There’s something that strikes me as odd about the way I hear “moral progress” discussed in the EA/longtermist community in general and in What We Owe the Future in particular.
The issues that are generally discussed under this heading are things like: animal welfare, existential risk, “coordination” mechanisms, and so forth.
However, when I look out at the world, I see a lot of problems rarely discussed among EAs. Most of the world is still deeply religious; in some communities and even whole nations, this pervades the culture and can even create oppression. Much of the world still lives under authoritarian or even totalitarian governments. Much of the world lives in countries that lack the institutional capacity to support even rudimentary economic development, leaving their people without electricity, clean water, etc.
And the conversation around the world’s problems leaves even more to be desired. A lot of discussion of environmental issues is lacking in scientific or technical understanding, treating nature like a god and industry like a sin—there’s even now a literal “degrowth” movement. Many young people in the US are now attracted to socialism, an ideology that should have been left behind in the 20th century. Others support Trump, an authoritarian demagogue with no qualifications to leadership. Both sides seem eager to tear down the institutions of liberalism, a “burn it all down” mentality. And all around me I see people more concerned with tribal affiliations than with truth-seeking.
So when I think about what moral progress the world needs, I mostly think it needs a defense of Enlightenment ideas such as reason and liberalism, so that these ideas can become the foundation for addressing the real problems and threats we face.
I think this might be highly relevant even to someone solely concerned with existential risk. For instance, if we want to make sure that an extinction-level weapon doesn’t get in the hands of a radical terrorist group, it would be good if there were fewer fundamentalist ideologies in the world, and no nation-states that sponsor them. More prosaically, if we want to have a good response to pandemics, it would be good to have competent leadership instead of the opposite (my understanding is that the US covid response could have been much better if we had just followed the pre-existing pandemic response plan). If we want to make sure civilization deals with climate change, it would be good to have a world that believed in technological solutions rather than being locked in a battle over “degrowth.” Etc.
Looking at it another way, we could think about two dimensions of moral progress, analogous to two dimensions of economic progress: pushing forward the frontier, vs. distribution of a best-practice standard. Zero-to-one progress vs. one-to-N progress. EA folks are very focused on pushing forward the moral frontier, breaking new moral ground—but I’m very worried about, well, let’s call it “moral inequality”: simple best practices like “allow freedom of speech,” “give women equality,” or even “use reason and science” are nowhere near universal.
These kind of concerns are what drew me to “progress studies” in the first place (before that term even existed). I see progress studies first and foremost as an intellectual defense of progress as such, and ultimately of the Enlightenment ideas that underlie it.
But I never hear EA folks talk about these kinds of issues, and these ideas don’t seem to resonate with the community when I bring them up. I’m still left wondering, what is the disconnect here?