Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Scott Siskind on Long-Termism

Scott Siskind has a review up of Will MacAskill's What We Owe the Future, a new book that is currently being hyped all over the place. MacAskill is one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, the people who try to calculate what charitable donations (and other acts) do the most good. In practical terms, I think this is great, because some people want to know what charities are really helping poor people, and now they can find out. Philosophicallly, I think EA is extremely dubious, and I think Siskind agrees.

What We Owe the Future shows the problems that make me queasy. It is an argument for what is now called Long-Termism, which boils down to valuing the happiness of people in the future as much as that of those living today. People into this posit lots of hypotheticals about the hundreds of billions of people in the future, and how a 1% increase in the happiness of those future hundreds of billions is vastly more important than a 1% increase or decrease in our happiness today. I think this is stupid. First, it totally ignores human psychology, and any moral movement that ignores what people are actually like is going to fail; and second, it assumes we know anything about the future, and I say we do not. Consider:

The effective altruist movement started with Peter Singer’s Drowning Child scenario: suppose while walking to work you see a child drowning in the river. You are a good swimmer and could easily save them. But the muddy water would ruin your expensive suit. Do you have an obligation to jump in and help? If yes, it sounds like you think you have a moral obligation to save a child’s life even if it costs you money. But giving money to charity could save the life of a child in the developing world. So maybe you should donate to charity instead of buying fancy things in the first place.

MacAskill introduces long-termism with the Broken Bottle hypothetical: you are hiking in the forest and you drop a bottle. It breaks into sharp glass shards. You expect a barefoot child to run down the trail and injure herself. Should you pick up the shards? What if it the trail is rarely used, and it would be a whole year before the expected injury? What if it is very rarely used, and it would be a millennium? Most people say that you need to pick up the shards regardless of how long it will be - a kid getting injured is a kid getting injured.

Starting with Peter Singer: if you think you can make humans care as much about people they have never seen, met, or heard of as they do about a child drowning in front of them, you are silly, and I will pay no more attention to anything you say.

And now moving on to the Broken Bottle. As an archaeologist, I can tell you that the danger you face from year-old broken glass is almost exactly zero. If your trail is paved or rock, it will long ago have been shoved aside. If your trail is dirt, it will long ago have been trampled down into the soil. In fact, every well-trodden trail in the world is full of artifacts that have been buried in just this way. The soil of every urban park is full of broken glass, and nobody is ever bothered by this.

The point is that Will MacAskill simply does not know enough to predict what actions will have bad future consequences. In this case I do know, and in many other cases somebody else will know. Mostly, though, we have no idea. Which makes worrying too much about the future a big waste of time.

There are, of course, exceptions. Reducing our use and wastage of chemical poisons seems like a no-brainer to me, given the likely future effects. Most of us would agree that pandemics pose a future hazard bad enough that we should invest more in pandemic preparedness; this seems to me like a reasonable investment based on what we know and what we can do. The threat of greenhouse gases seems less certain to me, but real enough that I support moving to a carbon-neutral future. 

But consider: most of us would also agree that nuclear war would be very bad for the future, so we should avoid it. But to those who say that the risk of nuclear war with Russia is so terrible that we should just surrender Ukraine to awful despotism, I say, to hell with you. There are things I will not stomach to avoid a 1% chance of catastrophe.

I think worrying about even a hundred years in the future is silly; we simply have no intellectual basis for it. Over the next few decades, I believe that the biggest threat facing humanity is despotism. I think if people's lives are worse in 20 years than they are now, that will be because governments are worse; what is happening in Russia is Exhibit A. So the most important thing we can do for the future, now, is to defend democracy. And telling people they should do a lot of sacrificing for people they have never seen, or who have not even been born, is a great way to get them to vote for authoritarians who will shut you up.

No comments: