An Argument for Why the Future May Be Good

In late 2014, I ate lunch with an EA who prefers to re­main anony­mous. I had origi­nally been of the opinion that, should hu­mans sur­vive, the fu­ture is likely to be bad. He con­vinced me to change my mind about this.

I haven’t seen this ar­gu­ment writ­ten up any­where and so, with his per­mis­sion, I’m at­tempt­ing to put it on­line for dis­cus­sion.

A sketch of the ar­gu­ment is:

  1. Hu­mans are gen­er­ally not evil, just lazy

  2. There­fore, we should ex­pect there to only be suffer­ing in the fu­ture if that suffer­ing en­ables peo­ple to be lazier

  3. The most effi­cient solu­tions to prob­lems don’t seem like they in­volve suffering

  4. There­fore, as tech­nol­ogy pro­gresses, we will move more to­wards solu­tions which don’t in­volve suffering

  5. Fur­ther­more, peo­ple are gen­er­ally will­ing to ex­ert some (small) amount of effort to re­duce suffering

  6. As tech­nol­ogy pro­gresses, the amount of effort re­quired to re­duce suffer­ing will go down

  7. There­fore, the fu­ture will con­tain less net suffering

  8. There­fore, the fu­ture will be good

My Origi­nal The­ory for Why the Fu­ture Might Be Bad

There are about ten billion farmed land an­i­mals kil­led for food ev­ery year in the US, which has a pop­u­la­tion of ~320 mil­lion hu­mans.

The farmed an­i­mals are over­whelm­ingly liv­ing in fac­tory farm­ing con­di­tions, which re­sults in enor­mous cru­elties, and prob­a­bly have lives which are not worth liv­ing. Since (a) farmed an­i­mals so com­pletely out­num­ber hu­mans, (b) hu­mans are the cause of their cru­elty, and (c) hu­mans haven’t caused an equal/​higher # of be­ings to lead happy lives, hu­man ex­is­tence is plau­si­bly bad on net.

Fur­ther­more, tech­nol­ogy seems to have in­sti­gated this prob­lem. An­i­mal agri­cul­ture has never been great for the an­i­mals which were be­ing slaugh­tered, but there was his­tor­i­cally some mod­icum of welfare. For ex­am­ple: chick­ens had to be let out­side at least some of the time, be­cause oth­er­wise they would de­velop vi­tamin D defi­cien­cies. But with the dis­cov­ery of vi­tam­ins and meth­ods for syn­the­siz­ing them, chick­ens could now be kept in­doors for their en­tire lives. Other sci­en­tific ad­vance­ments like an­tibiotics en­abled them to be packed densely, so that now the av­er­age chicken has 67 inches of space (about two thirds the size of a sheet of pa­per).

It’s very hard to pre­dict the fu­ture, but one rea­son­able thing you can do is guess that cur­rent trends will con­tinue. Even if you don’t be­lieve so­ciety is cur­rently net nega­tive, it seems fairly clear that the trend has been get­ting worse (e.g. the num­ber of suffer­ing farmed an­i­mals grew much more rapidly than the [pre­sum­ably happy] hu­man pop­u­la­tion over the last cen­tury), and there­fore we should pre­dict that the fu­ture will be bad.

His Response

Tech­nol­ogy is nei­ther good nor bad, it’s merely a tool which en­ables the peo­ple who use it to do good or bad things. In the case of fac­tory farm­ing, it it seemed to me (Ben) that peo­ple over­whelm­ingly wanted to do bad things, and there­fore tech­nolog­i­cal progress was bad. Tech­nolog­i­cal progress will pre­sum­ably con­tinue, and there­fore we might ex­pect this eth­i­cal trend to con­tinue and the fu­ture to be even worse than to­day.

He pointed out that this wasn’t an en­tirely ac­cu­rate way of view­ing things: peo­ple didn’t ac­tively want to cause suffer­ing, they are just lazy, and it turns out that the lazy solu­tion in this case causes more suffer­ing.

So the key ques­tion is: when we look at prob­lems that the fu­ture will have, will the lazy solu­tion be the morally worse one?

It seems like the an­swer is plau­si­bly “no”. To give some ex­am­ples:

  1. Fac­tory farm­ing ex­ists be­cause the eas­iest way to get food which tastes good and meets var­i­ous so­cial goals peo­ple have causes cru­elty. Once we get more sci­en­tifi­cally ad­vanced though, it will pre­sum­ably be­come even more effi­cient to pro­duce foods with­out any con­scious ex­pe­rience at all by the an­i­mals (i.e. clean meat); at that point, the lazy solu­tion is the more eth­i­cal one.

    1. (This ar­guably is what hap­pened with do­mes­tic work an­i­mals on farms: we now have cars and trucks which re­placed horses and mules, mak­ing even the phrase “beat like a rented mule” seem ap­pal­ling.)

  2. Slav­ery ex­ists be­cause there is cur­rently no way to get la­bor from peo­ple with­out them hav­ing con­scious ex­pe­rience. Again though, this is due to a lack of sci­en­tific knowl­edge: there is no ob­vi­ous rea­son why con­scious ex­pe­rience is re­quired for plow­ing a field or har­vest­ing co­coa, and there­fore the more effi­cient solu­tion is to sim­ply have non­con­scious robots do these tasks.

    1. (This ar­guably is what hap­pened with hu­man slav­ery in the US: in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion meant that slav­ery wasn’t re­quired to cre­ate wealth in a large chunk of the US, and there­fore slav­ery was out­lawed.)

Of course, this is not a defini­tive proof that the fu­ture will be good. One can imag­ine the anti-GMO lobby mor­ph­ing into an anti-clean meat lobby as part of some mis­guided ap­peal to na­ture, for ex­am­ple.

But this does give us hope that the lazy – and there­fore de­fault – po­si­tion on is­sues will gen­er­ally be the more eth­i­cal one, and there­fore peo­ple would need to ac­tively work against the grain in or­der to make the world less eth­i­cal.

If any­thing, we might have some hope to­wards the op­po­site: a small but non­triv­ial frac­tion of peo­ple are cur­rently ve­gan, and a larger num­ber of peo­ple spend ex­tra money to buy an­i­mal prod­ucts which (they be­lieve) are less in­hu­mane. I am not aware of any large group which does the op­po­site (go out of their way to cause more cru­elty to farmed an­i­mals). There­fore, we might guess that the av­er­age po­si­tion of peo­ple is slightly eth­i­cal and so peo­ple would be will­ing to not just be ve­gan if that was the cheaper op­tion, but also be will­ing to pay a small amount of money to live more eth­i­cally.

The same thing goes for slav­ery: a small frac­tion of con­sumers go out of their way to buy slave-free choco­late, with no cor­re­spond­ing group of peo­ple who go out of their way to buy choco­late pro­duced with slav­ery. Once ma­chines come close to hu­man co­coa grow­ing abil­ities, we would ex­pect choco­late in­dus­try slav­ery to die off.

Summary

If the de­fault course of hu­man­ity is to be eth­i­cal, our prior should be that the fu­ture will be good, and the bur­den of proof shifts to those who be­lieve that the fu­ture will be bad.

I do not be­lieve it pro­vides a knock­down coun­ter­ar­gu­ment to con­cerns about s-risks, but I hope this ar­gu­ment’s pub­li­ca­tion en­courages more dis­cus­sion of the topic, and a view­point some read­ers have not be­fore con­sid­ered.

This post rep­re­sents a com­bi­na­tion of my and the anony­mous EA’s views. Any er­rors are mine. I would like to thank Gina Stuessy and this EA for proofread­ing a draft of this post, and for talk­ing about this and many other im­por­tant ideas about the far fu­ture with me.