In the past on this blog I’ve advanced a view about when it is that we might have cause to regard out own existence as a misfortune. I think it’s a sufficient (though perhaps not a necessary) condition for such if there exists a double-or-nothing bet, something which I have called a Mephistopheles wager which we would take as a condition for removing some deficiency from our lives. The bet would have a structure something like this: on the toss of a fair coin, if we were to win, then that deficiency would be removed. If we were to lose, we would experience instant and painless annihilation. It seems intuitive to me if there actually is such a bet out there which you would accept if some entity could offer it to you, then you have good reason to regard your own existence as unfortunate. I’d like to dig a bit underneath this intuition.
In taking monetary bets, taking a bet that has this sort of double-or-nothing structure is rational (on the assumption that the bettor is a wealth maximizer) if the magnitude of the monetary winnings is greater than the magnitude of the loss. I take this point to be sufficiently obvious as not to be in need of further demonstration.
If we extend by analogy into the context of a potential Mephistopheles wager and imagine ourselves as maximizers of utility rather than wealth, it seems pretty clear that taking the bet is only rational if the utility magnitude of the win — which means, the utility magnitude of the deficiency in your life which you are trying to make up — exceeds the magnitude of all the utility in your life — now and all that which is in prospect for the rest of your life.
Ponder for a minute, reader, how unfortunate one’s life would be if there were such a bet to be taken! You must be really suffering if you would take it. Or, if your life is apparently “okay” but there is still some such bet you would take, ponder for a minute how great a hole there is on your superficially acceptable life that you yearn to fill up. Something horrible would have to present in need of removal, or something desperately wanted would have to be absent to take the bet.
And yet I think that more among us have such bets that we would take, even if many among us — through defects of imagination, perhaps? — do not yet realize it.