Tag Archives: humility

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.

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Effective Altruism is not a no-brainer

Ozy writes that Effective Altruism avoids the typical failure modes of people in developed countries intervening in developing ones, because it is evidence-based, humble, and respects the autonomy of the recipients of the intervention. The basic reasoning is that Effective Altruists pay attention to empirical evidence, focus on what's shown to work, change what they're doing when it looks like it's not working, and respect the autonomy of the people for whose benefit they're intervening.

Effective Altruism is not actually safe from the failure modes alluded to:

  • Effective Altruism is not humble. Its narrative in practice relies on claims of outsized benefits in terms of hard-to-measure things like life outcomes, which makes humility quite difficult. Outsized benefits probably require going out on a limb and doing extraordinary things.
  • Effective Altruism is less evidence based than EAs think. People talk about some EA charities as producing large improvements in life outcomes with certainty, but this is often not happening. And when the facts disagree with our hopes, we seem pretty good at ignoring the facts.
  • Effective Altruism is not about autonomy. Some EA charities are good at respecting the autonomy of beneficiaries, but this is nowhere near central to the movement, and many top charities are not about autonomy at all, and are much better fits for the stereotype of rich Westerners deciding that they know what's best for people in poor countries.
  • Standard failure modes are standard. We need a model of what causes them, and how we're different, in order to be sure we're avoiding them.

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