Uncertainty About the Expected Moral Value of the Long-term Future: Is Reducing Human Extinction Risk Valuable?

Siebe Rozendal

Siebe studied MSc Strategic Innovation Management and MA Philosophy, in which he focused on longtermist ethics and moral uncertainty. During his thesis, he also did x-risk research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge. After graduating from the University of Groningen, he started working on precaution in science and innovation at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. He plans to do a PhD in Policy Analysis, Risk Analysis, Global Governance, or Public Policy applied to global catastrophic and existential risk. sieberozendal [at] gmail.com

Author’s note:

This thesis was both amazingly exciting and a huge pain to write. I think the strong part is that, at the time, it was making a point that wasn’t made in the literature (i.e. that the expected value of the long-term future is not necessarily positive). It is written clearly, and the narrative structure is clear. It also includes a clear formal setup. Weak parts include that I had to make the setup very narrow for this topic, which makes it much less useful. In addition, I think the empirical arguments are actually not so strong, even though they decide the conclusion.

I changed my mind about a number of things, but also consolidated some pre-existing beliefs. I updated that extinction risk reduction depends less on the value of the future and more on how the action itself affects the long-term trajectory. In short, hazards that can cause extinction can also cause a lot of suffering or generally hurt the long-term trajectory of sentience. I learned a lot more about suffering-focused views, but remain sceptical about them. Practically, I learned that choosing an original topic can be difficult and lead to problems down the line, so it’s good to be prepared for that. Another practical lesson is to always check with your audience or reviewers to see whether you are meeting their values and expectations.

I think the topic is important because many laypeople seem to, on the first reflection, not care about human extinction because they believe the future looks negative in expectation. Although I tentatively disagree, I think the general point that ‘we should consider what the future would look like’ is a valid point.