I’m excited to announce a workshop on the Moral Foundations of Progress Studies.

The progress studies community has had a lot of discussion about technology, economics, history, and politics. However, there is no consensus on the moral basis for valuing or pursuing “progress,” and there are key open questions about how progress is to be judged and measured, who should benefit from it, and what type of progress we should pursue.

The goal of this workshop is to reach a consensus on what major moral/ethical questions are at the foundations of a study of progress, and what broad answers to these questions have been proposed. A few designated attendees will take notes and draft a short article afterwards summarizing the discussion. (We’re currently looking for the appropriate place to publish this; it may be in a journal or on a blog.)

Apply to attend here. Space is limited; we’ll be prioritizing people in or with a connection to academia, and public intellectuals who write about progress or adjacent topics.

When: March 4–6, 2022

Where: University of Texas at Austin

Agenda (subject to change):

Friday:

  • Survey of writers on progress (including Cowen, Deutsch, Pinker)
  • Theories of well-being
  • Panel: Steven Pinker, David Deutsch (via video)
  • Metrics and standards of value
  • Challenges to the claim that the last two centuries represent progress

Saturday:

  • Interrogating the idea of moral progress
  • Progress & safety (including the Precautionary Principle and existential risk)
  • Challenges in assessing possible futures

Sunday morning:

  • Wrap-up

Except for the Friday panel, each session will be a 90-minute discussion led by one or a small panel of participants who give a brief intro.

Co-hosts:

  • Jason Crawford, founder of The Roots of Progress
  • Gregory Salmieri, director of the Program for Objectivity in Thought, Action, and Enterprise at the Salem Center at UT Austin

Attendees are being invited from the progress studies and Effective Altruism communities, plus moral philosophers familiar with the virtue-ethics and well-being literatures.

There is no cost to attend. We have some funding to pay for travel and lodging for a limited number of participants; you can request funding when you apply.

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This sounds fantastic, and I wish I could attend. (Weekend conferences / meetings don't work well when you have kids at home on the weekends.) In lieu of being able to participate, I'll briefly note a couple things I'd want to point out about well-being and metrics of progress. 

First, for well-being, I think it is clear that "well being" isn't uniform across people, and there are deep problems with any sort of preference aggregation. The issues here are complex, and I am sure they will be discussed - but there are a pair of conclusions which might be inferred, but such inference is unjustified.

1) Not being able to measure something does not imply it's not real. Measurement is always reductive, and that's fine - approximate progress is better than verifiable and concrete lack thereof. 

2) The inability to agree on universally applicable wellbeing measures, measurement methods, and ways to aggregate disparate measures does not imply that progress itself is difficult, just that we're not going to be able to fully justify any concept of well-being, and therefore for progress.

Second, the limitations of metrics in general apply; they are reductive, cannot capture our "actual" not-fully-understood goals, and will lose fidelity to those goals if they are pursued. (cf. Campbell's law/ Goodhart's law.) But a key point about metric maximization is that even in the presence of (non-superintelligent) misalignment, maximizing the metric will usually greatly improve the actual goal, albeit not as much as if the metric were better designed.

Good points. I agree about metrics.

The question about whether utility can be aggregated across populations is an interesting and important one, and one that we'll be discussing at this event.