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Effective altruism

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Thinking hard, or
hardly thinking?


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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.
Hélder Câmara[wp]

Effective altruism is a movement to change the world through making carefully-targeted charitable donations — not only through making carefully-targeted charitable donations, but that is the overwhelming focus. Philosopher Peter Singer started the idea and buys into it big time, pushing it hard wherever he goes.[1] Effective Altruism is also pushed by Bay Area technolibertarians, and artificial intelligence existential risk groups, including MIRI[wp]. The latter, of course, consider themselves an obvious beneficiary — if not the obvious beneficiary.

The sales pitch is that, if you're going to try make the world a better place for other people, you should try to do the best possible job you can. If you had the choice between helping a local community theater group put on a show or saving African children from from malaria, the right thing to do is, of course, to save the children. (We think.) People face dilemmas like this in real life whenever they donate money to charity: if you're not donating to the most cost-effective charities that you can, you fail at utilitarianism. (It's impossible not to fail at utilitarianism, but you can fail less hard.)

It is important to remember that EA invented neither the concept of charity, nor the concept of evaluating charities. Beware of EAs equivocating by responding to criticisms of the EA subculture's behaviours with advocacy of the value of charity or evaluating charities in particular.


[edit] Origins

The philosophical underpinnings mostly come from philosopher Peter Singer, particularly his 1972 essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality[wp]. He argues in this essay that affluent people are morally obligated to donate far more of their income to humanitarian causes than is considered normal in Western culture. This did not start the effective altruism subculture, but once it was going he joined in enthusiastically.

The effective altruism subculture — as opposed to the concept of altruism that is effective — originated around LessWrong.[2] The phrase was first used (as "effective altruist") by Eliezer Yudkowsky in his 2007 blog post Scope Insensitivity, arguing against sentimentality and for utilitarian calculation in charity:[3]

If you want to be an effective altruist, you have to think it through with the part of your brain that processes those unexciting inky zeroes on paper, not just the part that gets real worked up about that poor struggling oil-soaked bird.

The movement eventually settled on the name "effective altruism" by 2012.[4][2]

[edit] Earning to give

People that call themselves effective altruists commonly endorse the "earning to give" approach, at least for those who have, or might be able to get, well-paid jobs. At its most hardcore, "earning to give" means getting the highest-paying job you can and then donating as much of it as possible (up to some threshold, for sanity's sake). After all, you can get more done by paying a bunch of other people to solve problems for you than you can do all on your own, right?[5]

In practice, people will not always take (or keep) the highest-paying job they can, for a variety of reasons including commute time, company culture, working hours, the employer's attitude to diversity, work-related stress, and whether the management are perceived to treat employees well or badly. However, 80,000 Hours, an organisation dedicated to giving career advice to wannabe effective altruists, published a blog post claiming that research showed that, depending on the type of stress, stress at work wasn't necessarily a big deal anyway and in some cases, people should consider just sucking it up and maybe "reframe stress as opportunity", in the interests of saving more children from malaria.[6]

Also, in practice nobody literally donates "as much as possible" - an unrealistic standard which would presumably mean forgoing any kind of luxuries and a curtailed social life, at least after securing a long-term relationship - and which would still leave the awkward question of should one's kids be brought up effectively in almost-poverty too? (The powerful human instinct towards protection of one's offspring would tend to mitigate against such thinking when it came down to it - and if not, there's always social services.) One EA organisation, Giving What We Can, promotes a suggested amount of 10% of one's entire working lifetime income, spread over a working lifetime. Although this is easily achievable by generously-compensated Bay Area software engineers, and (as even Giving What We Can recognises) not achievable by students struggling to get by on student loans, some in the movement seem curiously blind to the fact that not everyone who has a job might be able to part with 10% of their entire income. Some — not all of them millionaires — even pledge to give much more than 10% of their income. It is unclear whether this behaviour is, on balance, inspirational, or whether it acts to drive away potential donors, activists and charity workers who might feel that this is a movement of exclusively privileged people that is remote from their lives and concerns.

Compounding the problem, effective altruism is regularly conflated, even inside the movement, with:

  • Giving What We Can, even though not all people who identify as "effective altruists" have pledged to donate 10% of their income or are planning to do so
  • Utilitarianism, even though not all effective altruists are utilitarians
  • Supporting everything that everyone in the movement does, even though that would be arguably self-contradictory (see below)

EA organisations regularly conduct research into what brings people into the EA movement, but no formal research seems to have been done into what drives some people away from EA. The thinking of many EAs is that effective altruism is so obviously right, only people who were somehow in fundamental disagreement with EA values like doing nice things, and doing more and better things rather than fewer and worse things, would even consider not joining the movement...

[edit] Mosquito nets versus AI risk

The ideas have been around a while, but the current subculture that calls itself Effective Altruism got a big push from MIRI[wp] and its friends in the LessWrong community, many of whom considered MIRI obviously the most effective charity in the world.[7] However, unfortunately for MIRI, EA charity guide GiveWell subsequently rated donations to them as actually worse for their project (addressing the threat to humanity posed by hypothetical future advanced Artificial Intelligence technology) than not donating. GiveWell, unlike LessWrong and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, primarily promotes charities focused on improving health in the developing world. GiveWell's criticism of MIRI argued that MIRI's focus on supposedly trying to save the world and create "Friendly AI" amounted to a form of Pascal's Mugging — promising enormous benefits, even though the probability of actually receiving those benefits is tiny.[8][9]

This is not the only example. Reducing animal suffering is an important cause for a significant minority(?) of the movement,[10] but some people have unusual ideas on how to do this. One prominent effective altruist has put up for discussion on his blog the idea of destroying nature in order to reduce wild animal suffering.[11] In fact, some members of the Effective Altruism movement identify as "negative utilitarians", meaning that preventing suffering is the only thing that matters. However, this philosophy seems to imply that we should be willing to destroy the entire world to prevent one person from suffering a pinprick.[12]

Despite the many and varied differences of opinion within the EA movement, those that remain in the movement tend not to spend too much time arguing about fundamental "cause selection" issues (whether to donate to AI risk, global health, poverty or animal causes) - and even when they do, such discussions tend to remain relatively civil and non-rancorous. Part of the reason for this is that all EAs are in favour of "growing the pie" of EA supporters at this point in time, and most of them recognise that rancorous discussions would impede that goal. Although ideas about targeting growth differently have been mooted, such as focusing more on trying to recruit the rich (by hard-headed pragmatists) or women and ethnic minorities (by social justice people) or people who don't speak English (by people who think outside the English-speaking world), no-one is so pessimistic about their favoured EA cause area that they think that growing the pie won't gain their preferred cause area more EA recruits.

However, one EA has argued that this polite truce doesn't make sense, because if people think their cause is vastly better, they should be spending a lot of their time trying to persuade people of that.[13] Scott Alexander has counter-argued, based on his extensive personal (and often unsuccessful) experience of arguing with people who are sceptical about AI risk as a cause, that repeated arguments of this kind at EA meetups would be tiring, repetitive, and unpleasant.[13] This is not to say that Alexander does not advocate for AI risk reduction — however, he prefers to write long blog posts where he can assemble his arguments and evidence and engage in an extensive, uninterrupted written monologue.[14]

[edit] Where "Effective Altruists" actually send their money

According to William MacAskill of "The Effective Altruism Blog"[15], effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. In practice, this amounts to complaining when people try to solve local problems, feeling bad when people eat hamburgers, and sending money to Eliezer Yudkowsky, respectively.

[edit] Risks

Robin Hanson points out that people accumulate knowledge and wisdom as they get older and may change their minds about important things as a result. He therefore advises effective altruists - those of them who are young, anyway, which is most of them - to do nothing now and save money for later, because they might change their mind about where to give that money. Hanson, who specialises in the study of allegedly hypocritical human behaviour ("X is not really about Y!") argues that effective altruists are prone to irrationally give now rather than later, to signal sincerity to their fellow effective altruists. When asked whether it is not better to give now while we still can, because our future selves might spend the money on e.g. putting our children through university, he responded "Maybe that's the right thing to do! Why do you distrust your future self so much?"[16]

Like activism and do-gooding generally, for high-scrupulosity[wp] people, going overboard with EA can be dangerous. It can lead to burnout[wp] from overwork and/or neglecting your own needs and/or those of your family. It's worth remembering that, "effective" as it may be to buy a bed net for a child in Africa, people close to you also have needs of various sorts, which can often most "effectively" be met by you.

A significant number of EAs advocate giving large portions (10%+) of your income away on a continuous basis, but it is important to remember that your circumstances may change — for example, you may lose your job or encounter a health crisis — so it is worthwhile considering saving some money in case you need it. You can always give away that saved money later, or change your mind if you decide you really need that money yourself.

Excessive moralising about EA can also cause you to — like a kind of inverse Dale Carnegie[wp] — lose friends and fail to influence people. Arguably, persuading other people to give to good causes is best approached in an upbeat "look what you could achieve" way, rather than trying to guilt-trip people. (The latter is probably more likely to work on people who were already high-scrupulosity and thus more susceptible to EA ideas in the first place — so the value of "converting" such people to EA by guilt-tripping them could well be less than you might think, because they might have ended up being converted anyway.)

In the (unlikely) worst case scenario, you could lose all your non-EA friends through being seen as extremely preachy and arrogant, then later become financially ruined through a chance accident or illness leaving you unable to work, have no savings to fall back on — and then receive no help whatsoever from your EA friends despite all the past good you have done, because helping you is not an "effective" cause. This scenario is probably unlikely to pan out this way in practice though. Probably.

[edit] See also

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Effective altruism.

[edit] Footnotes

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