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In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.

Julia Wise, quoting C.S. Lewis

That does not kill us makes us stronger

Hilary Clinton, quoting Kelly Clarkson, quoting Nietszche

In light of current events, I've personally found it difficult to reach equilibrium. In particular, I've found it hard to navigate a) the 2022 loss of ~3/4 of resources available to longtermist EA, b) the consequentially large harms in the world caused by someone who I thought was close to us, c) setbacks in the research prioritization of my own work, d) some vague feelings that our community is internally falling apart, e) the general impending sense of doom, f) some personal difficulties this year (not all of which is related to global events), and g) general feelings of responsibility and also inadequacy to address the above. I imagine many other people reading this are going through similar difficulties.

I'll find it personally helpful to understand how our (my) historical heroes dealt with problems akin to the ones we're currently facing. In particular, I'd be interested in hearing about similar situations faced by 1) the Chinese Mohists and 2) the English utilitarians

I will be interested in hearing stories of how the Chinese Mohists and English utilitarians dealt with situations of i) large situational setbacks and ii) large-scale moral compromise.

In the past, I've found it helpful to draw connections between my current work/life and that of those I view as my spiritual or intellectual ancestors.[1] Perhaps this will be true again. I confess to not knowing much of the relevant histories here, but presumably they've faced similar issues? I'm guessing the Mohists couldn't have been happy that states they defended ended up being conquered anyway, and Qin Shihuang unified China with fire and blood. As for the English utilitarians, I assume some of the policies they've advocated backfired severely in their lifetimes, whether obviously or more subtly.

I'd be interested in seeing and possibly learning from how they responded, both practically and on an emotional level.

So this is my question for the historians/amateur historians: In what ways have our historical moral heroes dealt with large-scale adversity and moral compromise?

  1. ^

    For example, it was helpful for me to learn about what John Stuart Mill viewed as his personal largest emotional difficulties, as well as the Mohist approaches to asceticism in a corrupt world.




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My impression is that the early English utilitarians had pretty decent lives for moral advocates, and the Mohists were in situations old and poorly documented enough that make them hard for me to learn much of.

I would say that many moral advocates in the last few thousand years have had exceedingly difficult challenges. Many have literally faced:

  • Lifetimes of slavery or imprisonment
  • Exile and ostracism by their communities
  • Routine surveillance, hostility, and abuse by their governments
  • Dramatic social ridicule/abuse/lynching 

I personally get a lot of inspiration by civil rights heroes.

Promoting civil rights in the United States before 1960, or promoting atheism or religious tolerance in Europe pre-Enlightenment, both were often incredibly dangerous. 

Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison. Frederick Douglass was enslaved for twenty years. Abraham Lincoln faced some of the US's worst years, during which most of his children died, and just after he won the civil war, was assassinated. 

Many historic moral figures seem to have access to incredibly few resources in incredibly hard and antagonistic times. I imagine many key moral figures were unpopular or unsuccessful enough to not be anywhere on Wikipedia today. 

In contrast, while things have definitely gotten harder for utilitarians/EA, I feel like we kind of went down from two billionaires and very little political/social pushback, to one billionaire and very little political/social pushback. 

I don't mean to downplay the challenges at hand, but just want to flag that historical figures were able to do great things in what seem like clearly worse situations.[1]

[1] One potential exception to this is if you think that managing AGI risk is genuinely harder than any previous civilizational challenge. 

I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been feeling this way, Linch. I’ve also been facing some of the difficulties that you describe. I’ll try to do the best I can but would welcome the input of people who are more knowledgeable than me!

In the professional work of the English Utilitarians, what stands out to me is perseverance. When Bentham’s Panopticon project (which was meant to be an improvement on the often cruel treatment of prisoners) failed to get off the ground, he moved on to other things such as education reform (advocating for an end to corporal punishment, for example). Similarly, when the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ (a loosely knit group of parliamentarians and writers associated with utilitarianism) split in the early 1840s, Mill took the opportunity to do some “deep work” and publish A System of Logic, which had been on the back burner for over a decade.

Friendship and companionship were also important. Mill, over the same period, deepened his companionship and collaboration with Harriet Taylor, which was to be a source of great happiness to him for the rest of his life. After her death in Avignon, he would spend six months a year working close to the cemetery where she was buried. Meanwhile, Henry Sidgwick’s efforts to improve the higher education of women — which he sometimes felt did not progress rapidly enough — were supported by his wife Eleanor, and whenever he had a crisis he would always seek the company of his friends in the Cambridge Apostles (a discussion group in which he felt he could freely express his views), particularly John Addington Symonds. Symonds happened to be gay, and so Sidgwick (who often advised Symonds about what to publish) regularly had to confront dilemmas about how quickly the established moral order should challenged. (His personal experiences here may have influenced his noticeably cautious approach to the utilitarian reform of public morality in The Methods of Ethics.) Again, friendship and open discussion were indispensable to him here.

I’d be interested to learn more about the Benthamite Edwin Chadwick’s life after he was forced to retire from the Civil Service after his stint as Commissioner of the General Board of Health (following the passage of the Public Health Act of 1848, inspired by his report on sanitation). He seems to have attracted a great deal of backlash from various interest groups. One thing he did do was correspond with Florence Nightingale, who wanted to resurrect his efforts, so he did not entirely give up (despite the direct effect of the 1848 Public Health Act, partly due to lax enforcement, being modest at best).

You might be interested in the severe, rather evil moral compromises made by George Washington.  But he had a lot of good in him too.  Remember that he gave up power voluntarily and refused to serve more than 2 terms (unlike modern leaders of many 2nd-world states).

Washington's official epigraph was "Exitus Acta Probat", which literally means the ends justify the means..  He caused the avoidable deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of a war that he could have avoided.  He went on to found a nation that ripped a continent's worth of land away from the Native American nations by force, while building America's economy on the backbreaking, torturous enslavement of literally hundreds of thousands of black slaves.

This is Washington's bookplate (similar to a personal crest) from 1798 which I found on google image search and sharpened / retouched a bit for clarity:

In light of this information, what do you think of Washington?  If there's a hell, would he be burning there right now for all the innocent lives he took, through the selfish pursuit of certain ambitions about how to build a new nation?  What about his willingness to destroy the lives of native americans and create an abomination in the form of an economy built on incentivizing the mass-scale brutalization of Southern slaves?

Without his actions, there would be no America, which would have radically changed the outcome of WWII and much more.   Would the Nazis (or a similar Germanic faction) have been the first ones to build & employ nuclear weapons?  Would the Nazis be the ones developing AGI now?

What are we to make of this horrifying history which nonetheless might be less horrifying than what would have been otherwise?  If you were Washington, would you have started the war?

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