80,000 Hours Podcast

#42 - Amanda Askell on moral empathy, the value of information & the ethics of infinity

80,000 Hours Podcast

Consider two familiar moments at a family reunion.

 Our host, Uncle Bill, takes pride in his barbecuing skills. But his niece Becky says that she now refuses to eat meat. A groan goes round the table; the family mostly think of this as an annoying picky preference. But if seriously considered as a moral position, as they might if instead Becky were avoiding meat on religious grounds, it would usually receive a very different reaction.

 An hour later Bill expresses a strong objection to abortion. Again, a groan goes round the table; the family mostly think that he has no business in trying to foist his regressive preference on anyone. But if considered not as a matter of personal taste, but rather as a moral position - that Bill genuinely believes he’s opposing mass-murder - his comment might start a serious conversation.

 Amanda Askell, who recently completed a PhD in philosophy at NYU focused on the ethics of infinity, thinks that we often betray a complete lack of moral empathy. All sides of the political spectrum struggle to get inside the mind of people we disagree with and see issues from their point of view.

 Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

This often happens because of confusion between preferences and moral positions.

Assuming good faith on the part of the person you disagree with, and actually engaging with the beliefs they claim to hold, is perhaps the best remedy for our inability to make progress on controversial issues.

One potential path for progress surrounds contraception; a lot of people who are anti-abortion are also anti-contraception. But they’ll usually think that abortion is much worse than contraception, so why can’t we compromise and agree to have much more contraception available?

According to Amanda, a charitable explanation for this is that people who are anti-abortion and anti-contraception engage in moral reasoning and advocacy based on what, in their minds, is the best of all possible worlds: one where people neither use contraception nor get abortions.

So instead of arguing about abortion and contraception, we could discuss the underlying principle that one should advocate for the best possible world, rather than the best probable world.

Successfully break down such ethical beliefs, absent political toxicity, and it might be possible to actually converge on a key point of agreement.

Today’s episode blends such everyday topics with in-depth philosophy, including:

* What is 'moral cluelessness' and how can we work around it?
* Amanda's biggest criticisms of social justice activists, and of critics of social justice activists
* Is there an ethical difference between prison and corporal punishment?
* How to resolve 'infinitarian paralysis' - the inability to make decisions when infinities are involved.
* What’s effective altruism doing wrong?
* How should we think about jargon? Are a lot of people who don’t communicate clearly just scamming us?
* How can people be more successful within the cocoon of school and university?
* How did Amanda find doing a philosophy PhD, and how will she decide what to do now?

* Career review: Congressional staffer
* Randomised experiment on quitting
* Psychology replication quiz
* Should you focus on your comparative advantage.

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The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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