[ExI] Consequentialist world improvement

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Sun Oct 7 05:48:29 UTC 2012

On Sat, Oct 6, 2012 at 10:35 PM, Anders Sandberg wrote:
> 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).
> ==Death==
> 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 thousands.
> 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.

I don't know your source for the above stats, but one big problem is
that it is not helpful to use total world stats. Every country has
different stats. e.g. traffic death and injury rates are far worse in
India than first world countries. Similar differences for other causes
of death.
And causes of death are consequential. You hint at this when you
mention weakening people.
e.g. war death stats. Ex-soldiers have a much higher suicide rate than
the general population and many are injured as well.
So targeting a seemingly less important cause of death might well
produce improvements further up the chain.

So improvements need to be tailored to target countries and even to
different social groups within countries. As each cause of death is
'fixed' in a country, resources must be reallocated to the next most
important in line. Every country will have different targets,
depending on how far up the chain they have worked.

And, of course, as you fix one cause of death, that will be shifted to
an increase in other causes of death. i.e. all the people that would
have died in car accidents now die of heart disease instead. At an
older age, so life expectancy goes up. It's complicated.


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