I don’t have or know of any data (which doesn’t mean much, to be fair), but my hunch would be that rationalist people who haven’t heard of EA are, on average, probably more open to EA ideas than the average altruistic person who hasn’t heard of EA. While altruistic people might generally agree with the core ideas, they may be less likely to actually apply them to their actions.
It’s a vague claim though, and I make these assumption because of the few dozens of EAs I know personally, I’d very roughly assume 2⁄3 of them to come across as more rationalist than altruistic (if you had to choose which of the two they are), plus I’d further assume that from the general population more people will appear to be altruistic, than rationalist. If rationalists are more rare in the general population, yet more common among EAs, that would seem like evidence for them being a better match so to speak. These are all just guesses however without much to back them up, so I too would be interest in what other people think (or know).
A few random thoughts from a researcher with a background in psychology research:
One driver for preferences for LSTs or eudaimonia frameworks for SWB is an intuition that solely focusing our well-being concerns on happiness or affect would lead us to conclude that happiness wireheading as a complete and final solution, and that’s intuitively wrong for most people.
Because psychologists are empiricists, they don’t spend too much time worrying about whether affect, life satisfaction, or eudamonia are more important in a philosophical or ethical sense. They are more concerned about how they can measure each of these factors, and how environmental (or behavioral or genetic) factors might be linked to SWB measures. To the extent there is psychological literature on the relative value of SWB measures, I think most of it is simply just trying to justify that it is worth measuring and talking about eudamonia at all, as eudamonia is probably the least accepted of the three SWB measures.
Working out the relative importance of SWB measures seems to me to be solely a question of values, for moral philosophy and not psychology, so I am glad that you, as a moral philosopher, are considering the question!
Finally, a bit of an aside, but another area where I would like to see more moral philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists talking is the relative importance of positive vs. negative affect. From a neuropsychological point of view, positive and negative affect are qualitatively different. Often, for convenience, researchers might measure a net difference between them, but I think there are very good empirical reasons that they should be considered incommensurable. All positive affect shares certain physical neuroscientific characteristics (almost always nucleus accumbens activity, for instance) but negative affect activates different systems. If these are really incommensurable, again we need to look to moral philosophers to be think about which is more important. This could be important for questions in moral philosophy (e.g., prior existence vs. total view) and in EA particularly: a strong emphasis on the moral desirability of positive affect might lead us towards a total view (because more people means more total positive affect) whereas balancing negative and positive affect could lead us towards a prior existence view (fewer people means less negative affect but also less positive affect), and a strong focus on avoidance of negative affect could even lead to a preference for the extinction of sentient life.
What about an objective list theory containing only hedonistic value, preferences, and global desire or life satisfaction (whether mental state versions or not)? In this way, it could be the case that nonhuman animals do have welfare, but do not have access to certain kinds of welfare. Nonhuman animals may also not have access to non-mental state welfare beyond what’s already captured in their mental state welfare.
Of course, then we have to decide how to deal with conflicts and weighting between the different components, as you mention, and this to me seems doomed to arbitrariness.
Among rationalist people and altruistic people, on average, which of them are more likely to be attracted to effective altruism?
This has uses. If one type of people are significantly more likely to be attracted to EA, on average, then it makes sense to target them for outreach efforts. (e.g. at university fairs)
I understand that this is a general question, and I’m only looking for a general answer :P (but specifics are welcome if you can provide them!)
Harris is a marmite figure—in my experience people love him or hate him.
Harris is a marmite figure—in my experience people love him or hate him.
My guess is people who like Sam Harris are disproportionately likely to be potentially interested in EA.
You mention that:
Neither we nor they had any way of forecasting or quantifying the possible impact of [Extinction Rebellion]
and go on to talk about this is an example of the type of intervention that EA is likely to miss due to lack of quantifiability.
One think that would help us understand your point is to answer the following question:
If it’s really not possible to make any kind of forecast about the impact of grassroots activism (or whatever intervention you would prefer), then on what basis do you support your claim that supporting grassroots activism would improve its impact? And how would you have any idea which groups or which forms of activism to fund, if there’s no possible way of forecasting which ones will work?
I think the inferential gap here is that (we think that) you are advocating for an alternative way of justifying [the claim that a given intervention is impactful] other than the traditional “scientific” and “objective” tools (e.g. cost-benefit analysis, RCTs) , but we’re not really sure what you think that alternative justification would look like or why it would push you towards grassroots activism.
I suspect that you might be using words like “scientific”, “objective”, and “rational” in a narrower sense than EAs think of them. For instance, EAs don’t believe that “rationality” means “don’t accept any idea that is not backed by clear scientific evidence,” because we’re aware that often the evidence is incomplete, but we have to make a decision anyway. What a “rational” person would say in that situation is something more like “think about what we would expect to see in a world where the idea is true compared to what we would expect to see if it were false, see which is closer to what we do see, and possibly also look at how similar things have turned out in the past.”
This seems like an incredibly interesting and important discussion! I don’t have much time now, but I’ll throw in some quick thoughts and hopefully come back later.
I think that there is room for Romy and Paolo’s viewpoint in the EA movement. Lemme see if I can translate some of their points into EA-speak and fill in some of their implicit arguments. I’ll inevitably use a somewhat persuasive tone, but disagreement is of course welcome.
(For context, I’ve been involved in EA for about six years now, but I’ve never come across any EAs in the wild. Instead, I’m immersed in three communities: Buddhist, Christian, and social-justice-oriented academic. I’m deeply committed to consequentialism, but I believe that virtues are great tools for bringing about good consequences.)
I think the main difference between Guerrilla’s perspective and the dominant EA perspective is that Guerrilla believes that small actions, virtues, intuitions, etc. really matter. I’m inclined to agree.
Social justice intuition says that the fundamental problem behind all this suffering is that powerful/privileged people are jerks in various ways. For example, colonialism screwed up Africa’s thriving (by the standards of that time) economy. (I’m no expert, but as far as I know, it seems highly likely that African communities would have modernized into flourishing places if they weren’t exploited.) As another example, privileged people act like jerks when they spend money on luxuries instead of donating.
Spiritual intuition, from Buddhism, Christianity, and probably many other traditions, says that the reason powerful/privileged people are jerks is that they’re held captive by greed, anger, delusion, and other afflictive emotions. For example, it’s delusional and greedy to think that you need a sports car more than other people need basic necessities.
If afflictive emotions are the root cause of all the world’s ills, then I think it’s plausible to look to virtues as a solution. (I interpret “generating the political will” to mean “generating the desire for specific actions and the dedication to follow through”, which sound like virtues to me.) In particular, religions and social justice philosophers seem to agree that it’s important to cultivate a genuine yearning for the flourishing of all sentient beings. Other virtues—equanimity, generosity, diligence—obviously help with altruistic endeavors. Virtues can support the goal of happiness for all in at least three ways. First, a virtuous person can help others more effectively. Compassion and generosity help them to gladly share their resources, patience helps them to avoid blowing up with anger and damaging relationships, and perseverance helps them to keep working through challenges. Second, people who have trained their minds are themselves happier with their circumstances (citation needed). Great, now there’s less work for others to do! Third, according to the Buddhist tradition, a virtuous person knows better what to do at any given moment. By developing compassion, one develops wisdom, and vice versa. The “Effective” and the “Altruism” are tied together. This makes sense because spiritual training should make one more open, less reactive, and less susceptible to subconscious habits; once these obscurations are removed, one has a clearer view of what needs to be done in any given moment. You don’t want to act on repressed fear, anger, or bigotry by accident! To riff off Romy and Paolo’s example of “wealthy EA donors” failing to work on themselves, their ignorance of their own minds may have real-world consequences when they don’t even notice that they could support systemic change at their own organizations. The argument here is that our mental states have significant effects on our actions, so we’d better help others by cleaning up our harmful mental tendencies.
Maybe this internal work won’t bear super-effective fruit immediately, but I think it’s clear that mind-training and wellbeing create a positive feedback loop. Investing now will pay off later: building compassionate and wise communities would be incredibly beneficial long-term.
Miscellaneous points in no particular order:
“EA seems to unquestioningly replicate the values of the old system: efficiency and cost-effectiveness, growth/scale, linearity, science and objectivity, individualism, and decision-making by experts/elites”.
Here’s how I interpret the argument: historically, people who value these things have gone on to gain a bunch of power and use it to oppress others. This is evidence that valuing these things leads to bad consequences. Therefore, we should try to find values that have better track records. I’d be fascinated to see a full argument for or against this chain of reasoning.
More factors that may or may not matter: Greed might be the root cause of someone’s aspiration toward efficiency+growth. A lack of trust+empathy might lead someone to embrace individualism. Giving power to experts/elites suggests a lack of respect for non-elites.
“In short, we believe that EA could do more to encourage wealth owners to dig deep to transform themselves to build meaningful relationships and political allyship that are needed for change at the systems level.”
If you assume that spreading virtues is crucial, as I’ve argued above, and if virtues can spread throughout networks of allies, then you should build those networks.
We would suspect that donors and grant managers with a deep emotional connection to their work and an actual interest to have their personal lives, values and relationships be touched by it will stick with it and go the extra mile to make a positive contribution, generating even more positive outcomes and impact.
We need mind training so that we can help impartially. Impartiality is compatible with cultivating “warm” qualities like trust and relationships. Julia Wise explains why no one is a statistic: http://www.givinggladly.com/2018/10/no-one-is-statistic.html
More philanthropic funding, about half of it we would argue, should go to initiatives that are still small, unproven and/or academically ‘unprovable’, that tackle the system rather than the symptoms, and adopt a grassroots, participatory bottom-up approach to finding alternative solutions, which might bear more plentiful fruit in the long run.”
Sounds like a good consequentialist thesis that fits right in in EA!
The conclusion I draw from this is that many EAs are probably worried about CC but are afraid to talk about it publicly because in CC you can get canceled for talking about CC, except of course to claim that it doesn’t exist. (Maybe they won’t be canceled right away, but it will make them targets when cancel culture gets stronger in the future.) I believe that the social dynamics leading to development of CC do not depend on the balance of opinions favoring CC, and only require that those who are against it are afraid to speak up honestly and publicly (c.f. “preference falsification”). That seems to already be the situation today.
It seems possible to me that many institutions (e.g. EA orgs, academic fields, big employers, all manner of random FB groups...) will become increasingly hostile to speech or (less likely) that they will collapse altogether.
That does seem important. I mostly don’t think about this issue because it’s not my wheelhouse (and lots of people talk about it already). Overall my attitude towards it is pretty similar to other hypotheses about institutional decline. I think people at EA orgs have way more reasons to think about this issue than I do, but it may be difficult for them to do so productively.
If someone convinced me to get more pessimistic about “cancel culture” then I’d definitely think about it more. I’d be interested in concrete forecasts if you have any. For example, what’s the probability that making pro-speech comments would itself be a significant political liability at some point in the future? Will there be a time when a comment like this one would be a problem?
Looking beyond the health of existing institutions, it seems like most people I interact with are still quite liberal about speech, including a majority of people who I’d want to work with, socialize with, or take funding from. So hopefully the endgame boils down to freedom of association. Some people will run a strategy like “Censure those who don’t censure others for not censuring others for problematic speech” and take that to its extreme, but the rest of the world will get along fine without them and it’s not clear to me that the anti-speech minority has anything to do other than exclude people they dislike (e.g. it doesn’t look like they will win elections).
in CC you can get canceled for talking about CC, except of course to claim that it doesn’t exist. (Maybe they won’t be canceled right away, but it will make them targets when cancel culture gets stronger in the future.)
I don’t feel that way. I think that “exclude people who talk openly about the conditions under which we exclude people” is a deeply pernicious norm and I’m happy to keep blithely violating it. If a group excludes me for doing so, then I think it’s a good sign that the time had come to jump ship anyway. (Similarly if there was pressure for me to enforce a norm I disagreed with strongly.)
I’m generally supportive of pro-speech arguments and efforts and I was glad to see the Harper’s letter. If this is eventually considered cause for exclusion from some communities and institutions then I think enough people will be on the pro-speech side that it will be fine for all of us.
I generally try to state my mind if I believe it’s important, don’t talk about toxic topics that are unimportant, and am open about the fact that there are plenty of topics I avoid. If eventually there are important topics that I feel I can’t discuss in public then my intention is to discuss them.
I would only intend to join an internet discussion about “cancellation” in particularly extreme cases (whether in terms of who is being canceled, severe object-level consequences of the cancellation, or the coercive rather than plausibly-freedom-of-association nature of the cancellation).
The address (in the link) is humbling and shows someone making a positive change for good reasons. He is clear and coherent.
Good on him.
I’m excited to hear that! Looking forward to seeing the article. I particularly had trouble distinguishing between three potential criticisms you could be making:
It’s correct to try do the most good, but people who call themselves “EA’s” define “good” incorrectly. For example, EA’s might evaluate reparations on the basis of whether they eliminate poverty as opposed to whether they are just.
It’s correct to try to do the most good, but people who call themselves “EA’s” are just empirically wrong about how to do this. For example, EA’s focus too much on short-term benefits and discount long-term value.
It’s incorrect to try to do the most good. (I’m not sure what the alternative you are proposing in your essay is here.)
If you are able to elucidate which of these criticisms, if any, you are making, I would find it helpful. (Michael Dickens writes something similar above.)
Harris is a marmite figure—in my experience people love him or hate him.
It is good that he has done this. Newswise, it seems to me it is more likely to impact the behavior of his listeners, who are likely to be well-disposed to him. This is a significant but currently low-profile announcement. As will the courses be on his app.
I don’t think I’d go spreading this around more generally, many don’t like Harris and for those who don’t like him, it could be easy to see EA as more of the same (callous superior progessivism).In the low probability (5%?) event that EA gains traction in that space of the web (generally called the Intellectual Dark Web—don’t blame me, I don’t make the rules) I would urge caution for EA speakers who might pulled into polarising discussion which would leave some groups feeling EA ideas are “not for them”.
Sam Harris takes Giving What We Can pledge for himself and for his meditation company “Waking Up”Harris references MacAksill and Ord as having been central to his thinking and talks about Effective Altruism and exstential risk. He publicly pledges 10% of his own income and 10% of the profit from Waking Up. He also will create a series of lessons on his meditation and education app around altruism and effectiveness.Harris has 1.4M twitter followers and is a famed Humanist and New Athiest. The Waking Up app has over 500k downloads on android, so I guess over 1 million overall. https://dynamic.wakingup.com/course/D8D148I like letting personal thoughts be up or downvoted, so I’ve put them in the comments.
I agree. Just as the EA movement has been pushing against the bias towards philanthropy in rich countries, so we should also try to resist the urge to pay attention only to political crises in rich countries like the United States.
Good question. I did a quick google and came across Lisa Bero who seems to have done a huge amount of work on research integrity. From this popular article, it sounds like corporate funding is often problematic for the research process.
The article links to several systematic reviews her group has done, and the article ‘Industry sponsorship and research outcome’ does conclude that corporate funding leads to a bias in the published results:
Authors’ conclusions: Sponsorship of drug and device studies by the manufacturing company leads to more favorable efficacy results and conclusions than sponsorship by other sources. Our analyses suggest the existence of an industry bias that cannot be explained by standard ‘Risk of bias’ assessments.
I just read the abstract this so I’m not sure if they tried to identify if this was solely due to publication bias or if corporate-funded research also tended to have other issues (e.g. less rigorous experimental designs or other questionable research practices).
Ah, from the paper:
Addiction: I shall inject you with an addictive drug. From now on, you will wake each morning with an extremely strong desire to have another injection of this drug. Having this desire will be in itself neither pleasant nor painful, but if the desire is not fulfilled within an hour it will then become very painful. This is no cause for concern, since I shall give you ample supplies of this drug. Every morning, you will be able at once to fulfil this desire. The injection, and its after‐effects, would also be neither pleasant nor painful. You will spend the rest of your days as you do now.
A local desire theory, where only local desire counts is, in fact, objectivist—it will claim that I am better off in Addiction even if I strenuously protest that it’s my life and I don’t think that I’m better off.
(Personally, though, I don’t think creating a desire and satisfying it makes an individual better off on the basis of that desire, assuming a desire theory. I think antifrustrationism and preference-affecting views or mixtures of them are far more plausible. More on this here.)
Is it plausible that hedonic experience or desires are a judgement about how well things are going right now? If certain welfare subjects are psychologically disconnected from their pasts and futures or otherwise unable to judge them all together, then we might think of each moment of their life as a separate welfare subject, each with their own life satisfaction, which is exactly how they feel at that moment. This way, life satisfaction reduces to hedonism or preference satisfaction for nonhuman animals.
Is automaximization not an objection to desire theories as well? Or should we accept that we don’t get to decide all of our desires or how easy it is to satisfy them?
In the case of a Pascal’s mugging, when someone is threatening you, you should consider that giving in may encourage this behaviour further, allowing more threats and more threats followed through on, and the kind of person threatening you this way may use these resources for harm, anyway.
In the case of Pascal’s wager, there are multiple possible deities, each of which might punish or reward you or others (infinitely) based on your behaviour. It may turn out to be the case that you should take your chances with one or multiple of them, and that you should spend a lot of time and resources finding out which. This could end up being a case of unresolvable moral cluelessness, and that choosing any of the deities isn’t robustly good, nor is choosing none of them isn’t robustly bad, and you’ll never be able to get past this uncertainty. Then, you may have multiple permissible options (according to the maximality rule, say), but given a particular choice (or non-choice), there could still be things that appear to you to be robustly better than other things, e.g. donating to charity X instead of charity Y, or not torturing kittens for fun instead of torturing kittens for fun. This doesn’t mean anything goes.
the matrix of the Neef model is pretty cool.
I think V=∞ is logically possible when you aggregate over space and time, and I think we shouldn’t generally assign probability 0 to anything that’s logically possible (except where a measure is continuous; I think this requirement had a name, but I forget). Pascal’s wager and Dyson’s wager illustrate this.
We have reason to believe the universe is infinite in extent, and there’s a chance that it’s infinite temporally. You might claim that our lightcone is finite/bounded and we can’t affect anything outside of it (setting aside multiverses), but this is an empirical claim, so we should give it some chance of being false. That we could affect an infinite region of spacetime is also not a logical impossibility, so we shouldn’t absolutely rule it out.