Image by Sean Gladwell
Artillery Row Books

Effective affinities

Moral philosophy, the individual and the future

You hear a lot of talk these days about the anatomy of “the Blob” — how much of what is ambiguously called “civil society” in Britain is really a kind of stage magic, where civil servants fund left-wing charities and pretend the feedback is organic. There is another ideological tribe, with great and growing influence in Whitehall, that has hitherto escaped scrutiny of its own methods of institutional capture, however. Rishi Sunak’s decision that Britain shall become a regulatory superpower in AI, rather than reap the massive rewards of free speech in large learning models, is almost certainly inspired by its sections of Tufton Street. You can bet that when this AI regulator sets sail you will see its members in well-remunerated posts. The right-wing has its own “Blob” which, like the Left’s, exists to make moral arguments seem like empirical ones.

We can think of the Left’s “Blob” as the Low Church Wing of Wokeness: bigoted, provincial, zealous and popular. Its heartlands are the rain drenched ex-polytechnics, popular literature and the descendants of the music hall. Every so often a pogrom is organised for their entertainment. Otherwise, these people don’t really impact our lives. The point of a low church is that it exists to coerce the undereducated by verbal intimidation and low theatrics.

What We Owe the Future, William MacAskill, Oneworld Publications, £9.99

Nobody intelligent is going to be tricked into paying 51 per cent tax by the likes of Judith Butler. In order to have a modern civilisation, you must cultivate people who understand rockets, advanced computers, sat nav, scuba diving and fitted kitchens. These people will be deeply serious, reflective and highly conscious individuals. For them, you need kid gloves: all the smooth, elegant, sophistical cunning of aristocratic faith. “Effective Altruism” is the high church of our civil religion. It is the dry, seemingly unsentimental, sparsely populated but influential catechism of elite education, think tanks, transnational charities and the civil service.

How the “moral” was put back into “philosophy” is almost as disheartening a story of social regression as how the “coke” got taken out of “coca-cola”’. In 1895, Henry Sidgwick, the foremost English utilitarian, announced that it was rationally impossible to convince anyone holding an egoistic philosophy to act altruistically without belief in God. Pack it in. Shows over. Case closed. G.E. Moore briefly tried to resurrect the study of ethics with something called “intuitionism”, but absolutely nobody took it seriously.

By the time A.Je Ayer declared all ethical language to be nonsensical, he was simply expressing a well-worn fact of life. Britain’s two universities were in an odd position in the postwar world of being islands of rationalism in an explicitly moral international order. No matter how hard they tried, how fitful their paroxysms, the dons simply couldn’t bamboozle themselves into believing morality was real. They tried paying someone called R.M. Hare to have a crack at it, but it went much the same way as intuitionism. It is no surprise, then, that the task of making the British universities safe for democracy fell to someone outside the discipline of philosophy. Derek Parfit was a historian by training who also confessed to not knowing what the “=” sign meant, on seeing it in a book of symbolic notation. He often forgot what his wife looked like.

If you think “individualism” is the root of all problems today, you’ll stand in total agreement with the court philosopher of global managerial neoliberalism. Parfit’s Reasons and Persons says that the individual is a myth. Cadging from Hume, he says that humans are really an aggregate of disparate conscious experiences. When a selfish person makes decisions designed to maximise their future benefit, they are in fact acting altruistically, in the interests of another person: all that actually matters is the disembodied, floating state of conscious pleasure. Once this is admitted, maximising this pleasure, without regard for individuals, becomes rational. You cannot have egoism without the ego. 10 points to Gryffindor. Perhaps this is why the postliberal right has been so impotent in producing a critique of neoliberalism; endless railing against “GDP line go up” is pointless because the neolibs don’t care about GDP either. A decade of more or less nonexistent border controls has not made Britain any richer. If you think “liberals” are in charge of Britain, this makes no sense. It does make sense if you accept the “liberals” are, in fact, esoteric communitarians subordinating politics to their vision of “the common good” of maximising global welfare.

Today, if you want to do a Philosophy MPhil at Oxford, you may choose between either “the Philosophy of Physics”, “Ancient Philosophy” or “Applied Ethics”. Those thinkers who adopted a sceptical attitude to collectivist ethics may only be studied as part of the “History of Political Thought” in the History tripos. The implication of this curriculum is that Ethics is now a settled matter, and everyone else can be banished to antiquarian interest. It is only the most visible evidence of how Parfit’s disciples have attained institutional hegemony — the winged monkeys flew out to establish an entire network of foundations to ensure Parfit’s is the default moral language of public debate. Some of these, like Effective Altruism, which focuses on helping people who want to help others make better choices, are entirely benign. The most visible of these efforts have been in Artificial Intelligence, where Parftians such as Nick Bostrom have helped shape the assumptions behind what “ethical” AI would look like.

The abolition of slavery completely lacked secular benefit to British taxpayers

William MacAskill is the current doyen of the Parfitist International, having studied under the man himself at Oxford. His book, What We Owe to the Future, had a great impact (which is to say, I saw it advertised on the Tube). It can be considered the current most up to date statement of Parfitian beliefs and priorities. Like most Parfitian literature, it takes the existence of moral norms for granted and details how we should best follow them. MacAskill’s specific contribution is to argue that the long term, that is to say the things likely to impact the greatest number of sentient generations, is the most important (or at least undervalued) moral good today. The book is well written, being easy to read but uncondescending.

The most interesting section of the book was MacAskill’s argument against historical determinism and appeal to contingency. He points out how completely lacking in secular benefit the abolition of slavery was to British taxpayers: there was no real economic argument for its obsolescence; agriculture in the South remained unmechanical until the early 20th century. The decision to free the slaves was only rational according to the specific religious beliefs of a small but highly influential group of Quakers. Another insight which deserves more attention and praise is MacAskill’s critique of the idea that Darwinian selection can be applied to states or moral systems: the selection pressures operating on both are simply not strong enough to push them in an evolutionary direction. The decisions made by individuals can and have had a demonstrable impact on history. In changing moral attitudes, it is amongst the most important factors.

MacAskill’s other main point in the book is that, in our own time, moral choice is especially important. We stand at the genesis of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Synthetic Biology, which simultaneously allow us to “lock in” certain values, whilst also increasing our chances of extinction. MacAskill is careful to avoid dogmatism; he gives a lot of leeway to what he calls “moral uncertainty”. We maybe, despite the labours of Derek, have not worked out the whole ethics business and should avoid settling our current ethical orthodoxy in case it is wrong. Yet there is a limit to how far he will take this concession. MacAskill entertains something similar to Mencius Moldbug’s Patchwork and Scott Alexander’s Archipelago where, through a mechanism like charter cities, different proponents of different moral systems will set up their own autonomous communities in order to test them out. Inevitably, this entails locking in a meta-system of compulsory values: Marxists, for example, see politics as epiphenomenal to an global economic system from which no singular part can be isolated. A variety of groups, like religious fundamentalists and ethnic nationalists, would want to exclude others from their own communities. It is not clear if MacAskill has an argument for why, provided they are peaceful, they shouldn’t be allowed to do this.

Various “threats” are presented, which we should counter if we are to be serious about the welfare of future generations. There’s the usual consideration of AI, climate change and nuclear war. Where MacAskill is unusual is that he devotes a chapter to “stagnation” as a threat in itself. It is not clear if this is wholly consistent with orthodox Parfitism — which, in the much lamented but never disproven “Repugnant Conclusion”, would endorse a stable state of mediocrity over amoral innovation. Stagnation, from our current point of view, seems like the most pertinent threat to Christendom today. No matter how many times people are told that they are living in an unprecedented time of technological growth, or read Steven Pinker books congratulating them on outfoxing syphilis, they just can’t seem to be persuaded that they are actually happy. We can offer only vibes-based intuitions into why this might be. People feel, deep down, that whatever advances happen in the future will somehow only benefit people other than themselves. They feel that every plan, announced by world authorities, somehow adds up to diminish their freedom. They see Epstein’s island, the bailout of the banks and “two weeks to stop the spread”. Even if the causes are eminently sensible and just, reason dictates that you should be suspicious. Something like “trust in politics” seems far too Nick Cleggish to describe the sweltering anomie felt by growing swathes of people towards their rulers.

New technologies carry an innate tendency to destabilise collective structures

MacAskill reminds us that significant progress has been made in two fields: Artificial Intelligence and Synthetic Biology. Why is it that neither seems to inspire the culture with collective hope in the way that past innovation did? In Stefan J. Link’s book on 20th century Fordism, it is described how the basic pattern of industrial society, even as it destroyed many professions, was to increase the output of low-skilled people and so subsidise quantity over quality with productivity gains. For the first time, investments in the happiness of the average person would bring rewards to the ruling elite. The bargain underwriting modernity is that the rifleman agrees to conscription in exchange for a vote. For a brief period from about 1760 to 1960, it was in the interest of ruling classes, even if they were entirely cynical, to ensure the people they ruled over were healthier and happier than others. The most merciless dictator wants to rule the world. That means he needs modern technology. That means he needs workers; those workers have to be educated to a standard higher than their parents, and they need to have children to serve in his armies who must therefore survive into adulthood. So it happened that even the cruellest and dumbest 20th century regimes typically ended up raising the standard of living slightly higher than what came before.

In his book, MacAskill illustrates this with an example: constructing a nuclear bomb is a mass engineering project that requires not just scientific knowledge but the participation of thousands of workers, the extraction of huge amounts of raw materials, and attendant infrastructure projects like hydroelectric dams. By contrast, the recipe for producing smallpox in a lab can be downloaded from the internet and probably accomplished by a small team of twenty people. It is inherently difficult for a non-state actor to build a nuclear bomb and doing so contains few rewards. (What, ultimately, is Blofeld going to do with a nuclear bomb? Okay, you can flatten London — what then?) It is basically pointless unless you are, specifically, a government waging war.

The new technologies of today are not simply value-neutral; they seem to carry a slight, innate tendency to destabilise collective structures. They do not, inherently, require the participation of large numbers of people, so states which can mobilise such participation have no advantage in controlling them. It does not mean there aren’t applications for, say, AI in healthcare, where it would benefit the average person. AI is not like the Model-T Ford or Stephenson’s Rocket, however: you do not need large numbers of people to make use of it. What is Blofeld going to do with a Model-T Ford? He needs someone to build it, who will need a home, a school et cetera. We are reaching the point, however, where without leaving your volcano, you can command your own drone army with Palantir software, synthesise your own food supply and ask ChatGPT to build you a small nuclear reactor. The rest of humanity doesn’t really enter the picture.

Will our own civilisation be undone by this? Will we become sovereign individuals who have forged a grey area independent of markets and states, willfully sabotaging mass society for vague ideological conviction or shits and giggles? If it will, I think the anti-collectivist variables built into these technologies means that trying to stop it through “regulation” is fruitless. Nobody needed to “regulate” the Model-T Ford because it could not exist outside a state-managed context. Independent, non state actors will always be able to exploit the technologies better than states without the cost. Predicting what the world will look like in this case is beyond the competence of a lowly commentator. One thing we can take from this scenario, on the other hand, is that in a world where a smaller number of individuals exercise morally important choices, it is doubtful how much help a moral philosophy that preaches the nonexistence of the self can be.

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