William Eliot

In defence of instant universal death

I could be killed by a lightning bolt and never know the difference.

16 August 2021

One persistent argument against Karl Popper’s formulation of negative utilitarianism (that ‘one should demand… the least amount of avoidable suffering’1) was introduced by R. Ninian Smart in Mind in 1958. If the goal is to minimise disutility — evil, suffering, sadness, and all that — then, Smart says, the best way to achieve that particular goal is to destroy the human race ‘instantly and painlessly’.

Few are amenable to the suggestion, and so, thinking that this so-called ‘benevolent world-exploder’2 would be an unwelcome tyrant, they dismiss negative utilitarianism as a feasible policy. However, I believe the instantaneous obliteration of everything is a ‘neutral’ outcome, and therefore all negative utilitarians should welcome it as their endgame.

My friends may laugh and call me ‘Thanos’ when I describe my apparent indifference for universal vaporisation, but they are laughing at the absurdness of the theory rather than its moral implications. To repeat the argument by reversal: the permanent death of all life would by definition create a system that is devoid of suffering (given that suffering can only be ‘experienced’ by conscious things). Therefore, somebody seeking to minimise suffering only, if they are consistent in their belief, is naturally drawn to such a solution which leads to zero total disutility. There are two methods for arriving at it: either through a long, terrifying, and quite probably tiresome process of step-by-step extinction3, or through one single universal ‘snap’ (Marvel fans will know why I hesitate to use that word). The latter, since it creates less suffering, is preferable.

Here I am not seeking to defend negative utilitarianism. I am suggesting that negative utilitarians should welcome the ‘world-exploder’ conclusion as a perfect coda. Two separate points must combine to form this argument.

Firstly, there is a non-zero quantity of disutility in the world right now. From the hunger of remote sea animals, to the stress of a fired MP deciding on his next career move, or to our own personal unhappinesses, suffering exists in abundant amounts (and exactly how much is of no imporance to the argument). If the present lays the template for the future, then that suffering will continue and even rise with growing populations. You may alter the given examples, and swap the word ‘suffering’ for ‘happiness’, to find the same principle of continuation is true for utility too. So suffering exists and will continue to exist.

Secondly, a person or animal who has died does not experience the suffering caused by their death, because they are no longer alive to witness or participate in it. As long as their death was painless, extremely quick, and unexpected, the dead person can hardly be said to have suffered at all; instead it is the mourners and the dead person’s dependents who suffer4. Imagine a man, spawned on a remote, sandy island in the ocean, who never encounters an animal or person in his lifetime. One day, a coconut falls on his head and kills him before he even realises what’s just happened. Did this man suffer in his death? It seems there was nothing in the manner of it that could cause suffering to him. Did this man’s death create external suffering? No conscious being knew of or was affected by this man, so any secondary effects of his dying would only be felt, if it were possible, by the coconut tree.

When a death occurs in isolation like above, and there is no suffering caused by it, then the rate of disutility in the present moment does not change. Importantly, the future rates do change: while a certain quantity of good future things are lost, another quantity of bad future things are lost too. The negative utilitarian, indifferent to those ‘good future things’, would consider the death a win. How do we recreate the isolation of the man’s death and its affecting-nobody property? The answer is instant universal annihilation, wherein all deaths, occurring simultaneously, do not upset any others and therefore cannot cause suffering in either the dying person or any of their also-dying companions.

In this scenario, both future happiness and future suffering are reduced to zero. For a lexical negative utilitarian like me 5, the prospect of zero suffering is the stuff of dreams, so those using the extremity of the ‘benevolent world-exploder’ argument to discredit the theory of negative utilitarianism should be mindful that they are describing an ideal endgame. The standard model of blissful utopia in utilitarian conversation has its analogue in the barren, soulless universe of a negative utilitarian.

With all our human biases, our love of things great like swimming, and small like ice cream, our dreams for what we have yet to acheive, and our endless attempts not to die, the prospect of dying in some mass extermination is greatly offensive. This explains why so few support negative utilitarianism: if obliteration is the obvious consequence6 then the theory itself must be wrong, or at least so says this particular reductio ad absurdum. But in thought experiments that support standard utilitarianism, isn’t the happiness of permanent paradise equally extreme as mass extinction?

And what is so abhorrent about the sudden death of all life anyway? I could be killed by a lightning bolt and never know the difference. Applied worldwide, seven billion deadly lightning bolts (and a considerable surplus to handle the extinction of all animals) delivered in one zap couldn’t cause any suffering, despite the dramatic decrease in present and future utility, precisely because all the suffering-experiencers would be wiped out. To prevent future evil by a single act — the performance of which itself causes no evil — doesn’t seem a bad thing to do.

A universal bang as presented above is not remotely possible; nor for the sake of clarity do I advocate for it. Additionally, there are certain caveats which must be minded in order for the ‘benevolent world-exploder’ truly to acheive their mission of reducing total suffering7. Instant universal death is an extreme measure, and the supposed wickedness of it has turned many away from peceiving negative utilitarianism as a respectable policy. Yet, when the aim is to minimise suffering, no other procedure would be as efficient or as successful as vaporising the universe.8


  1. Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol 1. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945. p.285.

  2. Smart, R. Ninian. ‘Negative Utilitarianism’, Mind 67.268. 1958.

  3. A reasonable argument can be made that a drawn-out, psychologically traumatic extinction process would cause a significant amount of disturbance and suffering. Indeed, David Pearce in his 2005 article ‘The Pinprick Argument’ sees the inherent torment of the idea as counterproductive to its anti-suffering intention (read it here). But it seems impossible that the disutility to be endured while planning such annihilation would be worse than all the possible future disutility it eventually prevents.

  4. I don’t consider the ‘wasted potential’ of an early death a source of disutility provided that there is no other to feel its loss. The deceased cannot reflect on the sadness of their premature passing.

  5. There are some neat definitions of and standard rebuttals to the different forms of negative utilitarian in Toby Ord’s essay ‘Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian’, accessible here.

  6. Perhaps a ‘repugnant conclusion’, to borrow a helpful phrase from an entirely unrelated issue in utilitarianism.

  7. For example, if the reduction of future suffering has motivated them into exploding the world, then they would need to be certain that the extinction remained permanent, or at least that future conscious beings will not suffer more on account of the extinction. Also, if it were discovered that the experience of being dead entailed significant quantities of suffering, then a negative utilitarian would rapidly change endgames, focusing on life extension (in addition to anti-childbirth policies) instead.

  8. If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend the writing of Simon Knuttson, which is quietly persuasive and far more philosphically sturdy than mine. To be found here.