Tag Archives: Death

Immoral Altruism

Eighty-five per cent of them said it would be morally wrong to push one person off [a bridge] to save five [from a trolley], whether these people are brothers or strangers, confirming the idea that there is a rule against killing. However, despite thinking it wrong, 28 per cent said they would still push a stranger off to save five, while 47 per cent said they would push a brother off to save five brothers. (more)

One of the study’s authors offers an explanation:

Social cohesion demands we have rules, regardless of what they are, to help resolve disputes quickly and peacefully. DeScioli says our rule-making system is arbitrary, producing the belief that masturbation is “bad”, for instance.

But why resort to randomness when other good explanations remain? We naturally want simple clear social norms against murder. While simple rules create unfortunate incentives in specific cases, they are overall easier to monitor and enforce. This trolley problem seems to be one of those specific cases where many of us think that our simple rule against murder goes wrong – while we agree that killing in this case violates our murder norms, even so many of us are willing to violate such norms in order to help associates, especially if we care a lot about them.

While morality may be in general pro-social, it is not in every specific case. So there are times when you must choose between being moral, and being helpful.

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Me-Now Immortality

Immortality would be a great help for my distant future selves – they’d get to exist. But it wouldn’t do so much for me now. As my future mind evolved away from who I am now, who I am now will get more and more forgotten and irrelevant. Me now would basically be dead.

Is there a better option? Imagine a copy of my current mental state is saved, and then revived for brief periods on special occasions, like major ceremonies, consultations, and votes. These revivals might decline in frequency with time, but spread over hundreds or even billions of years. When the accumulated effects of these revivals threatened to cause too much divergence from the original me-now, that original could be revived instead, to start another cycle.

That seems to about as much life as is feasible for me-now to have. And this sort of me-now immortality seems cheaper that the usual sort. That is, the (likely future) cost to give this sort of immortality to a me-now seems substantially less that the cost to ensure that a mind continues to evolve at something like its current rate and capacity for trillions of years. Of course this cost is still high, too high to offer to all me-nows. But neither is it ridiculous.

Yes, there is an ambiguity in how big a mental difference would count to create a different me-now. But the ordinary concept of immortality is also ambiguous when minds can be copied and run in parallel — how many of parallel copies need to last forever (or a very long time) for “me” to be “immortal”?

I expect a few future ems to be “immortal” in the sense of a single copy that continues on for a very long time. But I expect far more me-now-immortality, archived minds brought back with declining frequencies for rare ceremonies and consultations. This approach is cheaper, better serves the needs of others, and may even offer more of a reward to ems who identify more with me-now than their distant changed descendants.

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Historical Heresy

Famed Historian Angus Deaton:

It is sometimes supposed … that rich people have always lived healthier and longer lives than poor people. That this supposition is generally false is vividly shown by Harris who compares the life expectancies at birth of the general population in England with that of [rich] ducal families. From the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 19th century, there was little obvious trend in general life expectancy. For the ducal families up to 1750, life expectancy was no higher than, and sometimes lower than, the life expectancy of the general population. However, during the century after 1750, the life prospects of the aristocrats pulled away from those of the general population, and by 1850–74, they had an advantage of about 20 years. After 1850, the modern increase in life expectancy became established in the general population. Johansson tells a similar story for the British royals compared to the general population, though the royals began with an even lower life expectancy at birth. …

Men die at higher rates than women at all ages after conception. Although women around the world report higher morbidity [= sickness] than men, their mortality [= death] rates are usually around half of those of men. … Women get sick and men get dead. … Biology cannot be the whole explanation. The female advantage in life expectancy in the US is now smaller than for many years, 5.3 years in 2008 compared with 7.8 years in 1979, and it has been argued that there was little or no differential in the preindustrial world. The contemporary decline in female advantage is largely driven by cigarette smoking; women were slower to start smoking than men, and have been slower to quit. (more)

This is a provocative hypothesis, but I don’t believe it. That is, I don’t believe that in general status and gender were unrelated to mortality until the industrial revolution. Chimp females live longer than chimp males, and I’ll bet that holds for foragers too. I’ll also bet that in both chimps and foragers high status tends to correlate with lower mortality.

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More Inequality, Merited

Consider two plausible assumptions:

  1. Within a few centuries, “immortality” goes on sale. That is, if you pay enough, and your body is of a convenient type (e.g., android), then you can buy backups and replacement parts, and keep functioning indefinitely. (At least until correlated failures hit all your backups at once). Most folks, however, may be unable to afford the price.
  2. At this time, there will still be a capitalist world economy with not-overwhelming taxes on the rich. So individuals can still accumulate wealth over a lifetime, as they have done for millennia.

Today, as in the past, wealth levels tend to diverge over individual lifetimes, and then converge over many generations. People born with similar initial wealth often have quite different wealth at life’s end. They also tend to give different amounts to their children. Yet over many generations, distant descendants tend to have similar wealth. (At least if they live in the same nation; see Greg Clark.) Children often lack their parents’ drive or abilities, and prefer to spend their inherited wealth. “Rags to rags in three generations,” the saying goes.

But given the above assumptions, in the future able driven folks can continue to accumulate wealth indefinitely, allowing the usual within-lifetime wealth divergence to last far longer. Maybe eventually these old dogs couldn’t learn new tricks, but we should still expect to see far more wealth divergence in this future. Quick: does this sound like a good or a bad thing?

Now consider: in this future, wealth should depend less on parental luck, and more on personal merit, such as drive and ability. (Other kinds of luck matter too of course, but not obviously more than before.) Isn’t it good if personal wealth depends more on personal merit?

If you still find this scenario horrifying, that suggests your dislike of wealth inequality isn’t based so much on it being undeserved, but is more against the very idea of inequality. Perhaps you are horrified by such huge inequality because it shows raw luck imposing unnecessary harmful risk, which you want to cure via redistribution. But if so, it should be enough to offer folks wealth insurance. If you are horrified by a future where enough able driven folks knowingly reject wealth insurance, allowing some to become fantastically rich, then again your objection seems to be to inequality itself.

Btw, Tyler says:

When will the world have its first trillionaire? In real terms I say never, marginal tax rates will rise to capture the rents, one way or another.

This seems remarkably pessimistic about future world wealth or world-wide tax rates. Today’s richest man has $74B, which is probably ~$50B after correcting for “marginal tax rates.” So proportional growth of the world and the richest by a factor of twenty, roughly what we achieved in the twentieth century, would create a trillionaire.

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Downturn Cuts Exercise

It turns out that death rates fall during recessions. I posted in January on how some had speculated that people eat better during recessions, but in fact people seem to eat worse food. Now I can report that people also get less exercise during recessions:

Recreational exercise tends to increase as employment decreases. In addition, we also find that individuals substitute into television watching, sleeping, childcare, and housework. However, this increase in exercise as well as other activities does not compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion due to job-loss. Thus total physical exertion, which prior studies have not analyzed, declines. These behavioral effects are strongest among low-educated males. (more)

The healthy-recession puzzle deepens.

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Forget 9/11

Opening my Sunday comics this morning I see half are not-funny 9/11 memorials. Half of media commentary also seems on 9/11, and is largely uninformative.

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Added: Similar views here.

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Against Terror

You might have thought that terror was a bad thing, especially terror of death, which is why a war on terror would be a good thing (if it worked). But in today’s NYT, Stephen Cave praises terror:

[In] the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” … the “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens. … [This] is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. … It has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop. …

Asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, … judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t. …
In more than 400 experiments, … results consistently support … Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Such systems … are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. … We also find the promise of deathlessness … in the accumulation of wealth; … [and in] immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

… All our death-defying systems, if there were no more death, … would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. … Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality. Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude. (more)

So we want something so desperately that we delude ourselves to imagine that we’ll get it, and that makes it bad if we actually get it, because then we wouldn’t delude ourselves?! This seems another bout of insanity triggered by the word “immortality.” Once again, with feeling:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that talk of “immortality” invokes an extremely far view. But finite increases in lifespan really have little to do with immortality. Immortality means you never die, ever. But forever is a really really long time! In fact, nothing you can imagine is remotely as long. … A thousand year lifespan would be fantastic, relative to our lifespan. I want it! But it is nothing like immortality. It would have clear stages, and a very real end to anticipate. (more)

True immortality isn’t remotely an option anytime soon. What might be an option is a dramatic increase in lifespan. But death would remain, and with it a terror of death, and the cultural achievements such terror may inspire.  And if less terror leads to fewer cultural achievements, surely that seems be a price well worth paying!

P.S. Today is my birthday, which I like to call not-dead-yet day.

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Live Long Or Wide?

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Kiln People, by David Brin in 2003. Not so much for its characters or plot, but because it takes an interesting future/tech scenario seriously. Most fiction with artificial intelligence describes a world with only a few of them, yet one of AI’s most important features is its easy of copying.

In Kiln People, Brin takes seriously this idea of cheaply copying intelligent agents. The key assumption is that in a few minutes and for a modest cost one can copy a person’s mind into a new clay body that lasts about a day. That copy’s memories of its day can also be added back into the original at the day’s end. Brin imagines many details of how this would change society. While he gets some things wrong, and an economist would get more right, Brin does far better than most science fiction.

Assume for the sake of argument that you came to accept that such clay copies really were “you.” So that if on Monday you made six copies and merged them all back in at the end of Monday, and then you slept the rest of the week, you would have lived just as much as an ordinary person in a normal week. You’d remember having lived for seven days that week.

Now imagine that this copy technology is improved let copies last ten years. Then compare two ways to stretch your life:

  • Time Stretched Life: You are able to live for another 110 years before dying.
  • Space Stretched Life: You make nine copies now, and the ten of you live for ten years. Then you merge the memories of all these copies back together, and live for another ten years before dying.

I suspect most people would admire the life stretched across time more than the life stretched across space, similar to the way most people admire a time stretched civilization more than a space stretched one, and to the way they accept time genocide more than space genocide. I again attribute this to the future seeming more far:

The far future seems more far … than situations far away in space, or in the far past. The near/far distinction was first noticed in how people treated the future differently, and our knowing especially little detail about the future makes it especially easy to slip into abstract thought about the future. … We are less practical, more idealistic, and more uncompromising in far mode.

Added 8a:  The time stretched life lets you see more of human history, but the space stretched life lets you help yourself more (e.g., the ten of you could start a business together), is better able to prevent your death, and trades later for earlier decades of your life cycle. As most people seem to discount the future and to prefer earlier life decades, these factors seem to favor space-stretching overall.

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Is Time Us, Space Them?

(This post co-authored by Robin Hanson and Katja Grace.)

In the Battlestar Galactica TV series, religious rituals often repeated the phrase, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It was apparently comforting to imagine being part of a grand cycle of time. It seems less comforting to say “Similar conflicts happen out there now in distant galaxies.” Why?

Consider two possible civilizations, stretched either across time or space:

  • Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
  • Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

Even though both civilizations support the same total number of lives, most observers probably find the time-stretched civilization more admirable and morally worthy. It is “sustainable,” and in “harmony” with its environment. The space-stretched civilization, in contrast, seems “aggressively” expanding and risks being an obese “repugnant conclusion” scenario. Why?

Finally, consider that people who think they are smart are often jealous to hear a contemporary described as “very smart,” but are much happier to praise the genius of a Newton, Einstein, etc. We are far less jealous of richer descendants than of richer contemporaries. And there is far more sibling rivalry than rivalry with grandparents or grandkids. Why?

There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense. We compete genetically with siblings and contemporaries far more than with grandparents or grandkids. It seems that humans naturally evolved to see their distant descendants and ancestors as allies, while seeing their contemporaries more as competitors. So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

Having identified a common human instinct about what to admire, and a plausible evolutionary origin for it, we now face the hard question: do we embrace this instinct as revealing a deep moral truth, or do we reject it as a morally irrelevant accident of our origins? The two of us (Robin and Katja) are inclined more to reject it, but your mileage may vary.

(This is cross-posted at Meteuphoric.)

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No Generic City Effect

This is my last post on results from Ken Lee’s excellent thesis.

People who in rural areas die consistently less than others, even after controlling for other death predictors. To study this effect, Lee tried interacting urbanity with many other predictors, including geography. That is, Lee looked at all combinations of whether someone lived in a city, suburb, or rural area, and in which of nine regions of the US they lived.

After controlling for his other usual predictors (age, race, gender, married, education, income), Lee found that eleven of the 26 interaction ratios were 5% significant, and six were 1% significant. It seems that there is just no such thing as a generic effect of living in a city, suburb or rural area, nor a generic effect of living in each region. Instead, each of the 27 different place combinations has its own distinct influence on health. Put another way, each of the nine US region has a different city, suburb, or rural effect. Here are the estimated death ratios of each place (relative to Middle Atlantic cities):


It is West North Central, New England, and Mountain rural areas that are good for health (adding a year or so of life), and it is South Atlantic cities that are the worst for health (cutting ~1.5 years of life).

FYI, these are the ratios and significance from Lee’s table 17: Continue reading "No Generic City Effect" »

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