Maximize Totals, Not Averages

Over on his personal blog, Patri shared some thoughts about life extension, with which I agree. What I find interesting is this response in his comments:

What does more time give you? In many of your other posts you're talking about living in the now, seizing the moment, and from your seasteading, poker and fitness I would say you're doing a good job of that, but how many people can say the same?

How many people waste their time with soulless activities? And giving them more time helps them how? Creating consumers to an infinite amount or reruns?

This is a fairly common response to the prospect of extending lifespan, and it's completely bizarre to me. The line of argument seems to say that if we were no longer under the clock, as it were, of aging, we'd whittle away our lives on pointless activities and so the average quality of our lives would go down.

First of all, I'm not at all convinced this is true. We're hardwired from billions of years of evolution to act as if we're aging, and I suspect we'd carry on much the same as always, other than developing a stronger risk aversion.

But assume arguendo that it's true that the average quality "per minute of life" would decline with agelessness. The only proper response is "so what". Suppose you found out that you were going to die in exactly three years of a terminal, but painless, disease. Then it is very plausible that your "average quality" of your remaining years might be higher. You'd probably make an effort to spend more time with friends, travel to new places, and so forth. (For sure I wouldn't spend more time reading the Administrative Code of Virginia for my research assistant job.)

But nobody would wish for this diagnosis, and the reason is obvious. What we're after in life is to maximize our total enjoyment, not our average. Sure, if you know you're life will be shorter, you might make more of an effort to compress more activity into your shorter years. But virtually everyone would rather have 30 more years of routine holidays and quiet dinners with the family rather than three glorious years of "maximal living". If everyone understands this when we're talking about cutting life short, why do people suddenly forget it when we're talking about making life longer?

It really is a weird inversion of what Bryan Caplan called the "Woody Allen fallacy"

If a finite quantity of life is worthless, how can an infinite quantity be desirable? [. . .] If an infinite span of days is so great, what's stopping you from enjoying today?

But here we have someone who accepts that the marginal value of life is declining, but thinks it dips negative, the only possible explanation of why shorter lifespans should be preferred. And call me a naive optimist if you must, but I think life is pretty damn good, and I can't imagine the marginal value of another day being negative, at least so long as I'm healthy.

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Although I also agree with

Although I also agree with Patri, I found this to be an interesting argument against his position:

Social change and scientific progress would probably slow greatly -- a lot of entrenched attitudes (like prejudices or outdated scientific frameworks) change in large part due to older people dying.

There are two causal effects here: one is a problem of simple majority, the other a problem with social status. The first is a lot easier to solve: if the population continues to expand, if people continue to die from accidents if not from old age and are replaced with new people, if the role of electoral democracy is weakened, etc. The second is much more difficult. If paradigmatic scientific change occurs along Kuhnian lines, but the older generation of scientists never die out (or die out too slowly), the rate of scientific progress may slow to a halt as a result. How fortuitous that the transhumanists at Overcoming Bias are also interested in, well, overcoming bias!


I imagine that capable younger people put up with seniority rule so long as they have a good chance of inheriting the top spot. With life extension, at some point the cost of waiting for the chairman to die (or retire) will exceed that of leaving to start a new organization on different lines.

Related links

I've discussed this issue in a couple of posts:
- Is longevity good for you?
- Is Longevity Good for Society?

Incidentally, "maximizing totals" can't be exactly right, because it leads to Parfit's 'Repugnant Conclusion': that any blissful life can be outweighed by a sufficiently long life of mediocrity.

Richard, It's funny that you


It's funny that you brought up the Repugnant Conclusion, as I was indirectly lead to read up on the subject after a commenter at Patri's thread brought up David Pearce.

Here's a question related to your application of the Repugnant Conclusion: even if it's true that we can't say for certain if a blissful but short life is better or worse than a long but mediocre life, isn't the extension of life necessarily a good thing (at least the extension of one individual's life from that same individual's point of view) since we can always choose to end it early?


Well, I'm an economics student, not a philosopher, so my answer to that is just slap a discount factor on the problem, then compare totals to your heart's content. But I'm guessing this doesn't cut it for philosophers.

Tyler Cowen and Derek Parfit

Tyler Cowen and Derek Parfit cowrote a paper together about the social discount rate, Against the Social Discount Rate. I should probably get around to reading it one of these days.

Cowen has also written some other papers on this topic, all available on his website in the philosophy section.

It's not a social discount

It's not a social discount rate if you're comparing two scenarios for your own life, which is what we're talking about here, right? If I'm comparing "200 mediocre years for Curunir" vs. "80 blissful years for Curunir", why bring in a social discount factor rather than the plain old personal discount factor by which I run my life?

Skimming this Cowen paper,

Skimming this Cowen paper, What Do We Learn from the Repugnant Conclusion?, Cowen seems to be describing Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion as similar to Kenneth Arrow's impossibility theorem of voting rules. I haven't read this one yet either, but he might be addressing your question towards the end.

Not sure it's so repugnant

If only on an intuitive level, I'm not sure the repugnant solution is quite as repugnant when you're dealing with an individual life. Creating a bunch of mediocre lives just seems wrong, but a couple extra years of mediocre life doesn't sound so bad. Of course realistically the problem is dodged somewhat as a result of the fact that individuals have memories and stuff, so if a life is too long and too mediocre they might get depressed by the lameness of it all and life would switch from being mediocre to being miserable and marginal utility of continued life would become negative.

The Repugnant Conclusion

The Repugnant Conclusion reminds me of left-wing social welfare policy.


I'm all in favour of increasing people's capabilities/options, so I would agree that offering the option of life extension is straightforwardly good.

(But if you were to first extend one's life, and then offer them the option to 'end it early' by suicide, that's not necessarily so good. One might reasonably prefer to die from natural causes. To quote Scanlon completely out of context: "Recipients may have good reason to object to changes of these kinds in the meaning of the actions available to them, and therefore good reason to object to others intervening in their lives in these ways.")

But if you were to first

But if you were to first extend one's life, and then offer them the option to 'end it early' by suicide, that's not necessarily so good.

I'm assuming you mean a situation where a doctor cures a patient's fatal illness against the patient's wishes and justifies the coercive saving with the excuse that the patient can always commit suicide later?

Outside of explicit instructions to the contrary, I would think the ethical thing to do is assume everyone wants to live longer rather than shorter, and let the suicide option "fix" any mistaken savings, unnaturalness be damned.

Presumably suicide by

Presumably suicide by natural causes would be an option. In the early stages, at least, anti-aging technology would probably take the form of a treatment rather than a cure. Stop treating aging, and you will eventually succumb. If at some point a way of permanently stopping the aging process were developed, it would likely be reversible.

Definitely NOT "giving"

"How many people waste their time with soulless activities? And giving them more time helps them how?"

Giving ? Who ever talked about giving ? We're suposed to be selling it at the highest marginal price.


The repugnant conclusion and the counter examples just prove our intuitions are not rational. Our favorite scenarios tend to be the ones that don't make us make tough choices.

Of course the key thing with a individual life is that we have an agent here capable of making the choice and they can resolve issues as per Micha.