People around here sometimes reference the “Unilateralist’s Curse”, especially when they want to keep someone else from doing something that might cause harm. Briefly, the idea is that “unilateral” actions taken without the consent of society at large are especially likely to be harmful, because people who underestimate the resulting harm will be the most likely to take the action in question.
The canonical formulation of the argument is in a paper by Bostrom, Douglas, and Sandberg, most recently updated in 2016. I highly recommend reading the “Introduction” and “Discussion” sections of the paper. (I found the toy mathematical models in the middle sections less useful.)
While the paper mostly gives arguments that unilateralism could be harmful and ought to be stopped via a “principle of conformity”, the authors concede that the historical record does not back this up: “[I]f we “backtest” the principle on historical experience, it is not at all clear that universal adoption of the principle of conformity would have had a net positive effect. It seems that, quite often, what is now widely recognized as important progress was instigated by the unilateral actions of mavericks, dissidents, and visionaries who undertook initiatives that most of their contemporaries would have viewed with hostility and that existing institutions sought to suppress.”
For example, an older 2013 version of Bostrom et al’s paper notes that “The principle of conformity could be seen to imply, for instance, that Galileo Galilei ought to have heeded the admonitions of the Catholic Church and ceased his efforts to investigate and promote the heliocentric theory.” The 2016 update removes this and most of the discussion of unilateralism’s importance to science, but retains the discussion of Daniel Ellsburg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers to the media as an example of beneficial unilateralist action. A cursory glance through history finds many, many other examples of unilateralists having strong positive effects, from Stanislav Petrov to Oskar Schindler to Ignaz Semmelweis to Harriet Tubman.
Bostrom et al continue, “The claim that the unilateralist curse is an important phenomenon and that we have reason to lift it is consistent with the claim that the curse has provided a net benefit to humanity. [Italics mine.] The main effect of the curse is to produce a tendency towards unilateral initiatives, and if it has historically been the case that there have been other factors that have tended to strongly inhibit unilateral initiatives, then it could be the case that the curse has had the net effect of moving the overall amount of unilateralism closer to the optimal level.”
Obviously there are any number of “factors that have tended to strongly inhibit unilateral initiatives”, and not just historically. These continue today, and will last as long as the human condition persists. Examples include reflexive conformity a la Asch’s experiments; loyalty to friends, tribalism, and other identity-based sentiments; active punishment of dissenters via methods that range from execution to imprisonment and torture to civil lawsuits to “merely” withholding acclaim, funding, and opportunities for promotion; and most important of all, the sheer difficulty of figuring out better ways of doing things.
An undiscriminating “principle of conformity” would be just one more source of drag on progress across the board. In most areas, the benefits of unilateral action are far larger than the costs. In areas where particular caution is warranted, such as sharing weapons technology, the potential harms are widely understood and unilateral action by altruists is at most a minor factor. Advocates of inaction should rely on arguments about specific harms, not vague heuristics to buttress the natural human tendency towards deference.