Archive for January, 2014

Some values are so sacred that people do not want to even consider the possibility that there exist some individuals who would be better off without the sacred value. For example, smoking probably shortens the lives of plenty of people. ‘Smoking is bad’ is about as sacred of a public health value as there is. Yet, I am sure there are people who would be harmed if they quit smoking. Consider, for example, someone who smokes and will never develop heart disease or lung cancer, but will gain weight, be more depressed, and have far more anxiety if they stop smoking. What is the harm in acknowledging that some people like this exist? Acknowledging it does not necessarily imply that anti-smoking campaigns should stop. Yet, I have found that few people are willing to seriously consider the possibility.

An even more extreme example is the ‘life is good’ sacred value. I have not had much success in convincing people that there exist individuals who would have been better off not existing. Even though it seems really obvious to me, I can see people feeling very uncomfortable with the subject. They really don’t even want to allow themselves to consider the possibility.

I think I came up with a better way to present these ideas. Let’s see if this works.

First, I will make two points that I think most people will agree with.

1. Most people do care about quality of life, and would consider choosing a treatment that gives them a high quality of life for a slightly shorter period of time than a treatment that would lead to a low quality of life (picture, for example, 4 months of chemotherapy that extended your life by just a few days). I don’t think this is too controversial. This is why researchers sometimes consider quality-adjusted life years.

2. There are periods of time in your life when, if you could, you would choose to be unconscious. For example, suppose you have a severe migraine, are nauseated, or extremely depressed. If you could, safely, push a button and make yourself unconscious until the pain went away, I think many people would. Again, I think this is not controversial.

Now, imagine that at every instant of your life there is a quality of life (QoL) score. A negative QoL score at a given moment means that you are so miserable that you would rather be unconscious until the pain stops. So the QoL score is a continuous function of time. It will have many spikes (e.g., large positive spike if a friend tells a funny joke, or a large negative spike if you drop boiling water on your leg).

Below are some graphs of 3 different people’s QoL scores over time. These are smoothed out, because it would be too hard to display all of the spikes. Just imagine that if you zoomed in you would see a lot of variation. The smoothed curves just give you the general picture. I put an ‘X’ at the time the person died.

The first graph is someone who almost always preferred to be conscious. They had one really hard period of time in their life, but it was pretty short. They seemed to have a good life.


The next graphs shows someone who had a good life up until they were pretty old. Then things went downhill. This situation, unfortunately, might not be all that uncommon. See here and here, for some relevant discussion. The arrow on the curve shows the point at which the person would have been better off no longer existing. This should be uncontroversial, given how I defined QoL.


The last graph is especially unfortunate. This shows someone who had a pretty miserable existence their entire short life. (recall that this is a smoothed graph – they certainly might have had good moments).  I don’t think it’s too hard to think of examples like this (you can picture some terrible diseases, famine, etc). This is a person who would have been better off not existing. Right?


It could very well be that the large majority of people are like the person in the first graph (I really don’t know). But it seems to me like we should at least be willing to acknowledge that there exists a set of people who are not like that. Why is this so hard?

If you think these graphs are reasonable, then we could think more generally about who would have been better off not existing. A simple way would just be to integrate the Q0L function from 0 until the time of death. If the value is positive, then it might be reasonable to conclude that they benefitted from living. And so on.

Aside: in case it is not obvious why it is important to talk about these things, it is my opinion that living things are often harmed by the ‘life is always good’ sacred value (see end of life care, for example). What about things like de-extinction? Or preventing extinction? I have heard people say that we need to keep some animals in cages to prevent their species from going extinct (the assumption is that preventing extinction is good for them). But is it? Is it possible that preventing their extinction (in the way that we do) harming them? If we do not have the conversation, I am not confident that we are getting the right answer.

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I have noticed that opportunity cost is ignored by most people most of the time. For example, when people say what someone should do more of, they rarely also say what they should do less of. “You should go for a 30 minute walk everyday” not “You should go for a 30 minute walk everyday, and sleep for 15 fewer minutes and spend 15 fewer minutes cleaning the house.” I don’t think that is because people do not want to tell you what you should give up; I think they just view all decisions from ceteris paribus perspective.

Prepared foods

If you go to a food store, you will see bags of pre-sliced fruits and vegetables. Are people lazy who buy these? How hard is it to slice your own fruits and vegetables? Well, it’s only lazy ceteris paribus. What do you do with the time you don’t spend slicing the food? Maybe you exercise. Maybe you read or write. Maybe you play with the kids. Maybe you clean the house.

Sure, spending hours a day making dinners from scratch might be nutritionally healthiest. That’s great for people who choose to do that. Other people might rather spend the least possible amount of time on food preparation, so that they have more time to spend on other things. These other things might be good for them.

Suppose, for example, that I spend all of my available time learning about the universe. I could say you are lazy if you do not spend all of your available time learning about the universe. “Can you believe how lazy people are? They will do anything to avoid learning about the universe, including slicing up vegetables.”


I suspect that some people who are viewed as anti-social are just very aware of opportunity costs.

I could chat with co-workers at the water cooler, or I could stand at the bus stop chatting with other parents for 10 minutes after the kids get on the bus, but there are opportunity costs there. When I hear someone talking about the weather or politics or crime or what’s wrong with kids today, I can’t help but feel robbed of all of the more stimulating things that I could be doing.

People who avoid these things are often viewed as anti-social. Yet, they might just be socially selective. They might spend hours a day interacting with people. The reason that the internet is so valuable for this is not just because of certain advantages that digital communication has (e.g.. more time to put together coherent thoughts). It is valuable because it enables you to find people that you will have much closer to optimal conversations with. Sure, some of your neighbors might be just as interesting to talk to if you get to know them, but the process of identifying them is much more difficult than it is on the internet. You would have to spend a lot of time in suboptimal conversations before you find one person who is as good to talk to as the dozens of people you interact with online. The internet allows for much more efficient search, and fewer wasted minutes. You can spend just as much time socializing as the people at the bus stop do, but in a way that is better for you.

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