Unsurprisingly, Robin Hanson has a surprising take on fulfilling the wishes of the dead:
Economic welfare cares not about giving people experiences but about satisfying their preferences, i.e., giving them what they want. And even long dead people still have (or “had” if you prefer) preferences that we could now better satisfy. If we do something a dead person would have wanted, that counts as a benefit.
But we care about satisfying people’s preferences because, unlike the dead, they can know that those preferences being satisfied, and having their preferences satisfied increases their utility. Tyler Cowen has previously argued on pragmatic grounds that we should not count the preferences of the dead, because if we did, the world would be a terrible place:
Dead people don’t count in the social welfare function. (If they did, how many of them would prefer non-democratic or racist outcomes? And would we count that? We shoudn’t and we don’t.)
Their are other serious consequences to accepting the preferences of the non-existent as worth the same as those of the existent. Consider, for starters, that above all else, the non-existent would prefer to exist. The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people would not be willing to cease existing for any amount of money. Whereas most people who want someone else not to exist have some finite value dollar amount that it is worth to them. Thus, the dollar valued benefit to someone of existing is greater than the dollar valued benefit anyone else would get for them to cease existing. So if were going to count the preferences of the non-existent, then it would seem that the number one priority of all society would be to bring as many of them as possible from non-existence into existence. The easiest way to do this is to mandate pregnancy. Think of every woman who could have a child next year but isn’t going to. Surely if we are considering the preferences of the non-existent babies (discounted 9 months), then it is worth mandating woman be pregnant at every possible moment.
Obviously, this would be horrible and is not what almost anyone would want. But isn’t it implied by what Robin has said, or is my reasoning incorrect somewhere?
Another final question: if we care about satisfying the preferences of the dead even though they won’t know their preferences are satisfied, does that mean we should not be concerned with whether or not living people know when their preferences are satisfied? Or do we discount satisfying someone’s preferences when they won’t realize their preferences are satisfied. If not, then that implies that people would be indifferent between knowing and not knowing their preferences are being satisfied, which is obviously false. So at the very least it seems to me we should certainly discount the preferences of the dead simply because they are dead.