Utilitarianism Wins Outright Part 32: Be An Eternal Oyster
"You are a soul in heaven waiting to be allocated a life on Earth. It is late Friday afternoon, and you watch anxiously as the supply of available lives dwindles. When your turn comes, the angel in charge offers you a choice between two lives, that of the composer Joseph Haydn and that of an oyster. Besides composing some wonderful music and influencing the evolution of the symphony, Haydn will meet with success and honour in his own lifetime, be cheerful and popular, travel and gain much enjoyment from field sports. The oyster's life is far less exciting. Though this is rather a sophisticated oyster, its life will consist only of mild sensual pleasure, rather like that experienced by humans when floating very drunk in a warm bath. When you request the life of Haydn, the angel sighs, ‘I'll never get rid of this oyster life. It's been hanging around for ages. Look, I'll offer you a special deal. Haydn will die at the age of seventy-seven. But I'll make the oyster life as long as you like...’"
Roger Crisp (Mill on Utilitarianism, 1997)
Those who are wrong often take the argument described above to be a good rejoinder to utilitarianism—more specifically, to hedonism. After all, who would want to be an oyster rather than Joseph Haydn??
An oyster who looks just as happy as an oyster1.
However, rational analysis leads us inevitably to the conclusion that it’s better to be the oyster by orders of magnitude. The case for being an oyster is as overwhelming as any argument in philosophy.
Huemer Speaks Truth
This argument is a repackaging of the argument that Huemer made here. Suppose we accept the following three principles.
1 If you make every day of a person’s life better and then add new days of their life which are good at the end of their life, you make the person’s life better. This is obvious.
2 If one life has a million times higher average utility per day than another, a million times higher total utility, and more equal distribution of utility, it is a better life. This is also obvious.
3 If A>B and B>C then A>C. I’ve defended transitivity here, while insulting those who criticize transitivity.
If these are all true, then it’s better to be the oyster than Haydn. Why is this? Well, suppose Haydn has 100,000 utility per day and the oyster has .1 utility per day. Well, Haydn’s life would be better if he had 100,010 utility for 77 years and then .00000000000000000000000000000000000001 utility per day for another 10000^10000^10000 days, by the first axiom. However, this life has utility that’s a million times lower on average, total, and less equal distribution of utility than the Oyster’s life, meaning it’s worse by the second axiom. Transitivity means that, in combination with these, the oyster life is better.
One2 might object, claiming that, even if the oyster is better off than Haydn in terms of utility, Haydn has a better life for non utility related reasons, because he has a beautiful wife, lots of friends, and deep satisfying relationships.
His beautiful wife
However, the relevant insight which makes this response unsuccessful is that the Oyster is not merely better off with respect to utility—it is infinitely better off with respect to utility. If one adopts any threshold at which utility can outweigh other things, then they’d have to accept that the utility is so great in this case that it outweighs any other non utility considerations.
By the proof above, being an oyster forever is better than having 100^100^100 utility per year for 100^100^100 years. However, having 100^100^100 utility per year for 100^100^100 years would be worth having 100^100 years of torment, with 100^100 units of torment per year, such that the combination of those two would be good overall. Thus, by transitivity, being an oyster forever is sufficiently good that it would outweigh the badness of 100^100 units of torment per year for 100^100 years. However, no other non utility based consideration in Haydn’s life would be worth experiencing 100^100 units of torment per year for 100^100 years—this is, after all, considerably more torment than has existed throughout all of human history. Thus, by transitivity, the oyster’s utility dwarfs all other non-utility based good things in Haydn’s life.
This conclusion, like many supporting utilitarianism, has been derivable from some very basic, intuitive axioms. Surely the axioms appealed to above, particularly when combined with the considerations that will be presented later in this article, will outweigh in strength the intuition appealed to by Crisp.
Torture vs Dust Specks Considerations Apply
Given that my excellent article3 about torture vs dust specks, the considerations I shall now present are not especially new. They were present, albeit slightly modified, when describing the case of torture vs dust specks.
David Friedman says the following
“Economists are often accused of believing that everything-health, happiness, life itself-can be measured in money. What we actually believe is even odder. We believe that everything can be measured in anything. My life is much more valuable than an ice cream cone, just as a mountain is much taller than a grain of sand, but life and ice cream, like mountain and sand grain, are measured on the same scale. This seems plausible if we are considering different consumption goods: cars, bicycles, microwave ovens. But how can a human life, embodied in access to a kidney dialysis machine or the chance to have an essential heart operation, be weighed on the same scale as the pleasure of eating a candy bar or watching a television program? The answer is that value, at least as economists use the term, is observed in choice. If we look at how real people behave with regard to their own lives, we find that they make trade-offs between life and quite minor values. Many smoke even though they believe that smoking reduces life expectancy. I am willing to accept a (very slightly) increased chance of a heart attack in exchange for a chocolate sundae.”
This basic principle, that good things are commeasurable, that there are no goods that take on a different qualitative texture beyond the reach of any number of more minor goods, is a necessary feature of goodness. In no other domain do we think that no number of minor instances of some even can add up to have greater impact than an upscaled version. Whales are large—but their size can be surpassed by vast numbers of Amoeba. Fires are hot, but their heat can be surpassed by vast numbers of Icecubes. Arsenic is far more unhealthy than Ice-cream, but the detrimental health effects of everyone eating 30 billion gallons of Ice-cream would surpass those of one person eating an iota of arsenic. Monkeys typing out Shakespeare is far less likely than flipping a heads, but there is a number of coin flips required to be heads which are conjunctively less likely than monkeys typing out Shakespeare.
If you think that oyster pleasure is a little bit good and Haydn’s life is very good, if we multiply the goodness of oyster pleasure by a large enough number, we’ll get the badness of torture. There must be some number of days of oyster pleasure that can outweigh the goodness of Haydn’s life.
Diminishment Is Decisive
Suppose that everyday Haydn has 100,000 utility and the oyster has .1, as was stated above. Presumably living for 77 years as Haydn currently would be less good than living for 87 years with utility of 95,000, which would be less good than 150 years with utility of 90,000, which would be less good than 300 years with utility of 85,000, which would be less good than 700 years with utility of 80,000…4 which is less bad than one person having utility of .1 for 100000000000000000000000000000 years, which is clearly inferior to the oyster. By transitivity and this analysis, the oyster’s life is better.
Forever is a long time
It’s hard to get a grip on just how long forever is. The oyster will, over the course of its infinite existence, experience infinitely more pleasure than has been experienced previously throughout all of human history. Think about just how much better your life is currently than it would be if you only lived to one year of age. Well, the oyster’s life’s vastness surpasses yours far more than yours surpasses that of those with illnesses that cause their life to end at one year of age.
When you realize that the oyster will live long enough to observe5 the death of every star in the universe, the slow decay of black holes brought about by hawking radiation, the end of the universe, and still, after all that, the oyster will be chugging away, continuing to have a good time, it becomes much more intuitive that the oyster is far, far better off than Haydn. When one realizes that the oyster will experience more “mild, sensual pleasure” by itself than all humans ever, the conclusion that the oyster is better off than Haydn isn’t just true—it’s obviously true. Debying the superiority of the oyster life should be the reductio!!
We Suck At Reasoning About Such Cases
Humans are terrible at shutting up and multiplying. We have no intuitive grasp of the difference between a million and a billion, or between a billion and infinity. I elaborate much more on this in part zero of my article here. As Huemer notes
2.1 The egoistic bias When comparing worlds A and Z, we may find ourselves imagining what it would be like to live in each, and asking ourselves which we would prefer.13 Even if we consciously realise that this is not the relevant question, our intuitive evaluation may still be influenced by our preferences. We would prefer a world in which we are ecstatically happy to one in which we are barely content. Thus, we tend to evaluate A more positively than Z. But the fact that we would prefer to occupy world A hardly shows that A is better
This applies to this case because it’s hard to imagine being an oyster, so we may prefer the world that we can imagine being part of. This influences our judgments in ways that are not conscious, but it affects our judgments nonetheless—proof that this happens can be seen here, here, and here.
2.2 The large numbers bias As Broome (2004, pp. 57–9) observes, we should be wary of intuitions whose reliability turns on our appreciating large numbers. This is because, beyond a certain magnitude, all large quantities strike our imagination much the same. A popular joke illustrates this: An astronomer giving a public lecture mentions that the sun will burn out in five billion years. An audience member becomes extremely agitated at the news. The lecturer tries to reassure him: ‘No need to worry, it will not happen for another five billion years.’ The audience member breathes a sigh of relief, explaining, ‘Oh, five billion years. I thought you said five million years!’ When we try to imagine a billion years, our mental state is scarcely different, if at all, from what we have when we try to imagine a million years. If promised a billion years of some pleasure, most of us would react with little, if any, more enthusiasm than we would upon being promised a million years of the same pleasure. Intellectually, we know that one is a thousand times more pleasure than the other, but our emotions and felt desires will not reflect this.
Later he says
2.3 Compounding small numbers In many cases, we make intuitive errors when it comes to compounding very small quantities. In one study, psychologists found that people express greater willingness to use seatbelts when the lifetime risk of being injured in a traffic accident is reported to them, rather than the risk per trip (Slovic, Fischhoff, and Lichtenstein 1978). This suggests that, when the very small risk per trip is presented, people fail to appreciate how large the risk becomes when compounded over a lifetime. They may see the risk per trip as ‘negligible’, and so they neglect it, forgetting that a ‘negligible’ risk can be large when compounded many times. For an especially dramatic illustration of the hazards of trusting quantitative intuitions, imagine that there is a very large, very thin piece of paper, one thousandth of an inch thick. The paper is folded in half, making it two thousandths of an inch thick. Then it is folded in half again, making it four thousandths of an inch thick. And so on. The folding continues until the paper has been folded in half fifty times. About how thick would the resulting paper be? Most people will estimate that the answer is something less than a hundred feet. The actual answer is about 18 million miles.15 For a case closer to our present concern, consider the common intuition that a single death is worse than any number of mild headaches. If this view is correct, it seems that a single death must also be worse than any amount of inconvenience. As Norcross observes, this suggests that we should greatly lower the national speed limit, since doing so would save some number of lives, with (only) a great cost in convenience.16 Yet few support drastically lowering the speed limit. Indeed, one could imagine a great many changes in our society that would save at least one life at some cost in convenience, entertainment, or other similarly ‘minor’ values. The result of implementing all of these changes would be a society that few if any would want to live in, in which nearly all of life’s pleasures had been drained. In all of these cases, we find a tendency to underestimate the effect of compounding a small quantity. Of particular interest is our failure to appreciate how a very small value, when compounded many times, can become a great value. The thought that no amount of headache-relief would be worth a human life is an extreme instance of this mistake—as is the thought that no number of low-utility lives would be worth as much as a million high-utility lives.
2.4 Underrating low-quality lives When we imagine a low-quality life, even if we fill in a great many factual details, we may easily be unsure what its utility level is. When we imagine any realistic sort of life, we must be able to weigh complex combinations of goods and bads of various different kinds in order to arrive at any overall assessment of the life’s utility level. Because of difficulties involved in judging such things as the weighting of values of very different kinds and whether and how values combine to form organic unities,17 we may easily mistake a life with welfare level -1, for example, for one with welfare level 2. According to the advocates of RC, the ability to distinguish such alternatives would be crucial for intuitively evaluating an imagined world of low average utility. To avoid this problem, we might try imagining unrealistically simple lives, such as a life containing no evaluatively significant experiences or activities other than a uniform, mild pleasure. However, even the evaluation of a very simple life may be a complex matter. Our sense that we would be bored by experiencing a lifetime of such uniform, mild pleasure; that such a life would be meaningless; and that we would have to be seriously mentally defective to have no evaluatively significant other activities or states than this single pleasure, all may combine to give us a negative reaction to what we intended to be a slightly positive state. For these reasons, it is not clear that our intuitions can be expected to reliably distinguish very slightly good lives from neutral or slightly bad lives.
Overall, we have lots of good reasons to distrust the Haydn favoring intuitions and several independent ways of deriving that it’s better to be the oyster. This oyster case is, like what Huemer said of the repugnant conclusion, “one of the few genuine, nontrivial theorems of ethics discovered thus far.”
This is because it is an oyster.
I’m starting to hate this one guy—he keeps objecting
Independent fact checkers determined that the article was excellent—not me!
Imagine iterating this process a bunch of times
Well, they won’t observe it, but they’ll be around for it