How tractable is changing the course of history?

by Jamie_Harris7 min read22nd May 20192 comments


HistoryHinge of HistoryCause PrioritizationFarmed Animal WelfareExistential Risk

I have copied over the introduction, but please see the link above for the full post and for endnotes.

This blog post series explores methodological questions and challenges in the use of historical research by Sentience Institute, the effective altruism community, and the farmed animal movement. It is broader in scope, more theoretical, and more meta than most of Sentience Institute’s research, but I have tried to regularly bring the discussion back to concrete examples (e.g. WWI and the French Revolution) with concrete implications for advocates. The other posts are on What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?” and How is SI research different from existing social movement literature and relevant historical works?[1]

Edited by Jacy Reese. Many thanks to Kelly Witwicki, J. Mohorčich, Rose Hadshar, Carl Shulman, Gregory Lewis, Tobias Baumann, Zach Groff, and Yannick Mühlhäuser for reviewing and providing feedback.

Many effective altruists think the far future is an important consideration when working to do the most good.[2] Nick Beckstead has written about changes to humanity’s development trajectory, suggesting that some of these may be based on historical contingency, such as how the specificities of Christian morality have shaped the world,[3] and argued that “what it is best to do is primarily determined by how our actions are expected to change our development trajectory.” Along similar lines, Sentience Institute is “dedicated to the expansion of humanity’s moral circle,” and our research director Jacy Reese has written about why he prioritizes this over another route to affecting the far future, artificial intelligence alignment.

Gregory Lewis has considered some arguments on “How fragile was history?” and emphasized that “trivial contingencies” in the conception of a human embryo could affect “whether an individual or a potential sibling exists," and that this could “cascade onwards” to create further unpredictable counterfactual changes. He noted that “the value of efforts to shape the long-run future rely upon fragility being not too extreme either way" and suggested that further investigation would be helpful.

In this post, I consider one important aspect of the tractability of social change:[4] “How tractable is it to change the course of history?” This is distinct from questions about the tractability of social change through specific mechanisms, such as "How efficient are nonprofits?" or "How easy is book publishing?”

Although any trivial action, like throwing a tennis ball, could have long-term implications, Hilary Greaves has explained that “when you do your expected-value theory the mere possibility that you might make things better in these completely unpredictable ways is just more or less precisely canceled out by the equally plausible mere possibility that you might make things worse in equally unpredictable ways.” This does not apply, however, “where there are some highly-structured, systematic reasons for thinking there might be a general tendency of my action to make things better, but there might also for some other reasons be a general tendency to make things worse.” Given that the impact of any action will presumably be dominated by difficult to measure long-term impacts, the behavior of those seeking to maximize their positive impact “should be almost entirely driven by what your best guess is” about the long-term implications. By this logic, the important question for those seeking to maximize their impact is not just, “How tractable is changing the course of history?” but “How tractable is it for thoughtful actors to change the course of history in their intended direction?”

This post is primarily focused on assessing the extent to which a small group of thoughtful actors, such as a single animal advocacy nonprofit, can deliberately change the course of history, such as to encourage moral circle expansion (MCE); increasing the number of sentient beings whose interests are considered in our legal systems and social norms. This deliberate influence, shortened as “historical tractability,” is contrasted with three other sources of change: (1) long-term trends, (2) luck, and (3) deliberate yet hard-to-influence efforts.

Social change would be less tractable if its causes were slow-moving and long-term, or only had an indirect relationship to change. For example, the more one thinks indirect effects of economic growth and prosperity have driven MCE, the less role there is for direct MCE advocacy.

I use the term “luck” to refer to non-deliberate factors. For example, a trajectory change could depend on whether or not it rained on a particular day in a particular place or whether traffic made someone miss an important meeting.

Some deliberate efforts could be hard to influence directly, such as discussion between a powerful politician and a single advisor.

I use the term “contingency” to refer collectively to the influence of luck and hard-to-influence decisions.

Fig. 1. Sub-questions of “How tractable is social change?” Note that the subquestion, "How tractable is changing the course of history?" is the subject of this blog post.

Due to the availability of evidence and focus of the existing literature, this post will spend more time on theories and case studies which are not specific to MCE. At the end of the post, I will compare the tractability of MCE to that of other historical social trends.


The evidence considered in this post suggests that the course of history — including trajectories towards MCE — can be influenced to a significant degree by small groups of thoughtful actors, which suggests MCE should be a high priority for people who endorse longtermism in the effective altruism community, which supports the claim that focusing on MCE is a valuable use of limited resources.[5] While our conclusion was positive, there are mitigating concerns that contingency plays an important role in determining historical outcomes, and that long-term, indirect factors also reduce the tractability of changing the course of history for thoughtful actors.

To a first approximation, we can examine the evidence for historical tractability by tracking scholarly opinion on the causation of important historical events. To date the trend is that historians have moved away from Marxist approaches, as seen in the French Revolution debates, but also away from the Great Man Theory, towards a more compromising position. There have been similar moves towards compromise in sociology between structuralism and its critics. I don’t find any of these theories especially compelling, and given the unresolved academic debates on these issues, it seems more justified to use them as analytical frameworks that can be used with particular case studies rather than to consider them to be consistently accurate generalizations.

Majority opinion among historians of World War I has oscillated between holding the actions of national leaders (especially in Germany) responsible for the outbreak of war, and emphasizing the importance of longer-term factors outside of their direct control. There is now an increased acceptance of the importance of various contingent factors such as the success or failure of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the negotiations in July 1914. Although I have not read the primary evidence myself and so do not hold confident views, it seems plausible that changes in these contingent factors would have prevented war.[6] Historians seem to accept the importance of a variety of causes of the French Revolution. From my understanding of the evidence, it seems that while the occurrence of some sort of radical social change in France in the 18th and 19th centuries wasn’t as dependent on contingency as the outbreak of World War I, the precise path and outcomes of the Revolution were. From an effective altruism perspective, the precise path might not be very important, but it is possible that this could have dramatically altered the outcomes of the Revolution. It seems unlikely that the development of the industrial revolution depended much on contingency given the long-term forces at play, although other forms of trajectory change may still have been tractable. In several of the included historical case studies, notably with the rise of US environmentalism in the 1960s, the apparent influence of certain intellectuals suggests that their ideas might be more important than luck or subsequent decision-making processes in shaping broad developments.

These case case studies also provide evidence of the importance of long-term, indirect factors that might reduce tractability, though this is not so much the case with World War I (depending on how much confidence one places in recent arguments in favor of contingency).

Empirical studies by social movement sociologists show that social movements and individual organizations have succeeded in having an impact but that this is difficult and usually only achieved with the support of public opinion and/or allies in the political system. Comparative historical sociologists note the importance of broad contextual factors in shaping historical outcomes, but accepting their arguments doesn’t limit tractability much. Other social scientists have found evidence of the substantial importance of leaders on some outcomes, which has mixed implications for tractability.


Given the varying intuitions and existing views of people on the topic of tractability, we can’t easily present conclusions from this work that would apply to all readers, so this section instead specifically details how Jamie Harris (author) and Jacy Reese (editor) changed their views during the course of this project.

Sentience Institute staff had similar initial intuitions that key actors have medium or low influence over the outcomes of history on a scale from “such actors have no control, and everything is entirely a result of wider factors” to “one small group could determine the entire outcome of a major historical change or event.”

Through researching and writing this post, I have updated towards contingency playing a greater role in determining historical outcomes than I initially hypothesized, most notably as a result of the historical case studies considered here. Considering the broad implications of chaos theory also led me to update slightly towards the importance of contingency. Given that chaos theory has been used to improve prediction accuracy for issues such as weather systems, it seems that it has some real-world applicability, the implications of which contrast with my previous intuitions about causation. This importance of contingency limits historical tractability.

I have not significantly updated my views on the extent to which historical outcomes are determined by long-term, indirect factors that are hard for thoughtful actors to control, although my starting intuition was already to attribute relatively high significance to these factors.

Jacy Reese, our Research Director who edited this article, updated slightly towards increased historical tractability because (1) there was slightly less agreement than expected among historians on the inevitability of the case study events (e.g. World War I) due to long-term, indirect forces, and (2) the figures in the quantitative sociology reviews of social change organizations were slightly higher than expected. Jacy didn’t have a discernible change in his view on the role of contingency specifically.

We had a range of views about the tractability of MCE compared to other historical social trends, although the differences partly stemmed from our different understandings of the issues relevant to this question; our views converged slightly through the  writing of this post, although substantial differences remain.

I updated towards viewing MCE as more similar in tractability to other historical social trends after internal SI discussion, especially surrounding the relationship between inevitability and tractability.

Moral circle expansion as a particular type of social change seems to be heavily influenced by indirect, long-term factors, including reason, education, wealth, and the level of value provided by exploitation of other sentient beings—I’d guess even more so than some other types of trajectory change, such as changed military trends, although further comparative research would be needed for me to be confident in a judgement on this. Although I still see a variety of indirect factors as encouraging MCE, I no longer see this as being so important in reducing tractability.

I have not come across any good evidence that the trajectory towards moral circle expansion would be any more or less determined by contingency than other historical social trends, except for the possibility that the breadth of moral circles might end up being significantly determined by the values and decisions of a small number of individuals with influence over the nature of important technologies like  superintelligence (such as AI researchers, policy makers, company executives, or thought leaders), which might actually increase tractability, since MCE within a smaller group of people could be less difficult to achieve than MCE in society as a whole.

Jacy Reese didn’t have a discernible change in his views on the difference in historical tractability between MCE and non-MCE (mainly economic or military) trajectories. Notably, Jacy believes that MCE is relatively more tractable than economic and military events like World War I and the French Revolution, mainly because he believes self-interest (e.g. French revolutionaries who expected price controls on food and greater access to the political system) plays a much larger role in non-MCE trajectories. Thus, those trajectories may tend to be more inevitable and less amenable to thoughtful actors tipping the direction one way or another.

See this spreadsheet for quantitative versions of these views, before and after this research project. Note, however, that some of the quantitative changes reflect modified understanding of the questions and concepts involved in this post, rather than substantial updates from the empirical evidence.


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I just finished reading the full post this links to. Interesting work, thanks for posting it.

I'm not sure if you're still pursuing this sort of question or plan to return to it later, but if you are, or if other readers are, a book I imagine would be quite relevant and interesting is Tetlock and Belkin's Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics. The Amazon description reads:

Political scientists often ask themselves what might have been if history had unfolded differently: if Stalin had been ousted as General Party Secretary or if the United States had not dropped the bomb on Japan. Although scholars sometimes scoff at applying hypothetical reasoning to world politics, the contributors to this volume-including James Fearon, Richard Lebow, Margaret Levi, Bruce Russett, and Barry Weingast-find such counterfactual conjectures not only useful, but necessary for drawing causal inferences from historical data. Given the importance of counterfactuals, it is perhaps surprising that we lack standards for evaluating them. To fill this gap, Philip Tetlock and Aaron Belkin propose a set of criteria for distinguishing plausible from implausible counterfactual conjectures across a wide range of applications. The contributors to this volume make use of these and other criteria to evaluate counterfactuals that emerge in diverse methodological contexts including comparative case studies, game theory, and statistical analysis. Taken together, these essays go a long way toward establishing a more nuanced and rigorous framework for assessing counterfactual arguments about world politics in particular and about the social sciences more broadly.

Unfortunately I haven't read this book, and doubt I'll get to it anytime soon, partly because I don't think there's an audiobook version. But it sounds like it'd be quite useful for the topic of how tractable changing the course of history is, so I'd love it if someone were to read the book and summarise/apply its most relevant lessons.

Unfortunately I haven't read this book, and doubt I'll get to it anytime soon, partly because I don't think there's an audiobook version.

FYI, you can turn virtually any text file into a machine-read audiobook with the Voice Aloud Reader app (Android, iOS). Not as nice as an audiobook read by a professional actor, but still pretty good, in my opinion (I use Google TTS Engine with 'English (India)' as the voice; I just like the Indian accent, and also get the impression that the speech synthesis is better than some of the other accents').