High risk, low reward: A challenge to the astronomical value of existential risk mitigation

Philosophy and Public Affairs (forthcoming)
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Many philosophers defend two claims: the astronomical value thesis that it is astronomically important to mitigate existential risks to humanity, and existential risk pessimism, the claim that humanity faces high levels of existential risk. It is natural to think that existential risk pessimism supports the astronomical value thesis. In this paper, I argue that precisely the opposite is true. Across a range of assumptions, existential risk pessimism significantly reduces the value of existential risk mitigation, so much so that pessimism threatens to falsify the astronomical value thesis. I argue that the best way to reconcile existential risk pessimism with the astronomical value thesis relies on a questionable empirical assumption. I conclude by drawing out philosophical implications of this discussion, including a transformed understanding of the demandingness objection to consequentialism, reduced prospects for ethical longtermism, and a diminished moral importance of existential risk mitigation.

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David Thorstad
Oxford University


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