Research

On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. 2013. PhD Thesis. Department of Philosophy, Rutgers University.

ABSTRACT: In slogan form, the thesis of this dissertation is that shaping the far future is overwhelmingly important. More precisely, I argue that:

Main Thesis: From a global perspective, what matters most (in expectation) is that we do what is best (in expectation) for the general trajectory along which our descendants develop over the coming millions of years or longer.

The first chapter introduces some key concepts, clarifies the main thesis, and outlines what follows in later chapters. Some of the key concepts include: existential risk, the world's development trajectory, proximate benefits and ripple effects, speeding up development, trajectory changes, and the distinction between broad and targeted attempts to shape the far future. The second chapter is a defense of some methodological assumptions for developing normative theories which makes my thesis more plausible. In the third chapter, I introduce and begin to defend some key empirical and normative assumptions which, if true, strongly support my main thesis. In the fourth and fifth chapters, I argue against two of the strongest objections to my arguments. These objections come from population ethics, and are based on Person-Affecting Views and views according to which additional lives have diminishing marginal value. I argue that these views face extreme difficulties and cannot plausibly be used to rebut my arguments. In the sixth and seventh chapters, I discuss a decision-theoretic paradox which is relevant to my arguments. The simplest plausible theoretical assumptions which support my main thesis imply a view I call fanaticism, according to which any non-zero probability of an infinitely good outcome, no matter how small, is better than any probability of a finitely good outcome. I argue that denying fanaticism is inconsistent with other normative principles that seem very obvious, so that we are faced with a paradox. I have no solution to the paradox; I instead argue that we should continue to use our inconsistent principles, but we should use them tastefully. We should do this because, currently, we know of no consistent set of principles which does better.

Rationing and Rationality: The Cost of Avoiding Discrimination” (with Toby Ord), in Inequalities in Health: Concepts, Measures, and Ethics, Nir Eyal, Samia Hurst, Ole Norheim, and Dan Wikler (eds.), Oxford University Press, 2013.

ABSTRACT: It is common to allocate scarce health care resources by maximizing QALYs per dollar. This approach has been attacked by disability-rights advocates, policy-makers, and ethicists on the grounds that it unjustly discriminates against the disabled. The main complaint is that the QALY-maximizing approach implies a seemingly unsatisfactory conclusion: other things being equal, we should direct life-saving treatment to the healthy rather than the disabled. This argument pays insufficient attention to the downsides of the potential alternatives. We show that this sort of discrimination is one of four unpalatable consequences that any approach to priority setting in health care must face. The alternatives are:
    1. among two equally healthy patients, sometimes choosing to treat a patient who would benefit significantly less
    2. in single-patient cases, choosing treatments that violate the informed preferences of the patient
    3. ranking treatment options cyclically

We argue that, given the alternatives, it is far from clear that we should revise the QALY-maximizing approach in response to this objection.

"Managing Existential Risk From Emerging Technologies" (with Toby Ord), in Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding it. Evidence and Case Studies. Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014.

"How much could refuges help us recover from a global catastrophe?," forthcoming in Futures. Penultimate, ungated version here.

ABSTRACT: Some global catastrophes (such as nuclear wars, pandemics, or an asteroid collision) might destroy civilization. Some propose building well-stocked shelters constantly staffed with people trained to rebuild civilization in such cases. These “refuges” would have an unimpressive expected cost per life saved, but could conceivably have an impressive expected cost per future generation allowed to exist. From some ethical perspectives that highly value future generations, building refuges may therefore seem like a promising idea. However, several factors significantly dilute the potential impact of refuges, even if the proposed catastrophes occur. Government/private disaster shelters, people working on submarines, and isolated peoples who prefer to be left alone serve these purposes to some extent already. Many proposed catastrophes do too much/too little damage for refuges to help, affect the environment in ways that make refuges largely irrelevant, or otherwise give relatively limited advantages to the people in refuges. In global food crises or social collapse scenarios, refuges would add little to aggregate stocks of population, resources, food, and relevant skills; but they may add something unique in terms of isolation and coordination. These potential benefits of refuges seem the most promising, and may be worthy of further analysis.
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Nick Beckstead,
Mar 22, 2015, 12:02 PM
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Nick Beckstead,
Nov 19, 2014, 7:29 AM
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Nick Beckstead,
Jun 3, 2013, 9:20 AM