Sunday, March 02, 2008

Coppenhagen Consensus

What is the best way to solve the world’s problems?

In a presentation given at TED called, “Our priorities for saving the world,” Bjorn Lomberg, a Danish political scientist, made a number of very interesting points and drew a number of interesting conclusions on this subject.

First, he said, if you want to know the best option to take among a number of competing options, you do not ask a physician or a climatologist or any sort of scientist. Scientists are great at providing information within their field, but are not particularly adept at handling information outside of their field. As such, they are not the most highly trained experts in comparing – say – the value of fighting AIDS in Africa vs. the value of preventing climate change.

Instead, the best people to ask when one wants to know, “How do I get the best bang for my buck – the best output per unit of input?” are economists.

This makes sense.

Second, he said, these economists are not going to investigate problems, they are going to investigate solutions. The real question that we need to answer is not, “What is going to do the most harm in the next few years,” but “Of all the actions available to us, which has the potential to prevent the greatest harm (or to provide the greatest benefit).”

This also makes sense.

So, Lomberg called a group of the world’s leading economists to a conference called The Copenhagen Consensus to discuss a number of proposed solutions and to pick those that had the greatest potential – those most worthy of our attention.

The original conference was in 2004, so some of its recommendations are outdated. In addition, the 2004 panel had only eight economists involved. A new conference is being planned for May, 2008 where 55 economists will be involved - including 4 Nobel Prize winners. I have always been a fan of trusting the experts. I think that the chance that a person sitting at his laptop and writing a blog can do a good job of determining the world’s priorities is pretty low. The best thing that a person sitting at his laptop writing a blog can do is point readers to experts who are using reliable peer-reviewed methods to get things done.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that somebody who has studied social and political philosophy might not have some input into the moral value of some of these projects – independent of their economic value.

For example, the panel decided that the best option to pursue was to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The panel assigned the highest priority to new measures to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Spending assigned to this purpose would yield extraordinarily high benefits, averting nearly 30m new infections by 2010. Costs are substantial, estimated at $27 billion. Even so, these costs are small in relation to what stands to be gained. Moreover, the scale and urgency of the problem—especially in Africa, where AIDS threatens the collapse of entire societies—are extreme.

This was back in 2004.

Unfortunately, this analysis seems to have overlooked a significant cost to any program that aims to reduce the incidence of a sexually transmitted disease – and that is the cost of overcoming primitive superstitious beliefs about sex, particularly those that are held by the world’s major religions.

For example, one of the most cost-effective ways of combating HIV/AIDS according to the study is through increased use of condoms. However, we have religious groups that are violently opposed to pursuing this policy because it violates a superstitious belief that sex without a condom has sacred value. Getting a program adopted which promotes this option will require some cost in battling this primitive superstition.

An accurate assessment of the costs of any program must include the costs of getting it adopted. Assume that we had two options before us – a $10 billion dollar option that will produce an estimated $500 billion in benefits, and a $10 billion dollar option that will produce an estimated $400 billion in benefits. The first option produces $50 in return for each dollar invested. The second produces only $40. If we had only $10 billion to spend, we should spend it on the first option.

However, let us now add the fact that the first option will then spark religious protests. Religious pundits will denounce the program and start their own campaign to defeat it. Countering these religious claims will require an education campaign that will cost another $10 billion. Now, the first option produces only $25 in return for each dollar invested, and the second option (which has no religious opposition) still produces $40.

To be fair, opposition does not need to come from religion. It could come from political ideologies as well. For example, one of the other methods of reducing the incidents of HIV/AIDS is to promote a reduction in the number of sexual partners. Promoting ‘family values’ where the adult partners are faithful to each other and condemning those who ‘sleep around’ are ways of encouraging people to select lifestyles involving fewer sexual partners. However, many people who do not draw their sexual values from any religious principles hold that we should not negatively judge those who seek multiple sexual partners.

To a degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires, we have reason to promote it. And to the degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires, we have reason to use social forces to inhibit the formation of that desire. People who have an aversion to ‘cheating’ in their partners have a desire that will tend to keep their partners safe from sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. People who have no aversion to having sex with people other than their primary partner have a set of desires that creates desire-thwarting risk. Those who create risks for others are not good people. Those who risk the lives of others are worse.

The idea that sexual attitudes are morally neutral – that having fewer sexual partners is not a virtue and that having more sexual partners is not a vice – is as dangerous and false as the idea that sex without a condom is sacred and sex without a condom violates some natural moral law.

This is an illustration of the claim I have made earlier that religion is not the root of all evil – false beliefs are. And whereas religion is filled with false beliefs, there are false beliefs as well that fall outside of the realm of religion that can do just as much harm.

There is a distinction between arguing that a certain form of behavior is morally bad and arguing that it should be made illegal. The instrument of the state is a heavy and awkward instrument to wield and has a number of unavoidable side effects. In some instances, using the law to enforce moral principles may be like wearing boxing gloves when doing brain surgery. Whereas no act should be made criminal unless those who engage in it are also guilty of doing something immoral, not every immoral act should be made criminal.

In addition, particularly when it comes to sex, we must pay close attention to the issue of malleable desires. Each of us has a family tree – parents, grandparents, great grandparents – that goes back hundreds of millions of years and through hundreds of millions of generations to the point where sex became required for procreation. None of us can say very much about every individual in that family tree. Yet, there is one thing we can say – none of them died a virgin. Evolution almost certainly worked to fix a desire for sex as a basic fundamental human desire. Even where sexual desire is malleable, the ways and degrees to which sexual desires may be molded may be quite rigid.

The best way to get at answers to these types of questions is through more scientific research into the nature of sexual desire, the effects of certain types of social activities on molding sexual desire, and the costs as well as the side-effects of those social activities. This is not an area where armchair psychologists can be expected to provide sound conclusions as well as rigid scientific research.

It is also not an area where it is at all reasonable to believe that substantially ignorant tribesmen living 2000 years ago without the benefit of any form of science at all ‘got it right’ as it were. This is definitely an area where my previous analogy comparing the use of scripture as a guide to ultimate moral truth, to the use of the works of Hippocrates as the guide to ultimate medical truth, applies.

The most important point of similarity between these two examples are that those who use the Bible as the ultimate source of moral truth, like those who would use Hippocrates as the ultimate source of medical truth, would reach conclusions that will do a great deal of harm to a great many people. They would be the bringers of death and suffering on an massive scale. They are people who those who wish to solve the world’s problems and prevent death and suffering have good reason to condemn in very harsh terms.


Anonymous said...

I didn't watch the video of Lomborg, but I did read his latest book "Cool It". The man is impressive. I highly recommend it. It's actually a very short read.

He accepts the data on climate change (from the IPCC) but his conclusions are sane and helpful -- unlike many hysterics on the left and deniers on the right (that seems to be the general ideological distribution).

anticant said...

"It is just as plausible to argue that Europe, instead of discovering the light, has discovered an alternative form of darkness. It is because of this that, in spite of their abandonment of the Christian religion and aversion to Muslim religion, they fail to actually take off as a society."

As a European who enjoys your blog, and agrees with a lot that you say, I'd be interested to read your "plausible" arguments on this theme. Please do a post about it!

We might also then discuss the failures of American society, as they appear to some of us on this side of the pond...

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am aware of some of the failures of American society - particularly recent ones - since I write about them on a regular basis.

However, if atheism/rationalism were as great as many people think, and if Europe were as atheist/rationalist as some people infer from its low amount of religion, then Europe should be significantly eclipsing America at this point.

There is something in Europe that is providing as much of a dead weight as fundamentalist religion is in America. I hold that what is holding it back are philosophies that, though they are not religious, are still anti-reason.

anticant said...

I don't think the fact that most people in Europe [except Muslims] are nowadays less preoccupied with, or convinced by, religion than in the past necessarily means that they are more atheist or rational. Most don't concern themselves with philosophies or intellectual doctrines. They aren't educated to, but are brainwashed by consumerism, which suits the multinationals and mainstream media opinion manipulators.

Same in the USA, except that religion still has a stronger hold there.

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe said...

I searched through your blog and could not find anything on your thoughts on dating. Could you please write something on the topic and especially as related to cheating and particularly the moral implications regarding the cheater (A got boyfriend B) and the one who helps with the cheating (C sleeps A without B knowing about it). Are the moral implications heavier if this cheating is taking place when A & B are married?