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This week I'm interviewing Christopher Brown — history professor at Columbia University — about the movement for abolition.

How did it happen? Why did it take off where and when it did? What were the key events that helped it build momentum? Was it inevitable, or historically contingent?

What should I ask him?

Even if you haven't read his work, Professor Brown is quoted a number of times in the relevant chapters or MacAskill's 'What We Owe The Future'.

Some other sources for his views include:




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Super cool! Here's a few questions that might be nice to ask:

  • You've been cited extensively in MacAskill's recent book 'What We Owe The Future', have you read the book yet, and if so what are your thoughts, if any?
  • Are there any notable gaps or areas of the history of abolitionism that you think deserve more attention from researchers and/or scholars?
  • What are some of the challenges or obstacles that historians of abolitionism face in their research, and how do you overcome these challenges?
  • In what ways do you think the principles of effective altruism can help to advance the causes of social justice and equality that were so central to the abolitionist movement?

Will keep my eye out for the next 80,000 Hours Podcast, thanks!

How many independent or semi-independent abolitionist movements were there around the world during the period of global abolition, vs. one big one that started with Quakers+Britain and then was spread around the world primarily by Europeans? (E.g. see footnote 82 here.)

What's his guess about how "% of humans enslaved (globally)" evolved over time? See e.g. my discussion here.

Brilliant! I see this conversation as an opportunity for great insights into the practical unfolding of moral circle expansion, the evolution/structure of social movements as a whole, and the benefits/limitations of using historical analysis to understand and predict the behavior of complex social systems.

  • What role, if any, did advances in technology play in the abolition of slavery?
    • From your understanding, are moral changes enabled by technology, or are they orthogonal to technological advancement?
  • What implications do differing views on the causes of abolition have on our understanding of the contemporary world? For instance, in contemporary movements such as EA, how should we update our behaviors if we discovered strong evidence that abolition was motivated predominantly by moral concerns, rather than economic concerns?
  • What parallels do you see between abolition and contemporary social movements that seek to expand our moral circles? Does hindsight from the context of abolition easily translate into foresight for these contemporary situations?
  • In what ways did individuals justify the institution of slavery to themselves and to others? Do you see any parallels (for instance, motivated reasoning and making convenient exceptions to our core values) taking place today?
  • How much do you believe abolition hinged on the actions of a small number of key individuals in positions of power, relative to the general change in public opinion? What does this suggest about EA strategies for moral circle expansion?
  • Are there any specific methods of historical analysis that you believe would be especially useful in predicting and guiding the future trajectory of humanity? How do you, as a historian, go about understanding causal mechanisms when looking at complex systems?
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