For those who are sympathetic to longtermism, one promising line of inquiry is to examine past events that have had very long-run influence to see whether they hold any lessons for present-day efforts. As part of my research for the Forethought Foundation, I’ve looked into a couple of possible examples: the rise of early Christianity, and the triumph of Confucianism over Mohism and other Chinese schools of thought.

With respect to early Christianity, I was initially tasked with assessing the role of Constantine’s conversion in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. However, in the course of my research I came to believe that this was less of a decisive factor, and that Christianity would likely have achieved a position of dominance regardless of Constantine’s conversion. More generally (and perhaps unsurprisingly), I became more convinced that it’s difficult to point to specific events and say with much confidence that they significantly altered the course of history.

Nevertheless, these write-ups may still be of interest to longtermists. Religions are among the most long-lasting institutions in history, and may be instructive to study for that reason alone. In addition, these write-ups may hold some lessons on social movement growth that could inform our thinking about the future of effective altruism. The decline of Mohism is perhaps particularly interesting, as the Mohists resemble effective altruists in some striking ways: as the world’s first consequentialists they emphasised impartial caring over attachment to one’s family, saw lavish social rituals as wasteful, and held other views that were unlikely to appeal to the rulers of the time. Of course, these are not core elements of EA doctrine, but the decline of Mohism may still be a failure mode to bear in mind.

Needless to say, these are only a few data points from societies very different from our own, and one should therefore be careful not to draw too strong conclusions from them. Moreover, I spent about 16 hours in total on each of the two documents, so these are only some initial findings. With those caveats in mind, here are the write-ups:

Any feedback is much appreciated. I would be especially interested if you have ideas for other historical case studies that could inform the longtermist project.

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Re your question: "I would be especially interested if you have ideas for other historical case studies that could inform the longtermist project." Here's a few ideas:

  • In Scott Alexander's post Beware Systemic Change, he argued that by funding Marx, Engels brought about "global mass murder without any lasting positive change". I'd be quite interested in an assessment of whether this is true. 
    • Did Marx's work really cause the mass murder, or did the countries led by Marxist dictators happen to find themselves in circumstances where despots were prone to taking over anyway, and without Marxism might an even worse ideology have driven the counterfactual dictator?
    • Did Marx's thinking cause any lasting positive change? How would we conceptualise left wing politics today without him? Did he advance the concept that people have rights, even if they don't have capital/wealth, or was that concept going to take hold anyway?
  • There's probably quite a few battles which could have had world-changing consequences if the outcome had been different. The Battle of Tours of 732 was quite interesting. The Ummayad Caliphate was in the midst of spreading Islam across the known world. As they spread north from Spain, they came up against the Franks and lost at the Battle of Tours. Had this not happened, not only might the Carolingian Empire found it harder to take off, but most of Western Europe (and the US?) might be Muslim today. 
  • The US Constitution was the first constitution that I know of that was influenced by Enlightenment concepts. It seems to have been a success (at least, the US does seem to be a successful country today, at least under some measures). Did the constitution matter, or was the US bound to succeed anyway? Did the constitution have any long term impact on the values of Americans? The right to bear arms appears, at least superficially, to have an impact on contemporary American values. Did enlightenment concepts matter?

I've been reading Mo Zi (https://ctext.org/mozi) and I find I must disagree with your claim that Mo Zi "emphasised impartial caring over attachment to one’s family".

Instead, Mo Zi frames universal caring as a sometimes-difficult but overall more-effective path to general success, including the important end-goal of care for one's parents.

Let me reference this relevant excerpt as support (https://ctext.org/mozi/universal-love-iii#n691):

"It raises the question, when one does not think in terms of benefits and harm to one's parents would it be filial piety? Mozi replied: Now let us inquire about the plans of the filial sons for their parents. I may ask, when they plan for their parents, whether they desire to have others love or hate them? Judging from the whole doctrine (of filial piety), it is certain that they desire to have others love their parents. Now, what should I do first in order to attain this? Should I first love others' parents in order that they would love my parents in return, or should I first hate others' parents in order that they would love my parents in return? Of course I should first love others' parents in order that they would love my parents in return. Hence those who desire to be filial to one another's parents, if they have to choose (between whether they should love or hate others' parents), had best first love and benefit others' parents."

I must also disagree with the claim in your "Confucius vs Mozi" google-doc, that "Mozi has no conception of moral self-cultivation."

There is a whole chapter on the topic of "修身" or self-cultivation in Book 1 of Mozi. (https://ctext.org/mozi/self-cultivation)

Here is an excerpt:

"Therefore the superior men are daily more energetic in performing their duty, but weaker in their desires, and more stately in their appearance. The way of the superior man makes the individual incorruptible in poverty and righteous when wealthy; it makes him love the living and mourn the dead. These four qualities of conduct cannot be hypocritically embodied in one's personality. There is nothing in his mind that goes beyond love; there is nothing in his behaviour that goes beyond respectfulness, and there is nothing from his mouth that goes beyond gentility. When one pursues such a way until it pervades his four limbs and permeates his flesh and skin, and until he becomes white-haired and bald-headed without ceasing, one is truly a sage."

One might also suppose that a philosopher like Mo Zi focused on universal-caring might be a pacifist, or advocate renouncing the family.  But many sections of Mo Zi emphasize military defense, and even more sections emphasize filial piety and paternal affection.

I would characterize Mo Zi's position on universal love as claiming and supporting the following two points of emphasis:

  • Enlarging the moral circle creates win/win situations. 
  • It is valuable to give others some level of moral status. Even if they are foreigners, or outside the family unit, there is strategic value in affording them some level of generosity. Leaving a moral-vacuum in one's sense of care for some out-group is a poor strategy.

I'm glad to see historical evidence being considered and also awareness of its limitations.

What do you consider to be the main strategic implications for the EA community?

Is it mainly to update slightly away from strategies which might lead to events similar to the hypothesised causes of decline of Mohism, and towards those which might lead to events similar to the hypothesised causes of the success of Confucianism? E.g. update towards being willing to "adapt doctrines to changing social and intellectual circumstances."

Yes, those seem right to me. My impression is that most social movements will inevitably have to adapt if they are to survive for longer periods of time. Of course, there's a trade-off here: to adapt one will likely have to compromise on some of the movement's initial values. But at the moment I think that adapting too little is probably a more plausible failure mode than adapting too much.

I'd be interested in seeing how evidence based medicine became the default in most places (amongst the general public as well as within medicine), and if there were previous attempts to popularise it that failed.

Very cool! Finally had time to read the reports. Would there be any utility in cross-posting this information in OPP's Notable Lessons (or all on Forethought) ? It should appeal to the same audience as Philanthropy's Success stories.

This is really interesting, both as a topic and as just general history geek stuff. Have you considered the intolerance hypothesis for the spread of christianity (and islam after it)? I vaguely remember reading about it while in undergrad and it essentially says that christianity managed to dominate because it was exclusive, meaning required you only believe in the christian god, unlike other roman pagan religions.

I vaguely remember the last pagan generation being a good source on early christendom as well: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Final-Generation-Transformation-Classical-Heritage/dp/0520283708