[ExI] ?Risks: Global Catastrophic, Extinction, Existential and ...

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Thu Mar 8 23:36:02 UTC 2012

On 08/03/2012 18:15, natasha at natasha.cc wrote:
> If we consider radical human life extension,  what type of risk might 
> there be?  (Extinction risk is obvious, but I'm wondering if 
> extinction risk is more relevant to a species rather than a person.)

In Nick's latest studies of existential risks he recognizes that there 
might be axiological existential risks - threats to the well-being and 
value of the species. So some critics of life extension might actually 
think that it is an xrisk. For example, we might create a situation 
where we have indefinite but not very valuable lives (filled with ennui 
and stagnation, yet afraid of dying), yet this culture is a so strong 
attractor that it can never be escaped (perhaps because all resources 
end up controlled by the immortals), and hence prevents humanity from 
ever reaching its true potential. This is a rather strong claim that 
depends on 1) life extension having strong general negative effects that 
are not outweighed by benefits, 2) once instituted it becomes a 
permanent and unavoidable state. I think the onus on people willing to 
argue 1 and 2 is pretty heavy.

Another common claim is that life extension would increase extinction 
risks by making us evolve slower or reduce our flexibility. This of 
course misses that we can evolve using our own means or recognize the 
need to maintain flexible decision structures.

>   So, I started thinking about the elements of a person that keep 
> him/her alive: foresight, insight, intelligence, creativity, 
> willingness to change, etc. I also thought about what might keep a 
> person from not continuing to exist: depression/sadness.  Then I 
> thought about what someone else might do to keep me from 
> existing: inflicting his/her values/beliefs onto my sphere of 
> existence that would endanger my right to live. I arrived 
> back at morphological freedom, as understood by More on one hand and 
> Sandberg on the other, which pertains to a negative right --  a right 
> to exist and a right not to be coerced to exist. But again, here the 
> behavior of morphological freedom is a freedom and does not answer the 
> question of what could a risk be that reflects a person's choice/right 
> to live/exist?

In my scheme of rights, I used the right to life and the right to 
freedom as the foundations (if I remember it right, it was a while 
ago...) The right to life is a response to the risk of being killed or 
being threatened with being killed. The right to freedom is a response 
to the risk of being coerced or having freedom of action reduced. I 
think this is a general property of rights in this kind of liberal 
negative rights framework: each right has a corresponding risk it is the 
response to.

I guess the opposite to a risk of (unwanted) death is a risk of having 
an unwanted life. Much ethics deals with the question of whether there 
are lives not worth living, and what is allowed to be done to avoid 
them. This is not much of a problem of my fairly simple morphological 
freedom scheme, since it just places autonomy at the top and allows 
rational adults to decide whatever they want. If I do not want to die 
and have the means to extend my life (without infringing the rights of 
others), then I have a right to choose it.

However, in real life rights are never as pure negative rights as they 
are in liberal ethics, and quite often involve or even need positive 
rights - claims on other people for help. We are also entangled in thick 
and messy social and cultural bonds that not just influence us but cause 
"voluntary" reductions of our freedom (when I promise something I reduce 
my future options to lie, if I want to remain a honest person). This is 
where a right to life might become tricky in terms of how life extension 
plays out against the other links - but while this is where the cultural 
and social action is, it is also so individual and messy that formal 
philosophy cannot say much except generalities.

Life extension will always be risky because it is going into uncharted 
waters by definition: nobody will have lived as long as the frontier 
cohort, and we will not know if there are some subtle problem with 
living a century, a millennium or an eon extra. But while such risks 
should be taken seriously they are no valid argument against trying: 
some risks appear very worth taking.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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