How neglected is freedom/autonomy in effective altruism measures?

I really like effective altruism. It challenges you to think about how you are doing good and whether you could do it better

As we cannot easily measure improvements in the human condition, we need proxy measurements to guide our activities.

However I think the current measures effective altruism uses are in danger of neglecting the value of freedom and autonomy.

Using this problem analysis framework as a good guide to the measures commonly used; we have:

  • A reduction in the risk of extinction (or increase in the expected value of the future)
  • Raising global economic output
  • Increase in income among the world’s poorest 2 billion people
  • Saving this many years of healthy life each year

So the two things we want from increasing autonomy and freedom is a more robust society and a happier society. Do these measures suffice to lead us towards these?

It is worth noting that we directly optimising for a happier society is probably not what we want (lest we alter our brain chemistry to be happy all the time for no reason and do nothing), but optimising for things that are valuable and increases happiness seems like a win.


Consider the end goal of the autonomy project as small technologically self-sufficient hermetically seal-able habitats.  These could be on land, sea or space. Developing these would change a number of extinction risks into non-extinction risks even if we couldn’t predict and mitigate the risk itself. They would also save lives in these situations.

So this desiderata is relatively well covered. Although if we have developed the technology to live in self-contained, self sufficient habitats, it is an open question how many people would be living in them, and so great uncertainty in their value.  Those people who did adopt that technology would be sheltered from the worse effects and would have a technology base with which to adapt to the changed conditions.

Happiness through freedom

This seems less well covered. There has been some research that we can increase our happiness with increased freedom. However this would not be picked up by any of the measures.

Only if freedom and autonomy decreased to the degree that there was a measured decrease in psychological well-being that led to suicide or severe depression would freedom show up on the quality adjusted life years.

Evaluating autonomy

So what about my proposed measure? It measures the volume of space taken up by the activities you need for survival and or thriving. The smaller the volume, the less people you need to take into consideration the more free and robust you can be.

However it is at best a proxy goal for happiness. It is possible you would be unhappy for other reasons, for example it does not measure political freedom at all. You may be able to do anything, but lots of things may be forbidden. It is also a pre-requisite for robustness, but depending on how much energy is being dumped on your head (meteor vs supernova) you may need more shielding or just to be further away from the problem to actually survive.

So it is not the one measure to rule them all. It is interesting that working towards it can work towards two separate goals of humanity and so likely to represent real value. The autonomy measure seems as good as the goal of trying to increase the world economy by a certain amount. You can also work towards the it as a way of working towards human happiness without having to measure human happiness at each point.

There is also the adventure and exploration aspects of space faring civilization it enables, but these are likely less valuable than the other two.

Other measures

It would be interesting to try and think of other measures for what is good. We can only improve deliberately what we measure.


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