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Problems in effective altruism and what to do about them
172d1 min readShow Highlight

(Not mine) This post looks at ghostwriting and other misleading/dishonest behavior in EA. Maybe some people who have accounts here can clarify if it was intentional or not.

2Khorton30m "Note, that Peter ignores the following part of the post in his comment: Toby Ord is a trustee at CEA and part of the team at FHI. His 2013 essay against negative utilitarianism (NU) is a one-sided and misleading..." I'm not going to ask someone to quit being a trustee because they wrote an opinionated essay in 2003. I write one-sided pieces all the time, trying to convince people of a particular view - hopefully people won't try to remove me from any boards in 2035 because of that!
1anonymous_ea_2678m A careful reader may note that in their comment, Khorton ignores the following part of the quote in my comment above: He [Toby Ord] describes the academic literature incorrectly in a way that benefits his case. He writes that “A thorough going Negative Utilitarian would support the destruction of the world (even by violent means)” without mentioning that for many years, a published objection to his favoured view (classical utilitarianism) is that it implies that one should kill everyone and replace us, if one could thereby maximize the sum of well-being (see my paper The World Destruction Argument).

I haven't been convinced by anything I've read, but I also haven't read much.

I'm concerned that unless you use preferences, you couldn't justify any kind of tradeoff rate between (and hence the commensurability of) suffering and happiness/pleasure, because they are fundamentally different. Then, by using an exclusively hedonistic view of value, haven't you already rejected the moral relevance of preferences, and, if so, how would you justify referring to them to defend hedonism? Even if you could set a tradeoff rate based on preferences, how would you justify usin... (Read more)

(Crossposted from FB)

Some initial thoughts: hedonistic utilitarians, ultimately, wish to maximise pleasure. Concurrently, suffering will be eliminated. In the real world, things are a lot fuzzier, and we do have to consider pleasure/suffering tradeoffs. Because it's difficult to measure pleasure/suffering directly, preferences are used as a proxy.

But I aver that we're not very good at considering these tradeoffs. Most are framed as thought-experiments, in which we are asked to imagine two 'real-world' situations. Some people ma... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

5Matthew_Barnett5h I don't have a fully hedonistic view, but I'm sympathetic toward one. I prefer using different words than "hedonism", since hedonism has a bad connotation. I like to say that I care primarily about conscious experiences, where conscious experience refers to the common sense referent of "what it's like to be me" or similar (for intuition pumps, read how Chalmers defines consciousness []). To me it comes down to two related notions: 1. I don't see how non-conscious facts could possibly ever imply a tragedy. It's a tragedy if someone gets hurt, but in what sense is something ever a tragedy if no one's actually experiencing the badness? 2. Likewise, how could something ever be good if no one experiences it. What fact could I learn that would make me leap with joy, assuming the fact had no bearing on whether someone had a positive life or experience? In practice, arguments against pure hedonism come down to pointing out a few things that are left out in the naive hedonistic view. These include: a lack of diversity of experiences, a lack of concern for truth, a lack of a coherent "adventure" that exists beyond the feeling of adventure. Fair enough, but I feel like these all could be bought at less than 1% of the price of regular hedonism. In other words, I think that I can still reasonably maintain that 99% of value comes from conscious experience and still keep these things.
1MichaelStJules4h I am also very sympathetic to an account of value based solely on conscious experiences, and for basically the same reasons, but I don't think this necessarily has to be put in terms of happiness/pleasure and suffering. We can talk about conscious drives, cravings or attitudes to and away from certain states/outcomes. These might be called "active preferences [] ".
Effective Altruism and International Trade
244d5 min readShow Highlight

Following the recent debate on the effectiveness of systemic interventions, I assert that investments in global trade may be effectively altruistic. If quantified, the impacts of investments in world commerce facilitation may outcompete the effects of funding GiveWell’s charities by unit amounts.

Unlike investments in GiveWell’s charities, financing trade advancement of developing nations enables individuals who live in emerging economies to gain commercial competitiveness and thus join a virtuous cycle of income growth. An increased income enables the beneficiaries to purchase he... (Read more)

on writing. 1) it takes time, 2) this forum privileges english speakers 3) the emphasis on writing becomes a hurdle for people for whom skill in written communication is so-so

-- the exceptions to money = well being rule are Jamaica, Costa Rica, Kerala, China (pre 1979 reforms), Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Cuba, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong (pre 1999), Japan (Meiji reforms). In all these countries(kerala is a state) focus on basic education preceded health and wealth, this is the fast path to human development.

The slow path is by focusing on money,

... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post
1lucy.ea83h Sen was an influence in the creation of HDI, yet he was somewhat hesitant to use one index to summarize human well being. Hunger and Public Action has a set of indicators that Sen looked in 1989 (HPA was published at that time). Other indicators to think about are MDG goals [] and SDG goals []. Not all of the goals are equally important, but they point in the right direction, we should think about them. The indicators that I look at to tell the state of society 1. U5MR Under 5 mortality Rate 2. TFR Total fertility rate 3. Expected education levels for school age kids below age 18. 4. Gender disparities in 3) above I have given very little thought to Gross National Happiness Index, it looks like an expanded/altered version of HDI
1brb24312h OK, thanks!

Catherine Hollander, How this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics influenced GiveWell’s work, The GiveWell Blog, October 18, 2019.

An excerpt:

On Monday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the development economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer are this year’s recipients of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s work to understand the global poor has influenced our research in myriad ways over the years. Some GiveWell staff cite Banerjee and Duflo
... (Read more)

Stuart Russell, professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley and Director of the Center for Human-Compatible Intelligence (CHAI), has a new book out today: “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Control Problem”.

In the book, he explains why he has come to consider his own discipline an existential threat to our species, and lays out how we can change course before it's too late. The book explores the idea of intelligence in humans and in machines, describes the benefits we can expect (from intelligent personal assistants to vastly accelerated scientific research... (Read more)

The latest Alignment Newsletter (published today) includes a review of Russell's book by Rohin Shah. Perhaps he can publish it on Amazon and/or GoodReads?

(Crossposted on LessWrong)

Absolute negative utilitarianism (ANU) is a minority view despite the theoretical advantages of terminal value monism (suffering is the only thing that motivates us “by itself”) over pluralism (there are many such things). Notably, ANU doesn’t require solving value incommensurability, because all other values can be instrumentally evaluated by their relationship to the suffering of sentient beings, using only one terminal value-grounded common currency for everything.

Therefore, it is a straw man argument that NUs don’t value life or positive states, because NUs value ... (Read more)

It sounds like you're describing negative hedonistic utilitarianism, specifically. Although I would describe myself as suffering-focused and leaning towards negative consequentialism, I have two main points of disagreement with negative hedonistic utilitarianism, and a third which I've only thought a little about:

1. Hedonism. I wouldn't get into Nozick's experience machine or subject myself to wireheading (except for altruistic reasons), i.e. I see no reason to seek pleasure for its own sake like this or have my preferences satisfied by... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

2rohinmshah17h Yes, that's correct.
What is wild animal suffering?
710h7 min readShow Highlight

Cross-posted from the Animal Ethics blog.

The term “wild animal suffering” is a general term that can be defined as follows:

Wild animal suffering: the harms that animals living outside direct human control suffer due partly or totally to natural causes

Since this is a relatively new concept, there are several points to clarify concerning its scope.1

Wild animal suffering: what is it about?

As the term “suffering” indicates, we are concerned about harms affecting the wellbeing of animals. It is therefore different from an interest in conservation. That is, it... (Read more)

I'm excited to see Animal Ethics cross-posting its content!

Readers: If you found this introduction helpful/interesting, you might also like these other Forum pieces on the topic:

[Link]The Germy Paradox – Filters: A taboo
310h8 min readShow Highlight

In 3.1: Hard and Soft Skills, we discussed the possibility that the Germy Paradox exists because bioweapons aren’t actually easy to make. Today, we go into the past and discuss another possibility – that whether or not they’re effective, there’s some kind of taboo or cultural reason they aren’t used.

This is not a new idea, although there’s no real consensus. I separate scholarly explanations for the Taboo Filter into two schools: the humaneness hypothesis and the treachery hypothesis. In the humaneness hypothesis, people reject BW because they a... (Read more)

Let's imagine that establishment liberals dominated funding councils across the world and time and again made poor decisions in regard to maximising wellbeing. It would then be worth think if there was a specific way to aid them in making better ones. Are there ideologies which time and again cause people to make significantly worse choices than a typical person?

While I think that was a valuable post, the definition of ideology in it is so broad that even things like science and the study of climate change would be ideologies (as kbog points out in the comments). I'm not sure what system or way of thinking wouldn't qualify as an ideology based on the definition used.

1Answer by ishi16h I come from a background of what could be called liberals (in USA, democrats--but these range from establishment types (eg Hilary Clinton) to 'anti-establishment' establishement liberal (Bernie Sanders, Elizabett Warren , and many other democratic presidential candidates) . But my parents also had backgrounds in some of what could be called 'radical ideological views' (war resistors, civil rights protests, small farmers who were anti-big business, etc.). Other relatives had some 'right wing ' views. I think any ideology can make 'hits and misses' regarding promoting well being. (I sort of include religion and science in the class of ideology, though of a different kind.--both of those also seem to have hits and misses--Catholics introduced the transatlantic slave trade to north america---partly because they wanted to stop the oppression of indigneous americans and thought africans wouldn't suffer so much. The Catholic priest who suggested that later regretted his decision. Scientists invented nerve gas and Xyklon B (for holocaust) Nuclear energy and fossil fuel based economies (eg plastic, climate change ) seem to have some mistakes; as may GMO foods, factory farms, gun rights and weapons industry (eg what is called 'realism' in international politics--or mutually assured destruction. ). Time may tell. I tend to be anti-religion (i call myself agnostic and just object to religious ritual and its common tendency to claim its truth) and pro-science , but i see many religious people who basically are descent and it works for them, and i also object to a fair amount of modern science (and many scientists share my views --although all scientists basically agree with the 'scientific method', they often come to different conclusions.Condensed matter physics objected to spending all money on particle physics. ) Perhaps ideologies should be viewed as 'algorithms'. Many algorithms generate good results for some cases, but perhaps all of them will repeatably make worse d

When discussing cognitive enhancement research as a potential EA cause area, a frequent counter-argument goes along the following lines:

"Higher cognitive performance is better. Thus, evolution already optimised for cognitive performance. Thus, it's unlikely that simple changes to brain chemistry could improve cognitive performance. Thus, cognitive enhancement research (and particularly research into nootropics) has low tractability."

I find the argument fairly weak for a number of reasons. Iodine supplementation seems to have worked great, and so does drinking coffee. But there are also some th

... (Read more)

My semi-educated guess is the arguments for either case are both weak at present. Its unknown. I'd say same for 'designer babies' and other reproductive technologies (which i hear advertized on the radio all the time--eg infertility clinics--mostly used by affluent people , and often womyn over age 40. In India they have 'baby farms'--eg people in USA hire some poor womyn in India to be a surrogate mother , so they don't have to deal with pregnancy --whcih they view as a chore--- because they want to keep their career but wa... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

Technical AGI safety research outside AI
2619h3 min readShow Highlight

I think there are many questions whose answers would be useful for technical AGI safety research, but which will probably require expertise outside AI to answer. In this post I list 30 of them, divided into four categories. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss these questions and why I think they’re important in more detail. I personally think that making progress on the ones in the first category is particularly vital, and plausibly tractable for researchers from a wide range of academic backgrounds.

Studying and understanding safety problems

  1. How strong are the econo
... (Read more)

Thanks for this. I think posts of this type (which list options for people who want to work in a cause area) are valuable.

Shapley values: Better than counterfactuals
709d14 min readShow Highlight

[Epistemic status: Pretty confident. But also, enthusiasm on the verge of partisanship]

One intuitive function which assigns impact to agents is the counterfactual, which has the form:

CounterfactualImpact(Agent) = Value(World) - Value(World/Agent)

which reads "The impact of an agent is the difference between the value of the world with the agent and the value of the world without the agent".

It has been discussed in the effective altruism community that this function leads to pitfalls, paradoxes, or to unintuitive results when considering scenarios with multiple stakeholders. See:

... (Read more)
1ishi18h As I said I'm skating on thin ice, but the theorem says you can convert any positive or negative sum game into a zero sum game. (its due to von Neumann or nash, but i think i saw it in books on evolutionary game theory . i think there are analogs in physics , and even ecology, etc. ). Again, i think that may be related to the counterfactual/shapley conversion i 'see' or think exists, but can't prove it----i'd have to look at the definitions again. To possibly fall through more holes in the ice , i think the prisoner's dillema might be the simplest example. (I'm just not fluent in the definitions since i didn't learn them when i was studying some game theory; but i looked at many game theory texts where they did occur--mostly for more complex situations than i was dealing with. Also the term 'counterfactual' i only learned from a history book by Niall Ferguson (not a big hero of mine but had what seemed like worthwhile ideas--- he wrote 'counterfactual history'---eg 'what would be state of the world if Germany had won WW2?' ) as noted , i also find examples which use 'vignettes' or 'scenarios', fractions, whole numbers like '7 EA candidates', '60 million$ ' , along with the names of countries (India) and organizations, make it difficult (or time consuming for me) to process. but this is just a stylisitic or personal issue. I wonder if you think an excercize trying to compare the shapley vs counterfactual value of the 2 cases for WW2 is meaningful---ie would money spent by UK/USA/etc fighting the war have been better spent another way? i may even put this question to myself to see if its meaningful in your framework. i spend a bit of time on questionable math/logic problems (some of which have solutions, but i try to find different proofs because i dont understand the existing ones, and occasionaly do. Many theorems have many correct proofs which look very different and use different methods, and often have been discovered by many people on different c

P.S. I just re-skimmed your article and see you dealt in Scenario 6 with 'tragedy of the commons' which i view as an n-person variant of the 2 -person prisoner's dillema.

also your example 2 (Newton and Leibniz ) is an example which is sort of what i was thinking. The theorem i was thinking of would add to the picture and have something like a 'god' who would create either Newton, Leibniz, or both of them. Shapley value would be the same in all cases. (unless 2 calculus discoveries are better than 1----in sciences sometime... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

Defending the Procreation Asymmetry with Conditional Interests
186d7 min readShow Highlight

The Procreation Asymmetry consists of these two claims together:

  1. it’s bad to bring into existence an individual who would have a bad existence, other things being equal, or the fact that an individual would have a bad existence is a reason to not bring them into existence; and
  2. it’s at best indifferent to bring into existence an individual who would have a good existence, other things being equal, or the fact that an individual would have a good existence is not a reason to bring them into existence.

However, if a bad existence can be an "existential harm" (according to c... (Read more)

Thanks for pointing that out.

I think you can still treat persons as morally relevant, on top of their interests. In particular, you could think that we should weight interests within a person differently from how we weight them across persons, so that personal and interpersonal trade-offs can be treated differently. The principle of Comparative Interests I put forward doesn't make any claims about how interests should be weighted.

If you accept empty individualism, then you might just respond that each interest (or preference or experience, etc.) should be

... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post
Are we living at the most influential time in history?
1632mo23 min readShow Highlight

I don’t claim originality for any content here; people who’ve been influential on this include Nick Beckstead, Phil Trammell, Toby Ord, Aron Vallinder, Allan Dafoe, Matt Wage, and, especially, Holden Karnofsky and Carl Shulman. Everything tentative; errors all my own. 


Here are two distinct views:

Strong Longtermism := The primary determinant of the value of our actions is the effects of those actions on the very long-run future.
The Hinge of History Hypothesis (HoH) :=  We are living at the most influential time ever. 

It seems that, in the effective altruism community as it currently... (Read more)

This is an unusual comment for me, since I will talk about religion. The Baha'i Faith claims, at least as it would be expressed in the terminology used here, that something very close to the following are both true:
-Strong Longtermism and
-The Hinge of History Hypothesis (HOH).
Conjoining/conflating these two claims is the position criticized by Will in this blog post, a position which is at least to a certain degree defended by Toby in his comments.

My sense is that the Baha'i Faith strongly agrees with Toby (and probably goes much farther than he ... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

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