Respecting the wishes of the dead

Economist Robin Hanson has posted an interesting article about how it might be useful to legally honor the wishes of dead people regarding how the wealth they leave behind should be used. It’s interesting to speculate what society would look like if it started out seriously respecting the wishes of the dead—would we have enormously powerful trusts that dominate the economy, much like corporations dominate it today? Older trusts would have the benefit of having accrued more resources, while younger trusts would perhaps be more efficient due to having had their rules set more recently and thus more in touch with the times (though with dead people having such a strong influence on the present, the times might not change as rapidly as we are used to). And I imagine the art/science of specifying trust rules that make your trust do what you would’ve wanted would improve over time as well. Another interesting angle is how AI would fit into this kind of world. A properly-functioning AI that preserves its own utility function over time would make a very efficient set of rules for a trust. In a world where trusts rule, artificial intelligence might be the same kind of mythical and seemingly unachievable goal that immortality arguably has been in our own.

So how might a culture like this begin? One possible starting point would be a culture that wishes to preserve their ancestors’ wills for religious reasons (just like many existing religions are concerned with preserving “souls”). The system could be self-reinforcing, since once preserving the wishes of the dead is established, the surest way to have your own wishes preserved after you die is to preserve the existing system, or even improve it. Presumably, the hard part is to make this kind of society competitive relative to other societies and to make it able to survive environmental changes—both of which require the wishes of the dead to be flexible and efficient.