You might also like to listen to the podcast episode and have a look at the comments in the original post which cover quite a few objections to Will’s argument.
For what it’s worth I don’t think Will ever suggests the hinge was in the past (I might be wrong though). His idea that hinginess generally increases over time probably implies that he doesn’t think the hinge was in the past. He does mention that thinking about the past is useful though to get a sense of the overall distribution of hinginess over time which then allows us to compare the present to the future.
Also I just want to add that Will isn’t implying we shouldn’t do anything about x-risks, just that we may want to diversify by putting more resources into “buck-passing” strategies that allow more influential decision-makers in the future to be as effective as possible
I think you probably need to read the argument again (but so do I and apologies if I get anything wrong here). Will has two main arguments against thinking that we are currently at the hinge of history (HoH):
1. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if right now was the HoH. In other words our prior probability of that possibility should be low and so we need pretty extraordinary evidence to believe that we are at HoH (and we don’t have such extraordinary evidence)
2. Hinginess generally has increased over time as we become more knowledgeable, powerful and hold better values. We should probably expect this trend to continue and so it seems most likely that HoH is in the future
I understand that (critical) feedback on his ideas mainly came in challenging point 1 - many in the EA movement don’t think we need to set such a low prior for HoH and think that the evidence that we are at HoH is strong enough.
Oh that’s great. I very much hope that goes well! I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression from my comments, I would love to see SWB be taken more seriously in the development economics literature.
Well I guess someone who hasn’t heard of EA couldn’t say that.
So I don’t think that statement is quite as useless as you do. It shows that he:
A) Knows about EA
B) Has at least implied that he wants to use EA thinking in the role
EAs generally tend to think that the cause areas they focus on and the prioritisation they do within those cause areas allow them to be many magnitudes more effective than a typical non-EA. So I might expect him, in expectation, to be more effective than a typical mayor.
I do take your point that that alone isn’t much and we will want to examine his track record and specific proposals in more detail.
This might depend on how you define welfare. If you define it to be something like “the intrinsic goodness of the experience of a sentient being” or something along those lines, then I would think C being better than B can’t really be disputed.
For example if you accept a preference utilitarian view of the world, and under the above definition of welfare, the fact that the person has higher welfare must mean that they have had some preferences satisfied. Otherwise in what sense can we say that they had higher welfare?
If we have this interpretation of welfare I don’t think it makes any sense to discuss that C might not be better than B. What do you think?
Thanks, I’ll check out your writings on VCLU!
Thanks. There’s a lot to digest there. It’s an interesting idea that population ethics is simply separate to the rest of ethics. That’s something I want to think about a bit more.
Thanks that’s interesting. I have more credence in hedonistic utilitarianism than preference utilitarianism for similar reasons to the ones you raise.
Thanks for all of this. I think IIA is just something that seems intuitive. For example it would seem silly to me for someone to choose jam over peanut butter but then, on finding out that honey mustard was also an option, think that they should have chosen peanut butter. My support of IIA doesn’t really go beyond this intuitive feeling and perhaps I should think about it more.
Thanks for the readings about lexicality and rank-discounted utilitarianism. I’ll check it out.
Thanks for your response. Apologies that I chose to sidestep the actual analysis itself. For what it’s worth I was very impressed when I was reading through it. I might revisit at some point to see if there are any specific comments I can provide on the analysis.
There are quite a few separate points you could be making and I’m not sure which you mean to press.
Apologies if I wasn’t clear. The main point I want to press isn’t that I disagree with the use of SWB in LMIC analysis, it’s actually just to highlight that, to my knowledge, this isn’t the preferred approach of economists to analyse wellbeing in LMICs. Therefore if such analysis is going to feature heavily in HLI’s work I personally think it would be worth your while to address this tension formally in some way. This could be by doing a write-up to justify your choice to use SWB rather than say the capability approach or multi-dimensional poverty indices. If you address this formally I think it would increase the probability that the work of HLI is taken seriously by economists, and you may even win over some converts to your cause. If you don’t address this I have a feeling many economists (and perhaps some other people of interest) would ignore your work citing concerns over adaptive preferences.
Of course I’m not an expert so if I were you I’d test this with some academic economists. The director of The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, Sabina Alkire, is a leader in multidimensional poverty and the capability approach. She would be a brilliant person to talk to get a clearer sense of the current views of economists regarding the use of SWB in LMIC. It may well be the case that economists are more accepting of this approach than I realise.
A different concern one might have is that those in low-income contexts use scales very differently from those elsewhere: someone who says there are 4⁄10 but lives in poverty actually has a very different set of psychological states from someone who says they are 4⁄10 in the UK.
For what it’s worth I think that this might be the most prominent concern. I look forward to seeing your paper arguing for cardinal comparability. If your paper covers cardinal comparability between those in low-income and high-income contexts, then I think it would go some way to addressing the tension that I have raised.
Thanks, an interesting view, although not one I immediately find convincing.
I have higher credence in hedonistic utilitarianism than preference utilitarianism so would not be concerned by the fact that no frustrated preferences would be satisfied in your scenario. Improving hedonistic welfare, even if there is no preliminary suffering, still seems to me to be a good thing to do.
For example we could consider someone walking around, happy without a care in the world, and then going home and sleeping. Then we could consider the alternative that the person is walking around, happy without a care in the world, and then happens upon the most beautiful sight they have ever seen filling them with a long-lasting sense of wonder and fulfilment. It seems to me that the latter scenario is indeed better than the former.
Thanks for this, I suspected you might make a helpful comment! The procreation asymmetry is my long lost love. It’s what I used to believe quite strongly but ultimately I started to doubt it for the same reasons that I’ve outlined in this post.
My intuition is that giving up IIA is only slightly less barmy than giving up transitivity, but thanks for the suggested reading. I certainly feel like my thinking on population ethics can evolve further and I don’t rule out reconnecting with the procreation asymmetry.
For what it’s worth my current view is that the repugnant conclusion may only seem repugnant because we tend to think of ‘a life barely worth living’ as a pretty drab existence. I actually think that such a life is much ‘better’ than we intuitively think. I have a hunch that various biases are contributing to us overvaluing the quality of our lives in comparison to the zero level, something that David Benatar has written about. My thinking on this is very nascent though and there’s always the very repugnant conclusion to contend with which keeps me somewhat uneasy with total utilitarianism.
A very interesting post! Thanks for sharing.
I understand that the main objective of this post was to demonstrate a proof of concept and not to argue that the WELLBY approach should be used. If you are planning to do some work on the latter I would personally suggest looking closely at the literature around the suitability of using SWB scores in low-income settings. My understanding is that the consensus view amongst economists is that alternative approaches, such as the capability approach or multi-dimensional poverty indices, are preferable to SWB in such contexts. I should say that I’m currently fairly agnostic on this issue and could be swayed either way, which is why I would love to see a review and philosophical discussion of the literature. If HLI is looking to focus on LMICs, I personally think such a review would be important.
One of the main points of contention is that of “adaptive preferences”. The idea can probably be best be summed up in this quote by Amartya Sen:
The utilitarian calculus based on, say, happiness can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived, such as the traditional underdogs in stratified societies, oppressed minorities in intolerant communities, precarious sharecroppers living in a world of uncertainty, sweated workers in exploitative industrial arrangements, subdued housewives in deeply sexist cultures. The hopelessly deprived people may lack the courage to desire any radical change and often tend to adjust their desires and expectations to what little they see as feasible. They train themselves to take pleasure in small mercies. The practical merit of such adjustments for people in chronically adverse positions is easy to understand: this is one way of making deprived lives bearable. But the adjustments also have the incidental effect of distorting the scale of utilities.
Sen, A. K. 2008. “The Economics of Happiness and Capability.” L. Bruni, F. Comim, and M. Pugno, eds., Capabilities and Happiness, 16–27. New York: Oxford University Press.
Of course you can bite the bullet and say that there is no morally significant difference between a highly deprived person who has adapted to their environment and rates themself at a 5, versus someone materially well off who also rates themselves at a 5. This doesn’t seem to me to be an obviously repugnant view to take, but it is something that I think should be discussed.
I should note that it isn’t immediately clear to me to what extent adaptation could be a problem for your analysis in this post. After all, your analysis around the doubling of consumption considers changes in life satisfaction as opposed to say comparing levels between the poor and rich world for the purposes of optimising resource allocation between them. In addition I did find it interesting in your WELLBYs lost from death analysis, that the happiness scores you cite for the LMIC world are pretty low, which might imply that such adaptation hasn’t occurred to a meaningful extent. Even so, I would say that using life satisfaction scores in a low-income context in the first place requires some acknowledgement of the literature that is critical of doing so. Also, when I saw that the IDinsight beneficiary survey estimated the neutral point at 0.56, whilst the UK study found it at 2⁄10, this flagged to me the possibility of some adaptive preferences at play.
I just want to reiterate that I’m not saying using SWB measures in LMICs is inappropriate, I just think it might be helpful to have greater scrutiny of doing so.
P.S. Apologies if all of the above was entirely obvious to you and you already have / are planning to look into this topic. Also apologies if I have exaggerated the potential scale of the issue—I’m not an expert when it comes to the economics of LMICs by any means. Having said that I can point you in the direction of some relevant reading if you’re interested in investigating further.
OK thanks that all makes sense. I would love for there to further research and investigation. For example some philosophers/education practitioners in the movement could have a look at the philosophy course I mention to see if it’s something that is worth supporting in addition to your suggestions in another comment.
Thanks for these clarifications Michael
Yes it’s possible, but not definite, that I would prefer P4C (or another method of teaching philosophy). Critical thinking alone has no ethical dimension. Someone with better critical thinking skills may be more able to grasp important ethical principles, but would they be interested in doing so? Maybe not.
Michael A’s post introducing the benevolence, intelligence, power (BIP) framework seems relevant here. It may be bad to increase the intelligence of actors who aren’t sufficiently benevolent in the first place. That’s why I am interested in the evidence that P4C can improve empathy.
I should note that I don’t necessarily see utilitarianism as the best ethical theory we will ever have, but I do think it’s probably the best one we currently have (although I understand Parfit has some interesting things to say on this in his 2011 book which I haven’t read). More people studying philosophy increases the probability that we will one day make further ethical progress towards the ‘best’ or ‘true’ ethical theory if in fact such a thing exists.
Thanks for this, all very fair points.
I share your concerns about EA being too associated with all of this. I’m not sure it has to be though.
For example when it comes to my suggestion of prominent EA academics (e.g. Peter Singer, Toby Ord etc.) joining advocacy efforts to boost philosophy in schools I don’t mean they should do this with their EA hat on. Peter Singer could do this as “the world’s most famous living ethicist” as opposed to as “the godfather of EA”. Similarly we wouldn’t need EAs to say “please include these EA ideas in the curriculum”, we could just have them say “the ethics of eating meat is a huge issue that should be included”. In short EA doesn’t have to explicitly come into this at all.
The inclusion of EA ideas into curricula was only one of my points anyway and it may not be absolutely necessary. As I mentioned, explicit EA outreach is probably better done at undergraduate level. Before uni, the most important thing is just philosophical learning.
Thanks for this, sounds very promising. I may reach out to some Teach First people when I’ve had a bit more time to reflect on feedback.