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This post interrupts the Has Life Gotten Better? series to talk a bit about why it matters what long-run trends in quality of life look like.

I think different people have radically different pictures of what it means to "work toward a better world." I think this explains a number of the biggest chasms between people who think of themselves as well-meaning but don't see the other side that way, and I think different pictures of "where the world is heading by default" are key to the disagreements.

Imagine that the world is a ship. Here are five very different ways one might try to do one's part in "working toward a better life for the people on the ship."

Meaning in the "ship" analogy Meaning in the world
Rowing Help the ship reach its current destination faster Advance science, technology, growth, etc., all of which help people (or "the world") do whatever they want to do, more/faster
Steering Navigate to a better destination than the current one Anticipate future states of the world (climate change, transformative AI, utopia, dystopia) and act accordingly
Anchoring Hold the ship in place Prevent change generally, and/or try to make the world more like it was a generation or two ago
Equity Work toward more fair and just relations between people on the ship Redistribution; advocacy focused on the underprivileged; etc.
Mutiny Challenge the ship's whole premise and power structure Radical challenging of the world's current systems (e.g., capitalism)1

Which of these is the "right" focus for improving the world? One of the things I like about the ship analogy is that it leaves the answer to this question totally unclear! The details of where the ship is currently trying to go, and why, and who's deciding that and what they're like, matter enormously. Depending on those details, any of the five could be by far the most important and meaningful way to make a positive difference.

If the ship is the world, then where are we "headed" by default (what happens if we have more total technology, wealth, and power over our environment)? Who has the power to change that, and how has it been going so far?

These are important questions with genuinely unclear answers. So people with different assumptions about these deep questions can get along very poorly with each other.

I think this sort of taxonomy provides a different angle on people’s differences from the usual discussions of pro/anti-government interventionism.

Next I will give some somewhat more detailed thoughts on the case for and against each of these pictures of "improving the world." This is not so much to educate the reader as to help them understand where I stand, and why I have some of the unusual views I do.

I talk a bit about the "track record" of each category. A lot of the point of this analogy is to highlight the importance of big-picture judgments about history.


I use "rowing" to refer to the idea that we can make the world better by focusing on advancing science, technology, growth, etc. - all of which ultimately result in empowerment, helping people do whatever they want to do, more/faster. The idea is that, in some sense, we don't need a specific plan for improving lives: more capabilities, wealth, and empowerment ("moving forward") will naturally result in that.

Rowing is a contentious topic, and it’s contentious in a way that I think cuts across other widely-recognized ideological lines.

To some people, rowing seems like the single most promising way to make the world a better place. People and institutions who give off this vibe include:

I sometimes see rowing-oriented arguments tagged as “pro-market” or even “libertarian,” but I think that isn't a necessary connection. You could argue - and many do - that a lot of the biggest and most important contributions to global growth and technological advancement come from governments, particularly via things like scientific research funding (e.g., DARPA), development-oriented agencies (e.g., the IMF), and public education.

To many people, though, advocacy for “rowing” seems like it’s best understood as a veneer of pro-social rhetoric disguising mundane personal attempts to get rich - even to the point where the wealthy create an intellectual ecosystem to promote the idea that what makes them rich is also good for the world.

On priors, I think this is a totally reasonable critical take:

  • In practice, a lot of the folks most interested in "rowing" are venture capitalists, tech founders, etc. who sure seem to have spent most of their lives primarily interested in getting rich.
  • It seems "convenient," perhaps suspiciously so, that their story about how to make the world better seems to indicate that the best thing to do is focus on "creating wealth" (which usually aligns extremely well with "getting rich"), just like they are. This doesn't mean that they're deliberately hiding their motivations; but it may mean they naturally and subconsciously gravitate toward worldviews that validate their past (and present) choices.
  • Furthermore, the logic of why “rowing” would be good seems to have some gaps in it. It’s not obvious on priors that more total wealth or total scientific capability makes the world better. When thinking about the direct impacts of wealth and tech on quality of life, it seems about as easy to come up with harms as benefits.
    • Clear benefits include lower burden of disease, less hunger, more reproductive choice and freedom, better entertainment (and tastier food, and other things that one might call "directly" or "superficially" pleasurable), and more ability to encounter many ideas and choose from many candidate lifestyles and locations.
    • But clear potential costs include environmental damage, rising global catastrophic risks,3 rising inequality, and a world that is chaotically changing, causing all sorts of novel psychological and other challenges for individuals and communities. And many of the obvious dimensions along which wealth and technology make life more "convenient" do not clearly make life better: if wealth and technology "save us time" (reducing the need to do household chores, etc.), we might just be spending the "saved" time on other things that don't make our lives better, such as competing with each other for wealth and status.

These concerns seem facially valid, and they apply particularly to rowing. (If someone works toward equity, there could be a number of criticisms one levels at them, but the above issues don’t seem to apply.)

In my view, the best case for “rowing” is something like: “We don’t know why, but it seems to be going well.” If I were back in the year 0 trying to guess whether increasing wealth and technological ability would be good or bad for quality of life, I would consider it far from obvious. But empirically, it seems that the world has been improving over the last couple hundred years.

And with that said, it's much less clear how things were going in the several hundred thousand years before the Industrial Revolution.

So my current take on "rowing" is something like:

  • Despite all of the suspicious aspects, I think there is a good case for it. I don’t understand where this ship is going or why things are working the way they are - maybe the ship happens to be pointed toward warmer or calmer latitudes? - but rowing seems to have made life better for the vast majority of people over the last couple hundred years, and will likely continue to do so (by default) over at least the next few decades.
  • On the other hand, I don't think the track record is so good as to assume that rowing will always be good, and I'm particularly worried and uncertain about how things will go if there is a dramatic acceleration in the rate of progress - I'm inclined to approach such a prospect with caution rather than excitement.


Steering sounds great in theory. Instead of blindly propelling the world toward wherever it’s going, let’s think about where we want the world to end up and take actions based on that!

But I think this is currently the least common conception of how to do good in the world. The idea of utopia is unpopular (more in a future piece), and in general, it seems that anyone advocating action on the basis of a specific goal over the long-run future (really, anything more than 20 years out) generally is met with skepticism.

The most mainstream example of “steering” is probably working to prevent/mitigate climate change. This isn’t about achieving an “end state” for the world, but it is about avoiding a specific outcome that is decades away, and even that level of specific planning about the long-run future is something we don’t see a lot of in today’s intellectual discourse.

I think the longtermist community has an unusual degree of commitment to steering. One could even see longtermism as an attempt to resurrect interest in steering, by taking a different approach from previous steering-heavy worldviews (e.g., Communism) that have fallen out of favor.

  • Longtermists seek out specific interventions and events that they think could change the direction of the long-run future.
  • They are particularly interested in helping to better navigate a potential transition brought on by advanced AI - the idea being that if AI ends up being a sort of “new species” more powerful than humans, navigating the development of AI could end up avoiding bad results that last for the rest of time.
  • It’s common for longtermists to take an interest in differential technological development - meaning that instead of being “pro” or “anti” technological advancement, they have specific views on which technologies would be good to develop as quickly as possible vs. which would be good to develop as slowly as possible, or at least until we’ve developed other technologies that can make them safer. It seems to me that this sort of thinking is relatively rare outside the longtermist community. It's more common for people to be pro- or anti-science as a whole.

Why is it relatively rare for people to be interested in “steering” as defined here? I think it is mostly for good reasons, and comes down to the fact that the track record of “steering” type work looks unimpressive.

  • There are some specific embarrassing cases, such as historical Communism,4 which explicitly claimed to aim at a particular long-term utopian vision.
  • There is also just a lack of salient (or any?) examples of people successfully anticipating and intervening on some particular world development more than 10-20 years away. People and organizations in the longtermist community have tried to find examples, and IMO haven’t come up with much.5

Despite this, I’m personally very bullish on the kind of “steering” that the longtermist community is trying to do (and I’m also sold on the value of climate change prevention/mitigation).

The main reason for this is that I think defining, long-run consequential events of the future are more “foreseeable” now than they’ve been in the past. Climate change and advanced AI are both developments that seem highly likely this century (more on AI here), and seem likely to have such massive global consequences that action in advance makes sense. More broadly, I think it is easier than it used to be to scan across possible scientific and technological developments and point to the ones most worth “preparing for."

In the analogy, I’m essentially saying that there are particular important obstacles or destinations for the ship, that we can now see clearly enough that steering becomes valuable. By contrast, in many past situations I think we were “out on the open sea” such that it was too hard to see much about what lay ahead of us, and this led to the dynamic in which rowing has worked better than steering.

Other reasons that I’m bullish on steering are that (a) I think today’s “steering” folks are making better, more rigorous attempts at predicting the future than people who have tried to make long-run predictions in the past;6 (b) I think “steering” has become a generally neglected way of thinking about the world, at the same time as it has become more viable.

With that said, I think there is plenty of room for longtermists to do a better job than they are contending with the limits of how well we can “steer,” and what kinds of interventions are most likely to successfully improve how things go.

I think our ship draws close to some major crossroads, such that navigating them could define the rest of our journey. If I’m right, focusing on rowing to the exclusion of steering is a real missed opportunity.


In practice, it seems like a significant amount of the energy in any given debate is coming from people who would prefer to keep things as they are - or go back to things as they were (generally pretty recently, e.g., a generation or two ago). This is an attitude commonly associated with "conservatives" (especially social conservatives), but it's an attitude that often shows up from others as well.

As someone who thinks life has been getting better over the last couple hundred years - and that we still have a lot of important progress yet to be made on similar dimensions to the ones that have been improving - I am usually not excited about anchoring (though the specifics of what practices one is trying to "anchor" matter).

Some additional reasons for my general attitude:

  • I think the world has been changing extraordinarily quickly (by historical standards) throughout the past 200+ years, and I think it will continue to change extraordinarily quickly for at least the next few decades no matter what. So when I hear people advocating for stability and trusting the established practices of those who came before us, I largely think they are asking for something that just can't be had. (One way of putting this: as long as things are changing, we may as well try to make the best of that change.)
  • I am particularly skeptical that the previous generation or two should be emulated. There is obviously room for debate here (I might write more on this topic in the future).
  • I think there is a general bias toward exaggerating how good the past was that we need to watch out for.

There is a version of "anchoring" that I think can be constructive: asking that changes to policy and society be gradual and incremental, rather than sudden, so we can correct course as we go. In practice, I think nearly all policy and societal changes do end up being gradual and incremental, at least in the modern-day developed world, such that I don't currently have a wish for a stronger "anchoring" force than already exists in most domains that come immediately to mind (unless you count the "caution" frame for navigating the most important century).


Of the five different visions of what it means to improve the world, equity seems the most straightforward and familiar. It is about directly trying to make the world more just and fair, rather than trying to increase total options and wealth and rather than trying to optimize for some particular future event.

Equity includes efforts to:

  • Redistribute resources progressively (i.e., from rich to poor), whether via direct charity or via advocacy.
  • Amplify the voices and advance the interests of historically marginalized groups including women, people of color, and people born in low-income countries.
  • Improve products and services aimed at helping people who would be under-served by default, including via education reform and improvement, and scientific research (e.g., the sort of global health R&D funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

You could argue that successful equity work also contributes to the goals of rowing and steering, if a world with less inequality is also one that’s better positioned for broad-based economic growth and for anticipating/preparing for particular important events. But work whose proximate goal is equity tends to look different from work whose proximate goal is rowing or steering.

Most people recognize equity-oriented work as coming from a place of good intentions and genuine interest in making the world better. To the extent that equity-oriented work is controversial, it often stems from:

  • Arguments that it undermines its own goals. For example, arguments that advocating for a higher minimum wage could result in greater unemployment, thus hurting the interests of the low-income people that a higher minimum wage is supposed to help.
  • Arguments that it undermines rowing progress, and that rowing is an ultimately more important/promising way to help everyone. Dead Aid is an example of this sort of argument (picked for vividness rather than quality).

I've talked about the track record of rowing and steering; I'll comment briefly on that of equity. In short, I think it's very good. I think that much of the progress the world has seen is fairly hard to imagine without significant efforts at both rowing and equity: major efforts both to increase wealth/capabilities and to distribute them more evenly. Civil rights movements, social safety nets, and foreign aid all seem like huge wins, and major parts of the story for why the world seems to have gotten better over time.

With that track record in mind, and the fact that many equity interventions seem good on common-sense grounds, I'm usually positive on equity-oriented interventions.


Mutiny looks good if your premises are ~the opposite of the rowers'. You might think that the world today operates under a broken "system," and/or that we fundamentally have the wrong sorts of people and/or institutions in power. If this is your premise, it implies that what we tend to count as "progress" (particularly increased wealth and technological capabilities) is liable to make things worse, or at least not better. Instead, the most valuable thing we can do is get at the root of the issue and change the fundamental way that power is exercised and resources are allocated.

Unlike steering, this isn't about anticipating some particular future event or world-state. Instead, it's about rethinking/reforming the way the world operates and the way decisions are made. Instead of focusing on where the ship is headed, it's focused on who's running the ship.

This framework often emerges in criticisms of charity, philanthropy and/or effective altruism that point to the paradox of trying to make the world better using money obtained from participating in a problematic (capitalist) system - or occasionally in pieces by philanthropists themselves on the importance of challenging the fundamental paradigms the world is operating in. Some examples: Slavoj Žižek,7 Anand Giridharas,8 Guerrilla Foundation,9 and Peter Buffett.10. Often, but not always, people in the "mutiny" category identify with (or at least use language that is evocative of) socialism or Marxism.

Of the five categories, mutiny is the one I feel most unsatisfied with my understanding of. It seems that people use language about fundamental systems change to (a) sometimes mean something tangible, radical, and revolutionary like the abolition of private property; to (b) sometimes mean something that seems much more modest and that I would classify more as "equity," such as working toward greatly increased redistribution of wealth;12 and to (c) sometimes mean a particular emotional/tonal attitude unaccompanied by any distinctive policy platform.13 And it's often unclear which they mean.

(a) is the one I'm trying to point at with the "mutiny" idea. It's also the one that seems to go best with claims that it's problematic to e.g. "participate in capitalism" and then do philanthropy. (It's unclear to me how, say, running a hedge fund undermines (b) or (c).)

I am currently skeptical of (a), because:

  • I haven't heard much in the way of specific proposals for how the existing "system" could be fundamentally reformed, other than explicitly socialist and Marxist proposals such as the abolition of private property, which I don't support.
  • I am broadly sympathetic to Rob Wiblin's take on revolutionary change: "Effective altruists are usually not radicals or revolutionaries ... My attitude, looking at history, is that sudden dramatic changes in society usually lead to worse outcomes than gradual evolutionary improvements. I am keen to tinker with government or economic systems to make them work better, but would only rarely want to throw them out and rebuild from scratch. I personally favour maintaining and improving mostly market-driven economies, though some of my friends and colleagues hope we can one day do much better. Regardless, this temperament for ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ is widespread among effective altruists, and in my view that’s a great thing that can help us avoid the mistakes of extremists through history. The system could be a lot better, but one only need look at history to see that it could also be much worse."
  • As stated above, I broadly think that the world has made and continues to make astonishing positive progress, which doesn't put me in a place of wanting to "burn down the existing order" (at least without a clearer idea of what might replace it and why the replacement is promising). I'm particularly unsympathetic to claims that "capitalism" or "the existing system" is the root cause of global poverty. I think that global poverty is the default condition for humans, and the one that nearly all humans existed under until relatively recently.

To be clear, I don't mean here to be advocating against all radical views. A radical view is anything that is well outside the Overton window, and I have many such views. And I am sympathetic to many views that many might call "anticapitalist" or "revolutionary," such as that we should have dramatically more redistribution of wealth.

I am also generally sympathetic to both (b) and (c) above.

Categorizing worldviews

Here's a mapping from some key combinations of rowing/equity/mutiny to familiar positions in current political discourse:

Rowing Equity Mutiny AKA
Thumbs down Thumbs down Thumbs up Extreme Marxists
Thumbs down Thumbs up Thumbs up The radical left
Thumbs down Thumbs up Thumbs down The less radical, but still markets- and growth-skeptical, left
Thumbs down Thumbs down Thumbs down Many conservatives ("anchoring")
Thumbs up Thumbs down Thumbs down Libertarians, economic conservatives
Thumbs up Thumbs up Thumbs down "Neoliberals," the "pro-market left"

I've left out steering because I see it as mostly orthogonal to (and usually simply not present in) most of today's political discourse. I've represented "anchoring" as a row rather than a column, because I think it is mostly incompatible with the others. And I've left out worldviews that are positive on both rowing and mutiny (I think there are some worldviews that might be described this way, but they're fairly obscure).14


We can make up categories and put people in them all day. What does this taxonomy give us?

The main thrust for me is clarifying what people in different camps are disagreeing about, especially when they seem to be talking past each other by using completely different definitions of “improving the world.”

I think this framework is also useful for highlighting the role of one’s understanding of history in these disagreements. It’s far from obvious, a priori, whether the best thing to work on is rowing, steering, anchoring, equity, or mutiny, especially when we are so foggy on where a ship is heading by default. It really matters whether you think that increases in wealth and technological capability have had good effects so far, whether this has come about through deliberate planning or blind “forging ahead,” and whether there are particular reasons to expect the future to diverge from the past on these points.

Accordingly, when confronting one camp from another, I think it’s helpful when possible to be explicit about one’s assumptions regarding how things have gone so far, and regarding the broad track records of rowing, steering, anchoring, equity and mutiny. History doesn’t give us clear, pre-packaged answers on these questions - different people will look at the same history and see very different things - but I think it’s good to have views on these matters, even if only lightly informed to start, and to look out for information about history that could revise them.

  1. Though as discussed below, it's often unclear what "capitalism" means in this sort of context. 

  2. While these sorts of institutions often lead with the goal of fighting disease, they tend to fund basic science with very open-ended goals. 

  3. For example, The Precipice argues that "Fueled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves." The book sees "anthropogenic" global catastrophic risks as the dominant ones, and I agree. 

  4. I use the term "historical" in order to be agnostic on whether this was "true" Communism or reflects badly on Marxist philosophy. 

  5. See AI Impacts' attempts to find examples of helpful early actions on risks and Open Philanthropy on historical long-range forecasting. Other examples that have been suggested to me: early action to stop damage to the ozone layer, nuclear nonproliferation action, perhaps the US's approach to the Cold War. 

  6. See Open Philanthropy on historical long-range forecasting for what past efforts look like. There are many longtermist discussions of long-range predictions that seem significantly better on the dimensions covered in the post. 

  7. "There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! – i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation. The structure of the chocolate laxative can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape ... We should have no illusions: liberal communists [his term for the Davos set] are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system ... Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today’s capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms. They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence." 

  8. ""If anyone truly believes that the same ski-town conferences and fellowship programs, the same politicians and policies, the same entrepreneurs and social businesses, the same campaign donors, the same thought leaders, the same consulting firms and protocols, the same philanthropists and reformed Goldman Sachs executives, the same win-wins and doing-well-by-doing-good initiatives and private solutions to public problems that had promised grandly, if superficially, to change the world—if anyone thinks that the MarketWorld complex of people and institutions and ideas that failed to prevent this mess even as it harped on making a difference, and whose neglect fueled populism’s flames, is also the solution, wake them up by tapping them, gently, with this book. For the inescapable answer to the overwhelming question—Where do we go from here?—is: somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people who have been leading us." 

  9. "EA’s approach of doing ‘the most good you can now’ without, in our opinion, questioning enough the power relationships that got us to the current broken socio-economic system, stands at odds with the Guerrilla Foundation’s approach. Instead, we are proponents of radical social justice philanthropy, which aims to target the root causes of the very system that has produced the symptoms that much of philanthropy, including EA, is trying to treat (also see here and here) ... By asking these questions, EA seems to unquestioningly replicate the values of the old system: efficiency and cost-effectiveness, growth/scale, linearity, science and objectivity, individualism, and decision-making by experts/elites ... " 

  10. "we will continue to support conditions for systemic change ... It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code." (Though also note this quote: "I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.") 

  11. (Footnote deleted) 

  12. For example, see the "Class" chapter of How to Be an Antiracist, where the author speaks of capitalism and racism as "conjoined twins" but then states that he is defining "capitalism" as being in opposition to a number of not-very-radical-seeming goals such as increased redistribution of wealth and monopoly prevention. He speaks positively of Elizabeth Warren despite her statement that she is "capitalist to the bone," and says "if Warren succeeds, then the new economic system will operate in a fundamentally different way than it has ever operated before in American history. Either the new economic system will not be capitalist or the old system it replaces was not capitalist." 

  13. For example, a self-identified socialist states: "There’s a great Eugene Debs quote, 'While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.' That’s not a description of worker ownership — that’s a description of looking at the world and feeling solidarity with people who are at the bottom with the underclass. And I think that is just as important to what animates socialists as some idea about how production should be managed ... People focus a lot on the question of central planning. But I’ve been doing interviews of socialists, interviewing DSA people around the country, and the unifying thread really is not a very clear vision for how a socialist economy will work. It is a deep discomfort and anger that occurs when you look at the world and you see power relationships and you see a small class of people owning so much and a large number of people working so hard and having so little. There are socialist divides over nearly every question, but this is the one thing that socialists all come together on." 

  14. I sometimes encounter people who seem to think something along the lines of: "Progress is slowing down because our culture has become broken and toxic. The only hope for getting back to a world capable of a reasonable pace of scientific, technological, and economic progress is to radically overhaul everything about our institutions and essentially start from scratch." I expect to write more on the general theme of what we should make of "progress slowing down" in the future. 

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Thanks for writing this, the ontology is interesting.

Regarding this claim for rowing:

Despite all of the suspicious aspects, I think there is a good case for it. I don’t understand where this ship is going or why things are working the way they are - maybe the ship happens to be pointed toward warmer or calmer latitudes? - but rowing seems to have made life better for the vast majority of people over the last couple hundred years, and will likely continue to do so (by default) over at least the next few decades.

Elsewhere, you state:

Unfortunately, the chart for average animal quality of life probably looks very different from the human one; for example, the rise of factory farming in the 20th and 21st centuries is a massive negative development. I consider this a major complicating point for the narrative about life getting better over this period.

This basically seems like a knockdown counterargument to me: if you include all sentient beings (which seems like the natural "default" population) the trendline is negative (or at least unclear), so naïvely extrapolating the trendline is not very exciting. I'm curious why you don't find this counterargument so compelling? Is it that you don't think "all sentient beings" is the "right" population to use?

(Note: I think there are compelling reasons to believe the "default" future will be positive, I just don't think the "naïvely extrapolate a trendline" argument is very compelling.)

I think this is a good point, but it doesn't totally knock me out of feeling sympathy for the "rowing" case.

It looks quite likely to me that factory farming is going to end up looking something like air pollution - something that got worse, then better, as capabilities/wealth improved. I expect the combination of improving "animal product alternatives" (Impossible, Beyond, eventually clean meat) with increasing wealth to lead this way.

Granted, this is no longer a "pure trend extrapolation," but I think the consistent and somewhat mysterious improvement in the lives of humans (the population that has been getting more empowered/capable) is still a major part of a case I have a lot of sympathy for: that by default, at least over the next few decades and bracketing some "table-flip" scenarios, we should expect further economic growth and technological advancement to result in better quality of life.

One facet of your comment:

It seems that both you and the OP are saying that developments in farm animal welfare may have affected the sign of human progress.

Note that EA and Open Phil is the major leader and funder to improving welfare of many farmed animals. 

  • In farm animal welfare, many of the best initiatives and leaders are "native to EA". 
  • According to one of the responses to this post, some reduction of severe factory farming practices is one of EA's achievements.
  • In one case, an EA organization has produced field expanding work in farm animal welfare and beyond (and continues, while also usefully growing into other cause areas).

 If something dangerous occurs when driving, slamming on the brakes is often a pretty good heuristic, regardless of the specific nature of the danger. I think we can make a similar analogy for Anchoring, because some the same reasons that make Steering more attractive now than in the past also apply for Anchoring. If there are an unusually large number of icebergs up ahead, or you are afraid the Mutineers will steer us towards them, or you are attempting to moor up alongside a larger vessel, reducing speed could be a generally prudent move - and this is the case even if full speed ahead was the optimal strategy in the past when you were on the open seas.

If something dangerous occurs when driving, slamming on the brakes is often a pretty good heuristic, regardless of the specific nature of the danger.

What if you're being chased by a dragon?

I think we can make a similar analogy for Anchoring, because some the same reasons that make Steering more attractive now than in the past also apply for Anchoring. If there are an unusually large number of icebergs up ahead, or you are afraid the Mutineers will steer us towards them, or you are attempting to moor up alongside a larger vessel, reducing speed could be a generally prudent move - and this is the case even if full speed ahead was the optimal strategy in the past when you were on the open seas.

What if you think that the people currently Steering are the ones blindly heading towards the icebergs? Wouldn't Mutiny be an option worth considering? What if the ship is taking on water and people in the lower decks are drowning? Wouldn't you want to Speed up and get to land as fast as possible?

This metaphor doesn't seem too informative until we've made sense of what world we actually live in.

Sorry, I think I must have been unclear. I didn't mean to conclude that Anchoring was definitively the best strategy for us to adopt, merely that some of the pro tanto reasons Holden mentioned in favour of Steering also seemed like they should apply to Anchoring. 

As you mention, opposed against this are arguments like Aschenbrennerism, that the world would actually be safer if we went faster. And obviously many Anchoring arguments are quite problematic - e.g. an extreme version of stare decisis whereby rules cannot be changed, even gradually, if they are agreed to be wrong.

Thanks for clarifying. I did somewhat misinterpret the intention of your comment.

some of the pro tanto reasons Holden mentioned in favour of Steering also seemed like they should apply to Anchoring


- e.g. an extreme version of stare genesis whereby rules cannot be changed


< Googles heavily >

pro tanto: So it turns out pro tanto means just to the limit it exists, e.g. "some of the reasons Holden mentioned apply to anchoring, but only to some limited extent".

stare genesis: I can’t find stare genesis in the link provided, but stare decisis is in there, and that refers to the legal doctrine of precedent.

Note that in latin, “stare” means to “stand or remains’, and “decisis” means “past decisions”.

In latin, "genesis' means “from the beginning, origin”. So maybe “stare genesis” means an extreme case where nothing ever changes?

I’m working with a below average IQ and a STEM degree here.

Ahh, sorry!

The first bit just means that I was laying out some reasons that Holden missed, but I didn't mean to imply they were the most important reasons. For example, we have a pro tanto duty not to lie, but you should still lie if it's necessary to save people in your attic from being murdered, because saving people from murdered is a more important reason.

The second bit refers to a legal doctrine whereby once a decision has been made, it shouldn't be changed by subsequent courts, even if they think the decision was wrong. The idea is to promote predictable and consistent law, but the disadvantage is that it makes it difficult/impossible to correct previous mistakes. And yes I misremembered my latin, sorry!

Regarding understanding Mutiny, I'll point to Scott Siskind/Alexander's point about Trump and breaking the system, and   something far too long which I wrote a few years ago to explain what Holden is now calling mutiny;

...To finish the earlier Scott Alexander quote, “If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it.” If there are goals other than a Tyler-Durden-esque smashing of the system in order to let anarchy reign, you need to be incredibly sure your goals are clearly specified.

And this is where I mention Trump, the elephant-nominee in the room. His goals are unclear, and he’s strategically refusing to be coherent long enough to change that. That means he’s building a coalition with shared dissatisfaction, without needing to clarify where he’s headed..

So in my view, Holden's rejected (a) is absolutely correct as the interpretation - but the problem is that it's an often dangerous / destructive rhetorical strategy for taking over, not a vision for how to actually change things. The vision for how to change things is separate.

But leaving aside Trump, the problem for anyone with a clear vision is that specifying a Utopia which would actually work - a feat which has never been accomplished - is still  the easiest part of radical reform. The far trickier parts are about getting from the present system to the future one. Doing radical reform without revolution is akin to rebuilding a bicycle into a motorcycle, without stopping along the way. 

On the other hand, the idea that we can tear things down and build the new system once we get rid of the current one is more akin to stopping and smashing the bicycle, and then thinking we can make new parts and somehow wind up with a motorcycle because we have some diagrams of how to build one. However seductively promising revolution seems, it requires implementing radical new systems correctly, in a single try, after breaking all of the necessary systems which it's replacing. And so I would suggest that the feasibility of managing it once you smashed all the working pieces is somewhere between  never-before-done and impossible.

The same author also summarized a paper on the French revolution:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom[...]

An alternative thread runs through the French Revolution, social activism, and modern complaints about vetocracy. Its thesis: entrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great[...]

Into this eternal battle comes The Consequences Of Radical Reform: The French Revolution, by Daron Acemoglu, Davide Cantoni, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson (from 2009; h/t Rob B). Under Napoleon, the revolutionary French took over large swathes of Europe. They abolished their client states' traditional systems, replacing them with the Napoleonic Code and other "modern" legal systems. Europe at the time had so many tiny duchies and principalities and so on that you can actually do a decent experiment on it - for every principality Napoleon conquered and reformed, there was another one just down the river which was basically identical but managed to escape conquest. So the authors ask: did the radically-reformed polities do better or worse than the left-to-their-traditions polities?

(admittedly, this is measured in GDP, urbanization, and other “legible” statistics - but pretty broad ones, measured over decades from a distance of centuries, in a way that seems to track very-long-term development and is hard to fake)

Take a second to make a prediction here - a real prediction, with a probability attached.

If you're really feeling bold, post a comment with your prediction before reading further.

Are you sure you want to keep reading now? You’ll never get another chance to predict this from a position of ignorance!

...okay, fine. The study concludes:

> The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those 'designed'; that institutions must be 'appropriate' and cannot be 'transplanted'; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.

Notice how merciless the authors are - not only rejecting the superiority of evolved over designed institutions, but equally skeptical of the superiority of local over foreign ones. "The evidence," they say, "does not support the thesis that institutions are efficiently adapted to the underlying characteristics of a society and that evolved institutions are superior to those that are designed or externally imposed."

In fact, they think that when designed imposed institutions fail, it's probably because they don't go far enough:

> The success of the French reforms raises the question: why did they work when other externally-imposed reforms often fail? Most likely this is because the reforms were much more radical than is typically the case. The French reformed simultaneously in many dimensions and weakened the powers of local elites, making a return to the status quo ante largely impossible. Even when some pre-revolution elites returned to power after 1815, there was a permanent change in the political equilibrium. This scope and radicalism of the French reforms are common with the post-war reform experiences in Germany and Japan and stand in contrast with many other reform experiences.

Thanks, that's great. But to be fair, this was about importing working systems to new places,  after a decade of checking that they worked, not fully novel systems. So I don't think you get to count this as evidence for mutiny, though it does provide evidence for the value of cosmopolitanism - something I don't think was being questioned here, or is debated much in EA generally.

I would suggest that the feasibility of managing it once you smashed all the working pieces is somewhere between never-before-done and impossible.

How does the American Revolution fit into this? Wasn't the US basically created from scratch, and now is arguably the most successful country in the world?

How does the American Revolution fit into this?

David is probably thinking more about the French revolution, or the Great Leap forward.

It is difficult to answer this without getting into detail on these issues:

The French revolution was initially driven by moderate reformers, but spiraled into dysfunction because no revolutionary institution could provide stability. Once you deleted all of the original institutions ("smashed all the working pieces" as David said), leadership fell to power-seeking fanatics with crazy epistemics. There was also fear from both internal and outside forces (Vendee, First Coalition) that constantly disrupted governance and fed extreme elements. 

The Great Leap Forward was driven by a central leadership with a sort of magical thinking: they had contempt for normal material limits and conventional wisdom, and was certain that productivity would be massively unlocked by smashing landholdings and moving people in communes where they work together ("smashed all the working pieces"). It is grotesque now, but the very low industrial capital of China and the impressive success of the 1st five year plan, makes judgement look better. It is also worth comparing Mao's epistemics with beliefs in today's tech boom ("move fast and break things", techno-optimism) that seems to have another explanation in regulatory capture and loose capital markets.

In both situations above, the leaders were obsessed with the systems they opposed. They were certain if you smashed everything, things would be fixed, but they weren't literate in the nuances of how politics or industry functions. All the leaders were brought to heel at huge human cost, and the mundane, conventional processes they hated were essential in restoring order.

Wasn't the US basically created from scratch

The "American Revolution" was elite lead, they were literally Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton educated dudes. Their motivation was almost literally not wanting to pay taxes, and there is a credible subtext that the colonials were motivated by British colonial restrictions against taking native land—the natives were British subjects too, and the British tried to keep the colonials in front of the Appalachians. (Note that the idea of this subtext comes from established scholars and predates the current wave of social justice and native issues). The American revolution only had to deal with an awkward, trans-Atlantic British response. There was no san-culottes or mass starvation, keeping an orderly, continuous leadership.

 and now is arguably the most successful country in the world?

From my guess, every domestic institution in the US basically existed before and after the revolution. The main novelty of the revolution was the creation a new "state" from the British colonies (the quotes are not necessarily a sneer, there is genuine uncertainty about what the US was supposed to be). The founding fathers were only able to do this incompletely, resulting in a violent civil war. Even after adjustments, American political institutions are suboptimal compared to other western democracies and the dysfunctions plague us to this day.


(Honestly, this isn't a very virtuous comment and I hope some more educated person stomps all over all this if it's wrong.)

I agree with this. I was just pushing back against the "somewhere between never-before-done and impossible" characterization. Mutiny definitely goes wrong more often than not, and just blindly smashing things without understanding how they work, and with no real plan for how to replace them is a recipe for disaster.

I'd also point out that the US is successful in many, many ways, but it's hard to argue that US government is significantly better than the UK, most of Europe, etc. And that's what was smashed and rebuilt along slightly different lines.

For reasons others have pointed out, the American revolution is weaker evidence, but I certainly agree it's at least marginal evidence against my point - or at least, evidence that smaller revolutions are less likely to fail than bigger ones.

And as others explained in far more detail, the Americans smashed very little in terms of what made their system work, and invented very little - they just wanted to do things which had been done before, many of which they were already doing to some extent, independently.

Another example that comes to mind is Japan's Meiji Restoration. I don't think it fits neatly in any of the categories. It’s a combination of mutiny, steering and rowing. But just like the American revolution, I think it illustrates that very rapid and disruptive change in political and economic systems can be undertaken successfully.

The ability to maintain, or improve steering and/or rowing seem to be two important preconditions for a successful mutiny.

Also, the various revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and led to the end of the Soviet Union also seem to be successful mutinies. Of course, the reason these countries ended up under Soviet communism and needed to rise up was because of the Bolshevik mutiny, but still.

I feel like people in EA are mostly anti-mutiny because the only people advocating for it seem to be far left, anti-capitalist types who don’t seem to have a realistic plan for how to go about it, or a coherent plan for what could replace it. But I don’t think EA should be closed to the idea of mutiny in principle. It’s just that any mutiny proposal has to pass a really high bar.

I've claimed before that the critical enabler for eucatastrophe is having a clear and implementable vision of where you are heading - and that's exactly what is missing is most mutinies. 

To offer an analogy in the form of misquoting Russian literature, "all [functioning governments] are the same, but each [dysfunctional new attempt at government] is [dysfunctional] in its own way.

Another example that comes to mind is Japan's Meiji Restoration

This seems like an important and interesting example that advances your point. 

I don't know anything about it.

Do you (or anyone else) know a good book or author on the subject?

The very quick summary: Japan used to be closed off from the rest of the world, until 1853 when the US forced them to open up. This triggered major reforms. The Shogun was overthrown and replaced with the emperor, and in less than a century, Japan went from an essentially medieval economic and societal structure, to a modern industrial economy.

I don't know of any books exclusively focused on it, but it's analyzed in Why Nations Fail and Political Order and Political Decay.

The very quick summary: Japan used to be closed off from the rest of the world, until 1853 when the US forced them to open up. This triggered major reforms. The Shogun was overthrown and replaced with the emperor, and in less than a century, Japan went from an essentially medieval economic and societal structure, to a modern industrial economy.

This is a good summary. I guess I have heard about this before, because I read a bit about the Qing dynasty and the Sino-Japanese wars.

I don't know of any books exclusively focused on it, but it's analyzed in Why Nations Fail and Political Order and Political Decay.

(Note that I haven't read these books and your comment updates me toward reading them.)

Acemoglu and Fukuyama are brilliant, but speaking in the abstract, I am skeptical of drawing too much from Big Idea sort of books. They tend to focus on and line up facts in their narrative. This doesn't tend to lead to robust models and insights if we want to do something else with the underlying history.

Instead, it seems ideal to consume several books from several established scholars specialized on Japan and the Meiji restoration. 

I will try to search Amazon/Goodreads and maybe report back. 

The US inherited a lot of things from before, including its common law legal system; people literally debate the relevance of the 1328 Statute of Northampton in contemporary US court cases. 

Certainly, but I still think that it counts as an example of a successful "mutiny." If overthrowing the government and starting a new country isn't mutiny, I don't know what is. And I don't think anyone sympathetic to the mutiny theory of change wants to restart from the state of nature and reinvent all of civilization completely from scratch.

The US revolution is very often considered to be an unusually conservative revolution - even the arch-conservative Burke contemporaneously admired it in many ways. It was much less disruptive than revolutions like in France, Russia or China, which attempted to radically re-order their governments, economies and societies. In a sense I guess you could think of the US revolution as being a bit like a mutiny that then kept largely the same course as the previous captain anyway.

I agree that the US revolution was unusual and in many ways more conservative than other revolutions.

I guess you could think of the US revolution as being a bit like a mutiny that then kept largely the same course as the previous captain anyway.

I feel like this is really underselling what happened, though I guess it might be subjective. Sure, they didn't try to reinvent government, culture and the economy completely from scratch, but it was still the move from a monarchy to the first modern liberal constitutional republic.

It was much less disruptive than revolutions like in France, Russia or China, which attempted to radically re-order their governments, economies and societies. In a sense I guess you could think of the US revolution as being a bit like a mutiny that then kept largely the same course as the previous captain anyway.

I agree with the weaker claim here that the US revolution didn't radically re-order "government, economy and society." But I think you might be exaggerating how conservative the US revolution was. 

The United States is widely considered to be one of the first modern constitutional democracies, following literally thousands of years of near-universal despotism throughout the world. Note that while many of its democratic institutions were inherited from the United Kingdom, sources such as Boix et al.'s "A complete data set of political regimes, 1800–2007" (which Our World In Data cites on their page for democray) tend to say that democracy in the United States is older than democracy in the United Kingdom, or Western Europe more generally. 

One of the major disruptive revolutions you mention, the French Revolution, was inspired by the American revolution quite directly. Thomas Jefferson even assisted Marquis de Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. More generally, the intellectual ideals of both revolutions are regularly compared with each other, and held as prototypical examples of Enlightenment values.

However, I do agree with what is perhaps the main claim, which is that the US constitution, by design, did not try to impose the perfect social order: its primary principle was precisely that of limited government and non-intervention, ie. the government not trying to change as much as possible.

Unlike steering, this isn't about anticipating some particular future event or world-state. Instead, it's about rethinking/reforming the way the world operates and the way decisions are made. Instead of focusing on where the ship is headed, it's focused on who's running the ship.

I loved most of the post but felt somewhat concerned that the part quoted above is implicitly coupled with adopting a radical (simple) solution model that's criticised under the Mutiny section.

While I share the scepticism about the most common responses to or suggested solutions to the perceived need to rethink or reform the system and decision procedures, I would like much more EA's to focus on (and heavily invest in) finding better solutions to do so. 

While one might make a great contribution while directly steering or improving equity or rowing, the long term expected value is heavily influenced by the current system rules – especially in steering and equity.

Steering: If I’m focused on where the ship is headed, should I  aim to steer myself now to the best direction I can think of, or ensure that in the long run the boat can be steered by the people (a) most capable of doing so, (b) most aligned with the collectively most beneficial outcomes and (c) with the most accurate information possible?

Equity: Should I concentrate on distributing existing resources and making retrofits to make the world more just and fair, or trying to rethink (and eventually reshape) the generator functions that are creating the current imbalances?

I think our ship draws close to some major crossroads, such that navigating them could define the rest of our journey. If I’m right, focusing on rowing to the exclusion of steering is a real missed opportunity.

As we are likely to encounter multiple such major crossroads, I’d also suggest that focusing on steering without considering (even the very deep-rooted) incentives that systematically steer us away from desired goals and how they might be changed is a real missed opportunity.

I don't assume that you would disagree on this, especially as you mention being sympathetic to specific views, e.g. need to more dramatically distribute wealth. I would just highlight that rethinking how the world operates and how decisions are made could be done without attempting to dismantle the current system at all costs, and rather discussing and seeking ways to shift to a better system while minimizing harmful outcomes in the transition.

Let's not confuse genuine attempts to improve our long-term steering abilities with naive rebellion.

In my view, the best case for “rowing” is something like: “We don’t know why, but it seems to be going well.”

I don't buy this, for reasons Ben West mentions. On the other hand, I think there's a pretty strong adjacent argument that progress is good because it means a) agents with power will have more and more of a say in the world (to fulfill their own preferences) and b) the number of agents with power have historically been increasing. 

In that regard, both wealth and technological growth can be viewed as a metric for the increase of individual freedom to choose to satisfy their own preferences. To argue that this is fundamentally bad/uncertain, you need to appeal to second-order considerations like a) people don't know what they want, or b) collective action problems, and our prior should somewhat be against second-order considerations changing the sign of first-order ones. Though of course this can be overridden if the theoretical or empirical evidence is strong enough. 

Interesting metaphor. More interesting is that your summary of  Equity as the only endeavour on this ship which does not have a drawback, and which is supportive of the other efforts; could Equity support an Afghan girl to be a gifted Navigator, or more athletic Rowers to move the ship forward? Why would we not try? At the moment there are three Captains who are bickering

I drafted a similar table that should motivate cooperation on making a positive impact with various institutions and an overall enjoyable development of one’s interests.

 Meaning in the ship analogyMeaning in the world
RowingAt any time, one needs to be getting places, regardless of where they are and have been.Continue to advance on your career path, reflecting on where you make the greatest counterfactual impact.
SteeringNavigate your ship well, using maps and weather and other forecasts.Gain information on the capacities that will be in demand in the future and what abilities others are developing to take optimal next career steps.
AnchoringAlways make sure to have your ship anchored while you are on land.Work only for entities and in roles that you want to stay in for your contract period to avoid reputational loss risk. 
EquityContemplate and seek, where relevant, equity in your ventures, especially those on land.Recognize the rationale for power dynamics narratives and see if you can, from your position, offer impact-improving solutions.


This is a really interesting framework. If you're interested in diving into some ideas for more transformative social change I think I can recommend a few, though I'm not that knowledgeable about them.

  1. Participatory Economics or Parecon - if nothing else it does seem pretty detailed from what I can gather. Very theory based in terms of a blueprint for a possible society. Bolo 'bolo is another theoretical but specific example like this, but in a different direction.
  2. Democratic Confederalism in Rojava/the Democratic Forces of Northern Syria. I think this one can be harder to find info on, but it's a current real world movement example. There are some books and articles on it. The Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization series and Sociology of Freedom go more into the philosophy side rather than the existing on-the-ground specifics. The Zapatistas are another real world movement example.
  3. The Catalan Integral Cooperative is a specific organization practicing a more commons based socioeconomic system. (Also see Elinor Ostrom and others who have detailed effectively governed commons around the world and the principles they operate under). https://commonstransition.org/the-catalan-integral-cooperative-an-organizational-study-of-a-post-capitalist-cooperative/

Cooperation Jackson is another kind of organization level ecosystem example.

If you find these useful, I could probably think of a few more examples.

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