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Friday, March 12, 2021

The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction

Schubert, S., Caviola, L. & Faber, N.S. 
Sci Rep 9, 15100 (2019). 


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.


Our studies show that people find that human extinction is bad, and that it is important to prevent it. However, when presented with a scenario involving no catastrophe, a near-extinction catastrophe and an extinction catastrophe as possible outcomes, they do not see human extinction as uniquely bad compared with non-extinction. We find that this is partly because people feel strongly for the victims of the catastrophes, and therefore focus on the immediate consequences of the catastrophes. The immediate consequences of near-extinction are not that different from those of extinction, so this naturally leads them to find near-extinction almost as bad as extinction. Another reason is that they neglect the long-term consequences of the outcomes. Lastly, their empirical beliefs about the quality of the future make a difference: telling them that the future will be extraordinarily good makes more people find extinction uniquely bad.

Thus, when asked in the most straightforward and unqualified way, participants do not find human extinction uniquely bad.