Who Should Exist?

By | September 12, 2010

One of the first interviews I ever did for this blog was with Nina Paley, an advocate for the (self-refuting) human extinction movement. Here she is having a conversation with Mike Treder in which she affirms that human extinction would not be a bad thing, would not be something she would object to.

The human extinction movement fails on its most basic premise. Paley’s argument that humanity should go so that all the other species can have a fighting chance misses the fact that humanity is the ONLY species that stands any chance whatsoever (a slim one, but growing) of protecting all the other species from various extinction-level events.

We’re the ones talking about how to deflect killer asteroids, for example. That we know of, ducks are not interested in solving this problem.

Of course we have caused far too many extinctions. Other species cause extinctions, too, but it’s almost certain that we’re the worst offenders. On the other hand, we’re the only species that takes active steps to prevent other species from going extinct and we’re the only species that has any ideas (however shaky at this point) about bringing extinct species back.

The other species don’t really want us gone.

However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that even some really crazy ideas begin to make sense if you give them enough runway. Someday, there might be a good case for human extinction.

I know, it sounds insane. But work with me.

On the most recent FastForward Radio, I took a controversial stance and came out strongly in favor of existence.

Call me a crackpot, but the way I add things up, it is good to exist.

So when Robin Hanson asks Who Should Exist, I am inclined to answer, “Why, as many of us as possible.”

But somehow that doesn’t quite feel right. Assuming massively expanding but still finite resources, not every being could ever potentially exist is actually going to get to. Some will not make the cut. Who should get left out?

Robin makes a thoroughly economics-driven argument for allowing those who would want to exist and who can “pay their own way,” as he puts it, to exist. Here “pay their own way” means, in more technical economics speak, that a potential being’s “lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others.”

I don’t know. That seems like a good way to go. I would have probably thought up criteria around how nice the potential beings are, but maybe that’s not so smart. A world where the majority of inhabitants are selected for niceness would probably be a lot more pleasant than one where the majority are selected for economic viability, at least until the infrastructure starts falling apart and the food starts running out because all these nice folks were not selected based on their ability to keep the power runnig or bring the crops in.

Even so, I think there must be criteria other than economic viability. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

The most interesting part of this speculation on who should exist has to do with what some of these late-coming, economically viable high-achievers might think of us, and more importantly our right to exist. In a world where new models of intelligent being are being rolled out based on ROI, isn’t it fair to ask what kind of return we’re getting on the older models, or more bluntly what it costs to keep them around?

Another exception to these creature patterns could be due to ancient legacies, of those who held large initial endowments before this competitive regime began. The designs of such ancient creatures, and of new creatures they favored with existence donations, might be unusually far from the peak of factory profitability. Other creatures might question the legitimacy of special creatures who would not exist if not for such legacy assets. They might complain, “Why do such legacies get to be apparent exceptions to the general rule that creatures must pay their way to exist?” Of course if legacy assets were deeply entrenched in social institutions, yet represented only a tiny fraction of wealth, these might remain mere complaints.

Our design i.e., the basic physiology and mental capacity of all human beings alive today, would be one of the “ancient legacies”. But the argument might not be that we, people from this era who have survived into that future, should no longer exist, but that our original design (the MOSH design) should be deprecated.

So who should get to exist? Some day the answer might be “no more humans” (meaning old-model humans.) And that answer might be okay. It might actually make sense.

But that day (if it ever comes) is a long way off. In the mean time, we’re going to need humans around in order to get there.