Life Extension versus Replacement

by Julia_Galef 1 min read30th Nov 201199 comments


Has anyone here ever addressed the question of why we should prefer

(1) Life Extension: Extend the life of an existing person 100 years
(2) Replacement: Create a new person who will live for 100 years?

I've seen some discussion of how the utility of potential people fits into a utilitarian calculus. Eliezer has raised the Repugnant Conclusion, in which 1,000,000 people who each have 1 util is preferable to 1,000 people who each have 100 utils. He rejected it, he said, because he's an average utilitarian.

Fine. But in my thought experiment, average utility remains unchanged. So an average utilitarian should be indifferent between Life Extension and Replacement, right? Or is the harm done by depriving an existing person of life greater in magnitude than the benefit of creating a new life of equivalent utility? If so, why?

Or is the transhumanist indifferent between Life Extension and Replacement, but feels that his efforts towards radical life extension have a much greater expected value than trying to increase the birth rate?


(EDITED to make the thought experiment cleaner. Originally the options were: (1) Life Extension: Extend the life of an existing person for 800 years, and (2) Replacement: Create 10 new people who will each live for 80 years. But that version didn't maintain equal average utility.)

*Optional addendum: Gustaf Arrhenius is a philosopher who has written a lot about this subject; I found him via this comment by utilitymonster. Here's his 2008 paper, "Life Extension versus Replacement," which explores an amendment to utilitarianism that would allow us to prefer Life Extension. Essentially, we begin by comparing potential outcomes according to overall utility, as usual, but we then penalize outcomes if they make any existing people worse off.

So even though the overall utility of Life Extension is the same as Replacement, the latter is worse, because the existing person is worse off than he would have been in Life Extension. By contrast, the potential new person is not worse off in Life Extension, because in that scenario he doesn't exist, and non-existent people can't be harmed. Arrhenius goes through a whole list of problems with this moral theory, however, and by the end of the paper we aren't left with anything workable that would prioritize Life Extension over Replacement.