Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Dyck, Corey


Faced with countless threats that pose a danger to the continued existence of the human species, there has emerged a new field in philosophy known as Existential Risk Management. This discipline proposes to understand, quantify, classify and ultimately defeat the risks that exist and that threaten our continued existence. These philosophers accept that human life is good and that it should be promoted. And because of the tremendous value that is found in human life, they argue we should do whatever we can to avert our disappearance.

Philosophical pessimists hold that life is always filled with suffering and that because of this to not exist is better than to exist. Yet once we are here, once we exist, it is in our interest to reduce the amount of suffering. So while pessimists sustain that nonexistence and the disappearance of the human species is the ultimate goal (insofar as it is the only way to defeat and terminate the suffering that conditions all of existence), this nonexistence is to be obtained by nonviolent means, voluntarily and only in full understanding of our existential predicament.

In this dissertation I do two things. First, I define pessimism. This is essential because pessimism means different things to different people. Therefore, an important purpose of my work is to delimitate and establish an historically grounded definition that carves out the unique contributions that pessimism makes to philosophy. To do this, I survey the history of pessimism and lay out the main arguments made by pessimists. Two, I argue that philosophical pessimists can support the efforts made by the Existential Risk philosophers even though the reasons for doing so are different. And in so arguing I highlight the relevance and importance of the history of philosophy for contemporary debates.

Summary for Lay Audience

The media and blockbuster films have often depicted catastrophic scenarios where the survival of the human species is in danger. Whether it is a giant asteroid, a cataclysmic climate event, nuclear war or a deadly virus that spreads over the world, the idea that humanity could one day go extinct is an idea well understood by most of us. While these scenarios are often played out in fictional contexts, these possibilities are not fictional but very real. For this reason, a philosophical discipline known as Existential Risk Management has recently arisen as a way to evaluate, understand and subsequently deal with these many threats. For these philosophers, and presumably for most of us, life is precious, valuable and we should do what we can to protect the future of humanity.

There is a philosophical tradition known as pessimism that claims that life is not good and that not existing is better than existing. For the pessimists life is not valuable and is not worthy of promotion. Given this, one would be tempted to conclude that pessimists oppose the Existential Risk Management project.

In this work I do two things. First I define pessimism. Pessimism is a concept that has many connotations and people mean different things when they think of pessimism. Second, I argue and defend the view that pessimists will actually support the aims of the Existential Risk philosophers. While this may appear surprising, I show that starting from different premises (the Existential Risk philosophers start from the premise that life is good and the pessimists start from the premise that life is bad), they can both arrive at the same conclusion: that we should protect humanity from the many existential threats that we currently face.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.