Bryan Caplan  

The Misanthropic Magisterium

The End of the World... Communications Media and Insti...

Here's my favorite paragraph in the first half of the new Global Catastrophic Risks:

...I have personally observed what look like harmful modes of thinking specific to existential risks. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 25-50 million people. World War II killed 60 million people; 10^7 is the order of the largest catastrophes in humanity's written history. Substantially larger numbers, such a 500 million deaths, and especially qualitatively different scenarios such as the extinction of the entire human species, seem to trigger a different mode of thinking - enter into a "separate magisterium." People who would never dream of hurting a child hear of an existential risks, and say, "Well, maybe the human species doesn't really deserve to survive."
That's Eliezer Yudkowsky of Overcoming Bias fame, by the way. He goes on:
The phrase "Extinction of humanity," as words on paper, appears in fictional novels or is discussed in philosophy books - it belongs to a different context compared to the Spanish flu. We evaluate descriptions of events, not extensions of event. The cliche phrase end of the world invokes the magisterium of myth and dream, of prophesy and apocalypse, of novels and movies. The challenge of existential risk to rationality is that, the catastrophes being so huge, people snap into a different mode of thinking. Human deaths are suddenly no longer bad, and detailed predictions suddenly no longer require any expertise, and whether the story is told with a happy ending or a sad ending is a matter of personal taste in stories.
Given my recent reading list, I'm struck by how readily many demographers enter the misanthropic magisterium - and how closely Eliezer's ridicule parallels Julian Simon's:
Yet I find no logic implicit in the thinking of those who are horrified at the starvation of a
comparatively few people in a faraway country... but who are positively gleeful with the thought that 1 million or 10 million times that many lives will never be lived that might be lived.

...Why does Kingsley Davis (one of the world's great demographers) respond to the U.S. population growth during the 1960s with, "I have never been able to get anyone to tell me why we needed those [additional] 23 million"? And Paul Ehrlich: "I can't think of any reason for having more than one hundred fifty million people [in the U.S.], and no one has ever raised one to me." By 1991 he and Anne Ehrlich had even lowered the ceiling: "No sensible reason has ever been given for having more than 135 million people."


If Davis or Ehrlich were to ask those 23 million Americans born between 1960 and 1970 whether it was a good thing that they were born, many of them would be able to think of a good reason or two. Some of them might also be so unkind as to add, "Yes, it's true that you gentlemen do not personally need any of us for your own welfare. But then, do you think that we have greater need of you?"

Frankly, if anything is absurd, it is the view that all else equal, the existence of one more person isn't very good. So why does this absurdity have so much appeal?

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Blackadder writes:

“The death of one man is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” - Joseph Stalin.

Niclas Berggren writes:

Bryan: You might find Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar a stimulating read. I stress, might.

conchis writes:

"So why does this absurdity have so much appeal?"

Because it's not absurd. The view Elizier's criticising doesn't seem analogous to the those of Davis or Ehrlich. It's much easier to argue that you can't harm someone by not bringing them into existence than it is to argue that you can't harm someone by killing them. Is the possible asymmetry there really that difficult to comprehend?

8 writes:

But the existential harm is the same. They focus on harm measured by pain or hunger. In existential terms, not existing is worse than death, since death requires existence. To argue that non-existence is better than existence is absurd to all but the nihilist.

conchis writes:


so existence is good from the perspective of existence being good? deep.

and anyone who disagrees with you is a nihilist? nihilism ain't what it used to be.

liberty writes:

Yeah, I don't see how arguing that people should (freely choose to) have fewer children is the same as arguing that we should kill living breathing existing people.

If I was never born I would not wish that I had been born. I couldn't, because I wouldn't be alive to care.

If my mother had simply chosen not to have me, this isn't a cruel action taken against me worthy of jail time. Nobody is a prisoner to some non-existent future life such that they must feel obliged to procreate. And it most certainly isn't murder to choose not to do so.

Otherwise all women would have to be pregnant at all times without break from puberty through menopause, in order not to be killing some potential human.

That is absurd, yes.

Brad Taylor writes:

Something can be morally good without giving rise to a duty to do it. It is entirely consistent to say that creating a life is a good thing for the child, without treating the refusal to do so as morally equivalent to murder.

c8to writes:

Theres at least two issues here,

1} Scale

Stalin's deep insight into human nature explains a lot about how we feel about scale. If you read personal accounts of tragedy we can relate to it, but reading a million people wiped out in some natural disaster is far harder to relate to.

It is certainly irrational to not care about disasters that could wipe out the whole human race, but its also a psychological protection mechanism as who really wants to think about every individual tragic life in some massive disaster.

2) The being/not being equation.

we are missing something here as the death of an existing life is not as bad as not creating a new life. brad's point about good and duty is true, but not the entire picture.

in economic terms it might be helpful to put it this way:

on average, the marginal value of 1 year extra life of someone living is greater to them, and to everyone else, than one year life of someone not born, (to that person and to everyone else)

so we are calculating the moral equation at the margin, rather than as a whole life value.

an interesting (if not paradoxical) question could be how much would you pay to be born? (at different ages in your life the answer is probably different)

c8to writes:

ahh too many negatives.

this sentence "we are missing something here as the death of an existing life is not as bad as not creating a new life." should read:

"the death of an existing life is worse than not creating a new life"

bjk writes:

It's very important that there be another 6 billion people on the planet so that they can generate the additional 6 billion people who have it as their solemn responsibility to generate another 6 billion people. Can't you hear the silent cries of the never born?

Bob Hawkins writes:

But Ehrlich's lying when he says no one has given him a reason, since he is aware of Julian Simon's work. He should say "No one's given me a reason that I accept." But that would raise the question of Ehrlich's judgment in such matters, and we really don't want to go there, do we?

"So why does this absurdity have so much appeal?"

The 150 million people who should just not be there are those people. Not the people whose music Ehrlich likes or who provide the food he enjoys or write the opinions he finds vital. He knows why they exist.

Will Wilkinson writes:

Bryan, I constantly find you confusing on this last point. What are we holding equal when all else is equal? I agree that that the marginal person can be expected to make the average person infinitesimally better off provided A LOT of conditions, like the presence of, and embeddedness in, large positive-sum schemes, like the extended market order. This is a good reason to support these kinds of schemes. But those conditions don't exist "all else equal".

I guess I'm so convinced that existence is a condition for evaluation, not a subject of evaluation, that the question of whether it is good to exist sounds to me like the question of whether it is tasty to be loud. The question of whether A's life is good from A's perspective, makes perfect sense. The question of whether A's existence is good for B, makes perfect sense. But the question of whether the fact A's existence is in isolation a good or bad thing seems like nonsense.

j writes:

The question - is 150 million human beings are better than 300 - is not a "moral" or ethical issue and it is wrong to treat it as it were. The question is if for those 150 million it would be better to be 300 million instead of 150 million. In the real world, the place we are living, we are in permanent competition to survive. The competition is now among tribes and nations. Size matters among nations, as does among chimp gangs. America can maintain military presence in the Gulf and a hundred other places it needs to be only because it is a big, numerous nation. In one or two generations more, the USA will need to compete with China, with its 1,500,000,000 individuals. It will be against a country 5 times more populous than the USA. For people like me living in Israel, that is in permanent war against much larger nations, the solution to the issue comes instinctively.

conchis writes:

I guess I'm so convinced that existence is a condition for evaluation, not a subject of evaluation, that the question of whether it is good to exist sounds to me like the question of whether it is tasty to be loud.

Well put, Will.

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