Thoughts on whether we're living at the most influential time in history

My thanks to Will and Buck for such an interesting thoughtful debate. However to me there seems to be one key difference that I think it is worth drawing out:


Will's updated article (here, p14) asks the action relevant question (rephrased by me) of:

Are we [today] among the very most influential people, out of the very large number of people who will live that we could reasonably pass resources to [over the coming thousand years]


Buck's post (this post) seems to focus on the not action relevant question (my phrasing) of:

Are we [in this century] at the very most influential time, out of the very large span of all time into the distant future [over the coming trillion years]


It seems plausible to me that Buck's criticisms are valid when considering Will's older work, however I do not think the criticisms that Buck raises here about Will's original HoH still applies to the action relevant restricted HoH in Will's new paper. (And I see little value in debating the non-action relevant HoH hypothesis.)

Web of virtue thesis [research note]

Hi Owen, I think this paper (and the other stuff you have posed recently) are very good.  It is good to see breakdowns of longtermism that are more practicably applicable to life and to solving some of the problems in the world today.


I would like to draw your attention to the COM-B (Capability Opportunity Motivation - Behaviour) model of behaviour change in case you are not already aware of it. The model is, as I understand it a fairly standard practice in governance reform in international development. The model is as follows:

  • The idea is that government decisions are dependent on the Behaviour (B) of key actors. This matches very closely to the idea that critical junctures are dependent on the Virtues embodied by key actors. 
  • An outside actor can ensure Behaviour goes well (behaviour changed for the better) by addressing key actors Capabilities (C), Opportunities (O) and Motivations (M). This matches very closely to your three points that the key actors must be 3) competent, must 1) know about the problem and must 2) care enough to solve it.
  • The model then offers a range of tools and ways to break down COM into smaller challenges and and influence COM to achieve B and can be worked into a Theory of Change.


I think it is useful for you to be aware of this (if you are not already) as:

  • It shows you are on the right track. It sounds like from your post you are uncertain about the Key Virtue assumption. If you just thought up this assumption it could be good to know that it matches very very closely to an existing approach to changing the actions of key actors in positions of governance (or elsewhere).
  • It provides a more standard language to use if you want to move from speaking to philosophers to speaking to actors in the institutional reform space.
  • COM-B may be a better model. By virtue of being tried and tested COM-B is likely a better model with empirical evidence and academic papers behind it. Of course it is not perfect and there are criticisms of it (similar to how there are criticisms of QALYs in global health but they are still useful).
  • It provides a whole range of useful tools for thinking through the next steps of influencing key behaviours / key virtues. As mentioned there are various ways of breaking down the problems, tools to use to drive change, and even criticisms that highlight what the model misses.


I hope this is useful for resolving some of the uncertainty you expressed about the Key Virtue assumption and for refining next steps when you come to work on that.

I would caveat that I find COM-B useful to think through but I am not a practitioner (I'm like an EA thinking in QALYs but not having to actually work with them).

I think there is a meta point here that I keep reading papers from FHI/GPI and getting the impression (rightly or wrongly) that stuff that is basic from a policy perspective is being being derived from scratch, often worse than the original. I would be keen to see FHI/GPI engage more with existing best practice at driving change.

Improving Institutional Decision-Making: a new working group

Thank you Ian. Grateful for the thoughtful reply. Good to hear the background on the name and I agree it makes sense to think of scope in a more fuzzy way (eg in scope, on the edge of scope like cfar, useful meta projects like career advice, etc)

Just to clarify my point here was not one of "whether to emphasize institutions or decision-making more" (sorry if I was initial comment was confusing) but kind of the opposite point that: it would make sense to ensure both topics are roughly equally emphasised (and that I'm not sure your post does that).

Depending on which you emphasis and which questions you ask you will likey get different answers, different interventions, etc. At an early scoping stage when you don't want to rule out much, maintaining a broad scope for what to look into is important.

Also, to flag, I don't find the "everything is decision making" framing as intuitive or useful as you do.

Totally off topic from my original point, but it is interesting to note that my experience is the polar opposite of yours. Working in gov there was a fair amount of thought and advice and tools for effective decision making, but the institutional incentives where not there. Analysts would do vast amounts of work to assess decisions and options simply to have the final decision made by a leader just looking to enrich themselves / a politician's friend / a party donor / etc.

I'd still focus on finding answers from both angles for now, but, given my experience and given that governments are likey to be among the most important institutions, if I had to call it one way or the other, I'd expect the focus on the topic of improving decision making to be less fruitful than the focus on improving institutions.

Keep up the great work!

Effective charities for improving institutional decision making and improving global coordination

I work for the APPG for Future Generations (https://www.appgfuturegenerations.com) in this space. Or impact report is here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/AWKk9zjA3BXGmFdQG/appg-on-future-generations-impact-report-raising-the-profile-1 If you wish to donate please get in touch.

The APPG is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (https://www.cser.ac.uk/) which I behind is the best research organisation with content related to longtermism and improving institutional decision making.

More generally I think Transparency Intentional (https://www.transparency.org/en/) and Global Witness (https://www.globalwitness.org/en/) are the dominant charities in the space of reducing government corruption, a key feature of improving institutional decision making. I have not seen any evaluations of them but I'd reject they'd do well.

See also some of the institutions listed in this article (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/94QtuT4ss3RzrfH8A/improving-institutional-decision-making-a-new-working-group) under the section on "IIDM within and outside of EA"

Avoiding Munich's Mistakes: Advice for CEA and Local Groups

Upon reflection I think that in my initial response to this I post was applying a UK lens to a US author.

I think the culture war dynamics (such as cancel culture) in the USA are not conducive to constructive political dialogue (agree with Larks on that). Luckily this has not seeped through to UK politics very much at least so far, but it is something I worry about. I see articles in the UK (on the right) making out that cancel culture (etc) is a problem, often with examples from the states. I expect (although this is not a topic I think much about) that articles of that type are unhelpfully fanning the culture war flames more than quelling them. As such I had a knee jerk reaction to this post and put it in the same bucket as such articles. I think I was applying a UK lens to a US author, without thinking if it applied. 

That said I still think that Larks is (similarly) unfairly applying a US lens and US examples to a German situation without making a good case that what they says applies in the German cultural context. As such I think he may well be being too harsh on EA Munich.

Health and happiness research topics—Part 1: Background on QALYs and DALYs

Hi Derek, just to note to say that my experience of reading the article was that I also found the welfare and wellbeing definitions confusing. Also doesn’t "welfare economics" look to maximise "wellbeing" by your definition, or maybe I am still confused? Might be worth clearly defining these at the start of future work.

Health and happiness research topics—Part 1: Background on QALYs and DALYs

Hi Derek.

Fantastic work. very excited to see Rethink Priorities branch out into more meta questions on how to measure what value is and so on. Excited to read the next few posts when I have time

A few thoughts:


1. Have you done much stakeholder engagement? One thing that was not here (although maybe I have to wait for post 9 on this) that I would love to see is some idea of how this work feeds through to change. Have you met with staff at NICE or Gates or DCP other policy professionals and talked to them about why they are not improving these metrics and how excited they would be to have someone work on improving these metrics. (This feels like the kind of step that should be taken before the project goes too far).


2. Problem 4 - neglect of spillover affects – probably cannot be solved by changing the metric. It feels  more like an issue with the way the metric is used. You sort of cover this when you say "The appropriate response is unclear." I expect making the metric include all spillover affects is the wrong approach as the spillover effects are often quite uncertain and quantifying the high uncertainty effects and within the main metric seems problematic. That said I am not sure about this so just chipping in my two cents.

(For example when I worked at Treasury we refused to consider spillover effects at all, I think because there was a view that any policy could be justified by someone claiming it had spillover  effects. Then again the National Audit Office did say our own spending measures were not leading to long-term value for money so maybe that was the wrong approach.)


3. Who would you recommend to fund if I want to see more work like this? Who do you recommend funding if I want to see more work like this or a project to improve and change these metrics. You personally? Rethink Priorities? Happier Lives Institute? Someone else? Nobody at present?


4. How is the E-QALY project going? I clicked the link for the E-QALY project (https://scharr.dept.shef.ac.uk/e-qaly/about-the-project/) It says it finishes in 2019. Any idea what happened to it? 


Best of luck with the rest of the project.

Improving Institutional Decision-Making: a new working group

This is really good and I am really excited by this project. Well done on such an excellent post and all the community building work and so on.

(Some of this I put in my earlier comments on a draft but repeating here publicly, hope that is OK)


A few thoughts questions and ideas come to mind.


Did you ever consider changing the name? Maybe the name doesn’t really matter much, but if "Improving Institutional Decision Making" has been hard for people to understand then there could be better names like'good governance' or 'institutional reform' etc etc.


Is it useful to try to narrow/broader or define the scope of IIDM? The borders of what exactly IIDM is will always be fuzzy, and may change with time. But it could still be somewhat helpful to try to set the scope of what you are interested in. Although maybe such an exercise is futile, will lead to unnecessary arguments and will just exclude people or ideas and we want to be as broad as possible for now. The kinds of things I am thinking about are:

  • Helping progress the careers of EA aligned folk (eg 80K) – you already rule this out in your post. [I'd agree]
  • Improving individual decision making (eg CFAR, LessWrong, etc). [My view is that this is not IIDM but maybe you think it is]
  • Improving organisations in ways that are not directly decision making related, such as improving their efficiency, communications, reputation, representativeness to a population, etc? [I am not sure about this one]
  • Creating new institution? [I think most people I know would consider this IIDM. I think the aim is not to improve a specific institution but the collective decision making of institutions]


In order to disambiguate it could be worth  trying to better define IIDM – and do this in ways that draw out more of the questions that might be asked. I feel that your current definition of IIDM definition overly focuses on decision making. Asking how do we improve decision making then applying this to institutions might give a different answer to asking how do we improve institutions then seeing how that can be applied to their decision making. The way you describe IIDM seems to do more of former than the later. I think there could be an advantage to ensuring the question is approached form both angles.

That said later in the post you skew the other way and ask "what are the most important institutions in the world" not "what are the most important decisions made by institutions", as above approaching the question both ways could be better.


These are difficult questions to tease out. I think some sort of consultative  community based approach to this could be useful. Working as broadly as possible to include people who want to be involved and get their views on names, on questions of wording, on definition and on scope. 


Thank you for all the good work and best of luck.

Strong Longtermism, Irrefutability, and Moral Progress

Hi Ben. I agree with you. Yes I think roulette is a good analogy. And yes I think the "perfect information on expected value" is a strange claim to make.

But I do think it is useful to think about what could be said and justified. I do think a claim along these lines could be made and it would not be wholly unfalsifiable and it would not require completely preferencing Bayesian expected value calculations.


To give another analogy I think there is a reasonable long-termist equivalent of statements like:

Because of differences in wealth and purchasing power we expect that a donor in the developed west can have a much bigger impact overseas than in their home country. So in practice looking towards those kinds of international development options is a useful tool to apply when we are deciding what to do. 

This does not completely exclude the probability that we can have impact locally with donations, but it does direct our searching.


Being charitable to Will+Hillary, maybe that is all they are saying. And maybe it is so confusing because they have dressed it up in philosophical language – but this is because, as per GPI's goals, this paper is about engaging philosophy academics rather than producing any novel insight.

(If being more critical I am not convinced that Will+Hillary successfully give sufficient evidence to make such a claim in this paper and also see my list of things their paper could improve above.)

Strong Longtermism, Irrefutability, and Moral Progress

Yeah that is a good way of putting it. Thank you.

It is of course a feature of trying to prioritise between causes in order to do the most good, that some groups will be effectively ignored.

Luckily in this case if done in a sensible manner I would expect that there should be a strong correlation between short term welfare and long-run welfare. As managing high uncertainty should involve some amount of ensuring good feedback loops and iterating, so taking action changing things for the better (for the long run but in a way that affects the world now) learning and improving. Building the EA community, developing clean meat, improving policy making, etc.

(Unfortunately I am not sure to what extent this is a key part of the EA longtermist paradigm at present.)

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