Category Archives: Effective Altruism

Honesty and perjury

I've promoted Effective Altruism in the past. I will probably continue to promote some EA-related projects. Many individual EAs are well-intentioned, talented, and doing extremely important, valuable work. Many EA organizations have good people working for them, and are doing good work on important problems.

That's why I think Sarah Constantin’s recent writing on Effective Altruism’s integrity problem is so important. If we are going to get anything done, in the long run, we have to have reliable sources of information. This doesn't work unless we call out misrepresentations and systematic failures of honesty, and these concerns get taken seriously.

Sarah's post is titled “EA Has A Lying Problem.” Some people think this is overstated. This is an important topic to be precise on - the whole point of raising these issues is to make public discourse more reliable. For this reason, we want to avoid accusing people of things that aren’t actually true. It’s also important that we align incentives correctly. If dishonesty is not punished, but admitting a policy of dishonesty is, this might just make our discourse worse, not better.

To identify the problem precisely, we need language that can distinguish making specific assertions that are not factually accurate, from other conduct that contributes to dishonesty in discourse. I'm going to lay out a framework for thinking about this and when it's appropriate to hold someone to a high standard of honesty, and then show how it applies to the cases Sarah brings up. Continue reading

Claim explainer: donor lotteries and returns to scale

Sometimes, new technical developments in the discourse around effective altruism can be difficult to understand if you're not already aware of the underlying principles involved. I'm going to try to explain the connection between one such new development and an important underlying claim. In particular, I'm going to explain the connection between donor lotteries (as recently implemented by Carl Shulman in cooperation with Paul Christiano)1 and returns to scale. (This year I’m making a $100 contribution to this donor lottery, largely for symbolic purposes to support the concept.) Continue reading

References   [ + ]

1. This phrasing was suggested by Paul. Here's how Carl describes their roles: "I came up with the idea and basic method, then asked Paul if he would provide a donor lottery facility. He did so, and has been taking in entrants and solving logistical issues as they come up."

Mic-Ra-finance and the illusion of control

Microfinance charities make small loans to very poor people. The Unit of Caring has a post up answering a reader’s question on microfinance:

intomeans asked: So based on your post about microloans, do you think it's better to give $1000 to one person one time, or to lend it out through microloans and then, as the money's repaid, keep relending it to other people indefinitely? That's the main argument that pushed me to lend through microloans (in addition to giving to charities like AMF), and I don't think Givewell's analysis addresses that.

I think it’s better to give $1000 to one person one time.

The business model of micro loan organization is to loan $1000, take back $1200 if the recipient is able to pay it back, hope the additional $200 covers the money they are spending on identifying recipients and ensuring repayment, and loan $1000 again.

That this constitutes ‘the money doing good indefinitely’ is listed on GiveWell ‘six myths about microfinance’, which also links this really useful article. Basically: there is a lot of overhead involved in selecting and monitoring recipients, such that every time the loan is re-loaned out a significant fraction is lost. Overhead isn’t inherently bad but even if all the loanees repay the loans, it’s misleading to suggest that with some fixed amount of money to start, a microloan charity could make loans indefinitely. And not all the loans are repaid. (And sometimes, charities that report really high repayment rates, higher than American banks achieve, are a sign they have a lot of coercive power to get their money back, not a sign that the program is going brilliantly.)

So, a thousand dollars enables more than one thousand-dollar loan. But almost certainly less than ten, and some of those people repaid at great personal cost and ended up in a worse position than they started in (because they didn’t understand the terms of the loan or similar.)

This seems true as far as it goes - but even if the empirical premise were true, this case for microlending seems pretty weird. This argument for microlending is that each time you make a loan, you help the borrower - and because they typically pay back the loan, you can keep relending the principal, thus continuing to help people.

Let’s think about it disjunctively. For any microloan recipient, either they have a good way to invest the money, or they need the loan for short-run consumption. If they’re financing consumption, then either having to pay back the loan puts them even worse in the hole, or they’re using it for consumption smoothing and what they really need is savings.

If, on the other hand, they have a good way to invest the money, then they might pocket a profit even after paying back the microloan, which can then be lent out to someone else with an investment opportunity, a clear instance of “the money doing good indefinitely.” But what happens if you keep not making them pay you back? If they reinvest that money, then that’s also an instance of the money doing good indefinitely! Reinvestment of earnings is a thing, even in poor places, and so is helping one's neighbors.

When deciding between microloans and cash transfers, you’re not deciding between doing good one time and doing good indefinitely. The only thing that makes microloans feel like the impact is longer-lasting is because you can feel like you’re holding onto control for longer. The charity doesn’t just give the money and go away - at the end of the loan’s term, it gets to decide who gets the money next - and again, and again, and again. [UPDATE: Per Paul's comment below, there are some reasons to think that this kind of control control can be a good thing. My problem is with the assumption that it is.]

You the donor don’t even have the control here. You aren't lending to people you know or have otherwise personally verified can use the money. The only question you get to decide is: should your donation be administered by a big official charity? Or should it be administered by some random person in a poor village who knows the people and situation there? If they end up with a lot of money - and microlending would be a good idea - then wouldn’t the recipient of your cash transfer be motivated to do their own microlending?

The first option, picking a charity to administer your donation, might do better at weeding out obviously irresponsible recipients, but on the other hand, it comes with massive overhead costs that likely outweigh this benefit.

(As usual, the form itself is not the problem. I expect there are cases where microfinance is in fact helping. I expect that most of these are for-profit. The problem is the automatic deference to the form.)

I’m embarrassed not to have noticed this obvious flaw in the argument for microloans earlier. This seems like the sort of pathological thinking Sarah Constantin was trying to describe in Ra. Long-run wealth accumulation due to cash transfers doesn’t count because it’s in the hands of some specific individual as real concrete things. Repeatedly re-loaned microcredit keeps counting because it stays under the control of a large respectable institution, as the abstraction of money.

This is bonkers. It has little to do with doing the most good, and a lot to do with the worship of smooth, respectable official-seeming vagueness. Where else am I still making this mistake?

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.

Continue reading

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

Matching-donation fundraisers can be harmfully dishonest

Anna Salamon, executive director of CFAR (named with permission), recently wrote to me asking for my thoughts on fundraisers using matching donations. (Anna, together with co-writer Steve Rayhawk, has previously written on community norms that promote truth over falsehood.) My response made some general points that I wish were more widely understood:

  • Pitching matching donations as leverage (e.g. "double your impact") misrepresents the situation by overassigning credit for funds raised.
  • This sort of dishonesty isn't just bad for your soul, but can actually harm the larger world - not just by eroding trust, but by causing people to misallocate their charity budgets.
  • "Best practices" for a charity tend to promote this kind of dishonesty, because they're precisely those practices that work no matter what your charity is doing.
  • If your charity is impact-oriented - if you care about outcomes rather than institutional success - then you should be able to do substantially better than "best practices".

Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 5

This is part of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. My prior post considered the third through fifth arguments, on influence, access, and independence. In this post, I consider the sixth and seventh arguments:

Argument 6: If no one else is willing to fund a program, then this is evidence that the program should not be funded. Crowding out other donors destroys this source of independent validation.

Argument 7: If Good Ventures fully funds every high-value giving opportunity it finds, this could lead to other donors preemptively abandoning programs the Open Philanthropy Project is looking into, thus substantially reducing the amount of effective giving in the Open Philanthropy Project's perceived current and potential focus areas.

Argument 6 is sometimes an important consideration, but is a poor fit for the GiveWell top charities, to the extent that most donors are already largely moved by GiveWell's recommendations. Argument 7 points to a real problem, and one that reflects poorly on the effective altruism movement, but the problem is not mainly concentrated in the area of funding. Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 4

This is part of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. My prior post considered the second argument, that even assuming symmetry between Good Ventures and other GiveWell donors, Good Ventures should not fund more than its fair share of the top charities, because it has a legitimate interest in preserving its bargaining power. In this post, I consider the third through fifth arguments:

Argument 3: The important part of GiveWell's and the Open Philanthropy Project's value proposition is not the programs they can fund with the giving they're currently influencing, but influencing much larger amounts of charitable action in the future. For this reason it would be bad to get small donors out of the habit of giving based on GiveWell recommendations.

Argument 4: The amount of money Good Ventures will eventually disburse based on the Open Philanthropy Project's recommendations gives them access to potential grantees who would be interested in talking to one of the world's very largest foundations, but would not spend time on exploratory conversations with smaller potential donors who are not already passionate about their program area.

Argument 5: GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and their grantees and top charities, cannot make independent decisions if they rely exclusively or almost exclusively on one major donor. They do not want Good Ventures to crowd out other donors, because it makes them more dependent on Good Ventures, which will reduce the integrity of their decisionmaking process, and therefore the quality of their recommendations.

If you already think that GiveWell is doing good, Argument 3 should make you more excited about it - and implies that Good Ventures should be looking for ways to give away money faster in order to build a clear track record of success sooner.

Argument 4 seems plausible at some margin - if Good Ventures gives away most of its money quickly, then it will become a small foundation and have access to fewer potential grantees. But it would be a surprising coincidence if the amount of money Good Ventures will eventually give away were very close to this access threshold. If giving money away freely now will make it difficult to change behavior later once remaining funds are close to the access threshold, this is an argument for communicating this intention in advance, which may require Good Ventures and its donors to make their funding commitments more explicit.

I deal with two components of Argument 5 separately. First, GiveWell's top charities may become less effective if dependent on a single primary donor. Second, GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project have a legitimate interest in preserving their own independence.

The top charities independence consideration seems unlikely to uniformly apply to all the GiveWell top charities; each has a different funding situation and donor base, so this seems like a situation worth assessing on a case-by-case basis, not with a blanket 50-50 donation split between Good Ventures and everyone else.

To the extent that Good Ventures becoming the dominant GiveWell donor threatens GiveWell's institutional independence, this problem seems built into the current institutional structure of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project, in ways that aren't materially resolved by Good Ventures only partially funding the top charities. Continue reading

Costs are not benefits

You're about to brush your teeth but you're all out of toothpaste, so you walk over to the drugstore. They're out of your favorite toothpaste too, but there's a shampoo available for the same price. On the efficient market hypothesis, you expect that the market prices already contain all relevant information about the products, so you have no reason to think the shampoo is less valuable to you. So you buy it, go home, and wash your hair.

What's wrong with this story?

The problem is that you're using a marginalist heuristic. The efficient market hypothesis applies to markets in which people have roughly the same preferences. Everyone wants roughly the same thing from their financial investments - to make more money. So at any given level of risk, you should expect to evaluate tradeoffs the same as anyone else does.

In the case of the drugstore, you have a lot of information about whether you prefer shampoo or toothpaste, that is unlikely to be reflected in the price. The efficient market hypothesis suggests that you shouldn't expect to get a much better deal in a nearby store, but not that you should be indifferent between all similarly priced goods. You value toothpaste over shampoo a lot more than any price difference is likely to reflect, because you have what is called an inframarginal preference: you need toothpaste, and you've already got enough shampoo.

Critch just reposted an old argument in favor of voting, by doing a back of the envelope calculation of its expected impact. The model is perfectly fine, but to estimate the value, he uses a related cost. I don't think this seems like a reasonable thing to do if you're not making the shampoo-for-toothpaste error. Continue reading