Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

We can already see that three key questions should be elevated in their political and philosophical importance. Namely: number one, what can we do to boost the rate of economic growth? Number two, what can we do to make civilization more stable? And number three, how should we deal with environmental problems?

Tyler Cowen

I’ve probably spent more time reading Tyler Cowen – Professor of Economics at George Mason University – than any other author. Indeed it’s his incredibly popular blog Marginal Revolution that prompted me to study economics in the first place. Having spent thousands of hours absorbing Tyler’s work, it was a pleasure to be able to question him about his latest book and personal manifesto: Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Tyler makes the case that, despite what you may have heard, we can make rational judgments about what is best for society as a whole. He argues:

  1. Our top moral priority should be preserving and improving humanity’s long-term future
  2. The way to do that is to maximise the rate of sustainable economic growth
  3. We should respect human rights and follow general principles while doing so.

We discuss why Tyler believes all these things, and I push back where I disagree. In particular: is higher economic growth actually an effective way to safeguard humanity’s future, or should our focus really be elsewhere?

In the process we touch on many of moral philosophy’s most pressing questions: Should we discount the future? How should we aggregate welfare across people? Should we follow rules or evaluate every situation individually? How should we deal with the massive uncertainty about the effects of our actions? And should we trust common sense morality or follow structured theories?

After covering the book, the conversation ranges far and wide. Will we leave the galaxy, and is it a tragedy if we don’t? Is a multi-polar world less stable? Will humanity ever help wild animals? Why do we both agree that Kant and Rawls are overrated?

Today’s interview is released on both the 80,000 Hours Podcast and Tyler’s own show: Conversation with Tyler.

Tyler may have had more influence on me than any other writer but this conversation is richer for our remaining disagreements. If the above isn’t enough to tempt you to listen, we also look at:

  • Why couldn’t future technology make human life a hundred or a thousand times better than it is for people today?
  • Why focus on increasing the rate of economic growth rather than making sure that it doesn’t go to zero?
  • Why shouldn’t we dedicate substantial time to the successful introduction of genetic engineering?
  • Why should we completely abstain from alcohol and make it a social norm?
  • Why is Tyler so pessimistic about space? Is it likely that humans will go extinct before we manage to escape the galaxy?
  • Is improving coordination and international cooperation a major priority?
  • Why does Tyler think institutions are keeping up with technology?
  • Given that our actions seem to have very large and morally significant effects in the long run, are our moral obligations very onerous?
  • Can art be intrinsically valuable?
  • What does Tyler think Derek Parfit was most wrong about, and what was he was most right about that’s unappreciated today?
  • How should we think about animal suffering?
  • Do self-aware entities have to be biological in some sense?
  • What’s the most likely way that the worldview presented in Stubborn Attachments could be fundamentally wrong?
  • During ‘underrated vs overrated’, should guests say ‘appropriately rated’ more often?

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.

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.


Keep in mind the core recipe is the rate of sustainable economic growth. If it’s going to go to zero, you’re knocked out of the box. So you’re maximizing across both of those dimensions, and I think, empirically, there are a large class of cases where more growth and more stability come together.

National defense is the easiest way to see that. If your society stays poor, someone will take you over. And those who take you over are probably nasty and will harm you. It’s not the only way in which growth and sustainability come together. But at most margins, they do. So there’s a wide enough class of cases where we can do both things at the same time.

We take it for granted, but so many lives are lost each year, so many careers ruined, so much productivity lost. One of my personal crusades is, we should all be more critical of alcohol.

People will pull out a drink and drink in front of their children. The same people would not dream of pulling out a submachine gun and playing with it on the table in front of their kids, but I think it’s more or less the same thing. To a lot of liberals, the drink is okay and the submachine gun is not. I think, if anything, it’s the other way around, and I encourage people to just completely, voluntarily abstain from alcohol and make it a social norm.

I see the recurrence of war in human history so frequently, and I’m not completely convinced by Steven Pinker. I agree with Steven Pinker, that the chance of a very violent war indeed has gone down and is going down, maybe every year, but the tail risk is still there. And if you let the clock tick out for a long enough period of time, at some point it will happen.

Powerful abilities to manipulate energy also mean powerful weapons, eventually powerful weapons in decentralized hands. I don’t think we know how stable that process is, but again, let the clock tick out, and you should be very worried.

I do think you have an obligation to act in accordance with maximizing the growth rate of GDP, but given how human beings are built, that’s mostly going to involve leading a pretty selfish life: trying to earn more, having a family, raising your children well. It’s close to in sync with common-sense morality, which to me is a plus of my argument. What it’s telling you to do doesn’t sound so crazy.

You don’t have to re-engineer human nature. So if someone from more of a Peter Singer direction says, “Well, all the doctors have to run off to Africa,” people won’t do that. We can’t and shouldn’t coerce them into doing that.

The notion that, by living a “good life” but making some improvements at the margin, that that’s what you’re obliged to do, I find that very appealing. It’s like, “Change at the margin, small steps toward a much better world.” That’s the subheader on Marginal Revolution. It’s also a more saleable vision, but I think that it accords with longstanding moral intuitions, shows it’s on the right track.

I think where [Derek Parfit] was most important is simply being the walking, living, breathing embodiment of the philosopher who is obsessively curious and will plumb the depths of any argument to such an extreme degree like has never been seen before on planet Earth. He was just remarkable, and that’s why he and his work have influenced so many people. I’m not sure which of his conclusions stand up, or even what his conclusions are. He’s not about conclusions; he’s about philosophizing in the Socratic sense. For that, he was just such a marvel. I wish more people could have known and seen and heard him.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Topics discussed in the show:

Some of Tyler’s books:

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

What should I listen to first?

We've carefully selected 10 episodes we think it could make sense to listen to first, on a separate podcast feed:

Check out 'Effective Altruism: An Introduction'

Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

If you're new, see the podcast homepage for ideas on where to start, or browse our full episode archive.