Category Archives: Effective Altruism

Against responsibility

I am surrounded by well-meaning people trying to take responsibility for the future of the universe. I think that this attitude – prominent among Effective Altruists – is causing great harm. I noticed this as part of a broader change in outlook, which I've been trying to describe on this blog in manageable pieces (and sometimes failing at the "manageable" part).

I'm going to try to contextualize this by outlining the structure of my overall argument.

Why I am worried

Effective Altruists often say they're motivated by utilitarianism. At its best, this leads to things like Katja Grace's excellent analysis of when to be a vegetarian. We need more of this kind of principled reasoning about tradeoffs.

At its worst, this leads to some people angsting over whether it's ethical to spend money on a cup of coffee when they might have saved a life, and others using the greater good as license to say things that are not quite true, socially pressure others into bearing inappropriate burdens, and make ever-increasing claims on resources without a correspondingly strong verified track record of improving people's lives. I claim that these actions are not in fact morally correct, and that people keep winding up endorsing those conclusions because they are using the wrong cognitive approximations to reason about morality.

Summary of the argument

  1. When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
  2. Maximizing control has destructive effects:
    • An adversarial stance towards other agents.
    • Decision paralysis.
  3. These failures are not accidental, but baked into the structure of control-seeking. We need a practical moral philosophy to describe strategies that generalize better, and that benefit from the existence of other benevolent agents rather than treating them primarily as threats.

Continue reading

Bindings and assurances

I've read a few business books and articles that contrast national styles of contract negotiation. Some countries such as the US have a style where a contract is meant to be fully binding such that if one of the parties could predict that they will likely break the contract in the future, accepting that version of the contract is seen as substantively and surprisingly dishonest. In other countries this is not seen as terribly unusual - a contract's just an initial guideline to be renegotiated whenever incentives slip too far out of whack.

More generally, some people reward me for thinking carefully before agreeing to do costly things for them or making potentially big promises, and wording them carefully to not overcommit, because it raises their level of trust in me. Others seem to want to punish me for this because it makes them think I don't really want to do the thing or don't really like them. Continue reading

Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you might hope to see in a cooperative situation where people have convergent goals.

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only took paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does. Continue reading

Against neglectedness considerations

Effective Altruists talk about looking for neglected causes. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. If you are trying to distribute food, and one person is hungry, and another has enough food, it does more direct good to give the food to the hungry person.

Likewise, if you are trying to decide on a research project, discovering penicillin might be a poor choice. We know that penicillin is an excellent thing to know about and has probably already saved many lives, but it’s already been discovered and put to common use. You’d do better discovering something that hasn’t been discovered yet.

My critique of GiveWell sometimes runs contrary to this principle. In particular, I argue that donors should think of crowding out effects as a benefit, not a cost, and that they should often be happy to give more than their “fair share” to the best giving opportunities. I ought to explain. Continue reading

GiveWell and the problem of partial funding

At the end of 2015, GiveWell wrote up its reasons for recommending that Good Ventures partially but not fully fund the GiveWell top charities. This reasoning seemed incomplete to me, and when I talked about it with others in the EA community, their explanations tended to switch between what seemed to me to be incomplete and mutually exclusive models of what was going on. This bothered me, because the relevant principles are close to the core of what EA is.

A foundation that plans to move around ten billion dollars and is relying on advice from GiveWell isn’t enough to get the top charities fully funded. That’s weird and surprising. The mysterious tendency to accumulate big piles of money and then not do anything with most of it seemed like a pretty important problem, and I wanted to understand it before trying to add more money to this particular pile.

So I decided to write up, as best I could, a clear, disjunctive treatment of the main arguments I’d seen for the behavior of GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and Good Ventures. Unfortunately, my writeup ended up being very long. I’ve since been encouraged to write a shorter summary with more specific recommendations. This is that summary. Continue reading

The humility argument for honesty

I have faith that if only people get a chance to hear a lot of different kinds of songs, they'll decide what are the good ones. -Pete Seeger

A lot of the discourse around honesty has focused on the value of maintaining a reputation for honesty. This is an important reason to keep one's word, but it's not the only reason to have an honest intent to inform. Another reason is epistemic and moral humility. Continue reading

Between 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?