Thanks for the comment, this is raising a very important point.
I am indeed fairly optimistic that thoughtful forms of MCE are positive regarding s-risks, although this qualifier of “in the right way” should be taken very seriously—I’m much less sure whether, say, funding PETA is positive. I also prefer to think in terms of how MCE could be made robustly positive, and distinguishing between different possible forms of it, rather than trying to make a generalised statement for or against MCE.
This is, however, not a very strongly held view (despite having thought a lot about it), in light of great uncertainty and also some degree of peer disagreement (other researchers being less sanguine about MCE).
‘Longtermism’ just says that improving the long-term future matters most, but it does not specify a moral view beyond that. So you can be longtermist and focus on averting extinction, or you can be longtermist and focus on preventing suffering (cf. suffering-focused ethics); or you can have some other notion of “improving”. Most people who are both longtermist and suffering-focused work on preventing s-risks.
That said, despite endorsing suffering-focused ethics myself, I think it’s not helpful to frame this as “not caring” about existential risks; there are many good reasons for cooperation with other value systems.
I’m somewhat less optimistic; even if most would say that they endorse this view, I think many “dedicated EAs” are in practice still biased against nonhumans, if only subconsciously. I think we should expect speciesist biases to be pervasive, and they won’t go away entirely just by endorsing an abstract philosophical argument. (And I’m not sure if “most” endorse that argument to begin with.)
Fair point—the “we” was something like “people in general”.
This makes IRV a really bad choice. IRV results in a two-party system just like plurality voting does.
I agree that having a multi-party system might be most important, but I don’t think IRV necessarily leads to a two-party system. For instance, French presidential elections feature far more than two parties (though they’re using a two-round system rather than IRV).
Everything is subject to tactical voting (except maybe SODA? but I don’t understand that argument). So I don’t see this as a point against approval voting in particular.
I think that approval voting has significantly more serious tactical voting problems than IRV. Sure, they all violate some criteria, but the question is how serious the resulting issues are in practice. IRV seems to be fine based on e.g. Australia’s experience. (Of course, we don’t really know how good or bad approval voting would be, because it is rarely used in competitive elections.)
Great post—thanks a lot for writing this up!
It’s quite remarkable how we hold ideas to different standards in different contexts. Imagine, for instance, a politician that openly endorses CU. Her opponents would immediately attack the worst implications: “So you would torture a child in order to create ten new brains that experience extremely intense orgasms?” The politician, being honest, says yes, and that’s the end of her career.
By contrast, EA discourse and philosophical discourse is strikingly lenient when it comes to counterintuitive implications of such theories. (I’m not saying anything about which standards are better, and of course this does not only apply to CU.)
The key thing is that the way I’m setting priors is as a function from populations to credences: for any property F, your prior should be such that if there are n people in a population, the probability that you are in the m most F people in that population is m/n.
The fact that I consider a certain property F should update me, though. This already demonstrates that F is something that I am particularly interested in, or that F is salient to me, which presumably makes it more likely that I am an outlier on F.
Also, this principle can have pretty strange implications depending on how you apply it. For instance, if I look at the population of all beings on Earth, it is extremely surprising (10^-12 or so) that I am a human rather than an insect.
I’m at a period of unusually high economic growth and technological progress
I think it’s not clear whether higher economic growth or technological progress implies more influence. This claim seems plausible, but you could also argue that it might be easier to have an influence in a stable society (with little economic or technological change), e.g. simply because of higher predictability.
So, as I say in the original post and the comments, I update (dramatically) on my estimate of my influentialness, on the basis of these considerations. But by how much? Is it a big enough update to conclude that I should be spending my philanthropy this year rather than next, or this century rather than next century? I say: no.
I’m very sympathetic to patient philanthropy, but this seems to overstate the required amount of evidence. Taking into account that each time has donors (and other resources) of their own, and that there are diminishing returns to spending, you don’t need to have extreme beliefs about your elevated influentialness to think that spending now is better. However, the arguments you gave are not very specific to 2020; presumably they still hold in 2100, so it stands to reason that we should invest at least over those timeframes (until we expect the period of elevated influentialness to end).
One reason for thinking that the update, on the basis of earliness, is not enough, is related to the inductive argument: that it would suggest that hunter-gatherers, or Medieval agriculturalists, could do even more direct good than we can. But that seems wrong. Imagine you can give an altruistic person at one of these times a bag of oats, or sell that bag today at market prices. Where would you do more good?
A bag of oats is presumably much more relative wealth in those other times than now. The current price of a ton of oats is GBP 120 per ton, so if the bag contains 50 kg, it’s worth just GBP 6.
People in earlier times also have less ‘competition’. Presumably the medieval person could have been the first to write up arguments for antispeciesism or animal welfare; or perhaps they could have a significant impact on establishing science, increasing rationality, improving governance, etc.
(All things considered, I think it’s not clear if earlier times are more or less influential.)
I was just talking about 30 years because those are the farthest-out US bonds. I agree that the horizon of patient philanthropists can be much longer.
Yeah, but even 30 year interest rates are low (1-2% at the moment). There is an Austrian 100 year bond paying 0.88%. I think that is significant evidence that something about the “patient vs impatient actors” story does not add up.
It is fair to say that some suffering-focused views have highly counterintuitive implications, such as the one you mention. The misconception is just that this holds for all suffering-focused views. For instance, there are plenty of possible suffering-focused views that do not imply that happy humans would be better off committing suicide. In addition to preference-based views, one could value happiness but endorse the procreative asymmetry (so that lives above a certain threshold of welfare are considered OK even if there is some severe suffering), or one could be prioritarian or egalitarian in interpersonal contexts, which also avoids problematic conclusions about such tradeoffs. (Of course, those views may be considered unattractive for other reasons.)
I think views along these lines are actually fairly widespread among philosophers. It just so happens that suffering-focused EAs have often promoted other variants of SFE that do arguably have implications for intrapersonal tradeoffs that you consider counterintuitive (and I mostly agree that those implications are problematic, at least when taken to extremes), thus giving the impression that all or most suffering-focused views have said implications.
Re: 1., there would be many more (thoughtful) people who share our concern about reducing suffering and s-risks (not necessarily with strongly suffering-focused values, but at least giving considerable weight to it). That results in an ongoing research project on s-risks that goes beyond a few EAs (e.g., it is also established in academia or other social movements). Re: 2., a possible scenario is that suffering-focused ideas just never gain much traction, and consequently efforts to reduce s-risks will just fizzle out. However, I think there is significant evidence that at least an extreme version of this is not happening.Re: 3., I think the levels of engagement and feedback we have received so far are encouraging. However, we do not currently have any procedures in place to measure impact, which is (as you say) incredibly hard for what we do. But of course, we are constantly thinking about what kind of work is most impactful!
I would guess that actually experiencing certain possible conscious states, in particular severe suffering or very intense bliss, could significantly change my views, although I am not sure if I would endorse this as “reflection” or if it might lead to bias.
It seems plausible (but I am not aware of strong evidence) that experience of severe suffering generally causes people to focus more on it. However, I myself have fortunately never experienced severe suffering, so that would be a data point to the contrary.
I was exposed to arguments for suffering-focused ethics from the start, since I was involved with German-speaking EAs (the Effective Altruism Foundation / Foundational Research Institute back then). I don’t really know why exactly (there isn’t much research on what makes people suffering-focused or non-suffering-focused), but this intuitively resonated with me.
I can’t point to any specific arguments or intuition pumps, but my views are inspired by writing such as the Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics, Brian Tomasik’s essays, and writings by Simon Knutsson and Magnus Vinding.
I agree that s-risks can vary a lot (by many orders of magnitude) in terms of severity. I also think that this gradual nature of s-risks is often swept under the rug because the definition just uses a certain threshold (“astronomical scale”). There have, in fact, been some discussions about how the definition could be changed to ameliorate this, but I don’t think there is a clear solution. Perhaps talking about reducing future suffering, or preventing worst-case outcomes, can convey this variation in severity more than the term ‘s-risks’.
Regarding your second question, I wrote up this document a while ago on whether we should focus on worst-case outcomes, as opposed to suffering in median futures or 90th-percentile-badness-futures (given that those are more likely than worst-cases). However, this did not yield a clear conclusion, so I consider this an open question.
One key difference is that there is less money in it, because OpenPhil as the biggest EA grantmaker is not focused on reducing s-risks. In a certain sense, that is good news because work on s-risks is plausibly more funding-constrained than non-suffering-focused longtermism.
In terms of where to donate, I would recommend the Center on Long-Term Risk and the Center for Reducing Suffering (which I co-founded myself). Both of those organisations are doing crucial research on s-risk reduction. If you are looking for something a bit less abstract, you could consider Animal Ethics, the Good Food Institute, or Wild Animal Initiative.
I think a plausible win condition is that society has some level moral concern for all sentient beings (it doesn’t necessarily need to be entirely suffering-focused) as well as stable mechanisms to implement positive-sum cooperation or compromise. The latter guarantees that moral concerns are taken into account and possible gains from trade can be achieved. (An example for this could be cultivated meat, which allows us to reduce animal suffering while accommodating the interests of meat eaters.)
However, I think suffering reducers in particular should perhaps not focus on imagining best-case outcomes. It is plausible (though not obvious) that we should focus on preventing worst-case outcomes rather than shooting for utopian outcomes, as the difference in expected suffering between a worst-case and the median outcome may be much greater than the difference between the median outcome and the best possible future.
I don’t think this view is necessary to prioritise s-risk. A finite but relatively high “trade ratio” between happiness and suffering can be enough to focus on s-risks. In addition, I think it’s more complicated than putting some numbers on happiness vs. suffering. (See here for more details.) For instance, one should distinguish between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal setting—a common intuition is that one man’s pain can’t be outweighed by another’s pleasure.
Another possibility is lexicality: one may contend that only certain particularly bad forms of suffering can’t be outweighed. You may find such views counterintuitive, but it is worth noting that lexicality can be multi-dimensional and need not involve abrupt breaks. It is, for instance, quite possible to hold the view that 1 minute of lava is ‘outweighable’ but 1 day is not. (I think I would not have answered “no amount can compensate” if it was about 1 minute.)
I also sympathise with the view mentioned by Jonas: that happiness matters mostly in so far as an existing being has a craving or desire to experience it. The question, then, is just how strong the desire to experience a certain timespan of bliss is. The poll was just about how I would do this tradeoff for myself, and it just so happens that abstract prospects of bliss does not evoke a very strong desire in me. It’s certainly not enough to accept a day of lava drowning—and that is true regardless of how long the bliss lasts. Your psychology may be different but I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent or illogical about my preferences.