Thanks for writing this. Some comments:
1. Labelling. I think it would be useful to distinguish different forms of the systemic change objection. The one you advance in your paper is coming from a socialist point of view, but other forms of the critique, e.g. from Lant Pritchett, come from what could plausibly be categorised as a neoliberal point of view. It might be better going forward to label your critique as the ‘socialist critique’ of effective altruism, which would avoid lumping it in with the neoliberal one, or any other.
2. Do you think there might be an epistemic modesty problem with the socialist critique? The overwhelming majority of economists are broadly pro-private ownership of the means of production, and pro-market. At root, opinion might be split in this way because the claim that “capitalism causes poverty” seems to be strongly in tension with the history of humanity since the industrial revolution. You seem to think it is clear that we should repudiate existing aid and development efforts, but this might be surprising to someone taking the long-view of humanity: since the 1950s, human welfare has increased on all measures by more than all of prior history *combined*. Seen in this view, what we should do is continue with the approach we started in the 1950s. (I should note that this approach—of increasing economic growth—is not what many EAs are focusing on at the moment, and I think this is an error).
3. Your argument for the claim that charity “does more harm than good” by fostering “none of your business norms” (NOYBs) seemed to me heavy on conjecture but light on compelling arguement and evidence. You note how charity as it exists today exists because people have private property and so don’t need to seek approval from the rest of society before making a donation. This is true, but you don’t actually argue for the claim that EA charity therefore supports the norm to such an extent that the benefits of EA charity are outweighed. You say “their very existence relies upon and thus perpetuates NOYB norms” This obviously doesn’t literally logically follow. By the same token, charitable funding of the socialist part of Great Britain relied on NOYB norms, but you presumably don’t think that it is therefore net harmful.
To be clear, your claim is that making a $1m donation to AMF perpetuates capitalistic norms to such an extent that the expected harm is greater than ~200 lives. I find that highly implausible.
4. Clarificatory—You argue for democratic as opposed to private control of key economic decisions, but this can come apart from the aim of reducing poverty. Democracies can and do vote for policies that damage the interests of the poor—witness immigration controls for example. Which do you think should be the ultimate aim for socialists—democratic control or poverty alleviation?
1. Most women go through extreme pain during childbirth but nevertheless do this through choice and presumably think their life worth living given the upsides of having children. This must be irrational on your view.
2. Epistemic modesty—if negative utilitarianism is a plausible view, it is extremely surprising that more professional moral philosophers don’t believe it. You can find substantial support for pretty much any view out there, including some very implausible ones, but I struggle to think of many genuine negative utilitarians working today.
I see, yes good point.
I don’t think the 80k estimate on climate change is based on a thorough investigation of the science. I just don’t see how from the impacts estimated in the next 100 years, extreme climate change could be thought to be a greater than 0.1% ex risk. The heat stress of >4 degrees would be bad but if things started going that badly, I think the world would take action. In a few decades it will be much cheaper to abate GHGs and everyone will have an interest in doing so
See the recent paper by Parker and Irvine on termination shock. The catastrophe required to terminate solar geoengineering efforts would be extraordinarily specific, making the use of planes or hot air balloons impossible for months or making the production of aerosols such as sulphates impossible for months. While this is possible, it doesn’t seem like a big enough risk to make solar geoengineering a significant concern—how exactly could this happen? Other parts of our infrastructure, such as the production of fertiliser, could also be interrupted by some incredibly specific catastrophe, but these aren’t usually thought to be among the top risks we should consider.
As I argue in a recent paper on solar geoengineering, many of the alleged risks of solar geoengineering are overblown. The main problem is getting governance of it over an extended period, which looks extremely difficult, but would presumably also be a disincentive to use it in the first place.
I don’t agree that working on climate change is plausibly a better way to reduce the risk of nuclear war than working directly on nuclear war. Firstly, climate change is a very intractable problem in the first place for philanthropists and for national governments, given that action is opposed by entrenched interests across all society and requires cooperation pretty much of all nations. Nuclear peace is opposed by some entrenched interested in the military industrial complex, but these do not reach anywhere near as far into society as a whole. Major results could be achieved just by getting cooperation between Russia and US, which is not true of climate change.
Secondly, climate change is much less neglected than reducing the risk of nuclear war. Thirdly, there have been lots of apparently successful treaties that have e.g. limited the size of US and Russian arsenals. It just seems much easier to make progress on things that foster peace and reduce arsenals than on nuclear war caused by climate change. The path for the latter is extremely indirect.
What do you make to the argument that the probability of nuclear winter caused by climate change is considerably lower than the probability of nuclear winter, so focusing more directly on nuclear winter looks a better bet?
What would be the mechanism whereby it increases the risk of nuclear war? The main one I can think of is mass migration, but I’m not sure what the proposed mechanism is. Are there analogues in the past for comparably large mass migrations causing wars or increased nuclear tensions? We’ve had quite large refugee flows recently, but this seems to have had basically no impact on nuclear tensions. Given that the main worry for nuclear winter is US-Russia conflict, how could climate change exacerbate tensions there?
I also think it would be surprising if there had been 60 genuine near misses in the past, but that is another debate. That suggests surprising levels of luck. The Tertrais et al paper questions some claims about nuclear near misses
Yes sorry I meant the probability of a nuclear war caused by climate change is lower than the probability of a nuclear war.
One comment—“Two events described as “unlikely” or “very unlikely,” which include:...”
In the IPCC reports, ‘unlikely’ means 0-33% probability, and ‘very unlikely’ means 0-10% probability. “Very unlikely” therefore doesn’t mean negligible. This is a pretty woeful choice of terminology by the IPCC, but important to be clear on.
I’m told that CSER is writing something on the indirect risks. My observation is that climate change is a very indirect stressor of the risk of nuclear winter. The causal path would be: extreme climate change ⇒ tension between nuclear powers ⇒ nuclear war ⇒ nuclear winter ⇒ existential catastrophe. Given that the risk of nuclear war conditional on climate change seems considerably lower than the unconditional risk of nuclear war, working on nuclear war directly looks a much better bet, assuming that working on nuclear war directly is in the slightest bit tractable.
One downside of extensive engagement is that Lomborg and CC are highly controversial due to their stance on climate change. So, there are dangers of EA being tainted by association
I’m not sure I follow your first point
Some good points here! On the 80k framework, if you have info on scale, tractability and neglectedness, there is no point calculating neglectedness. There ITN framework therefore loses its force.
This being said, when we don’t know much about cost-effectiveness, I still think neglectedness is a useful heuristic for cost-effectiveness. The fact that AI is 1000 times more neglected than climate change does seem like a very good reason that AI is a more promising cause to work on.
Generally, I think cost-effectiveness is often what people actually use to choose between causes. e.g. I choose far future over global health because of broad cost-effectiveness estimates in my head, not because of the ITN
What stance do you all take on the best approach to helping animals? You have given grants to movement building stuff, animal advocacy research and to meat alternative research. Have you tried to model which of these approaches is likely to be most effective? I personally think research into meat alternatives will be better than anything else, and am concerned that so much EA money is going/has gone into corporate campaigns and animal advocacy work without any explicit attempt to prioritise which intervention is best. (I also think the probability of negative impact for corporate campaigns is >5%.)
In fact, Cowen discusses the flaws of GDP as a measure of human welfare at some length in the book. The metric he cares about, rather than GDP, is Wealth Plus = “The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities...” (loc 267 of the ebook). On this measure, the thing to maximise is explicitly not gdp per capita. So, for example if Kerala has good health and social indicators, they could do well on Wealth Plus even if their gdp per capita is low—“The significant benefits accrued from capabilities, such as health benefits, are accounted for in Wealth Plus, even if they are not properly represented in current GDP measures” (loc 391).
I don’t mean to be too critical here, but it would seem that you haven’t read the book that you are criticising.
[Speaking for myself here not necessarily Hauke.] Hello thanks for these smart comments.
1. Although there is some evidence that the indirect effects of campaigns are more substantial, the evidence isn’t all that good as divestment campaigns were often combined with boycotts and other campaigns. Secondly, take the example of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, where tobacco divestment cost them $2bn. I would be very surprised if the indirect effects of this gesture would have been more damaging for the tobacco industry than spending the money directly on campaigns against tobacco, which looks a highly cost-effective approach. The aim of the divestment campaign would be to raise awareness among governments presumably, but if that is your aim, it seems to make sense to try to do that directly through ordinary advocacy approaches. I agree that the report could have been clearer on this.
2. The argument in that section was that genuinely strict socially responsible investing would involve financial sacrifice, and ESG-focused screening is not strict. Many socially responsible today don’t exclude all companies in harmful industries. Generally, there is a dilemma for proponents of SRI. SRI is supposed to affect the cost of capital of harmful industries. If it succeeds, then the stock price of these companies will be higher than otherwise and people who invest in them will be able to make excess returns.
John Broome has also tried to create a conversion factor from DALYs to CO2. I don’t think any particular estimate is credible. Estimates of the social cost of carbon are for the most part completely made up, unmoored from information on impacts. It’s also very hard because I think probably most of the costs of climate change are very indirect and highly uncertain, stemming from the political risks of unprecedented mass migration
I actually think the best climate charities are better than a lot of other things EAs donate to. From a long-termist pont of view, it looks better than global health, zoning in San Fran, macroeconomic policy, criminal justice reform, and animal welfare. I also think funding ordinary climate policy orgs is a better bet than funding solar geoengineering research, which Open Phil has done. Climate change of >6 degrees is very much on the cards, and this would do tremendous damage in the long-term.
Donations in other long-termist areas, like EA field building, AI, bio and nuclear security are probably better, but I think more could be going into the really outstanding climate organisations out there. I’m aware of at least four really good climate policy orgs whose funding gaps I would like to see filled.
I would also add—the American Academy of Sleep Medicine agrees that CBT-I should be the first line of defence against insomnia.
Pushing on the epistemic modesty point, if you didn’t interview any experts when writing your brief, it seems overconfident to disagree with the scientific establishment. If you have a tentatively held conclusion and you’ve not engaged with other experts, I think the sensible thing to do is defer.
More generally, I think extensive interviews with experts should be part of all reviews of evidence on interventions