What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies 2020-10-11T03:38:57.632Z · score: 78 (36 votes)


Comment by mauricio on What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies · 2020-10-21T11:50:45.714Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks a lot for your thoughtful critique!

I wasn’t quite sure how this followed from the historical evidence that you examine, but I thought it was a cool argument... If we care about, say, maximising the chances that factory farming ends, rather than helping animals as much as possible within the next 10 (or 100) years, then we might be able to effectively trade immediacy for increased radicalism (or durability or some other key priority).

I'd argue that the historical evidence I looked at provides some support for this, although it's not very decisive evidence. Abolitionists sometimes (e.g. in New England colonies) succeeded in passing bills that would abolish slavery after a long time, e.g. bills that didn't free any slaves but did ban the enslavement of slaves' future children. That said, I tentatively buy the argument mostly on theoretical grounds (it seems that people who don't care much about the long-term future would be more willing to trade away long-term influence for immediate benefits).


I'd summarize your main concern in the following way--please let me know if I've misunderstood:

The report looks at different kinds of case studies: ally-based movements, self-advocacy movements, and movements that accidentally benefited excluded groups. However, for people interested in assessing the prospects of today's ally-based movements, case studies of ally-based movements are much more relevant than case studies of other kinds of movements. Democratization was not an ally-based movement, while genetic engineering governance and environmentalism were not movements of people who intended to benefit future generations. So those case studies say little about how successful ally-based movements tend to be.

(edit: removed block quote format; didn't mean to imply this was a quote)

I mostly agree with this. However, it's not clear to me how

this critique of the methodology... directly bears on one of the main arguments you advance in this research: "inclusive values" were not that important in driving change, which suggests that further MCE is not as likely as a simple extrapolation from the trend towards expanded moral circles in the past few centuries might imply.

This is how I'd summarize my argument, which you mention:

Over the past few centuries, some global policy changes have greatly benefited an expanding range of excluded groups. Simple extrapolation from this trend suggests that, in the future, policy changes will majorly benefit additional groups that remain excluded. However, several case studies of such policy changes suggest that (as you point out) much of this historical trend did not result from ally-based advocacy. So, for groups that depend on allies, further major policy benefits are not as likely as simple extrapolation from this trend would suggest.

(I'm focusing on beneficial outcomes, rather than MCE, because the former focus seems to more closely track what we care about.)

If you're optimistic about today's ally-based movements because of historical successes of ally-based movements, then I agree that the argument I make shouldn't diminish your optimism by much. Such optimism seems like legitimate, relatively fine-grained extrapolation (especially if these historical successes happened in the face of major, economically motivated opposition). 

The kind of extrapolation I'm arguing against is (as you suggest) simpler extrapolation: assuming that policy change which has greatly benefited excluded groups has generally happened in ways that are very relevant for the future of totally voiceless groups. 

Your focus on ally-based movements makes me think that you weren't practicing this simple extrapolation. Still, before this research, I think I was doing that (more in an intuitive way than in a way I explicitly endorsed), and conversations as well as books like The Expanding Circle and parts of The Better Angels of Our Nature make me think that this excessive idealism about the historical importance of inclusive values/ethical reasoning is fairly common in (as well as out of) EA circles. 

Selecting case studies with the broad criteria of "global policy shifts that greatly benefited excluded groups" seems to make a lot of sense for this particular goal: figuring out how legitimate it is to simply extrapolate from such policy shifts (as this legitimacy largely depends on how much of that broad trend was driven by allyship). It was far from obvious to me, in advance, that only a small portion of the cases of policy change I looked at were driven by ally-based advocacy.

Another point:
One thing we agree on seems to be that developments like democratization largely weren't ally-based movements. We might ask: why weren't they? The fact that they weren't--that it usually took revolutionary threats to bring about democracy--seems to be an argument against expecting much from human empathy and ethical reasoning when lots of money is at stake. (On the other hand, maybe the presence of large ally-based movements for e.g. farmed animals suggests that we're in a very different situation.)

Curious to hear your thoughts! I'd also love to hear other constructive feedback/advice for doing better historical work in the future, if you have any off the top of your head.

Comment by mauricio on What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies · 2020-10-17T05:49:14.581Z · score: 24 (7 votes) · EA · GW

(Following up on my other reply)

Any [. . .] hot takes on the quality of current EA epistemics?

It seems that many EAs have adopted Singer's expanding circle narrative for thinking about important questions, without much scrutiny, and despite how Singer's historical narrative is arguably highly incomplete (Singer's relevant book also wasn't trying to make a thorough historical argument). This suggests that we're not giving enough scrutiny to other arguments from high-profile EAs, and that we pay too much attention to academic work that happens to come from EAs (even when it's about questions like "why have many societies become more inclusive?"--questions that aren't just of interest to EA-sympathetic researchers).

do you have thoughts on how much predictive (postdictive?) power your framework has on other randomly generated case studies?
Relatedly, do you think it's likely that you will change your mind a lot if you read five more analogous case studies in a similar level of detail? What probability will you assign to reversing one of the core conclusions were you to do so?


  • This framework seems (retroactively) predictively powerful for abolition and democratization in many countries. From a distance, it seems roughly predictive of other cases (e.g. factory farming, genocide), although there's some cases that it seems to get wrong (e.g. it's not clear to me what the economic incentives for decolonization were). It also seems less predictively useful when incentives seem balanced enough that predictions are ambiguous.
  • I'd be surprised but not shocked if I changed my mind about any given core conclusion. Maybe 30%? (Overall probability of reversing one core conclusion would depend on how narrowly we're thinking of "core conclusion.")
    • The main way that it seems like I could be wrong would be something like "under the right circumstances, social values are more influential than strong economic incentives."
  • I'd be shocked if it turned out that social values are of dominant importance, and economic motives don't matter much, for bringing about political inclusion/exclusion. That would require explaining away lots of historical evidence. 8%?
  • My median expectation is that I'd roughly keep the core conclusions and framework, add additional factors that contribute to one outcome or the other (additional ways in which political actors can be economically incentivized to support inclusion/exclusion), and change lots of finer details.
Comment by mauricio on What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies · 2020-10-17T03:32:44.343Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Linch, thanks so much for your thoughts and encouragement! I'll reply to your first several bullet points here.

Good point about making the shorter version a separate post. I might do that.

At the high level, how has your opinions on political inclusion/exclusion changed as a result of doing this research? […] Any high-level takeaways [. . .] ?

I don't think I had very clear/precise opinions on political inclusion/exclusion before this research. But here's some high-level takeaways/ways in which I changed my mind:

  • Theory of change/heuristics about what kinds of things drive political progress:
    • I'm no longer fairly optimistic about value changes on their own when there are other big incentives at play, and I'm now fairly optimistic about value changes on their own when there aren't other big incentives at play.
    • I'm now optimistic about looking for clever political strategies, e.g. a policy you can advocate that divides the opposition, or a policy that would spread internationally through a positive feedback loop. (Before, I hadn't considered this option much.)
  • Methodology:
    • My original plan had been to try to predict future moral circle expansion (MCE) by graphing historical trends in MCE, and naively extrapolating them. I'm glad I ended up looking for causal explanations instead, since these helped me figure out when it would be useful, and when it would be misleading, to extrapolate past trends in MCE.
    • Before looking at these case studies, I spent a lot (~40%?) of my research time reading up on various more theoretical fields that seemed relevant (e.g. psych, IR). They ended up being a lot less helpful than I had expected . If I were to do a similar research project, I'd first look into case studies, and then decide which other sub-fields (if any) would be useful (since then, I'd have a better sense of what info and ideas would be helpful).
    • I found mentorship (which took the form of weekly memos for and chats with Prof. Weinstein, as well as initially creating a list of readings for each week) really helpful for time management, research design, and exposure to a different perspective.
    • Over the course of this research, I drifted somewhat from my original research goals, maybe due to a mix of forgetting them, locally optimizing, and letting myself be too influenced by my mentor/mistaking my research proposal for my goals. This seems to have worked out fine, but in the future I'd write out my goals, and regularly (each week?) adjust what I'm doing to better meet them.
    • My research reinforced my thinking that, for learning about general trends and why things happened, reading from political scientists and economists is often more useful than reading from historians.
    • I was surprised by the predictive power (especially in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy) of assuming that organized interests mostly act rationally, with the goal of advancing their own economic interests. This change of mind made me take on board the assumption as a core assumption of my model.
    • Looking at how similar things happened in many different countries seems to have been helpful for having a better-informed idea of what trends are general trends.
Comment by mauricio on What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies · 2020-10-13T20:19:29.123Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Michael, thanks for your comment and for sharing this post!

I chose this topic a little before your post came out, so I probably would have researched this anyway. I did find your post encouraging :)