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Indirect long-run effects

Many members of the effective altruim community consider people who have not yet been born to be moral patients, meaning that, should they come to exist, then their well-being will matter. If this is so, then we should take any impact our actions will have on the long-run future into account.

We can distinguish between two kinds of effects that our actions can have on the long-run future. First, there are actions which have an obvious main mechanism for positively influencing the long-run future. An example of this kind of long-term effect is research into how to avert certain existential risks.

Second, there are actions whose main obvious effect is a change in the short term, but which nevertheless have indirect long-run effects (also called “flow-through effects”). For instance, increased education, reduced global poverty, or generally increased GDP may increase the level of empathy we have for others, which in turn may increase the chance of a flourishing future. Or, conversely, it may increase rate of progress of certain technologies which pose an existential threat to humankind. Better governance has many short-term implications, even if it is pursued in the hope of reducing existential risk.

As the first example illustrates, working out the sign of such indirect long-run effects - whether they are, all things considered, positive or negative - is often difficult. Many members of the effective altruism community argue that we nevertheless need to study them carefully, if we accept that the wellbeing of future people will matter.

Further reading

Carl Shulman. 2016. What proxies to use for flow-through effects?.

Robert Wiblin. 2016. Flow-through effects [Video].
Effective Altruism Global 2016 presentation.

Holden Karnosky. 2013. Flow-through effects.

Paul Christiano. 2015. On progress and prosperity.

Nick Bostrom, 2014. Crucial considerations and wise philanthropy

Jeff Kaufman. 2013. Flow through effects conversation.
Transcribing a conerstion between Holden Karnofsky, Carl Shulman, Robert Wiblin, Paul Christiano, and Nick Beckstead.