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First published in 2022. Revised in 2024. Readable as a standalone post. Chapter 5 in “Minimalist Axiologies: Alternatives to ‘Good Minus Bad’ Views of Value”.

1. Overview and scope

This chapter addresses concerns regarding the implications of minimalist views in relation to the following questions:

A. Would an empty world (that is, a world without sentient beings) be axiologically perfect?

B. For any hypothetical world, would the best outcome be realized by pressing a button that causes its instant cessation?

C. Would minimalist consequentialism imply that it would be right to seek to turn our world into an empty one in practice, even by coercive means?

The scope of my responses is limited to purely welfarist consequentialism.[1] Thus, I assume that the value of outcomes and the rightness of acts depend entirely on wellbeing outcomes, without being affected by any independent disvalue assigned to other factors, such as acts, motives, or character traits.

The scope is further limited to purely experience-focused (that is, ‘experientialist’) versions of minimalist views. Thus, I assume that the wellbeing of any given being cannot be directly affected by things outside their experience, and thereby set aside extra-experientialist views, such as preference-based views.[2]

Finally, I assume that the independent disvalue of any given experiential state, all else being equal, is wholly intrinsic to that experiential state, independent of the context or the rest of the life in which that state exists.

Extra-experientialist or nonconsequentialist versions of minimalist views could have more things to say about the questions above.[3] On extra-experientialist grounds, such views might say that the outcome resulting from instant cessation could be suboptimal due to other independent bads, such as preference frustration, premature death, or rights violations (i.e. “extra-experiential disvalue”).[4] Moreover, nonconsequentialist versions of minimalist views might hold that the rightness of acts, such as pressing a button or engaging in supposedly justified coercion, is dependent also on nonconsequentialist factors, such as some properties of the actor or the action itself, and thereby deny that the outcome is the full picture of what matters morally.[5]

Thus, this chapter focuses merely on how the questions listed above could be addressed from a narrow subset of minimalist perspectives. It does not cover all possible replies from minimalist views in general, and hence agreement with the arguments presented in this chapter is by no means required for holding a minimalist view of value and ethics. (That being said, many of the arguments in this chapter, especially the ones that address practical issues, may still be relevant to minimalist views more broadly.)

The first question (A) concerns the theoretical value of hypothetical worlds. Here, experientialist minimalist axiologies do imply that there is no world that could be better than an empty world; after all, an empty world would involve no trouble of any kind.[6] Yet an equally ideal world, in theory, would be one in which all lives are completely untroubled.[7] And this equal ideal (of completely untroubled experience) is a much more widely shared ideal.

Thus, it is misleading and needlessly divisive to talk as if minimalist views would necessarily prioritize an empty world as their only ideal of perfection — especially after we account for the various practical reasons to focus on the common ground between people who hold different values.

The other questions and related concerns are a lot less trivial. To respond to them in their proper context, I draw a sharp distinction between the hypothetical question (B) and the practical question (C).

Sections 5.2 and 5.3 address these questions, respectively. The next two subsections provide an outline of the main points.[8]

1.1 Overview of the hypothetical side

Section 5.2 is a six-part analysis of the hypothetical choice of cessation (B).

To focus on the choices in which experientialist minimalist views imply that cessation is the best option, I assume that the equal ideal of an untroubled paradise is not an option. That is, I discuss the non-cessation versus cessation of any given hypothetical world that does contain some amount of experiential bads, such as intense suffering.

The structure of the response is as follows.

  • Section 5.2.1 argues that we need to account for status quo bias and omission bias before we could hope to evaluate the choice between non-cessation and cessation from an impartial perspective.
  • Section 5.2.2 presents a ‘reversal test’ to account for those biases, and highlights the need to be mindful of the radical assumption of ‘all else being equal’ often made in population ethics.
  • Section 5.2.3 responds to the choice (between the non-cessation and cessation of any hypothetical world that contains bads) from the perspective of experientialist and consequentialist minimalism.
  • Section 5.2.4 explores some implications of our possibly failing to maintain the assumption of ‘all else being equal’ when engaging in this thought experiment.
  • Section 5.2.5 zooms out to ask whether the principles provided by minimalist views (to respond to non-cessation versus cessation) are any less plausible than those provided by offsetting (‘good minus bad’) views. Additionally, this section:
    • Argues that in comparison with offsetting views, the cessation button does not constitute a unique objection against minimalist views in particular (if at all).
    • Suggests that offsetting views imply similar or worse hypothetical choices, including the choice of ‘intense bliss with hellish cessation’.
    • Notes that for some people, these cessation implications may be a reason to reject all purely experientialist and consequentialist views; for others, they may be a reason to highlight the gap between consequentialist theory and practice.
  • Section 5.2.6 briefly highlights the gap between consequentialist theory and practice (before 5.3 does so at length). In particular, this section:
    • Asks whether our practical anti-violence intuitions (strong and warranted as they are) might “miss their mark” in thought experiments that involve the cessation of causally isolated lives (be it ‘minimalist cessation’ or ‘intense bliss with hellish cessation’), and whether this might constitute an additional bias in such thought experiments.
    • Looks at experientialist minimalist reasons to strongly oppose even painless killing in practice.

1.2 Overview of the practical side

Section 5.3 is a three-part response to the practical question (C). 

The hypothetical conclusions in Section 5.2 are based on assumptions that are completely unrealistic. In contrast, Section 5.3 explores the altogether different considerations that are of key relevance once we drop those assumptions of ‘all else being equal’, cessation buttons, and the like.

The structure of the response is as follows.

  • Section 5.3.1 acknowledges that we may sometimes practically benefit from orienting toward ideal states-of-affairs (i.e. ‘utopianism’). However, it also argues that:
    • Utopianism as a guiding principle has many pitfalls that can cause it to diverge from impartial consequentialism (and do more harm than good).
    • In practice, consequentialism does not recommend seeking possible paths to a single, ideal “endstate” of the world; instead, a more plausible understanding of consequentialism recommends that we follow indirect proxy principles that yield the best consequences over all space and time in terms of carefully estimated expected value (and do so from a ‘marginal realist’ rather than a ‘broad idealist’ perspective).
      • The expected value approach is a more impartial, realistic, and risk-aware outcome-orientation that does not privilege any subperiod in time, and nor does it privilege some uncertain prospect of realizing a hypothetical endstate at the risk of leading to an overall worse outcome.
  • Section 5.3.2 looks at the key practical considerations for assessing whether minimalist consequentialism, combined with careful expected value thinking, would recommend or discourage efforts to create an empty world. Overall:
    • Minimalists have strong practical reasons to cooperate with people who hold different values and to seek mutual gains from compromise with them (especially because the active prevention of worst-case outcomes, a top cause for minimalists, is already a key shared aim between multiple views, and requires us to work together).
    • We still have considerable empirical uncertainty about how common life is in the reachable universe, and about whether an Earth-originating civilization would use astronomical resources in more or less suffering-conducive ways than would another civilization.
      • This uncertainty is a reason against prematurely concluding that the extinction of humanity would be desirable compared to human space colonization (even from a minimalist perspective).
      • And (as a practically relevant thought experiment), the more we would be both capable and goal-aligned enough to prevent all suffering on Earth, the more we might also be the kind of civilization that could play more positive roles by ensuring that the vast resources of the reachable universe would not become fuel for generating astronomically greater suffering.
    • Minimalists would likely be wise — given the empirical uncertainty — to prioritize the widely shared (and robustly positive) aim of “improving the expected quality of future lives conditional on their existence”, such as by working together with people who hold different values to reduce risks of astronomical suffering (s-risks).
      • S-risk reduction will plausibly require large-scale cooperation between various agents, whereas unilateral action toward an ‘empty world’ would likely increase s-risks in expectation.
  • Section 5.3.3 notes that the aim to minimize experiential bads is not by itself a directly suitable principle for guiding practical action. Rather:
    • Minimalists (and consequentialists in general) need to deeply internalize and uphold more actionable principles — such as virtues and commonsense prohibitions — that indirectly tend to bring about the best consequences.
      • For minimalists, a practically optimal set of principles will likely include pragmatically absolute nonviolence, non-aggression, and respect toward other sentient beings, not least because the erosion of these principles is a prime risk factor for s-risks.

2. The hypothetical side: Cessation versus creation of an imperfect world

2.1 Status quo bias and omission bias: Privileging non-intervention

Status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current situation even when better options are available.[9] Its influence can be probed with the reversal test, which involves hypothetically reversing the current situation to see if we would still prefer it for its own merits, or if our preference for it was influenced by a resistance to change.[10]

For instance, consider Bob, who opposes giving pain relief access to those who lack it (even assuming no switching costs). Would he support removing pain relief access from the same patients if they already had it? If not, then his judgment may be influenced by a preference for maintaining the status quo (or a preference to avoid taking personal action to change it), instead of just assessing each change on its own merits.

Status quo bias may in part be explained by omission bias, namely the tendency to deem harmful inaction (omission) more acceptable than equally harmful action (commission).[11] This, in turn, may in part be explained by the fact that we often find it much easier to attribute blame for the harm to someone who took harmful action compared to someone who took no action, even if they both allowed equal harm to take place in the outcome.[12]

Regarding the cessation of a hypothetical world, clearly the choice of cessation would be a significant intervention to the status quo. To account for the influence of the potential biases above, we therefore need a reversal test where the choice that is equivalent to non-cessation entails a similar responsibility for the outcome as does the choice of cessation.

In this case, the reversal test is to ask whether we would actively create a world that is identical to the one that the choice of non-cessation would passively allow to exist.[13]

2.2 The reversal test: Creation at the moment of non-cessation

In this context, the reversal test is motivated by the consequentialist equivalence between action and inaction with identical outcomes.[14]

From an experientialist consequentialist perspective, the outcome of the non-cessation choice is that a world does exist in place of an empty world, which is outcome-equivalent to the creation of a similar world — from the moment of the choice onward — in place of an empty world.

This equivalence is illustrated in Figure 5.1.

Figure 5.1. The consequentialist equivalence between non-cessation and creation, and between cessation and non-creation.

We can now avoid the influence of status quo bias and omission bias by reframing the initial question (B) in more neutral terms, namely as a choice between the middle options in Figure 5.1. Thus, we choose between the creation versus cessation of a hypothetical world at some time T:

  1. ‘Creation’: the instant creation of world W (starting from time T) in place of an otherwise empty world.
  2. ‘Cessation’: the instant cessation of world W at time T.

From a forward-looking, experientialist consequentialist point of view, the reframed question helps us focus on the main issue of which choice has the overall better outcome.

We, in this thought experiment, are simply an outside ‘chooser’. We do not live in world W, and are not affected by our choice in any way.

To even better respect the assumption of ‘all else being equal’ in these hypothetical cases, let us imagine that the entire population of world W consists of isolated Matrix-lives that have no effects beyond themselves.[15] This helps to ensure that our assessment of this hypothetical choice is not distorted by our practical intuitions, which in the real world might implicitly be tracking the overall value of individual lives not only in terms of their independent features, but also in terms of their positive or negative roles for all other lives.[16]

2.3 Choosing a future with fewer problems

Now to make the choice, we only need to specify two things:

  1. What the future is actually like, in the creation scenario, for the isolated Matrix-lives of world W (from time T onward).
  2. What axiological principle[17] we use to assess which choice has the overall better outcome, all else equal.

Trivially, if the lives in world W are completely untroubled, then minimalist views would consider the world an optimal one, neither favoring its cessation nor opposing its creation. After all, its creation would harm no one.

The more interesting case is the ‘near-perfect paradise’, in which the isolated Matrix-lives are arbitrarily numerous, blissful, and subjectively meaningful, except one of the lives is rendered ‘imperfect’ due to a momentary subjective problem. This life would experience some involuntary suffering, unmet need, or preference frustration, of the minimum severity to qualify it as a problem for its own sake.[18]

All else equal, would experientialist minimalist views favor the cessation (i.e. non-creation) rather than the creation of such an 'imperfect world’ at time T, before the problem occurs?

Hypothetically and strictly from a consequentialist point of view, the answer is yes. Such views would say that the better future is the one that involves the least amount of involuntary suffering, unmet need, or the like, regardless of how numerous or blissful the other lives are. After all, a core feature of minimalist views is that the suffering, need, or frustration of some beings cannot be counterbalanced or offset by adding subjectively perfect experience-moments elsewhere.[19]

2.4 Minimalist creation for extrinsic reasons: Breaking the ‘all else being equal’ assumption

Minimalist axiologies imply that replacing an empty world with the future of world cannot be an improvement within that world, because the empty world is perfectly fine to begin with (“no need, no problem”). Yet even if one holds this view, one might still intuitively feel that ‘creation’ would be the better choice in the near-perfect paradise case. This section explores some reasons why such an intuition might arise not necessarily due to our holding a non-minimalist axiology, but possibly due to our breaking the boundaries of the ‘all else equal’ assumption when engaging in this thought experiment.

First, if we ourselves already experience more subjective trouble contemplating a world’s cessation than what trouble would be entailed by its creation, this may in part explain why we intuitively feel that cessation would be the worse choice.[20] For example, we might implicitly feel as if even a hypothetical endorsement of cessation would have dispiriting implications for our own unmet needs for existential security, bliss, or meaning. Yet just because we might have such unmet needs, it does not follow that the creation of isolated beings with satisfied such needs would be an independently positive endeavor.

Second, we might be socially aware that even a hypothetical endorsement of emptiness instead of an imperfect world could be misunderstood as an “anti-life” stance in the eyes of others who might care about which “side” we would take if we had to choose between conflicting ideals or policies in practice.[21] Thus, we might feel that the path of least harm is to choose the creation response in the imperfect paradise case, and to hope to convey a more nuanced understanding of our views in deeper discussions, outside the often charged context of unrealistic hypotheticals.

The above considerations are subtle ways of breaking the ‘all else equal’ assumption, because our hypothetical choice is not supposed to depend on how it might affect us in any way. At the same time, we have good reasons to remember that our hypothetical choices never happen in a vacuum. In particular, they can lead to practical misunderstandings, especially given that our responses to them are usually more memorable than the tower of abstract assumptions on which they were based.

To prevent such practical misunderstandings, it is worth noting that the near-perfect paradise is as perfect as any world that could ever be practically realized, according to both minimalist and other welfarist views.[22] And as far as utopian ideals are concerned, minimalists have strong, practical reasons to side less with the hypothetical ideal of emptiness or cessation, and more with the equal and more popular ideal of completely peaceful lives.[23]

2.5 Comparative theoretical implications of minimalist and offsetting views

This section compares the hypothetical cessation implications of minimalist views with some hypothetical implications of other consequentialist views.

For brevity and ease of reference, the other views will be called “offsetting views” due to their assumption that any independent bads can always be counterbalanced or offset by a sufficient addition of independent goods.[24] Broadly speaking, minimalist axiologies favor outcomes where the notional sum of independent bads is minimized, while offsetting axiologies favor outcomes where the notional sum of independent goods over independent bads is maximized.[25]

Minimalist views are not alone in sometimes favoring the cessation of hypothetical worlds. After all, offsetting views also favor cessation whenever the notional sum of future goods and bads is negative.

Thus, the question is not whether offsetting views imply cessation, but rather when they imply it. And the question is also what else they imply. In particular, when we compare axiological views with respect to their hypothetical implications, it seems relevant to compare their (apparently) least plausible implications with each other.

Even before looking at the specific implications, one might defend an offsetting view by saying that it favors cessation only in the cases where the “sum” of goods over bads is negative (that is, in the “correct” cases), and that minimalist views would imply cessation in cases where this “sum” ought to be seen as positive (that is, in the “wrong” cases).

Yet the existence of this “sum” is a huge assumption to begin with.[26] And it is an assumption that can justify arbitrarily severe harms, such as extreme suffering, for the creation of supposedly independent goods, even if the absence of these supposed goods would cause no experiential problem in the first place.[27]

Thus, we may find the offsetting implications much worse than implications that involve no experiential bads, such as choosing the hypothetical scenario of minimalist cessation (that is, universal cessation or non-creation to prevent all future problems[28]).[29]

Three offsetting implications

Consider, for instance, that offsetting views have the following hypothetical implications:[30]

  • ‘Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation’ (Figure 5.2). Assume a “minimalist paradise” that contains sentient beings experiencing complete peace and contentment, but not (purported) positive pleasure.[31] All else equal, offsetting views imply that it is better to reject the eternal continuation of this paradise and to instead choose a sufficiently large paradise of intense bliss that ends in an arbitrarily large and hellish cessation.[32]
Figure 5.2. An illustration of the choice of ‘Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation’ (B), which is favored by offsetting views. Minimalist views would favor the continuation of the minimalist paradise (A).
  • ‘Creating Hell to Please the Blissful’ (Figure 5.3).[33] Say we have a vast population experiencing nearly maximal bliss. All else equal, offsetting views like classical utilitarianism imply that it is a net improvement to add to this population a smaller population of maximally hellish lives, provided that this fully maximizes the bliss of the sufficiently vast population of near-maximally blissful lives.
Figure 5.3. ‘Creating Hell to Please the Blissful’.
  • ‘More Suffering and a Greater “Sum” from Giving Space to an Alien Civilization’. Assume a world in which humans can either expand into space or give it to an alien civilization.[34] The alien civilization would use the same resources to generate astronomically more suffering, but also vastly more (purported) goods, such that the “offsetting sum” from the alien expansion would be greater than that from human expansion. Here, offsetting views imply that an arbitrarily hellish human extinction is better than human space expansion, as long as the alien civilization generates sufficient goods. By contrast, minimalist views (in this hypothetical) imply that human space expansion is the better outcome, due to ours being the more peaceful and harm-free civilization.

Cessation implications exist for all experientialist consequentialist views

Finally, we may draw an analogy between the case in which minimalist views would favor the cessation of a near-perfect paradise, and the following cases in which all experientialist consequentialist views would have a comparable implication.

Namely, just like a single ‘near-negligible problem’ may lead minimalist views to prefer a hypothetical world’s cessation over its creation, so too would a single such problem “tip the scales” according to all experientialist consequentialist views in some worlds.

Specifically, all such views would favor cessation for the following worlds (that are assumed to be “balanced” or “neutral” in terms of experiential value), which may commonsensically seem to contain a lot of value:

  1. ‘The Pinprick Argument’ (adapted).[35] Regardless of what else a world contains, if the “sum” of all the future experiential goods and bads of its inhabitants were set to be perfectly neutral, all experientialist consequentialist views would favor the instant cessation of the world over adding the tiniest of bads.
  2. ‘Extra-Experiential Fulfillment’.[36] Say we have a world that contains arbitrarily many lives, all of which are full of knowledge, accomplishments, and relationships, yet where these lives experience none of the supposedly independent goods and bads such as pleasure and pain. According to all experientialist consequentialist views, it would be better to painlessly end these lives than to add the tiniest of bads.

To commonsense intuitions, these may seem like absurd conclusions, and thereby like compelling reasons to reject all experientialist consequentialist views in general.[37]

However, one could defend all such views in ways that would be notably similar to how we approached the minimalist cessation hypotheticals in the previous sections. That is, one could emphasize that we need to (1) account for our status quo and omission bias, (2) remember to carefully respect the radical assumption of ‘all else being equal’, and (3) count only that which has independent value.

Experientialist offsetting views and experientialist minimalist views both share the approach of reducing seemingly independent values to an underlying intrinsic value, yet the minimalist views in some sense go one step further. That is, experientialist offsetting views already deny that accomplishments, relationships, or any other things have value independent of their roles in relation to certain experiential features, such as suffering or (purported) positive pleasure. Experientialist minimalist views do the same, except they take the extra step of denying that any experiences have positive value independent of their roles in relation to troubled experiences.[38]

For a person attracted to experientialist and consequentialist views, is the existence of cessation implications itself a reason to reject minimalist views and prefer offsetting views? Clearly not, since we have just illustrated that cessation implications exist for all experientialist consequentialist views.

Moreover, the hypothetical implications of offsetting views include forms of cessation, as well as other implications, that are arguably much worse than the implications of minimalist views (cf. ‘Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation’ and ‘Creating Hell to Please the Blissful’).[39]

Are the cessation implications of experientialist consequentialist views a reason to reject all such views? One could argue that they are. Yet they may also be seen as a reason to mind the gap between consequentialist theory and practice. After all, experientialist consequentialists of every kind tend to justify strong norms against killing and violence not directly at the level of their preferred axiology, but at the level of practical decision procedures.[40]

2.6 The gap between theory and practice

This section briefly highlights the gap between consequentialist theory and practice (before 5.3 does so at length). On the practical side, I argue that minimalist consequentialists, like other consequentialists, indeed should follow strong prohibitions against killing and violence in general.

The next subsections look at the following two questions, respectively:

  1. Whether our practical anti-violence intuitions (strong and warranted as they are) might “miss their mark” in thought experiments that involve the cessation of causally isolated lives (be it ‘minimalist cessation’ or ‘intense bliss with hellish cessation’), and whether this might constitute an additional bias in such thought experiments.
  2. Whether there are experientialist minimalist reasons to strongly oppose even painless killing in practice.

Cessation and our practical anti-violence intuitions

Regarding the first question, let us note from the outset that our practical intuitions are, of course, often correctly tracking the massive, negative effects that are associated with violence, killing, and dying in the real world.

At the same time, the hypothetical choice of ‘minimalist cessation’ involves no subjectively felt harm, no secondary effects for external beings, no loss of positive roles, and no uncertainty about the outcome whatsoever. This is highly unrealistic. Thus, it seems likely that our real-world adapted, anti-violence intuitions would (at least partially) miss their mark in this unrealistic thought experiment.

After all, it makes sense that our intuitions would treat death as a great bad in itself, even if we may on reflection think that its badness comes from these neighboring phenomena that are merely often correlated with it. And even if we “abstract away” or intend to omit these phenomena in our hypotheticals, it seems likely that our intuitions on the badness of death are not easily moved by adding the magic words ‘instant’, ‘all else being equal’, or ‘we are not affected by our choice in any way’.[41]

To be clear, many of these points are equally applicable to the offsetting case of ‘intense bliss with hellish cessation’. Yet in that case, the cessation is preceded by an arbitrarily large hell (supposedly offset by the preceding bliss). So our harm-oriented intuitions may rightly raise concerns about the pre-cessation part of this offsetting implication, which does involve experienced harm.

Minimalist reasons to strongly oppose painless killing

The hypothetical discussion above might spark the practical follow-up question: Without the concept of independent good, how can experientialist minimalist views oppose painless killing from a purely consequentialist perspective?

A common misconception surrounding minimalist views relates to their non-use of the concept of independent good. Why else would people take great pains to protect life and to even create new life? Yet we need not jump to the conclusion that these pains could be worthwhile only for the sake of some independent good. After all, minimalist views are perfectly compatible with the concepts of positive roles and positive lives, even if only in a relational sense, which can explain why we may rationally take great pains to protect and promote a variety of things even beyond their immediate preventive benefits.[42]

The concept of positive roles also extends to positive norms, such as a general respect for autonomy and nonviolence, provided that these have overall greater preventive benefits than alternative norms do. So minimalist views can also imply a strong opposition to killing and violence for the sake of upholding positive roles, lives, and norms.[43]

Crucially, the upholding of overall positive norms will often justify the protection of overall negative lives (both on minimalist and offsetting views). Positive norms are not easily worth eroding for the sake of preventing more experiential bads at the individual level; on the contrary, they are among our most important resources to actively protect and develop.[44]

3. The practical side: Why we should not seek to create an empty world

The hypothetical cessation response provided by minimalist views in 5.2.3 was based on assumptions that were completely unrealistic. Thus, we need to separately consider the altogether different practical question (C):

Would minimalist consequentialism imply that it would be right to seek to turn our world into an empty one in practice, even by coercive means?

Why would anyone think so? A common route to such a conclusion may be what was previously called a “narrative misconception” of consequentialism.[45]

Let us next look at how such a misconception might arise, how it does more harm than good, and what a more accurate starting point for addressing the practical question would be.

3.1 Against endstate-oriented utopianism

For minimalist views, an ideal world would be any world that is completely peaceful and free of problems, including an empty world. Thus, an empty world is one of the worlds that could be seen as a utopian outcome according to minimalist views. But does this observation have any practical implications? That is, should one be practically guided by the goal of creating an ideal world, or utopia, in the first place?

Utopian thinking does have its upsides. Empirical research supports the view that we may find psychological benefits from imagining our desired future world, such as a world free of painful experiences.

For instance, when people imagine their ideal society, they start to see more flaws in the current one and become more willing to help close the gap between the two.[46] This is a form of ‘mental contrasting’, which is a likely mechanism underlying the motivating effect of utopian thinking on social engagement.[47]

Yet utopianism can also be blind and dangerous, as exemplified by some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.[48] It may cause us to downplay or ignore the possibility of accidental harm: that we might make things worse, even when we think we are doing the right thing.[49]

Pitfalls of utopianism

The pitfalls of utopianism outlined below are, in my view, some of the main reasons why people often draw fallacious practical conclusions based on consequentialist thought experiments, including when it comes to thought experiments about cessation in particular.

“It is the only way.”

Utopianism can take mental contrasting too far by focusing on an ideal image of how the future should go. However, the theoretically ideal future is not necessarily the best future to aim for in practice given the constraints and risks we are facing. For example, as argued below, it is plausible that the optimal goal to aim for in practice is not an ideal future but rather the prevention of worst-case outcomes.

“We must get there.”

Consequentialism is not about seeking any particular “endstate” that we must realize in the future. Instead, the consequentialist understanding of “the end justifies the means” is that “the end” refers to the total consequences of our actions. It does not imply that reaching some ultimate destination would justify any means or risks necessary to get there.[50]

“If only everyone followed along.”

Utopianism can be unrealistic due to requiring that everyone act in a certain way. Historically, all efforts to enforce utopian visions in a top-down manner appear to have failed.

When trying to bring about the best consequences, it is useful to distinguish between actions that are optimal from a “marginal realist” versus a “broad idealist” perspective.[51] Marginal realism is about how a relatively small group should optimally spend their limited resources in order to have the best impact on the margin.[52] The answer to that question might, but will not necessarily, approximate the answer to the “broad idealist” question, which is the question of how an entire society should ideally act if there were clear goal alignment between all stakeholders.

For instance, it is reasonable to think that the whole world should ideally shut down all factory farms. Yet what if a small minority of people were to attempt a violent shutdown of all factory farms? Most likely, the effort would fail. Additionally, it would carry a great risk of making things worse, such as by antagonizing this group and their cause in the eyes of more powerful groups.

At worst, taking unilateral, coercive action can lead to an overall more ruthless world, which would likely be much worse than “business-as-usual” in the long term.[53] A better strategy for small groups is arguably to seek broader and deeper support for their views, without coercive means, by adopting a cooperative approach.

“Seeking the ‘final step’ over absolute expected impact.”

Utopianism can entail a kind of completionism or perfectionism, as if the “final step” toward utopia were especially significant. 

By contrast, impartial consequentialism would not value the “final step” toward an ideal state of affairs any higher than any other beneficial step of equal magnitude. (This idea is baked into ‘scalar utilitarianism’, which understands rightness not in binary terms of “right” versus “wrong”, but as a matter of degree.[54])

Related is the empirically documented effect called ‘proportion dominance’, which refers to people’s common preference to help a higher proportion (that is, percentage) of individuals, even when the absolute impact remains the same. One study found that people preferred helping 225 out of 300 lives rather than helping 230 out of 920 lives, which indicates proportion dominance even at the expense of absolute impact. Yet most people, when they reflected on it, agreed that one ought to prefer the higher absolute impact.[55]

Proportion dominance is highly relevant in our practical context. After all, the completionist vision of abolishing all suffering on Earth might intuitively override the more abstract and speculative aim of preventing suffering from spreading beyond Earth, even though the latter may involve far more suffering prevented in expectation.[56]

That is, when it comes to comparing “suffering on Earth” versus “(the risk of) suffering beyond Earth”,[57] we are not just talking about ~300 versus ~900 lives, but about suffering on one planet versus suffering on a scale that is potentially multiplied by many orders of magnitude. This suggests that proportion dominance may represent a serious bias in our thinking about what to prioritize in practice to best reduce future suffering.[58]

A better alternative: Expected value thinking

If utopian thinking can diverge from impartial consequentialist thinking in at least the four ways outlined above, how could a consequentialist avoid those pitfalls without losing the benefits of utopian thinking?

Only ‘naive’ consequentialism recommends that we look at just the direct and immediate effects of our actions. By contrast, ‘sophisticated’ consequentialism recommends that we ideally estimate all the effects of our actions, including their indirect, long-term effects. This requires that we account for all the ways in which forceful actions such as coercion or rule-breaking could cause more problems than they prevent.

A way to approximate this impossible ideal is to compare our potential actions in terms of their expected value, which here refers to the probability-weighted sum of the independently relevant consequences that they might have.[59]

When expected value is difficult to estimate directly (as it usually is), the way to make consequentialism feasible in practice may be to focus on indirect measures or heuristics that serve as useful proxies for what ultimately matters.[60]

A preliminary framework of proxies for reducing future suffering is presented in the book Reasoned Politics by Magnus Vinding. These proxies include greater levels of cooperation, increased and more impartial concern for suffering, and a greater capacity to achieve shared aims, including the reduction of suffering.[61]

Thus, we may estimate the expected value of various possible actions indirectly, by considering their likely effects on such proxy measures.

Overall, ‘sophisticated’ expected value thinking can, similar to utopianism, foster hope and collective action by highlighting ways in which things could go better (cf. mental contrasting). At the same time, it can help us sidestep the pitfalls of utopianism, as it constitutes a risk-sensitive way to account for a range of possible outcomes, including risks of astronomical suffering, and avoids blindly fixating on any single, vivid image of what the future should look like.

3.2 Key considerations for estimating practically optimal aims

This section looks at the key practical considerations for assessing whether minimalist consequentialism, combined with sophisticated expected value thinking, would recommend or discourage efforts to create an empty world.

Cooperation and gains from compromise

From a marginal realist perspective, minimalists have strong practical reasons to stay on cooperative terms with others.

As noted in the Negative Utilitarianism FAQ, attempting to realize an empty world would be a highly objectionable way to reduce suffering from the perspective of many other views. Additionally, from a minimalist perspective:

The difference between “no future” (i.e. no Earth-originating intelligence expanding into space) and a decent future, where concern for suffering and thwarted preferences plays some role … is much smaller than the difference between a decent future and one that goes awfully wrong.[62]

Thus, minimalists have much more reason to steer the future away from going ‘awfully wrong’ and toward it going ‘decently’ — a goal that everyone can agree with — than to privilege an aim of ‘no future’.

The various reasons to prevent conflict and antagonism are covered in brief and accessible ways in other sources.[63] One of these reasons is that when we accommodate each other’s wishes and avoid costly fighting with each other, we can better achieve mutual gains from compromise, even if our altruistic goals may not always be fully aligned with each other.[64] That is, if people with different values can work together, this can enable everyone to better steer the future in desired directions.[65]

All else equal, basically everyone can agree that the reduction of suffering is an important aim. Given this agreement, a reasonable starting point is to work toward reducing suffering while standing on common ground between multiple value systems.[66] One way to do this is to focus on improving the expected quality of future lives conditional on their existence,[67] such as by reducing the risk of worst-case outcomes.[68]

I quote the following considerations essentially verbatim from Simon Knutsson,[69] and connect them with some related points made by others.

1: If merely all humans died, there would be room for more suffering wild animals (Tomasik, 2016), and humans would no longer be able to reduce wild-animal suffering, which we may do if we survive (Vinding, 2015).

These considerations make it at least unclear what the future of other beings on Earth would look like if all humans ceased to exist. On the other hand, human space colonization could also multiply the scale of wild-animal suffering.[70] Given such vastly higher stakes compared to Earth as we know it, possibly the best way to reduce wild-animal suffering (in expectation) is to convince the relevant future actors to not spread it in the first place.[71]

2: Even if all sentient beings on Earth died, beings that suffer could still evolve again on Earth (Acton and Watkins, 1963, 96; J. J. C. Smart, 1989, 44). Also, if humans survive, we may reduce suffering in other parts of the universe (Pearce, 1995, chap. 4, objection 32), or, at least, if we spread through space, it may result in less suffering than if other spacefaring civilizations do so instead (Tomasik, 2011).[72]

Suppose that our civilization would have both the motivation and the technical ability to prevent the possibility of life, and thereby all suffering, on our planet. From a minimalist point of view, would such “planetary euthanasia” be the practically optimal aim of such a powerful version of humanity?[73]

This is far from clear, because that very same civilization, given its high technical ability and value alignment, could also in some scenarios become a guardian against extreme suffering taking place elsewhere in the reachable universe.

Thus, the closer we are to being the kind of civilization that actually could prevent all suffering right here on Earth, the more we might also play more positive roles by ensuring that the vast resources of the reachable universe would not become fuel for generating astronomically greater suffering.

3: Similarly, if all humans or all sentient beings on Earth were killed, a new spacefaring civilization may eventually develop on Earth, and if it were to colonize space, it is an open question whether it would result in more suffering than if humanity were to expand into space (Tomasik, 2013c).

A key factor in the bigger picture is the difference in suffering that might result from one colonization wave versus another, including those that may stem from other civilizations.[74] From a suffering-focused perspective, if the resources of the reachable universe could be acquired by one or another colonization wave, then it is better (all else equal) that they be acquired by the one that would use them in the least suffering-conducive ways.

Risks of astronomical suffering

A reason to take seriously the considerations of cooperation, compromise, and empirical uncertainty is that they may have crucial relevance for what are called risks of astronomical future suffering,[75] also known as suffering risks or s-risks.[76] Roughly, s-risks can be understood as “events that would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale, vastly exceeding all suffering that has existed on Earth so far”.[77]

From a minimalist perspective, a likely optimal goal to adopt in practice is to actively reduce s-risks.[78] This is because they are not extremely unlikely,[79] are bigger than present-day suffering in expectation,[80] are neglected,[81] and there are ways we can reasonably reduce their probability and severity.[82]

In addition, the most promising interventions for s-risk reduction are often robustly beneficial for other aims as well.[83] For example, we can also better reduce near-term suffering and many other risks by achieving greater levels of cooperation, impartial moral concern, and capacity to steer the future in wiser directions.[84]

Strong reasons to prioritize safer and more widely shared aims

We have seen how minimalists have strong reasons not to prioritize an aim of ‘no future’. For instance, doing so could greatly increase conflict and hostility between future actors, and indirectly increase risks of astronomical suffering.[85]

Instead, a better strategy is to prioritize safer and more widely shared aims, enabling greater cooperation between future actors, based on the significant common ground around the aim of preventing worst-case scenarios.

As argued in the Negative Utilitarianism FAQ:

[Minimalists] will benefit more by cooperating and compromising with other value systems in trying to make the future safer in regard to (agreed-upon) worst-case scenarios, rather than by trying to prevent space colonization from happening at all. It would be a tragedy if altruistically-concerned people split up into opposing factions due to them having different definitions of “doing what is good”, while greed and bad incentives lead the non-altruistically-inclined people in the world to win the race. Instead, those who share at least some significant concern for the reduction of suffering should join together.[86]

3.3 A safeguard against worst-case outcomes: Pragmatically absolute nonviolence

I’m as near as one comes to [being] a pacifist as is possible without being a pacifist. [Yes], there are exceptional circumstances in which violence may be unavoidable; we all know that life is messy. But other things being equal, I think the sanctity of life is a very good utilitarian principle because it promotes respect for other sentient beings. (David Pearce.[87])

Anti-harm ideas have inspired uniquely nonviolent practices for millennia. For example, many Jains and Buddhists aim to follow the principle of Ahimsa: never hurt another sentient being by word or deed.[88] Yet, impartial minimalism is not merely about minimizing our own personal “hurt-footprint”. Instead, it recommends that we aim to minimize overall hurt for all sentient beings, regardless of the act-omission distinction.

Do minimalist views in practice diverge from absolute Ahimsa any more than do offsetting views? Other things being equal, all experientialist consequentialist views recommend that we cause the lesser hurt when it is the only way to prevent a greater hurt. But compared to offsetting views, minimalist views are unique in saying that such situations are the only ones in which we could ever be justified in hurting others. Offsetting views provide more ways to justify hurting others (whether by act or omission), such as for the sake of creating independent goods that purportedly counterbalance the harm.[89]

When we zoom out from the personal “hurt-footprint” perspective, we may see minimalist consequentialist views as being based on a principle similar in spirit to that of Ahimsa, yet expressed in fully impartial terms: “The less sentient beings hurt, the better, regardless of the source.”

At the same time, the abstract aim to minimize suffering is not by itself a directly suitable principle for guiding practical action.[90] In practice, to align with this aim, we need to follow more actionable principles, such as virtues and commonsense prohibitions that indirectly tend to bring about the best consequences.[91]

Additionally, in order to prevent our corruptible parts from opportunistically breaking such principles in self-serving ways, we likely need to internalize these principles deeply into who we are. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions that allow us to convince ourselves that we are in exceptional circumstances that warrant discarding the anti-harm precepts of commonsense morality. We rarely are.)

Finally, the sanctity of life (in roughly the way as understood in Ahimsa) is plausibly a key principle to protect as a safeguard against worst-case outcomes. This is in part because it promotes positive norms against aggression, and in favor of peace and cooperation.[92]

Overall, one of the best ways to counteract risks of future suffering may be to promote respect for all sentient beings in the form of unambiguously compassionate principles. These could be impartial forms of Ahimsa, promoting the path of least harm. They could also be called pragmatically absolute nonviolence and non-aggression.[93] Without such principles, the risks seem worse. With them, we have more hope.


I am grateful for helpful comments by Riikka Ajantaival, Tobias Baumann, Timothy Chan, Eleos Arete Citrini, Anthony DiGiovanni, Simon Knutsson, Winston Oswald-Drummond, David Pearce, Michael St. Jules, Emma Tulanova, Magnus Vinding, and anonymous commenters.

Commenting does not imply endorsement of any of my claims. 

I also wish to thank the anonymous authors of the NU FAQ, who made many key points about minimalist axiologies accessible in a concise and readable way already in 2015.


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  1. ^
  2. ^

    An argument for experientialism is, for instance, van der Deijl, 2021. For an overview of minimalist views of wellbeing, see Chapter 1.

  3. ^

    See, for instance, Anonymous, 2015; sec. 2.1.1, sec. 2.1.5; Vinding, 2022a, sec. 2.

  4. ^

    Cf. 2.3.1.

  5. ^

    Cf. 2.2.

  6. ^

    Cf. Knutsson, 2016a.

  7. ^

    Pearce, 2007.

  8. ^

    This chapter is essentially a two-part response to what is often called the ‘world destruction’ or ‘benevolent world-exploder’ argument against ‘negative’ consequentialist views, framed in less problematic terms.

  9. ^
  10. ^

    Cf. Bostrom & Ord, 2006. For a brief introduction, see forum.effectivealtruism.org/topics/reversal-test.

  11. ^

    Cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omission_bias. For example, say we have two identical populations, P1 and P2, living on identical deserted islands, yet only P1 is afflicted by an infectious disease. We could immunize P1 against this disease at no cost to us. The outcome of our non-immunization of P1 is the same as if we were to actively introduce the disease to P2 (a population gets sick). Given these assumptions, if we still tend to consider the non-immunization of P1 more acceptable than actively introducing the disease to P2, this suggests that we may have a bias in favor of non-intervention.

  12. ^

    The ‘act-omission distinction’ is relevant on many nonconsequentialist views, but it is immaterial on pure consequentialism, which is assumed in this response.

  13. ^

    Essentially the same point has often been made by David Pearce. For example: “I could challenge status quo bias and ask critics whether they’d press a notional ON button that generates a type-identical copy of the world – and thereby create more suffering than Adolf Hitler.” sentience-research.org/the-imperative-to-abolish-suffering-an-interview-with-david-pearce.

  14. ^

    Cf. Woollard & Howard-Snyder, 2022.

  15. ^

    Cf. 3.4. To stress-test our intuitions about the independent value of isolated pleasure, we may consider a thought experiment in which we choose between (1) transforming Earth into a ‘minimalist paradise’ in which everyone is completely untroubled, or (2) ending this world and replacing it with a sufficient number of happy Matrix-lives enjoying maximal bliss. (This is virtually identical to David Pearce’s thought experiment about a ‘utilitronium shockwave’, hedweb.com/social-media/pre2014.html)

  16. ^

    Cf. Thus, we need to be careful not to unwittingly misapply our practical intuitions about the cessation versus creation of an individual, real-world life to the hypothetical case of the cessation versus creation of an entire world. After all, an individual, real-world life practically always has relevant effects beyond itself, whereas the set of all lives never does. (A different question, considered on the practical side, is whether Earth-originating life could play positive roles beyond Earth, such as by reducing the suffering caused by other civilizations.)

  17. ^

    Axiological as defined in 3.1.

  18. ^

    Cf. 3.3.4. For this scenario to pertain to minimalist views centered on overall negative states, we need to be careful to not interpret this ‘subjective problem’ as something that the minimalist views would actually find unproblematic, such as a dip in “non-relieving bliss” from, say, “+100” to “+99”. Instead, we should imagine that this episode of slight discomfort would be experienced as an overall negative “−1” episode (Vinding, 2021, “What is the bad in question?”).

  19. ^

     Cf. Vinding, 2020c.

    Among experientialist consequentialists, a seemingly common view of personal identity is empty individualism or “constant replacement”, in which we count each “experience-moment” as a separate being (cf. Karnofsky, 2021). This casts doubt on how exactly interpersonal value aggregation or compensation is supposed to work (cf. DiGiovanni, 2021b). I often speak of “beings”, “lives”, and “experience-moments” interchangeably, and we may interchange them in thought experiments to see whether doing so makes a difference. After all, this substitution should arguably make no difference when we operate within the combined assumptions of ‘all else being equal’, experientialism, and consequentialism. So this could be a way to notice the influence of our practical intuitions, which may track things like positive roles even when such factors are supposed to be ruled out.

  20. ^

    This point might have been inspired by a related point made by David Pearce (NU here refers to negative utilitarianism): “[Think] of some NU-sounding policy proposal that you find unappealing – or even the slightest bit disappointing to contemplate. Other things being equal, this policy-option can’t really be NU … For NUs want to abolish disappointment, frustration and anything that causes you the slightest hint of concern or sadness.” sentience-research.org/the-imperative-to-abolish-suffering-an-interview-with-david-pearce

  21. ^

    Cf. “The side-taking hypothesis for moral judgment”, DeScioli, 2016.

  22. ^

    Cf. Tomasik, 2013d.

  23. ^

    After all, a shared goal between minimalists and proponents of other welfarist views is to increase the quality of all lives that will exist (other things being equal). By comparison, the ideal of an empty world is not nearly as universal. For more on practical reasons to prioritize common goals between different value systems, see 5.3.2.

  24. ^

    For an overview of reasons to doubt the offsetting premise, see 1.2.

  25. ^

    Offsetting views include, for instance, classical utilitarianism (cf. Sinnott-Armstrong, 2023, sec. 1), as well as “weak negative” or “negative-leaning” views (cf. Tomasik, 2013e; Knutsson, 2016d).

  26. ^

    Knutsson, 2016b; Vinding, 2020c.

  27. ^

    Cf. DiGiovanni, 2021b.

  28. ^

    Cf. 5.2.3.

  29. ^

    Regarding the question of how popular it might be for people to intuitively accept the offsetting premise, compare the three surveys of Tomasik, 2015c, “Pain-pleasure tradeoff”; Future of Life Institute, 2017; and “How many days of bliss to compensate for 1 day of lava-drowning?”, facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/1117549958301360.

  30. ^

    Thanks to Magnus Vinding for suggesting all three thought experiments. The first one was also partly inspired by Knutsson, 2021b, sec. 3.

  31. ^

    In other words, the minimalist paradise only contains sentient beings who spend their entire, eternal lives in subjectively flawless states of tranquility, flow, or the like (cf. Appendix 1; Gloor, 2017, sec. 2.1; Knutsson, 2022b, sec. 2.1), yet who never experience anything that offsetting views would see as positively good, beyond the “mere” complete absence of bads.

  32. ^

    In particular, if we assume “equal intensities” for the supposedly independent goods and bads in the diagram, then classical utilitarianism favors the choice of ‘Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation’ (B) at the proportional scale that is shown in the diagram. For “negative-leaning” offsetting views to favor B, the large paradise would need to extend considerably more than the hell does.

  33. ^

    From Vinding, 2021, sec. 3. Also illustrated in Chapter 4. Expressed in hedonistic terms, but applicable to independent goods more broadly.

  34. ^
  35. ^

    Pearce, 2005.

  36. ^

    Thanks to Magnus Vinding for this thought experiment.

  37. ^

    By contrast, when it comes to extra-experientialist versions of consequentialist views, only their offsetting variants can imply that it is a net improvement to create a world with a ‘sufficiently’ large amount of goods like complex knowledge or accomplishments, no happiness, and arbitrarily many lives full of arbitrarily severe suffering.

  38. ^

    (For more on this experientialist minimalist step, see Chapter As noted in footnote 49 of DiGiovanni, 2021a, offsetting utilitarians already argue that people may be systematically conflating the instrumental value of non-hedonic goods with their being independently valuable. The minimalist perspective would add that this also holds for what we often call positive experiences. DiGiovanni:

    [T]here is a prima facie argument that strong axiological asymmetries should seem especially plausible to those sympathetic to a hedonistic view. This is because the [offsetting] hedonistic utilitarian already holds that most people are systematically mistaken about the intrinsic value of non-hedonic goods. The fact that people report sincerely valuing things other than happiness and the absence of suffering, even when it is argued to them that such values could just be a conflation of intrinsic with instrumental value, often gives little pause to [such] utilitarians. But this is precisely the position a strongly suffering-focused utilitarian is in, relative to [offsetting] hedonists. That is, although this consideration is not decisive, [an offsetting] hedonist should not be convinced that suffering-focused views are untenable due to their immediate intuition or perception that happiness is valuable independent of relief of suffering. They would need to offer an argument for why happiness is indeed intrinsically valuable, despite the presence of similar debunking explanations for this inference as for non-hedonic goods [cf. 1.2].

  39. ^

    Knutsson, 2021b, sec. 3. For additional hypothetical implications of offsetting views, see, for instance, Vinding, 2020d, chap. 3.

  40. ^

    Cf. Mayerfeld, 1999, pp. 120–125. More on practical decision procedures below and in Chapter 2.

  41. ^ Compare how people sometimes argue that our intuitions fail to closely track what is morally relevant in the case of the Repugnant Conclusion (3.3.2): “[The] unreliability of our intuition about the Repugnant Conclusion is due to a slight insensitivity in our intuitive grasp of the morally relevant factors.” (Gustafsson, 2022.)

  42. ^

    More in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6.

  43. ^


  44. ^

    See also 5.3.3 on the practical side.

  45. ^
  46. ^

    Fernando et al., 2018.

  47. ^

    Fernando et al., 2018.

  48. ^

    iep.utm.edu/totalita, “utopian”.

  49. ^

    Cf. Wiblin & Todd, 2023.

  50. ^

    Cf. the narrative misconception of consequentialism, 3.5.1.

  51. ^

    This distinction between “marginal realism” versus “broad idealism” comes from Vinding, 2022g, sec. 8.1.

  52. ^
  53. ^

    See Gloor, 2018, “Business as usual”, and the related illustration.

  54. ^

    Cf. Norcross, 2006; Tomasik, 2015b.

  55. ^

    Bartels, 2006.

  56. ^

    See Gloor, 2018, “Business as usual”, and the related illustration.

  57. ^

    Cf. Tomasik, 2011.

  58. ^

    A similar point is made in Vinding, 2020d, pp. 144–145.

  59. ^

    Cf. Todd, 2021probablygood.org/core-concepts/expected-value. Expected value thinking encourages us to ideally consider the full landscape of possible outcomes, including risks of making things worse. By contrast, endstate-oriented utopianism may neglect such risks, especially if the risks are not emotionally salient or easy to think about. See also Vinding, 2022m.

  60. ^

    Cf. multi-level consequentialism, 2.3.2.

  61. ^

    Vinding, 2022g, chap. 9, “Identifying Plausible Proxies”.

  62. ^

    Anonymous, 2015, sec. 3.2. See also Gloor, 2018, “Business as usual”, with the related illustration.

  63. ^

    See Vinding, 2020e, as well as Tomasik, 2011, “Why we should remain cooperative”. For a brief and accessible book chapter on the importance of cooperation for reducing suffering, see Vinding, 2020d, pp. 205–213.

  64. ^

    Tomasik, 2013b; Ord, 2015.

  65. ^

    Of course, there are also limits to how far one should go to “be nice to other value systems”, depending on things like reciprocity, cf. Tomasik, 2014a.

  66. ^

    Baumann, 2020b.

  67. ^

    Tomasik, 2011; Vinding & Baumann, 2021, sec. 3.2.

  68. ^

    Tomasik, 2011; Baumann, 2017b.

  69. ^

    Knutsson, 2021b, sec. 4.

  70. ^

    Tomasik, 2014b.

  71. ^

    Tomasik, 2013a. A similar argument might also apply to factory farming (cf. Alene, 2022; Fai, 2022, sec. V).

  72. ^

    Cf. Vinding & Baumann, 2021, and grabbyaliens.com.

  73. ^

    Thanks to Nil for the question.

  74. ^

    Vinding & Baumann, 2021.

  75. ^

    Tomasik, 2011.

  76. ^

    Baumann, 2017b. For a book-form introduction by the same author, see Avoiding the Worst: How to Prevent a Moral Catastrophe (2022).

  77. ^

    Baumann, 2017a. (A slightly different but practically similar definition is used in Althaus & Gloor, 2016; DiGiovanni, 2023.)

  78. ^
  79. ^

    Baumann, 2017b, “S-risks are not extremely unlikely”.

  80. ^
  81. ^

    Baumann, 2017b, “S-risks are neglected”.

  82. ^

    Baumann, 2017b, “How can we avert s-risks?”; Baumann, 2022.

  83. ^

    For some such interventions, consider Baumann, 2017b, “Broad interventions”.

  84. ^

    Cf. the positive proxies for reducing future suffering discussed in; Vinding, 2022g, chap. 9.

  85. ^

    Tomasik, 2011, “Why we should remain cooperative”; Baumann, 2019, “Conflict and hostility”.

  86. ^

    Cf. Anonymous, 2015, sec. 3.2.

  87. ^

    Danaylov, 2013, 1:03:01.

  88. ^
  89. ^

    Cf. 5.2.5. It has also been argued that certain offsetting views are more likely, in practice, to lead to totalitarianism and to the use of coercive means than is a focus on reducing suffering. Specifically, Karl Popper, in his essay “Utopia and Violence” (1947/1986), defends such a claim in relation to views that justify present misery for the sake of realizing a future utopia that supposedly compensates for the misery. See also Popper, 1945, chap. 24; Danaher, 2018.

  90. ^

    Mayerfeld, 1999, pp. 120–125.

  91. ^

    Vinding, forthcoming, chap. 9, “Cultivating and Adhering to Virtues”.

  92. ^

    Vinding, 2020e. In many cases, nonviolent movements have also been more effective at achieving their altruistic aims; cf. Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011.

  93. ^

    More on pragmatic nonviolence and non-aggression in 6.3.

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Does experientialist minimalism imply that being murdered painlessly is always good for the person who is murdered? Does it imply that being painfully murdered is good for the person murdered, provided that the pain involved is less than the total expected pain they would otherwise have experienced? Note that I'm not asking whether the view implies you should murder people, all things considered,  just about what its axiology implies is in the self-interest of the potential murder victim alone. (Obviously, minimalist views which are about avoiding frustrated preferences, regardless of whether the frustration is experienced don't have trouble here.) 

If so the view has very repugnant implication about, for example, what was in the interest of, to choose one somewhat emotive example, young children shot by the Nazis during the holocaust. Or at least, I find it repugnant to think that killing those children probably did them a favor, as individuals, independently of whether the view endorses the killing as morally right. It seems to take away their status as having been wronged, even if the action itself was wrong. Instead, the (all-things-considered) victims of the action become only those harmed by indirect effects. 

Varieties of experientialist minimalist views that are overlooked in this piece

I think the definition of experientialist minimalism employed in the post is in need of elaboration, as it seems that there are in fact minimalist experientialist views that would not necessarily have the implications that you inquire about, yet these views appear to differ from the experientialist minimalist views considered in the post.

To give an example, one could think that what matters is only the reduction of experiential disvalue (and thereby be an experientialist minimalist), but then further hold that the disvalue of the experiences in a life must be evaluated in light of the total experiential contents of a life, as opposed to evaluating it in reductionist terms that allow us to always judge the disvalue of individual experiences in isolation, without regard to context. (I suspect that Teo implicitly assumes the latter view, though he can obviously best answer for himself.)

In particular, one could hold that a painful experience of toiling toward some end will have greater disvalue if the end goal is never realized (these experientialist views could thus have a lot in common with preference-based views). Or one could think that painful experiences in a life that does not contain certain experiences later, e.g. experiences of learning, are worse than otherwise, even if those ameliorating experiences were never desired by the subject (these experientialist views could thus also have a lot in common with objective-list views). This approach to evaluating experiences seems similar to how some views will assign negative value to sadistic pleasures, in that context is taken to matter to the value or disvalue of experiences.

Regardless of whether these ‘context-sensitive’ experientialist views are plausible, it seems that, as a conceptual matter, the post would have benefited from clarifying whether they are excluded from its scope, as they seem to be (I share responsibility for this omission, since I gave extensive feedback on the post). [ETA: The post now does include a note on this, "Relatedly, I further assume ..."]

(As for the substantive plausibility of such ‘context-sensitive’ experientialist minimalist views, I’m not sure whether such views would fare better or worse than, say, preference-based views, but then I admittedly haven’t thought much about their comparative strengths and weaknesses.)


The Epicurean view: Existing defenses

On the general question of whether beings can be harmed by death, it’s worth noting that this is, of course, a question that has been elaborately discussed in the literature. And the view that death cannot be bad for the being who dies — i.e. the Epicurean view — has been defended in modern times in, for example, Rosenbaum, 1986 and Hol, 2019. (But again, it's worth stressing that death can still be extremely bad for instrumental reasons, even if one grants the Epicurean view.)


Comparative repugnance

Lastly, concerning the plausibility of experientialist views that assign (dis)value to individual experiences in isolation, without regard to context, I think one can reasonably argue that minimalist versions of these views still overall have less repugnant implications than do the contrasting offsetting experientialist views (see e.g. here and here). (The comparison between minimalist and offsetting experientialist views seems relevant here since experientialist views appear to be popular in EA, cf. the EA Survey; I realize that experientialist offsetting views weren’t claimed to be more plausible than experientialist minimalist views in the comment above.)

In particular, if we use emotive examples in order to stress-test minimalist versions of these views, then we should presumably also be willing to use emotive examples to stress-test corresponding offsetting views, such as examples involving, say, a group associated with atrocious evil that forces individuals into experience machines in which these individuals experience a large amount of bliss after which they are tortured to death, yet where the bliss outweighs the torture on the offsetting view under consideration. It likewise seems repugnant — in my view considerably more repugnant — to think that such a group of actors would be doing the forced individuals a favor.

So among experientialist views, it seems plausible (to me at least) to claim that minimalist views are the least repugnant, all things considered. And the same arguably goes for preference-based axiological views (as argued here and here).

Asserting (as epicurean views do) death is not bad (in itself) for the being that dies is one thing. Asserting (as the views under discussion do) that death (in itself) is good - and ongoing survival bad - for the being that dies is quite another. 

Besides its divergence from virtually everyone's expressed beliefs and general behaviour, it doesn't seem to fare much better under deliberate reflection. For the sake of a less emotionally charged variant of Mathers' example, responses to the Singer's shallow pond case along the lines of, "I shouldn't step in, because my non-intervention is in the child's best interest: the normal life they could 'enjoy' if they survive accrues more suffering in expectation than their imminent drowning" appear deranged. 

Asserting (as epicurean views do) death is not bad (in itself) for the being that dies is one thing.

But Epicureans tend to defend a stronger claim, namely that there is nothing suboptimal about death — or rather, about being dead — for the being who dies (which is consistent with Epicurean views of wellbeing). I believe this is the view defended in Hol, 2019.

Asserting (as the views under discussion do) that death (in itself) is good

But death is not good in itself on any of the views under discussion. First, death in itself has no value or disvalue on any of these views. Second, using the word “good” is arguably misleading, since death (in terms of its counterfactual effects) can at most be less bad on minimalist views:

The death is only “good” in the sense that, for example, we might say that it was “good” that a moose who had been hit by a car was euthanized (assuming the moose would otherwise have died more painfully). It is more clear and charitable to use the phrase ‘less bad.’

Besides its [i.e. experientialist minimalism’s] divergence from virtually everyone's expressed beliefs and general behaviour

This may be too strong a statement. For instance, it seems that there is a considerable number of Buddhists (and others) who at least express, and aspire to act in alignment with, views centered on the minimization of suffering.

Regardless, I don’t think divergence from most people’s behavior is a strong point against any given axiology. After all, most people’s behavior is inconsistent with impartial axiologies/ethics in general, as well as with classical utilitarian axiology/ethics in particular, even in their prudential concerns. As one would expect, we mostly seem to optimize for biological and social drives rather than for any reflectively endorsed axiology.

For the sake of a less emotionally charged variant of Mathers' example, responses to the Singer's shallow pond case along the lines of, "I shouldn't step in, because my non-intervention is in the child's best interest: the normal life they could 'enjoy' if they survive accrues more suffering in expectation than their imminent drowning" appear deranged. 

As Teo has essentially spent much of his sequence arguing, minimalist axiologies would strongly agree that such a response is extremely implausible in any practically relevant case, for many reasons: it overlooks the positive roles of the child’s continued existence, the utility of strong norms of helping and protecting life, the value of trying to reduce clear and present suffering, etc. (Just to clarify that important point. I realize that there likely was an implicit ‘other things equal’ qualification in that thought experiment, but it’s arguably critical to make that radical assumption explicit.)

Additionally, minimalist axiology is compatible with moral duties or moral rights that would require us to help and protect others, which is another way in which someone who endorses an experientialist minimalist axiology may agree that it is wrong not to help.

In any case, the thought experiment above seems to ignore the question of comparative repugnance. For starters, a contrasting axiology such as CU would imply that it would be better to let the child drown (in the other things equal, isolated case) if the rest of the child’s life were going to be overall slightly “net negative” otherwise (as we can stipulate that it would be in the hypothetical case we're considering). This also seems repugnant.

Yet CU is subject to far more repugnant implications of this kind. For example, assume that other things are equal, and imagine that we walk past a person who is experiencing the most extreme suffering — suffering so extreme that the sufferer in that moment will give anything to make it stop. Imagine that we can readily step in and stop this suffering, in which case the person we are saving will live an untroubled life for the rest of their days. Otherwise, the sufferer will continue to experience extreme, incessant suffering, followed, eventually, by a large amount of bliss that according to CU would outweigh the suffering. (This is somewhat analogous to the first thought experiment found here.)

CU would say that it is better to leave that person to continue to be tormented for the sake of the eventual bliss, even though the person would rather be freed from the extreme suffering while in that state.

Is that a less repugnant implication?

In general, it seems important to compare the repugnant conclusions of different views. And as Teo has recently argued, when we compare the most repugnant conclusions of different views in population ethics, minimalist views are arguably less repugnant than offsetting views.

For others who were confused, like I was:

Some people may worry that minimalist axiologies would imply an affirmative answer to the following questions:

  1. Would an empty world (i.e. a world without sentient beings) be axiologically perfect?
  2. For any hypothetical world, would the best outcome always be realized by pressing a button that leads to its instant cessation?

The author agrees that the answers to these questions are "yes" (EDIT: for the specific class of minimalist axiologies considered in this post). The author's main point (EDIT: in Section 2, which addresses these questions, there's also a third question and a Section 3 that talks about it) is that perhaps you shouldn't be worried about that.

The author agrees that the answers to these questions are "yes".

Not quite. The author assumes a certain class of minimalist axiologies (experientialist ones), according to which the answers to those questions are:

  1. Yes (though a world with untroubled sentient beings would be equally perfect, and there are good reasons to focus more on that ideal of minimalism in practice).
  2. If the hypothetical world contains no disvalue, then pressing the button is not strictly better, but if the hypothetical world does contain disvalue, then it would be better to press a cessation button (which in consequentialist terms is equivalent to the non-creation of that world).

The author does not agree that the answer to question 2 is "yes" for minimalist views in general, since other minimalist views may hold that the answer is "no" (as he clarifies in the first footnote).

The author's main point is that perhaps you shouldn't be worried about that.

I don't think that's a fair summary. Better summaries of the main points of the piece would be that:

  • Cessation implications are not unique to experientialist minimalist views, and other consequentialist views arguably have worse implications, including worse cessation implications (even if we do find the theoretical implications of experientialist minimalism counterintuitive or unsettling).
  • These hypothetical implications in abstract thought experiments must be clearly distinguished from the practical question regarding how we should act in the real world. On this second issue, the author argues that minimalists have strong reasons not to seek to create an empty world, and to instead pursue a cooperative and nonviolent approach.

Thanks for summarizing it.

The worries I respond to are complex and the essay has many main points. Like any author, I hope that people would consider the points in their proper context (and not take them out of context). One main point is the contextualization of the worries itself, which is highlighted by the overviews (1.1–1.2) focusing a lot on the relevant assumptions and on minding the gap between theory and practice.

To complex questions, I don't think it's useful to reduce answers to either "yes" or "no", especially when the answers rest on unrealistic assumptions and look very different in theory versus practice. Between theory and practice, I also tend to consider the practical implications more important.

I don't think these are complex questions! If your minimalist axiology ranks based on states of the world (and not actions except inasmuch as they lead to states of the world), then the best possible value to achieve is zero. Assuming this is achieved by an empty universe, then there is nothing strictly better than taking an action that creates an empty universe forever! This is a really easy to prove theorem!

I believe that it's a complex question whether or not this should be a dealbreaker for adopting a minimalist axiology, but that's not the question you wrote down. The answers to 

  1. Would an empty world (i.e. a world without sentient beings) be axiologically perfect?
  2. For any hypothetical world, would the best outcome always be realized by pressing a button that leads to its instant cessation?

really are just straightforwardly "yes", for state-based minimalist axiologies where an empty universe has none of the thing you want to minimize, which is the thing you are analyzing in this post unless I have totally misread it.

Hi Rohin; I apologize for being vague and implicit; I agree that the first question is not complex, and I should've clarified that I'm primarily responding to the related (but in the post, almost completely implicit) worries which I think are much more complex than the literal questions are. You helped me realize just now that the post may look like it's primarily answering the written-down questions, even though the main reason for all my elaboration (on the assumptions, possible biases, comparison with offsetting views, etc.) was to respond to the implicit worries.

Regarding whether the answers to the first two questions are straightforwardly "yes", I would still note that such a one-word answer would lack the nuance that is present in what Magnus wrote above (and which I noted already in the overview because I think it's relevant for the worries).

(I'll continue a bit under your other comment.)

I ignored the first footnote because it's not in the posts' remit, according to the post itself:

Additionally, the scope is limited to minimalist axiologies that are based on experientialist accounts of welfare (cf. van der Deijl, 2021). In other words, I assume that the welfare of any given being cannot be affected by things that do not enter their experience, and thus set aside views such as preference-based axiologies that imply extra-experientialism.

If you assume this limited scope, I think the answer to the second question is "yes" (and that the post agrees with this). I agree that things change if you expand the scope to other minimalist axiologies. It's unfortunate that the quote I selected implies "all minimalist axiologies" but I really was trying to talk about this post.

I shouldn't have called it "the main point", I should have said something like "the main point made in response to the two questions I mentioned", which is what I actually meant.

I agree that there is more detail about why the author thinks you shouldn't be worried about it that I did not summarize. I still think it is accurate to say that the author's main response to question 1 and 2, as written in Section 2, is "the answers are yes, but actually that's fine and you shouldn't be worried about it", with the point about cessation implications being one argument for that view.


Your comment above makes all sense regarding the literal questions (even if not the implicit worries that I intended to respond to); thanks for elaborating. :)

Still, I would not reduce my (theoretical) response to the implicit worries all the way down to "yes, but actually that's fine and you shouldn't be worried about it". The "yes" is buried in the middle in 2.3 because it's not the end of the theoretical response. After that, the following sections 2.4–2.6 still address a lot of points that may be relevant for our potential intuitions (such as worries) about endorsing cessation even in theory.

For example, I certainly feel worried myself about endorsing cessation of the 'near-perfect paradise' (even in theory), but I don't tell myself that I "shouldn't be worried about it". Instead, I note (as I do in 2.4) that it seems perfectly fine to both endorse experientialist minimalist consequentialism in theory and to simultaneously deeply account for all the practical reasons that we have to side less with the relatively unpopular ideal of emptiness and more with the equal* and more popular ideal of untroubled lives.

(* equal for minimalists.)

Regarding worried intuitions, I of course also encourage people to compare whether they feel more worried about the (theoretical) minimalist cessation implications than about the (likewise theoretical) implications of offsetting views presented in 2.5. The latter strike me and many others as far more worrisome, so I'd prefer to also highlight that contrast as far as the worries (and not only the literal questions) are concerned.

In any case, I really appreciate that you read my post even if we might have different intuitions about these thought experiments. :)

It's unfortunate that the quote I selected implies "all minimalist axiologies" but I really was trying to talk about this post.

Perhaps it would be good to add an edit on that as well? E.g. "The author agrees that the answers to these questions are 'yes' (for the restricted class of minimalist axiologies he explores here)." :)

(The restriction is relevant, not least since a number of EAs do seem to hold non-experientialist minimalist views.)

Only semi-interested or want to rest your eyes? The Nonlinear Library’s auto-narration reads this post quite well, though I recommend checking the diagrams in 2.3 and 2.5.

(SpotifyAppleGoogle | Duration of main text: 45 minutes.)

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