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Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: What We Owe The Future

 When I first heard about What We Owe The Future, I thought that longtermism would be easy to explain and the book wouldn't have much to offer. I was wrong. One of the earliest parts of the book talks about how unlikely our current present with by discussing the contingency of slavery abolition. It turns out that it was an unlikely sequence of events that created the abolition movement, and unlike the right-wing conservative view, the elimination of slavery was a true act of altruism, not driven by economics whatsoever:

at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. In the years leading up to abolition, British colonies produced more sugar than the rest of the world combined, and Britain consumed the most sugar of any country.85 When slavery was abolished, the shelf price of sugar increased by about 50 percent, costing the British public £21 million over seven years—about 5 percent of British expenditure at the time.86 Indeed, the slave trade was booming rather than declining: even though Britain had abolished its slave trade in 1807, more Africans were taken in the transatlantic slave trade between 1821 and 1830 than in any other decade except the 1780s.87 The British government paid off British slave owners in order to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which gradually freed the enslaved across most of the British Empire.88 This cost the British government £20 million, amounting to 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual expenditure at the time.89 To finance the payments, the British government took out a £15 million loan, which was not fully paid back until 2015. The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807...from 1807 to 1867, enforcing abolition cost Britain almost 2 percent of its annual national income, several times what Britain spends today on foreign aid; political scientists Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufman described this campaign as “the most expensive international moral effort in modern history.”91 If the economic interpretation were correct, such activity would have been unnecessary because the slave trade would have been on its way out anyway... “antislavery organizing was odd rather than inevitable, a peculiar institution rather than the inevitable outcome of moral and cultural progress.… In key respects the British antislavery movement was a historical accident, a contingent event that just as easily might never have occurred.”...If the United States had instead remained part of the British Empire, Britain might have been more reluctant to jeopardise its uneasy relationship with the United States by taking a divisive action like abolishing the slave trade.124 The plantation lobby would also have been bigger in a still-united empire. Finally, Brown notes that abolitionists in France struggled because they lacked the opportunities and status of those in England. Because abolitionist thought grew in France around the same time as the French and Haitian revolutions, abolitionist thought, Brown argues, became linked with violence and strife.123(kindle loc. 1088-1208)

To me, that understanding of the history behind the anti-slavery movement  by itself justified reading the book. The book is overall very optimistic --- it views the future of humanity as being very bright, and that nearly everything you can do to ensure that humanity survives and has a benevolent future is justified.

If the rest of the book was of this nature I think I would have no hesitation endorsing the thoughts behind the book. However, pretty soon after this discussion the book veers into ultra-right-wing libertarian thinking. For instance, the author asserts that it's a moral duty to have more children, despite the increased carbon emissions that having a child in a developed country generates. The theory is that one more somewhat happy person makes the world better off, even if it causes the immiseration of the rest of the world by creating carbon emissions (which the author happily admits will affect climate for hundreds of thousands of years). He delves into population ethics, and somehow comes to the conclusion that a world with say, 10,000 very happy people (call these the Koch brothers and the Elon Musks) and 10 billion somewhat unhappy people, is a better world than a world with 1 billion happy people, just because there are more people who would rather have been born than not to have lived. In other words, the philosophy behind the author's population ethics completely justifies slavery and the highly inequitable world we live in. To me, that's crazy talk!

There's a lot of concern about long term economic stagnation. Once again, the idea here is that the way out of that is to keep increasing the number of people in the world, since more minds being available to solve problems will create more innovative solutions. This approach completely ignores the fact that it doesn't matter how many minds are born --- if your societal approach eliminates the possibility of good education and the possibility of contributing to solutions rather than creating problems, then the increased population probably is more likely to cause the ultimate extinction of humanity than to contribute to the long term survival of civilization. The author even admits that pre-industrial hunter gatherer societies actually were better nourished and had more free time than agriculturists, and perhaps even lead more fulfilling lives than the average citizen of more modern societies working 40-80 hour weeks and having zero paid vacations.

Thankfully, I don't think I have to spend a lot of time debunking the effective altruism movement. Folks like Sam Bankman Fried have pretty much exposed that movement as full of people using questionable approaches in order to justify unethical behavior. This book veers into that and even though it's been published less than a year ago, has already shown that it doesn't age well.

Nevertheless, you should always read books that you disagree with just in case you're wrong. In this case, the book itself is well written and a good way for you to test yourself against its moral conclusions. Even if you disagree, it'll give you lots to think about.

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