Throughout history, young men have tended to be more reckless than other people. There may be some sort of Darwinian mechanism involved here, as tribes might survive better if young men engaged in lots of high risk/high reward behavior, with warfare being an obvious example.
On the other hand it’s generally assumed that Darwinian factors don’t provide a solid foundation for modern morality, and that we can use our reasoning skills to develop better ethical systems, such as religion or natural rights or utilitarianism. I’d like to make the counterintuitive argument that utilitarian reasoning suggests that we might want to thank our young men for behaving so recklessly.
That’s not to say all sorts of reckless behavior can be justified by utilitarian arguments. I happen to think that warfare is unjustified in the modern world (although perhaps justified in a Malthusian world.) But what about other types of reckless behavior, such as climbing Mt. Everest? Consider this interesting observation:
It’s now well known that in mediaeval Western Europe women married later than in other parts of the world, and fewer women got married in the first place. This had the effect of reducing fertility rates well below the biological maximum. In East Asia, the female marital age was much lower, but a combination of infanticide, birth-spacing and other factors apparently kept net fertility only a little higher than Western Europe’s. Thus, under Malthusian assumptions, East Asia’s relative poverty is largely to be explained by its lower mortality: life in Western Europe was simply more lethal but richer, whilst more East Asian adults survived and lived longer but more miserably.
Let’s suppose the goal is to maximize the total number of “utils” of happiness. But let’s also put aside questions of total population, (which I find almost impossible to even think about, and I’ve never see anyone else discuss in a persuasive fashion.) So we’ll assume that the Earth’s population levels off at some point, say 10 billion people. A steady state is reached. Which is better, an average lifespan of 80 or 100?
At first glance it seems like 100 is obviously better, especially if people are just as healthy on average. But it’s not at all clear that 100 is better that 80. Yes, an average of 100 years of life is better for each living person, but 25% more people get a shot at life if the average life expectancy is only 80 in a steady-state society. Here is where our distorted views of “personal identity” (which I regard as a fiction) distort our reasoning process. We all tend to think our own life is more important than the lives of others, often far more important. Would you give away 90% of your retirement savings to save one life in a poor country? But objectively speaking, if we all think we are especially important, then we are all deluded, at least from a global welfare perspective. This post is about what’s best for society—not YOU.
We are among the lucky to be alive, so naturally we favor polices that boost lifespans to 100 and insure fewer people get a chance to live. But what would actually maximize global aggregate happiness in a society of 10 billion people? Clearly since humans can be replicated at almost zero cost (easy for a man to say!) then we’d want to maximize the number of utils earned per hour. And if there is a trade-off between exciting/fun lives and long lives, we’d want to move in the direction of exciting/fun lives, even if it reduces average lifespans. Reckless young men who climb Mt. Everest then produce positive externalities for society. (The ancients understood this externality concept, which is why they honored warriors.) A good example in the modern world is football players who achieve great things while young, but at the cost of a shorter lifespan. Ditto for teenagers who hot-rod around at high speeds. And surprisingly, that’s even true if they kill innocent people. Those innocent people can also be replaced.
[I'm tempted to include drug and alcohol use, but I don't know whether those activities actually make people happier. Cigarette smoking is a better fit, although even here you need to consider whether smokers on average suffer more at the end of life. My father certainly suffered a lot.]
Am I serious or is this all just a big spoof? I’m not quite sure. (Let’s just say I don’t want this post to be quoted.) Even though my “everyday views” of morality are conventionally boring (I’m outraged by reckless drivers), when I start thinking about fundamental principles of morality my views become radically agnostic. I don’t know what to think, other than that I suspect most of our shared views of morality are nothing more than another example of cognitive illusions–no different from the belief that low interest rates mean easy money.
PS. Like many men, I took some really big risks when I was young. I’m lucky to be alive. Sometimes I think to myself “how could I have been so foolish.” But when I dig deeper, try to remember how I felt at the time, try to be sympathetic to the views of that “other person,” then I’m not so sure. Something was pushing me to take those risks–how can I be certain it was a mistake?
PPS. Just started reading Knausgaard’s 3rd volume. I was immediately reminded of how fascinated I was as a boy by holes in the ground. Knausgaard seems to agree with me that the younger version of a person is not the same person at a younger age, but rather a different person.
PPPS. Perhaps the counterargument is that I’ve ignored the cost of an early death on the utility of the young man’s surviving family and friends.
PPPPS. Over at Econlog I have a more serious defense of utilitarianism.