A Fate Worse Than Death

post by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T09:23:24.961Z · score: 2 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 19 comments

The claim has been made that, all things being equal, it is better to be alive than dead.  I dissent.  

It is much more complicated than this.  If I knew somehow that I would spend the next fifty years of my life in Guantanamo bay, I would rather kill myself than suffer that fate.  If a fortune teller showed me that I would be in a car crash and lose all sensory input, but would be kept blissfully comatose on cocaine and ecstasy, I would get my affairs in order and end my own life.  And yet, if I knew that every day for the next 50 years I would be horribly tortured, but my experience would eliminate suffering from everywhere else in the entire world, I would accept the fate and do my best to steel my mind for the horror that would be my life.

I want to feel like my existence has purpose.  I want to make the world a better place to live in for other people.  I want to be happy and experience pleasure.  These, not a primordial drive to keep myself alive, are my motivations.  Killing myself would be the only rational chice if I knew that my life would be worse than my death.  

I'm not trying to advocate suicide.  I'm simply saying that the will to live is not a basic motivating factor for most human beings.  So when the argument is made against life extending technology, rather than countering it with "all things being equal," try "existence being pleasurable..."  But don't claim that existence of sentient beings is inherently good.  

 

 

19 comments

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comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-02T19:07:05.487Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I knew I would spend the next 50 years in Guantanamo Bay and then die, I would probably choose to die before that could happen.

If I knew that I would spend the next 50 years in Guantanamo Bay and then medical science would be able to extend my life by at least 50 years, the decision would not be as clear-cut. Even if my life would only be extended 10 years but I would [meet the love of my life/make the discovery of a lifetime/other high-happiness circumstance], there would be a very difficult calculation involved.

I think the idea you're describing relies on the assumption that death is not only inevitable, but that it's going to happen relatively soon. I do agree that there are motivations beyond simply living for its own sake. However, I think that the idea that death could be better than some awful form of living assumes that no future opportunity to fulfill one's motivations will occur. The chance of getting out of Guantanamo is worth a lot.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T22:15:31.422Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

there would be a very difficult calculation involved

Absolutely, which is why I tried to give obvious cases (except for the blissful coma) which most people would agree is not worth it. I wasn't trying to say that the calculation is easy, only that when you say that life is the ultimate good, you ignore the calculation altogether, which I don't think is wise..

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T12:00:17.504Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Within an emotionally challenging situation many people already make that calculation. The result of that one, however, would actually change depending on the probability of future improvement.

Suicides do not happen because life is just unbearable (for most victims of suicidal thoughts this state prolongs for several months up to several years), but because after some time they are sure life will stay this unbearable.

Another thing is, death often seems less bad than it actually is.

Ask yourself: 50 years at Guantanamo Bay -- given that you do not suffer severe depression -- would you prefer death, if you would know that you could life another 20 years in liberty afterwards?

Then: Remember that in real life you most certainly do not know that integrated over the next 20 years there is really no chance that you could go free. Today -- political prisoner in China -- in 20 years?

The question of "worse than death" is usually dissolved by asking in what mode of operation the answer is given -- the "unbearable, unsolvable" mode, or the "unbearable" mode. Given the human failures, "unsolvable" is usually a mistake, especially when you can expect more than two decades of lifetime. The idealized questions of "how many years torture vs. death" are meaningless for a personal decision if you cannot predict the future with sufficient accuracy.

Of course, human psyche is weak -- everybody breaks -- at some point. That does not mean that the actualized preference is the correct one given the situation.

“If he thought like me, he’d have known that living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.”

-- Dr. House (fictional)

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T22:12:09.291Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I cannot even imagine suffering 50 years at Guantanamo Bay. Is 20 potential years of freedom after 50 years in Guantanamo Bay worth enduring? Probably not, at least to me. Is there a point at which 50 years in Guantanamo Bay becomes worthwhile? Probably. I don't know exactly where that point is, but I know that it exists (e.g., 1000 yrs of satisfying life is worth it, but is 100?).

Given the human failures, "unsolvable" is usually a mistake, especially when you can expect more than two decades of lifetime.

I agree completely. This is even more obvious when you postulate life-extending technology. However, this still does not change the fact that death is not the absolute worst thing, which was my point (however well I communicated that).

comment by endoself · 2011-01-02T09:50:33.841Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, and I think many here will.

Interestingly, this is something people expect to agree on more than they actually do. Most people agree that there could be a fate worse than death, but some people would choose to endure anything to keep living, though I don't know how many of them would maintain this choice once they had to endure a fate worse than death and I don't see any ethical way of finding out. Both groups, at least from what I've seen, see their choice as obvious and are surprised at the existence of people who disagree.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T22:02:43.604Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are right. There are people who believe that nothing is worse than death. There are also people who believe that in the primordial past, thetans brought the material universe into being largely for their own pleasure. I believe that both are wrong. I am not surprised at the existence of people who disagree. I would be surprised by the existence of people who have critically considered their beliefs and decided that there is no fate worse than death, and I would be very interested to hear them explain why they believe this.
I don't, however, believe that just because there are fates worse than death, you should ever kill yourself, for the reason that we can't see the future, and it is a terrible thing for someone to die who could have possibly had positive life experiences in the future.

comment by endoself · 2011-01-03T06:16:57.248Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point. In retrospect there was nothing exceptional about their misunderstanding of their own minds. I do, however, disagree with an unconditional condemnation of suicide due to the possibility of of a positive singularity. Just because we can't see the future doesn't mean we can't make a judgment under uncertainty. Some probability of a fate worse than death must cancel a sufficiently low probability of whatever good experiences are possible. Also, if a sufficiently large amount of money is necessary to prolong someone's life, perhaps that money could be better spent on improving the chance of a positive singularity for everyone, depending on the exact results of the expected utility calculation.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-03T10:53:36.844Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with everything you say here. If anything I said disagrees with it, I take it back.

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-01-04T15:27:15.757Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a fortune teller showed me that I would be in a car crash and lose all sensory input, but would be kept blissfully comatose on cocaine and ecstasy, I would get my affairs in order and end my own life.

I really, really don't understand this one (and I know you're stating a personal choice rather than a universal argument). Avoiding the psychological burden for your loved ones, and the financial burden to your country, could be a very reasonable altruistic argument. But it sounds like that's not the point of this example of yours, am I correct? Proceeding on that assumption:

would you refuse a nice cake if you were on your deathbed with a life expectancy of a few hours, in favour of an immediate lethal injection? I doubt it. A couple of hours of blissful coma? That's a pretty similar offer. How about a couple of days then? Months? Years?

In other words, at which order of magnitude do you start feeling preemptively guilty for accepting a state of mindless pleasure in which you aren't accomplishing anything meaningful, in alternative to the state of being dead in which you don't accomplish anything either anyway?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-04T15:36:26.026Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't speak for the OP, but my own justification for a similar preference rests on something like the consideration you set aside in your first paragraph. Stated more generally: my continued survival consumes resources, and there are things I would prefer those resources be devoted to than maintaining me in a blissful coma.

Sure, when the resources involved are small enough (a cake, a couple of hours of blissful coma, etc.) I may choose otherwise because what the hell, but when the magnitude gets large enough to matter I start to care.

The key question isn't what I could accomplish either way, but what would be accomplished either way.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-01-03T07:11:24.943Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

All things being equal, it is better to be alive than dead.

I don't think that really means anything. If you compare living a year to being dead a year, what is your life supposed to be equal to? Being alive can't equal being dead.

"Existence being pleasurable" would work better. Perhaps "If your life is worth living". That makes it into more of a tautology, which is probably a good thing.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-03T08:03:17.516Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

All things being equal, it is better to be alive than dead.

I don't think that really means anything.

It is a straightforward declaration of preference. The speaker prefers life to death. Extracting meaning from that is not hard.

"Existence being pleasurable" would work better.

If you wish to change the preference declaration from 'like life' to 'like pleasure'.

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-01-04T15:09:25.849Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is a straightforward declaration of preference. The speaker prefers life to death. Extracting meaning from that is not hard.

The problem is that "all things being equal" is a terrible choice of words. It very strongly implies that the speaker doesn't always prefer life to death (otherwise he would have just said "It is better to be alive than dead"), but it gives the listener no clue as to what exactly are the speaker's criteria for a living state to be better than the dead state.

What are the "things" that are supposed to be or not be equal between Universe A where I'm alive and Universe B where I'm dead?

comment by icebrand · 2011-01-02T17:26:42.047Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I see your point for the most part, I wouldn't want to end my life rather than "suffer" 50 years of bliss prior to dying. The only horror there is the lack of economic productivity, human relationships, etc. in the meantime (which are also correlated with death) and the potentially high cost. I might prefer death over going deeply in debt or badly sapping social services (for reasons of pride), but if I was productive enough to save up all the necessary funding prior to the event I don't see why there is a problem with spending it on 50 final years of chemical bliss.

Now, if there was a chance of reviving when those 50 years are over, or benefiting from additional cryonics and anti-aging progress, I'd be much more willing to go into debt for it or sap social services. Because in that event the probability would be significant that I could pay it back. Heck I'd be willing to put up with quite a bit of torture for the chance to extend my life thousands of years.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T22:13:34.692Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I see your point for the most part, I wouldn't want to end my life rather than "suffer" 50 years of bliss prior to dying.

I wasn't saying that everyone would agree with my analysis of every situation I gave, only that most people have a point at which they will decide life isn't worth [fill in the blank].

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-01-03T06:39:58.896Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See also: Really Extreme Altruism

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-03T21:47:23.065Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was a cool discussion, thanks for the link.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-05T11:02:08.117Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The claim has been made that, all things being equal, it is better to be alive than dead. I dissent.

This posts could have been challenging if the examples were not all of things being clearly not equal. "Eliminate suffering from everywhere else in the world" and "50 years of torture" aren't small change incentives to throw around!

comment by Shiva · 2011-01-25T15:45:42.740Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I AM UR SOLUTION MY PEOPLE...!!!