Humanitarianism of increasing world efficiency



After reading Factfullness by Hans Rosling and others I would like to claim the following:

It is humanitarian to to spend one's life increasing world efficiency.

I would like to verify / discuss this claim. Apologies if I’m just rephrasing other work or my logic is flawed. I’m am aware of Kant’s humanitarian rule which loosely translates to “Each person must never be treated only as a means to some other end, but must also be treated as an end themselves.” For myself I would prefer a more specific goal, since it is hard to measure each action against Kant’s rule. For brevity I will from now on use good to denote humanitarian and bad to denote the opposite. My rationale for the claim is as follows.

Part 1: Humans in general are good. My interpretation of Factfullness is that humans in general are good. You will always have people with bad behavior, but in general the world seems to become a better (more humanitarian) place every year. This is, for example, explained using the statistics for child mortality, life expectancy and percentage girls finishing public school. All these have significantly improved.

Part 2: Increased efficiency is good. One argument I came up with for this is looking at the extreme. Suppose we got an extremely efficient world. One person is able to do all the work in one day which used to be done by the entire world in one day. Then another person, for example, can in his one day make huge progress on reducing global warming while the third works on solving world hunger. This assumes that these persons would indeed spend their time on these good things. By point 1 I would argue that this is indeed the case. As extra argument we can add that humans nowadays also have a lot of power. All too often people are in situations where they could kill another human easily, but still they happily do not.

So, increasing efficiency appears to be good by part 2. Can we now conclude that the claim holds? Feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Posted 2018-11-10T20:47:55.060

Reputation: 113


Increased productivity requires increased natural resources, which are mostly limited. A more humanitarian occupation would be to reduce the exploitation of natural resources, and the only way to do that is to curb the human population explosion and establish a more sustainable economy.

– Bread – 2018-11-10T21:26:30.873

3Bread nailed it. Productivity could actually be perceived as a BAD thing - something replacing Nature's cycles with a downward spiral, where increasing productivity (accompanied by a variety of social and environmental problems) can never keep up with increasing population. – David Blomstrom – 2018-11-11T03:07:51.670

What they said, about 'productivity. But you you use "efficiency", I could get behind you. Welcome to the SE! – christo183 – 2018-11-11T07:44:40.523

Consider the lilies of the fields... – None – 2018-11-11T11:01:13.723

@Bread, the human population growth is not exploding, source: Factfullness. My point (see point 2) also is that sustainability should be improved. – RikH – 2018-11-11T15:15:28.437

@christo183 - Even the term "efficiency" is problematic. It can actually be a bad thing in some situations. A better term, in my opinion, is sustainability, which RikH mentioned. – David Blomstrom – 2018-11-11T15:25:01.660

@Bread: Increased productivity does not necessarily require more natural resources. Increased productivity of solar panels reduces use of fossil fuels, for example. Increased productivity can allow manufacturing on demand, which can lead to less actual production. It would also cover making an improved product with the same natural resources. – David Thornley – 2018-11-12T17:52:50.677

As @DavidBlomstrom mentioned "sustainability" too, is a laudable objective. But now it seems that the 'better' paradigm would be an empirical matter, rather than philosophical. – christo183 – 2018-11-13T12:41:55.223



Productivity and other economic categories are part of an academic discipline’s attempt to solve two problems:

  • utilitarianism, at least in relation to economics and political economy, can’t establish the commensurabity of desires. What I want and what you want can’t be measured against each other. A massive problem of norms.

  • “value,” Marx pretty much put the question of “why are things worth what they are worth in capitalism?” to bed. The remaining questions of predicting prices in order to profit didn’t need to ask why prices existed.

As a result economics established itself not on the problem of fulfilling human wants, but on the concept of “effective demand.” It isn’t what you want in your heart, but which thing you can buy with the money in your pocket.

As a result “productivity,” is a fairly value neutral term. A death camp and a child care centre can both be profit centres. Poison and antidote both have a going market rate. Your telephone could be made by slaves or wage slaves or the self-employed; and unless you have an effective demand to know, each labourers sweat is equal.

As productivity is amoral, so, expanding productivity is amoral.

Samuel Russell

Posted 2018-11-10T20:47:55.060

Reputation: 327

It seems like I had chosen the wrong word. How about the word 'efficiency'? – RikH – 2018-11-11T15:18:38.927

This answer is that economic categories are amoral, efficiency is an economic category. – Samuel Russell – 2018-11-12T01:45:27.687

Ah. I understand a bit better now. Still I do not think I fully understand your answer. You state that efficiency in theory is amoral. That I can agree on. There exists counterexamples for the morality of economics. However, if we look at an application of efficiency in an large environment (the world) and draw conclusions from that, I would say that we have pretty solid evidence for concluding that efficiency is moral. – RikH – 2018-11-12T20:38:52.857

@rikh Efficiency is specified as an amoral category from an amoral discipline; whether their specification is useful (instrumental), correct (empirically supported), and proper (moral) is an attempt to conduct a moral analysis of the discipline of economics; or a moral analysis of the purposes to which people engage in economic behaviour. Neither of which is the question at hand. Both could be excellent questions to ask. – Samuel Russell – 2018-11-12T23:44:21.537