Friday, September 02, 2016

The Current Value of Future Generations

The Value of Continued Existence

Imagine that you were to learn that, shortly after your death, the human race would be destroyed. Let's say that a massive long-period comet was going to strike the earth. You are going to live out the rest of your life - the comet is not going to kill you. However, the rest of humanity would die shortly thereafter.

Would this alter your life plans?

In my case, I know it would. I would find these blog postings to be quite a waste of time. I would regret that I had spent so much time on them at all - all of that time writing, reading, and thinking about the difference between good and evil was wasted - it has no value. It only has value if it is a part of an ongoing discussion that will continue long into the future.

Samuel Scheffler discusses this scenario in Death and the Afterlife, which was the focus of a podcast episode from the London School of Economics, After Your Death.

One of the implications of this thought experiment is that it seems to suggest that, for many of us, what happens after we die seems to be important. It is not just our children and grandchildren that matter - it is the continued existence of the human race. Without this, some of our current projects lose their value. There may be some people for whom existence itself becomes pointless.

I find this to be another example - like Robert Nozick's experience machine - that shows that people do not just value their own pleasure. They care about things that will happen even when their own capacity to feel pleasure no longer exists.

We can handle these observations with a theory that people have "desires that P" - and desires motivate agents to realize states in which "P" is true - even though P does not become true until after the agent's death. I can have a desire to participate in a philosophical discussion that goes on after my desk such that, 72 years and 4 months from now, a philosopher puts into an article something that somehow gets linked causally to a blog posting of mine, or an email that I sent - even if the author does not realize that such a link exists (or that such a person as Alonzo Fyfe ever existed). I have still had an influence . . . for the better, I hope.

Hedonism, I think, would have to introduce some gymnastics to account for these observations. It's not that it can't be done; hedonism can be manipulated to explain all human actions in the same way that Ptolomey's epicycles can be manipulated to explain the motion of the planets. It's just that there are reasons to prefer a simpler theory to a burdensome and complex theory.

The simpler theory is that the propositions P that are the objects of our desires can sometimes be made true after our death. When this happens, we are still motivated to realize those states; they give our current life meaning. We are, in a sense, better off today to a degree if the future of humanity is better off.

In the podcast, Sam Scheffler said,

We need other people to exist in the future or else our own lives are going to be less valuable now....It's not just that they depend on us and our willingness to make sacrifices. It's that we depend on them. We need humanity to be an ongoing flourishing enterprise in order to find value in our own lives.


Anonymous said...

Interesting video on the moral problems with the 10 Commandments

Unknown said...

I wonder if this post has to do with my recent comments on Facebook. If not, it is incredibly coincidental. I have recently come to the conclusion, and posted on a forum, that having children is immoral.

My reasoning is based on the fact that we have many and strong reasons to avoid pain and suffering. We also don't force people to be happy if they do not want to be. This is a part of autonomy. We don't force suffering or happiness onto others without their consent. And since this is impossible for a being that doesn't exist, we should not do it, regardless of the future benefits. In this case, the ends (our happiness and meaning) do not justify the means (causing undue suffering).

I cannot think of any selfless reasons to have children. Even this post is chock full of selfish reasons with children as a means. I'm not saying we don't have desires that are fulfilled by having children. I am saying we have many and strong reasons to avoid causing suffering to others without their consent. This is unquestionably true in the case of children.

Some quotes to consider:

Unknown said...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The argument concerning whether bringing a new person into the world is a benefit or harm to that person, I think, is easily answered by asking whether that person, in the end, will be grateful for being or regret having been born. For myself, I would say that the life I have been given has been a net positive and so I give consent to my parents having brought me into the world. It is like being pushed out of the way of a runaway trolley car. We do not have an opportunity to give consent before the act, but the act can be justified if it is reasonable to believe that a person would give consent after the act.

Unknown said...

Okay, that's a rather privileged position. What about the vast majority of humanity that lives in abject poverty that you are so keen to criticize Sanders for not caring about? The single most reliable way to reduce their suffering is to convince them to stop having children. There is no debate about that.

Did you read the article I linked to? Some of this comes from that, some is my own...

You say you love your life now, but that really doesn't matter to the argument. You are programmed by your desires to feel that way. It is akin to creating a robot with a self-preservation routine and then asking if it wants to self-preserve. It couldn't answer otherwise. And that programming is from evolution and environment. IT's not a choice the being made. If one could completely rationally consider whether they would choose to be born without this arbitrary and manipulative adaptation, they might make a different decision.

Yes, you value life. I value life that already exists. But you can't value life for someone else. They need to value it themselves. And a non-existent person cannot do that.

You also never addressed the issue of using someone else as a means to and end. It is impossible for an adult to want to have a child for the sake of the child’s values (desires), since they do not yet exist. Therefore any child being born is necessarily born for the sake of the adult's desires.

We reject the concept of people being used as means to an end to be evil. If there is a principle underlying our most basic ethical intuitions, then this must be it; murder, violence, theft, fraud, are wrong precisely because they entail pushing aside the victim’s values (thwarting their desires) for the sake of the perpetrator’s values. Helping someone to kill himself is not murder, it’s suicide; the difference being that the latter entails helping someone arrive at an end they have chosen, and the former being the exact opposite.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David, please note that my comment specifically and solely concerned the argument of whether bringing a new person into the world is a harm or benefit to that person. I did not even mention, let alone address, arguments from negative externalities.

You mentioned the fact that I did not consider other arguments in defense of your conclusion as if it is an accusation. Since I did not write that your conclusion was wrong, I do not see a need to address those other arguments. I merely wrote that this one argument is a bad argument.

I will quite commonly write to object to bad arguments in defense of conclusions that I believe in. The "no choice" argument in defense of homosexual marriage is one such argument. I think homosexual arguments are perfectly moral, but the "homosexuality is not a choice" argument is a bad argument in defense of homosexuality. Pedophilia is not a choice either, but this does not defend the practice. Only the "lack of harm" argument can defend the practice. But, if the "lack of harm" argument is sound (which it is), then it implies that there is nothing wrong with CHOOSING to be homosexual if it was a choice.

Your response here is like taking my objection to the "no choice" argument as an argument against homosexual marriage and then objecting to all of the arguments I failed to consider in defense of homosexual marriage. Of course I ignored those other arguments. If I were actually condemning homosexual marriage, then I would have considered those arguments. But, since my point is only to discuss the merits of a single argument, none of those other arguments are relevant to the question of whether THIS argument is any good.

Unknown said...


//David, please note that my comment specifically and solely concerned the argument of whether bringing a new person into the world is a harm or benefit to that person.//

Fine, but I still stand by the argument against this position. If it can be avoided, we shouldn't assume that someone else has a value that we hold. That is especially true when they don't even exist yet. We have no idea how bad their life might end up being. And while it may, by lucky circumstance, end up being a great life indeed, the chances are far greater (based on the current and likely future states of the world, that the good will be simply a merciful break between stretches of pain, suffering, and loneliness that will end up making the pain that much more unbearable. And to force that suffering where no suffering is needed seems, on the whole, rather evil.

Unknown said...