Sunday, March 25, 2012

Voluntary Human Extinction

Yesterday's featured article on Wikipedia was particularly fascinating, exactly one of those articles that makes Wiki such an effective tool for procrastination. Something that you never imagined could exist, but that you will happily spend ten minutes reading about. (I used to do that with my parents' hardcopy encyclopaedia too, but that's another story.) The topic? The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

When one first encounters such an idea, one experiences the joy of simply being near it. There is no need to really engage with it, the pleasure comes from simply letting it wash over you in all its eccentric beauty. However, after a while of simply sitting there staring at your monitor, you feel like you should really give the idea some thought to see where it breaks down. The obvious answer is that, while the benefits of human extinction for the environment are easy enough to argue, voluntary human extinction will never happen because - as an empirical matter - it is difficult to see how we would get all of mankind to play along. But why stop there?

Being a jurist-economist, what's been bugging me about this is the question of how to look at it from a standard micro-economic utility maximisation point of view. It seems to implicate two contradictory ideas about utility maximisation: on the one hand, there is the idea that utility is value-neutral. Economic models should work no matter what people derive utility from. For example, people are perfectly permitted to derive utility from the happiness of others. (Never put up with people who claim that economics assumes people are selfish!) Likewise, if people derive utility from the happiness of animals, including animals that have not been born yet, that does not undermine our ability to use their utility function to predict their behaviour.

On the other hand, dead people do not experience utility. Personally, I would like to be buried rather than cremated when I am dead, but when the time comes for that decision to be made, I no longer have a stake in it. Applying this to the idea of Voluntary Human Extinction shows the paradox: How can I derive utility from something that by definition will not happen until after I am dead?

The answer to this question exposes both the strength and the weakness of economics as a social science. Its name is, of course, anticipation. This answer is problematic for economic science because any attempt to model it more precisely is inevitably going to be rather awkward. As a matter of reflex, we would be tempted to describe it as a kind of discounting of future utility, but that cannot be because, as noted, the person experiencing the utility won't be around anymore when the anticipated human extinction occurs. Instead - and it is the strength of economics that we are forced to take note of this - the utility and the anticipation on which it is based occur regardless of whether the anticipated event does. The utility that I derive from the notion that my bones will rest peacefully in a casket after I die does not depend on whether I actually end up that way. If, after my death, my family decides to have me cremated instead, that does not change my utility. Moreover, if it was always clear that there was a chance they might do that, my utility is still not affected as long as I was unaware of the possibility. My utility is subjective in that it depends only on my knowledge. (Although specific economic models might choose to model my knowledge as to some degree perfect, but that's another story.)

And that is essentially the answer to my problem: theoretically, utility can be derived from anticipating the occurrence of any event, no matter how delusional the anticipation might be. In practice, however, economic models might place constraints on the range of possible sources of utility. Not only might they require that the anticipation should be proportionate to the probability that the event will actually occur, but at the same time they might inadvertently end up ruling out the happiness of future puppies as a source of present day human utility. And thusly, once again, economists would fail to live up to their own lofty statements of first principle.

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