Bryan Caplan  

If This Be Aspergers

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I've often heard people dismiss my dear friend and colleague Robin Hanson for his "Aspergers," his blindness to the way that most human beings feel and think.  They're not entirely wrong, but Robin's latest post, a review of a Peter Singer review, shows how psychologically perceptive and grounded Robin can be.

Singer:
The idea that utilitarianism leads to extremely demanding obligations to help those in great need was counter-intuitive in the affluent world, but is not in the broken world. So too was the view that it would be wrong for a sheriff to hang one innocent person if that is the only way to save several innocent people from being killed by rioters. ... Those same utilitarians who said that we have extremely demanding obligations to the poor could also have pointed out that we have extremely demanding obligations to those who will exist in future.
Robin:
I find the above pretty laughable as futurism. As described in this review, this book presents the morality and politics of future folk as overwhelmingly focused on what their ancestors (us) should have been doing for them, namely lots more.

But we have known lots of poor cultures around the world and through history, and their morality and politics has almost never focused on complaining that their ancestors did too little to help them. Most politics and morality has instead been focused on how people alive who interact often should treat each other. Which makes a lot of functional sense.

Wars have consistently caused vast destruction of resources could have gone to building roads, cities, canals, irrigation, etc. And most ancestors severely neglected innovation. Most everywhere in the globe, had ancestors prevented more wars and encouraged more innovation, their descendants would be richer. But almost no one complains about that today. Most discussion today of ancestors celebrates relative wins that suggest some of us are better than others of us, and to lament our ancestors' backwardness, so we can feel superior by comparison.

The morality of our non-affluent descendants will likely also focus mostly on how they should treat each other, not on how we treated them. To the extent that they talk about us at all, they'll mostly mention wins that suggest that some of them are better than others of them, and ways in which we seem backward, making them seem forward by comparison. And morality will probably return to be more like that of traditional farmers, relative to that we rich forager-feeling industrialists of today.

Rule of thumb: While Robin is occasionally led astray by an elegant theory, he is a keen observer of human nature whenever he specifically focuses on the question, "Yes, but what would flesh and blood humans actually do?"



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Ken B writes:

If Singer is serious, shouldn't he support eugenics?

Mike Thicke writes:

I don't know what Singer argues beyond this quote, but from what I see here it seems Hanson is making a descriptive/normative mistake. Whether or not our descendants will judge us for not considering their utility is a descriptive question. For what it's worth, many people today seem perfectly happy to form judgments on the morality of, for example, slavery in Ancient Rome, so if our descendants are utilitarians it seems plausible they will judge us poorly for not considering their utility. Nevertheless, it is an entirely different question whether we *ought* to consider the utility of our potential descendants in our moral calculations.

Kevin writes:

Mike:

But even in your counter-example, modern folk are critiquing how Ancient Romans treated each other, rather than their failure to account our future utility.

Ken B writes:

To be fair though, at least one major religion makes a great deal of a failure of a pair of distant ancestors to give more thought for future generations.

gwern writes:
But even in your counter-example, modern folk are critiquing how Ancient Romans treated each other, rather than their failure to account our future utility.

What would such a critique wind up saying, though? The Romans were stuck in a Malthusian trap like everyone else and so could do not a whole lot to help us; and they did do much better than most civilizations in (at least potentially) contributing to eventually escaping the trap via the Scientific & Industrial Revolutions.

Should we blame them for not trying harder with science & learning, even though they had no reason at all to expect to escape the Malthusian trap assuming they could even conceive of such a thing?

It'd be way harder as a Roman to believe in escaping a Malthusian trap than being someone convinced these days of a Singularity, because at least the latter involves relatively straightforward projections of existing phenomenon and not postulating entirely different and novel regimes...

Ben Southwood writes:

With Mike Thicke, I think Hanson is basically missing the point.

Singer is basically saying we have obligations to future peoples, to e.g. leave the world in at least as good a condition as we got it.

Hanson is saying that it's unlikely future peoples will hold things we do wrong against us, even if we do, e.g. ravage the world.

Entirely compatible.

jb writes:

we have obligations to future peoples, to e.g. leave the world.

:)

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