*The Economist* covers *Stubborn Attachments*

Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not. But in a new book, “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals”, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the moral status of human lives ought not to be traded off over time in the same way that a bond portfolio might be. He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.

Here is the full article, on Twitter attributed to Ryan Avent.


>Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.

Tyler Cowen: pro-lifer. How about that.

Said another way, think of the insanely high discount rate you are applying to support abortion. Feels like eugenics to me.

You can be a pro Natalist and still believe that banning abortion would significantly hurt women’s place in the workforce.

I’m not completely sold, but perhaps some women who get pregnant early and need abortions would grow up to have stellar careers that outweigh the potential fetiis lives.

I’m not sure if the extra money and social equality, and therefore higher standard of living, does outweigh the raw benefits of a larger population.

Profit-maximization for the overlords occurs where white women abort, have long careers, pay taxes, die childless, and let the browns do the breeding. So far, the plan is coming along nicely.

Yes, well, your complaining makes it all the sweeter.

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"... hurt women's place in the workforce ..."

Because, of course, work and the workforce is everything - nothing else matters.

Always entertaining to read discussions of abortion that are exclusively male.

And one of the reasons that increasing numbers of women vote for candidates that are not male, regardless of the candidate's party.

I would be absolutely amazed if you had a shred of evidence to back this assertion up.

More likely, you'll either ignore this comment or pretend that you wrote something else and wire a long winded reply defending your invented position.

If my prior for the discount rate is a Cauchy distribution with a location parameter of 5% and a scale parameter of 5%, then what is the correct way to behave right now? Does my (very wide) uncertainty about the true discount rate need to inform my behavior, or should I just be concerned about the average discount rate of my prior?

Alas, without a crystal ball (the ability to predict how many contingent future lives will be saved), population utilitarianism is incoherent: https://priorprobability.com/2018/12/04/our-critique-of-stubborn-attachments/

This prior implies a 25% probability that the discount rate is negative, i.e. that moral stakes increase over time. This is a prior that says maybe the future doesn't matter at all, but maybe it matters an overwhelming amount.

My instinct in cases of 'normative uncertainty' is to want to maximize expected value by integrating over priors (though I understand there are some philosophical questions here, Will MacAskill wrote a PhD thesis on this, available online). If you take this approach, your Cauchy(0.05, 0.05) prior will imply that you should take the future extremely seriously, like Cowen. This result would hold even if you decided to truncate the pdf at 0 (i.e. if you are sure that the correct discount rate is not negative, but allow a 25% chance that it is zero).

The future comes to dominate under a wide range of priors. This is because the payoffs are asymmetric - if the future matters, it potentially matters a lot, because perhaps that is when most people will live.

"Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own."

Doesn't seem a trustworthy guide to threat assessment somehow . . .

In that last sentence does the word "should" possess any moral force, the way it seems to've been intended? The word seems to occur with the force of recommendation to it but with little else.

When a recommendation to care for future lives is offered in an era in which birth control, abortion, and infanticide are still practiced and when the prospect for a genetically-contrived future already makes bioengineers salivate--of what might the value of this recommendation consist?

In our modern era--at least for as long as The Economist has been around--most of us have been obliged to swing from decade to decade, century to century, on the vines of the ad hoc moralities we are left with following the demise of traditional religions and the civil religions derived therefrom.

In days not even possessed of any prevailing etiquette or code of manners (much less enforceable laws): how highly can we or do we dare value our ad hoc moralities? do our ad hoc moralities deserve so much credit these days?

Arguably, our ad hoc moralities serve our futures at least as poorly as they serve our contemporaneity. (Sigh alas alack for our poor shivering posterity!)

Oh yes, the ubiquitous "should". Well, you know, ethical statements have no meaning, and so can be replaced with a new exclamation point! !!!
Having said that, the people living 100 years from now will be richer, better fed, healthier, and smarter than us. Our sacrifices will seem quaint.

Only if we build that wall! Without it 100 years from now people will be poorer, dumber, and browner than us.


Since our lives now generate the lives a century since, this would argue for an even larger discount rate (letting more die now may result in fewer people living then).

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"He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own."

Idiocracy the movie has become cliché, but it is revealing in this case. Hypothetically, what if future generations are - in fact - objectively less valuable than those alive today, whereby one average joe from 500 years ago can outperform and them in every aspect of living, thinking and doing. I'm pretty sure you could make an ethical argument that saving today's average joe is more important than preserving Clevon's ability (in the movie his junk) to spread his seed far and wide creating children and descendants of infinitely reduced utility.

In my opinion, 132 sub-divisions of me that are less capable than me, with less quality of life, less control of their outcomes, and less utility to others is not more valuable. Quantity is not a quality all its own.

I am also reviewing Stubborn Attachments for Advisor Perspectives, and the problem with the Economist's assessment is that they only consider one variable, climate. There are other problems to be solved and only so many resources to go around, so we face a multivariate problem in resource allocation under conditions of profound uncertainty. It would be ironic, and tragic, if we focused all of our attention on climate and later found out that there is a worse problem we could have avoided by acting differently. It is also not clear that the remedies now considered mandatory for climate remediation will "work." So, even if one accepts "deep concern about the distant future" as a moral imperative, translating that to a plan of action is very difficult.

I had the same reaction to the Economist article.

Discussions about climate and the environment in Stubborn Attachments were neatly tucked into the "+" portion of "Wealth+". They were not the main thrust of Stubborn Attachments, and ignoring its growth-centric message misses the whole point.

All kinds of people say we need to say we need to stop climate change "for the sake of future generations." Not as many people say we need to maximize economic growth for the sake of future generations - and this is what makes the book so refreshing in 2018.

Yes, and persuing current "suggested" remedies for catastrophic anthropogenic global warming may not be effective, and so investing in them now may significantly reduce future economic growth. Now this is not my opinion - I am just putting it out there on behalf of my neighbor without an internet connection.

I believe in global warming, the father, and the sun, and the holy spirit.

I am not a denier.

May they burn in hell for all eternity for their polluting sins.

“Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future?”
What a great question!
It sure give us all usually grandstanding on these things, for instance myself defending my grandchildren, food for thoughts… what about my grandchildren’s grandchildren?

I have many doubts that this is the correct reasoning. You cannot cardinalize utility scales, much less the relative “value” of people. Moreover, you cannot stipulate contracts or having obligations with non-existing people, therefore “the current generation” does not have a responsibility of not screwing up the planet because of a duty toward future generations. In other words, the economic value of future people is zero, if those who judge are they.

But “the current generation” is not an agent, it is just an expression indicating a group of agent, and an enormous one at that.

Assuming climate change is real, contributing to it, as far as at least one subject considers herself worse off because of the change, should be considered trespassing and as such is an aggression. Therefore should be prohibited. Also, existing people may give value to “future generations”, because, for example, they wish to have descendants. Given that there are 7 billions of individuals in the Earth, the probability that there is at least 1 person perceiving to be negatively affected by climate change is very much 1, therefore climate change should be blocked inmediately, from an ethical perspective. Or, at the very least, a system of compensation should be devised. Note, an individual based system of compensation, not a country-based.

Of course, the unknowledgeability of damages, the complexity of calculating, and the potential of abuse of such a system makes it absolutely impossible to implement.

As a libertarian, therefore, even if I feel very bad for it because I see the ethical issue, I am against intervention because I am sure in reality “the solution” would be worse than the problem.

There are very few tragedies of the commons that cannot be solved simply privatizing the commons. This is the most important example. Another could be the orbits, currently under threats because of stupid military experiments.

My hope is that the skeptics are right, otherwise this would be the only very significant crack on that beautiful ethical construction that is individual anarchism, to which I subscribe.

TC stance about China makes me wonder whether he is serious or not about the crusomnian technology....

"Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own." Being human beings, Economists are not capable of doing so without unintended consequences running amok.

Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.

Why does life have no future discount, yet money does?

Both are unsure (money may revalue or goods may change value - lives may not even happen). Lives ought to be discounted as money is, if not necessarily at the same rates.

(Equally, we know relatively little about what the "future life cost" of any action is, at least in the near-ish term.)

If there is literally no discount over time for life values, I guess this means we have a moral duty to use no resources at all beyond minimal survival, and to do every possible thing to expand the potential of the Earth to carry human lives?

Because that's the effect of "possible future lives are of the same moral weight as actual present ones" - a duty to maximize future life count and duration, even thinking ahead a billion years.

(Or ... does it mean a duty to maximize space exploration and colonization even if it restricts lives on Earth, to make the net larger?

This is why future value is and must be always discounted - because thinking even ten thousand years ahead is a morass, and trying to do a billion is beyond calculation.

"Future lives have equal value to present ones" seems worse than merely not helpful.)

Future cash flows aren't discounted because of uncertainty, but because of foregone interest (right? not an economist).

You're certainly right that it's quite difficult to know what the 'future life cost' of any given action is - in most cases, we will have no idea. Tyler argues that promoting economic growth is an exception, and will somewhat reliably improve the long-term future. Others argue that reducing 'catastrophic risks' like nuclear war might qualify. Regardless, we should keep the moral issue of whether discounting is appropriate (probably not, imo) separate from the (much harder) practical/epistemic question of what to do about it.

Translation: Please treat the utility of non-reciprocators as equal to your own. Ignore both incentives and reciprocity. Oh yeah, and don't mention the future victims caused by this either, we'll conveniently pretend those won't exist.


Frank Ramsey: 1925 "My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as three-penny bits. I don’t believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; by that is still a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing."

"Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own."
This zero discounting recommendation would imply that we should reproduce much more than we want. If we each have, say, three children instead of two, just think of how much future utility we would create.

I clicked through briefly, just to see if Lord Rothschild's paper gave the expected deference to his globalist cheerleader. Mmmm...yep.

Give us global economic control, plebes! We'll totally save the world, and if not, our yachts will float whatever the sea level.

We have no moral duty to future generations since our immoral actions now will cause a different set of people to be born in the future.

See the Non-Identity Problem thought experiment by Derek Parfit.

I cannot remember if links are allowed in comments. So I will post a useful link to a YouTube video on this topic in a post below.

The odd thing is Tyler is very familiar with Parfit so maybe I will need to read Stubborn Attachments to discover what his arm-waving Tyler does to convince himself the answer is so obvious

Somewhat accepting of the Repugnant Conclusion while arguing for sustainable economic growth. Tyler, you might make a good Catholic.

'He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future?'

And I had wondered how Prof. Cowen would top his proposal to build favelas in America. Assuming that is a fair summation, of course, he has managed to somehow measure lives in a way that is meaningless, yet seems to avoid any road bumps on taking those small steps towards a much better world.

Though it is amusing to imagine just how worthless lives were in the past, using Prof. Cowen's seemingly preferred yardstick.

Sorry for being late to the dance, but per the Ramsey formula ρt = δ + η·gt, it is possible to give full weight to the well-being of future generations (δ = 0) and still come out with a significant discount rate (ρ) based on the expected rate of growth (g) and the elasticity of the marginal utility of with respect to consumption (η), which is also a measure of intertemporal inequality aversion. If you add terms for uncertainty you get a declining discount rate over a long time horizon, but the basic point is that discounting does not imply that a human life today is worth more than a human life in the future.

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