Long-Term Influence and Movement Growth: Two Historical Case Studies

For those who are sym­pa­thetic to longter­mism, one promis­ing line of in­quiry is to ex­am­ine past events that have had very long-run in­fluence to see whether they hold any les­sons for pre­sent-day efforts. As part of my re­search for the Forethought Foun­da­tion, I’ve looked into a cou­ple of pos­si­ble ex­am­ples: the rise of early Chris­ti­an­ity, and the triumph of Con­fu­ci­anism over Mo­hism and other Chi­nese schools of thought.

With re­spect to early Chris­ti­an­ity, I was ini­tially tasked with as­sess­ing the role of Con­stan­tine’s con­ver­sion in the spread of Chris­ti­an­ity through­out the Ro­man Em­pire. How­ever, in the course of my re­search I came to be­lieve that this was less of a de­ci­sive fac­tor, and that Chris­ti­an­ity would likely have achieved a po­si­tion of dom­i­nance re­gard­less of Con­stan­tine’s con­ver­sion. More gen­er­ally (and per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly), I be­came more con­vinced that it’s difficult to point to spe­cific events and say with much con­fi­dence that they sig­nifi­cantly al­tered the course of his­tory.

Nev­er­the­less, these write-ups may still be of in­ter­est to longter­mists. Reli­gions are among the most long-last­ing in­sti­tu­tions in his­tory, and may be in­struc­tive to study for that rea­son alone. In ad­di­tion, these write-ups may hold some les­sons on so­cial move­ment growth that could in­form our think­ing about the fu­ture of effec­tive al­tru­ism. The de­cline of Mo­hism is per­haps par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing, as the Mo­hists re­sem­ble effec­tive al­tru­ists in some strik­ing ways: as the world’s first con­se­quen­tial­ists they em­pha­sised im­par­tial car­ing over at­tach­ment to one’s fam­ily, saw lav­ish so­cial rit­u­als as waste­ful, and held other views that were un­likely to ap­peal to the rulers of the time. Of course, these are not core el­e­ments of EA doc­trine, but the de­cline of Mo­hism may still be a failure mode to bear in mind.

Need­less to say, these are only a few data points from so­cieties very differ­ent from our own, and one should there­fore be care­ful not to draw too strong con­clu­sions from them. More­over, I spent about 16 hours in to­tal on each of the two doc­u­ments, so these are only some ini­tial find­ings. With those caveats in mind, here are the write-ups:

Any feed­back is much ap­pre­ci­ated. I would be es­pe­cially in­ter­ested if you have ideas for other his­tor­i­cal case stud­ies that could in­form the longter­mist pro­ject.