“Small steps toward a much better world”

First, better than what? I suppose it’s better than the world we have now; but then the “world” of the slogan is not a whole possible world, which would persist throughout time, but rather a temporal segment or slice of a possible world. We don’t now “have” a whole world; what we have is the present time-slice of the world. Or you might say that what we have is the whole past-and-present–the temporal segment of the world from the Beginning to Now; but this would be less suitable for comparison with what you are striving toward, so I will assume that the present time-slice or “state-of-affairs” is the intended standard of comparison.

Then the target is a better (momentary) state-of-affairs rather than a better whole possible world, or a better whole future. Now, the latter, not the former, should be your ultimate or most basic objective; but, admittedly, it might be acceptable tactically to aim at the former. That is, in order to maximize the value of the whole future–which should be the aim–you might aim for “a much better (momentary) state-of-affairs,”to come into being at some point in the future.

And what point might that be; when is the much better state-of-affairs supposed to come into existence? That is being left indefinite (though,presumably, sooner is better than later).

I interpret “steps toward a (particular) state-of-affairs” as actions (perhaps mere “speech acts”) that make that state-of-affairs more probable. But these actions may also have other effects that ought to be considered, such as making some other state-of-affairs–perhaps quite a bad one–more probable. This points up a serious deficiency: the slogan is blind to risk, failing to incorporate hedging. The circumstance that a certain step that is “toward” a better state-of-affairs (i.e., that makes it more probable) is at the same time also “toward” a worse one should dampen your enthusiasm for taking the step; this is not reflected in the slogan.

There are probably infinitely many possible states-of-affairs, but for expository purposes let me pretend that the number is finite–say, a million. Let us rank these by value. The best will be S1, the worst S1,000,000 (I’ll ignore ties); the actual present state-of-affairs is somewhere in between–say, S100,000. {As you can see, this email program is incapable of representing the numbers as subscripts.}  

There is, for each of these possible states-of-affairs, some probability that it will eventually become actual, given what we have now. The slogan endorses actions that will increase the probability of one of these states-of-affairs–call it ‘Sn’. But this favored possible state-of-affairs is not specified as S1, the best of them. Indeed, I assume n ≠ 1, since the slogan says “much better” rather than “best.” Since Sn is to be better than S100,000, we have 1 < n < 100,000, and since it is much better it must be closer to 1 than to 100,000; let us say 1 < n < 30,000. But beyond this it is completely obscure what  n is or how it was selected. If n is, say, 10,189, you are aiming to make the eventual occurrence of S10,189 more probable. But the motivation for doing precisely this is hardly evident.

Finally, the “small steps” phrase is, presumably, intended as an expression of modesty. But why limit yourself to small steps? If you can take big steps to improve matters, do it! On the other hand, why restrict yourself to optimism? If you can make the world better, of course, do it; but maybe things appear likely to get worse, no matter what you do. You might even find yourself in a situation where there are no steps you can take “toward” Sn for any n < 100,000, perhaps because Prob (Sn/A) = 0, for any n < 100,000 and any possible action A (given that we are in S100,000). It would be well to cover this possibility, too, by presenting yourself as stepping toward the best (in this case, least bad) possible future.

My proposal for reform, then, is simply to advertise yourselves as intending to act in ways that promote maximum expected value throughout the future; in short: “Acting to maximize expected future value.” (If that’s not your intention, why not?)

The bottom line: I believe that James is a kindred spirit and that he indeed lives "Small steps toward a much better world."


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