In Praise of Low Needs

We humans have come a long way since we first became human; we’ve innovated and grown our ability to achieve human ends by perhaps a factor of ten million. Not at all shabby, even though it may be small compared to the total factor of growth and innovation that life achieved before humans arrived. But even if humanity’s leap is a great achievement, I fear that we have much further to go than we have come.

The universe seems almost entirely dead out there. There’s a chance it will eventually be densely filled with life, and that our descendants may help to make that happen. Some worry about the quality of that life filling the universe, and yes there are issues there. But I worry mostly about the difference between life and death. Our descendants may kill themselves or stop growing, and fail to fill the universe with life. Any life.

To fill the universe with life requires that we grow far more than our previous leap factor of ten million. More like three to ten factors that big still to go. (See Added below.) So think of all the obstacles we’ve overcome so far, obstacles that appeared when we reached new scales of size and levels of ability. If we were lucky to make it this far, we’ll have to be much more lucky to make it all the way.

Of course few individuals today focus on filling the universe with life. Most attend to their individual needs. And as we’ve been getting rich over the last few centuries, our needs have changed. Many cite Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:


While few offer much concrete evidence for this, most seem to accept it or one of its many variations. Once our basic needs are met, our attention switches to “higher” needs. Wealth really does change humans. (I see this in part as our returning to forager values with increasing wealth.)

It is easy to assume that what is good for you is good overall. If you are an artist, you may assume the world is better when consumers more art. If you are a scientist, you may assume the world is better if it gives more attention and funding to science. Similarly, it is easy to assume that the world gets better if more of us get more of what we want, and thus move higher into Maslow’s Hierarchy.

But I worry: as we attend more to higher needs, we may grow and innovate less regarding lower needs. Can the universe really get filled by creatures focused mainly on self-actualization? Why should they risk or tolerate disruptions from innovations that advance low needs if they don’t care much for that stuff? And many today see their higher needs as conflicting with more capacity to fill low needs. For example, many see more physical capacities as coming at the expense of less nature, weaker indigenous cultures, larger more soul-crushing organizations, more dehumanizing capitalism, etc. Rich nations today do seem to have weaker growth in raw physical capacities because of such issues.

Yes, it is possible that even rich societies focused on high needs will consistently grow their capacities to satisfy low needs, and that will eventually lead to a universe densely filled with life. But still I worry about all those unknown obstacles yet to be seen as our descendants try to grow through another three to ten factors as large as humanity’s leap. At some of those obstacles, will a focus on high needs lead them to turn away from the grand growth path? To a comfortable “sustainable” stability without all that disruptive innovation? How much harder would become to restart growth again later?

Pretty much all the growth that we have seen so far has been in a context where humans, and their ancestors, were focused mainly on low needs. Our current turn toward high needs is quite new, and thus relatively unproven. Yes, we have continued to grow, but more slowly. That seems worth at least a bit of worry.

Added 28Oct: Assume humanity’s leap factor is 107. Three of those is 1021. As there are 1024 stars in observable universe, that much growth could come from filling one in a thousand of those stars with as many rich humans as Earth now has. Ten of humanity’s leap is 1070, and there are now about 1010 humans on Earth. As there are about 1080 atoms in the observable universe, that much growth could come from finding a way to implement one human like creature per atom.

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  • lump1

    Is it possible that in modern industrial societies, the joy of having children is less fulfilling that it used to be, or is it just lest fulfilling than the available alternatives? If you described to a 16th century European the riches that average Europeans have now, their first thought would probably be that with such resources they could support at least 10 children. We clearly don’t think that way now, and the degree of change is hard to comprehend.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      FWIW, extremely wealthy people seem to have more than the average number of children in rich societies.

      It may be that we’re looking at a U-shaped curve for reproduction rates vs. wealth – poor people have lots of children because they’re economic assets, middle-class people (in modern 1st world societies) have few because they’re an economic burden to support & educate, but wealthy people have many because they’re fulfilling.

      If so, we can expect birth rates to rise in the future as the world gets wealthier.

      • lump1

        But the world has been getting wealthier for decades, and fertility is dropping, especially in the places that got wealthier. Maybe you’re suggesting that fertility is tied to a certain level of absolute wealth, but then why did the couples with the absolute wealth of our middle class once crank out 8-12 children?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I’m only speculating. I don’t know of a source for hard numbers on birth rates for the extremely wealthy (say, $100M+ USD net worth).

        But I suspect their birth rates are well above average (adjusted for age; such people tend to be older).

        Social attitudes toward childbearing trail economic circumstances – it takes a couple of generations before people adapt to new incentives. So newly middle-class people from impoverished agricultural backgrounds still have lots of kids for a generation or two.

        On the other extreme, once people are wealthy enough that the costs of child care and education are negligible vs. other expenses, then the economic disincentive to reproduce disappears, leading to higher birth rates.

        Of course that applies today to people who are wealthy both in absolute and relative terms – if everyone is equally wealthy in absolute terms, child care (mostly labor) remains expensive.

        In the future we may have robots that can do child care. If so, we may see higher birth rates as a result. After a couple of generations to adapt.

      • charlie

        But the basic point is that people now do not have more children until they reach a state ($100m in wealth) where childcare can be 100% outsourced and so children imply no tradeoffs in both a material and labor/leisure sense.

        That is still a population that places 0 value on the joy/satisfaction/meaning of having children.

  • komponisto

    Once again, you seem to be embracing the Repugnant Conclusion.

    • I find the image of a dead universe but for a few billion pampered humans on one little planet pretty repugnant, compared to a universe densely filled with life.

      • Sounds like one of those ideological surrogates for far-mode values. Do you know anyone who agrees with your sense of repugnance for a mostly lifeless universe?

      • Vamair

        Data point: I agree with that sense. There was a joke that for the most part you can replace the word “utility” with the world “meaning”. Lifeless universe is meaningless as well.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I share Robin’s sense of repugnance for a lifeless universe. Even more so for a civilization-less universe. If we’re the only seed of civilization, I think we have a moral duty to spread it.

      • Just what we need: another “moral duty” that adversely affects the welfare of actually existing persons. Do we also have a “moral duty” procreate as much as possible to spread “life”?

      • I basically agree with Robin about that.

      • How prevalent in the general population do you (or anyone else who cares to estimate) think this repugnance?

      • Perhaps 0.1%.

      • Joe

        I don’t think that’s a useful point of reference, because it takes for granted (what appears to be) your view on who counts, i.e. the people currently alive only. You could just as well prove Robin’s viewpoint by asking everyone, “Would you rather be alive or dead?”, and then extrapolating that to what you expect potential new people would say.

        Similarly, you can’t determine whether the preferences of potential immigrants should count in utility calculations by asking current citizens whether they think they should.

      • Or whether the preferences of nonhuman animals and foetuses should count. But I’m not going for a utility calculation. I’m wondering about something like this: why would anyone care about Robin’s worry? It just seems a very peculiar taste, probably serving some kind of elitist signaling function.

      • rodent

        I hereby imaginatively give you a button that, if you press it, it would with 100% certainty populate all of the reachable universe with lower needs content rodents, forever, at the cost of annihilating 100% of humanity. Do you press the button?

      • you conflate high vs low needs and rodent vs human

      • Well, rodents are “life.” Maybe you need more of them to get the same “value.”

      • rodent

        The species was only a shortcut to make vivid a level of need. We can modify the case to a human unusually genetically predisposed to at most average rodent level needs. The basic question is: how low does your low needs praise go?

    • “Repugnant Conclusion” is like calling the opinions of the people you disagree with “Evil Ideas” or something like that.

      I certainly do think that a billion lives barely worth living are far, far better and more important than 10,000 lives at a very high standard of living.

      If that wasn’t the case, 10,000 people of that kind would be justified in wiping out a continent (trolley style) in order to preserve their lives, and that’s obviously false.

      • “Repugnant Conclusion” (as seen by the capitalization) is merely a name for the Mere Addition Paradox. If you want to shame someone for calling opponents evil, you should shame Robin for actually claiming that the opposite is “repugnant.”

        Utilitarianism is an ideology, not an ethics. Robin is OK with endorsing ideologies. Some of us think intellectuals should try to free themselves from ideologies rather than glory in them.

        Debates about ideologies pretend that ideologies are “opinions” (as you do). This is an intellectually dishonest pretense, in that the disputants know that they aren’t making factual claims. [Or else they really believe that moral realism is true, in which case they deserve our compassion. (“The deeper solution to the mystery of moralism—Morality and free will are hazardous to your mental health.” –

      • I realize that “Repugnant Conclusion” is a name. I was objecting to the process that gave rise to the original name.

        I would assume Robin was being rhetorical in talking about things being “repugnant,” simply on account of that name. At least I don’t feel real repugnance to the way the world is now, and I suspect that he does not either. I just think it would be better with more people. That is why I said that I “basically” agree.

        I think that utilitarianism is false. But a selfish utilitarianism that says that 10,000 rich people are better than a billion poor people, is worse and falser than an unselfish one, especially since the only reason for someone to think this is that he hopes to be one of the 10,000.

        I certainly do think that moral realism is true, in the sense that I think when I say “murder is bad,” that is an objective fact about the world. As for “in which case they deserve our compassion,” that is a moral claim itself. Thus in your opinion it is not a factual claim, and there is nothing to dispute about it.

        In regard to your essay, you are mistaken to link free will and morality. The reason we don’t think of morality being involved in the lives of dogs, is not that they don’t have free will, but that they don’t have reason. Moral good and moral evil mean “good and bad, judged according to reason.” So if something doesn’t have reason, it doesn’t have moral good and moral evil. But once you have reason, you have good and bad, and that does not depend on free will one way or another; the fact that murder is bad does not depend on whether the person doing it could avoid it or not. The question of blame is secondary. You might think he is not to blame if he does not have free will; but it was still bad.

  • Joe

    Hanson-Tomasik debate when?

    • I’m open to the idea.

      • Wei Dai

        Absent a formal debate, can you address negative-utilitarian concerns anyway? (I’m sympathetic to negative leaning utilitarianism myself.) Are people whose main worry is astronomical suffering and who think that a lifeless universe comparatively isn’t that bad wrong or irrational somehow? Or is it just a matter of different values?

        And the people who would trade a universe full of life for stability and their “higher needs” (the people you’re worried about in this post), are they wrong, or just have different values from you?

      • I often run out of a basis on which to argue with folks who seem to just have different values. Perhaps such a basis can be found, but I don’t see it at the moment.

      • This whole “values” thing is, frankly, bogus. Your values are not much different from mine. The difference is in 1) tastes; and 2) your proclivity to treat your tastes as truths.

        You simply don’t fully understand the basic truth that science is value free. This fallacy is embedded in the dominant school of economics, which is built around realizing a particular value.

        The function of an appeal to values is political. And even politically, this only makes sense when your values are widely shared.

      • I think I understand your perspective but I’m not sure what it implies for this discussion. One can replace “values” with “tastes” and admit there is ideology being adopted, which presumably Robin and Wei Dai wouldn’t object to. The core issue seems to come down to different models of how ethics scales with pain vs pleasure, over many beings or over much time, etc. Yes this is ideological and in some sense political, so what? In either case, I guess this is off topic.

      • Yes this is ideological and in some sense political, so what?

        Tastes aren’t claims. Treating them as claims – which is what ideologies do – results in falsehood. (See Why do what you “ought”?—A habit theory of explicit

        The core issue seems to come down to different models of how ethics scales with pain vs pleasure, over many beings or over much time, etc.

        Robin and Eliezer do something else. They assert (Robin) or try to establish (Eliezer) a particular correspondence. They aren’t scaling any extant ethics. They are enamored with the model and adopt the corresponding ethics, not as an ethics (which you can’t simply adopt) but as an ideology.

        Is it off topic? If this were a pure subjective exercise, yes. But it’s a subjective exercise implicitly pretending to objectivity.

      • Joe

        I have become much more sympathetic to Robin’s position on this recently. The two main arguments that convinced me:

        Some claim that the lives of most poor people / animals / etc are obviously not worth living, with their evidence being that they would prefer to spend an hour unconscious rather than spend that hour as (say) an average wild animal. But this kind of argument seems far too flimsy to support such claims.

        For example, assuming I will live a long life, I would be happy to skip out, say, a randomly selected dull plane journey from some point in my future. But if told that I was about to experience a plane journey and then die afterward, and given the choice to just die immediately instead, I would MUCH rather experience those extra few hours, even spent sitting in an uncomfortable plane seat with my ears popping. And I expect that some ecstatically happy pampered transhuman would say, truthfully, that they would rather spend an hour unconscious than experience an hour of my life – yet I think my life is worth living, even the bad parts. And my assessment of an experience seems to depend very heavily on my prior expectations, and also on what my peers are doing – I’m much more willing to put up with something if I know I’m not alone in having to do so.

        And so on. Also, the concept of a happiness set point seems to be quite well established. Upon examination this argument seems to me about as strong as folk economic claims about the ‘true value’ of a good, that if I wouldn’t buy something then surely anyone who does is being ripped off.

        Some other people claim that, even if the modal experience of a wild animal or poor person is positive utility, severe pain is so strongly negative that even a small amount of it can easily outweigh a life that’s otherwise comprised of long periods of low, but positive, utility experiences. But I think this puts far too little emphasis on experience duration. I would MUCH rather experience a few seconds of severe pain, than a day of, say, a dull stomach ache.

        Really the thing that frightens me most about severe pain is when it’s accompanied by long-term effects like disfigurement. But if you’re experiencing severe pain in the process of being killed, this doesn’t apply – in fact this is probably the best time to experience disfigurement.

  • Psmith

    “Rich nations today do seem to have weaker growth in raw physical capacities because of such issues.” That’s a hell of a causal inference there fam.

  • Some guy

    That assumes categories in the Maslow hierarchy are somehow hermetically sealed.

    Take a simple example: Martin Shkreli. There’s more to it, but let’s assume he’s just some guy who wants to get richer for status (self-actualization). Meanwhile, to get there, he’s investing a lot of money in drugs that will make us live longer (physiological).

    Arguably, many technologies cut through the pyramid like that. And it makes sense because people are still fundamentally more likely to spend money (and make people rich) on more fundamental needs.

    • I’m not assuming that techs that meet low needs have no ability to help meet high needs. But there aren’t only positive effects here – folks focused on high needs may actively discourage some techs that help w/ low needs.

    • Status is esteem, not self-actualization.

  • Tyrrell_McAllister

    To fill the universe with life requires that we grow far more than our previous leap factor of ten million. More like three to ten factors that big still to go.

    These numbers look like the result of a Fermi estimate. What was it?

    But I worry: as we attend more to higher needs, we may grow and innovate less regarding lower needs. Can the universe really get filled by creatures focused on self-actualization? […] I worry about all those unknown obstacles yet to be seen when our descendants grow through another three to ten factors as large as humanity’s leap. At some of those obstacles, will a focus on high needs lead to turns away from the big growth path?

    If you’re taking the long view, why worry? We may tend to focus on high needs, but this is a mere tendency, not an iron-clad law of nature with no exceptions. So long as we’re talking about a mere tendency, there will eventually be agents at the extreme end of the distribution, who put a heavy focus on low needs.

    Natural selection will take care of the rest. These low-need-focused agents, precisely because they are low-need-focused, will outspread and outpopulate their high-need-focused kin. The stars will be theirs.

    • See my added to the post for number calculations.

  • Lord

    To spread beyond Earth will take such vast resources that only those at the higher levels can contemplate it. I would be more concerned that population growth and lower productivity growth forces everyone back to lower levels that they can no longer conceive of it. We will have to survive long periods of low to no growth just to get to a possible world, real or virtual. I do wonder if after long accommodation to a stable population how readily people would abandon it if we gain the resources of a new world. We may have to grow linearly by terminating death rather than expect exponential growth through descendants, though if we did terminate death our goals may change.

    It may depend on whether you see population declines in Europe and Japan as seeking higher levels or faced with being dragged back to lower levels otherwise. In this I tend to view population more as a result rather than a cause. People can be actualized working on the most mundane lower level problems but if not productive and successful will adapt to lower populations. .

    • lump1

      Your picture of interstellar colonization are almost comically unimaginative. People aren’t gonna be moving across interstellar space, abandoning one place and moving in at another. Slow, tiny, lifeless ships with AI and lots of data will build life – including human life – from the stuff they mine in other solar systems. The good news is that once we get the design right, these ships will be cheap easily reproducible.

      • Lord

        And you think this will happen tomorrow and the carrying capacity of earth is unlimited? The demographic transition is just the beginning of long periods of slow or even negative growth that we are already adapting to. There is more possibility in virtual worlds but they may be further in the future and more limited than currently imagined.

  • Patrick Staples

    Human capacity seems to be chiefly fueled by existential worry. If life on Earth someday becomes dire, which is eventually very likely, humans may again vastly develop capacity. If we spent a long while on high needs now, it seems the only cost is to delay the growth, depriving potential life in the immediate future.

    • You seem to estimate a zero probability of failure to fill universe with life. Of course if there is no chance of failure, is little need to worry.

      • Patrick Staples

        I guess I have a hard time evaluating what that probability depends on. If our current era is decadent, what will be its long-term effect?

  • ScottH3

    So morally speaking the Star Wars Galaxy >> The Milky Way Galaxy? Interesting.

    On your chosen pyramid… well, that’s just a weird paradigm to focus on. Many years ago, “focusing on your personal needs” mostly meant things like digging up a turnip. Now it means — potentially — adding to the human understanding of DNA, or particle physics. I see the former turnip digging fading more and more, and the later knowledge growth growing more and more. Yes, some people might play video games instead (at this stage), but where they going to add anything anyway?

  • One of the dudes

    The evolution on life on Earth seems to have been driven by the advancement towards higher layers. Single cell amoebae focusing on their low needs are numerous but are not flying into space.

    Competition for status drove the spread of humans over the continents more than anything.

    With all that said, the focus on self-actualization does seem like an elegant explanation of the Fermi paradox….

  • One of the dudes

    The evolution on life on Earth seems to have been driven by the advancement towards higher layers. Single cell amoebae focusing on their low needs are numerous but are not flying into space.

    Competition for status drove the spread of humans over the continents more than anything.

    Self-actualization does seem like an elegant explanation of the Fermi paradox, but witness how many dreamers had signed up for the one-way ticket to Mars that Dutch company was advertising some 10 years ago. Don’t think they did this due to low layer motivations.

  • raj

    Evolution doesn’t stop. Selective pressures accrue, animals (or, agents, or corporations, or higher-level aggregates we lack words for) fill space, and the iron law of entropy makes demands. Ems-in-substrate outcompete meat-for-meat-gratification.

    On the other hand, self-actualization allows us to care about things like “existential threats to the abstract notion of humanity” or “escaping the gravity well of earth”.

  • dat_bro06

    How do you reconcile this post with the last one (‘Seduced by Tech’)? I may desire to become a self-actualized photographer but with technology I can simply add an Instagram filter to my smartphone photos. Technology propagates because we never escape ‘near mode’ at some level. Maybe the last post was demand side, and your concern here is restricted to the supply side.

  • Y/Y

    The universe does appear dead, but perhaps it’s not. Individuals can often climb Maslov’s pyramid, but cultures/countries seem stuck at the bottom, obsessed with defending themselves and fighting wars for resources. Just as each individual must take their own steps to self actualization, It’s possible that any civilization advanced enough to travel between stars is also intelligent enough to realize each civilization must find their own way. We are isolated for a reason. Every butterfly must escape from it’s own chrysalis in order to become strong enough to survive.

  • David Condon

    I would most definitely not accept Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Anxiety and similar processes (or safety as he puts it) doesn’t appear to be a higher order cognitive process, and so doesn’t even function in remotely the same manner as the others. Self-actualization is way too complex of a term to be properly experimentally tested. Belonging and Esteem are too easily conflated. And he doesn’t include anything that could be related to an escape function (maybe safety but safety appears to be related more to anxiety type issues, fight or flight, that sort of thing).