[ExI] Consequentialist world improvement

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sat Oct 6 21:35:06 UTC 2012

On 06/10/2012 16:17, Tomaz Kristan wrote:
> > If you want to reduce death tolls, focus on self-driving cars.
> Instead of answering terror attacks, just mend you cars?

Sounds eminently sensible, except maybe to the people trapped in the 
riot thread (very suitable name, I think).

More seriously, Charlie makes a good point: if we want to make the world 
better, it might be worth prioritizing fixing the stuff that makes it 
worse according to the damage it actually makes. Toby Ord and me have 
been chatting quite a bit about this (I'll see if he has a writeup of 
his thoughtful analysis; this is my version based on what I remember).


In terms of death (~57 million people per year), the big causes are 
cardiovascular disease (29%), infectious and parasitic diseases (23%) 
and cancer (12%). At least the first and last are to a sizeable degree 
caused or worsened by ageing, which is a massive hidden problem. It has 
been argued that malnutrition is similarly indirectly involved in 15-60% 
of the total number of deaths: often not the direct cause, but weakening 
people so they become vulnerable to other risks. Anything that makes a 
dent in these saves lives on a scale that is simply staggering; any 
threat to our ability to treat them (like resistance to antibiotics or 
anthelmintics) is correspondingly bad.

Unintentional injuries are responsible for 6% of deaths, just behind 
respiratory diseases 6.5%. Road traffic alone is responsible for 2% of 
all deaths: even 1% safer cars would save 11,400 lives per year. If 
everybody reached Swedish safety (2.9 deaths per 100,000 people per 
year) it would save around 460,000 lives per year - one Antwerp per year.

Now, intentional injuries are responsible for 2.8% of all deaths. Of 
these suicide is responsible for 1.53% of total death rate, violence 
0.98% and war 0.3%. Yes, all wars killed about the same number of people 
as were killed by meningitis, and slightly more than the people who died 
of syphilis. So in terms of absolute numbers we might be much better off 
improving antibiotic treatments and suicide hotlines than trying to stop 
the wars. And terrorism is so small that it doesn't really show up: even 
the highest estimates put the median fatalities per year in the low 

So in terms of deaths, fixing (or even denting) ageing, malnutrition, 
infectious diseases and lifestyle causes is a far more important 
activity than winning wars or stopping terrorists. Hypertension, 
tobacco, STDs, alcohol, indoor air pollution and sanitation are all far, 
far more pressing in terms of saving lives. If we had a choice between 
*ending all wars in the world* and fixing indoor air pollution the 
rational choice would be to fix those smoky stoves: they kill nine times 
more people.

==Existential risk==

There is of course more to improving the world than just saving lives. 
First there is the issue of outbreak distributions: most wars are local 
and small affairs, but some become global. Same thing for pandemic 
respiratory disease. We actually do need to worry about them more than 
their median sizes suggest (and again the influenza totally dominates 
all wars). Incidentally, the exponent for the power law distribution of 
terrorism is safely negative at -2.5, so it is less of a problem than 
ordinary wars with exponent -1.41.

There are reasons to think that existential risk should be weighed 
extremely strongly: even a tiny risk that we loose all our future is 
much worse than many standard risks (since the future could be 
inconceivably grand and involve very large numbers of people, cf. 
http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html ). This has convinced 
me that fixing the safety of governments (democides have been larger 
killers than wars in the 20th century and seems to have most of the tail 
risk, especially when you start thinking nukes) needs to be boosted a 
lot. It is likely a far more pressing problem than climate change, and 
quite possibly (depending on how you analyse xrisk weighting) beats 

How to analyse xrisk, especially future risks, in this kind of framework 
is a big part of our ongoing research at FHI.


If instead of lives lost we look at the impact on human stress and 
happiness wars (and violence in general) look worse: they traumatize 
people, and terrorism by its nature is all about causing terror. But 
again, they happen to a small set of people. So in terms of happiness it 
might be more important to make the bulk of people happier. Life 
satisfaction correlates to 0.7 with health and 0.6 with wealth and basic 
education. Boost those a bit, and it outweighs the horrors of war.

In fact, when looking at the value of better lives, it looks like an 
enhancement in life quality might be worth much more than fixing a lot 
of the deaths discussed above: make everybody's life 1% better, and it 
corresponds to more quality adjusted life years than is lost to death 
every year! So improving our wellbeing might actually matter far, far 
more than many diseases. Maybe we ought to spend more resources on 
applied hedonism research than trying to cure Alzheimers.


The real reason people focus so much about terrorism is of course the 
moral outrage. Somebody is *responsible*, people are angry and want 
revenge. Same thing for wars. And the horror tends to strike certain 
people: my kind of global calculations might make sense on the global 
scale, but most of us think that the people suffering the worst have a 
higher priority. While it might make more utilitarian sense to make 
everybody 1% happier rather than stop the carnage in Syria, I suspect 
most people would say morality is on the other side (exactly why is a 
matter of some interesting ethical debate, of course). Deontologists 
might think we have moral duties we must implement no matter what the 
cost. I disagree: burning villages in order to save them doesn't make 
sense. It makes sense to risk lives in order to save lives, both 
directly and indirectly (by reducing future conflicts).

But this requires proportionality: going to war in order to avenge X 
deaths by causing 10X deaths is not going to be sustainable or moral. 
The total moral weight of one unjust death might be high, but it is 
finite. Given the typical civilian causality ratio of 10:1 any war will 
also almost certainly produce far more collateral unjust deaths than the 
justified deaths of enemy soldiers: avenging X deaths by killing exactly 
X enemies will still lead to around 10X unjust deaths. So achieving 
proportionality is very, very hard (and the Just War Doctrine is broken 
anyway, according to the war ethicists I talk to). This means that if 
you want to leave the straightforward utilitarian approach and add some 
moral/outrage weighting, you risk making the problem far worse by your 
own account. In many cases it might indeed be the moral thing to turn 
the other cheek... ideally armoured and barbed with suitable sanctions.


To sum up, this approach of just looking at consequences and ignoring 
who is who is of course a bit too cold for most people. Most people have 
Tetlockian sacred values and get very riled up if somebody thinks about 
cost-effectiveness in terrorism fighting (typical US bugaboo) or 
development (typical warmhearted donor bugaboo) or healthcare (typical 
European bugaboo). But if we did, we would make the world a far better 

Bring on the robot cars and happiness pills!

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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