Mistakes with nonexistent people

Who is better off if you live and I die? Is one morally obliged to go around impregnating women? Is the repugnant conclusion repugnant? Is secret genocide OK? Does it matter if humanity goes extinct? Why shouldn’t we kill people? Is pity for the dead warranted?

All these discussions come down to the same question often: whether to care about the interests of people who don’t exist but could.

I shan’t directly argue either way; care about whatever you like. I want to show that most of the arguments against caring about the non-existent which repeatedly come up in casual discussion rely on two errors.

Here are common arguments (paraphrased from real discussions):

  1. There are infinitely many potential people, so caring about them is utterly impractical.
  2. The utility that a non-existent person experiences is undefined, not zero. You are calculating some amount of utility and attributing it to zero people. This means utility per person is x/0 = undefined.
  3. Causing a person to not exist is a victimless crime. Stop pretending these people are real just because you imagine them!
  4. If someone doesn’t exist, they don’t have preferences, so you can’t fulfil them. This includes not caring if they exist or not. The dead do not suffer, only their friends and relatives do that.
  5. Life alone isn’t worth anything – what matters is what happens in it, so creating a new life is a neutral act.
  6. You can’t be dead. It’s not something you can be. So you can’t say whether life is better.
  7. Potential happiness is immeasurable; the person could have been happy, they could have been sad. Their life doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t have characteristics.
  8. How can you calculate loss of future life? Maybe they’d live another hundred years, if you’re going to imagine they don’t die now.

All of these arguments spring from two misunderstandings:

Thinking of value as being a property of particular circumstances rather than of the comparison between choices of circumstances.

People who won't exist under any of our choices are of no importance (picture: Michelangelo)

People who won't exist under any of our choices are of no importance (picture: Michelangelo)

We need never be concerned with the infinite people who don’t exist. All those who won’t exist under any choice we might make are irrelevant.  The question is whether those who do exist under one choice we can make and don’t exist under another would be better off existing.

2, 3 and 4 make this mistake too. The utility we are talking about accrues in the possible worlds where the person does exist, and has preferences. Saying someone is worse off not existing is saying that in the worlds where they do exist they have more utility. It is not saying that where they don’t exist they experience suffering, or that they can want to exist when they do not.

Assuming there is nothing to be known about something that isn’t the case.

If someone doesn’t exist, you don’t just not know about their preferences. They actually don’t have any. So how can you say anything about them? If a person died now, how can you say anything about how long they would have lived? How good it could have been? It’s all imaginary. This line of thought underlies arguments 4-8.

But in no case are we discussing characteristics of something that doesn’t exist. We are discussing which characteristics are likely in the case where it does exist. This is very different.

If I haven’t made you a cake, the cake doesn’t have characteristics. To ask whether it is chocolate flavoured is silly. You can still guess that conditional on my making it it is more likely chocolate flavoured than fish flavoured. Whether I’ve made it already is irrelevant. Similarly you can guess that if a child were born it would be more likely to find life positive (as most people seem to) and to like music and food and sex and other things it’s likely to be able to get, and not to have an enourmous unsatisfiable desire for six to be prime. You can guess that conditional on someone’s life continuing, it would probably continue until old age. These are the sorts of things we uncontroversially guess all the time about our own futures, which are of course also conditional on choices we make, so I can’t see why they would become a problem when other potential people are involved.

Are there any good arguments that don’t rely on these errors for wanting to ignore those who don’t currently exist in consequentialist calculations?

16 responses to “Mistakes with nonexistent people

  1. Interesting post. I hope you read and comment on my blog when you get a chance. I like the apropos journal cite about strategic nonconformance of men you posted to overcomingbias.

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  2. Hi Katja, nice post! Learning the rudiments of the mathematical formalism known as decision theory is probably a powerful way for a person to improve their ability to avoid the mistakes you list. Or so it seems to me. Anyway, maybe one of your readers will find that suggestion useful.

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  3. mitchell porter

    “Is the repugnant conclusion repugnant?”

    After ruminating on this question I have reached a new conclusion, the ruminant conclusion: we should aim at futures containing as many cattle as possible. Higher intelligence of the human sort introduces many extra forms of suffering; what the world needs are placidity maximizers. And since cows are sacred to an existing world religion, they are the logical choice. Join with me in bringing about this brave moo world!

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  4. Any future that is not the extrapolation of the volition of the cows is a future that no cow would care anything about.

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  5. Pingback: Non-existent people are people too « Robert Wiblin

  6. I like this post. It helps reaffirms my belief that there are no murder victims just murder bodies.
    My biggest problem is with no.5 and no.7.
    People assume that living a sad and tortured life is worse than not existing, or at least allowing that that is a possibility. I disagree. I believe that any living experience is by defenition positive, precisely because it exists. So if you create life it’s value will be positive or greater than neutral.

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  7. Logical Games For The Unbeliever
    by Olena Kalytiak Davis

    All night I kept solving for G.
    Now, through this dark morning,
    the equation escapes
    at the sad speed of light.

    There are so many things I don’t understand.
    The future comes and it’s no longer excited
    to be here.

    There are so many things I can’t know.
    My old friends,
    are they happy?

    That small square of light

    I went and sat inside it
    and my heart lifted,
    I swear it.

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  8. re: Mitchell Porter

    With respect to the decency of bovinity, really I think there is only one thing better than a cow chewing its cud in a bucolic paradise of apolitcal grass. And that is an example of the “higher intelligence” which inflicts the “extra forms of suffering” doing the opposite, not merely on principle, but as a constituent part of her being. And for that I’m citing the empathic autist, a superior human (however arguable that is): Temple Grandin.

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  9. I enjoyed the poem Daniel, but with regard to your comment about the cows, Mitchell Porter and I were joking. In the future, I humbly suggest that you make it plain that you realize that before you make a non-joking reply to one of us.

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  10. Pingback: You might be population too « Meteuphoric

  11. If someone doesn’t exist, they don’t have preferences, so you can’t fulfil them. This includes not caring if they exist or not. The dead do not suffer, only their friends and relatives do that.

    The part of this that you are trying to knock down is the part about “if they don’t exist, they don’t have preferences,” right? You are saying that it’s wrong to ignore that under the decision we’re considering (killing them), they would have preferences in one of the two states. But would you still agree that the last two sentences of the argument are true — the dead themselves don’t care whether they exist and don’t “suffer”, even though they miss out on some utility?

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  12. Pingback: Ignorance of non-existent preferences | Meteuphoric

  13. Pingback: If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything | Meteuphoric

  14. Pingback: Compare the unconceived – don’t unchain them | Meteuphoric

  15. Mr. B's Advocate

    Interesting argument, my main point against this would be this:
    There are these people who might exist, if everyone agreed with you, they would exist, if everyone disagreed they wouldnt. These people would be born to and raised by obviosly irresponsible parents. And irresponsible parents almost always make irresponsible children. with a minority of decent people and a smaller amount of above average people.
    To illustrate, lets assign some arbitrary values- 16/20 of these people become below average people, by fault of their unready parents. 3/20 of these people become average people, overcoming the habits of their parents or simple through the infinite possibilities of people. 1/20 become above average people, by result of the previosly stated group.
    This would make 80% below average, 15% average, 5% above average.
    this turns into an argument of doing things for the greater good, which i wont get into as i am now the lngest comment.

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  16. am I morally obligated to kill people?


    Here are common arguments (paraphrased from real discussions):
    There are infinitely many potential people, so caring about them is utterly impractical.
    The utility that a non-existent person experiences is undefined, not zero. You are calculating some amount of utility and attributing it to zero people. This means utility per person is x/0 = undefined.
    Causing a person to not exist is a victimless crime. Stop pretending these people are real just because you imagine them!
    If someone doesn’t exist, they don’t have preferences, so you can’t fulfil them. This includes not caring if they exist or not. The dead do not suffer, only their friends and relatives do that.
    Life alone isn’t worth anything – what matters is what happens in it, so creating a new life is a neutral act.
    You can’t be dead. It’s not something you can be. So you can’t say whether life is better.
    Potential happiness is immeasurable; the person could have been happy, they could have been sad. Their life doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t have characteristics.
    How can you calculate loss of future life? Maybe they’d live another hundred years, if you’re going to imagine they don’t die now.

    Most of these points are made by people who don’t care about people

    so it’s self-evident

    Like

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