Ordinary Meaning of Existential Risk

33 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2022

See all articles by Eric Martínez

Eric Martínez

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Institute for Law & AI

Christoph Winter

Harvard University; Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México; Institute for Law & AI

Date Written: December 15, 2022


Recent legislative efforts across multiple jurisdictions aim at regulating existential risk, a new category of extreme risks that pose a greater threat to humanity’s future than any previous risk. This article investigates the ordinary meaning of legally relevant concepts in the existential risk literature. Four experiments (n=6,814) reveal that the ordinary meaning of “existential risk”: (a) like the technical meaning, is narrower than other related terms, such as “global catastrophic risk” and “extreme risk”; (b) is mostly unaffected by exposure to definitions, except those containing probability thresholds; (c) mostly, though not entirely, resembles an expected harm calculation; and (d) differs widely between abstract and concrete scenarios but not across concrete risk type (such as climate change, pandemics, and nuclear war). These results provide crucial insights for those tasked with drafting and interpreting existential risk laws, and for the coherence of ordinary meaning analysis more generally. This study also lays the foundation for a new research program we refer to as “ex ante ordinary meaning analysis”—focused not only on how judges can and should interpret legal provisions once they have been drafted, but on how lawmakers can and should draft legal provisions so as to best achieve their policy aims.

Keywords: Experimental jurisprudence, existential risk, global catastrophic risk, ordinary meaning analysis

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Martínez, Eric and Winter, Christoph, Ordinary Meaning of Existential Risk (December 15, 2022). LPP Working Paper No. 7-2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4304670 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4304670

Eric Martínez (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

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Institute for Law & AI ( email )

Christoph Winter

Harvard University ( email )

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Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.christophwinter.net/

Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México ( email )

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Mexico City, D.F. 01000, Federal District 01080

Institute for Law & AI ( email )

218 Harvard St
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

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