On Philosophers Against Malaria

A philosopher friend told me about a fundraiser urging philosophers to give to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and asked me for my thoughts on it. They were especially interested in making sure there were multiple public perspectives on this because some philosophers seem to have been responding by giving more than they can afford.

I applaud these philosophers for putting the ideal of taking basic rational argument seriously into practice, and taking responsibility for trying to use this power for good. This fundraiser is part of a broader event called Philosophers Against Malaria, which is affiliated with the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, and it seems like a natural expansion of the ideas and methods of that movement. This is extremely appropriate; philosophers are some of the key founders of and proponents of EA, and for good reason – giving a large share of one’s developed-world income to charities focused on health interventions in poor countries is an unconventional action, but follows from clear and simple reasoned arguments based on common moral intuitions.

However, I think that there are some limits to the way EA’s recommendations are applied in practice, that are going to predictably lead to underperforming your true potential at doing good. To be a bit more specific, there’s an obvious argument that if you live in a rich country, care about the well-being of the people around you, and don’t have a principled reason to care less about those far away, then it should look like a great deal to give to charities operating in much poorer countries where money goes farther. This is true as stated.

This, however, is often tacitly conflated with the claim that it is morally obligatory to give a large share of your income to such charities – generally the ones endorsed by some specific organization such as GiveWell or Giving What We Can – and that if you commit to doing this, you can stop worrying about your impact on the world. This doesn’t necessarily follow, for a few reasons:

  • You may not be the core audience for charity recommenders like GiveWell or Giving What We Can.
  • For uncontroversial interventions, money may not be the limiting factor.

Moreover, the broader EA movement that produced these recommendations has some methodological issues that should make you doubt that it’s giving you the most relevant information on how to do good:

  • In recommending ways to do good, it centers the role of giving money to charity, implicitly at the expense of more direct ways to do good.
  • In evaluating actions, it implicitly uses an act-utilitarian or -consequentialist framework even in cases where rule-utilitarianism would be much more appropriate.

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GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 6

This is the last of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. In this post, I articulate what it might look like to apply the principles I've proposed. I then discuss my prior relationship with and personal feelings about GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project.

A lot of arguments about effective altruism read to me like nitpicking without specific action recommendations, and give me the impression of criticism for criticism's sake. To avoid this, I've tried to outline here what it might look like to act on the considerations laid out in this series of posts in a principled way. I haven't constructed the arguments in order to favor, or even generate, the recommendations; to the contrary, I had to rewrite this section after working through the arguments. Continue reading

Sample means, how do they work?

You know how people make public health decisions about food fortification, and medical decisions about taking supplements, based on things like the Recommended Daily Allowance?

Well, there's an article in Nutrients titled A Statistical Error in the Estimation of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin D. This paper says the following about the info used to establish the US recommended daily allowance for vitamin D:

The correct interpretation of the lower prediction limit is that 97.5% of study averages are predicted to have values exceeding this limit. This is essentially different from the IOM’s conclusion that 97.5% of individuals will have values exceeding the lower prediction limit.

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Social vs objective respect

Does Donald Trump deserve our respect now?

"I support any president of the United States. It's very important that the American people coalesce behind the president," Buffett told CNN's Poppy Harlow in an exclusive interview from Omaha on Thursday.

"That doesn't mean they can't criticize him or they can't disagree with what he's doing maybe. But we need a country unified," Buffett added. "He deserves everybody's respect."

I hear others asking, how can we respect this man, given his obvious flaws? This question comes from conflating two very different notions of respect. One type is social respect, an acknowledgement of someone's social standing. The other is objective respect, an estimate of someone's character or ability.

When people with an affinity for hierarchical social structures say "respect my authority," they are explicitly talking about social respect. But in most cases, the two meanings are difficult to disentangle. Practical abilities really do help you win status games, feeling high-status helps you be better at things, and the halo effect is a thing. So people often verbally conflate these two things. They point to roughly the same cluster of things, but designate different parts of the cluster as the central case. The words can be the same, and used to describe the same things, but the concepts are very different.

I think that it is, right now, very important to have an accurate, uninflated view of Trump's character and ability. I also think that it is very, very important that Trump perceive governing by legitimate and lawful means as a feasible way to hold high social status. Unfortunately, much of the proposed resistance to a Trump presidency cuts exactly the wrong way. Continue reading

On just not getting it

A lot of contrarians and Trump supporters have been talking about how people who were surprised by Trump's victory clearly just don't get it and need to learn about how the world really is.

This mixes together two things that are actually quite different:

  1. Surprise at Trump's widespread support.
  2. Surprise at a systematic divergence between opinion polls and voting results.

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Don't panic. Think.

Otto Von Bismarck is supposed to have said that there is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America. The people of the United States of America have repudiated that providence, in order to become a normal country. That protection has now been withdrawn.

It is a normal outcome for a presidential election in the Americas, with a constitutional system modeled after that of the United States, to empower an authoritarian strongman. We are, after enjoying more than two hundred years of our special providence, finally experiencing a normal outcome. This is bad news, but it is most likely not catastrophic news.

In my pre-election post, I outlined two main bad things about Trump:

  1. He is a threat to global political stability, might lead to a military conflict between great powers, and slightly increases the chances of a nuclear exchange.
  2. He is a threat to local political stability and might lead to the breakdown of civil order.

These things were real risks, and still are. They are very, very bad in expectation. But they are still fairly improbable. This is very bad news, but to run through the streets panicking would be committing a category error. To the extent that a Trump victory carries tail risk, we have already incurred that cost. We have already lost that measure. The only thing to do is manage the mainline scenarios.

(UPDATE: I basically endorse Paul Christiano's take on managing the tail risk.)

To respond reasonably to a Trump victory, we have to think clearly about the threats posed by a Trump regime, and the opportunities we have to change that.

I'm going to start by explaining why, while both those outcomes are real risks, the system is unlikely to suddenly collapse. Then I will explore what Trump's support means, and what we should do about it.
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