Category Archives: Philosophy

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 should

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 take 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.

At first I was confused. This didn't seem like very consequentialist thinking. I briefly considered the possibility that Charlie was being naïve, or irrationally traditionalist, or thinking about what resembles his idea of a good charity. But after thinking about it for a moment, I realized that Charlie was getting something deeply right that almost everyone gets wrong, at least where money was involved. He was trying to maximize benefits rather than costs, in a case where the costs are much easier to measure.

Donations are a cost. Charlie had enough basic humility not to try to impose costs for no specific reason, even though he could easily do so.

Donors who know what the charity they're supporting does, who have personally inspected it, are following a heuristic that actually does something. Donors who give based on branding and buzz are putting their money somewhere that's well-optimized for branding and buzz. What do you do if you want to cooperate with the first heuristic, and not accidentally promote the second? What do you do if you don't want your own attention drawn towards things that will please the second crowd, at the expense of the first? Charlie's strategy seems like a reasonable answer.

Attention is a cost. Charlie's strategy avoids imposing this cost, except where it is most needed.

When I was writing my series on GiveWell, I asked Charlie for permission to tell the story about him. He asked me not to mention the name of his soup kitchen, because if other charities knew he had surplus money to give away, he'd be deluged with solicitations. This would waste their time asking him for money, and his own time responding.

Right now, if someone mentions a giving opportunity to Charlie, it's a high-quality signal. Charlie felt the need to hide his good works, because developing a reputation as someone with money to give away would destroy his ability to find high-quality giving opportunities.

Of course, there are benefits to honest openness as well, if you are humble enough to open yourself up to judgment, both positive and negative. But not everyone can pull that off in every context. Some people just don't like being criticized, for instance. And if you hide the things about yourself or your institution that are most likely to draw criticism, while publicizing the parts that attract positive attention and resources, then you're not really capturing those benefits. You're just engaged in brand image management, part of our society's cost-maximization machinery.

If you seems like a promising best strategy for implementing convergent strategies in a divergent world: Stay humble. Minimize the costs you impose on others. Hide from the machinery of cost-maximization. Send out signals optimized for audience quality rather than quantity, to help like-minded people find you.

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

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


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

Copernican revolutions, lordship, and bondage

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

Projects of philosophers

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