The repugnant solution (for nerds only)

Recently, I was reading David Thorstad’s new paper “Existential risk pessimism and the time of perils”. In it, he models the value of reducing existential risk on a range of different assumptions.

The headline result is that 1) most plausibly, existential risk reduction is not overwhelmingly valuable–though it may still be quite valuable, it doesn’t probably swamp all other cause areas. And 2) thinking that extinction is more likely tends to weaken the case for existential risk reduction rather than strengthen it.

It struck me that one of the results is particularly interesting, I call it the repugnant solution:

If we can reduce existential risk to 0% per century across all future centuries, this act is infinitely valuable, even if the initial risk was absolutely tiny and each century is only just of positive value. This act is therefore, better than basically anything else we could do.

Perhaps, in a Pascalian way, if we think there is a tiny chance that some particular action will lead to a permanent reduction in existential risk, that act too is infinitely valuable, and everything breaks.

This is also true even if we decrease the value of each century from “really amazingly great” to “only just net positive”.

(Cross posted as shortform on the EA forum)

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