Discounting, aggregation and the ecological fallacy (CCCR2018)

Video by Matthew Rendall
Published on 17 April 2019

Matthew Rendall is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

A common justification for discounting future costs and benefits is that if we did not, nearly any sacrifice could be demanded from the present generation. Conventional discounting, on the other hand, causes even catastrophic damages to disappear, provided that they occur far enough in the future. Drawing on Scanlon’s criterion of relevance, Dr Rendall argued that we can defensibly ignore benefits to future people who would be in any case much better off.

Yet actions such as emitting carbon or risking thermonuclear war could, in some scenarios, leave our descendants worse off than we are. That our descendants are better off when we average across scenarios does not justify discounting damages in the minority of scenarios in which they are not. Disaggregating possible states of the world shows the need for precautionary action against climate change, nuclear war and other catastrophic threats.

This talk was given at 2018’s Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk (CCCR2018), the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s major international conference, supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. It focused on four challenges faced by research communities focused on existential and global catastrophic risk research: Challenges of Evaluation and Impact; Challenges of Evidence; Challenges of Scope and Focus; and Challenges in Communication.

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