Hide table of contents

We, A Happier World, just uploaded a video on value lock-in, inspired by Will MacAskill's book What We Owe The Future! 

This is part of a whole series we're making on the book, full playlist here.

Thanks to Sarah Emminghaus for her help with the script!


Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.

Hundred schools of thought

2600 years ago, China went through a long period of conflict that is now known as the Warring states era. But it also brought about a time with many philosophical and cultural experiments that is now known as the hundred schools of thought. That’s when Confucianism was born – the philosophy of Kong Fuzi who believed that self-improvement led to a spiritual transformation. Confucianism encouraged respect for your parents and obedience to authority, rulers and the state. The ethics depended on relationships between people rather than the actions themselves: A son beating their father is not okay, but the opposite is.**

There were a few other popular philosophies at the time; for example legalism. Legalists were strong proponents of heavy punishments for wrongdoings, a powerful military and a strong state, they believed people were selfish and needed heavy guidance.

Then there were the mohists – at the time, they were the confucianists’ main rival. Mohists believed that we should care about other people as much as we care about ourselves. And that we should take whatever actions benefited the most people. They proposed owning no luxury and consuming less.

The rivalism ended in 221 BC when the legalism-influenced Qin conquered China and took strong measures against all competing schools of thought – apparently legalism had won. That all changed when the dynasty ended just 15 years later and Confucianism turned out to be the new popular ideology.* Since then, all Chinese dynasties embraced Confucianism until the Qing dynasty ended in 1912. When Mao and the communist party started ruling China in 1949 it got suppressed, but it remained popular and it’s being revived today.

The popularity of Confucianism is a great example of value lock-in: a situation where one set of values wins against others and stays in place for a very long time.

Other examples include Christianity and Islam: The bible and the Quran are still the best-selling books today!

Risks of locking in current values

In general when we look at values from the past – be it 10, 50 or 200 years ago – it feels like we progressed towards the better. There’s no way we would want those “outdated” values to still persist. But what makes a lot of us so sure that our current values are good? They might be better in some ways, but just like we do now, people in the future will probably look at our current values and find a lot of them abhorrent. They will probably be glad we overcame those “outdated” values.

Right now a lot of pretty different worldviews are competing against each other – similar as in the time of the hundred schools of thought in China. No one school of thought has won – yet. 

Now what is interesting about this with regards to the long term future: How does a school of thought win against others? How do values get locked in? What values from today do we want to lock in – if any? Which ones are maybe already locked in even though they might not be what is best for humanity?

This video is part of a series based on Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill’s new book called What We Owe The Future. The book makes the case for caring about our longterm future and explores what we can do to have a positive impact on it. In a previous episode we told the story of Benjamin Lay, an inspiring abolitionist. In another one we argued why caring about our longterm future is important.

Will MacAskill mentions three ways values could get locked in in the future: If we set up a world government, through space colonisation, and through the development of powerful AI. The latter is perhaps the scariest. So far, Artificial Intelligence is narrow – meaning, machines only know how to perform narrow tasks, like beating us at chess. No AI can actually fully replicate human intelligence over all possible tasks. When AI exceeds human capabilities across all domains, and that might happen at some point sooner rather than later, there’s the massive risk values would be locked in that are not what is best for humanity. Perhaps by the AI somehow imposing them on us. 

This is already happening to some degree today through social media algorithms. 

We know this topic is incredibly broad and complex. We’re also not sure whether this really would happen. After all, it sounds a bit ridiculous. We will talk more about AI in our next video on existential threats, so subscribe and ring that notification bell to get notified when it comes out!

So how do we keep the wrong values from being locked in? 

In general: We should try to keep our minds as open as possible for as long as possible. As such, we should promote free speech and create a marketplace of ideas wherever possible. Whenever multiple schools of thought are encouraged, it gets less likely for one of them to win and be locked in.

One idea we like a lot is the idea of ideological charter cities: autonomous communities with their own laws that try out different ideas as an experiment – to see how well some theories translate into the real world without the specific policies being difficult to reverse. One real life example again happened in China not that long ago. In 1979 a special economic zone was created around the city of Shenzhen – with more liberal economic policies than in the rest of the country. The average yearly income there grew by a factor of two hundred over forty years, the experiment inspired broader reforms across the country. Since then, hundreds of millions of people in China have gotten out of poverty.

The idea of an ideological charter city could also be tried out by marxists, environmentalists or anarchists! That way we could see which ideas work best in the real world and learn something from it.

Another thing that can help is to have more open borders. If people are allowed to migrate more easily, people can vote with their feet which countries’ values they prefer.

Then there are values that are already helping us to get to morally better societies. Reason, reflection and empathy are probably among them. Engaging in good faith arguments, being open to other people’s viewpoints, empathising with people not in our inner circle – all those practices can help getting to an improved point of view and better morals.

There’s a paradox here: Making sure values don’t get locked in means locking in values like these. But this is a paradox we’re happy to live with.


If you thought this was interesting, you should definitely check out Will’s book. In the next episode we’ll be talking about the possible end of humanity. So don’t forget to subscribe!

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Love this - love the set design, love that you've come on camera, great script and interesting topic! Everything is awesome! 

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities