Effective altruism in 1400

A loyal MR reader writes to me:

If you taught the principles of effective altruism to a rich person in (say) 1400, what would they have thought was the most effective thing to do with their money?  What was in fact the most effective thing they could have done?

I say send some money to Henry IV.  On the year 1400 Wikipedia notes:

January – Henry IV of England quells the Epiphany Rising and executes the Earls of Kent, Huntingdon and Salisbury and the Baron le Despencer for their attempt to have Richard II restored as king.

England and the Industrial Revolution seemed to have worked out OK, and besides the Henriad provides some of Shakespeare’s most profound work, Orson Welles too.

I think you can see the problem.

But what would a rational Effective Altruist have thought at the time?  How about revising those early versions of the Poor Laws?

Alternatively, 1400 also was the year Chaucer died, and he was a pretty smart guy.  Since he worked for Henry’s father and was close to him, he might have given good advice, if only for self-interested reasons.  But who in 1400 was the best or most logical representative of Effective Altruism?  The theologian Alan of Lynn?  He might have told you to invest the money in making indexes of books, which seemed to be his main interestJean Gerson, if one looks to France for a thought leader, focused his energies to reconciling the Great Schism in the papacy.  Good idea or bad?  As Zhou Enlai said


Investments in shipping firms could tip the balance regarding who colonized the Americas and other future colonies first.

Given that nobody knew America existed and wouldn't know that for another 92 years, I'm not sure anyone would have listened to that advice.

Obviously, the Americans knew they existed.
For the most interesting results, release horses and pigs into the Americas in 1400. Some of the major European diseases will spread before the arrival of the Europeans, and presumably with enough time for some population rebound - how would the history of the Americas have gone if Cortes had been defeated and all his men executed by the Aztecs?

You didn't have to know precisely what the benefit to improved shipping would be in 1400, to know from other evidence that shipping was a potentially dynamic field that had immense possibilities for someone who mastered it going back to the classical era.

Probably hire a bunch of mercenaries and engage in forced conversion to Christianity. For the pacifists, perhaps funding missionaries might have seemed more acceptable.

What better investment can there be for an effective altruist than eternal salvation of lost souls who will otherwise face an eternity of damnation? That's somewhere in the range of infinite return for any amount of investment, if you are a "true believer" in 1400.

(slightly facetious, but I mean it too)

You are absolutely correct.

The biggest hallmark of defective altruists today is their holier-than-though bullshit, sanctimony and self-righteousness.

Not to mention their pseudo-rational preudo-intellectual spamming of demands on everyone everywhere to engange in the same bullshit self-sacrifice for unproven and improbable moral gains.

In 1400, that pretty much spells "Christianity".

The point had more to do with the potentially infinite value of saving one soul. The whole "eternity" aspect of things means that savings souls would outweigh any amount of effort to relieve suffering in the present life.

I don't find do-gooders to be particularly demanding. To me, it just feels like they say "hey, you can do this too".

"The whole “eternity” aspect of things means that savings souls would outweigh any amount of effort to relieve suffering in the present life."

Unless the present life runs in a loop forever. Which was way more probable than heaven/hell even in 1400. I guess people just like anthropomorphizing stuff.

"To me, it just feels like they say “hey, you can do this too”."

To me, it feels like they say, "Look how much we care, we deserve more status for saying how much we care all the time, and also you should sacrifice your best interests at the altar of Carethulu or else be a bad person, OH and also we know best what's good for other people e.g. the poor, even though we never even bother to talk to them."

I also think they lift too heavy with their various topics, e.g. systemic change is now in discussion, and we all know this will mean childish leftism and other authoritarian bullshit.

It was a response to the question "What would people have thought was most valuable at the time?"

But that aside, I'd like to see your empirical assessment of "life runs in a loop forever" being "way more probably than heaven/hell".

Heaven/hell are very complex hypotheses. A loop is very simple.

Nikita - I don't mean it personally (but it might have a bit of that tone), but I always wonder whether those who feel like they are being lectured to are just really selfish people, and feel sort of bad about it, and that's why it feels so condescending. Perhaps you have more money than you really "need" and wish you were a little less selfish, and so feel condescended when people go on about these things?

I just think it's nice that they're doing that stuff. I don't feel like they're telling me I have to do anything, but rather, are presenting some ideas on how I could do nice stuff if/when I want to (or am able to).

Nathan W, I'm perfectly fine with my selfishness, thank you very much. The problem with these people is that they actually believe they should have a say about how I should use my time or money. This is even more true of those who call for taxes in the name of "solidarity" and so on.

Take 3rd world poverty, for example. There's a lot of talk about saving poor kids' lives, preventing their suffering, etc. But no one questions why these kids are shat into poverty by their parents. The implication is that, because I don't share my money with strangers, I am responsible for their suffering, but somehow, the people who cause the suffering (irresponsible breeders, local tyrants etc.) are not blamed.

There's more to say about useless stuff, counterproductive stuff they're trying to do, but I'm really fed up with the underlying implied attitude that these people essentially own everybody in the name of moralism. This has never had positive consequences and I find it insulting.

Nathan perhaps you are really a crook and know what you would do with money and power and know how you would harm other people to get it. Maybe that's why the left is so concerned with unbridled capitalism as they call it.

I vote for spreading the opium poppy and it's use across Europe to ease suffering.

However, I think the question is somewhat malformed.

What separates EA from the standard admonition "do good" is it's emphasis on deriving non-obvious conclusions from our societies broad consensus about how the world works and what projects are of value. Even the vast majority of theists in the modern world would rather give their money to reduce suffering than to convert heathens.

In 1400 there was neither a consensus about how the world worked nor what goals were appropriate to achieve. I mean funding study into witchcraft or looking for relics of the cross or philosophizing angels into helping mankind might well have seemed reasonable efforts.

Of course a sufficiently rational actor might avoid such pitfalls but if we are going to posit unrealistic levels of mental acuity we might as well just assume logical omniscience and have them infer all of Newton's laws (as the simplest set of rules describing to a high degree of accuracy the behavior they had observed or read about from reliable texts) and start the industrial revolution while they were at it.

You would need empirical evidence that forced conversions are effective.

ha, that one's easy!

"Probably hire a bunch of mercenaries and engage in forced conversion to Christianity. " You don't need to go back to 1400 AD to see the effectiveness of that policy.

"The moment hundreds of Yazidis converted en masse to Islam to avoid ISIS execution"

Convert who exactly to Christianity? In 1400 there really wasn't any territory accessible to the Europeans and not held by powerful rulers who could easily dispatch a band of mercenaries that hadn't already been Christianized.

Presumably if one were in a position to teach anyone in 1400 anything with a view to doing some good, it ought to be some very rudimentary microbiology.

Sticking more closely to the constraints in the question, maybe a 1400 effective altruist ought to fund scientists, who were fumbling pretty close to some breakthroughs by this time.

Of course people in 1400 may not have thought this the best use of their money, but it's hard to imagine that they didn't see the prevention of disease as one of the top 3 issues facing the world.

The abortion argument from the left, in which people born today to poverty or mothers who don't care much for them are better off having never existed, clearly the altruist from 1400 should do whatever is necessary to prevent the creation of more people.

Typical of the shameless Lancastrian bias we have come to expect from this blog.

If you view the Italian humanists as the effective altruists of the day, they want to travel around in a bunch of old monasteries, find some manuscripts that have never seen the light of day in centuries, and copy them, which proves to be a really good technique and quite cost effective.

The political leaders with any sense of geopolitics want to stop the Ottomans, which is going to be a challenge no matter how much money you throw at it, especially since the Catholic forces aren't directly allied with the Byzantines. However, in our history the exodus of scholars from the fall of Constantinople speeds up the humanist project, so a deeper engagement with Constantinople while its libraries are intact might be very fruitful.

The whole question is an absurd retrojection of empiricism into a world that did not believe in it.

Nevertheless, Kurlansky has a simple answer: do is what the Basques did. Invest in the production of Salt and development of Sea Worthy Boats. Those underpinned the cod fishery, which ultimately provided plenty of good food for the continent.

Stop Tamerlane, and the massacre of Damascus. Keep the Mamluks in charge and the Middle East becomes one normal, large country 500 years later.

The Middle East *was* one normal, large country 500 years later, although perhaps not as normal or large as in 1800. It didn't seem to do them much good.

The obvious thing would be to invest in green energy but, hey, the country was already humming along on water wheels and wind mills.

So instead I'd create X Prizes for things related to agriculture and basic tech involving tools and weaponry.

Ha. Yes, precisely.

What did Zhou Enlai say? And why hasn't there been a proper biography of him.

He didn't really say it:


The interstate competition hypothesis is compelling. So endow small sovereign princes near the Rhine.

Doesn't Tyler miss the point? Talking about altruism in 1400 is absurd. What is needed is not altruism, what is needed is science, and capitalism, and everything that is modern. Altruism doesn't get you that.

Now, how does that compare to today? Has our society evolved to the point where science and capitalism are at an end point, and we should just redistribute what is existing, which is all that altruism is?

The question posed was: what would a person in 1400 think was the best use of a charitable contribution and what in fact would have been the best use.

The person in 1400 who wanted to be altruistic (as opposed to buying his way into heaven) would probably just have fed the beggars in the street.

The actual best use of the money would depend on what the giver's discount rate was. Assume a discount rate below 10% and the best use would probably have been to send scholars to the Arab world to learn and bring back what knowledge they could. After that, spend the money on scientific research (indeed, even in today's world, it may well be that the best use we could make of incremental altruism is to pour the money into science and technology.)

Or fund a canal.


The biggest looming disaster in 1400 were the mass epidemics that would kill many millions in the Americas. But it doesn't appear that there was anything feasible that could have been done about in 1400, even with a 100-year head start.

Maybe disrupting the ocean exploration business would have been a good thing to do, although of course nobody of the time would have thought so. The later the Europeans find the Americas and Australia, the better (perhaps?). I'm not sure what the prospects for disrupting ocean exploration would have been. Use your money to get the ear of the monarchs of Spain, Portugal, France, England etc?

1400 ? Read Francois Villon, then (or maybe a modern translation). During the hundred years war, he ate (fat, delicious) monks, steal charity money, evade justice and write poetry (which you might call lessons in power & economics) to avoid being hanged.

He ate monks to avoid being hanged? WTF?

become a mercenary. you aren't starting extra wars, you're just profiting off them. Use the profits to establish a mercenary freehold with open borders.

the value created when a superior mercenary disrupts and innovates is immense.

It is somewhat after the targeted time period but Jakob Fugger was a pretty effective altruist.

Found a grammar school; endow a college.

Smart people in 1400 would have probably invested it in universities. As for what they should have done? Probably invest in universities. Effective altruism presupposes a community of empirical, rationally-minded people, so that would need to be step one.

I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it would not involve, say, donating the money to poorer countries. If you pose the question for a person in the Middle East, they should probably move to Europe. The industrial revolution would take whatever they did and extend its influence into the future, but stuff done elsewhere would matter much less. Actually I think in 1400 it might be hard to say whether Britain or China was the more promising country, if someone knew about both. Anyway, you want to pick a promising country.

BTW. A somewhat related issue. It's been stated


that the arts are often wasteful from an EA standpoint. Yes, it's true that if we weren't reading, say, Chaucer, we'd be reading someone else who might be almost as good. But I think this neglects that works of art are potentially permanent. Ideas are the most durable things we make. So if you can write a masterpiece that improves even a little over others, it could have a large effect over ages.

"Yes, it’s true that if we weren’t reading, say, Chaucer, we’d be reading someone else who might be almost as good. But I think this neglects that works of art are potentially permanent. Ideas are the most durable things we make. So if you can write a masterpiece that improves even a little over others, it could have a large effect over ages."

I think this mistakes gwern's chief point there: *because* ideas are so durable, a long, long time ago we had created enough permanent cultural works that we didn't 'need' any more of them. Any new cultural work's purpose is to *displace* previous cultural works. So art needs to be justified on the basis of churn, not permanence. Chaucer isn't connecting with the modern kids, we need Rowling--and we'll need a new Rowling in another generation.

If art has real value, then doesn't less art now shortchange the future? Kafka was not recognized as great until after he died. Would he have wrote if we had taxed him? I think maybe this is not about old v. new works. Rather, the issue is whether we think of art as, on the margin, having inherent value, and in some cases long-term value, or whether it doesn't (as gwern seems to say in his section "Lost Works"). Maybe it's a zero-sum game of the leisured to show off sophistication

Let's try a different picture. Suppose folks are irrationally drawn to new works. They want 80% new works and 20% old works, but it really ought to be 50-50. Then we produce too many new works for them, but folks in the future have an expanded supply of works, so classics in the future are of somewhat higher quality. Perhaps trading off our 80-50=30% for increased quality in the future's old works could be bad because their population might plausibly be enormously greater

Start a manufacturing business making machines and machine tools.

Any European thinking about altruism would likely have donated the money to local monasteries who were the major system of providing economic safety net to the poor. Plus the monks could pray for the souls of everyone so that God lets them into heaven. Go elsewhere in the world, and people are likely to pick an equivalent religious-charitable institution for their culture.

Any form of altruism in any society in any age is likely to be the same - who are the poor and how can we help them right now with existing charitable institutions.

One major impediment to improving the mass lives of people is that everyone believes in some variant that "the poor will always be with us". Any kind of purposeful building up of the poor into a contemporary version of the middle class won't happen.

Personally, I would do a pilot program to build effective sanitation system for public infrastructure and hospitals. Removing sewage and trash; keeping the drinking water supply separate from waste; and introducing the washing of hands and disinfecting medical equipment will improve mortality rates tremendously and reduce disease. This can be accomplished with the existing technology and institutions of the time. It also improves everyone's welfare in that area; it's benefits are not limited to only helping the rich initially. Henry IV can make London a test case. Once people see it works, it can spread to the other cities of England, and eventually the rest of Europe. The main problem is going to be using the tax base to fund such things, but a lot of self-governing cities can likely manage it.

Yeah, I was thinking public sanitation, but wasn't sure how realistic it might have been.

In China they did probably the most empirically sound things given their knowledge of the day. They built up the infrastructure that made sanitation and rice production better, which allowed people to be cleaner and better fed. However, eventually this just meant people had more children and you ended up right back up against the Malthusian edge. In fact this increased the amount of people's diet that was carbs rather then meat and had bad health effects. Also, the excess labor meant that that labor saving devices were less useful.

And while China had what it took to engage in the age of exploration, most of the practical effective altruist technocrats of the day found all that stuff a waste of resources. Why explore when there are canals to be dug at home. Be practical.

So basically, they did all the sound technocrat things of the day based on the best empirical evidence and logical conclusions available to them...and it meant they missed out on the industrial revolution.

And in Europe if you believe Gregory Clark poor children dying en masse raised the IQ, low time preference, and entrepreneurial spirit of NW Europe so we got the industrial revolution. So maybe stopping Christian charities from feeding the poor would be the most effective altruist thing. Or maybe Christian social work and cultural influence was critical to achieving the unique conditions necessary for the industrial revolution, so you should fund Christian charities.

So basically its all bull crap. We don't have much clue how anything will work out in the long run. Like most people you should just follow your natural intuitions and be nice to your neighbors (hint, not strangers on another continent).

And here it is folks effective altruism is synonymous with an abortion state.

I think the consensus view is that access to coal (and peat) in a trading nation (facilitated by imperial adventure) basically caused England to industrialize first. The coal was needed for energy inputs, and untaxed access to foreign markets (thanks to empire/colonization) provided a market for increasingly industrial production.

Living in 1400, you would not have ( as we do) the benefit of hindsight. You would have no knowledge of the scientific method, would not know that the Industrial revolution is coming centuries hence or that the plague could be defeated or that sanitation is important, so most likely you would have focused on helping the innumerable poor around you, since this is also a Christian teaching. One thing you might have noted in 1400 is that trade is beneficial at increasing wealth, spreading new ideas and promoting good will between nations so you might have promoted removing barriers to trade.

Send troops to Byzantium, immediately. It had less than a century to left.

Invest in math research.

Damn Wiki throwing some serious shade on Alan of Lynn: "Alan of Lynn was a most laborious writer, and left a multitude of books that were the fruits of his pen; but they seem to have been more remarkable for their number, than for any interest they are at present calculated to excite on the part of lay readers."

Animal welfare. To date, the most altruistic efforts people can engage in.

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