12. Aren’t Utilitarians concerned about existential threats anyway?

But, aren’t utilitarians concerned about existential threats anyway? Kind of, sometimes. . .


The typical utilitarian ethos isn’t. It is exemplified by such influential contemporary figures as Sam Harris; but also Peter Singer, the philanthropist Bill Gates, Steven Pinker, and Jordan Peterson (to the extent that Peterson could be called a utilitarian). And that ethos is compelling because of its direct though short sighted “low hanging fruit” approach to maximizing well-being. The low hanging fruit approach largely ignores, or under values, or simply dismisses, existential threat concerns. And if you want to see how compelling the low hanging fruit approach is, this video of Peter Singer’s powerful Ted talk on “effective altruism” is exemplary. And bear in mind that the largest portion of philanthropic energy ever directed, beyond short term selfish concerns, by an individual, was made in accord with Singer’s version of utilitarianism, by Bill Gates.

Compare the painfully emotive and powerful video of Singer’s (link above) to this relatively dry video of  Nick Bostrom’s (a key “utilitarian” (more or less) who is concerned primarily with existential threats). Watch them speak and you will see why Singer’s ethos holds sway.

Further, here is Sam Harris’s podcast where he interviews Bostrom, and is puzzled by the “esoteric” nature of Bostrom’s concern about humanity’s future. Check it out, starting at minute 13:00.


Bostrom makes the utilitarian argument that, a little energy used as insurance in preventing even unpredictable/hypothetical existential catastrophes likely has a huge payoff in future well lived lives (well-being). And it’s a payoff that is statistically many orders of magnitude larger then the payoff one gets from Singer’s and Bill Gates’ “effective altruism”. But he isn’t more popular in utilitarian circles because his values are too abstract for our “evolved” human psychology.  As Stalin said, “one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” This is why many charities, and Singer’s video, show pictures of a single distressed child when eliciting aid. Even though Singer notes, and even focuses on, the irrationality of Stalin’s maxim, Singer still plays to it; the low hanging fruit is that, even though he may focus on the suffering of one child, it is a very small intellectual/rational jump to acknowledge the immediate and current suffering that is occurring now all over the world. Bostrom’s task is far more difficult: getting our primitive hunter gatherer minds to give a toss about maximizing well-being and minimizing suffering of, as yet non-existent, beings into the distant future.


As a matter of fact Bostrom’s utilitarianism as about as popular and influential as the pro extinction “antinatalism” “negative utilitarianism” of figures such as David Benatar (here’s an interview with Benatar). From a scientific pantheist’s perspective Benatar’s fairly persuasive arguments also exemplify how the “esoteric” and emotionally/empathetic-ally unconvincing well-being calculus of utilitarianism can become what is likely to be disastrously disconnected, from an emotional and empathetic state which would lead to individuals truly wanting to act in accord with the scientific definition of life.

Benatar’s, Bostrom’s, and Singer’s vastly divergent versions of utilitarianism also give lie (or at least pause) to Harris’s assertion that science can be relatively easily applied to something as subjective as well-being.

The left side of the Mandala leads up a path, that’s subjectively more visceral and rational, to abstract meta values (than most of utilitarianism’s, which are for human psychology). True, when Singer employs images of the easily preventable suffering of a single child, that may be more immediate and viscerally effective than the scientific pantheistic path (starting at “awareness of the sacred”) might be. But that depends on the art and rituals that our culture develops, and the scientific pantheist approach is more reasonable and scientific, and it is more viscerally appealing then the utilitarian ethos of Bostrom and Benatar (which are just as “reasonable” as Singers’s).



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