Originally Posted by karlsmith
I prefer to think of it as second-semester sophomore nihilism combined with optimal control theory.
No, but the core of the issue is this:
If you think of policy as an infinite horizon problem, then there is always some discount rate that justifies an arbitrary amount of human suffering today, to relieve the probability of human suffering in all future periods.
Traditionally, people speak about policy as if this was the objective function we are maximizing.
Thus questions between suffering today and increasing the long run path of suffering are always value questions. How much do you care about the future?
However, once you accept that this is a finite horizon problem that changes. For some cases there exists no discount rate such that human suffering today can be justified by a lower probability path of human suffering tomorrow.
Doing the "responsible" is thing unambiguously worse for humanity irrespective of your valuation of the future.
I think this is important because its important to realize that some policy decisions to suffer now for the greater good can simply be wrong. Not a question of values or moral, but demonstrably wrong. The world simply does not operate under conditions that would allow that to be the solution to some utility maximization problem.
That was needlessly snarky. I apologize for the tone, as this was actually an interesting talk.
I think you can remove the social scientific/economics jargon and rephrase your problem in the following way (let me know if I'm wrong): People assume (with regards policy choice) that bearing costs today to put off future suffering is objectively "better" (value judgment) that putting off these costs. (n.b.: I wouldn't say this is actually how people talk about policy, as it seems that the major republican intellectual claim about climate change legislation is that the cost is too high for us to make policy changes that could theoretically effect the future climate.) But, you're saying that in actuality certain costs that we could incur today to make a better tomorrow are not actually worth it because, as Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead.
The problem, as I see it, is that this is ultimately (as you implied) a question of values. My given values may differ from yours, etc. And the issue of values is a problem that the social sciences, especially economics, cannot solve. That is to say, I don't see how you could ever demonstrably prove something "wrong" (it seems that you are implying there is a level of human suffering that cannot justify sacrifice today for tomorrow. But where you place this line is ultimately arbitrary). I am not trying to be a value relativist, but I am just pointing out that you seem to imply an economic definition to what is ultimately a philosophical problem that the discipline of economics isn't fit to solve. It seems that you would have to accept the academic division of labor here and perhaps turn to other disciplines, likely philosophy, to address the value-issues you're discussing.