I’ve often heard people dismiss my dear friend and colleague Robin Hanson for his “Aspergers,” his blindness to the way that most human beings feel and think.  They’re not entirely wrong, but Robin’s latest post, a review of a Peter Singer review, shows how psychologically perceptive and grounded Robin can be.


The idea that utilitarianism leads to extremely demanding obligations to
help those in great need was counter-intuitive in the affluent world,
but is not in the broken world. So too was the view that it would be
wrong for a sheriff to hang one innocent person if that is the only way
to save several innocent people from being killed by rioters. … Those
same utilitarians who said that we have extremely demanding obligations
to the poor could also have pointed out that we have extremely demanding
obligations to those who will exist in future.


I find the above pretty laughable as futurism. As described in this
review, this book presents the morality and politics of future folk as
overwhelmingly focused on what their ancestors (us) should have been
doing for them, namely lots more.

But we have known lots of poor cultures around the world and through
history, and their morality and politics has almost never focused on
complaining that their ancestors did too little to help them. Most
politics and morality has instead been focused on how people alive who
interact often should treat each other. Which makes a lot of functional

Wars have consistently caused vast destruction of resources could
have gone to building roads, cities, canals, irrigation, etc. And most
ancestors severely neglected innovation. Most everywhere in the globe,
had ancestors prevented more wars and encouraged more innovation, their
descendants would be richer. But almost no one complains about that
today. Most discussion today of ancestors celebrates relative wins that
suggest some of us are better than others of us, and to lament our
ancestors’ backwardness, so we can feel superior by comparison.

The morality of our non-affluent descendants will likely also focus
mostly on how they should treat each other, not on how we treated them.
To the extent that they talk about us at all, they’ll mostly mention
wins that suggest that some of them are better than others of them, and
ways in which we seem backward, making them seem forward by comparison.
And morality will probably return to be more like that of traditional
farmers, relative to that we rich forager-feeling industrialists of

Rule of thumb: While Robin is occasionally led astray by an elegant theory, he is a keen observer of human nature whenever he specifically focuses on the question, “Yes, but what would flesh and blood humans actually do?”