Suppose you’re the world’s leading expert in astronomy. You’ve been tasked by the world’s top scientific organization to study our nearest star, the Sun. Every two weeks you are required to report your findings to a global committee of decision-makers (i.e. politicians).
One day, you observe some unusual solar phenomenon, indicative of an imminent solar event. As you analyze more data it becomes clear to you that the Sun is going to explode. From the data, you calculate with a high degree of accuracy and precision that this will happen exactly a week from then. As you are the expert, you know that nothing can be done to prevent the Sun from exploding and that there can be no escape. Try as we might (e.g. launching spaceships), we cannot outrun the accelerating inferno.
The next day, you are required to report your findings but, is it really the right thing to do? Many people seem to think that you are morally obligated to tell everyone, or at least legally obligated to tell someone (i.e. a member of the committee). But can a decision to tell no one be rationally defended? I think so.
In this case, there’s no doubt about the outcome (i.e. it is certain knowledge). The only doubt that exists is about how people will react to such knowledge. Will people use the last week in their (and humanity’s) existence to rape, murder, and pillage? How many liberty loving nihilists will begin shooting up malls and schools? Torturing their neighbours using medieval torture contraptions? Mowing down pedestrians in a monster truck? Will some heads-of-state with short-man complexes start nuking those countries in which populations are above the global average height? You cannot be sure that none of this will unfold. After all, we have certain knowledge that we *will* all cease to exist in a week. Perhaps, people will just hold hands and be loving and peaceful throughout their last week of existence. But again, perhaps not.
Now, even though you cannot know exactly how anyone will react, it seems justified to believe that at least some people will be better off finding out that they have only a week to live.
However, you cannot be sure that they won’t tell others who will react badly. The only way you can be sure that no one will ever react badly is by telling no one.
If you do decide to tell no one, what’s the worst that can happen? People will go on living as they are without having to contemplate their (and all of humanity’s) imminent annihilation. They won’t have any unnecessary angst before they die, that they might have after finding out. Moreover, people already know that they will eventually die, they already know that their time alive is limited. Of course, knowledge of our eventual death is different from knowledge of our imminent death. But, more generally, knowledge of our death has long served as a reminder to improve our lives à la memento mori.
The last thing to consider is whether anyone can truly be harmed by such annihilation? I tend to think not, at least not for the person that is dying. In this case (and actually in real life, too) everyone is dying. According to Galen Strawson’s No Ownership of The Future, we cannot be harmed by instant annihilation (e.g. a meteor hits and instantly kills you as you’re walking through central park). Why not? Because we are not the kind of beings that can be said to have lost something. We do not actually have title over the future. The future doesn’t exist, so we aren’t in possession of something which we can lose.
Aside: Strawson’s No Ownership of The Future is not to be interpreted as justifying murder. Murder is still morally wrong as it’s a property or rights violation (i.e. one’s self-ownership or one’s right to life). But a meteor hitting and instantly killing you isn’t a property or rights violation.
Anyway, if I discovered that the Sun was about to explode, I can assure you that you wouldn’t ever know about it, at least not from me. Live. Laugh. Love.
UPDATE: I no longer think this position is defensible. To find out why I changed my mind, listen to my: Second Thoughts About A Case For Withholding Knowledge
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Bullshirt (not a typo): You should tell everyone because of Pascal's Wager and respect for individual conscience. There is a great good in letting people know they only have short time to live: They can make amends for past wrong doing, make final apologies, complete their most important projects, and repent of their sins. By not telling everyone, almost everyone will delay the most important decisions of their lives to a future they'll never have.
The most important of these decisions is the decision to repent and attempt a deathbed conversion. Even if you judge there to be a tiny chance that anyone's actions before the asteroid hits will have any effect on their final salvation, there is a small chance it might, and, if it does, the consequences for that person are either infinitely bad or infinitely good. Given this, you ought to give people the information that will potentially spur them on to pursue God and avoid damnation.
There is an argument to this effect even if you think Pascal's Wager is bad argument: given that many others will disagree with you, and find Pascal's reasoning kosher, you should respect their religious autonomy by telling them what they'd want to know. Given how fundamental respecting religious commitments is to respecting each other's dignity of conscience, other people ought to be the ones to decide whether to form religious commitments before they die.
(You might object that it's false that "many" will find Pascal's reasoning kosher, since few people know about Pascal's Wager. However, while this is so in the sense that few people know about the philosophical argument, many if not most religious people in the real world have arrived at something like the Wager independently--something very much like Pascal's Wager ("If I don't, big loss, if I do, what's the harm?") motivates many real-world religious commitments.)
This objection appeals both to utility maximization and respecting core conscientious decisions, so it can appeal to both consequentialists and deontologists.
What an interesting (and terrifying) thought experiment! I love the comments debating the "right" thing to do. Great share!