Research scholar @ FHI and assistant to Toby Ord. Philosophy student before that. I do a podcast about EA called Hear This Idea.
Came here to share this also! What a great story.
A list I’m considering for end-of-year donations, in no special order:
National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights
The Shrimp Welfare Project
The Degrees Initiative
Mercy for Animals
StrongMinds (though see this comment)
I’m also very interested in the best ways to help people affected by recent events, especially ways which are more scalable / accessible than supporting personal connections.
Sorry if I missed this in other comments, but one question I have is if there are ways for small donors to support projects or individuals in the short term who have been thrown into uncertainty by the FTX collapse (such as people who were planning on the assumption that they would be receiving a regrant). I suppose it would be possible to donate to Nonlinear’s emergency funding pot, or just to something like the EAIF / LTFF / SFF.
But I’m imagining that a major bottleneck on supporting these affected projects is just having capacity to evaluate them all. So I wonder about some kind of initiative where affected projects can choose to put some details on a public register/spreadsheet (e.g. a description of the project, how they’ve been affected, what amount of funding they’re looking for, contact details). Then small donors can look through the register and evaluate projects which fit their areas of interest / experience, and reach out to them individually. It could be a living spreadsheet where entries are updated if their plans change or they receive funding. And maybe there could be some way for donors to coordinate around funding particular projects that they individually each donor couldn’t afford to fund, and which wouldn’t run without some threshold amount. E.g. donors themselves could flag that they’d consider pitching in on some project if others were also interested.
A more sophisticated version of this could involve small donors putting donations into some kind of escrow managed by a trusted party that donates on people’s behalf, and that trusted party shares donors on information about projects affected by FTX. That would help maintain some privacy / anonymity if some projects would prefer that, but at administrative cost. I’d guess this idea is too much work given the time-sensitivity of everything.
An 80-20 version is just to set up a form similar to Nonlinear’s, but which feeds into a database which everyone can see, for projects happy to publicly share that they are seeking shortish-term funding to stay afloat / make good on their plans. Then small donors can reach out at their discretion. If this worked, then it might be a way to help ‘funge’ not just the money but also the time of grant evaluators at grantmaking orgs (and similar) which is spent evaluating small projects. It could also be a chance to support projects that you feel especially strongly about (and suspect that major grant evaluators won’t share your level of interest).
I’m not sure how to feel about this idea overall. In particular, I feel misgivings about the public and uncoordinated nature of the whole thing, and also about the fact that typically it’s a better division of labour for small donors to follow the recommendations of experienced grant investigators/evaluators. Decisions about who to fund, especially in times like these, are often very difficult and sensitive, and I worry about weird dynamics if they’re made public.
Curious about people’s thoughts, and I’d be happy to make this a shortform or post in the effective giving sub-forum if that seems useful.
Thanks for writing this! I’m inclined to agree with a lot of it.
I am cautious about over-updating on the importance of earning to give. Naively speaking, (longtermist) EA’s NPV has crashed by ~50% (maybe more since Open Phil’s investments went down), so (very crudely, assuming log returns to the overall portfolio) earning to give is looking roughly twice as valuable in money terms, maybe more. How many people are in the threshold where this flips the decision on whether ETG is the right move for them? My guess is actually not a ton, especially since I think the income where ETG makes sense is still pretty high (maybe more like $500k than $100k — though that’s a super rough guess).
That said, there may be there are other reasons EA has been underrating (and continues to underrate) ETG, like the benefits of having a diversity of donors. Especially when supporting more public-facing or policy-oriented projects, this really does just seem like a big deal. A rough way of modeling this is that the legitimacy / diversity of a source of funding can act like a multiplier on the amount of money, where funding pooled from many small donors often does best. The Longtermism Fund is a cool example of this imo.
Another thing that has changed since the days when ETG was a much more widely applicable recommendation is that fundraising might be more feasible, because there are more impressive people / projects / track records to point to. So the potential audience of HNWIs interested in effective giving has plausibly grown quite a bit.
I only skimmed this really quickly, so sorry if these points are redundant:
In case it’s relevant/useful for readers, here’s a more qualitative post about risks from asteroids.
In general I’m pretty wary about direct comparisons to GiveWell, because very often these favourable comparisons compare apples to oranges, even in subtle ways. In particular, it might be worth looking at how GiveWell discount along different lines (especially time), and seeing what happens if you use the same assumptions.
Anyway, thanks for writing this! It is surprising that the stereotype of “popularly salient catastrophic risk that in fact seems thousands of times less significant than other catastrophic risk” still looks worth trying to mitigate.
Thank you Noah, I added a part of this to the main post.
In no particular order. I’ll add to this if I think of extra books.
Reasons and Persons (1984) and On What Matters, Vol. 1 (2011)
The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996)
The Fate of the Earth (1982)
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017)
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013)
A longer list is available here
Biosecurity Dilemmas: Dreaded Diseases, Ethical Responses, and the Health of Nations (2017)
Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World—Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It (2000)
The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy (2009)
Smart Than Us (2014)
The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World (2019)
Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe (2014)
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (2014)
Pale Blue Dot (1994), Cosmos (1980), and Billions and Billions (1997)
Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004)
The Three-Body Problem (2006)
The Andromeda Strain (1969)
The Ministry for the Future (2020)
Cat’s Cradle (1963)
This covers both nuclear security and biosecurity topics.
Especially Chapter 8: ‘The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?’, which contains some remarkable precursors to metaphors and arguments in The Precipice etc.
[Edit: I wrote a question in the wrong thread!]
Ok, got it. I’m curious — how do you see people using ITN in practice? (If not for making and comparing estimates of good doneadditional resources?)
Also this post may be relevant!
That’s a good point. It is the case that preferences can be about an indefinite number of things. But I suppose there is still a sense in which a preference satisfaction account is monistic, namely in essentially valuing only the satisfaction of preferences (whatever they are about); and there is no equivalent sense in which objective list theories (with more than one item) are monistic. Also note that objective list theories can contain something like the satisfaction of preferences, and as such can be at least as complex and ecumenical as preference satisfaction views.
Thanks, this is a good post. A half-baked thought about a related but (I think) distinct reason for this phenomenon: I wonder if we tend to (re)define the scale of problems such that they are mostly unsolved at present (but also not so vast that we obviously couldn’t make a dent). For instance, it’s not natural to think that the problem of ‘eradicating global undernourishment’ is more than 90% solved, because fewer than 10% of people in the world are undernourished. As long as problems are (re)defined in this way to be smaller in absolute terms, then tractability is going to (appear to) proportionally increase, as a countervailing factor to diminishing returns from extra investment of resources. A nice feature of ITN is that (re)defining the scale of a problem such that it is always mostly unsolved at present doesn’t affect the bottom line of utility per marginal dollar, because (utility / % of problem solved) increases as (% of problem solved / marginal dollar) decreases. To the extent this is a real phenomenon, it could emphasise the importance of not reading too much into direct comparisons between tractability across causes.
I think it would be very valuable if more reports of this kind were citable in contexts where people are sensitive to signs of credibility and prestige. In other words, I think there are contexts where if this existed as a report on SSRN or even ArXiV, or on the website of an established institution, I think it could be citable and would be valuable as such. Currently I don’t think it could be cited (or taken seriously if cited). So if there are low-cost ways of publishing this or similar reports in a more polished way, I think that would be great.
Caveats that (i) maybe you have done this and I missed it; (ii) this comment isn’t really specific to this post but it’s been on my mind and this is the most recent post where it is applicable; and (iii) on balance it does nonetheles seem likely that the work required to turn this into a ‘polished’ report means doing so is not (close to) worthwhile.
That said: this is an excellent post and I’m very grateful for these forecasts.
Thanks for writing this — I’m curious about approaches like this, and your post felt unusually comprehensive. I also don’t yet feel like I could faithfully represent your view to someone else, possibly because I read this fairly quickly.
Some scattered thoughts / questions below, written in a rush. I expect some or many of them are fairly confused! NNTR.
On this framework, on what grounds can someone not “defensibly ignore” another’s complaint? Am I right in thinking this is because ignoring some complaints means frustrating others’ goals or preferences, and not frustrating others’ goals or preferences is indefensible, as long as we care about getting along/cooperating at all (minimal morality)?
You say The exact reach of minimal morality is fuzzy/under-defined. How much is entailed by “don’t be a jerk?”. This seems important. For instance, you might see ‘drowning child’ framings as (compellling) efforts to move charitable giving within the purview of “you’re a jerk if you don’t do this when you comfortably could.” Especially given the size of the stakes, could you imagine certain longtermist causes like “protecting future generations” similarly being framed as a component of minimal morality?
One speculative way you could do this: you described ‘minimal morality’ as “contractualist” or “cooperation-focused” in spirit. Certainly some acts seem wrong because they just massively undermine the potential for many people living at the same time with many different goals to cooperate on whatever their goals are. But maybe there are some ways in which we collaborate/cooperate/make contracts across (large stretches of) time. Maybe this could ground obligations to future people in minimal morality terms.
I understand the difference in emphasis between saying that the moral significance of people’s well-being is derivative of its contribution to valuable states of affairs, as contrasted with saying that what makes states of affairs valuable just is people’s well-being (or something to that effect). But I’m curious what this means in a decision-relevant sense?
Here’s an analogy: my daily walk isn’t important because it increases the counter on my podometer; rather the counter matters because it says something about how much I’ve walked (and walking is the thing I really care about). To see this, consider that intervening on the counter without actually walking does not matter at all.
But unlike this analogy, fans of axiology might say that “the value of a state of affairs” is not a measure of what matters (actual people and their well-being) that can be manipulated independently of those things; rather it is defined in terms of what you say actually matters, so there is no substantial disagreement beyond one of emphasis (this is why I don’t think I’m on board with ‘further thought’ complaints against aggregative consequentialism). Curious what I’m missing here, though I realise this is maybe also a distraction.
I found the “court hearing analogy” and the overall discussion of population ethics in terms of the anticipated complains/appeals/preferences of future people a bit confusing (because, as you point out, it’s not clear how it makes sense in light of the non-identity problem). In particular your tentative solution of talking about the interests of ‘interest groups’ seems like it’s kind of veering into the axiological territory that you wanted to avoid, no? As in: groups don’t literally have desires or preferences or goals or interests above and beyond the individuals that make them up. But we can’t compare across individuals here, so it’s not clear how we can meaningfully compare the interests of groups in this sense. So what are we comparing? Well, groups can be said to have different kinds of intrinsic value, and while that value could be manifested/realised/determined only by individuals, you can comfortably compare value across groups with different sets of individuals.
Am I right in thinking that in order to creatively duck things like the RP, pinprick argument, arguments against asymmetry (etc) you are rejecting that there is a meaningful “better than” relation between certain states of affairs in population ethics contexts? If so this seems somewhat implausible because there do seem to be some cases where one state of affairs is better than another, and views which say “sure, some comparisons are clear, but others are vague or subjective” seem complicated. Do you just need to opt out of the entire game of “some states of affairs are better than other states of affairs (discontinuous with our own world)”? Curious how you frame this in your own mind.
I had an overall sense that you are both explaining the broad themes of an alternative to populaiton ethics grounded in axiology; and then building your own richer view on top of that (with the court hearing analogy, distinction between minimal and ambitious morality, etc), such that your own view is like a plausible instance of this broad family of alternatives, but doesn’t obviously follow from the original motivation for an alternative? Is that roughly right?
I also had a sense that you could have written a similar post just focused on simpler kinds of aggregative consequentialism (maybe you have in other posts, afraid I haven’t read them all); in some sense you picked an especially ambitious challenge in (i) developing a perspective on ethics that can be applied broadly; and then (ii) applying it to an especially complex part of ethics. So double props I guess!
Thanks for writing this Rose, I love it.
Small note: my (not fully confident) understanding is that a typical day still does not involve a launch to orbit. My cached number is something like 2 or 3 launches / week in the world; or ~100–150 days / year with a launch. This is the best cite I can find. Launches often bring multiple ‘objects’ (satellites) into orbit, which is why it can be true that the average number of objects launched into space each day can exceed 1. So maybe the claim that “humans launch 5 objects into space” is somewhat misleading, despite being true on average. (This is ignorable pedantry!)
Thanks for writing this! What I took from it (with some of my own thoughts added):
The ITN framework is a way of breaking down good doneadditional resources into three components —good done% of the problem solved×% of the problem solved% increase in resources×% increase in resourcesadditional resources
As such ITN is one way of estimating good doneadditional resources. But you might sometimes prefer other ways to break it down, because:
Sometimes the units for I,T, or N are ambigious, and that can lead to unit inconsistensies in the same argument, i.e. by equivocating between “effort” and “money”. These inconsistencies can mislead.
The neat factorisation might blind us to the fact that the meaning of ‘good done’ is underspecified, so it could lead us into thinking it is easier or more straightforward than it actually is to compare across disparate causes. Having more specific Xs for Xadditional resources can make it clearer when you are comparing apples and oranges.
ITN invites marginal thinking (you’re being asked to estimate derivatives), but sometimes marginal thinking can mislead, when ‘good done’ is concave with resources.
Maybe most important of all: sometimes there are just much clearer/neater ways to factor the problem, which better carves it at its joints. Let’s not constrain ourselves to one factorisation at the cost of more natural ones!
I should add that I find the “Fermi estimates vs ITN” framing potentially misleading. Maybe “ITN isn’t the only way to do Fermi estimates of impact” is a clearer framing?
Anyway, curious if this all lines up with what you had in mind.
Thanks Dwarkesh, really enjoyed this.
This section stood out to me:
Instead, task a specific, identifiable agency with enforcing posterity impact statements. If their judgements are unreasonable, contradictory, or inconsistent, then there is a specific agency head that can be fired and replaced instead of a vast and unmanageable judiciary.
I’ve noticed this distinction become relevant a few times now: between wide, department-spanning regulation / intiatives on one hand; and fociused offices / people / agencies / departments with a narrow, specific remit on the other. I have in mind that the ‘wide’ category involves checking for compliance with some desiderata, and stopping or modifying existing plans if they don’t; while the ‘focused’ category involves figuring out how to proactively achieve some goal, sometimes by building something new in the world.
Examples of the ‘wide’ category are NEPA (and other laws / regulation where basically anyone can sue); or new impact assessments required for a wide range of projects, such as the ‘future generations impact assessment’ proposal from the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill (page 7 of this PDF).
Examples of the ‘focused’ category are the Office of Technology Assessment, the Spaceguard Survey Report, or something like the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan (even without the funding it deserves).
I think my examples show a bias towards the ‘focused and proactive’ category but the ‘wide regulation’ category obviously is sometimes very useful; even necessary. Maybe one thought is that concrete projects should often precede wide regulation, and wide regulation often does best when it’s specific and legible (i.e. requiring that a specific safety-promoting technology is installed in new builds). We don’t mind regulation that requires smoke alarms and sprinklers, because they work and they are worth the money. It’s possible to imagine focused projects to drive down costs of e.g. sequencing and sterilisation tech, and then maybe following up with regulation which requires specific tech be installed to clear standards, enforced by a specific agency.