Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

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 »