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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Quantity as Quality?

I need to take a break from proofreading my dissertation (I’m turning it in today to defend this summer!) to write something else.

So there’s this weird passage in What We Owe the Future, a book by effective altruist William MacAskill who’s trying to sell you on longtermism.

Hold up. What’s longtermism?

Let me back up and introduce Peter Singer, a famous Utilitarian. That means he’s just trying to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering.

Singer ends up making some pretty seriously ableist arguments because it turns out that disabled kids are less efficient converters of resources into utility (enjoyment - suffering).

But one argument he makes is still pretty compelling, if a bit horrifying. calls it “The Drowning Child Thought Experiment” in big letters and that’s basically what’s happening.

If you came across a child drowning in a pool, but you were wearing really nice shoes that cost a lot of money, you would ruin those shoes to keep the child from drowning without thinking twice.

You don’t get to pick the shoes over the kid. The kid’s worth way more.

But instead of buying those shoes in the first place, what if you could send the same amount of money to some charity that would save a refugee’s life thousands of miles away?

Wouldn’t you have to do that, too?

Here’s Singer:

It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away…we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him).

Singer thinks it’s wrong to discriminate against people just because they happen to live further away from you in space. Someone’s life 1 zillion miles from here is worth just as much as yours.

Longtermists add that it’s wrong to discriminate against people just because they happen to live further away from you in time. Someone’s life 1 zillion years from now is worth just as much as yours.

There’s no use crying over spilled milk because we can’t change the past. But we can affect the future. And boy, the future is so big that even small improvements on a cosmic scale may be worth taking seriously right now. Obviously we’ll have to run the Utility Calculus but just the sheer amount of possible future people means there could be so much utility (enjoyment - suffering) to come.

How long could there be people? William MacAskill notes that “there are more exotic sources of energy, such as black holes, which could be harnessed. This could extend civilisation’s life span beyond a million trillion years.”

Home sweet home.

How many people could there be? God knows, but MacAskill sure doesn’t. He fills up several pages of the book with little stick figures to impress upon your mind just how many future people there could be, and then tells you that on conservative estimates (current population levels for 500 million years) there should really be 20,000 more pages.

In any event, the math looks pretty clear: We are outnumbered.

When we count it all up, our generation’s share of the possible hedonic pie is so much tinier than 1% that we are basically just useful for the people to come. Our real job is to not mess up the entire future of utility-maximization. (Do we know enough to help the future? That depends how optimistic you are about human and/or AI wisdom.)

We’ve talked about how some people think of value as a quantity, and that’s absolutely what’s going on here. MacAskill thinks better outcomes are just the ones with more Utility (enjoyment - suffering).

Better quality = More quantity

That means the best outcome has the most value and oh boy we’re off on a minmax hackathon, which is basically what effective altruism has become as a social movement.

This is how you end up with sites called that are trying to calculate the most efficient places you could send money to improve the world but end up suffering from value capture and running into the limits of charity for offsetting the effects of imperialism and keep getting rocked with lots of weird scandals to boot.

If you think about it, treating better as just meaning bigger might be the most unsophisticated move you could make in value theory. But we do this all the time.

And to be fair, quantity can be a reasonable proxy for quality, especially when what we’re really tracking is something like experience or achievement:

  • Who’s probably the better novelist, the one with 10 books or 1?

  • What’s probably the better restaurant, the one with three 5-star reviews or 300?

But there are limits…

  • Who’s probably the better novelist, the one with 10 books or 1000?

  • What’s probably the better restaurant, the one with 300 5-star reviews or billions and billions served?

Anyway in this bizarro passage, MacAskill asks a really weird question:

  • Who’s probably better at experiencing utility (enjoyment - suffering), the human with 85 billion neurons or the beetle with 50 thousand? How about the chicken with 200 million?

MacAskill’s idea is that we might use neuron count as a “rough proxy” for capacity for well-being—bigger brain, more going on—but just read his justification:

The motivating thought behind weighting by neurons is that, since we know that conscious experience of pain is the result of activity in certain neurons in the brain, then it should not matter more that the neurons are divided up among four hundred chickens rather than present in one human.

Look out kids, if you start out caring about enjoyment and suffering, you could end up caring about neurons.

By the way, an elephant has 3x as many neurons as a human being, largely because it takes so much brain to operate that much body. An elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles and 150,000 muscle units. I don’t know exactly what that means but humans have about 6,000 muscles and are smaller.

Anyway, neuron count gives the effective altruists some surprising results:

This gives a very different picture than looking solely at numbers of animals: by neuron count, humans outweigh all farmed animals (including farmed fish) by a factor of thirty to one. This was very surprising to me

That is pretty striking, because Peter Singer first got famous for giving a shit about animal suffering. But according to this metric, maybe the vegan movement hasn’t been quite as effective a form of altruism after all. And we know donated bed nets got repurposed for fishing and ended up destroying local ecosystems…

Anyway you’d better start giving money to long-term AI safety now, zillions of future lives are counting on it.

I’m interested in the limits of using quantity as a proxy (or even just a definition) for quality. Sometimes it works pretty well:

  • Who’s probably the better basketball player, the one averaging 30 points per game or 3?

And sometimes it doesn’t:

  • Who’s probably the better basketball player, the one averaging 33.9 per game or 26.4?

Hello again to my cousins, I’m writing to you once more on the relative value of Luka Doncic and the bigger version of him in a game the rewards size, Nikola Jokic.

  • floor-raisers can improve a bad team

  • ceiling-raisers can improve a good team

When it’s all said and done, Luka Doncic might turn out to be an even better floor-raiser than LeBron James. Luke has a floater, he shoots and scores better, he upgraded LeBron’s 27-7-7 into 33-9-9 and even with statistical inflation in 2024 that’s really incredible.

Just being able to do so much stuff really helps. An NBA team needs to score 100-some points, grab 40-some rebounds, and so on just to be competitive. Quantity counts, and that’s basically what drove Westbrook’s floor-raising MVP season.

But quantity’s a lot less important for ceiling-raising.

I bet you think I’m gonna say that Nikola’s a better ceiling-raiser than Luka and idk yeah maybe. But right now we’re actually watching him struggle to be a big floor-raiser in the playoffs. This Nuggets team is thinner without Bruce Brown, and with Jamal Murray injured, no one else on this team can really be trusted to dribble.

The Nuggets have become a little too dependent on Jokic to create everything.

And Jokic is struggling! He’s shooting bad and throwing the ball away against the best swarming defense I’ve seen in ten years that I absolutely didn’t take seriously enough. The Timberwolves are amazing to watch.

It’s been a total nightmare.

Anyway the point I want to make is that the most valuable player isn’t necessarily the player producing the most value.

Wow!! Watch me argue for this one!!!

While big producers Luka and Jokic have to do so much, deeper teams are less predictable and way less fragile when one or two pieces are less than 100%.

For example, Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert missed Game 2 to attend the birth of his son and the Timberwolves defense still ate the Nuggets alive. The Timberwolves had lots of other talent willing and able to fill in. Because they were able to redistribute responsibilities across several players, they were much more elastic around his absence.

Meanwhile in the East, the 2-0 Knicks are doing all of this without Randle, and the 2-0 Boston Celtics are missing Porzingis this series.

Depth is interesting. When you’re missing quality players, your other guys have to step up. This means that instead of getting to ceiling-raise around great players, these other guys need to do a little more floor-raising than normal.

Their stats are gonna go up (in terms of quantity), but that doesn’t mean they’re playing any better (in terms of quality). They’re just tapping more of their productive capacity.

Okay fine, but aren’t these guys more valuable to their team now that they’re doing more than they were before??

I don’t think that’s obvious either!

Am I more valuable when I do a lot to make a bad team good, or when I do the right things to a good team great?

I think quantity just straight up tricks people. So many folks would have Jaylen Brown in their top ten if he got to average 30 a game leading a (notably worse) team of his own. Same player, but more quantity would make people think he’s higher quality.

And I get it.

Floor-raising is impressively heroic and it’s really cool to watch any one guy do so much and will his team so far.

But extreme floor-raising rarely wins championships.

For now, the Mavericks are tied 1-1 with the Thunder. But they’re so dependent on Luka (and Kyrie) to create everything that I don’t know if they can beat the Thunder, especially with Luka banged up. When you’re already expending so much energy to do so much, it’s hard to improve your play.

Quantity is impressive and flashy but you shouldn’t confuse it for quality.

Okay I need to go proofread some more, talk soon.

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