Monthly Archives: August 2014

Whatever Is Not Best Is Forbidden

At this year's CFAR Alumni Reunion, Leah Libresco hosted a series of short talks on Effective Altruism. She now has a post up on an issue Anna Salamon brought up, the disorienting nature of some EA ideas:

For some people, getting involved in effective altruism is morally disorienting — once you start translating the objects and purchases around you into bednets, should you really have any of them? Should you skip a gruel diet so you can keep your strength up, work as an I-banker, and “earn to give” — funneling your salary into good causes? Ruminating on these questions can lead to analysis paralysis — plus a hefty serving of guilt.

In the midst of our discussion, I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why. In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, he lays out a kind of factor analysis of what drives people’s moral intuitions. In his research, some moral foundations (e.g. care/harm) are pretty common to everyone, but some (sanctity/degradation or “purity”) are more predictive in some groups than others.

My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date. You can be inoculated against moral culture shock by previous exposure to other purity-flavored kinds of reasoning (deontology, religion, etc), but, if not (and maybe if you’re also predisposed to anxiety), the sudden clarity about a bestmode of action, that is both very important, and very unlikely for you pull off everyday may trigger scrupulosity.

EAs sometimes seem to think of the merit of an action as a binary quality, where either it is obligatory because it has the "bestness" attribute and outweighs the opportunity cost, or it is forbidden because it doesn't. You're allowed to take care of yourself, and do the best known thing given imperfect information, but only if it's "best.” This framing is exhausting and paralyzing because you're never doing anything positively good, everything is either obligatory or forbidden.

It doesn't have to be that way; we can distinguish between intrapersonal and interpersonal opportunity cost.

I'm not a public utility, I'm a person. If I help others in an inefficient way, or with less of my resources than I could have employed, then I've helped others. If last year I gave to a very efficient charity, but this year I switched to a less efficient charity, then I helped others last year, and helped others again this year. Those are things to celebrate.

But if I pressure or convince someone else to divert their giving from a more efficient to a less efficient charity, or support a cause that itself diverts resources from more efficient causes, then I have actually harmed others on net.

Cross-posted at the Effective Altruism Society of DC bloc.

Yay So-Called Redundancy

Miri has a post up responding to someone snarking about how the female condom is redundant and a solution to a solved problem. She points out a bunch of problems that aren't solved by other forms of birth control. But this is a more general pattern: it can be socially beneficial to have multiple, competing, mostly-redundant ways of getting things done, even if one of them is the "best."

Sometimes things can seem to swing too far in the direction of redundancy, especially for those of us who have pretty normal needs. A cool thing can lead to lots of strictly worse knockoffs hoping to profit from the confusion, or get buzz from the novelty of it, or because the prize of making it to the top in a market big enough for only one product is big enough to justify spending a lot on a small chance. Sites like The Wirecutter and The Sweethome are doing good work helping reduce the complexity of some consumer decisions.

But one thing a lot of critics of "consumerism" or the proliferation of products often seem to miss is that not everyone is the marginal consumer. Some people have strong inframarginal preferences that just aren't being served by some products. Back when "everyone" knew that Japanese cars were "better" than American ones, I remember an old Orson Scott Card article pointing out that he just can't fit comfortably into anything but a (relatively large) American-brand seat:

we try to buy American cars, not just out of loyalty to American workers, but because Americans tend to have some idea of how big Americans are, and I'm a big guy, and I don't want a car that was originally designed for people who are six inches shorter and a hundred-thirty pounds lighter than me.

That doesn't show up on generalized measures of quality but it's an important attribute big people may care a lot about, and small people don't. I face a similar problem with shoes. My feet are wide, and some brands of shoe are narrow. If there were only one or two types of shoe in each category, that might serve 90% of people fairly well - but the cost of serving another 9% of people is fairly low, because 9% is a huge number of people. There are diminishing marginal returns to diversity, but there are still sometimes positive returns.

This is true for drugs too. You may be allergic or not respond to one kind, so a "copycat" drug could make the difference between being sick and getting better, and then of course everyone made fun of the ads for that "restless leg syndrome" drug saying "haha drumming up demand by pathologizing normal behavior, stupid evil advertisers" without thinking, maybe someone who ACTUALLY HAS restless leg might be the best judge of that. And if they don't realize it's a treatable problem that they should mention to their physician, the ad could do them a lot of good.


I've noticed something about my motivation structure. This might be contingent on my level of stimulation, not universal. But, positive reinforcement doesn't function well for me as a reward. Negative reinforcement is awesome. I don't like it when some system does "nice" things that attract my attention for doing the thing, except on fairly short focused timespans. I love it if I can make something annoying go away by doing the thing.

I've tried habit-building apps like Epic Win and Fitocracy (HabitRPG seems to be the new popular one), which give you points each time you log progress, let you "level up" after a certain number of points, and sometimes have cute sounds or animations to make it feel more like a reward. But I hate logging things, and the apps make me hate it even more because they cost time and attention. Fitocracy made me hate taking the stairs for a while. Trying to reward myself for doing to-dos, checking email, and so on, has the same problem - so far, I've ended up more annoyed by the attentional cost of any reward system than pleased by the reward.

By contrast, I find Inbox 0 to be intrinsically motivating. I took a few hours to slog through my email. It was easy to stay motivated once I got into the mindset of, "Email, you shall trouble me no longer. I will end you. AVADA KEDAVRA!" Now it's easy to get motivated to bring my inbox back to zero. I’m a little worried that many of my high-motivation moments feel like casting the Killing Curse on tedious things, but the worry relies on fictional evidence. Continue reading

Nobody Knows What It's Like

"You can't kill me," growled Bruce. He had been stupid enough to allow himself to be captured - and he would have to resort to desperate measures to avert permanent failure.

"I'm not going to kill you," said his nemesis, pointing to the terrified, unwilling participant standing next to Bruce on the bridge. "But he might."

Bruce could hear the trolley coming closer. If he didn't do something soon, one of two things would happen. Either the five people on the tracks would die, or Bruce would be pushed off the bridge to stop the trolley with his body. Neither was acceptable. If he died, he would protect these innocents - maybe - but others would doubtless die in future experiments. If he did not stop the trolley, then five people who had not signed consent forms or waivers of liability would be killed, in an unauthorized experiment. Continue reading

I So Curious

Dr. John Kinyago had first noticed the problem when one of his research assistants had spilled her coffee on a test subject. After recovering from the unpleasant surprise, the subject had looked at her with clear suspicion. “I'm sorry, it was an accident!”, the research assistant said, truly but unconvincingly.

He worked the makeup remover over his face, wiping away the mask he carefully composed each morning to bring his vitiligo-altered skin back to some semblance of normality. He had tried more permanent treatments, but the result had unsettling effects. Michael Jackson could make money off his strange appearance; Jack Kinyago had to look impeccably conventional, conforming to expectations, unimpeachably serious. Except now.

Continue reading