Replies on Civilization, Existential Risks, and Utility

Eli Dourado asks how risk-averse we should be with respect to civilization, in particular how much we should trade off expected economic growth for greater safety against existential risk. I would stress that the best recipe for both growth and stability is high quality institutions. There is thus a broad swath of choices we can make that will boost both growth and stability, namely improving institutions. Nonetheless, there will be cases where the two conflict, all the more so if we allow imaginary thought experiments in the door. I do not offer any solution to that problem in my book, but there are plenty of improvements we can make in the meantime and those do cover most of the empirically relevant cases.

If you are wondering, I do not believe in maximizing “the expected value of civilization” but rather I suggest placing special weight on the costs of extinction. For instance, if we could play “double or nothing” with the current galaxy, at odds of 51-49, I would say don’t do it. I do stress that my arguments apply best to the cone of possible outcomes within current economic growth trajectories.

Joshua Kim has some further questions, in response I would like to make one observation. For the world as a whole, which I take to be the relevant moral unit, income inequality has been going down for several decades. I believe pro-growth policies would do more yet to raise outcomes for the poor, though of course in some cases they may also create billionaires at a faster rate. Thus income inequality could sometimes go up, but I am fine with that.

I agree with Agnes Callard that non-utilitarian motivations may well produce more utility, and I discuss this briefly in the book, when I cover the necessity of grounding systems on some notion of faith. A side note: much as I love the paintings of Vermeer, has he contributed so much to economic growth as Callard suggests? Peter Paul Rubens, who also was a diplomat (and far more prolific on canvas), may hold the pride of place here, or how about the Italian Renaissance artists, for helping to resurrect interest in the contributions of the ancient world, Callard’s favorite Plato included?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.