What if I kill you by driving to the shops and causing different reproductive events, that via a long causal chain result in your death? Is that still an action, or is it merely an omission?
You’re given a box with a set of dice in it. If you roll an even number, a person’s life is saved. If you roll an odd number, someone else will die. Each time you shake the box you get $10. Should you do it?
A committed consequentialist might say, “Sure! Free money!” But most will think it obvious that you should say no. You’ve only gotten a tiny benefit, in exchange for moral responsibility over whether other people live or die.
And yet, according to today’s return guest, philosophy Professor Will MacAskill, in a real sense we’re shaking this box every time we leave the house, and those who think shaking the box is wrong should probably also be shutting themselves indoors and minimising their interactions with others.
To see this, imagine you’re deciding whether to redeem a coupon for a free movie. If you go, you’ll need to drive to the cinema. By affecting traffic throughout the city, you’ll have slightly impacted the schedules of thousands or tens of thousands of people. The average life is about 30,000 days, and over the course of a life the average person will have about two children. So — if you’ve impacted at least 7,500 days — then, statistically speaking, you’ve probably influenced the exact timing of a conception event. With 200 million sperm in the running each time, changing the moment of copulation, even by a fraction of a second, will almost certainly mean you’ve changed the identity of a future person.
That different child will now impact all sorts of things as they go about their life, including future conception events. And then those new people will impact further future conceptions events, and so on. Thanks to these ripple effects, after 100 or maybe 200 years, basically everybody alive will be a different person because you went to the movies.
As a result, you’ll have changed when many people die. Take car crashes as one example: about 1.3% of people die in car crashes. Over that century, as the identities of everyone change as a result of your action, many of the ‘new’ people will cause car crashes that wouldn’t have occurred in their absence, including crashes that prematurely kill people alive today.
Of course, in expectation, exactly the same number of people will have been saved from car crashes, and will die later than they would have otherwise.
So, if you go for this drive, you’ll save hundreds of people from premature death, and cause the early death of an equal number of others. But you’ll get to see a free movie (worth $10). Should you do it?
This setup forms the basis of ‘the paralysis argument’, explored in one of Will’s recent papers.
To see how it implies inaction as an ideal, recall the distinction between consequentialism and non-consequentialism. For consequentialists, who just add up the net consequences of everything, there’s no problem here. The benefits and costs perfectly cancel out, and you get to see a free movie.
But most ‘non-consequentialists’ endorse an act/omission distinction: it’s worse to knowingly cause a harm than it is to merely allow a harm to occur. And they further believe harms and benefits are asymmetric: it’s more wrong to hurt someone a given amount than it is right to benefit someone else an equal amount.
So, in this example, the fact that your actions caused X deaths should be given more moral weight than the fact that you also saved X lives.
It’s because of this that the nonconsequentialist feels they shouldn’t roll the dice just to gain $10. But as we can see above, if they’re being consistent, rather than leave the house, they’re obligated to do whatever would count as an ‘inaction’, in order to avoid the moral responsibility of foreseeably causing people’s deaths.
Will’s best idea for resolving this strange implication? In this episode we discuss a few options:
- give up on the benefit/harm asymmetry
- find a definition of ‘action’ under which leaving the house counts as an inaction
- accept a ‘Pareto principle’, where actions can’t be wrong so long as everyone affected would approve or be indifferent to them before the fact.
Will is most optimistic about the last, but as we discuss, this would bring people a lot closer to full consequentialism than is immediately apparent.
Finally, a different escape — conveniently for Will, given his work — is to dedicate your life to improving the long-term future, and thereby do enough good to offset the apparent harms you’ll do every time you go for a drive. In this episode Rob and Will also cover:
- Are, or are we not, living at the most influential time in history?
- The culture of the effective altruism community
- Will’s new lower estimate of the risk of human extinction over the next hundred years
- Why does AI stand out a bit less for Will now as a particularly pivotal technology?
- How he’s getting feedback while writing his book
- The differences between Americans and Brits
- Does the act/omission distinction make sense?
- The case for strong longtermism, and longtermism for risk-averse altruists
- Caring about making a difference yourself vs. caring about good things happening
- Why feeling guilty about characteristics you were born with is crazy
- And plenty more.
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.