The Empty Universe

I've been reading Peter Singer's 3rd edition of Practical Ethics, trying to see what's new.  One new thing is the discussion in chapter 5 (see here) about what we ought to be aiming for--a Peopled Universe, a Non-sentient Universe (a la David Benatar), or a Happy Sheep Universe, crammed with the maximum amount of happy life.  He picks the Peopled Universe, based partly on premises from 2e, but also on ideas new to 3e.

The old ideas:  (1)  The "total view", rather than the "prior existence view."  We must take into account the total result of our choices, not limit our focus to the impact on those who exist prior to, or apart from, our decisions.  Both views lead to problems, but the second to worse problems. (2)  Preference utilitarianism, not hedonistic utilitarianism.  The good is desire-satisfaction, not simply happiness.  People have vastly more desires than sheep, so potentially more satisfied desires, so potentially more good in their lives.

Take the total view plus preference utilitarianism together.  Which universe should we aim for, based on that package?  It depends how we evaluate preference satisfaction.  We could take every chunk of preference satisfaction as a positive good.  In that case, the Peopled Universe is best, because there's the most preference satisfaction in it.  There's none in the empty universe, and less in the Happy Sheep Universe, because of the more limited potential of sheep to have preferences.

But that way of evaluating preference satisfaction is problematic.  If I make you have a burning desire to eat marshmallows, through some devious chicanery or other, do we really want to say it's positively good if you get to have lots of marshmallows?  An alternative is the debit view of preferences.  We take an unsatisfied preference as a debit in a sort of ledger.  When the preference is satisfied, the debit is erased.  Making you want marshmallows is actually bad, but I can cancel it out by feeding you marshmallows.

With this adjustment, we now get a different ranking of the three worlds.  The Non-Sentient Universe comes in as #1, since the others have uncanceled debits.  This sits unwell with Singer (and with me, too). There are other ways you could look at preference satisfaction, having to do with the way preferences are generated, but Singer makes a much bigger move away from 2e.  He suggests (p. 117) that what has value is not just preference-satisfaction--
We could try to distinguish two kinds of value: preference dependent value, which depends on the existence of beings with preferences and is tied to the preferences of those specific beings, and value that is independent of preferences.  When we say that the Peopled Universe is better than the nonsentient Universe, we are referring to value that is independent of preferences.
Like what?  What, besides a satisfied preference, might have value?
We could hold a pluralist view of value and consider that love, friendship, knowledge and the appreciation of beauty, as well as pleasure or happiness, are all of value.
The Peopled Universe has more of those positive goods than the Non-Sentient or Happy Sheep universes, so it's best.  Singer's tone in these passages is exploratory and respectful of the difficulty of the issues and the diversity of positions.  Benatar's preference for the empty universe gets a respectful nod.  But he seems willing to complicate his own ethical theory in order to avoid the ultra-gloomy view that the best world is the most barren.


ɓʖɘɐɸʆɮʃʂɑʬɔʌʊɪʠʋɐʔɷ said...

very interesting thanks (I haven't had the time to read e3 yet).

what about the following schema for the "notes" in the ledger:

1) actual satisfied preferences: +1
2) actual unsatisfied preferences: -1
3) no preference: 0

since we prefer no-life to a life of torture and a happy sheep to no-life, but we prefer a happy person to a happy sheep it makes sense to think there must be some crossing between the two (human vs sheep) scenarios

I think it might "solve" the repugnant conclusion too, but I should think more about that.

I couldn't justify the "+1" for the satisfied preferences, but it's not more ad-hoc than Singer's solution.

Jean Kazez said...

Ahhh, but that will make it a good idea to implant a burning desire for marshmallows in someone, and then satisfy it. The desire will be -1, and the satisfied desire +1. The debit view is designed to avoid saying that's a good idea. Desire is -1, satisfaction of it just cancels the debit, so the person is back to 0. Thus, there's no reason to implant and then satisfy marshmallow desires.

Faust said...

This is a bit of a tangent but:

1. Have you read After Virtue by McIntyre?

2. Are you aware of any Singer essays written in response to it?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I've read After Virtue--in fact I took a course with McIntyre right before it came out. I can't think of a place where Singer discusses...maybe someone else who's reading this will know of a place.

Faust said...

Ahhh very cool. I'm quite taken with it so far, about a 1/4 of the way through. So far it's reminding me of Stanley Rosen's Nihilism. Not sure about his Kierkegaard interpretation, but for the most part I'm on board. We'll see where this goes...

ʝɓʫɢɪɢɻʯɛʞɥʟɖʐʉɣʆʕɶɮ said...

yes, you're absolutely correct. I should think before I write :-)

I get the feeling there's always something missing in these analysis. There's never an account of the probabilistic and inductive nature of our knowledge. Where you create a preference you take a risk of the preference not being satisfied. I don't make myself thirsty just to experience the pleasure of drinking. My body hates being thirsty, it's a built-in mechanism that has been proved valuable over our evolution, and it's an alarm bell for the risk of dying. Very different is the case of aesthetic preferences, or those deeper experiences that seem to give value to life. I do think those experiences give us a +1, and not simply the "back to zero" of satisfied thirst.

Creating a new life is in that sense is an "open" act that has unforeseable consequences, and can create value since it creates a new locus of experiences ... I'm not confident at all in this line of reasoning but it seems a more richer approach than a dry linear balance of preferences.

s. wallerstein said...

That´s interesting.

What was your impression of McIntyre?

I've never read After Virtue, but I did read his little book on the unconscious. Very perceptive.

Jean Kazez said...

After Virtue is astonishingly erudite (and McIntyre was super smart in person, I recall) and says some things that are impossible to ignore. There are moral postures locked into specific time periods--we couldn't possibly adopt them. Which makes you wonder whether moral realism is tenable, etc. etc. Certainly this is a book people should read.

I never read Rosen, though I went to Penn State, where he used to teach. Actually, I babysat for his kids when I was a teenager:-) Let's see, who else can I show off about knowing? Um...

s. wallerstein said...

Thanks, Jean and Faust.

McIntyre seems to be one of those philosophers, like Singer, who
transcend the academic field of philosophy.

I'll have to read After Virtue.

In any case, his book on the unconscious is recommended for people who want to make sense of Freud's term, which in Freud's treatment does not make much sense.

Jean Kazez said...

Squiggly (sorry for the name--what's with your pseudonym?), I agree--I don't think the debit view of preferences is entirely satisfactory. That fact that people have preferences is actually one of the things that adds vale to a life, so ought to be countenanced in some way in a pluralistic theory of value. Just having certain preferences (but not all, as you say) is good, and having them satisfied is even better. For example, having a preferences as to who is president or what music you listen to is a good thing, even if you don't get what you want. If you do, even better. (But maybe the goodness of being a being with preferences could be captured in other parts of a pluralistic theory of value--it's part of having kinds of intelligence, autonomy, etc.)