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Note: Quickly written on vacation as I don't and won't have time to flesh this out much more but wanted to get the idea out so that others can work on this insofar as this seems important.  I usually write on climate and the last time I seriously thought about value change is a while back.

A missing perspective?

Reading What We Owe The Future's chapter on the contingency of value change one thing that struck me was that there was -- as far as I can tell -- no reference to the rich empirical literature in political science and sociology on the drivers of value change, e.g. the work on the emergence of post-materialist values by Inglehart and the work of other scholars in this tradition, including the World Value Survey[1], which maps and seeks to explain value changes in societies around the world. 

Note that I am not claiming this literature being entirely right, more that this is a large body of literature (including criticisms) that seems very relevant to EA interest in value change, but not discussed.

Introductions to this literature


These sources are quickly chosen and are biased towards Welzel (whom I was a student of in college), so don't take this as a definite treatment - just a window into this literature.

The basic point of this literature is that there are good reasons to expect that value change is actually quite predictable and that a certain set of values tend to emerge out of the conditions of modernization. There is a lot more nuance to it, this is not just "old-school" modernization theory, but it is an empirically grounded update against massive contingency in the development of values, as there are predictable relationships between economic development and value change that seem to hold across a broad set of geographies and stages of economic development.

To give a flavor, the abstract of Welzel 2021 puts it as follows:
"Recent accounts of democratic backsliding neglect the cultural foundations of autocracy-versus-democracy. To bring culture back in, this article demonstrates that 1) countries' membership in culture zones explains some 70 percent of the total cross-national variation in autocracy-versus-democracy; and 2) this culture-bound variation has remained astoundingly constant over time—in spite of all the trending patterns in the global distribution of regime types over the last 120 years. Furthermore, the explanatory power of culture zones over autocracy-versus-democracy is rooted in the cultures' differentiation on "authoritarian-versus-emancipative values." Therefore, both the direction and the extent of regime change are a function of glacially accruing regime-culture misfits—driven by generational value shifts in a predominantly emancipatory direction. Consequently, the backsliding of democracies into authoritarianism is limited to societies in which emancipative values remain underdeveloped. Contrary to the widely cited deconsolidation thesis, the ascendant generational profile of emancipative values means that the momentary challenges to democracy are unlikely to stifle democracy's long-term rise."

How it matters: different priors on the contingency of value change

I am wondering 

  • (1) whether this literature could be quite useful in forming priors about the contingency of value change and, 
  • (2) in particular, serve as useful corrective/complement to deriving priors from history which, as a discipline, probably has a methodological/ontological bias towards explanations stressing contingency (with empirical social science having the opposite bias emphasizing regularities and general patterns).


To make this a bit more concrete, (3) the evidence from this literature that value change follows predictable patterns related to modernization and its correlates (educational attainment, wealth etc.) which is fairly similar across societies (despite very different starting points) leads me to give a much lower value for re-runs of history reaching today's level of technological development while also maintaining slavery than stated in WWOTF (>50% for 10-90 of 100 worlds having slavery of >1% of population, WWOTF).

In particular, from this literature one would assume that there is a broad complex of postmaterialist values -- stressing individual autonomy, globalism, concern for the environment, egalitarianism etc -- that emerge as the result of economic and societal changes (not quite Marxist level material determinism, but decreasing expected contingency regardless).

Indeed, (4) on a more precise definition of "same level of technological development" (whether this includes similar levels of average educational attainment and wealth, for example, insofar as they are required for or emerge from the current level of technological development) for the thought experiment on re-running history one could probably derive estimates for the contingency on value changes based on (a) the explanatory power of the mechanisms stipulated by this literature and one's credence in (b) these estimates being good causal estimates and (c) them holding in other possible worlds.


Potential objections

I can think of two possible objections to the usefulness of this literature:

(5) While something like the emergence of postmaterialist values is explainable ex-post and can then be usefully predicted for countries not at the frontier, maybe we are most interested in 'frontier moral change' which is harder to predict / have expectations about (in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that the abundance and material security of the 1950s and 1960s led to a generation stressing concerns beyond traditional material values, e.g. protection of environment, sexual liberation, globalism etc, but this effect could not have been predicted ex ante).

Even if true, this literature could still be useful in forming expectations about the contingency of value change in general.

(6) While the broad direction of value change may be somewhat predictable (e.g. insofar as societies become richer, postmaterialist values spread), maybe this doesn't matter much for the contingency of relevant value changes (e.g. maybe something like concern for long-term future does not map onto general value changes even though something like globalism does).

A very tentative conclusion 

For reasons (5) and (6) I am not very confident that this literature is very useful, but reasons (1)-(4) make me think it could be quite useful so maybe it is worth exploring further. 

I am not sure here at all, but I wanted to bring it into the discussion.

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  1. ^

    The World Value Survey is mentioned in a later chapter, but not in reference to the literature discussed here.

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Hey Johannes - I helped out with that section of What We Owe the Future. Just wanted to note that I read this post, found it valuable, and agree more work exploring the longtermist implications of the literature you cite would be pretty valuable. There's a lot to go into here and unfortunately I haven't yet had the time to dive in. I'd be curious to explore where this literature does and does not agree with the variance in civilizational values from the World Values Survey discussed in the book, for example. Thanks for taking the time to read the book critically and write up these thoughts!

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