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.

writing effective altruism nietzsche bernard williams

Jonathan Bi on how to live with a Girardian worldview

I compared Girard to my Virgil in the sense that he was able to rescue me through Hell. He was able to show me how to purge more milder forms of perversion.

But, just as Virgil couldn’t take Dante all the way to heaven, neither could Girard. Girard kind of just retreats.

What I’m about to share with you is mostly my own creative interpretations on top of Girard.

I think there’s in general two solutions, once you’ve identified there’s a metaphysical and there’s a physical desire. One wing, and I think this is what Girard leans to, is to say this metaphysical–this is the Buddhist as well as the Girardian way–is to say this metaphysical desire, this desire for being, it’s completely perverse. It’s _always_perverse, whether from Girard’s perspective, because it’s essentially a desire to be God. This is why it’s satanic. You’re desiring persistence; you’re desiring power; you’re desiring reality. If you push those far enough, those are the metaphysical qualities of the Judeo-Christian God. So, Girard actually sees metaphysical desire as the original sin, as the satanic drive to rival God in his metaphysical splendor.

And the Buddhists–right–we don’t have to go into that, but long story short, these metaphysical qualities are not possible in the world. Emptiness is what permeates the world. So, this is a fundamentally wrong sort of desire.

So, for the Christians and Buddhists, the way to good health is to completely get rid of metaphysical desire, to be only concerned by the object physical desire.

There’s another, however, strand of thinking, and probably most popular amongst the Germans, in Hegel, is to say there is actually a healthy way–the Germans, and Plato actually, which we’ll talk about–there actually is a healthy way to exist in society. And the way, long story short, to do so is for your metaphysical and your physical desires to align.

That is to say: if you really like to do philosophy, don’t hang out with a bunch of people who are industrialists. Hang out with a bunch of philosophers, so that the somewhat partial spectator, as we’ve discussed, will naturally _align_with your normative values, with your physical desires, and thus you’ll receive recognition and a form of reality.

quote rené girard jonathan bi

Nick Bostrom on differential technological development

The Principle of Differential Technological Development

Retard the development of dangerous and harmful technologies, especially ones that raise the level of existential risk; and accelerate the development of beneficial technologies, especially those that reduce the existential risks posed by nature or by other technologies Bostrom, 2002).

The principle of differential technological development is compatible with plausible forms of technological determinism. For example, even if it were ordained that all technologies that can be developed will be developed, it can still matter when they are developed. The order in which they arrive can make an important difference — ideally, protective technologies should come before the destructive technologies against which they protect; or, if that is not possible, then it is desirable that the gap be minimized so that other countermeasures (or luck) may tide us over until robust protection become available. The timing of an invention also influences what sociopolitical context the technology is born into. For example, if we believe that there is a secular trend toward civilization becoming more capable of handling black balls, then we may want to delay the most risky technological developments, or at least abstain from accelerating them.

quotes nick bostrom futurism vulnerable world hypothesis

Nick Bostrom on “turnkey totalitarianism”

Developing a system for turnkey totalitarianism means incurring a risk, even if one does not intend for the key to be turned.

One could try to reduce this risk by designing the system with appropriate technical and institutional safeguards. For example, one could aim for a system of structured transparency’ that prevents concentrations of power by organizing the information architecture so that multiple independent stakeholders must give their permission in order for the system to operate, and so that only the specific information that is legitimately needed by some decision-maker is made available to her, with suitable redactions and anonymization applied as the purpose permits. With some creative mechanism design, some machine learning, and some fancy cryptographic footwork, there might be no fundamental barrier to achieving a surveillance system that is at once highly effective at its official function yet also somewhat resistant to being subverted to alternative uses.

How likely this is to be achieved in practice is of course another matter, which would require further exploration. Even if a significant risk of totalitarianism would inevitably accompany a well-intentioned surveillance project, it would not follow that pursuing such a project would increase the risk of totalitarianism. A relatively less risky well-intentioned project, commenced at a time of comparative calm, might reduce the risk of totalitarianism by preempting a less-wellintentioned and more risky project started during a crisis. But even if there were some net totalitarianism-risk-increasing effect, it might be worth accepting that risk in order to gain the general ability to stabilize civilization against emerging Type-1 threats (or for the sake of other benefits that extremely effective surveillance and preventive policing could bring).

quotes nick bostrom futurism vulnerable world hypothesis

Naturalism, pragmatism, impartiality

Joshua Greene’s naturalism

Joshua Greene sees morality as part of the natural world 1. It emerges from evolution, because certain kinds of cooperation are adaptive.

In his breakdown:

  • Morality helps individuals cooperate 2. Codes of morality operate within groups, but vary between groups.
  • Metamorality” helps groups cooperate. For groups to cooperate, they need to find a common currency, even if they have quite different codes of morality.

On this picture, both morality and metamorality stem from a practical problem—how can creatures like us flourish, get along, and have many descendants?

What Greene calls modern ethics” is mostly concerned with the question: how can we improve our metamorality?

Greene, following Jeremy Bentham, thinks that the best candidate for a common currency to support metamorality is: quality of experience. If you 5-whys ask people why they care about something, it often comes down to the quality of their experience—crudely: whether it amounts to pleasure or suffering, an experience they would gladly choose or strive to avoid.

Naturalism and impartiality

Where does the ideal of impartiality fit into this picture?

Moral philosophers and people associated with the effective altruism movement often characterise impartiality as:

Giving equal weight to everyone’s interests.

This is often cached out in negative terms, as:

Trying to avoid giving undue weight to particular interests based on (putatively) non-morally-relevant factors such as race, gender, proximity in space and time, nationality, species membership, or substrate.

Usually, such lists are motivated by a positive claim about what kinds of things are morally-relevant, such as capacity for wellbeing, or sentience.

Let’s bracket the question of what our positive claim, and our list of morally-irrelevant factors, should look like. Let’s instead zoom in on the undue weight” part.

At the level of within-group morality, one can tell a story about how norms of (relatively) equal treatment and fairness could emerge as a stable equilbria, grounded upon (relatively) equal distributions of power in forager societies. 3

At the level of between-group metamorality, we can tell a similar story: groups will be reluctant to cooperate if they think their interests are unduly neglected (though they may in fact accept a bunch of unfair treatement, if their other options—e.g. conflict—seem worse).

So how do we cash out undue weight” in naturalistic terms? Well, the obvious candidate is: non-adaptive.

In moral philosophy and effective altruism, the impartiality story” is not told as though it’s based on evolutionary logic of adaptive bargains and long-run equilibria. The story is not we should be impartial in order to solve our co-operation problems and maximise reproductive fitness”. But rather, the idea is we should impartially promote the good because… well… that’s the right thing to do”.

This seems like a case where your metaethics, or the story you tell about what we’re up to when we do moral philosophy, rather matters.

Bernard Williams, discussing the limits to impartiality, approvingly quotes Max Stirner:

The tiger who attacks me is in the right, and so am I when I strike him down. I defend against him not my right, but myself.

—Max Stirner

Williams imagines that humanity is threatened by an alien civilisation, and suggests that in such a situation, it would not be appropriate ask:

  1. What outcome would maximise value according to our best impartial axiology?

For Williams as for Greene, our impartiality axiology is ultimately a tool that’s supposed to serve us, not an external imperative that we are supposed to serve. Thoughts to the contrary are a relic of a world not yet fully disenchanted”, i.e. the artefact of a non-secular worldview 4.

Rather, he thinks we should ask:

  1. What outcome would be best for us (or according to us)?

The choice between (a) and (b) isn’t just academic: we face situations where we must decide which of these questions to ask now, soon, and in the long-run:

  1. (now) Western liberalism vs Political Islam; West vs China; etc
  2. (soon?) Digital Minds
  3. (long-run) Alien civilisations

Naturalism vs non-naturalism; pragmatism and normativity

For the naturalist, moral and metamoral questions are quite empirical. In the current environment, which ideals actually work?

(The normativity within actually work” boils down to adaptive fitness”, whether we recognise this or not.)

As Bostrom & Schulman reminded us recently 5, we can reasonably reject the insistence of many philosophers that there’s a fundamental distinction between descriptive and normative claims. After reflecting on Pragmatism last autumn, I became more confident is that this distinction is not, in fact, fundemental. Rather, things are blurry—there’s no such thing as a purely descriptive claim, when we begin our enquiry we’re always already bound up in the normative project of being humans trying to get by in the world, with various aims and agendas baked in 6.

On the naturalistic perspective, we started out trying to solve a practical problem—how can we get along with groups with which, on the surface, we don’t share much in common—and ended up mistakenly thinking of ourselves as doing something else (seeking the (meta)moral truth, then following that). If that’s our self-image, we won’t be so concerned with empirics: we’ll just try whatever our culture and our moral philosophers come up with, and if it works” in the naturalistic sense, all good. Otherwise, we’ll get wiped out, perhaps gradually, perhaps quickly.

The non-naturalist impartialist thinks there is an external, non-human standard, so they are likely to be more interested in revisionary or revolutionary maximisation—maximisation of whatever they think is valuable, independently of humans—and chafing against the constraints imposed by being the kinds of creatures we find ourselves to be.

On the naturalistic perspective, we’ll be more concerned with thinking about what flavours of impartiality are going to work well for us over the long run. We’d be more inclined to, like the pragmatist, keep coming back to the question: what problem are we actually trying to solve here?

  1. See Moral Tribes or his interview with Sean Carroll.↩︎

  2. A set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation.” Moral Tribes p.23↩︎

  3. People seem to think that before the agricultural revolution, human tribes were much more egalitarian. C.f. Hanson on forager vs farmer morality.↩︎

  4. Derek Parfit, and other non-naturalists, would disagree, but despite some hunting, I’ve not found arguments for non-naturalism that strike me as persuasive.↩︎


  6. Nietzsche was also very clear on this.↩︎

writing moral philosophy impartiality pragmatism naturalism joshua greene bernard williams

Digital minds: descendents or rivals?

Should we think of digital minds as our descendents, or our rivals?

If they are descendents, we can think of them as children—different from us in important ways, but carrying on the flame.

If they are rivals, well—they are rivals. If they inherit the future, then we have, in some important sense, lost.

If you think that digital minds will inherit the future whether we like it or not, the main way in which this matters is how it affects your attitudes toward this future today. And so perhaps we should make more effort to like it.

writing digital minds