Beware underestimating the probability of very bad outcomes: Historical examples against future optimism

It may be tempting to view history through a progressive lens that sees humanity as climbing toward ever greater moral progress and wisdom. As the famous quote popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. goes: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Yet while we may hope that this is true, and do our best to increase the probability that it will be, we should also keep in mind that there are reasons to doubt this optimistic narrative. For some, the recent rise of right-wing populism is a salient reason to be less confident about humanity’s supposed path toward ever more compassionate and universal values. But it seems that we find even stronger reasons to be skeptical if we look further back in history. My aim in this post is to present a few historical examples that in my view speak against confident optimism regarding humanity’s future.


Contents

  1. Germany in year 1900
  2. Shantideva around year 700
  3. Lewis Gompertz and J. Howard Moore in the 19th century

Germany in year 1900

In 1900, Germany was far from being a paragon of moral advancement. They were a colonial power, antisemitism was widespread, and bigoted anti-Polish Germanisation policies were in effect. Yet Germany anno 1900 was nevertheless far from being like Germany anno 1939-1945, in which it was the main aggressor in the deadliest war in history and the perpetrator of the largest genocide in history.

In other words, Germany had undergone an extreme case of moral regress along various dimensions by 1942 (the year the so-called Final Solution was formulated and approved by the Nazi leadership) compared to 1900. And this development was not easy to predict in advance. Indeed, for historian of antisemitism Shulamit Volkov, a key question regarding the Holocaust is: “Why was it so hard to see the approaching disaster?”

If one had told the average German citizen in 1900 about the atrocities that their country would perpetrate four decades later, would they have believed it? What probability would they have assigned to the possibility that their country would commit atrocities on such a massive scale? I suspect it would be very low. They might not have seen more reason to expect such moral regress than we do today when we think of our future.

A lesson that we can draw from Germany’s past moral deterioration is, to paraphrase Volkov’s question, that approaching disasters can be hard to see in advance. And this lesson suggests that we should not be too confident as to whether we ourselves might currently be headed toward disasters that are difficult to see in advance.

Shantideva around year 700

Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who lived in ca. 685-763. He is best known as the author of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, which is a remarkable text for its time. The core message is one of profound compassion for all sentient beings, and Shantideva not only describes such universally compassionate ideals, but he also presents stirring encouragements and cogent reasoning in favor of acting on those ideals.

That such a universally compassionate text existed at such an early time is a deeply encouraging fact in one sense. Yet in another sense, it is deeply discouraging. That is, when we think about all the suffering, wars, and atrocities that humanity has caused since Shantideva expounded these ideals — centuries upon centuries of brutal violence and torment imposed upon human and non-human beings — it seems that a certain pessimistic viewpoint gains support.

In particular, it seems that we should be pessimistic about notions along the lines of “compassionate ideals presented in a compelling way will eventually create a benevolent world”. After all, even today, 1300 years later, where we generally pride ourselves of being far more civilized and morally developed than our ancestors, we are still painfully far from observing the most basic of compassionate ideals in relation to other sentient beings.

Of course, one might think that the problem is merely that people have yet to be exposed to compassionate ideals such as those of Shantideva — or those of Mahavira or Mozi, both of whom lived more than a thousand years before Shantideva. But even if we grant that this is the main problem, it still seems that historical cases like these give us some reason to doubt whether most people ever will be exposed to such compassionate ideals, or whether most people would accept such ideals upon being exposed to them, let alone be willing to act on them. The fact that these memes have not caught on to a greater degree than they have, despite existing in such developed forms a long time ago, is some evidence that they are not nearly as virulent as many of us would have hoped.

Speaking for myself at least, I can say that I used to think that people just needed to be exposed to certain compassionate ideals and compassion-based arguments, and then they would change their minds and behaviors due to the sheer compelling nature of these ideals and arguments. But my experience over the years, e.g. with animal advocacy, have made me far more pessimistic about the force of such arguments. And the limited influence of sophisticated expositions of these ideals and arguments made many centuries ago is further evidence for that pessimism (relative to my previous expectations).

Of course, this is not to say that we can necessarily do better than to promote compassion-based ideals and arguments. It is merely to say that the best we can do might be a lot less significant — or be less likely to succeed — than what many of us had initially expected.

Lewis Gompertz and J. Howard Moore in the 19th century

Lewis Gompertz (ca. 1784-1861) and J. Howard Moore (1862-1916) both have a lot in common with Shantideva, as they likewise wrote about compassionate ethics relating to all sentient beings. (And all three of them touched on wild-animal suffering.) Yet Gompertz and Moore, along with other figures in the 19th century, wrote more explicitly about animal rights and moral vegetarianism than did Shantideva. Two observations seem noteworthy with regard to these writings.

One is that Gompertz and Moore both wrote about these topics before the rise of factory farming. That is, even though authors such as Gompertz and Moore made strong arguments against exploiting and killing other animals in the 19th century, humanity still went on to exploit and kill beings on a far greater scale than ever before in the 20th century, indeed on a scale that is still increasing today.

This may be a lesson for those who are working to reduce risks of astronomical suffering at present: even if you make convincing arguments against a moral atrocity that humanity is committing or otherwise heading toward, and even if you make these arguments at an early stage where the atrocity has yet to (fully) develop, this might still not be enough to prevent it from happening on a continuously expanding scale.

The second and closely related observation is that Gompertz and Moore both seem to have focused exclusively on animal exploitation as it existed in their own times. They did not appear to focus on preventing the problem from getting worse, even though one could argue, in hindsight, that such a strategy might have been more helpful overall.

Indeed, even though Moore’s outlook was quite pessimistic, he still seems to have been rather optimistic about the future. For instance, in the preface to his book The Universal Kinship (1906), he wrote: “The time will come when the sentiments of these pages will not be hailed by two or three, and ridiculed or ignored by the rest; they will represent Public Opinion and Law.”

Gompertz appeared similarly optimistic about the future, as he in his Moral Inquiries (1824, p. 48) wrote: “though I cannot conceive how any person can shut his eyes to the general state of misery throughout the universe, I still think that it is for a wise purpose; that the evils of life, which could not properly be otherwise, will in the course of time be rectified …” Neither Gompertz nor Moore seem to have predicted that animal exploitation would be getting far worse in many ways (e.g. the horrible conditions of factory farms) or that it would increase vastly in scale.

This second observation might likewise carry lessons for animal activists and suffering reducers today. If these leading figures of 19th-century animal activism tacitly underestimated the risk that things might get far worse in the future, and as a result paid insufficient attention to such risks, could it be the case that most activists today are similarly underestimating and underprioritizing future risks of things getting even worse still? This question is at least worth pondering.

On a general and concluding note, it seems important to be aware of our tendencies to entertain wishful thinking and to be under the spell of the illusion of control. Just because a group of people have embraced some broadly compassionate values, and in turn identified ongoing atrocities and future risks based on those values, it does not mean that those people will be able to steer humanity’s future such that we avoid these atrocities and risks. The sad reality is that universally compassionate values are far from being in charge.

Far From Omelas

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? (2018/2022).


I should like to re-emphasize a tragic fact that is all too easily forgotten by our wishful and optimistic minds, that fact being that the world we inhabit is hopelessly far from Omelas. For our world is unfortunately nothing like a near-paradisiacal city predicated on the misery of a single child. Rather, in our world, there are millions of starving children, and millions of children who die from such starvation or otherwise readily preventable causes, every single year. And none of this misery serves to support a paradise or anything close to it.

We do not live in a world where a starving child confined to a basement is anywhere near the worst forms of suffering that exist. Sadly, our world contains an incomprehensibly larger number of horrors of incomprehensibly greater severity, forms of suffering that make the sufferer wish dearly for a fate as “lucky” as that of the unfortunate child in Omelas. This is, of course, true even if we only consider the human realm, yet it is even more true if we also, as we must, consider the realm of non-human individuals.

Humanity subjects billions of land-living beings to conditions similar to those of the child in Omelas, and we inflict extreme suffering upon a significant fraction of them, by castrating them without anesthetics, boiling them alive, suffocating them, grinding them alive, etc. And our sins toward aquatic animals are greater still, as we kill them in far greater numbers, trillions on some estimates; and most tragically, these deaths probably involve extreme suffering more often than not, as we slowly drag these beings out of the deep, suffocate them, and cut off their heads without stunning or mercy. And yet even this horror story of unfathomable scale still falls hopelessly short of capturing the true extent of suffering in the world, as the suffering created by humanity only represents a fraction of the totality of suffering on the planet. The vast majority of this suffering is found in the wild, where non-human animals suffer and die from starvation, parasitism, and disease, not to mention being eaten alive, which is a source of extreme suffering for countless beings on the planet every single second.

Sadly, our condition is very far from Omelas, implying that if one would choose to walk away from Omelas, it seems impossible to defend supporting the spread of our condition, or anything remotely like it, beyond Earth. The extent of suffering in the world is immense and overshadowing, and our future priorities should reflect this reality.

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