There is no contradiction in claiming that, as Steven Pinker argues, the world is getting better in many important respects and also that the world is a complete mess. Sure, your chances of being murdered may be lower than at anytime before in human history, but one could riposte that given the size of the human population today there has never been more total disutility, or suffering/injustice/evil, engulfing our planet.
Just consider that about 3.1 million children died of hunger in 2013, averaging nearly 8,500 each day. Along these lines, about 66 million children attend class hungry in the developing world; roughly 161 million kids under five are nutritionally stunted; 99 million are underweight; and 51 million suffer from wasting. Similarly, an estimated 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day while roughly 2.5 billion earn less than $2 per day, and in 2015 about 212 million people were diagnosed with malaria, with some 429,000 dying.
The idea is to optimize the total amount of good that one can do in the world
This is a low-resolution snapshot of the global predicament of humanity today—one that doesn't even count the frustration, pain, and misery caused by sexism, racism, factory farming, terrorism, climate change, and war. So the question is: how can we make the world more livable for sentient life? What actions can we take to alleviate the truly massive amounts of suffering that plague our pale blue dot? And to what extent should we care about the many future generations that could come into existence?
I recently attended a conference at Harvard University about a fledgling movement called effective altruism (EA), popularized by philosophers like William MacAskill and Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. Whereas many philanthropically inclined individuals make decisions to donate based on which causes tugged at their heartstrings, this movement takes a highly data-driven approach to charitable giving. The idea is to optimize the total amount of good that one can do in the world, even if it's counterintuitive.
For example, one might think that donating money to buy books for schools in low-income communities across Africa is a great way to improve the education of children victimized by poverty, but it turns out that spending this money on deworming programs could be a better way of improving outcomes. Studies show that deworming can reduce the rate of absenteeism in schools by 25 percent—a problem that buying more books fails to address—and that "the children who had been de-wormed earned 20% more than those who hadn't."
Similarly, many people in the developed world feel compelled to donate money to disaster relief following natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis. While this is hardly immoral, data reveals the money donated could have more tangible impact if spent on insecticide-treated mosquito nets for people in malaria-prone regions of Africa.
Another surprising, and controversial, suggestion within effective altruism is that boycotting sweatshops in the developing world often does more harm than good. The idea is that, however squalid the working conditions of sweatshops are, they usually provide the very best jobs around. If a sweatshop worker were forced to take a different job—and there's no guarantee that another job would even be available—it would almost certainly involve much more laborious work for lower wages. As the New York Times quotes a woman in Cambodia who scavenges garbage dumps for a living, "I'd love to get a job in a factory…At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it's hot."
There are, of course, notable criticisms of this approach. Consider the story of Matt Wage. After earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton, he was accepted by the University of Oxford to earn a doctorate in philosophy. But instead of attending this program—one of the very best in the world—he opted to get a job on Wall Street making a six-figure salary. Why? Because, he reasoned, if he were to save 100 children from a burning building, it would be the best day of his life. As it happens, he could save the same number of children over the course of his life as a professional philosopher who donates a large portion of his salary to charity. But—crunching the numbers—if he were to get a high-paying job at, say, an arbitrage trading firm and donate half of his earnings to, say, the Against Malaria Foundation, he could potentially save hundreds of children from dying "within the first year or two of his working life and every year thereafter."
Some people think superintelligence is too far away to be of concern
The criticism leveled at this idea is that Wall Street may itself be a potent source of badness in the world, and thus participating in the machine as a cog might actually contribute net harm. But effective altruists would respond that what matters isn't just what one does, but what would have happened if one hadn't acted in a particular way. If Wage hadn't gotten the job on Wall Street, someone else would have—someone who wasn't as concerned about the plight of African children, whereas Wage earns to give money that saves thousands of disadvantaged people.
Another objection is that many effective altruists are too concerned about the potential risks associated with machine superintelligence. Some people think superintelligence is too far away to be of concern or unlikely to pose any serious threats to human survival, effect. They maintain that spending money to research what's called the "AI control problem" is misguided, if not a complete waste of resources. But the fact is that there are good arguments for thinking that, as Stephen Hawking puts it, if superintelligence isn't the worst thing to happen to humanity, it will likely be the very best. And effective altruists—and I—would argue that then designing a "human friendly" superintelligence is a highly worthwhile task, even if the first superintelligent machine won't make its debut on Earth until the end of this century. In sum, the expected value of solving the AI control problem could be astronomically high.
Perhaps the most interesting idea within the effective altruism movement is that we should not just worry about present day humans but future humans as well. According to one study published in the journal Sustainability, "most individuals' abilities to imagine the future goes 'dark' at the ten-year horizon." This likely stems from our cognitive evolution in an ancient environment (like the African savanna) in which long-term thinking was not only unnecessary for survival but might actually have been disadvantageous.
Yet many philosophers believe that, from a moral perspective, this "bias for the short-term" is completely unjustified. They argue that when one is born should have no bearing on one's intrinsic value—that is to say, "time discounting," or valuing the future less than the present, should not apply to human lives.
First, there is the symmetry issue: if future lives are worth less than present lives, then are past lives worth less as well? Or, from the perspective of past people, are our lives worth less than theirs? Second, consider that using a time discounting annual rate of 10 percent, a single person today would be equal in value to an unimaginable 4.96 x 1020 people 500 years hence. Does that strike one as morally defensible? Is it right that one person dying today constitutes an equivalent moral tragedy to a global holocaust that kills 4.96 x 1020 people in five centuries?
And finally, our best estimates of how many people could come to exist in the future indicate that this number could be exceptionally large. For example, The Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom estimates that some 1016 people with normal lifespans could exist on Earth before the sun sterilizes it in a billion years or so. Yet another educated guess is that "a hundred thousand billion billion billion"—that is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000—people could someday populate the visible universe. To date, there have been approximately 60 billion humans on Earth, or 6 x 109, meaning that the human—or posthuman, if our progeny evolves into technologically enhanced cyborgs—story may have only just begun.
Caring about the far future leads to some effective altruists to focus specifically on what Bostrom calls "existential risks," or events that would either trip our species into the eternal grave of extinction or irreversibly catapult us back to the Paleolithic.
Since the end of World War II, there has been an unsettling increase in both the total number of existential risks—such as nuclear conflict, climate change, global biodiversity loss, engineered pandemics, grey goo, geoengineering, physics experiments, and machine superintelligence—and the overall probability of civilizational collapse, or worse, occurring. For example, the cosmologist Lord Martin Rees puts the likelihood of civilization imploding at 50 percent this century, and Bostrom argues that an existential catastrophe has an equal to or greater than 25 percent chance of happening. It follows that, as Stephen Hawking recently put it, humanity has never lived in more dangerous times.
This is why I believe that the movement's emphasis on the deep future is a very good thing. Our world is one in which contemplating what lies ahead often extends no further than quarterly reports and the next political election. Yet, as suggested above, the future could contain astronomical amounts of value if only we manage to slalom through the obstacle course of natural and anthropogenic hazards before us. While contemporary issues like global poverty, disease, and animal welfare weigh heavily on the minds of many effective altruists, it is encouraging to see a growing number of people taking seriously the issue of humanity's long-term future.
This article draws from Phil Torres's forthcoming book Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies .