In corresponding with others who attended the last 100YSS symposium I have been led to think more about existential risk — this is especially attributable to Heath Rezabek, whose 100YSS presentation was on existential risk mitigation. The figure above is from Nick Bostrum’s influential paper Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. The figure shows six categories of risk, with existential risks being those risks that are of terminal intensity and global scope.
It could be argued that existential risks ought to be the number one priority of human beings, since if we fall victim to an existential risk, nothing else matters. There have always been those who have contemplated human extinction, but the happy circumstance today is that we have reached a level of technology that we can actually do something about some existential risks.
A fellow I recently met in a coffee shop in Beaverton said to me, “if we were having this conversation a hundred years ago, there’s nothing we could do about it,” which remark concerned the possibility of a massive asteroid striking the Earth.
I certainly agree with the need to prioritize existential risk, though I think that the category of existential risk cannot be neatly separated from that of individual risk.
Bostrum defines existential risk as follows:
Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
Keeping in mind the possibility of “permanently and drastically” curtailed human potential, I find myself asking these questions:
Is a flawed or stagnant social whole a consequence of flawed or stagnant individuals, or are flawed and stagnant individuals made so by their participation in flawed and stagnant social wholes?
In other words, does the ontogenesis of flawed realization or permanent stagnation precede the phylogenesis of the same, or vice versa?
The integral relationship between individual existential risk (death) and shared social existential risk is most evident in the consideration of anthropogenic extinction risks.
For example, if an individual made a decision of existential finality — say, to detonate a doomsday device, such as a cobalt bomb — social extinction would be triggered by individual action, with the responsible individual causing both his own death and the death of all human life.
Human extinction could come upon us suddenly, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. A sequence of events would have to culminate in human extinction, and of this extinction process — one might call it thanotogeny — one can ask: does it have its origins in individual action or inaction, or in social action or inaction?
The above is an extreme example; much more subtle and therefore more troubling examples could be formulated by choosing scenarios in which total human extinction would be less assured and individual action superficially more innocuous — like consumption patterns that imperil the ecosystem, given that one of the primary existential risks is that of a fatally compromised biosphere.
It is a commonplace of civilization that individual extinction may follow from shared social responsibility — as in warfare or executions — but it somehow seems more troubling that shared social extinction may follow from individual responsibility.
How are we to understand the individual’s responsibility to the species?
And does the species have a responsibility to the individual?
Is a species even the kind of thing that can have moral responsibility?