Will MacAskill is one of the founders of the Effective Altruist movement and the author of the upcoming book, What We Owe The Future.
We talk about improving the future, risk of extinction & collapse, technological & moral change, problems of academia, who changes history, and much more.
Watch on YouTube. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast platform.
Episode website + Transcript here.
Follow Will on Twitter. Follow me on Twitter for updates on future episodes.
Subscribe to find out about future episodes!
(00:23) - Effective Altruism and Western values
(07:47) - The contingency of technology
(12:02) - Who changes history?
(18:00) - Longtermist institutional reform
(25:56) - Are companies longtermist?
(28:57) - Living in an era of plasticity
(34:52) - How good can the future be?
(39:18) - Contra Tyler Cowen on what’s most important
(45:36) - AI and the centralization of power
(51:34) - The problems with academia
Please share if you enjoyed this episode! Helps out a ton!
Dwarkesh Patel 0:06
Okay, today I have the pleasure of interviewing William MacAskill. Will is one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement, and most recently, the author of the upcoming book, What We Owe The Future. Will, thanks for coming on the podcast.
Will MacAskill 0:20
Thanks so much for having me on.
Effective Altruism and Western values
Dwarkesh Patel 0:23
My first question is: What is the high-level explanation for the success of the Effective Altruism movement? Is it itself an example of the contingencies you talk about in the book?
Will MacAskill 0:32
Yeah, I think it is contingent. Maybe not on the order of, “this would never have happened,” but at least on the order of decades. Evidence that Effective Altruism is somewhat contingent is that similar ideas have been promoted many times during history, and not taken on.
We can go back to ancient China, the Mohists defended an impartial view of morality, and took very strategic actions to help all people. In particular, providing defensive assistance to cities under siege. Then, there were early utilitarians. Effective Altruism is broader than utilitarianism, but has some similarities. Even Peter Singer in the 70s had been promoting the idea that we should be giving most of our income to help the very poor — and didn’t get a lot of traction until early 2010 after GiveWell and Giving What We Can launched.
What explains the rise of it? I think it was a good idea waiting to happen. At some point, the internet helped to gather together a lot of like-minded people which wasn’t possible otherwise. There were some particularly lucky events like Alex meeting Holden and me meeting Toby that helped catalyze it at the particular time it did.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:49
If it's true, as you say, in the book, that moral values are very contingent, then shouldn't that make us suspect that modern Western values aren't that good? They're mediocre, or worse, because ex ante, you would expect to end up with a median of all the values we could have had at this point. Obviously, we'd be biased in favor of whatever values we were brought up in.
Will MacAskill 2:09
Absolutely. Taking history seriously and appreciating the contingency of values, appreciating that if the Nazis had won the World War, we would all be thinking, “wow, I'm so glad that moral progress happened the way it did, and we don't have Jewish people around anymore. What huge moral progress we had then!” That's a terrifying thought. I think it should make us take seriously the fact that we're very far away from the moral truth.
One of the lessons I draw in the book is that we should not think we're at the end of moral progress. We should not think, “Oh, we should lock in the Western values we have.” Instead, we should spend a lot of time trying to figure out what's actually morally right, so that the future is guided by the right values, rather than whichever