This is a striped down version of a thought prompted by am item in today's news. The scenario is fictional. I'm fairly sure that it is essentially some kind of paradox/fallacy, probably a well known one. But which is it, if so?


A closed world faces doom. The leader has two options:

  1. Send everyone (including him/herself) to emergency shelter. 5% death rate can be expected due to panic/accidents.
  2. Attempt an extreme kind of remedy. This has a 30% chance of working (everyone lives) and a 70% of failing (everyone dies).

The leader reasons that if they choose the second option, they will come out of it better, even though its expected outcome is on balance far worse.

In the second option (he reasons), either everyone dies, in which case they face no criticism whatsoever (as they will be dead and lack awareness), or nobody dies and they are a total hero.

To him, this means the outcome will be either neutral (no harm will be experienced by him) or highly positive (hero for saving everyone). By comparison the first option will always give a slight negative outcome (for him) as he is likely to survive, and the other survivors will lay the deaths of 5% at his feet, even if he could have done nothing better.

This seems fairly logical, and optimal for the leader. What's going on? The crux seems to be that the negative outcome actually isn't negative since nobody (including himself) will survive it in order to have that perception, or any perception of wasted opportunity.

Possible related?

(Side observation: I * think * this might be related in some way to the question of "if I take an action which risks death or mental incompetence due to accident (and cannot have any other non-success outcome), should I consider these as negative consequences, since I wouldn't be around to notice them?" Also related to questions of what or whom is "I")

Is this scenario actually a well known paradox/fallacy in disguise?

  • That's the thing: no one judges if no one survives. However, this is only valid if the leader him/herself is ready to die with 70% probability. – rus9384 Sep 9 '18 at 19:03
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    So it kind of comes down to your presuppositions. It is not a paradox or a fallacy if you assume that everybody dying is actually neutral because nobody is around to judge. In that case, as you have laid it out, the second option is either neutral or good. However, (I feel as though) most people would disagree with that premise, and therefore they would say that everybody dying is bad. In that case, the leader, if they choose option two, is just making an argument with a false premise. They are saying option two is better because failure is neutral, which, by assumption, is false. – Not_Here Sep 9 '18 at 19:43
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    It isn't a paradox, it depends on what presuppositions are being made. And I wouldn't call it a fallacy either, it's just an argument with an incorrect premise (or a correct premise if we assume that everyone's death is actually neutral, in which case there's no problem). – Not_Here Sep 9 '18 at 19:44
  • Depends if the information of the nature of the choice may become available generally. If the leader is known to have risked 30 chance of total kill of the whole society, then probably they spend a year inventing new ways to torture him to death, then do so on television. – user34017 Sep 10 '18 at 1:24

I don't think this is a fallacy. If the leader truly views his entire society being dead -- and thereby facing no criticism -- as a neutral outcome, then he is correct to choose the path that includes only it and the good outcome over the path that always leads to minor suffering.

However, a leader who doesn't mind getting his entire people killed as long as they don't criticize him for it, isn't a very good leader IMO.

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