Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Month: January, 2013

Pressing ethical questions

In general I spend surprisingly little time thinking about ethics. My thoughts tend to go like this: even if I don’t know exactly what I want now or what I will want in the future, there are some convergent instrumental goals which I want to pursue anyway, and I can mostly postpone ethical deliberation. (Here I am going to set aside my self-interest and focus on my altruistic interest.)

In particular, for a broad range of values, the first thing to do is to establish a stable, technologically sophisticated civilization at a large scale, which can then direct its action on the basis of careful argument and reflection. When I need to make a tradeoff between clarifying my ethics and increasing the probability of such a civilization existing, I’m not inclined to reflect on ethics. This might be an error, but it’s my current well-intentioned best guess.

However, there are a few decisions I face today that do require that I have some idea what I value. So it seems worth putting in a bit of time to get a clearer picture. Here are some ethical questions that seem to bear on immediate practical issues (albeit, often in a roundabout way): Read the rest of this entry »

Taxonomy of change

I suspect that the events of each year are morally neutral, when taken altogether. This is not because I know anything about the future. It’s because I think the world of tomorrow is as valuable in expectation as the world of today nearly as a tautology. I wouldn’t pay any money to transform the world of today into the world of tomorrow—I’d rather just wait a year. Unfortunately, in light of concerns about replaceability, many of our actions may (essentially) have the effect of accelerating progress in one domain or another. If that’s the case, it behooves us to have an understanding of which changes in the world we like and which are negative.

The observation that the total of all changes is neutral, may help us pin down the impact of some kinds of change. For example, suppose A, B, and C are all changing. If we have no good arguments about whether A and B are changing in a good way, but we can tell that C is changing in a negative way, we can conclude that A and B together are changing in a positive way (and the default presumption should be that each of them is positive).

I am particularly curious about whether economic and technological progress are good, and how good they are. But in order to attack that question, I first have to ask: how good are the other events taking place over the same time? Should we be happy that faster technological change leaves less time for other developments, or should we be concerned? Here I’ll give a more elaborate taxonomy than I have in the past, and in future posts I’ll flesh out some of these categories further.

This is not an exhaustive taxonomy, but I’ve tried to include the categories that seem most significant to me: Read the rest of this entry »


Suppose I am trying to evaluate the consequences of taking job X. Here is a sequence of (hopefully decreasingly) naive ways to think about the impact of my decision.

(I don’t know if the later analyses are actually reasonable, but I’d really like to see more intellectually serious discussion of this issue by people who understand the world, and particularly economics, better than I do. I wouldn’t be surprised if more sophisticated versions of this analysis are already well-understood amongst economists, and simply haven’t been noticed by altruists trying to understand this issue. In that case, hopefully someone can point that out to me. Some of these analyses, and more sophisticated elaborations on them, appear in Ben Todd’s masters thesis.) Read the rest of this entry »

How useful is “progress”?

Most of the things that are happening in the world seem valuable to me: we understand science and engineering better, we acquire more expertise, the productive workforce grows, we invest in infrastructure and capital faster than it degrades, and so on. If I make the world of today richer or more technologically sophisticated, it seems like those gains will persist and compound for quite a while. On the other hand, people who work at cross-purposes to progress seem to get little traction. So naturally, when I consider trying to make the world better, I’m inclined to try to accelerate progress. Unfortunately I think that our intuitions overstate the value of speeding up progress (of all kinds), and that in the aggregate I don’t much care whether human progress goes faster or slower.

The basic issue is that accelerating progress doesn’t change where we are going, it only changes how quickly we get there. So unless you are in a rush, speeding things up doesn’t make the world much better. Of course, there are some cases where speeding up society does change things—for example when society is racing against destructive natural processes—but I suspect those effects are small.

Read the rest of this entry »