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In China, until about 100 years ago people believed that if your husband died, no matter how young you were, you could not remarry. They thought that violating ‘chastity’ was obviously immoral – you didn’t have to justify this in terms of happiness! But I think this is very bad. Today many believe that it is only foolish, ancient people who think such silly things – modern people no longer do. For that particular idea, yes. But even now, right now, throughout the world we still hold many such traditional beliefs which are similarly detrimental to happiness!

Prof Yew-Kwang Ng

Will people who think carefully about how to maximize welfare eventually converge on the same views?

The effective altruism community has spent the past 10 years debating how best to increase happiness and reduce suffering, and gradually narrowed in on the world’s poorest people, all sentient animals, and future generations.

Yew-Kwang Ng, Professor of Economics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, worked totally independently on this exact question since the 70s. Many of his early conclusions are now conventional wisdom within effective altruism – though other views he holds remain controversial or little-known.

For instance, he thinks we ought to explore increasing pleasure via direct brain stimulation, and that genetic engineering may be an important tool for increasing happiness in the future.

His work has suggested that the welfare of most wild animals is on balance negative and he hopes that in the future this is a problem humanity will work to solve. Yet he thinks that greatly improved conditions for farm animals could eventually justify eating meat.

And he has spent most of his life forcefully advocating for the view that happiness, broadly construed, is the only intrinsically valuable thing.

If it’s true that careful researchers will converge as Prof Ng believes, these ideas may prove as prescient as his other, now widely accepted, opinions.

See below for our summary and appreciation of Kwang’s top publications and insights throughout a lifetime of research.

Born in Japanese-occupied Malaya during WW2, Kwang has led an exceptional life. While in high school he was drawn to physics, mathematics, and philosophy, yet he chose to study economics because of his dream: to establish communism in an independent Malaysia.

But events in the Soviet Union and the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’, in addition to his burgeoning knowledge and academic appreciation of economics, would change his views about the practicability of communism. He would soon complete his journey from young revolutionary to academic economist, and eventually become a columnist writing in support of Deng Xiaoping’s Chinese economic reforms in the 80s.

He got his PhD at Sydney University in 1971, and has since published over 250 peer-reviewed papers – covering economics, biology, politics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, with a particular focus on ‘welfare economics’.

In 2007, he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia, the highest award the society bestows.

In this episode we discuss how he developed some of his most unusual ideas and his fascinating life story, including:

  • Why Kwang believes that ’Happiness Is Absolute, Universal, Ultimate, Unidimensional, Cardinally Measurable and Interpersonally Comparable’
  • What are the most pressing questions in economics?
  • Did Kwang have to worry about censorship from the Chinese government when promoting market economics, or concern for animal welfare?
  • Welfare economics and where Kwang thinks it went wrong
  • The need to move towards a morality based on happiness
  • What are the key implications of Kwang’s views for how a government ought to set it’s priorities?
  • Could promoting these views accidentally give support to oppressive governments?
  • Why does Kwang think the economics profession as a whole doesn’t agree with him on many things?
  • Why he thinks we should spend much more to prevent climate change and whether other are economists convinced by his arguments
  • Kwang’s proposed field: welfare biology.
  • Does evolution tend to create happy or unhappy creatures?
  • Novel ways to substantially increase human happiness
  • What would Kwang say to listeners who might want to build on his research in the future?

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.

Key points

When people’s income are low and at the survival, starvation level, then having enough to eat just to survive is very important. But once you are beyond the survival, and some level of comfort, then recent happiness studies show that further increase in consumption in income is not that important to increase your happiness. And hence in my view, the more important issue… would be environmental economics. Because we are facing an environmental problem, which could become a catastrophe for the world. It could cause global extinction. Then that means that helping the world to survive — to overcome say the climate change crisis — in my view this is the most important area in economics.

More than 60 years ago, I think 1956, scientists discovered by accident that there are pleasure centers [in the brain] … First in mice, and then eventually in humans as well. The stimulation of those – you find intense pleasure. And that pleasure does not diminish. Most pleasures have diminishing marginal utility, because we are built that way to protect us from say excessive eating, excessive anything.

But direct stimulation has never been done before. So we are not evolved to have diminishing marginal utility for direct stimulation. The pleasure from that, it’s constantly high intensity, high pleasure. So that is a way that you can increase our happiness a lot in my view. But not enough research has been done to invent something – it has been used for sickness or pain reduction – but it has not been used just to increase our positive pleasures. I think that can be done, but not yet done. I think that should be promoted. We need more research on that – to invent something that everyone can use to increase happiness. And that would help to decrease depression, decrease crime, decrease hard drugs. And solve a lot of social problems.

…my paper argues that most animals welfare are negative. It’s based on some axioms which may or may not be true. But if that is true then I think that we humans have an obligation to help our unfortunate, unlucky cousins to escape their miserable situations. But we cannot help them fully now. But in the future when we are more advance economically, scientifically and ethically, then I think we should help to decrease their suffering. But even now, I’m in favor of helping to decrease their suffering for those measures that does not cost us too much. Especially for those animals that we farmed for our food. Animal farming, including chicken farming. We should improve the conditions of say chicken farming, who are suffering, so that the chickens we farm enjoy positive instead of negative welfare. In my view, that can be done at negligible if not zero costs to human. I have a paper in animal sentient, 2016 on that.

…there’s a 2014 article in Science, showing that even crayfish – crayfish are invertebrates – crayfish are capable of feeling worried. Because when a person worries then our brains secrete a certain kind of chemical associated with worry for humans. And if you put a crayfish in a surrounding where it cannot escape then the crayfish will also secrete the same chemical. So if crayfish can worry, then it’s almost certain that all vertebrates should be able to worry and hence are capable of welfare.

In my view, ultimately, intrinsically, happiness is the only thing that is of value. Other things may have instrumental value. For example, we suffer now to achieve something, we study to pass the exam and we suffer during the process. But it help you to learn something or to get your degree and then you can do something better. So it contribute to future welfare. Which again is happiness. So something may be of instrumental value, but instrumental to achieve something else. Something else what is of value. Ultimately, only happiness is of value. And the fact that happiness is of value, everyone knows. Because everyone enjoy the nice feeling of being happy. … That’s my main moral philosophical stance.

Articles, books and blog posts discussed in the show

How Kwang thinks about welfare, happiness and utilitarianism

More recent

Earlier papers on welfare economics

The case for ‘welfare biology’ and concern for wild animal suffering

Why we should be extremely cautious about existential risks

Other books and papers by Kwang mentioned in the episode

Articles mentioned in the episode of which Kwang is not the author

Evidence for the importance of relative prosperity even for people on low incomes:

Learn more about relevant career options

Transcript

Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, the show about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.

Today’s guest is a unique and remarkable person. Kwang, as he prefers to be called, invented and published a large fraction of the central ideas in effective altruism totally independently in Singapore, many years before this current generation got to them. I was very excited to learn more about Kwang’s life, and how he came to develop ideas so ahead of their time, and different from those held by almost everyone around him.

I’ve compiled a shortlist of his key papers and insights in the blog post to go along with this episode, to give people a quick way to discover and explore his work, which I think would be very worthwhile.

First just a heads up that the second Effective Altruism Global conference this year is coming up October 26-28th at University College London. Many guests from the show will be there, sharing their ideas about how to improve the world as much as possible. If you like listening to these conversations, you’ll be very likely to enjoy the conversations you have at EA Global as well.

If you’d like to attend you’ll need to apply soon at eaglobal.org.

Alright, here’s Professor Yew-Kwang Ng.

Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Professor Yew-Kwang Ng. Kwang is an economist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He got his PhD at Sydney University in 1971. And has since published over 250 refereed papers. Covering economics, biology, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. He’s most well known for his work in welfare economics. And he proposed welfare biology as a new subject. In moral philosophy, he’s a strong proponent of utilitarianism. And he’s argued for it in his work. Including his book, ‘Efficiency, Equality and Public Policy.’ In 2007, he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Society of Australia. The highest award that the society bestows. Thanks for coming on the podcast Kwang.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Thank you. Welcome.

Robert Wiblin: So in your career you’ve kinda quite independently ended up hitting several of the key topics that the effective altruism community has spent a lot of time thinking about in the last 10 years. And I think the main ones are focusing on the income of the poorest people on the world, thinking a lot about animal welfare, both in terms of on factory farms and in nature as well.

And then also thinking in long-term, and thinking about preventing the end of civilization, because of catastrophes and so on. Which all ideas that have come up, a little bit gradually from different sources, but you were already there on top of all these things by the 90’s. So does that suggest that these topics really are kind of the right focus, and then anyone who is thinking seriously about welfare maximization is gonna get to this topics eventually?

Yew-Kwang Ng: At least to some extent, I think that is true. That there’s someone thinking, interested in these issues, and thinking deeply, should come to them. Yeah, I think. reasonably naturally.

Welfare economics/ happiness

Robert Wiblin: A lot of your research has to do with welfare economics. Which as it sounds like is the study of how you could think about aggregating the welfare of different people across society as a whole. And if you had a good theory for that, that will allow you to kind of compare how good different policies would be, or different states of the world would be when some people benefit, and some people might lose. And obviously this is of interest to 80,000 Hours, cause we’ve got to think about how do we wanna change the world, and the different careers that people think might affect different people in different ways.

We have to have some way of weighing those up. And you’ve expressed really strong views about this in a bunch of articles. And I think most of your most cited work is on this topic. So we’ve got efficiency, equality, and public policy. From preference to happiness, towards a more complete welfare economics. A case for happiness, cardinalism and interpersonal comparability, utility, informed preference, or happiness. All of these have hundreds of citations. So what are the main lines of argument that you’re promoting in all of that work?

Yew-Kwang Ng: In fact, what you call aggregating people’s happiness to guide public policy, this is better described as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is to do that. But in fact welfare economics, you may separate welfare economics into old welfare economics, and new welfare economics. Then the older type of welfare economics is closer to what you described. It’s closer to utilitarianism. Trying to promote social welfare as aggregation of individual happiness. Then the older welfare economics is consistent what you described. But in fact, since about the 1930s, there emerged something called the new welfare economics. Then the new welfare economics, they’re trying to make economics more positive, more scientific and hence, they try to disown interpersonal comparisons.

And hence, not try to aggregate individual happiness into social welfare. And thus, the new welfare economics does not use interpersonal comparison. Or they try not to. And hence, I was rather amused or find it [inaudible] that some years ago when I was reported in the Chinese press, I was described as the representative of the new welfare economics. In fact my view is most anti-new welfare economics. I’m old welfare. My view is consistent with the old version of welfare economics in that we want to aggregate utilities, we want to use social welfare as sum of individual welfare, or happiness to guide public policy. So my view in welfare economics is very old.

Robert Wiblin: So you wanna do interpersonal comparisons? You’re also more focused on actual happiness rather than preference satisfaction, right?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Yes. Correct. In other words, if you distinguish utilitarianism into different versions like preference, or using utility to represent preference and focus on preference, or using utility as another name for happiness or welfare, and focus on happiness. Moreover, in my definition, welfare, happiness, they are similar, same thing. Or subjective well-being is the same thing. And moreover, my definition of happiness, philosophically is called the hedonistic definition. But hedonism is misleading. Because common people interpret hedonism as, you just care about your own, or even just current happiness, ignoring your future happiness and effect on others.

You just selfish and focus on your happiness defined. With that definition of hedonism, then hedonism is very bad. But I adopt what I call a philosophical definition of hedonism. Which means that happiness is what we feel. What we … Our subjective feeling perceived as nice feeling. Like pleasures, including sensuous pleasures and spiritual pleasures. Pleasure in the wide sense. And pain, also in the wide sense. And your net welfare is your … All your positive feelings minus your negative feeling. In this sense is the hedonist definition of happiness, which is the one I subscribe to.

Robert Wiblin: So a lot of people feel that … Whether they feel happy or sad, whether they feel good or bad, this doesn’t capture everything that they care about. So they might suffer voluntarily in order to achieve some of the goal. And the goal needn’t necessarily be that they become happier. It might be … They have children, even if they find that very … Even if that never makes them happy. Why do you support hedonism in that case?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think I need to make two points in answer to that questions. First is that many things we do may involve at least temporary endurance, or even suffering or pain. But is for the objective of securing in a long term, more happiness. To offset your temporary suffering. Although your happiness may decrease currently, but in a long term it actually increase. So that’s one thing. Second thing … Still within the first point is that, even in the long run, even if you choose something that decrease your own happiness even in the long run, but if you do it for the happiness of others, you help others … Your focus is about altruism, you contribute to the happiness of others, including in the future, so you may decrease your own happiness, but increased happiness overall is sill rational, right. So you may do certain things that temporarily increase pain, suffering, but in a long term it may be good for overall happiness.

Taking into account happiness of others. And then my second point is that, yes, there are some behavior that are irrational, possibly including having children. You mentioned having children. Because we are an animal species that reproduce ourselves, and hence we are genetically wired to have certain preference that help us to reproduce ourselves. To pass on our gene to the next generation. That’s why we find beautiful young girls, attractive, so that you go to bed with them. So you pass on your genes. But it could mean that, although some of your preference that help you to survive and to pass on the genes to have children, may increase your biological fitness, help you to survive and reproduce. But it may or may not increase your welfare. But it does not increase your welfare but we may still do it. Because we are programmed to have such preference. Then in some sense or according to my welfare definition of irrationality, then such preference could be irrational.

Robert Wiblin: So almost everyone cares about happiness, and suffering somewhat. But why do you think that they’re the only thing that matters?

Yew-Kwang Ng: In my view, ultimately, intrinsically, happiness is the only thing that is of value. Other things may have instrumental value. For example, we suffer now to achieve something, we study to pass the exam and we suffer during the process. But it help you to learn something or to get your degree and then you can do something better. So it contribute to future welfare. Which again is happiness. So something may be of instrumental value, but instrument is for to achieve something else. Something else what is of value. Ultimately, only happiness is of value. And the fact that happiness is of value, everyone knows.

Because everyone enjoy the nice feeling of being happy. Other instruments, why they are of value that you need to explain. What ultimately they contribute to. In my view, ultimately they must contribute to happiness. May not be of your own happiness, but must be happiness of someone. Which could include animals. But some happy feeling that is of value. And in my view, only happiness is of ultimate, intrinsic value. Nothing else is of … Other things are of value, but only instrumental value for the ultimate value of happiness. That’s my main moral philosophical stance.

Robert Wiblin: It sounds like the justification for that is that we know it through direct personal experience that pleasure is good and suffering is bad. But we don’t have similar compelling evidence for other things that people could claim valuable.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Ultimately speaking that’s probably the ultimate level that justify this.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: But I can also use one or two examples to show the unacceptability of … For example, people like Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen and others, and also long time ago philosophers like Kant, K-A-N-T, Kant. You pronounce Kant or kent.

Robert Wiblin: Kant.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Kant?

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Kant. They believe in something. Kant believe in categorical imperative. That something that good or desirable in itself, or something you must follow without being justified from the consideration of happiness. That I disagree. I have a forthcoming book, contract signed, and manuscript to be delivered within days to Cambridge University Press. A book entitled, ‘Markets and Morals.’ I have a chapter or appendix on this. Which I expand and update from my previous … I have previous papers, including a 1990 paper that you may know in Utilitas — welfarism and utilitarianism. I think the title is called. That justify and criticize other non-welfarist beliefs, like Sen and Kant. And I said one or two example.

One example is this, in China, until about 100 years ago, before a hundred years ago for about thousands of years, then ancient Chinese believe that it is imperative, it is good in itself for a woman not to serve two men. Not to serve two men does not mean that you cannot have two husbands, but rather it means that after you marry a man, after you go through the marriage ceremony, you become his wife. Even if he were to die on that night, so that the marriage is not actually consummated, you cannot remarry again. Not to mention after some years, if your husband die, no matter how young you are, you must not remarry. If you remarry, that is it violates chastity, right. So they believe for a human to be a chaste human, you cannot have two husbands. Even after the death of your first husband. That was a very persistent belief in China. And of course that led to a lot of sufferings of women.

And it’s only in the past hundred years, in the first few decades of a century ago that many people criticized this wrong morality. That eventually people accept to give it up. But in ancient time people think that this is something obviously moral. Violating this chastity is obviously immoral. You don’t have to justify on terms of happiness. But I think this is very bad. But many people may think that this is just the foolish, ancient people believe in such wrong thing. Modern people no longer believe in that. For that particular believe in chastity, yes. But even now, right now, throughout the world, with one or two exceptions, we still have something, maybe worse than that belief. Which is against happiness. Which one you think? Do you have in mind what I’m talking about?

Robert Wiblin: Well I guess, one that jumps to mind is people seem to not, or they seem to be biased against people taking drugs that make them happy.

Yew-Kwang Ng: That’s not the particular one. That is also arguable. But I have in mind the belief in the sanctity of life. So that even if a person is no hope of recovering from a serious sickness and suffer a lot, doctor cannot help him to end his life. Law against euthanasia. Is almost universal except one or two countries, right. So that belief in the absolute sanctity of life, I think is similar to the ancient Chinese belief in the chastity of women.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: And that lead to many unnecessary suffering in my view.

Robert Wiblin: Why do you think the economics profession doesn’t as a whole agree with you? I mean certainly many economists are sympathetic about welfare economics. As you said went down this different road where people did not wanna do interpersonal comparisons of welfare.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Well the reason they tried never doing interpersonal comparisons, need not be that they disagree with utilitarianism, but because they try to make economics more positive, more scientific. Currently, I said new welfare economics starting from around 1930s, but in the past 20 years or so, then there’s sort of a revival. In the past 20 years, happiness studies have been taken up by economists as well. I used the year 1997 as a turning point. As far back as 1974, we have Easterlin. The first Easterlin 1974 paper is the first chapter discussing happiness by an economist. I was later than him by four years. My first paper on happiness is published in 1978. But although 74, 78 you have some papers like these two, but not many.

But since 1997, 1997 I use 1997 as a turning point. Because 1997, we have symposium of three papers published in Economic Journal, all on happiness. And that helped to make a revival of making many more … Now, in the last one or two decades, many may hear economics journals have papers on happiness. So people are coming back to happiness. So happiness studies, happiness is more cardinal concept. And if you use happiness measure of a group of people, say of people in a country, then that must implicitly at least have interpersonal comparisons of utility or happiness. So there’s a revival.

Robert Wiblin: So economists switch from talking about this cardinal utilities which are comparable between people to simply saying that people have an ordering of what they like from top to bottom. Which isn’t in the best thing comparable. Because they thought that that would be seen more rigorous and more scientific. And it would allow them to do more mathematical proofs that they wanted to do. But in recent times you’re saying that they’ve come back towards doing this interpersonal comparisons? And is that mostly driven by the fact that there’s now better ways of measuring welfare? That people feel having some scientific validity perhaps coming out of psychology.

Yew-Kwang Ng: To some extent, another factor was that the so called new welfare economics attempt to having … Not having to use interpersonal comparison of welfare or utility, actually did not lead to a useful conclusion that can guide policy. They try to not having to use interpersonal comparison and cardinal utilities or happiness. But at the time was not very successful. So partly because of that, and partly because of the more popular happiness studies. And maybe coming back of some common sense. In my view, the importance of happiness and its … At least in principle comparability is in my view obvious. It’s just common sense.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean-

Yew-Kwang Ng: It may be difficult to compare the happiness of different persons. But it’s not impossible. In principle it is possible. But we need to improve the method. And happiness studies … Although, now done only by psychologists and sociologists, but now also by economists, and some neuroscience as well. But still in a very primitive level. Not well developed. The measurement of happiness, and the happiness indexes obtained are not very interpersonally comparable. For example, one method of measuring happiness is, people are asked to rate their own happiness over past installments or what seven days, or just one day. Whether you are very happy, quite happy, not too happy, or happy. Or give marks between zero and hundred. You may rate your own happiness as 60, I may rate mine as 90. But your 60 could be bigger than my 90, right. So comparatively it’s not very high. But I have a paper published in 1996, Social Indicators Research. In which I proposed a method of happiness measurement which is more accurate, and interpersonally comparable.

Robert Wiblin: What’s that measure?

Yew-Kwang Ng: That is based on a concept of just perceptible increment of happiness. If below that level you cannot perceive a difference. Above that, you find it just a bit more happy. If B is just a bit happier than A, then the distance in happiness level … Happiness at B minus happiness at A, equal to one. You define one unit as just perceptible increment of happiness. Then we can use that. And that can be used interpersonally. The theoretical proof that this can be used … Moreover, accepting this would lead you to social welfare function that maximize the unweighted or equally weighted sum of individual utility or welfare or happiness. The theoretical proof of that was done in my Review of Economic Studies 1975 paper. But the empirical … Applying this principle to do an actual happiness survey using this method was done in my 1996 Social Indicators Research paper.

Robert Wiblin: Right. Okay. So then your goal would be as a society to maximize the number of these just perceptible increments on happiness?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah, in the long term. But of course, in the short term and at the practical or political level, you must take into account that anytime we have existing law … So obeying law, not violating law and we have other people not violating the rights of other people. All these are important. Although for me, ultimately why all these are important, ultimately is based on happiness. Because if you don’t observe this principles, laws, freedom, rights and so on, then for it … To increase your or other people happiness by say 10 units, you violate this. But the long term effect of that violation could be a decrease of 1,000 units of happiness. So although the justification must be ultimately based on happiness, but you must take into account the side effects, the effects on the future, the effects on others. Provided you take into account all effects. Then ultimately only happiness matters.

Robert Wiblin: You said that the ordinal welfare economics kind of hit a dead end, and didn’t reach that many findings. Is that because almost any policy change in a large society is gonna disadvantage at least one person. And then if one person is worse of … But then you can’t really say whether it’s better or not? So everything becomes incomparable.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. That is the main point. Yeah, correct.

Robert Wiblin: Right. So should you raise interest rate, should you change taxes, just everything you can’t … You can never say that something is better than something else, unless everyone benefits in practice.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: Right.

Yew-Kwang Ng: So if you don’t use interpersonal comparison, you don’t know whether the policy is desirable or not, right.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So it seems like if people bought into this view, it could have pretty big implications for public policy. What do you think are the key things that this would change about government priorities?

Yew-Kwang Ng: A key thing is that … As I mentioned earlier, if a person is struggling to survive, hungry, then at that level, before the survival and certain level of comfort is reached, then increasing material income of consumption is very important. It helps you to decrease most suffering, and help you to survive. If you die of course you lose all your future happiness. So at the survival level, then economic factors able to earn more and consume more is very important. Both at the individual level and at the social level. But after this survival and certain minimum comfort level is achieved, then recent studies in happiness show that, further increase in consumption or income, does not contribute significantly. It contributes a little, a bit to still further increase happiness. But very little. Especially at the social level.

And the individual level, everyone want more money. Myself included. Even I want more money. But this is last lead you to relative competition. You want to earn more than others. You want to consume more than others. Then this relative competition make it individually rational, even after the level of comfort still want more. But at the social level, this relative competition is offsetting between individuals. So at the level of whole society, this relative competition is a zero-sum game. But instead the higher consumption, the higher production to sustain the consumption, contribute to environmental disruption. And hence, at the social level when you take into account environmental disruption, then that make the higher income, higher consumption, may actually be welfare reducing at a social level.

Robert Wiblin: So. Okay. So there’s support potentially for redistribution and spending money on environmental issues. But if you’re focused on happiness, there might be other ways of targeting that directly. Is the same perhaps with drugs or with therapy or perhaps we could use some scientific inventions to make people happier without having to use money or public policy or anything like that. Have you thought about that angle?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yes. But I go back to continue on the previous questions. That follow on the failure of higher income, higher consumption to increase happiness. Then that means that instead of private consumption, then public spending is spent on the right area, may contribute to social welfare better. Most economists, maybe 90% or more are in favor of big societies, small government. Because government spending involve to … To finance a government spending you need to tax people. And economists believe that you tax people 100 million dollars, you impose cost on the economy is not just 100 million but 130 million. There’s a 30% excess burden. On the spending side, public spending you are … People are spending money not from their own pocket, so they’re less economical.

So you can have inefficiency in public spending as well. This second point is correct. But the first point that taxation involves 30% excess burden is based on the simple analysis that assume that without taxation, the existing market is optimum level. But that assumption is wrong. Because before people, income and consumption are taxed, we really have excessive income and consumption. Because of relative competition, because of environmental disruptions, and because both pollution are not taxed. And hence, before government impose tax to finance public spending, you already have excessive consumption and excessive income. So say, 30 or even 40% tax on income and consumption combined, may be more correcting.

Correcting for the excess consumption, excess income due to environmental disruption and relative competition to make the situation after tax better than the situation before tax. Then that means that the financing side for more public spending involves no additional cost of the 30%. Moreover, there’s a kind of goods I call diamond goods. Diamond goods are valued for its values. Like diamond, gold is the main … Why you spend many thousands of dollar buying a diamond ring or gold bar? It’s not because it looks nice. Cubic zirconia looks exactly as top quality diamond, but it costs a fraction of the money, right. So it’s valued for the value. So taxes on that impose not only no excess burden, but no burden. So there are ways to finance more public spending that are not too costly.

Robert Wiblin: In other case, so your point is [crosstalk]

Yew-Kwang Ng: So that [inaudible] you for higher public spending.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s quite a lot of things that you could tax that … Like diamonds, people don’t enjoy consuming diamonds, all they wanna do is have a way of showing off the fact that they’re rich. And that would work just as well if they bought diamonds and almost all of the price went to taxation. Because it’s just as expensive to them. But now the money is going to the government and they can spend it on useful things.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Related to that you mentioned showing off their wealth. Then this is not exactly diamond effect, but conspicuous consumption effect. Which is related to relative competitions and also emphasize … In fact the first discussion of this was done in 1834 by John Rae, R-A-E. But most economists credited this to 1899 by Veblen, the conspicuous consumption. But John Rae did analysis of relative competition as well. But recent studies show that this effect of relative competition is very important. More important than even I thought before.

Robert Wiblin: How does it show that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: On one way is by using happiness studies. Then a number of economists including Andrew Oswald, Blanchflower and others. Show that … For example, there’s a study of Chinese low income village farmers at low income. And a study in India, and another study I think in South America, could be Peru or some countries like that. Which shows that even people at such low income they find that if their absolute income increase they become happier. But not by as much as if their relative income increase. So that show that the relative income effect is bigger than the absolute income effect. Even for people at low income. Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: Even when people are very poor. Interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: They are such studies.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, I’ll find those papers and put up a link to them. We also have a long article that I wrote a year ago about the relationship between income and happiness. Which looks at some of these studies and broadly agrees with you. So I’ll stick up a link to that as well. What do you think is the best argument you know against your view of welfare economics? I mean obviously many economists like Amartya Sen have alternative perspectives. But what do you think they would say? Is there anything they say that you find convincing?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I’ll answer in two points. One point at the fundamental level. Then I may not be a modest person, and I may be a bit arrogant in this belief, but it’s my sincere belief that at the ultimate level, then I haven’t seen any valid argument against my position. But on the practical level, that take into account instrumental political considerations, then Amartya Sen make important contribution. Not at the ultimate level. But at the practical level, the indexing … His human development index is very important in practice. We should … That’s better than say GDP. But I also have a measure better than GDP to replace it as a national success indicator.

I called the ‘Environmentally Responsible Happy Nation Index.’ That’s published in I think 2008, Social Indicators Research. Which take into account happiness, not only happiness, and lifespan, and last environmental disruption. Everything you count the effects on others and on the future, and hence that name. Although, ultimately fundamentally is happiness that counts. But you cannot just say, “Oh, happiness is everything.” But we need to know what factors contribute to happiness. Then many other consideration, many other studies are important.

Robert Wiblin: Right. What could we learn from Amartya Sen’s work on how to practically create happiness?

Yew-Kwang Ng: For example, this I think every or most economists including Amartya Sen and myself will agree in that, after the survival level, then equality is very important. And poverty elimination is very important. This could be common ground between Amartya Sen and me. But even if our objective finally is to promote happiness for all, to maximize social welfare in a long term, we should pay more attention to equality issues. Once we are over the survival and comfort level, then further increase in national income is much less important than poverty elimination, equality promotion, and environmental protection. So these factors are become relatively much more important.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So talking about happiness, you’ve written that, happiness in your view is unidimensional, what is unidimensional mean there? And why do you think it’s [crosstalk]

Yew-Kwang Ng: Unidimensional means that it can be measured in one dimension. Higher, lower or … only unidimensional is … I also believe that happiness is cardinal. Cardinally measurable. So that you can be … Ordinal, you can only rank, prefer A to B, B to C. But you cannot say whether the difference between A and B is larger or smaller than the difference between B and C. But cardinal you can. In my view, happiness is cardinally measurable on a single dimension, of how much.

Robert Wiblin: So a lot of people feel that kind of this multiple different kinds of happiness. Like you might have the enjoyment of eating food, and then might think that, that’s quite distinct from the enjoyment that you get from having a good relationship with someone else.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. I agree with that too. Because for example, for a start we have at least five different senses. So our happiness from different senses are sort of qualitatively different in the way they feel, right. Tasting nice, and seeing a beautiful thing, they both give you happiness, but they are quite different. So they differ in some qualitative sense like that. But despite that, it’s still measurable in one dimensional scale. Because you should … any person should still be able to measure that happiness I get from seeing this nice picture for, say one minute, and the nice feeling I get from drinking a nice cup of juice or coffee. I should be able to compare that, in terms of which one is more.

Robert Wiblin: So even though they have kind of a different feel to them, but how good they are relative to one another, is still comparable. Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: In that paper that you referred to, I think ‘2015 Singapore Economic Review, I argued that, why you can do that, is because the biological basis for happiness. We are born with capacity for enjoyment, and suffering, which help us for our survival. And hence, we should be able to compare those happiness, net happiness level, on a single dimensional scale, in order to help us to make choices that maximize our survival.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. You talked about using the smallest detectable increment of happiness increases, why would that smallest detectable increment be of the same value for every person?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. I discussed that in my 1975, Review of Economics Studies paper. And in that framework, I used atemporal, there’s no time difference. But in real life, of course you can only enjoy happiness or suffering through time. Then when you take into account the time aspect, then you must also adjust noticeable difference, if it sustains for a longer time, would have more welfare implication, right. But for simplicity, if you hold the time unchanged, or go to the a-temporal model, ignoring the difference in time, then if a difference is small enough so that it’s imperceptible, then the significance must be less than the difference in happiness that you can perceive.

Robert Wiblin: Could it be that one person could be more perceptive about their own happiness differences than someone else? And so they could then-

Yew-Kwang Ng: You can be more perceptive with respect to the objective variables, right. Suppose regarding the amount of sugar in your coffee, a difference in one grain, may give me no difference. I cannot tell the difference. But maybe one grain is enough for you to tell a big difference. Then one can be more perceptive than others, in this objective variables like sugar. But for the subjective one, if you don’t perceive it, you don’t perceive it. If you perceive it, you perceive it. So the subjective sense of just perceptible increment of happiness, must be of the same moral significance. If you ignore the time scale for everyone. And I derived that research from what I regard as a compelling axiom. In my 1975 paper, I called the axiom, weak, weak as in … Strong and weak. Weak Majority Preference.

It says that, if the society consists of one hundred individuals, and at least half, fifty individuals prefer X to Y, and no individuals prefer Y to X, society should prefer X to Y. Referring … for simplicity, ignoring altruism. Just focus on their preference or their happiness, correspond exactly. Then if X and Y, there’s no difference in your net happiness that you can perceive, then you are indifferent. But if there is a difference that I can perceive, then I prefer that, right. Then the axiom says that, if fifty individuals prefer X to Y, no individual prefer Y to X, the society must prefer X to Y. Then that axiom gives the result that any just perceptible increment of happiness must be of same moral significance.

Robert Wiblin: Across all people.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Because it [the Weak Majority Preference Criterion/Axiom] says fifty, or fifty percent. It doesn’t say which fifty. Fifty, could be any fifty. It could be the first fifty, it could be the second fifty. It could be 1:3:5 to 99, it could be 2:4:6 to 100. So that effectively make the just perceptible increment of happiness of any one single individual, more important than just imperceptible increment for any other. So that would make, just perceptible one of equal important, across all individuals.

Robert Wiblin: So your point there is, if someone were to say, “But what if someone was worse off or better off, but they didn’t perceive it?” If you’re thinking only about their feelings, that doesn’t make sense to say, that someone felt better but they couldn’t perceive themselves feeling better. There’s a contradiction there. ‘Cause all that matters is their perception of it.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yes. To answer this question, then I think we need to distinguish different meanings of perception. And for my just perceptible increment of happiness to work, then it should be the actual subjective feeling at that level. But then you may have difficulty of measurement. But then there’s a problem of practical difficulties. So it’s possible that someone who may be bad in terms of conversations, so that they need big subjective feeling before they are prepared, or able or willing to say that, “Oh, they perceived that this is better.” Then maybe you can say that if someone is, say culturally reserved, not very revealing of their small perceptions, then we should not treat the spoken perception as equal to any other. But in terms of the subjective actual feeling, then I think they are of equal moral significance.

Welfare biology/ animal welfare

Robert Wiblin: Okay. Well let’s talk about welfare biology, which is a new field you proposed should exist. So welfare economics is kind of the study of human welfare in society, but you want kind of a welfare biology that unifies evolutionary theory and biological theory with what makes humans and animals happy. I think it’s a pretty visionary idea. What’s the argument you made in that paper?

Yew-Kwang Ng: That paper raised welfare biology as a study, by raising three basic questions. Which species are capable of welfare? You need to be … Species need to be sentient to be able to feel happy or pain, to be capable of welfare. Whether their welfare is positive or negative, and how to increase their welfare. And I used evolutionary biology and economics of economizing on cost to help answer these three questions. And one of the results I get is that for a specie to be capable of welfare, it needs to be flexible or plastic in its behavior. If its behavior is 100% hard-wired or programmed by genetic patterns the organism has no flexible choice by itself, then we can rule out its ability to feel welfare. Then that means that for animal protections, we don’t need to consider species that don’t have such welfare or … Hence, we don’t need to. But whether species are capable of welfare or not, because welfare is subjective. It’s very difficult to determine. But whether a specie is plastic in its behavior or not, it’s still difficult, but easier to determine. So this research help us to find which species we need to be concerned with. And which specie we may safely ignore.

Robert Wiblin: And I suppose insects might be one of those?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. But we are not certain. But we can say that we are more certain that all mammals and vertebrates are capable of welfare than insects. But recently there’s a paper in Animal Sentience arguing that fish cannot feel pain. Yeah. I wrote a comment on that, questioning some of its argument. And also there’s a 2014 article in Science, showing that even crayfish, crayfish is invertebrate. Crayfish. Not lobster, crayfish. Crayfish capable of feeling worried. Because when a person worry then our brain secrete a certain kind of chemicals associated with worry for human. And then if you put a crayfish in a surrounding that it has no escape, it cannot escape from there, then the crayfish also secrete the same chemical. So this has just [inaudible] what …

Robert Wiblin: Interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: So if crayfish can worry, then it’s almost certain that all vertebrates should be able to worry and hence has welfare.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And you didn’t only wanna know whether creatures are sentient or not, but also are they happy or neutral or unhappy in different conditions. Do you think that evolution tends to make creatures that are happy or unhappy or maybe just a little bit happy but not too much?

Yew-Kwang Ng: In that same paper 1995 Biology and Philosophy paper, I also have a research showing … But this research is a bit less convincing than the association with welfare. Because it’s based on some axioms which may or may not be true. But if those axioms are true then I show that most animals’ welfare is negative.

Robert Wiblin: Oh, really. Wow!

Yew-Kwang Ng: Unfortunately.

Robert Wiblin: Why is that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: But if that is true, then I mentioned in that paper that we human, for we human then happiness studies show that most people are happy. Our net happiness is positive. But my paper argue that most animals welfare are negative.

Robert Wiblin: Why is that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: If that is true … I think it’s too complicated to explain that.

Robert Wiblin: Okay.

Yew-Kwang Ng: But it’s based on some axioms which may or may not be true. But if that is true then I think that we humans have an obligation to help our unfortunate, unlucky cousins to escape their miserable situations. But we cannot help them fully now. But in the future when we are more advance economically, scientifically and ethically, then I think we should help to decrease their suffering. But even now, I’m in favor of helping to decrease their suffering for those measures that does not cost us too much. Especially for those animals that we farmed for our food. Animal farming, including chicken farming. We should improve the conditions of say chicken farming, who are suffering, so that the chickens we farm enjoy positive instead of negative welfare.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are you [crosstalk 01:03:12]

Yew-Kwang Ng: In my view, that can be done at negligible if not zero costs to human. I have a paper in Animal Sentience, 2016 on that.

Robert Wiblin: Oh, wow! Okay. Well I’ll put up links to both of those papers. And maybe track down that argument about wild animal welfare being probably negative. So people can evaluate that. Are you vegetarian or vegan, or do you buy kind of high welfare meat?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I admire people who are vegetarian on moral ground, but I have not been a vegetarian. I’m too selfish on that I think.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So have other researchers kind of develop this idea or pushed it forward?

Yew-Kwang Ng: There are journals and researches including … I mentioned Animal Sentience, which is a new online journal with articles on this area. And also you mentioned the 1995 paper of mine, Biology and Philosophy on animal biology. Two years ago, someone interested in animal welfare called Max Carpendale, interviewed me on the background of writing that paper. And this interview was first published in his own website. And then the editor of a journal called ‘Relations’, subtitled ‘Beyond Anthropocentrism.’ That editor email two of us, say that they want to publish that interview in their journal. Of course we agreed. And it was published in 2015, one issue in ‘Relations, Beyond Anthropocentrism.’ So there are journals devoted to these studies.

Animal Welfare

Robert Wiblin: Do you think that we should try to make farm animals happier on farms or just get rid of them, by kind of inventing alternatives to meat? Because people can’t really be trusted to treat them well enough.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think not. One may agree that, not 100% of the people can be trusted to treat animals well enough. But I think the majority, if we have the right legislation and a reasonably competent government to enforce the legislations, then I think the majority can achieve a level. And my hope is to raise the net welfare level of farm animal, chicken in particular, to a level where their net welfare is positive. Then it’s good for them to have such a life. That’s one of the reasons I have not given up meat eating. Because in my view, it’s more important to fight for the increase in the net welfare of these farm animal, at least until they are positive. So that on a whole, they’re not suffering, but rather enjoying life. Then having a life of being a farm chicken, is a reasonably good life. Then it’s good for them. To have this life, than not at all.

Robert Wiblin: I think … I’m a little bit, more skeptical than you. Maybe that people can be persuaded to spend the money required to treat animals properly. Or that we could get the legislation passed just ’cause it seem … I mean, I guess you’ll never know what will happen in the long-term. But at the moment it seems hard. And I suppose also, I worry that even if animals are treated well, that it could still be wrong to kill them. That would require having other values, other than utilitarianism. But I do worry, what if it’s actually, is terrible to kill animals, even if they’d had a good life. I’m always nervous about those potential kind of rights violations, as well.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Since I’m 100% welfarist utilitarian, then I see all rights as ultimately justified by welfare maximization. Then in my view, if you can increase their net welfare to positive, then I don’t mind having farm animal. But that is not yet quite achievable right now. Right now, I think our aim is to decrease those more horrible forms of suffering. Like the eel cutting, and say to increase chicken [cage] size, which may not be enough to make their net welfare positive. But at least to decrease their suffering by a big amount is the immediate tasks, of those concerned with animal welfare.

Robert Wiblin: Does your theory of welfare biology give us any idea of how conscious we should expect animals to be relative to one another? Does it give us any idea of whether a cow feels more than a chicken, or a pig, or a human?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Answer to those without using my theory, we may have some rough guides in terms of different development level, in terms of primates being higher than vertebrates, being higher than invertebrates. But my theory, that’s the 1995, welfare biology paper in my Biology and Philosophy. Mainly help answer trying to see, which species are capable of welfare. If a species is not capable of welfare or so, hence, not capable of suffering, then we don’t have to be too much concerned of mistreating them. We don’t have to be concerned about me treating the table, banging on the table. We don’t know [crosstalk]

Robert Wiblin: Hopefully not.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Hasn’t got feelings, right. So my theory help us to answer, which species are capable of welfare. And hence, we should be concerned about their welfare. My answer is that only those species that are capable of making flexible choice, rather than having all their behavior, 100% fixed by genetic programming, then they cannot be capable of welfare.

Robert Wiblin: But it’s hard to quantify the amount in different species.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. For those who are flexible, and maybe capable of welfare, then you have further questions of which species suffering is worse than others. Then this could be partly … you can use the evolutionary development stage. So presumably, primates may be more capable of welfare than just vertebrates.

Technologies for improving happiness (direct brain stimulation etc)

Earlier you mentioned about scientific ways to promote happiness. I have my own personal favorite, which is brain stimulation.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, go on.

Yew-Kwang Ng: The pleasure center. You mentioned using drug. But drug I think is less efficient than direct stimulation of the brain. And drugs may have side effects. So I’m a little bit more cautious about drugs. Although not ruling those out, but more than 60 years ago, I think 1954, scientists discovered by accident that there are pleasure center … First in the mice they discovered, and then eventually in human as well. The stimulation of those — you find intense pleasure. And that pleasure does not diminish. Most pleasure have diminishing marginal utility, because we are built that way to protect us from say excessive eating, excessive of anything.

But direct stimulation have never been done before. So we are not evolved to have diminishing marginal utility for direct stimulation. The pleasure from that. It’s constant high intensity, high pleasure. So that is a way that you can increase our happiness a lot in my view. But not enough research has been done to invent something… that has been used for sickness or pain reduction, but has not been used just to increase our positive pleasures. I think that can be done, but not yet done. I think that should be promoted.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah. So you like to see more research on how you can do that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: [crosstalk 01:06:54]

Yew-Kwang Ng: More research on that. To invent something which can be safely done that everyone can use to increase happiness. And that would help to decrease depression, decrease crime, decrease hard drugs. And solve a lot of social problems.

Robert Wiblin: Do you worry that people might just only use this brain stimulation?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Excessive use?

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: It may need to, some say cap. For example, I suggest that one safe cap could be that, the electricity that can be used for such machines is supply only between 7 and 10 PM.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. So people still go to work.

Robert Wiblin: What other technologies do you think could be very important to raising happiness in the long-term future, other than direct brain stimulation?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Apart from brain stimulation, which I see important area for development, then I think genetic engineering is another bigger area. But we should be careful even with brain stimulation. So as not to produce too much negative effects. But we should be even more careful about the use of genetic engineering. Because it could be counterproductive.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. You can stop the brain stimulation faster than you can change someone’s gene’s back.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. But I think eventually, our welfare level is limited by our … the capacity of our brain for enjoyment. But that capacity could be improved through genetic engineering. But that should be done with high care, and would be relevant only in the future, not immediately.

Robert Wiblin: In the very long-term.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. But for brain stimulation, can be relatively … short to medium term is feasible.

Robert Wiblin: Do you worry at all that brain stimulation might be very reinforcing, but not actually enjoyable? And that people might find it hard to tell the difference?

Yew-Kwang Ng: From what I know about brain stimulation, then from the reports of this … I have not gone through brain stimulation myself. But from report, it seems that those who undergo that, enjoy the stimulation very much.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: And I can imagine that, if sometimes I will volunteer.

Robert Wiblin: To give it a try.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Good excitement.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think they must be very enjoyable. And hence, I am very supportive of exploring further.

Existential risk / climate change

Robert Wiblin: Okay, let’s talk about that issue of human extinction and climate change, and environmental catastrophes. So 1991, you wrote a paper called, ‘Should We Be Very Cautious or Extremely Cautious on Measures that May Involve Our Destruction.’ And you followed it up with, ‘Consumption trade-offs versus catastrophe avoidance.’ And recently in 2016, ‘The importance of global extinction in climate change policy.’ What were you trying to get people to pay attention to in those papers?

Yew-Kwang Ng: One main point is that, for example, if you start with the Stern report in 2006, published in 2007. The Stern report, Nick Stern of UK on climate change, then they focus on consumption trade-off in there. If we invest more now to protect the environment more, then we have to decrease our consumption to provide the investment. But we hope that … But investing for environmental protection now, we can have a better environment in the future. So that our grandchildren have to invest less to deal with the environment. And hence they can consume more. So it’s a matter of valuing of how much we put on our forgone consumption now, versus the gain of consumption of our children and grandchildren in the future. So this is consumption trade-off. This is a relevant question for issues like climate change and other environmental issues. But in my view this is not the main problem especially for climate change.

Because environmental scientists tell us that, if we have business as usual going on for the next say 50 or 60 years, it may be too late. Even we start protection after 60 years from now, it may be too late. We may be going into a tipping point in year 70 from now. Even protecting from year 60 from now to 70 may be not enough. So that we may only have a window of opportunity something that is 20, 30 years. Something that is 50 or 60 years. We must do things now. Moreover, the early we do now, the less cost we save for our grandchildren and our children. So these questions, if you look not only at the consumption trade-off, but also the … If you don’t protect or not protect enough, the whole world may become uninhabitable. All the human race or even all living things may die. If you take this probability into account, that is I call global extinction. This global extinction would eliminate all our future welfare, become zero.

If we all die, our future welfare become zero. This is a big loss. So it may be true that some environmental scientist believe that this is almost certain. If you don’t protect in the next 50 years, this is 80%, 90%. Maybe it’s not 90%, but even 20%, even 10% it’s too big. If you have to fly from London to New York, and you already booked your ticket, but your friend tell you that there’s a report but this report only has 10% reliability that that flight is going to have a time bomb on it, but would you change your flight, 10% reliability? Would you change your flight?

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, obviously.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah, of course. Even 1% I change my flight, right. So for this human extinction, global extinction, 20%, 2%, 1%, not by 0.1%, is not acceptable. We should try to avoid this from being realized. So that means that the implication is that we should be [inaudible] my paper then [inaudible]. If you take considering that some of our environmental protection cannot only help our future grandchildren be able to consume more, but more importantly to ensure that they will be born instead that the whole world become extinct in say 200 or 300 years. This loss, I have some examples to show that dominates all other considerations in making environment protection very urgent. And we should spend a lot of money. But may not be all of our money. Maybe not even most, but a lot of our money to protect the environment’s health.

Robert Wiblin: So economists when they’re making this trade-offs in figuring out how much we should spend to prevent extinction, they usually wanna place a dollar value on how important it would be to avoid extinction. Did you manage to do that? And does that then tell you what percentage of global GDP we should spend on combating climate change?

Yew-Kwang Ng: For such analysis I prefer to use welfare comparisons.

Robert Wiblin: Okay.

Yew-Kwang Ng: To compare in terms of welfare or utility, the two have slight difference. Utility is representing your preference. Your preference may be dominated by your welfare, but may also be affected by your concern for the welfare of others. Or can be affected by ignorance and irrationality. But ignoring the difference, then whether your utility welfare happiness is treated as the same, then I prefer to do in terms of utility or welfare rather than money. Because money over different years, different generations may have different welfare implication. You can still do … Analyze money wise, but eventually you still have to rely on utility or welfare. Because money is not our ultimate objective. So to guide policy, you should consult the ultimate objective of welfare. Then hence, I prefer using welfare analysis.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. So when you do the welfare analysis, does that suggest-

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yes, I maximize the integration of welfare from current to infinity, but properly discounted. Some people reservation about using welfare, because if you maximize welfare or utility through the infinity you may have non-convergence. The integral may become infinite. But without being biased against future generations, on this issue I believe that morally the correct comparison is any generation should be treated impartially. Our generation is as important as the next and future generation. But right now we are certain that we exist we are enjoying our welfare now. But next year, 100 years from now, then we are less certain whether our grandchildren will be born or not.

So the welfare of our grandchildren should be equally important as our current generation welfare. But because the likelihood that their welfare will be … Will [inaudible] to be enjoyed is less certain. So this degree of uncertainty can be used to discount their future welfare to the extent that their realization is not certain. Then if you just use the uncertainty discount for the future welfare, then this is impartial. Then if you integrate through to infinity is still integrate to a finite sum. Then you can make comparison.

Robert Wiblin: Between the present and the future. So how have economists reacted to this style of argument? Were they convinced that we should spend a huge amount preventing climate change?

Yew-Kwang Ng: As I told you this important works of mine were not appreciated enough, but I did have a … When I published the 2016 papers, soon after that publication I received … I forgot whether it’s end of last year or early this year, probably early this year. I forgot. I did receive an email from institute, from Oxford University called, ‘The Future of Humanity,’ I think.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I know, I’ve heard.

Yew-Kwang Ng: You know that institute? Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: The Future of Humanity Institute. Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Nick Bostrom and others.

Robert Wiblin: Very similar view. Yeah.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. And they sent me an email congratulate me on this paper, saying that they find my paper very … The view there very important, and how to deal with it. I also have more advance result of that paper. And they invite me to participate in conference that they’re organizing, but because it’s too far I did not go. So there are some appreciations. But I hope that for such important issues should be more appreciation. And other under-appreciated environmental study related paper of mine is, 2004 I published a paper in Environmental and Resource Economics. In which I argue that … Economics, most economists agree with Pigou. That can you have issues like pollution, it’s an external cost. You should tax the external costs according to its marginal damage to the society. But the question arises that, it’s very difficult to estimate, especially for climate change. It’s effect hundreds of years from now.

Very difficult to estimate what’s the marginal damage of an extra ton of … A million tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. So how much to tax is difficult to estimate. And my paper argue that since we are currently investing, we call abatement spending. Investing to abate the environmental destruction, right. Trying to decrease CO2 by planting trees, then we know what is the marginal cost of abatement. To reduce CO2 by one unit, how much it cost us. Then we should tax CO2 emission at least by this amount. I show that, moreover I showed that. If you use this amount of tax, then the revenue you will raise is more than enough to spend on abatement investment at the social optimum level. So it provides financing for abatement spending as well. But this paper has not been widely cited I think.

Catastrophic risks

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What do think of other catastrophic risks that people are concerned about? So there’s also the risk of nuclear war, or a new disease, or risks from new technologies, like artificial intelligence. And to some extent those things people focus on them, less than climate change. Which means that it might be possible to make more progress solving them. And those are kinda the main focus for a lot of the people who agree with your argument about the importance of avoiding extinction. Do you have any views on the importance of those problems as well?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I have some views, but I still need more time to study, to learn more about what’s the actual situations. So I could be persuaded and change my view. But the reasons I find climate change must be one of the main focus, may not be exclusive, is that even if climate change does not eventually cause extinctions, then the prevention of climate change will still have 99.999% likely to have good effects in the medium terms.

Robert Wiblin: You mean kinda preventing deaths from pollution? Particulate pollution.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Reducing pollution and greenhouse gases, will likely be good. Even if it does not cause a significant effect on eventual extinction or not.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’ll try to find a reference for this. ‘Cause I think it might be unappreciated just how bad a lot of coal and oil is for our human health. And the fact that, a lot of growing NG might be justified purely on that basis, even if climate change weren’t happening. I’ll see if I can find the evidence that supports that point. ‘Cause I’ve read that and I think it’s … especially with coal, and coal particulates, which I guess you might have seen in China. I think the evidence for that is pretty strong.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: So, I’ve any economists tried to rebuff your argument about the critical importance of preventing extinction?

Yew-Kwang Ng: No. Probably most of them have not paid enough attention to these problems. And it’s true that I gave some seminars, and published some papers on this, but I’ve not encountered any battle.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So they must have just haven’t thought about it that much.

Applications of views to government

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So given your views about welfare being the most important thing, and then also supporting a fairly large amount of public spending and potentially a large role for the state, in as much as it can improve welfare, I imagine that that it might make some people nervous that … kind of you don’t value individual or autonomy enough. Do you worry that kind of promoting your views, you could accidentally give support to governments that might want to oppress people, while claiming that they’re improving welfare, but actually they’re not?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. This is a serious … I agree with the importance of this point. So that … I insist on welfarism and utilitarianism only at the level of moral philosophy. But at the level, at the political practical level, then moral principles, laws, freedom, autonomy, democracy, all these are good things. I regard all these as good things at the practical level, to safeguard. But why they are important? Because they help us to safeguard long-term welfare. So it’s only at the ultimate, at the intrinsic moral philosophical level, principles, good principles, should ultimately be justified on welfare promotion. Because if not, then you can make the mistake. Like the example I gave, is the … no woman can marry twice, right. That caused great suffering. And formerly in China for thousand of years, people think that this is intrinsically bad for a woman to marry twice, irrespective of its welfare consequences.

Robert Wiblin: So it seems like you are in favor of fairly high tax rates. Because you think so much of consumption spending is just positional. So it’s just a question of who’s spending more than other people. Do you worry that even if those higher tax rates aren’t bad for the current generation because of that positional issue, that they might reduce innovation, and kind of harm future generations? ‘Cause they mean less economic growth, and less scientific progress.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think the answer depends crucially on that, raising government taxes revenue itself, it’s not costly. Because of the points you are familiar with. Environmental costs and so on. Relative competition. But the question is, this government revenue and spend, is spend on the right area that can promote welfare? Then it’s better than spend privately. But if it’s spend on say, doing something bad, like, fighting a war against neighboring countries, with no just cause, and causing many deaths and sufferings, then it could be worse than private spending, right.

So, but if spend on the right area, like environmental protections and on … you mentioned about research for the future of welfare, then I think, on balance, more government spending, means more spending on higher education research as well. Which will promote technology, science, and technological advance, that is good for future welfare.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And so if governments were gonna spend more money, what kinds of things would you think are most important? Is it that kind of scientific R&D, and higher education spending?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Include those, but not confined to those.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What other things.

Yew-Kwang Ng: The high priorities includes, as you know I just gave lectures last week at Oxford University, and their Global Priorities Institute, focus on global priorities, and I mentioned that the prevention … or actually, the reductions, even if it can decrease by 0.0001%, the probability of our becoming extinct-

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So we would be kind of securing and ensuring continuity.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Huge welfare implication. But that could include several areas, including climate change.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Why doesn’t your theory about the overwhelming importance of preventing extinction imply that we should spend almost all of our resources on climate change and other similar things?

Yew-Kwang Ng: You cannot of course spend all of our resources on that. ‘Cause if we do that, we ourselves die. And then we will become extinct in one generation. But probably not even to the level of a bare survival level. Because … I argue in my 1991, Social Choice and Welfare paper, that for measures that may cause our extinctions, then we need … for such issues, I’m in favor of expected net welfare maximization. Then if our continue survival … Moreover, most people in this area agree that it’s in this and possibly the next century, which are the critical centuries. Because before the 1950’s, before nuclear power, then our extinction were less threatened. But nuclear power is one’s big source, right. So since the 1950’s, the two or three centuries with higher technology, which are … Can produce good, but can also cause danger.

So if you can avoid extinction in this one or two centuries, then if we can live for a long, long, infinite time or expanded into other world, beyond the earth. Toby Ord, Toby Ord, O-R-D, Ord. Has a forthcoming book on this. I like his chapter eight, looking into the future. Then if our expected welfare in the future is infinite, then naught, point, trillion naught, one percent of infinity is still infinity. Then we would end up that we must spend to survival level to reduce these odds, right. Then this like the Weitzman Dismal Theorem. W-E-I-T-Z-M-A-N, Weitzman. About 10 years ago have a Dismal Theorem. With similar research like this. But in the same paper, I also argued that our expected welfare … although I’m an optimist, I also expect our expected welfare to … if we can avoid extinctions, to increase tremendously. Not only in scope, in terms of number of people, but also in quality.

In terms to brain stimulation, genetic engineering, and some future advance that we cannot imagine now, that can increase our welfare per person, also to a very high level. So that our expected welfare would be enormous. Hence, this preventing extinction is very, very important, in terms of expected welfare. But I still argued that it’s not infinite. And hence, I think you don’t have the moral obligation to go to the bare survival level.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, one other thing is that-

Yew-Kwang Ng: We should be prepared to spend a lot, to reduce the probability.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, one thing is that spending a lot more, say on preventing climate change, could that create other risks? Perhaps, of economic problems, or people getting frustrated because their incomes are declining, because we’re just spending all of our money on climate change. So sometimes, you gonna actually end up increasing the risk of extinction, increasing the risk and problems by spending so much on just one issue.

Yew-Kwang Ng: If it’s just significantly higher, then I think that risk is trivial.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. But I guess that might send-

Yew-Kwang Ng: Once you give off spending significantly higher, that would then cause the different risks that you mentioned. Which may be true, if we spend too much.

Backstory

Robert Wiblin: So, why did you get into academia in the first place? What’s your story?

Yew-Kwang Ng: When I was in high school, my ambition is to become a revolutionary. We were trying to establish a communist society for Malaya. Then, which include the Federation of Malaya and Singapore together. But after I went to the university and I chose economics, precisely because I think that economics is more useful to build a new society. When I was in high school I was more interested in physics, mathematics, and philosophy. But I chose economics because of the dream for the new society of communism. But after I studied economics, then my views turn from extreme left towards more center, siding to the right-wing.

Moreover, the events in Russia and Russian-Sino conflict in ideology, and the events in China including the cultural revolution, 1966 to 76. And before that the great leap forward, which prove to be a great leap downward. All those change my view about the practicability of communism. So then after studying economics, then I also find economics interesting subject academically speaking. And hence, I sort of naturally move from revolutionary to become an economist.

Robert Wiblin: Right. So I had no idea about this. This is the first time I am hearing of this. Was this when you were a teenager and you were living in Singapore?

Yew-Kwang Ng: No. I was in the Federation of Malaya.

Robert Wiblin: Okay.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Now is Malaysia. But before Malaysia was formed around 1962 or 3, it was a British colony called Malaya. Which include the Federation of Malaya and Singapore in the same unit.

Robert Wiblin: And there was a lot of civil conflict at the time? Was communist revolution a real possibility?

Yew-Kwang Ng: The communists, since after World War Two, the communists were … During the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War Two, then the communist were fighting together with the British side. But after the end of World War Two in 1945, communism was still sort of legally active. But in 1948 there was an emergency law which sort of the British government decided to ban communist party. And the communists went inside the mountain. Become guerrillas, and still fighting the government. So they … Not very serious, but there was some arm conflict between the communists and the government then.

Robert Wiblin: And you were sympathetic to them when you were a teenager it sounds like?

Yew-Kwang Ng: When I was teenager or even before, I was very left-wing. Partly influenced by my left-wing father.

Communism

Robert Wiblin: What was it that made you support communism for the Federation of Malaysia? I mean obviously, you were concerned about the welfare of everyone, but was there more behind it than that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think apart from general welfare, I think the main point is desire to help the poor. At that time, Malaya, which later become Malaysia, Malaya at that time was, income level was still quite low. So the poor were more or less absolute poverty. Although, not starving. Malaysia is better than some other African … or even China then. Malaysia income level was a little bit higher but still quite poor. So it’s just desire to make the poor better off. And we naively, believed that communism is the right way to achieve that purpose. That’s the main objective.

Robert Wiblin: Had you looked very much of what had been happening in the Soviet Union around that time, or I guess in China?

Yew-Kwang Ng: When … I was born in 1942, so my … when I got to … I must be age, about 16 or so, when I started to get involved and thinking very left-wing. And that time, so it must be 1956 to 8, yeah, 56 to 8. It’s my junior secondary school days. And at that time Malaysia was sort of, politically, was starting to try to gain independence from British rule. So that’s the general political background. And the left-wing was supportive of this, but was also trying steer the country into communism, rather than the normal market economy or capitalism.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. And I guess, was there also tension then between Singapore and Malaysia? And how did you end up in Singapore, rather than Malaysia?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Before either Malaya or Singapore became independent, the two states, they were both under the British rule. And I think administratively, they were put in together. It was treated as the same region. And although, there’s some … in terms of the Malay Sultan’s, there might be different, between Singapore and Malaya. But for people who lived there, it was treated as same country. We used the same currency, we can go without using passport.

Robert Wiblin: Right. Yeah. So what kind of actions did you and your father take in support of communism at the time? And I suppose were you also involved in kind of anti-colonialism?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. We were for independence. But at least from what I can think, personally, I was not that very anti-colonialism, but rather for communism. Because of concern is poverty. But my father from what I know, my father he may did something pro-communists activities, when he was in China. But when he was in Malaysia, from what I know, he did not. He was a small businessman, supporting a big family. I’m seven … I have six brothers and sisters, older than me. So it’s a big family, so his main job is that.

But I know that he contributed secretly, money-wise. Donate money to the Malaysian Communist Party. Because I saw someone gave him a receipt. I was a little child. Maybe about six or seven. They exchanged a receipt in my presence. So I knew he donated money. And also he used his mouth to support communism. Virtually every night, after dinner, except raining. Then we had the custom of … my father would bring out many chairs in front of the shop, for neighbors to come and sit and chat. And in those chatting, we chatted many things. But quite a high proportion was political. And my father was very left-wing. And my left-wing thinking was partly influenced by listening to those [crosstalk].

Robert Wiblin: Was it dangerous to be pro-communist at the time?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think, from what I know, the whole neighborhood must know that my father was pro-communist. But it seems that he was never threatened for that. So just talking, seems like the government seem not to pay much attention. Talking in private. If you published in newspaper or TV, then they will be heavily controlled. But private talking seems like government just ignore them.

Robert Wiblin: So I guess … I mean, do you think either of you ever considered taking up arms? ‘Cause I know that there was some communist insurgency at the time. As a young man possibly, you would have felt more enthusiastic about fighting. Being a bit naive.

Yew-Kwang Ng: In fact, I personally never thought of taking arms. But if I were to continue on that route, which after my university days and my graduate studies days, my own thinking changed from left, very extreme left perhaps, to middle and right-wing. Middle-right. Although, this is among all people. Among economists, I’m still left-wing. But among all people, I’m middle-right. So, well I had to go on, on that. And other difference in contrast, some of my left-wing fellow students, eventually took up arms. But I never did. Probably because I went overseas in 1967 to do my PhD, and that is the year, 1966 was the year, China started their cultural revolutions. And the year, 67 to 69, was the very left-wing activities turning very violent and extreme left.

And that influenced left-wing people in Malaysia as well. And it was then … but that’s after I left Malaysia to Australia, that I heard that some of our former fellow students, left-wing activists, took up arms or joined the communists, the armed communists in the mountain. And then some of them got killed. But I personally … if I were to continue on that route, then I cannot rule out that. If I did not go overseas, if I did not go to Australia, I might have done that.

Robert Wiblin: You might have ended up in the same situation.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I cannot rule that out. But I did. And especially if my thinking has not gradually moved against communism, if my thinking remained so, then at the height of my left-wing labor. Then if the movement called up on me to take up arm, I would take up arm, I think.

Robert Wiblin: You would have done it. Interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: But never come across of doing that. So in fact, I have never touched.

Robert Wiblin: Never picked up a gun. You’re probably more powerful as an academic. Do you think that your opinions were changed more by kind of theory that you learned in classes, or was it more experience of seeing how communism actually turned out in countries like China?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Both are important. It’s … could be roughly half, half. But both are important. That is learning of economics convince me that capitalism is not that bad. And also the actual experience in China. China-Russia dispute. Also, make us rethink about whether going on the route of communism is good for the people. So both are very important.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, how did you find out about what was happening in the cultural revolution? Presumably, they tried to kinda cover up the dark side of that.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Finding out about cultural revolution? Both from newspaper and radio broadcast, you can learn about cultural revolution. Yeah. Also, from correspondence. Because my father being a left-winger, some of my oldest and second eldest brothers, remained in China. They did not go to Malaysia. But my third and other brothers, and one sister, was sent by my father from Malaysia, going back to China to study. And then I corresponded with them quite often over those years. So you also learn about the real situation within China from private, correspondence with my brothers and sisters. And in the initial years when they went back, then they were also very pro-communist. They were very supportive of the government.

Robert Wiblin: Oh, interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: In the first few years. But gradually you notice from correspondence, especially when the Great Leap Forward failed, and people got hungry, and the cultural revolution was very bad. So eventually you see that they were also disillusioned.

China

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I suppose later on they also would have seen Singapore doing quite well, and Malaysia as well. Yeah. We’re going to talk more about China. Because we’ve been thinking a bit about what can be done to … I guess encourage China to be helpful with some of the policy issues that we’re most interested in. Things like animal welfare, and climate change, and ensuring kind of international cooperation, and avoiding war. How much of your life have you spent in China?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Altogether, I think I probably spent about two and half years in Mainland China. And then another two years in Hong Kong, and a few months in Macau. And then another nearly two years in Taiwan. So, different parts of China, if you include Taiwan. Then quite many years. So about seven years altogether.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So you were saying that, Mandarin is probably your strongest language now, how much of the kind of policy promotion have you done to Mainland China? And did you have a good sense of how to play the politics there, or how to get ideas actually taking up?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Initially, I started publishing articles in popular press, magazine, newspaper. Starting with Hong Kong, and then gradually also moved, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And then gradually also moved into Mainland China. So now, I publish more popular articles in Mainland China, than even Singapore. I also do something for local Singapore press. Chinese also, occasionally, English as well. But more Chinese. But … partly because of demand. Because it’s Mainland China. Press seems to be more interested in getting views from me. I guess I’m more well known as economist in Mainland China, than when I was in Australia.

Robert Wiblin: Right. Yeah. So do you have any sense of how to go about trying to influence government policy in China? Is it something that you can do as a writer and as an academic?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Initially, when in the initial years, then most of my writings were China, under leadership of Deng Xiaoping started reform and opening up from December 1978. So I started writing articles for the popular press, soon after that. So in the initial years, my focus was mainly on trying to support and hope to make the reform and opening up continuing, rather than stop. So it’s more supportive of the reform. And also including explaining, why capitalism is not that bad. And also, including explain, why Marx’s theory of economics was wrong, or even internally inconsistent in … at least one aspect.

Robert Wiblin: And you didn’t have problems advocating these views? [crosstalk] between the 80’s and 90’s?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Because China was already opening up. So in fact, my main focus was supportive of continue opening up. Although may be, some of my views may be … at that time may be regarded as more advanced, too open. That could be. But because it’s in the general thrust of the direction. So I think because of that, I did not get any trouble. And then in the last, one or two decades, then I also focused, kind of come across, I also explained what I believed as fallacies. For example, that also happened in Singapore. Singapore … I arrived in Singapore this time, back from Australia in January 2013. And the end of that month, 30th of January, the government Singapore published a population white paper. Which projected an increase in the number of population from the 5.3 million then, to 6.5, to 6.9 million for the year 2030. 17 years after 2013. But in fact, if you look at that increase, it’s just a projection, the compound annual rate of increase is only about 1.38%. Which compares to over 2% in the last two decades.

So the projection is for slowing down in the rate of flow. But 9-1, people reacted against, saying that, this is too big a population. Then I wrote about explaining that, in fact for a case such as Singapore, population growth and for many other cases as well, population growth and immigration … because the projected population growth involve immigration as well. Because population, the natural growth in Singapore is below replacement level.

Robert Wiblin: So it’s mostly immigration?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Has to rely on immigration. So I explained why immigration, in fact make local people usually better off. At least economically. And I see some views by the public or the government, that in my view is based on some mistaken thinking. Then I also wrote to correct the mistakes.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. When you were writing these articles about Chinese economic reform and opening up to the rest of the world, did you ever kind of take meetings with government officials, or try to be strategic about how you could influence policy there? ‘Cause I mean, it could be a very important piece of work, because those policy reforms potentially helped hundreds of millions of people escape poverty. So, influencing that could be a really big deal.

Yew-Kwang Ng: When I wrote all those many, many, many hundreds of articles, I was hoping that they can have some influence of people views and hopefully, also policies. But honestly, I see no evidence. I do not see influence on policies. Although, eventually the Chinese policy, the Chinese opening up reform was continued, and expanded. So, the general direction, was in the direction as I hoped. But that could be without my article.

Robert Wiblin: It would be very hard tell.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I don’t know of whether my own articles have achieved any significant thing. Probably non-significant. Probably some may influence, but more of the views of people who read my articles may have some influence.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Does it matter what general newspaper readers think, or does it really only matter what a few members of the Chinese Communists Party think? Did you have a sense of how the politics plays out?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think both are important.

Robert Wiblin: Interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Of course, if key members of Chinese government or party are influenced, you would have much, much, more influence. But I think the general views may take a longer time, but may also eventually reflected in the policy. But it takes work for many, many people, not just a single person to achieve.

Robert Wiblin: Right. Do you think that the government there is more accepting of you writing this opinion pieces, because you’re ethnically Chinese? Do you think that’s relevant to them at all?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I’m not sure. But I think could be. In that being ethnically Chinese, I may be taken as probably an insider. And so they may take it more as a suggestions than a criticism. That could be. I’m not very sure.

Robert Wiblin: Not very sure. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah, I guess, I mean … we’re thinking in as much as someone like me wanted to advocate for vegetarianism, or something like that in China, I do wonder how accepting …. what people there, and especially the government would be … a foreigner coming and telling them what to think. I suspect that, it is kind of a very sensitive issue. And it would be sensitive issue going the other way as well.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. That’s true. It could be more sensitive than for someone like me, saying that. Yeah. Even more better for local Chinese to be converted first. And then saying something. It may be more acceptable. Yeah. That could be it. Someone consideration of that. Yes.

Robert Wiblin: Have you ever taken meetings with kind of government officials in China, or Hong Kong or Taiwan, and try to change their mind about things?

Yew-Kwang Ng: No. I think anywhere, including Australia, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, I have not discussed or see any person in power. I see only academics students more.

Robert Wiblin: You just write in the newspaper and hope that they’re reading it.

Yew-Kwang Ng: If they are willing to discuss with me, then I’m quite ready. And I will regard it as chance to exert some influence. But no one asked me.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If someone like me wanted to try to change economic policy in China, if I had opinion about what the Chinese government should do. Say, they should tax carbon to reduce carbon emissions, do you have any advice that you can possibly give me on how I could try to go about that?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Because of what you mentioned about someone outside trying to exert some influence, may be influential, but may also be counterproductive.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Right.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Because of possible resistance. So, I think for someone like you, it may be more effective, especially in the long run, to support, say the taxation of carbon, on the general ground of efficiency for environmental protection, at the general level first. So, until there’s general consensus, the whole world, every country should do something like that, before we try to influence a particular country. It will be more effective, I think.

Robert Wiblin: I suppose, if a university invites someone from overseas to give a talk, and hear their views, then it’s not so bad. Because they’re not lecturing people, and trying to engage in political advocacy overseas, potentially. But I suppose if it seems like you’re pushing your views, forcing them onto other people, then they can be resistant to that.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Could be.

Robert Wiblin: So, obviously, you have somewhat, unusually strong kind of moral views in favor of hedonistic utilitarianism, how does that … I mean, have you tried to advocate those views in China? And how does that fit with kind of Chinese philosophy? ‘Cause it seems like it’s much more familiar I imagine, inside western philosophy, utilitarianism. Does it fit well with Chinese attitudes?

Yew-Kwang Ng: My promotion of my moral philosophical views, are mainly in classroom. Yes. When I do teaching, when relevant, then I may say something in favor of welfarism and utilitarianism. But it’s not that I purposefully avoid that, but thinking back, then I have not focused much on general promotion of this, outside of classroom. And in particular about animal welfare, then even in classroom, especially in China, I hardly have promoted animal welfare in China, yet.

Although, I’m not against it. I’m in favor. Except for the very extreme case. You know of … in the wet market in Hong Kong, I see this only in Hong Kong, for some reason. Not in Singapore, not elsewhere. In Hong Kong, the fish sellers in wet market, will sell wet market sales, fresh vegetables, fish and meat. The fish sellers cut the eel, the fish. The long eel, live eels, cut in half to leave them writhing in pain. I guess is, first to attract customers, and second to show their fish are very fresh. And I argue many times with the sellers saying that, you do this the fish will feel pain. And no one challenge me that, “Oh, fish has no feeling much anything.” No one challenge me on that. But one of them argue back, saying that, “If I don’t sell my fish, I will also feel pain.”

Robert Wiblin: Probably not as much as being cut in half, but.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. So I gathered that the reason they do that is to sell fish, right. To attract customer eyes, and show that their fish are fresh. But this is competitive between the fish sellers. If all fish seller … if other fish seller do that to attract, and you don’t do that, then maybe you sell less fish. But if the government ban this practice, then they can sell the same amount of fish. So this practice is clearly bad. Bad for the fish, and no good for human. So I did wrote about that, and published that in Chinese magazine in Hong Kong. And recently, when I check up the practice is still going on. I email several Hong Kong government relevant organizations, to suggest that. But again, so far it’s not yet effective.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That’s interesting. Yeah, how do you … I mean, obviously, China is a huge country, and we’re talking about Chinese people across many different countries in this case, but how receptive do you think people who have been raised within a Chinese kind of a moral framework or philosophical framework, how do they think about just focusing on welfare? I mean, there might be other more traditional values, or other things that they think are more important than potentially conflict with that. And also does Chinese philosophy suggest that animals are conscious or not? I’m just very interested to learn what your experience has been. Talking about your ideas there.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think most people at the common sense level, would accept that at least higher animals, and likely can go down, clearly including, say cats and dogs, and can go down to the level of chicken, fish, that they are likely to have feeling. But most people just … it’s not that they may be morally bad, just fail to pay attention. That since they have feelings, then we should also be concerned of not imposing unnecessary suffering on them. I think most people has not come to this level of thinking, yet.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you think that it’s probably easier to promote your kind of utilitarian ideas in China or in America? Or is it, there’s not much difference, or hard to say?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think … I’m not sure about the answer, but I do not know for quite certainty, that they are big difference.

Robert Wiblin: Interesting.

Yew-Kwang Ng: There may be some differences that I’m not aware of, that make a big difference. In my view, I think humanity is just one species. Although, there are different races, different cultures, but on some very basic thing, like in my view, the fact that happiness, net welfare, is intrinsically of value must be natural. Known by every person. So I think there should be more commonality than difference.

Career discussion

Robert Wiblin: It seems like throughout your career you’ve tended to write about the topics that you just think are most important. Do you feel that’s limited your career at all or made it more harder to get prestige or anything like that? Cause that’s the trade-off that often people face is pursuing what they think is most important. Even if it’s something strange like brain stimulation versus trying to get promoted as much as possible.

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think I tend to do research partly because of interest, and partly because I believe that it’s important for welfare. Including animal welfare. So I do not concentrate on economics only. That may limit my professional achievement in the area of economics. But I think it’s more than offset. For example, in my view, my welfare biology paper, 1995 paper, in terms of its potential impact and in the future when it’s paid more attention, potential to decrease animal suffering and increase animal welfare in the future, probably more important than all my 200 referee papers in economics put all together. So I don’t regret spending a lot of time on that paper.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And I suppose the thing there is you’re writing, in many of these cases you’re writing about topics or lines about argument that have very rarely been pursued by other people. That are very neglected. And perhaps because they’re not focused on a single field. And so it’s harder to get professional recognition for them.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah. Partly at least.

Robert Wiblin: So at some point you’re probably gonna retire. I think people probably wouldn’t blame you if you’d already retired. So I guess what would you like to say to people who are listening who might be able to continue building on your research in future?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Yeah, of course I hope more younger people would continue to do important research. Including the area that I worked in, but need not be confined to those. Yeah, of course. And in particular I think animal suffering is a big negative in terms of negative welfare. So this is one area, but equally if not more important for humans, then it’s environmental protections. To make sure that we survive for a long time. So these are the two areas in my view that people, especially consistent with the theme of your podcasts, altruism, that for welfare of others, welfare of future generations, welfare of animals, this is related to altruism. Then I hope more people would pay more attention to environmental protections and animal welfare.

Robert Wiblin: Have you found it kind of entertaining to see that, as you kinda you’re approaching the end of your career that there this large social movement that’s appeared, that’s growing pretty fast. And it’s interested in all of these things that you’ve been talking about for 50 years?

Yew-Kwang Ng: Not by 50 years.

Robert Wiblin: Oh, no. 30 maybe.

Yew-Kwang Ng: For about 30 years. Yeah. I regard this as a very, very important movement. And hence, I congratulate these few young persons that have started this movement, and has already achieved very significantly in about 9 years. So I hope that this movement would become even more influential. When I was in Oxford, giving the Atkinson lecture, Luke Ding …

Robert Wiblin: Luke Ding.

Yew-Kwang Ng: … Luke Ding. Yeah. Luke Ding spoke to me for about an hour, and he’s interested in extending effective altruism movement to the eastern countries, especially China. Which since Mandarin is my most proficient language, so if I can help in that movement, I will be willing to do that.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think that would be extremely helpful. Finally, you seem just to be an incredibly cheerful person. And some of your students have written to me, to tell me how much they enjoy your lectures. And how you’re just constantly telling jokes, and seem to be having a great time. Do you think kind of your happy disposition is mostly biological, or rather things that you do to maintain your optimism?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I’m surprised that you got that reports from my students. Some of my students-

Robert Wiblin: Students from Australia.

Yew-Kwang Ng: … From Australia. Oh, yeah. I’m glad to hear that. The answer is that, like most studies, it’s partly biological, that I’m born quite optimistic. And partly you can promote this through learning to practicing and through some attention that you can make yourself happier. And you can also help to make others happier. So it’s both. It’s not just one sided.

Robert Wiblin: Do you have any advice on … are there any things that you do to try to stay happy when circumstances are more difficult?

Yew-Kwang Ng: I think you should remember that worry too much, you may want to find way to solve your problem, but worrying itself is seldom helpful. So you should try not to worry too much. And try to escape that difficulties. But I’m in the process of … I already have a book on happiness, that can give advice on this. But unfortunately, it’s in Chinese. But I’m in a process of writing English version. So I hope it will be published soon. So readers are referred to that.

Robert Wiblin: Fantastic. My guest today has been Yew-Kwang Ng. Thanks for coming on the 80,000 Hours podcast, Kwang.

Yew-Kwang Ng: Thank you.

Robert Wiblin: Just a reminder that if you’d like to explore the most interesting papers written by Kwang, you should click through the show notes to the blog post for the episode, and a bit down the page you’ll find the papers I suggest checking out!

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

Thanks for joining – talk to you next week.

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 - to share their wisdom, so that you can better understand the world and have a greater social impact.

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

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