#46 Classic episode - Hilary Greaves on moral cluelessness & tackling crucial questions in academia
Rebroadcast: this episode was originally released in October 2018.
The barista gives you your coffee and change, and you walk away from the busy line. But you suddenly realise she gave you $1 less than she should have. Do you brush your way past the people now waiting, or just accept this as a dollar you’re never getting back? According to philosophy Professor Hilary Greaves - Director of Oxford University's Global Priorities Institute, which is hiring - this simple decision will completely change the long-term future by altering the identities of almost all future generations.
How? Because by rushing back to the counter, you slightly change the timing of everything else people in line do during that day - including changing the timing of the interactions they have with everyone else. Eventually these causal links will reach someone who was going to conceive a child.
By causing a child to be conceived a few fractions of a second earlier or later, you change the sperm that fertilizes their egg, resulting in a totally different person. So asking for that $1 has now made the difference between all the things that this actual child will do in their life, and all the things that the merely possible child - who didn't exist because of what you did - would have done if you decided not to worry about it.
As that child's actions ripple out to everyone else who conceives down the generations, ultimately the entire human population will become different, all for the sake of your dollar. Will your choice cause a future Hitler to be born, or not to be born? Probably both!
• Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.
Some find this concerning. The actual long term effects of your decisions are so unpredictable, it looks like you’re totally clueless about what's going to lead to the best outcomes. It might lead to decision paralysis - you won’t be able to take any action at all.
Prof Greaves doesn’t share this concern for most real life decisions. If there’s no reasonable way to assign probabilities to far-future outcomes, then the possibility that you might make things better in completely unpredictable ways is more or less canceled out by equally likely opposite possibility.
But, if instead we’re talking about a decision that involves highly-structured, systematic reasons for thinking there might be a general tendency of your action to make things better or worse -- for example if we increase economic growth -- Prof Greaves says that we don’t get to just ignore the unforeseeable effects.
When there are complex arguments on both sides, it's unclear what probabilities you should assign to this or that claim. Yet, given its importance, whether you should take the action in question actually does depend on figuring out these numbers. So, what do we do?
Today’s episode blends philosophy with an exploration of the mission and research agenda of the Global Priorities Institute: to develop the effective altruism movement within academia. We cover:
• How controversial is the multiverse interpretation of quantum physics?
• Given moral uncertainty, how should population ethics affect our real life decisions?
• What are the consequences of cluelessness for those who based their donation advice on GiveWell style recommendations?
• How could reducing extinction risk be a good cause for risk-averse people?
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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.