Utilitarianism wins outright part 13
Why you should let a monster eat your babies if they like the taste enough
Robert Nozick, one of the most popular contemporary opponents of utilitarianism thought he had a knockdown objection to utilitarianism in the utility monster. Imagine a being with far greater capacity for utility than all humans in history, a being whose midday meals bring more joy than all the love in history. Suppose additionally that this being is hungry and really likes the taste of humans. On utilitarian accounts, it would be morally good to let this utility monster eat us all. And yet some people for some strange reason find this unintuitive.
I have never understood this intuition. There’s no death more noble than dying to make the midday snack of a monster. Imagine this monster roaming around, chomping entire cities, making a smoothie out of London, Detroit, New York City, Albany. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?
When we see the cookie monster eating cookies, there isn’t anything horrific about it. The cookies seem happy enough. And the monster is very happy. And yet this utility monster is just a happy guy. He gets more joy from cookies than even the cookie monster does. And he doesn’t even have a particular affinity for cookies. He just loves life in general.
As Tom Lehrer says “Oh, we will all fry together when we fry
We'll be French-fried potatoes by-and-by
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie
Yes, we all will fry together when we fry.”
I know I talked yesterday about how bad the end of the world would be, but I obviously wasn’t talking about a scenario in which the end of the world made a really good snack for a monster. That changes everything. Obviously.
In fact, one of the better arguments for welfare programs is that they allow people to have more meat on the bone, so in the off-chance that a utility monster comes and devours the world, we’ll be tastier morsels. That’s one of the main reasons I support welfare programs. In fact I wrote a short poem about the utility monster.
“Oh utility monster.
Darn, when trying to find rhymes with monster google gave no answer (but like pronounced in a British way so that it rhymes with monster).
The ills of humanity’s malevolent chatter
Pale in comparison to those of their refusal to adorn your platter
When others hear about my advocacy for you they say I’m silly
But they don’t grasp the utility
Of eating them and why it is vaster
Than their other absurd pursuits
Like dancing and playing the flute
They say I’m a bastard
But they are just ass hurt
That you’re justified in eating Beirut
They underestimate your utility’s vastness
And stupidly think you shouldn’t eat Annapolis
This topic seems to make their brains break
Like you do when you bake
Their brains into a cake
The fact that they don’t accept all this is um
Evidence for solipsism
For this obviously true position
Shouldn’t cause a schism
In those who otherwise support utilitarianism
On this result Nozick wasn’t too keen
Probably just didn’t want to be steamed
But he shouldn’t have feared
You wouldn’t have eaten him seared
His experience machine brain-rot left him unclean
For fears of boring you, utility monster
This poem shan’t go on longer
Signing off, sincerely me, a tasty blogger”
Despite the obvious moral imperative to allow the utility monster to run roughshod over cities, eating every man, woman, non-binary person, and child in its path, some people are bizarrely not convinced. So I suppose I’ll produce some arguments for the obvious conclusion.
First, the intuition flips with a negative utility monster. Suppose there was a utility monster who experienced trillions of times more suffering than any human. It seems intuitive that their suffering would be worse than the collective suffering of humans. The reason for this divide in intuitions is simple; we can imagine something close to the most extreme forms of suffering. We can imagine, at least to some degree, what it’s like to be tortured horrifically. While this does not come close to the badness of the negative utility monsters suffering, we can still get a sense for how bad their misery is.
In the case of a negative utility monster, experiencing more misery than all humans ever, it seems intuitive that we should sacrifice ourselves to relieve their suffering. Their suffering is so horrendous that sacrifices should be pursued to reduce it. Yet this case is analogous to the positive utilitarian case.
Perhaps you don’t share my and Yetter-Chappel’s intuitions about the negative utility monster, that you should sacrifice things to relieve its suffering. I would suggest that this is reflective of not considering the horror of extreme suffering.
TW descriptions of extreme suffering, all of which will be contained within the quoted text.
Take a moment to consider horrific forms of torture. Salient examples include being burned alive, slowly fried inside a metal bull, drowning, bleeding out from thousands of cuts, starving to death, having your skin melted off from boiling water, and other very grisly things. This agony, extreme as it is, is but the smallest of blips on the radar of the negative utility monster. The negative utility monster would trade-off thousands of years of being burned alive for avoiding one second of the type of agony it’s experiencing now. The gulf between the misery of the negative utility monster far surpasses the gap between the smallest of pinpricks and the most grisly of tortures. Whatever the worst agony is that you’ve experienced in your life is but the tiniest of irritations compared to what the negative utility monster experiences every day for what is experienced as millions of years. The most sadistic murderers in history couldn’t produce a fraction of a percent of the misery that this being experiences every second. Hell will freeze over before it contains as much collective misery as an instant of the negative utility monster’s existence. If one caused the utility monster even a second more of misery, they’d have perpetrated the greatest crime in history
Actions speak louder than words. We may prattle on about how horrific the utility monster is, but when we’re in an analogous case, we act like utility monsters. Despite the moralistic preaching against a being of unfathomable greater sentience being unfathomably more important than lesser beings, we treat beings with vastly diminished sentience the way that many would object to the utility monster treating us.
People find it repugnant that the utility monster would be justified in eating us according to utilitarianism. Well, most of the people who make this objection eat meat. They devour sentient beings who are much more sentient compared to us than we are compared to the utility monster. A cow is has much greater ability to experience pleasure and pain compared to a human than a human does to a utility monster.
You, dear reader, almost certainly act like a utility monster.
Most humans treat insects as inanimate objects. Whether our treatment of insects is unjust is a separate question. Insects likely deserve some consideration, though obviously far less than a human. But we treat insects as callously as the utility monster would treat us on utilitarianism. We literally kill them in cold blood because they are buzzing near our ears and annoying us. If we liked the taste and they were healthy and cheap, we would almost certainly eat them.
And yet the utility monster has a much stronger case for mistreating us than we do for insects. The utility monster is orders of magnitude further above us than we are above insects. Fruit flies have 100,000 neurons in their brains. We have 86 billion. If we assume conservatively that sentience scales linearly based on brain size, that means that we’re 860,000 times more sentient than fruit flies. The utility monster is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more sentient than that compared to us. It’s more sentient enough for its well-being from a single meal to outweigh the collective future value of humanity.
If fruit-flies could do philosophy they’d probably bemoan our callous treatment of them. Being unable to understand the vast pleasure experienceable by humans, they would think that any ethical theory which justified our treatment of them was absurd. They would, however, be wrong to do so. We are justified in discounting the interests of fruit flies to a large degree—albeit probably not to the degree we do now.
Let’s take a little detour back to the repugnant conclusion. Let’s suppose that, rather than a choice between billions of beings with great lives and vast numbers with mediocre lives, it’s a choice between one being with a great life and a billion with mediocre lives. I’ve already argued that we should accept the repugnant conclusion. But let’s say that we’re not convinced and we think that it would be better to have one being with a great life than billions with mediocre lives. Let’s also say that we run this experiment 1 million times, at the end of which everyone has their memories erased. If you think that you should bring the one great life into being rather than the billions that are barely worth living, then if you run this experiment millions of times you get something interesting.
What you get is basically the utility monster. One being with a vast amount of pleasure, rather than billions with pretty good lives—lives as good as those that are produced by going through a life that’s barely worth living a million times. Thus, iterating the repugnant conclusion basically gets one at the utility monster. There is tension between rejecting the RC and accepting the utility monster.
The utility monster is subject to a similar argument to the one that was applied in the torture versus dust specks post.
Suppose that we’re deciding whether to give a good experience to 7 billion entities or a much better experience (produced by the comparatively greater sentience) to 6.9 billion entities. In this case it’s obvious that if the 6.9 billion entities get 1000 times the pleasure of the 7 billion entities, you should benefit the 6.9 billion entities. Well now suppose that it’s a choice between 6.9 billion entities or 6.3 billion entities with 1000 times the sentience. In this case, once again you should give the benefit to 6.3 billion. Well now compare 6.3 billion to 5.9 billion with 1000 times greater sentience. Once again, you should give it to the 5.9 billion. We can keep going through this process until the number of entities is reduced to one. For there to be some firm cutoff it would have to be the case that there’s some threshold whereby benefitting a number of people below the threshold can’t be as good as benefitting a number above the threshold. This is implausible. Let’s say the threshold is 300. Well, on this account producing a vast benefit to 300 people would be better than producing a benefit that’s 1000000000000000000000000 times greater for 299 people.
While this doesn’t get us to the rights violating conclusions, it does get us to the conclusion that, if we could either feed every person on earth, or feed one meal to the utility monster, we ought to feed the meal to the utility monster. We can add the additional supposition that, if we could kill one person, to give everyone on earth a meal, we ought to do that. Giving everyone on earth a meal will surely save many lives, so it’s analogous to the bridge version of the trolley problem, but with hundreds, or thousands of people on the track below. This gets us to the utility monster. Additionally, I’ve previously provided a devastating takedown of rights that has left Locke, and Nozick shaking. It’s no coincidence that they’re dead—they planned their deaths to avoid having to deal with the critiques :) .
In summa re ridiculum est quomodo stercore soni latine refrigescant et ii soli qui hanc interpretantur occultam significationem habebunt
We should obviously accept the utility monster. It only seems unintuitive because the life of a utility monster is literally inconceivable for us. We can no more imagine being a utility monster than we can imagine in vivid detail objects that are the size of the universe or smaller than light.
Think about all of the good experiences you’ve had in life. Every moment of being in love, reading great literature, listening to music, treating others kindly, poisoning pigeons in the park, stirring up nationalism in Hungary to such an extent that you change the history of the century in ways large enough to change the identity of every human born after 2033, reading this blog, having sex, reading this blog while having sex, reading this blog while stirring up nationalism in Hungary to such an extent that you change the history of the century in ways large enough to change the identity of every human born after 2033, eating delicious food, pretending to be a snake and jumping out of the closets of Nazi’s shouting “I’m a snake, I’m a snake,” having sex while stirring up nationalism in Hungary to such an extent that you change the history of the century in ways large enough to change the identity of every human born after 2033, etc. Normal stuff.
None of these compare to the goodness of the life of the utility monster. Every second that it exists, it experiences unfathomably more happiness than you will experience throughout all of those experiences. Think about how much less the misery experienced in dreams seems to matter—based on the lower level of consciousness. The difference in consciousness is so much greater in the case of this utility monster. Many of Tom Lehrer’s songs seem to be advocacy for the utility monster. We will all go together when we go, poisoning pigeons in the park, the masochism tango, etc.
In that spirit, let us conclude with a final verse of the poem.
“I say this with the confidence characteristic of Searle
Let us overcome this hurdle
So let’s say with conviction
Let the utility monster devour the world.”
Utilitarians on Blogs: I would love to be eaten by the utility monster
Utilitarians the utility Monster arrives at their doorstep: (suddenly unconcerned with utility)
Also, human rights are real!