Last Person Alive Thought Experiment

Have been reading Derren Brown’s ‘Happy‘ – an excellent rollercoaster philosophy ride from the Greek classics to the present on the building blocks of true, sustainable, healthy, happiness.

He cites a thought experiment from Professor William Irvine’s book ‘On Desire‘. Highlighting the amount of time, effort, money we spend doing things to maintain and create a public image of ourselves to impress others – and it’s absolute futility. Reminded me of Dave Ramsey’s quote “we buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

This is the thought experiment. You may be surprised by the results.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say we live for other people— that the bulk of our time, energy, and wealth is spent creating and maintaining a certain public image of ourselves. The best way to appreciate the truth of this claim is to consider how our behavior would change if other people vanished.

Suppose you woke up one morning to discover that you were the last person on earth: during the night, aliens had spirited away everyone but you. Suppose that despite the absence of other people, the world’s buildings, houses, stores, and roads remained as they had been the night before. Cars were where their now-vanished owners had parked them, and gas for these cars was plentiful at now-unattended gas stations. The electricity still worked. It would be a world like this world, except that everyone but you was gone. You would, of course, be very lonely, but let us ignore the emotional aspects of being the last person, and instead focus our attention on the material aspects.

In the situation described, you could satisfy many material desires that you can’t satisfy in our actual world. You could have the car of your dreams. You could even have a showroom full of expensive cars. You could have the house of your dreams—or live in a palace. You could wear very expensive clothes. You could acquire not just a big diamond ring but the Hope Diamond itself. The interesting question is this: without people around, would you still want these things? Would the material desires you harbored when the world was full of people still be present in you if other people vanished? Probably not.

Without anyone else to impress, why own an expensive car, a palace, fancy clothes, or jewelry? If you found yourself alone in a materially abundant world, chances are your desires would take a utilitarian turn. You might try living in a palace, but move out and take up residence in a dwelling that was emotionally cozier and easier to keep clean. You might try expensive suits but revert to clothes that were more comfortable. Indeed, you might even stay in your pyjamas all day long or, on fine spring days, walk around in your underwear or in the nude. You might acquire an expensive wristwatch, only to realize that without other people to meet, you don’t need to know what time it is.

Your life would also change in more mundane ways. For one thing, if you are a woman, why wear makeup? Most makeup, after all, is worn not for the sake of the wearer but for the sake of those who encounter the wearer. But without other people, why worry about how you look to other people? And if the last woman would dispense with makeup, the last man would stop worrying about how his haircut looked—and in particular wouldn’t worry about how his haircut looked from behind. Presumably, he would care only about practical matters, such as how a haircut felt and how easy his hair was to keep clean—assuming that he keeps his hair clean for his own sake and not to impress other people.

If we compare the lifestyle of the last person with our own, we will quickly recognize the impact the presence of other people has on our lives. We dress, choose a house, and buy a wristwatch with other people in mind. We spend a small fortune to project an image calculated to gain the admiration of these other people—or perhaps to make them envy us. We suppress ourselves and our desires in conformance with the image we wish to project. And to finance our image-projection activities, we might spend our adult life working at a job we hate. Were we to find ourselves in the situation described in the last-person scenario, we would be freed from humanity, and as a result our material existence would be radically simplified.