We Don’t Care about the Dead

A few months ago Tyler Cowen wrote a blog opposing the destruction of some extant Nabokov manuscripts that the author had wanted burned before his death. Cowen’s point is that the wishes of the dead shouldn’t count in the social welfare function. Basically, the welfare of the dead is the same no matter what we do. So if something makes the living better off, even if it is contrary to the prior wishes of the dead, we should do it.

This doesn’t however mean that we should disregard wills and bequests altogether, because of the “moral hazard” problem. If we outright disregard wills or other wishes of the dead, then those of us still alive will realize we must take care of what we can while we are alive (say allotting money to our children) because after we die our wishes will no longer count. Would this be a bad thing? Cowen mentions that publishing Nabokov’s manuscripts will cause future Nabokovs to be sure and burn the works they want destroyed before they die. But if an author doesn’t, let’s read them.

Another thing is that if the wishes of the dead aren’t respected, you can forget about monuments to yourself you want erected postmortem. Don’t forget that the pyramids were built while the pharaohs were still alive. Better start your’s soon!

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