The Ethics and Theory of Existential Risk

The value we place on the future

  • A key concept in existential risk study is an understanding of what value we place on our unborn descendants, and how our actions today affect them. Those of us alive today could regard ourselves as the generation bearing the torch at this moment in humanity’s history. Our actions will affect the countless generations to come; our failure to plot a safe course would condemn them to nonexistence.

  • While questions relating to population ethics and the value of future generations have traditionally been the domain of the philosopher, they have recently come to prominence in the climate debate, as global leaders discuss the impact present day actions will have on generations in the far future.

  • Judging what values to place on existing lives as opposed to future lives, and developing frameworks for how we use our limited resources to best help both, are thorny problems. Techniques from economics such as discount rates are valuable, but need further analysis and development in the face of existential risk.

Lessons from ethics, economics, sociology and law

  • Other economic, sociological, ethical and legal issues also require careful study. For example, reduction of existential risk represents a global transgenerational public good, and thus presents an especially challenging tragedy of the commons.

  • CSER’s advisory board will provide the guidance of world leaders in sustainability, social choice theory, long-term thinking and intergenerational ethics such as Partha Dasgupta, Susan Owens, William Sutherland, Jonathan Wiener, and Peter Singer.

  • We also expect to collaborate with distinguished figures such as Kenneth Arrow (Stanford), Geir Asheim (Oslo), John Broome and Derek Parfit (Oxford), Christian Gollier (Toulouse), Peter Hammond (Warwick), Eric Maskin (Harvard), James Mirrlees (Cambridge/Hong Kong), Amartya Sen (Harvard/Cambridge), Nicholas Stern (LSE, London), and Menahem Yaari (Hebrew University, Jerusalem).