Email to Tyler Cowen on Bernard Williams & effective altruism

In your MacAskill interview, and again in the St Andrews talk, I heard you channeling Bernard Williams on Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline and especially The Human Prejudice.

I agree that Williams on philosophy and impartiality is an important message for EA. I pushed this line in conversations with Will MacAskill and others in 2015, and with several other Oxford figures since then. I’m surely not the ideal advocate, but in the replies I mostly heard a lot of ugh, Bernard” followed by weak arguments against superficial misreadings of his work. People seemed very much in the mode of devalue and dismiss”.

My best EA Forum post is also my least popular:

Williams’ low status within EA is surprising given how seriously Derek Parfit took him as a peer. I understand that Williams was often seen as using non-kosher methods and unkind remarks in his philosophical writing and conversation, and was intensely disliked by some of his peers. So I suspect that much of his neglect is driven by residual animosity in the Oxford crowd. But they ignore this kind of thing and just take the ideas seriously”… right…?

There are some notable exceptions. For example, Thomas Moynihan is somewhat associated with the Oxford EA scene, and appropriately rates Bernard Williams. Unsurprisingly, Tom has a background in continental” philosophy.

You’ve not blogged much about Williams. How about it? E.g.

  1. Was Williams a pragmatist in denial, per Rorty’s review of Truth and Truthfulness? Why did he resist Rorty?

  2. What prioritisation errors are made by those who go too far with impartiality? 

On (2): if EAs stopped going too far” with impartiality, I think we’d see the EA portfolio shift a bit towards catastrophic risk and away from existential risk. The current strong focus on x-risk can be seen as another form of the 51:49 bet.

A couple years ago one of the more influential EAs told me that rejecting the 51:49 bet is a form of egoism. We should not care about our personal chances of survival: we should just follow the rule that maximises EV across all possible worlds. I replied that ecological rationality beats axiomatic rationality in the world I care about. But if you think impartial reasons are the only reasons that count, you can’t justify your arbitrary” care for this particular world over others.

And with that—and your remarks on the useful generativity of a mistake taken seriously—we’re back to Nietzsche’s remarks on Plato:

It seems that in order to inscribe themselves upon the heart of humanity with everlasting claims, all great things have first to wander about the earth as enormous and awe- inspiring caricatures: dogmatic philosophy has been a caricature of this kind–for instance, the Vedanta doctrine in Asia, and Platonism in Europe. Let us not be ungrateful to it, although it must certainly be confessed that the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error–namely, Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself. But now when it has been surmounted, when Europe, rid of this nightmare, can again draw breath freely and at least enjoy a healthier–sleep, we, WHOSE DUTY IS WAKEFULNESS ITSELF, are the heirs of all the strength which the struggle against this error has fostered. It amounted to the very inversion of truth, and the denial of the PERSPECTIVE–the fundamental condition–of life, to speak of Spirit and the Good as Plato spoke of them; indeed one might ask, as a physician: How did such a malady attack that finest product of antiquity, Plato? Had the wicked Socrates really corrupted him? Was Socrates after all a corrupter of youths, and deserved his hemlock?” But the struggle against Plato, or–to speak plainer, and for the people”–the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (FOR CHRISITIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE PEOPLE), produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals. 


P.S. Nietzsche’s thoughts on effective altruism, according to ChatGPT.

January 13, 2023