I will host an Interintellect “Salon” (viz. an informal undergraduate/graduate seminar) to discuss Bostrom, Sidgwick and Scheffler on Thursday 22nd July.

For full details, and to book your place, see here:

https://interintellect.com/salon/the-methods-of-ethics-the-future-of-humanity/

I can arrange several free places: if you're keen to attend but the ticket price is an issue, just send me an email.


The next 10–10,000 years. What can we expect? What do we want? What should we want? A discussion of Bostrom, Sidgwick and Scheffler, hosted by Peter Hartree.

In this salon, we’ll consider questions like:

Where should we start, if we want to think about the next 10–10,000 years?

How trustworthy are our intuitions about the future, and about what matters? How might we evaluate and improve them?

What duties might we have towards future generations?

What happens if we take Sidgwick’s “point of view of the universe” perspective seriously? How is it different from the “point of view of humanity”?

What kinds of people are attracted to thinking about ethics and the future? Why?

The current human condition: underrated or overrated?


First 15-30 mins: Introductions

Answer the following questions:

– What is one thing you hope will be the same in 500 years?

– What is one thing you hope will be different?

(Optional) Share an opening comment, question, or motivating interest.

Next 1-2 hours: Discussion

We’ll begin with: where should we start, if we want to think about the next 10-10,000 years?

Last 30 mins: Closing reflections

(Optional) Every attendee invited to share a closing thought.

This salon will be recorded and the recording may be shared on YouTube. You may request any or all of your contributions to be excluded from the public recording.


Required reading:

  • Nick Bostrom: The Future of Humanity (extracts, 5K words)
  • Nick Bostrom: Humanity’s Biggest Problems Aren’t What You Think They Are (17m video)
  • Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek: On Sidgwick & The Point of View of The Universe (extracts, 1K words)
  • Samuel Scheffler: Conservatism, Temporal Bias, and Future Generations (extracts, 5K words)

Link: Assigned extracts, and links to original papers


Suggested reading (optional):

A longer, evolving list can be found here.


This will be Peter’s first Interintellect Salon. If it is not a total disaster, he may host more salons on philosophy and the future during the summer. Working titles are:

  • Giving Birth: Human Enhancement, Digital Minds
  • The Vulnerable World Hypothesis
  • Builders & Nervous Nellies: Visions for the Future, and What to Work on Next

Keep an eye on the ii newsletter for dates, or follow @peterhartree.

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The salon recording is now available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-uSDlbSXjw

A written summary is below:

We began by considering utilitarianism—particularly Sidgwick's "pleasure as desirable consciousness" hedonism—as a starting point for thinking about what matters. The value and failure modes of attempts at legibility and abstraction were discussed, as were different ideas about what makes a "meaningful" life. While accepting that utilitarian principles have, historically, supported important reforms (such as the de-criminalisation of homosexuality), attendees voiced concern about what may be missing from a hedonistic theory of value. There was broad agreement that we'll face major moral and meta-ethical uncertainty for the foreseeable future, and that we need to find ways to act despite that. One participant described giving Prozac to their cat, despite their misgivings about hedonism.

Discussion then turned to Nozick's experience machine, and the idea that it reveals more about our attachment to the status quo than our commitment to "base reality". We discussed how, during a process of gradual change, each step, viewed from the previous step, may seem comprehensible and tractable to moral evaluation. Yet if we try to look directly from the present to the thousandth step down the line, we end up in trouble—facing visions of an alien future that leave us cold. Parents can just about understand their children, but grandparents often struggle to understand their great-grandchildren.

In the last hour, we focussed on the question: how to proceed? There was general agreement that we should try our best to keep options open for future generations, which as a first cut, suggests an interest in reducing catastrophic and existential risks. Some attendees proposed relating to our best theories of value (including hedonism) as tentative yardsticks, and there was general enthusiasm for focussing on directional improvements on the margin, rather than a highly specified long term vision. Several attendees expressed interest in the Effective Altruism and Progress Studies communities, and we discussed some challenges of building effective communities when good feedback loops are hard to construct. The forecasting community—including Metaculus, the Good Judgement Project, and Danny Hernandez' work on calibration training—was briefly mentioned. So too was the difficulty of achieving rational social responses to risk—the debacle of COVID-19 suggesting that we have roughly two modes: ignore or obsess.

In closing, we reflected on potential harms associated with exposure to big picture perspectives in general, and utilitarian ideas in particular. Several attendees described acquaintances who have developed deep anxiety over things they cannot control, and who are making big life decisions—such as deciding not to have children—for questionable, anxiety-driven reasons. It was suggested that some contemporary neuroses may be a sign of impartial perspectives taking undue prominence in our culture. If people think that agent-neutral reasons are the only reasons they can justifiably care about, they're going to have a hard time living their lives.

This brought us back to Sidgwick’s "profound problem". If we can believe something is valuable, yet not actually value it, where does this leave us? Perhaps Agnes Callard can help us: for her, aspiration is about the rational, purposive process of learning to value something you don’t already value. Perhaps we should think of "learning to aspire" as a central challenge for the present, and the future.