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
When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
Maximizing control has destructive effects:
An adversarial stance towards other agents.
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.
Recently, a friend looking to support high-quality news sources by subscribing asked for recommendations. I noted that New York Magazine had been doing some surprisingly good journalism.
I'd sneered at that sort of magazine in the past – the sort that people mainly buy to see who's on the annual top doctors list or top restaurants list. But my sneering was inconsistent. I'd assumed that such an obviously gameable metric must already be corrupt – but when I lived in DC, Washingtonian Magazine's restaurant picks were actually pretty good, and my girlfriend found a really good doctor on the Top Doctors list. Nor was he an expensive concierge doctor – he took her fairly ordinary health insurance. I'd assumed there would be paid placement, but there wasn't. The methodology of such lists is actually fairly clever: they survey doctors, asking for each specialty – if you needed to see a doctor other than yourself in this specialty, whom would you go to? Now I live in Berkeley, and the last time I needed to see an ear doctor, I found one on the list just a few blocks from my house – and he was excellent.
But even after correcting for my prejudices, New York Magazine is special. They recently published some of the best science reporting I've seen – it's nominally about the Implicit Association Test, but it's really about the sorts of bad science that contributed to the replication crisis. Here are some excerpts I thought were especially clear: Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
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 →
Perhaps much of what appears to be disagreement on how much dishonesty is permissible is in fact disagreement on how much words have meanings. I'll begin with a brief treatment of the reputation considerations for keeping one's word, and then complicate it. Continue reading →
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 →
In early 2014, as I was learning to be motivated by long-run considerations and make important tradeoffs, I started to worry that I was giving up something important about my old self - that some things that had been precious to me, would never quite be worth the price of holding onto, so the parts of my soul that cared for them would gradually wither away, unused, until it wasn’t even tempting to try and reconnect to going to the opera, translating classical Greek, or any of the other things in my life that I chose for their beauty but not their utility.
It turned out that I was right, though not quite in the way I expected.
This is my story. It is an honest report of that story, but that is all it is.
This is the story of how, over the past year and a half, I died and was reborn. In it, you'll find the ways I had to learn to model the world to effect this transformation. I hope that some of them are useful to you. Continue reading →
I got a wonderful compliment from a friend recently.
They had mentioned that I was a good host - that I got some important things right (this on its own made me feel recognized) - and expressed some worry that I might feel unappreciated. Another of their friends had expressed the sense that their contributions to the community weren’t being reciprocated. From what my friend could observe of my behavior I was acting fairly similarly, and they were worried I’d burn out.
I responded to the effect that I am already "burnt out" in the sense that I'm only doing things if they feel worth doing with no expectation of reciprocation. (My other motives are finding it intrinsically motivating to do good for others, and empowering allies to do good things more generally.) But, I continued, I was sad that I'm not setting off a success spiral where other people perceive the public goods I'm contributing to as benefiting them, and try to reciprocate by generating more public goods of a similar kind. A sort of public goods success spiral, where people do more, not just because they have more resources & like people, but because they perceive themselves to live in an environment with prosocial norms.
My friend responded that my behavior had inspired them to be a better host, and given them affordances of things to do, that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. They gave a concrete example: offering people water when they come in. And this was exactly the thing I'd wanted to happen, and had sort of given up on.
I shouldn’t have given up. But I should have expected it to be hard, because it implies a level of spiritual development that you can’t just skip ahead to. I should have known this, because I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.Continue reading →
Someone once described Michael Vassar to me as paying attention not to the conclusions but to the intellectual processes of people he’s talking to, not in order to conform to them, but out of curiosity, in case they are using some valuable heuristic he should add to his toolbox. I often find that I get something different than usual from philosophers because I read them this way. I find it jarring when people casually refer to Nietzsche’s philosophy (to name one example) to reference some proposition or other he's famous for asserting. It seems natural to me to be referring to his methods, but his specific conclusions seem like almost a weird irrelevancy. I think this is one of the most valuable things I got out of my St. John’s education - the ability to read thinkers to figure out what their project was, rather than a bunch of specific propositions they were advancing. This is my attempt to share this way of reading, by working through an example.Continue reading →