This is a new Global Priorities Institute technical report by William MacAskill, Teruji Thomas and Aron Vallinder.
The world, considered from beginning to end, combines many different features, or states of affairs, that contribute to its value. The value of each feature can be factored into its significance—its average value per unit time—and its persistence—how long it lasts. Sometimes, though, we want to ask a further question: how much of the feature’s value can be attributed to a particular agent’s decision at a particular point in time (or to some other originating event)? In other words, to what extent is the feature’s value contingent on the agent’s choice? For this, we must also look at the counterfactual: how would things have turned out otherwise?
In this note, we give a way to formalise the ideas of significance, persistence, and contingency. We call this the SPC framework. It must be emphasised that the main goal is to help estimate the instrumental value (typically interpreted as the expected value) of an event, compared to the relevant counterfactual. There may be different ways to do this, suitable for different situations. It seems clear to us that thinking in terms of significance, persistence, and contingency can be a useful heuristic when thinking about the importance of historical events and the consequences of our choices for the long-run future; see MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future for many applications. This note shows how that heuristic can be related to a more formal theory of evaluation. Doing so helps to clarify when the heuristic can be useful; gives some discipline to its application; and opens the door to its use in more formal analyses.
Still, different variations on the SPC framework might be more useful or perspicacious in some situations; in others, the SPC framework may only be useful for evaluating some aspects of an event; and sometimes one may want to use a different framework altogether. So while we hope that this note will be useful to decision-makers, we (of course) make no claim to have the final word.
In section 2, we explain the framework as it appears in What We Owe the Future. We’ll sketch an alternative approach in section 3. Section 4 discusses how the SPC framework can contribute to the overall evaluation of our options. It explains the ‘ITN framework’, which evaluates problems in terms of their importance, tractability, and neglectedness, and indicates how the two frameworks can be combined.
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For these purposes, a ‘feature’ can be any source of value (or disvalue). For example, one could consider a particular headache, the future existence of human civilisation, or the prevalence of QWERTY keyboards. A feature may contribute by having intrinsic value, or by entailing or promoting other things with intrinsic value, such as human welfare.