you necessarily have to do experimentation yourself in order to make a contribution to clear thinking about ethical issues. I'm a moral subjectivist rather than a non-cognitive, so I do think discussion of ethical issues, i.e. of what people should do, is meaningful and useful. It's not about controlling others; it is about influencing others and also clarifying our thinking about what *we* should do. That's practical enough for me.

  11. "If this is the right view, then a global catastrophe might be something to be welcomed, at least from the impartial or moral point of view."

    Only if that impartial point of view happens to be God's own point of view for, if there's no sentient being left, there's no experience of it being better or worse. Of course, sentient life may have intrinsic value, i.e. independently of there being other sentient beings to experience its existence. Then it would make sense to claim that some state of affairs which affects no one is nonetheless worse/better than another. But even so, the source of value must be considered so by those to whom value matters (which involves a God-like point of view).
    Anyway, this sounds like the old environmentalist thought-experiment of "May I destroy all nature around me before I die if I'm the only sentient being left on Earth?"

    An interesting thought related to the "too unthinkable" would be that the extinction of all life on Earth does not imply that no life will ever happen to evolve again on Earth (or from elsewhere). But that seems to imply obligations toward merely *possible* generations unrelated to any actual sentient being.

    My opinion is that such thought-experiments rest on the assumption that the value of the states of affairs so assessed is experiential, i.e. based on the logical relation of such states to some sentient and/or conscious beings. This is because the truth is the amount of suffering on Earth cannot be compensated for. Some agonies are not such as to be outweighed by any other's positive experiences. In addition, consider that the inimaginable amount of suffering on Earth also causes second-order suffering to those who have good lives, whether it be because they feel guilty or for emotional reasons.

  12. Thanks, Nicolas. Like you, I do find the use of the notion of 'points of view' tricky, especially if we're talking about situations where there is no point of view! So perhaps just 'better' and 'worse' would be … better! As I said above, I was indeed thinking about these cases primarily in 'experientialist' terms; but I don't see that one has to do that. One might think that the amount of suffering we are talking about can't be counterbalanced by *any* amount of *any* other kind of value.

  13. <cite>perhaps no amount of good experience could counterbalance it</cite>

    When evaluating such questions on the basis of imaginative thought experiments must be wary of scope insensitivity — the well-known inability for humans to "shut up and multiply" when it comes to dealing with unimaginably large numbers, especially in normative contexts. In particular, the vast number of worthwhile sentient lives that might exist in the future is simply too large to comprehend on a gut level. Instead, we should focus on the value of familiar human lives: those of our friends, relatives, and ourselves, and multiply this by the enormous factor implied by the math.

Comments are closed.