01 September 2010

The paradox of existence preferences

The paradox

  • Really obvious fact: Most people prefer to live. They prefer to exist over to not exist and they demonstrate this continuously by not committing suicide.
  • Adam Ozimek argues that if so, "there is a huge market failure whereby the unborn are unable to contract with their potential parents to pay for life".
  • Robin Hanson then proposes (or at least toys with the idea of) solving this market failure, in effect optimizing "who should exist". "Nonexistent people" would in effect pay to exist. He claimed that his proposal was Pareto efficient - that is, it makes everybody better off.
  • Most observers seemed to disagree. I liked Carl Shulman's and Wei Dai's answers, and I felt that Robin's calculation of value ignored a person's interest in their own existence.

But we're left with a paradox. Why doesn't the conclusion follow?

  • Because we're too squeamish to think about it? I hope not, and I doubt that's it. I'm not, and I doubt the overcomingbias readers whose answers I liked are either.
  • Because the proposed solution isn't actually Pareto efficient? Part of the discussion focused on whether it was. I think it's fair to say that under the original assumptions it is, but under other reasonable assumptions it isn't.

"No nontransitive preferences" doesn't extend this far

"Nontransitive preferences" are when your preferences contradict each other. For instance, if you prefer an apple to a banana, an orange to an apple, and banana to an orange, you have nontransitive preferences. An unscrupulous grocer could trade you an apple for a banana plus $.05, an orange for an apple plus $.05, and a banana for an orange plus $.05 and make $.15 from you without improving your situation in any way.

For most purposes, nontransitive preferences are irrational. But maybe this doesn't cover people's preference to exist. If you'll indulge some ontological looseness for a moment, maybe it's entirely reasonable for "nonexistent people" to have little or no preference to exist, but for existing people to have a strong preference to continue to exist.

One could say that what counts is state transitions rather than states. That is, people prefer not to change state from existent to nonexistent (or as we uneducated masses say, to "die") but have no strong preference whether to change state from nonexistent to existent.

I don't think this holds up well. Most people would prefer that, if they die on the operating table, they should be brought back to life if possible. There are exceptions but seem mostly due to poor quality of life due to poor health.

One might counter by claiming that a person who dies on the operating table doesn't really cease to exist, since medicine can resuscitate him. I don't think that rebuttal works. Even if a person could entirely cease to exist and be brought back - think Star Trek transporters - I expect people would again prefer re-existing.

So we really are talking about state preferences, not transition preferences.

Comparison to the Ontological Argument

I think a better answer to the paradox is that it has essentially the same flaw as in the ontological argument. Existence is not a predicate. And existence isn't an asset that one can have in one's portfolio. Nobody can say "I have some assets but I don't have existence".

So the concept of the "nonexistent people" preferring to trade some of their assets for the asset "existence" is incoherent. ISTM this undercuts the reasoning behind Hanson's proposal, and thus solves the paradox.

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