On January 18th, 2023, at 1:30 PM, McGill EA x Law hosted John Bliss in a presentation titled "McGill EA x Law Presents: Existential Advocacy with Prof. John Bliss." The presentation focused on what legal tools can mitigate existential risk in this presentation discussing Prof. Bliss' paper Existential Advocacy with Effective Altruism x Law. This post is a summary of those proceedings.
John Bliss has reviewed the content. McGill EA x Law adopted all his suggestions.
How to Think About Existential Risk
Most of the discussion can feel abstract and removed from reality. When thinking about these theories, remember that all these ideas are meant to be practically applied. Every future generation can be your kids, grandkids, or great grandkids down the millennia.
Assessing the Current Situation
According to Toby Ord’s book The Precipice, the risks that threaten humanity most are anthropogenic. Natural risks are on the order of magnitude of 1 in 1,000s to 1 in 1,000,000s chances of manifesting in the next 100 years; anthropogenic risks are less than 1 in 100, with artificial intelligence being 1/6.
That said, remember that these numbers are highly speculative.
Two biases need addressing: individuals’ biases and political biases. Individual biases include biases towards scale: it’s impossible for human minds to comprehends the orders of magnitude of future potential that lies in before us. Political biases include near-termism: a propensity to favor problems that are urgent but not as impactful over problems that are not urgent but extremely impactful.
The kinds of problems that threaten humanity require global coordination to face. Various international organizations – be they governing, for profit, or not-for-profit – are slowly rising to the challenge. These organizations are made up of philosophers, student groups, and some philanthropic organizations (the most well-funded of which are still backed by several billion dollars).
Theories of Law and Social Change
EA is as much a movement being built and a movement interested in building more movements. As such, it’s important to understand different theories of law and social change.
Myth of Rights Critique
Challenging cultural norms in court are plagued by efficacy and accountability problems. The efficacy problem is a chicken and egg situation: courts that advance public rights before the public is interested are blamed for judicial activism, but public opinions hardly change without the laws urging them to. The accountability problem builds on this efficacy problem: when lawyers or courts impose new social ideas, they are seeing as being unaccountable to the public’s wants.
Integrated Advocacy Response
The integrated advocacy response invites advocates into the decision-making process, and decision-makers into the advocacy, to build an actionable response. It’s success in the LGBTQ+ sphere suggests that this strategy can overcome the myth of rights critique.
EA’s Theory of Change
EA’s priority is to maximize its funds’ impact. This involves first rigorously assessing its priorities, then reverse engineer ways to achieve that goal with medium and immediate objectives. Think tanks like the Future of Humanity Institute and the Legal Priorities Project make this assessment. Specifically for his research, John Bliss studied movement building through 50+ interviews.
After finding priorities and targets for multiple impact, EA strives to be accountable to the populations most affected. Future generations are this population because they are so numerous but so poorly represented.
Third, EA needs a culture to rally around. That culture is one of scientific truth-seeking norms. These norms involve a reliance on reasoning and evidence through epistemic humility, and an openness to being wrong through supportive dissent.
These norms make movement building precarious as best since the go against the pillars of other movements’ success: an unwavering, confident stance. Expected value theory has pushed EA to focus efforts on black swan events: events with a low probability but massive potential impact. Working in and advocating for those fields is plagued with a culturally corrosive uncertainty.
Lawyers can help by being caused and well placed. Keeping in mind a high impact end goal can allow lawyers to better that cause in whichever role they play more than a peer can.
Current EA Problems
EA likely has many blind spots stemming from the fact that WEIRD (white, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) men make up most of the organization’s membership. EDI efforts are, more and more, becoming a priority for the movement.
Bringing future people into the conversation is the next best chance we must shift global discourse. The U.S.’ recent Global Catastrophic Risk Act gives reason to hope: it defines existential risk and requires governments to generate reports on these problems. The UN’s “Our Common Agenda” report and the “Future Generations Consortium” warrant similar optimism.
In John’s experience, bringing these ideas to world leaders involves substantial compromise. It’s important to meet others where they’re at by bringing up familiar issue first to win their support.
To mitigate some of the worst bio-risks, litigators are looking into liability around for having dangerous labs, publications, or make-anything DNA synthesis labs.
Continued Movement Building
While EA lacks the epistemology to adopt conventional movement building tactics, it can still plug others. Those tactics inaccessible to EA include certainty about an issue or a strong identity sense. Those tactics accessible to EA include pulling emotional levers, especially fear for a terrible future.
How is working on these problems in academia?
Academia begins with a questionable incentive structure. Universities push for decision-relevant publications; professors change places based on the money they attract. These incentives make it hard to change topic or place to areas where one can have the most impact.
That said, x-risk and longtermism are poorly represented in academia. Contributions here could be highly impactful since it’s a neglected space.
Can you speak more to what LPP is and what it does?
Originally, it was meant to be an academic place to conduct legal global priorities for research. Doing so offered a cite-able place for longtermist ideas and concretized the empirical norms. Being cite-able has led to some Universities offering courses on longtermist-related topics, since now those courses could offer a curriculum that assigns academic readings.
Recently, they’ve switched their efforts to advocacy and informing policy.
EA is criticized for imposing their vision of what’s good on other countries, impacting people they’re hardly accountable to. Can you speak to that at all?
Generally, remember that when anyone invokes any policy, most initiatives are without empirical backing. Put simply, we usually don’t know what works. EA thrives in that it has specific metrics and goals it has evidence to believe it can reach.
That said, there’s always the possibility that EAs are pushing for interventions locals don’t see themselves as being a priority.