TL;DR: We have ethical obligations not just towards people in the future, but also people in the past.

Imagine the issue that you hold most dear, the issue that you have made your foremost cause, the issue that you have donated your most valuable resources (time, money, attention) to solving. For example: imagine you’re an environmental conservationist whose dearest value is the preservation of species and ecosystem biodiversity across planet Earth.

Now imagine it’s 2100. You’ve died, and your grandchildren are reading your will — and laughing. They’re laughing because they have already tiled over the earth with one of six species chosen for maximum cuteness (puppies, kittens, pandas, polar bears, buns, and axolotl) plus any necessary organisms to provide food.

Why paperclip the world when you could bun it?

Cuteness optimization is the driving issue of their generation; biodiversity is wholly ignored. They’ve taken your trust fund set aside for saving rainforests, and spent it on the systematic extinction of 99.99% of the world’s species. How would that make you, the ardent conservationist, feel?

Liberals often make fun of conservatives by pointing out how backwards conservative beliefs are. “Who cares about what a bunch of dead people think? We’ve advanced our understanding of morality in all these different ways, the past is stuck in bigoted modes of thinking.”

I don’t deny that we’ve made significant moral progress, that we’ve accumulated wisdom through the years, that a civilization farther back in time is younger, not older. But to strengthen the case for conservatism: the people in the past were roughly as intellectually capable as you are. The people in the past had similar modes of thought, similar hopes and dreams to you. And there are a lot more people in the past than the present.

In The Precipice, Toby Ord describes how there have been 100 billion people who have ever lived; the 7 billion alive today represent only 7% of all humans to date.

Ord continues to describe the risks from extinction, with an eye towards why and how we might try to prevent them. But this got me thinking: assume that our species WILL go extinct in 10 years. If you are a utilitarian, whose utilities should you then try to maximize?

One straightforward answer is “let’s make people as happy as possible over the next 10 years”. But that seems somewhat unsatisfactory. In 2040, the people we’ve made happy in the interim will be just as dead as the people in 1800 are today. Of course, we have much more ability to satisfy people who are currently alive[1] — but there may be cheap opportunities to honor the wishes of people in the past, eg by visiting their graves, upholding their wills, or supporting their children.

Even if you are purely selfish, you should care about what you owe the past. This is not contingent on what other people will think, not your parents and ancestors in the past, nor your descendants or strangers in the future. But because your own past self also lives in the past. And your current self lives in the past of your future self.

Austin at 17 made a commitment: he went through the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. Among other things, this entails spending one hour every Sunday attending Catholic mass, for the rest of his life. At the time, this was a no-brainer; being Catholic was the top value held by 17!Austin.

Austin at 27 has... a more complicated relationship with the Catholic church. But he still aims to attend Catholic mass every week — with a success rate of 95-98%. Partly because mass is good on rational merits (the utility gained from meeting up with fellow humans, thinking about ethics, meditating through prayer, singing with the congregation). But partly because he wants Austin at 37 to take seriously 27!Austin’s commitments, ranging from his GWWC pledge to the work and relationships he currently values.

And because if 27!Austin decides to ignore the values of 17!Austin, then that constitutes a kind of murder. Austin at 17 was a fully functioning human, with values and preferences and beliefs and and motivations that were completely real. 17!Austin is different in some regards, but not obviously a worse, dumber, less ethical person. If Austin at 27 chooses to wantonly forget or ignore those past values, then he is effectively erasing any remaining existence of 17!Austin.[2]

Of course, this obligation is not infinite. Austin at 27 has values that matter too! But again, it’s worth thinking through what cheap opportunities exist to honor 17!Austin - one hour a week seems reasonable. And it’s likely that 27!Austin already spends too much effort satisfying his own values, much more than would be ideal - call it “temporal discounting”, except backwards instead of forwards.[3]

So tell me: what do you owe the past? How will you pay that debt?


Kinship with past and future selves. My future self is a different person from me, but he has an awful lot in common with me: personality, relationships, ongoing projects, and more. Things like my relationships and projects are most of what give my current moment meaning, so it's very important to me whether my future selves are around to continue them.

So although my future self is a different person, I care about him a lot, for the same sorts of reasons I care about friends and loved ones (and their future selves)

Thanks to Sinclair, Vlad, and Kipply for conversations on this subject, and Justis for feedback and edits to this piece.

Crossposts: blog, EA Forum

  1. ^

    Justis: Many readers will react with something like "well, you just can't score any utils anymore in 2040 - it doesn't matter whose values were honored when at that point; utils can only be accrued by currently living beings."

    This was a really good point, thanks for flagging! I think this is somewhat compelling, though I also have an intuition that "utils can only be accrued by the present" is incomplete. Think again on the environmental conservationist; your utils in the present derive from the expected future, so violating those expectations in the future is a form of deception. Analogous to how wireheading/being a lotus-eater/sitting inside a pleasure machine is deceptive.

  2. ^

    Justis: Calling breaking past commitments "a kind of murder" strikes me as like, super strong, as does the claim that doing so erases all traces of the past self-version. To me it seems past selves "live on" in a variety of ways, and the fulfillment of their wishes is only one among these ways.

    Haha I take almost the opposite view, that "murder" really isn't that strong of a concept because we're dying all the time anyways, day-by-day and also value-by-value changed. But I did want to draw upon the sense of outrage that the word "murder" invokes.

    The ways that the dead live on (eg memories in others, work they've achieved, memes they've shared) are important, but I'd claim they're important (to the dead) because those effects in the living are what the dead valued. Just as commitments are important because they represent what the dead valued. Every degree of value ignored constitutes a degree of existence erased; but it's true that commitments are only a portion of this.

  3. ^

    Justis: I think another interesting angle/frame for honoring the past (somewhat, both in the broader cultural sense and in the within-an-individual sense) is acausal trade. So one way of thinking about honoring your past self's promises is that you'd like there to be a sort of meta promise across all your time-slices that goes like "beliefs or commitments indexed strongly at time t will be honored, to a point, at times greater than t." This is in the interests of each time slice, since it enables them to project some degree of autonomy into the future at the low price of granting that autonomy to the past. Start dishonoring too many past commitments, and it's harder to credibly commit to more stuff.

    I love this framing, it does describe some of the decision theory that motivates honoring past commitments. I hesitate to use the words "acausal trade" because it's a bit jargon-y (frankly, I'm still not sure I understand "acausal trade"); and this post is already weird enough haha

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38 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:23 AM

Suppose Alex!20 reads about play pumps, and vows to give some money to them every month. Alex!30 learns that actually, this charity is doing harm (on net). If he went back in time and gave Alex!20 a short presentation, Alex!20 wouldn't make the vow. Alex!20's actual goal was to make the world a better place, and he thought play pumps did that. Making simple vows that bind your behaviour restricts your freedom to act on the best available evidence. The rational thing to do is to be actively checking that such actions make sense, based on the best available evidence. As soon as some evidence suggests a new charity may be more effective, say oops and switch. 

I mean I would say that 

Partly because mass is good on rational merits (the utility gained from meeting up with fellow humans, thinking about ethics, meditating through prayer, singing with the congregation).

Is questionable. It reads like the excuse of someone who never really said oops, and decided they had made a mistake. I am sure that there are lots of clubs and knitting groups you could go to. I suspect that the rest of the activities are not helpful to actually getting ethics and rationality right. (It wouldn't help a mathematician to sing songs about how "2+2=7" every week. ) The human brain is incapable of listening to and singing about obvious nonsense every week without being somewhat influenced by it. And I suspect that influence may not be in a good direction. 

The play pump hypothetical/analogy is a bit forced, in that I've not heard of people making lifetime commitments to give money to a specific charity. I think there are good reasons for that, one of which you mention. People do sign up for monthly donations but they are free to cancel them at will, legally and ethically.

I wonder, if Austin aged 27 gave a short presentation to Austin aged 17, would this be enough to convince the younger Austin not to be confirmed Catholic? I think the younger Austin would be sympathetic to his older self's complicated relationship with the church. Maybe he would offer "stop going when it's no longer good for you".

My short answer is: nothing.

Of course one may owe debts to various people, especially one's parents for their role in creating you, but those debts are eventually repaid, or lapse when they die. The past parts of myself are informative, not normative, for whatever decisions my present part makes. Why does Austin-27 want to fulfil commitments made by Austin-17 that Austin-27 no longer believes in?

The past provides examples (positive and negative) to learn from, Chesterton fences to examine before changing, ideas to consider, and situations it has placed us in, but imposes no obligations.

Your finger is on the scales with the example of the conservationist. That person's desires are an applause light, while those of their descendants are a boo light. Switch the two sets of desires and the example is no longer persuasive, if it ever was.

I feel like the Timeless Decision Theory arguments are pretty straightforward here. Past people are more likely to have been taking my preferences into account, if they expected me to honor their preferences. Seems like there is lots of opportunity for trade here, and I sure am likely to make different decisions if I expect future generations to have an outlook like the one you describe. 

I am not sure what the magnitude of this effect on my decisions should be, but I feel like it seems very unlikely for the outcome of this to be "nothing".

Past people are more likely to have been taking my preferences into account, if they expected me to honor my preferences.

" honor their preferences"?

Yes, the TDT aspect is clear, but it seems to me easy for informal talk of TDT to slip into reference class tennis.

" honor their preferences"?

Oops, sorry. Typo fixed.

I can imagine that if I had been religious and deconverted, or been an atheist and converted, then once in a while I might spend a day re-inhabiting that previous worldview, perhaps deliberately undertaking some religious observance, or refraining from one respectively. It would be a way of staying in touch with that earlier part of myself, rather than cutting it away as if it had never happened. But I would be doing this for myself, not out of any sort of obligation to a part of myself. I can't live there any more, but it may be worth visiting from time to time.

So would you bite the bullet on the example in the first three paragraphs? And you don't have any moral obligations toward fulfilling the last wish of, say, your parents, after they are dead? This seems counterintuitive.

Yet I admit it seems also counterintuitive to me to respect the wishes of your past self if your present self changed their mind. It is almost as if you have more obligations toward the past wishes of now dead people (like your parents) than toward the wishes of your past selves.

I'm not the OP, but I bite that bullet all day long. My parents' last wishes are only relevant in two ways that I can see:

  1. Their values are congruent with my own. If my parents last wishes are morally repugnant to me I certainly feel no obligation to help execute those wishes. Thankfully, in real life my parents values and wishes are fairly congruent with my own, so their request is likely to be something I could evaluate as worthy on its own terms; no obligation needed.

  2. I wish to uphold a norm of last wishes being fulfilled. This has to meet a minimum threshold of congruence on point 1) above, but if I expect to have important last wishes that I will be unable to fulfill in my lifetime, I may want to promote this norm of paying it forward. Except I'm not convinced doing so is actually very effective; surely it's better for me to work towards my own goals rather than work towards others in the hope it upholds a norm that will get my goals carried out later. Or, if my goals are beyond my own ability to execute then surely I should be working to get those goals accepted by more people on their own terms, rather than as an obligation to me.

Your #2 motivation goes pretty far, so this is actually a much bigger exception to your bullet-bite than you might think.  The idea of "respecting the will of past generations to boost the chances that future generations will respect your will" goes far beyond sentimental deathbed wishes and touches big parts of how cultural & financial influence is maintained beyond death.  See my comment here.

So would you bite the bullet on the example in the first three paragraphs?

Yes, as I said in my last paragraph. Would you bite the other end of the bullet if the "conservationist" had been the ardent fan of cuteness and the descendants cared more for the environment as a whole?

And you don't have any moral obligations toward fulfilling the last wish of, say, your parents, after they are dead?

That would depend very much on what the last wishes were. If a parent's dying wish were that their offspring grow up to be an accountant, would you think that imposed any obligation? Especially if they are already establishing themselves as a professional musician?

My parents are dead, btw. Their estates were disposed of according to their wills, by custom and law, and that was that. Cremated, no graves to visit. There were no informally expressed last wishes. I was not especially close to them anyway.

The dead are gone. The living continue.

Wishes about cuteness and accountants: I admit that fulfilling some dead person's wish can conflict with your own wishes. But this this seems to be just an instance of the usual moral problem of weighing conflicting preferences of different people. As a rough approximation: If the desire of the descendant that X should not be the case is lower than the desire of the deceased that X should be the case, it seems plausible that X should be realized by the descendant.

For illustration: Imagine yesterday some person A, who is not in town, wants you to do them a favor and mow the lawn of their old neighbor. You agree, because you like A and A did you a favor in the past as well. If you don't do it, person A will never find out, but you respect their wish and fulfill it.

Now assume A unexpectedly dies tomorrow. Would this change anything versus A living another 40 years? Why would it be relevant that A is alive while you mow the lawn? As I said, you know that A wouldn't find out either way. In neither case does A learn whether you have cut the lawn, in both cases you are just fulfilling their wish.

I'd suggest that if the obligation doesn't involve an inheritance, you at most have the obligation if you'd have had that obligation if the person had still been alive. You have no obligation to obey a demand from your parents that you be an accountant even when they're still alive.

Chesterton fences to examine before changing

I think there's a crucial difference between Chesterton's fence and this situation: in the former, Chesterton is in a position of power over the would-be reformer ("I certainly won't let you clear it away"). Your past self, on the other hand, is powerless to stop you, so the dialogue would be more like

Past you – I don't see any reason to clear away my dear fence; please honor me by keeping it.

Present you – If you don't see the use of clearing your fence away, I certainly won't let you keep it. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see why I'm looking forward to getting rid of it, I may allow you to keep it. That is, if only you could still do anything at all, because you don't exist anymore. (Laughs at past you) Screw you! (Eagerly tears the fence down at once).

That detail of Chesterton's fable has never struck me as salient, but mere stylistic detail. The reason to not gleefully tear down the fence is that there may be a good reason for its existence that I am unaware of, not that anyone is actually standing in my way.

Your finger is on the scales with the example of the conservationist. That person's desires are an applause light, while those of their descendants are a boo light. Switch the two sets of desires and the example is no longer persuasive, if it ever was.


First: I picked this example partly because "cuteness optimization" does seem weird and contrary and unsympathetic. I imagine that to people in the past, our present lack of concern for our literal neighbors, or views on gay marriage, seem just as unsympathetic.

Second: "cuteness" might not be the exact correct framing, but "species extinction to maximize utilons" has a surprising amount of backing to it. In some sense, the story of industrial progress has been one of inadvertent species extinction, and I'm partial to the idea that this was in fact the right path because of the massive number of humans it has made happier (rather than slowing down industrial growth in service to sustainability). Or another example: see this piece arguing that we should desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, due to the massive amount of wild animal suffering imposed by predation. 

A lot of comments (partly highly upvoted*) do not do much beyond disagreeing and affirming that they don't feel obligated to their or other past selves. That's fine and their privilege but it is not engaging with the meat of the argument - and an argument that is pretty close to arguments about caring about future people. 

UPDATED: * This comment was made when the top-voted comment had 26 karma, right now it is at 14.

I don't think I see many arguments about caring for future people's weird and unsympathetic specific demands.  Certainly many would argue for caring about existence and quantity of future people.  Many would also abstractly care about "quality of life" or even "happiness" of future people.  

Even to the extent that caring is similar, there's a HUGE asymmetry in control.  Things we do can affect the experiences (or existence) of future people.  Things we do can NOT affect anything about past people. 

The argument wasn't about sympathy, and Utilitarianism also doesn't care about whether you personally like those people.

You also don't control anybody in all those acausal trade scenarios, and these are still useful ways to coordinate or at least discuss whether they work.

The amount of asymmetry sure plays a role but doesn't invalidate the argument but just weighs it.

Why the caps? I think the OP's view gets people emotional, and emotion distracts from appreciating reasonable observations.

I pretty strongly disagree.  Honoring past WISDOM seems good - learning from their pain and knowledge is hard to argue against.  There may be past wishes which allow me to update my own preferences.  But that doesn't translate to respecting, agreeing with, or paying for any of their crazy specific demands.  

I don't even think I owe very much to many stated preferences of contemporary living humans, although I do try to respect and support my interpretation of those parts which I think encourage long-term satisfaction.  For instance, I park my car in my garage, which frustrates those who'd like to cut out the catalytic converter.

This does mean I'll try to commit future-me (and other future humans) to courses of action that I think are good for them.  But it does not mean that those future people have a moral duty to agree with me.  

I don't even think I owe very much to many stated preferences of contemporary living humans

This feels like something of a crux? Definitely, before we get into respecting the preferences of the past, if we don't agree on respecting the preferences of the present/near-future humans we may not find much to agree on.

I'm not even sure where to begin on this philosophical point -- maybe something like universalizability, like "wouldn't it be good if other contemporary living humans, who I might add outnumber you 7billion to 1, try to obey your own stated preferences?"

Indeed - this is very likely a crux.  I'd enjoy it if other humans obeyed my stated preferences, but I think I'd lose respect for them as agents (and making very specific object-level requests would show my disrespect for them as moral targets).  

Doing things that I project to improve overall quality of life for many people is good, IMO.  Following arbitrary stated preferences is very rarely an effective way to do that.   There are lots of cases where statements are a good hint to utility weightings, and lots of cases where the speaker is confused or misleading or time-inconsistent.  

Dead people's historical statements, always, are incorrect about what will improve their experienced universe.  

I notice that my ethics, my morality, my beliefs, differ in many ways from those of the past; I expect these things to differ in many ways from my own, in the future.  I notice the relationship between these two concepts is reciprocal.

My grandfather talked to me, several times, about how he knew I had my own life, and that I wouldn't always want to spend a lot of time with him; he was explicitly giving me permission, I think, to do something that he himself regretted in his youth, but understood better with age.  He was telling me to live unfettered by that particular obligation.  I didn't see him much after I started working, and then he passed away.

If I have grandchildren some day, I know what I will tell them.

I consider the alternative grandfather who I didn't have, who was jealous of my time and attention, and how it would have changed things.

What do we owe the future?

I think maybe we owe the future the freedom to choose for themselves, unfettered by the chains of our expectations.  The freedom to choose means nothing if it does not include the freedom to make what we think are the wrong choices.  The conservationist wanted to restrain the choices of the future, to limit them.  And while I think the cuteness-maximizers are wrong, we owe them the right to be wrong, just as we act in so many ways our ancestors would have regarded as wrong.

The idea of a god-AI enshrining some particular group of people's values forever doesn't look very appealing to me; indeed, it looks like an abdication of our fundamental responsibility to the future.

What do I owe the past, therefore?

Gratitude, that I have more choices than they did.

As I wrote in a commentary on Gwern's "The Narrowing Circle", respect for ancestors is probably justified in some sort of acausal-negotiation sense, even if (as commenters Richard Kennaway and Dagon feel) we don't actually care about their values:

A drop in respect for ancestors might also directly cause a drop in concern for descendants -- it might be logical to disregard the lives of future generations if we assume that they (just like us) will ignore the wishes of their ancestors!

Consider: it's certainly important that we somewhat respect the financial wishes of the dead (trusts, foundations, inheritance, etc) rather than (as might seem logical at first glance) confiscating all their assets upon death.  This is because being able to pass on wealth and create a durable legacy (like the Rockefeller Foundation or etc) is part of what motivates people to earn and invest for the future in the first place.

By a similar logic, it might be important that we should also commit to respecting the cultural wishes of the dead, in order to somehow motivate people to take a more long-term outlook.  As an off-the-cuff example, maybe a culture that emphasized respect for ancestors would be higher-fertility, since parents would know that their children would be more likely to carry forward their values than in today's no-respect-for-past-generations culture.

I think this reasoning is not truly acausal; if my kids weren't watching my behavior, I wouldn't expect how I treat my elders to affect my descendants' behavior towards me at all.

I wasn't expecting to based on the title, but I like this. I think it's important to be able to hold commitments in mind for your future self. But it's also important, when trying to hold your future self to something, to be conservative about what you commit to so you don't screw up your ability to make these commitments in the future.

I can think of several times when I explicitly tried to ... do something like acausal trade ... with my future self.

  1. When I was about 9 years old, I had a very complex set of relationships with other kids, including some kind of "war" and an on/off relationship with a specific boy. I remember thinking to myself, "Usually, when people are adults, they think this kind of thing that kids do is stupid. But future me, you'd better not do that. Think of this as important. This is really important to me."
  2. When I was deciding which college to go to, I attended a weekend at one of the places I was accepted that they held to attract students. I really enjoyed it, but the college was extremely expensive. I thought, "Hey, future self... I don't want to hold you to this, but listen, this is REALLY nice. I know it's expensive, but seriously try to work out if there is any way you can go here, for real."
  3. When I was giving birth (recently), I thought, "You know, I've been planning to do this again, but holy shit, it sucks. Future self, seriously consider whether this is actually worth it."

I'm shaping up to ~violate the commitment in all 3 cases, but I think there are good reasons that past-me would accept if they knew.

1: I don't find it that important in retrospect, but it's not because I was "only a child" at the time; it's because basically all things in life recede in importance when they happened to you a long time ago and you don't interact with the relevant people anymore. I plan to try to honor this commitment by having more respect for the experiences of children in general.

2: I didn't attend the expensive college. I did try quite hard to figure out if it was feasible, but unfortunately I was lacking in good information about money at that time in my life. My best guess was that it would have been pretty crappy graduating with that much debt, and I now think that was basically true. Ultimately, though, my life would have been so different that it's hard to say what the right decision was.

3: Haven't had the opportunity yet, but I do plan to have another child, even keeping in mind the agony of childbirth (note that I did have medical pain relief, but they don't tell you how bad it can be even with that). My past self wasn't aware of how great having a newborn child was, and I like to think would agree that this is the right choice all told. (Also, later births are on average easier, so that helps too.)

If we look at 17!Austin and 27!Austin as two different people, then I don't see why 27!Austin would have any obligation to do anything for 17!Austin if 27!Austin doesn't want to do it, just like I wouldn't attend masses just because my friend from 10 years ago who is also dead now wanted me to. 

If we look at 17!Austin and 27!Austin as a continuation of the same person, then 27!Austin can do whatever he wants, because everybody has a right to change their mind and perspective, to evolve and to correct mistakes of their past.

If we consider information preservation to be important and valuable, then I would argue that 27!Austin already keeps much more of 17!Austin by simply existing than he could by attending masses. 27!Austin and any future version of Austin is an evolution of 17!Austin, and the best he can do to honor 17!Austin is to just stay alive.

If we look at 17!Austin and 27!Austin as two different people, then I don't see why 27!Austin would have any obligation to do anything for 17!Austin if 27!Austin doesn't want to do it.

But that's not true! Even if I don't feel obliged to 100% comply with what other people want, I certainly am affected by their desires and want to compromise. Yes, maybe it's not quite an "obligation", but I rarely experience those towards whoever anyway.

just like I wouldn't attend masses just because my friend from 10 years ago who is also dead now wanted me to.

I'm not so sure about this analogy -- intuitively, aren't your obligations to yourself much stronger than to a friend? E.g. if a friend randomly asked for $5000 to pay for a vacation I wouldn't just randomly give it to her; but if my twin or past self spent that much I'd be something like 10-100x more likely to to oblige.

27!Austin apparently shares lots of values with 17!Austin, but I would submit not out of any moral principle. If 27!Austin has different values from 17!Austin then that's possibly sad in some weird sort of way, but statements like

if 27!Austin decides to ignore the values of 17!Austin, then that constitutes a kind of murder

are simply ridiculous hyperbole. If you literally believe this, then why are you not calling for anyone who changes their mind to be prosecuted and jailed for 20 years? Obviously not with the intent of rehabilitation, because inducing someone to change their values and beliefs is a kind of murder.

I take this a step further. I say that frontier14's opinion holds more sway than frontier!24's opinion. Frontier!14 has less information, but his mind is significantly more facile. Almost every single person drops iq points as they age. If in the intervening years I haven't gained any new information which refutes the reason underlying frontier!14's goals then I should on the whole trust his analysis over mine. Which is what I do.

This is more so an argument that it's rational to respect your past convictions, rather than that it's ethical to do so.

I think you'll find that this community will be very opposed to respecting the past because they are largely fans of hedonism. Honoring past obligations made to one self is kind of the polar opposite of hedonistic pleasure seeking behavior.

I owe the past my forgiveness, and the future my learning.

Promises should be kept. It's not only a virtue, but useful for pre-commitment if you can keep your promises.

But, if you make a promise to someone, and later both of you decide it's a bad idea to keep the promise, you should be able to break it. If that someone is your past self, this negotiation is easy: If you think it's a good idea to break the promise, they would be convinced the same way you were. You've run that experiment.

So, you don't really have much obligation to your past self. If you want your future self to have obligation to you, you are asking them to disregard any new evidence they may encounter. Maybe you want that sometimes. But that feels like it should be a rare thing.

On a society level, this argument might not work, though. Societal values might change because people who held the old value died. We can't necessarily say "they would be convinced the same way we were." I don't know what causes societal values to change, or what the implications therefore are.

I'm not sure it's as simple as that - I don't know that just because it's your past self, you get to make decisions on their behalf.

Toy example: last week I promised myself I would go hit the gym. Today I woke up and am feeling lazy about it. My lazy current self thinks breaking the promise is a good idea, but does that mean he's justified in thinking that the past version of Austin would agree?

If you only kept promises when you want to, they wouldn't be promises. Does your current self really think that feeling lazy is a good reason to break the promise? I kinda expect toy-you would feel bad about breaking this promise, which, even if they do it, suggests they didn't think it was a good idea.

If the gym was currently on fire, you'd probably feel more justified breaking the promise. But the promise is still broken. What's the difference in those two breaks, except that current you thinks "the gym is on fire" is a good reason, and "I'm feeling lazy" is a bad reason? You could think about this as "what would your past self say if you gave this excuse?" Which could be useful, but can only be judged based on what your current self thinks.

Adding religion to the equation immensely complicates this topic, since most religions posit the continued existence of the soul after death. In this case you're not really respecting the wishes of past people, per se, but merely people you can no longer see. When we talk about respecting the graves of the dead, I suspect it's a little of this persisting: maybe they're still there somewhere, watching. In this case, include their utility in relevant calculations, times the probability that they exist. 

The main topic that I feel is missing from this discussion is consent. There are always reasonable boundaries to what any contract, with yourself or others, can force someone to do, and we now accept that even legally-binding promises such as marriage can't bind our future selves unconditionally. Insofar as your future self is similar to your past self, your previous consent binds your future self, but even when contracts don't have official get-out clauses there are practical things that will prevent them from mattering. Although you're the same legal entity, I'd argue that in cases of Hollywood amnesia, for instance, the separation of past and future self is sufficient to make marriage vows morally dubious. It is only because of the similarity between 17! and 27!Austin that you can bind yourself to anything at all: I see no reason to generalise this obligation to your past self to your ancestors. They don't get utility out of your actions, so the only reason to worry about their opinions is where there is a contract you've consented to. You didn't consent to be created, so have no intrinsic obligations to your ancestors.
Regarding whether your descendants are forced to fulfil a will: they have not consented to the contract, but can simply not take the money if they wish. If they take the money, they are consenting to reasonable requests in the will, although if the requests are clearly absurd (such as saving something that has already been destroyed) then the conditions will just be ignored. 
"The people in the past were roughly as intellectually capable as you are": maybe in genetical potential, but not phenotypically, as shown in the Flynn effect. "The people in the past had similar modes of thought, similar hopes and dreams to you." They were mostly farmers with very limited capacity for abstract thought. To the extent that their hopes and dreams are similar to mine, I see no reason to double-count them. Furthermore, they don't have working knowledge of the current world, and giving them it would render them effectively different people, by your own arguments. 

So many things to ponder. I am this day 69!George. 19!George was a mess; 29!George not so much(quit drinking).  I miss the youth and energy of 19-65!George. Try as I might, the body and brain runs its natural course, but I am not complaining and try not to use aging as a mask for bitterness or an excuse for giving up on new ideas. I regard my ancestors with a mix of anger, sorrow, and joy.  I try to encourage hopeful thoughts about the future because I was lucky to have been able to live out an “average” life span, so I feel a responsibility to support conditions that would best allow future (and current lives) to live as simply and as well as I have been able to live. 

I disagree, because past people had their chance to influence us and I am equipped to influence my descendants. If I don't kick in for their values, or my descendants don't kick in for mine, it means the people in the past failed; they don't get extra control over me just because they hoped they would have it.

The closest thing I believe to this is that it's good to empathize with past people, and not dismiss the things they cared about as locally absurd. In my opinion, engaging with Catholicism at all is adaptive for a higher fraction of Westerners in the 1600s than now, leaving aside the fact that its epistemic claims are false.

It's also good to try to spend time with my aging relatives because I care about them, and because I want to model to my descendants how to care for me when I'm old, but again not for decision theoretic reasons that can be generalized from reasoning about future people.