Ethics and [Effective] Altruism Links 7.20.2015

  1. The Logic of Effective Altruism
    1. Catherine Tumber Responds – Parallels drawn with Carnegie are interesting. Although I think a major counterpoint here is that raw economic growth has alleviated the majority of poverty within the last 20 years alone.
  2. Other People’s Mothers – Critique of Singer and utilitarianism as too reductionist. Theory vs practice of applying his concepts of Person-hood and altruism as prescribed. Not particularly damning of Effective Altruism, other than touching on the idea that adding just a bit of uncertainty to a toy model can completely throw off cost/benefit intuitions
  3. The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics – Emphasizes how difficult it can be to do a little bit of good rather than some idea of optimal (from a publicity perspective). Touches on the idea of how hard it is to analyze social cost/benefits of an act. To me, this suggests caution in following EA (effective altruism) arguments that suggest things like donating malaria nets being clearly more beneficial than Arts/Humanities charity.

5 thoughts on “Ethics and [Effective] Altruism Links 7.20.2015

  1. As the author of the Copenhagen thing, I’m curious how you’re getting from there to “maybe art galleries are competitive with malaria nets”. Like, I don’t see it at all – and respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the claim.

    (I do think there’s a way to justify art altruism – superrational purchase. See the very next post after Copenhagen)

    1. Thanks for the response. I should have said a bit more.

      It’s a couple steps but basically along these lines: Walmart is bad because they don’t pay people a living wage! But actually, there’s a good chance those people would just be unemployed if Walmart didn’t hire them. To me the core mechanism here is that the primary effects are salient but secondary effects are hidden. So yes, a lot of times you can make the argument that the main effects are the primary effects. But there seems to be a good amount of hand waving with regards to whether we can just ignore the secondary, especially long run, effects of exposing the public to the arts.

      Not that I’m a humanities nut or anything, I run an algo trading firm, but I think it’s worth playing devils advocate here.

  2. The other day I saw someone on the street find a piece of paper in the ground, pick it up, and immediately tucked it into their jacket, glancing around nervously.

    “What do you have there?” I asked.

    “Not sure I should tell you….this could be big…”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well…I guess you look harmless enough. You know the Powerball jackpot?”

    “Yeah, it’s up to, like, thirty million, right?”

    “Thirty million! Hahaha! Well, there’s going to be a drawing tonight, right? And, probably, someone’s going to win.”

    “…and you may have just picked up a winning ticket?”

    “Might have! And I’m going to guard it with my life! Not going to work today, too dangerous.”

    “Um…that seems ill advised. Sure, there’s some winning lottery ticket out there somewhere, but you have no reason to assume this is it.”

    “Look, you seem to be hand-waving with regards to whether this might end up being really valuable – you really have no way of knowing, do you?”

    “Well, that’s true – the world is vast and complicated, and that might very well be a winning lottery ticket. But past experience, and some basic math, suggest that it’s highly unlikely. The vast majority of tickets found lying on the ground will not win. Besides, if its on the ground, how do you know it’s not an old ticket from a previous drawing someone threw away?”

    “I don’t, it’s too caked in dirt for me to even know if it’s a ticket! See, how ignorant we are of the vast universe we live in? Frankly, I’m tired of your glib dismissals. I’m taking my paper-which-could-conceivably-be-a-winning-lottery-ticket and leaving.”

    The argument proves too much. Why prioritize art museums over mailing people bouncy balls in the mail or posting upside-down pictures of dogs on the Internet or writing Facebook posts with only vowels or inventing a version of baseball where the glove and the bat trade places?

    One of the central tenants of EA is “predicting effects (including positive effects) is hard”. Not quite as central, but closely related, is “most interventions don’t do very much good” – the baseline expectation that *anything* will do a lot of good should be low. AMFs and SCIs are *rare*. And there will be surprises – sometimes it’ll turn out that removing that one weird chemical you put in all that paint and gasoline and plumbing really is an extremely good thing to do – but in the absence of compelling evidence, you can usually assume that any given action or project isn’t (remember, you have about as much evidence that art museums will be super-harmful long run).

    Now, if you have a hunch, test it. There’s a growing community eager to help out with new approaches that show promise. Figure out something in the world that might look different depending on whether or not art museums (or something else) had an enormously powerful positive impact. It doesn’t even have to be definitive – but it does have to do *something* to be elevated among the innumerable alternatives of equal prior effectiveness.

    1. Well, I am certainly not opposed to data-driven decision making. The problem is there is a distinct feasibility of testing bias towards short term, primary and simple effects. The west has a long history of paternalistic humanitarian aid for developing countries, and that experiment took a long time to play out before we realized that massive long run institutional and economic harm we caused in exchange for saving a couple people from starving (probably). How confident are you that this time is somehow different?

      In lieu of finding ways to run controlled experiments on subtle, long run, effects, this approach suggests a society where humanity exists to merely work towards increasing the longevity of existence? Where in the calculus can you include the spiritual quality of that existence? Purely utilitarian conceptions of human society have been discussed and dismantled by no shortage of great thinkers for being dystopian.

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