What We Owe the Past

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 tiled over the earth with one of six species chosen for maximum cuteness (puppies, kittens, pandas, polar bears, axolotls, and buns) plus any necessary organisms to provide food.

Why paperclip the world when you could bun it?
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 thoughts, similar hopes, similar 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 — 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.

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.

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


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


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.


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.


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