Category Archives: Justice

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

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 things, 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

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

Guess culture screens for trying to cooperate

My friend Miri (quoted with permission) wrote this on Facebook a while back:

Midwesterners are intolerably passive aggressive. My family is sitting among some grass in the dunes because it's the only shady place and a park ranger drives by and says, "That grass you're sitting in--we try to protect that." I say the only thing that makes sense to say in response, which is, "Thanks for letting me know! We'll be careful with it." And I go back to my reading.

Then I look up and she's still there. I look at her for a few moments and she says, "You need to get out of there." I'm like, ok. Why can't you just say that the first time? Not everyone grew up in your damn convoluted culture. Say what you fucking mean.

In the comments, someone replied:

One of the best parts of NYC is that no one dances around what they mean to say here. On the contrary, once I heard a guy on the subway say, to confused-looking strangers, "Do you need some fucking help or what?”

This particular incident seems like obnoxious behavior on the part of the park ranger, but it got me curious about why this sort of norm seems to win out over more explicit communication in many places. 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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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.
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