Schubert, Caviola & Faber, ‘The Psychology of Existential Risk’

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Ste­fan Schu­bert, Lu­cius Cavi­ola & Nadira S. Faber, ‘The Psy­chol­ogy of Ex­is­ten­tial Risk: Mo­ral Judg­ments about Hu­man Ex­tinc­tion’, Scien­tific Re­ports 9: 15100 (2019). doi: 10.1038/​s41598-019-50145-9. Ab­stract:

The 21st cen­tury will likely see grow­ing risks of hu­man ex­tinc­tion, but cur­rently, rel­a­tively small re­sources are in­vested in re­duc­ing such ex­is­ten­tial risks. Us­ing three sam­ples (UK gen­eral pub­lic, US gen­eral pub­lic, and UK stu­dents; to­tal N = 2,507), we study how laypeo­ple rea­son about hu­man ex­tinc­tion. We find that peo­ple think that hu­man ex­tinc­tion needs to be pre­vented. Strik­ingly, how­ever, they do not think that an ex­tinc­tion catas­tro­phe would be uniquely bad rel­a­tive to near-ex­tinc­tion catas­tro­phes, which al­low for re­cov­ery. More peo­ple find ex­tinc­tion uniquely bad when (a) asked to con­sider the ex­tinc­tion of an an­i­mal species rather than hu­mans, (b) asked to con­sider a case where hu­man ex­tinc­tion is as­so­ci­ated with less di­rect harm, and (c) they are ex­plic­itly prompted to con­sider long-term con­se­quences of the catas­tro­phes. We con­clude that an im­por­tant rea­son why peo­ple do not find ex­tinc­tion uniquely bad is that they fo­cus on the im­me­di­ate death and suffer­ing that the catas­tro­phes cause for fel­low hu­mans, rather than on the long-term con­se­quences. Fi­nally, we find that (d) laypeo­ple—in line with promi­nent philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments—think that the qual­ity of the fu­ture is rele­vant: they do find ex­tinc­tion uniquely bad when this means for­go­ing a utopian fu­ture.