The End of the World
GESM 120g (section 35366D)

Jeff Sanford Russell

Mon & Wed 2:00-3:20pm, Spring 2021

This seminar explores human values in alien futures. Might humanity make our planet uninhabitable, or be wiped out by a pandemic, or colonize other galaxies, or become immortal? How good or bad would these outcomes be? How much should we care right now about trying to avoid them or achieve them?

This seminar has four main parts.

  1. Catastrophes. We’ll consider one of the central questions of the class: how should we prioritize preventing global catastrophes and preserving the future of humanity, versus helping people who are alive today?

  2. Value and Risk. We’ll learn some basic tools—in particular, expected utility theory—for thinking about these kinds of trade-offs from philosophy, psychology, statistics, and economics. We’ll also discuss some foundational puzzles about these methods.

  3. Hard Choices. We’ll see expected utility theory in action in some places you might not expect it: the ethics of eating meat, voting, going to church, and saving the world.

  4. The Future and Meaning. What kind of future is worthwhile? Is it better to live longer? If we are doomed to eventual annihilation, does that make our current endeavors meaningless?

This seminar will be a full-brain workout. You will read philosophy, psychology, fiction, and poetry. You will write an analytical essay, and you will reason quantitatively about risk. You will ponder the meaning of life, and you will construct and evaluate precise and rigorous arguments.

Objectives

Course Texts

You should buy this book, which is available in the USC bookstore:

(The bookstore also lists another book as required—Parfit, Reasons and Persons—but I decided not to use this book after all.)

We will also use this textbook, which is available for free online:

There’s one other book you might be interested in buying, though I will provide you with a copy of the sections you need for the class:

The rest of the readings for this course will be articles, short stories, and selections from books that I will make available here. (Use the links in the Schedule of Readings.)

Office Hours

My office hours will be Monday 10–11:30am on Zoom. You can reserve a time slot for a one-on-one appointment during my office hours using this link:

You’ll get a Zoom link automatically after you sign up for a time.

Evaluation

The following due dates are tentative. I’ll let you know of any changes. Each component is explained in more detail below.

Requirement Due Weight
Reading Reactions 10am Pacific before each class meeting 20%
Writing Exercises TBC 40%
Midterm Exam Wed, Mar 24 20%
Final Essay Mon, May 10, 4pm 20%

Reading Reactions

Before each class meeting, you will post two or three reactions to the assigned reading to our course Slack channel #end-of-the-world. You can find this channel in the Slack workspace for USC Dornsife classes:

You can post each reaction as a new message or as a reply to someone else’s related message. (But if you have two unrelated reactions, please post them separately to keep the conversation organized.) Each reaction can be very short: one or two sentences is fine. Here are some examples of things you might post as a reading reaction:

We will read each other’s reactions before each class meeting and use them as a foundation for our in-class discussion.

In general this assignment will be open-ended, but sometimes I will ask you to make sure your reactions respond to some particular point from the reading.

You will not get credit for any late reading reactions: the point of these is to help guide our seminar discussion. But you can skip reading reactions five times at any point through the semester without any penalty, no questions asked. Save your skip days for when you really need them.

Writing Exercises

You will write four short structured essays throughout the semester. For each essay you will write 2–3 pages aimed at a specific task. Here is a tentative plan for what the four exercises will be. I may change up the topics and deadlines a bit, depending how things are going.

  1. Mon, Feb 8 (Week 4) Analyze the structure of Ord’s argument for the importance of preventing catastrophic risks

  2. Mon, Mar 1 (Week 7) Use expected utility to evaluate a risky decision

  3. Mon, Mar 29 (Week 11) Present an objection to an argument for longtermism

  4. Mon, Apr 26 (Week 15) Reflect on the meaning of life

Detailed instructions for each exercise will be provided later in the semester.

Midterm Exam

There will be a take-home midterm exam testing your understanding of the key ideas from the first half of the class, including basic concepts of probability and expected value.

Final Essay

You will write a final essay about a personal ethical trade-off. It will be 5–6 pages long. Here are some options:

All of these choices involve a trade-off between a large uncertain good and a smaller but more sure good. You are also allowed to write about a different decision of your own with this structure, but you must have your prompt approved by TODO DATE.

Even though this project involves a personal decision, your essay should not be about your subjective feelings. Rather, your essay should involve evaluating the consequences of each choice and systematically weighing them. Your essay should give a rigorous argument that one option is better than the other.

I will distribute a handout giving detailed instructions for this assignment later in the semester.

Late Policies

Life is messy, and sometimes you just can’t reasonably get homework done on time. Instead of dealing with all of these problems case by case, everyone gets ten “late days” to use on the writing exercises or the midterm no questions asked.

You can split up your late days however you want: for example, you can spend all your late days on one assignment and turn it in ten days late, or you can turn in every assignment two days late. (You can’t use just half a late day, though: if the assignment is a few hours late, that uses up a whole late day. Days when we don’t have class meetings still count, including weekends and holidays.)

There is no grade penalty for spending a late day. But after you have spent all of your late days, you will not get any more credit for late work. So don’t spend all your late days on the first assignment! Save them for real emergencies when you need them.

You cannot use late days on final essay.

Schedule of Readings

The following is our planned schedule of topics, readings, and assignments. We live in weird times, and no doubt things will not go as planned. I will let you know of any changes.

Date Reading
Catastrophes
M Jan 18 No class (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
W Jan 20 Ord, The Precipice, Introduction
M Jan 25 The Precipice, section 1.3 (“The Precipice”) and Alexander, “Book Review: The Precipice
W Jan 27 The Precipice, sections 2.4 and 2.8 (“Looking to Our Future” and “Our Neglect of Existential Risks”)
Value and Risk
M Feb 1 Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow chapters 12 and 13 (“The Science of Availability” and “Availability, Emotion, and Risk”)
W Feb 3 Jemisin, “Non-Zero Probabilities” (short story)
M Feb 8 Alexander, “A Failure, But Not of Prediction”
W Feb 10 Weisberg, Odds and Ends, chapter 11, “Expected Value”
M Feb 15 No class (President’s Day)
W Feb 17 Odds and Ends, chapter 12, “Utility”
M Feb 22 Odds and Ends, chapter 13. “Challenges to Expected Utility”
W Feb 24 Thinking, Fast and Slow, chapter 29 (“The Fourfold Pattern”)
M Mar 1 Thinking, Fast and Slow, chapter 30 (“Rare Events”)
Hard Choices
W Mar 3 Kagan, “Do I Make a Difference?”, sections I–IV, sections VI–X and the first paragraph of section XI
M Mar 8 class cancelled
W Mar 10 Barnett, “Why You Should Vote to Change the Outcome”, sections 1–4
M Mar 15 catch-up
W Mar 17 Bostrom, “Astronomical Waste”
M Mar 22 Greaves and MacAskill, “The Case for Strong Longtermism”, read sections 1 and 2 (“Introduction” and “A plausibility argument”)
W Mar 24 Pascal, Pensées, selection
M Mar 29 Odds and Ends, sections 14.4 and 14.5 (“Pascal’s Wager” and “Responses to Pascal’s Wager”)
W Mar 31 Bostrom, “Pascal’s Mugging”
M Apr 5 Parfit, “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life”, sections 1–3
W Apr 7 No class (Wellness Day)
M Apr 12 Greaves, “Cluelessness”, sections 1–4
W Apr 14 Greaves, “Cluelessness”, sections 5–8
Future and Meaning
M Apr 19 Bostrom, “Letter from Utopia”
W Apr 21 Sullivan, “Neutrality and Meaning” (Time Biases, chapter 11)
M Apr 26 Bois, “17776 (What Football Will Look Like in the Future)” (fiction)
W Apr 28 Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, chapters 36 and 38 (“Life as a Story” and “Thinking About Life”)

Equality

This classroom is a safe space. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, or other identities is unacceptable. If at any time while at USC you feel you have experienced harassment or discrimination, you can file a complaint: see http://equity.usc.edu for more information. You are also welcome to bring the complaint to any faculty or staff member at USC.

Academic Conduct

Plagiarism – presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words – is a serious academic offense with serious consequences. Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Part B, Section 11, “Behavior Violating University Standards” <policy.usc.edu/scampus-part-b>. Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable.  See additional information in SCampus and university policies on scientific misconduct, http://policy.usc.edu/scientific-misconduct.

Support Systems

Student Counseling Services (SCS) – (213) 740-7711 – 24/7 on call
Free and confidential mental health treatment for students, including short-term psychotherapy, group counseling, stress fitness workshops, and crisis intervention. http://engemannshc.usc.edu/counseling

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1 (800) 273-8255
Provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Services (RSVP) – (213) 740-4900 – 24/7 on call
Free and confidential therapy services, workshops, and training for situations related to gender-based harm. http://engemannshc.usc.edu/rsvp

Sexual Assault Resource Center
For more information about how to get help or help a survivor, rights, reporting options, and additional resources, visit the website: http://sarc.usc.edu

Office of Equity and Diversity (OED)/Title IX Compliance – (213) 740-5086
Works with faculty, staff, visitors, applicants, and students around issues of protected class. http://equity.usc.edu

Bias Assessment Response and Support
Incidents of bias, hate crimes and microaggressions need to be reported allowing for appropriate investigation and response. http://studentaffairs.usc.edu/bias-assessment-response-support

The Office of Disability Services and Programs
Provides certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange relevant accommodations. http://dsp.usc.edu

USC Support and Advocacy (USCSA) – (213) 821-4710
Assists students and families in resolving complex issues adversely affecting their success as a student EX: personal, financial, and academic. http://studentaffairs.usc.edu/ssa

Diversity at USC
Information on events, programs and training, the Diversity Task Force (including representatives for each school), chronology, participation, and various resources for students. http://diversity.usc.edu

USC Emergency Information
Provides safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued if an officially declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible. http://emergency.usc.edu

USC Department of Public Safety – UPC: (213) 740-4321 – HSC: (323) 442-1000 – 24-hour emergency or to report a crime.
Provides overall safety to USC community. http://dps.usc.edu