Monday, October 31, 2011

The murderous philanthropist

Let's put on our Thought Experiment caps and consider the case of the murderous philanthropist.  Here is his MO: He finds people in need, and asks them if they would like a turn in his Strike It Rich machine.  "The machine is simple," he explains.  "You strap yourself in, and press this big red button.  With probability one half, an arm swings down and gives you a million dollars.  Otherwise, though, you are instantly and painlessly executed by the machine."

To be rich or not to be, that is the question.  You may find this horrifying or not, depending on your outlook.  It's certainly far beyond selling organs.  But here's a fact: In the real world, many people would voluntarily take the offer...

  • Perhaps people who are practically on the verge of death anyway.  
  • Perhaps people who have many friends and family members, or a really good cause they value more than their own life, that could really benefit from the money.

Or, perhaps, people who think like this: a minute from now, I will either exist or not.  If I don't exist, I won't experience anything, and I will have no preferences over anything.  I can only care about anything conditional on existing, and conditional on existing, I will be rich.

Buy it?  No?  Here, try these on for size:

  • Maybe, instead of a machine, the philanthropist offers to visit clients in the night, and either dump a million dollars over their bed or kill them quietly in their sleep.  From the perspective of subjective experience, it is true that when they wake up, they will wake up rich.
  • Or maybe the murderous philanthropist is God -- not an inappropriate title for many of his most popular incarnations, by the way -- and He plays this game on everyone's behalf before they yet exist.  In such a world, everyone who comes to exist, lives a very nice existence.  But other "entities" that have not yet attained personhood are deprived of that future.
  • Or maybe someday our civilization gains the power to revive people who died long ago.  (This one is supposed to get rid of the "murderous" part, while maintaining the prior existence of the parties involved).  Does anything change when the (not so murderous) philanthropist works his magic over the decision of who to revive now?    To continue in the vein of the thought experiment, imagine that the potentially revived souls know this will happen in advance, and have signed up for a 50-50 shot at awesome life or continued death.  Is this better or worse than reviving all of them but not giving them awesome lives?

I'm not going to argue about "the right way to think" here.  But if you feel differently about this scenario in its various incarnations, it's probably not a bad idea to think about it.  I know I have mixed feelings.  The second-to-last scenario is empirically indistinguishable from the current state of the world, and I don't know what sort of existence rule I would most prefer such a god to implement.

We care about the quality of life on this planet.  But should we care about something like the sum total of life quality across people, or something more like average life quality conditional on existing?  That is, do we prefer a bunch of people with okay lives, or do we want fewer people with better lives?

When people run a Rawlsian veil of ignorance-type thought experiment of "what kind of world would I want to live in, if I didn't yet know who I'd be," they are implicitly conditioning on existing in that world.  This is inadequate for policy decisions that affect who lives and who doesn't, unless you're comfortable with conditioning on existence.  If you're not comfortable with that, you'll have to broaden your thought experiment to include the probability of existing in the first place.  To me there's something attractive about having more people with lower average wellbeing, but more total wellbeing.  But there's also something compelling about having high wellbeing for anyone who's able to appreciate high wellbeing (i.e. anyone who exists).  In the end I think most people prefer something in between the two extremes, but at the same time, it is easy to forget that a spectrum exists, from issue to issue.  You could easily get stuck at one end by accident, if you weren't careful.

When we talk about cattle treatment, it's so critical to ask whether we'd prefer a world with fewer but happier cows, or more but worse off cows.  Almost everyone seems to condition on existence here, although one gets the sense that they haven't explicitly thought about (or even noticed) the inevitable tradeoff.

Do you have a problem with the Strike It Rich machine, while you feel no sense of obligation to unborn cows or persons?  You're not committing some sort of logical sin if your way of thinking about these things follows very different logic.  But it's something to be aware of, and perhaps curious about.  Where my answers to the above questions differ, I wonder why that is, and whether I'm really okay with it.

(Many people will say that extant people have "rights" that are not shared by nonentities.  But to lexicographically prioritize extant people seems suspicious and too-convenient.  Nor does this path lead to a complete answer, because it provides no way to rank alternatives in which different subsets of potential people exist).

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