Recent Discussion

29 economists and philosophers, including leading researchers published today in Utilitas: “avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate... approach to population ethics.”  The link at the top of this post is to my own summary of the article and how we reached it, posted at Medium.

Population ethics asks how to evaluate policies and social trends that change the size of the global population. For decades, research has focused on whether to accept “the Repugnant Conclusion.” The Repugnant Conclusion is a hypothetical claim about how to compare populations of well-off people against imaginable, enormous populations of worse-off people. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the Repugnant Conclusion and calls it “one of the cardinal challenges of modern ethics”. In a new publication in the journal Utilitas (link to open access paper), 29 philosophers, economists, and demographers agree: “avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion should no longer be...

"Insider giving" is sad to learn about and certainly inflates donation figures.

Quoting from the abstract of 'Insider Giving' (71 Duke Law Journal (Forthcoming 2021; UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 21-02):

Corporate insiders can avoid losses if they dispose of their stock while in possession of material, non-public information. One means of disposal, selling the stock, is illegal and subject to prompt mandatory reporting. A second strategy is almost as effective and it faces lax reporting requirements and legal restrictions. That second method is to donate the stock to a charity and take a charitable tax deduction at the inflated stock price. “Insider giving” is a potent substitute for insider trading. We show that insider giving is far more widespread than previously believed.

In Human Compatible, Stuart Russell makes an argument that I have heard him make repeatedly (I believe on the 80K podcast and the FLI conversation with Steven Pinker). He suggests a pretty bold and surprising claim:

[C]onsider how content-selection algorithms function on social media... Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user's preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on... Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user's mind—in order

...

Thanks. I'm aware of this sort of argument, though I think most of what's out there relies on anecdotes, and it's unclear exactly what the effect is (since there is likely some level of confounding here).

I guess there are still two things holding me up here. (1) It's not clear that the media is changing preferences or just offering [mis/dis]information. (2) I'm not sure it's a small leap. News channels' effects on preferences likely involve prolonged exposure, not a one-time sitting. For an algorithm to expose someone in a prolonged way, it has to either r... (read more)

3Answer by Alex HT15h[I'd add this to the list of links https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/zAsL6P4jPncK9zwBH/is-the-youtube-algorithm-radicalizing-you-it-s-complicated ]Is The YouTube Algorithm Radicalizing You? It’s Complicated. [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/zAsL6P4jPncK9zwBH/is-the-youtube-algorithm-radicalizing-you-it-s-complicated]

Overview

In this post I provide a brief sketch of The case for strong longtermism as put forward by Greaves and MacAskill, and proceed to raise and address possible misconceptions that people may have about strong longtermism. Some of the misconceptions I have come across, whilst others I simply suspect may be held by some people in the EA community. 

The goal of this post isn’t to convert people as I think there remain valid objections against strong longtermism to grapple with, which I touch on at the end of this post. Instead, I simply want to address potential misunderstandings, or point out nuances that may not be fully appreciated by some in the EA community. I think it is important for the EA community to appreciate these nuances, which should hopefully aid the goal of figuring out how we can do the most good.

EDIT: I realise this is a long post....

I agree that CL may or may not follow from AL depending on one's other ethical and empirical views.

However, I'm not sure I understand if and why you think this is a problem for longtermism specifically, as opposed to effective altruism more broadly. For instance, consider the typical EA argument for donating to more rather than less effective global health charities. I think that argument essentially is that donating to a more effective charity has better ex-ante effects. 

Put differently, I think many EAs donate to AMF because they believe that GiveWe... (read more)

2Max_Daniel3hI don't want to start a pointless industry of alternatively 'shooting down' & refining purported cases of simple cluelessness, but just for fun here is another reason for why our cluelessness regarding "conceiving a child on Tuesday vs. Wednesday" really is complex: Shifting the time of conception by one day (ignoring the empirical complication pointed out by Denise below [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ocmEFL2uDSMzvwL8P/possible-misconceptions-about-strong-longtermism?commentId=HbRKCJh2B2M2RDq3n] ) also shifts the probability distribution of birth date by weekday, e.g. whether the baby's birth occurs on a Tuesday or Wednesday. However, for all we know the weekday of birth has a systematic effect on birth-related health outcomes of mother or child. For instance, consider some medical complication occurring during labor with weekday-independent probability, which needs to be treated in a hospital. We might then worry that on a Wednesday healthcare workers will tend to be more overworked, and so slightly more likely to make mistakes, than on a Tuesday (because many of them will have had the weekend off and so on Wednesday they've been through a larger period of workdays without significant time off). On the other hand, we might think that people are reluctant to go to a hospital on a weekend such that there'll be a "rush" on hospitals on Mondays, which takes until Wednesday to "clear" - making in fact Monday or Tuesday more stressful for healthcare workers. And so on and so on ... (This is all made up, but if I google for relevant terms I pretty quickly find studies such as Weekday of Surgery Affects Postoperative Complications and Long-Term Survival of Chinese Gastric Cancer Patients after Curative Gastrectomy [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5412209/] or Outcomes are Worse in US Patients Undergoing Surgery on Weekends Compared With Weekdays [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27111750/] or Influence of weekday of surgery on operative [https://
2Max_Daniel3hI'm also inclined to agree with this. I actually only very recently realized that a similar point had also been made in the literature: in this 2019 'discussion note' [https://academic.oup.com/aristotelian/article/119/3/321/5572135?login=true] by Lok Lam Yim, which is a reply to Greaves's cluelessness paper:

The definition of existential risk as ‘humanity losing its long term potential’ in Toby Ord precipice could be specified further. Without (perhaps) loss of generality, assuming finite total value in our universe, one could specify existential risks into two broad categories of risks such as:

  • Extinction risks (X-risks): Human share of total value goes to zero. Examples could be extinction from pandemics, extreme climate change or some natural event.
  • Agential risks (A-risks): Human share of total value could be  greater than in the X-risks scenarios but k
... (read more)

Each year, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) publishes a list of goals. This year, to align with our new operating model, we will share our top-level goals for 2021 and offer some of the potential activities we can do to achieve these goals. In efforts to stay agile in our work, we will set quarterly goals internally, assess our progress on those goals at the end of each quarter, and adjust goals accordingly. Here we present our top-level goals for 2021:

  • Redesign our charity evaluation process and make recommendations using this new framework
  • Direct funding to effective animal advocacy activities
  • Assess and monitor ACE’s impact

Redesign Our Charity Evaluation Process and Make Recommendations Using This New Framework

Improve Charity Evaluation Process

After publishing our 2020 charity recommendations, our researchers held a series of retrospective meetings. The outcome of those retrospectives—paired with feedback from all staff, board members, and the charities who participated in our evaluation process—helped us...

Negative utilitarianism

Negative utilitarianism (NU) is a version of utilitarianism whose standard account holds that an act is morally right if and only if it leads to less suffering than any of its alternatives. NU was originally presented as an alternative to classical utilitarianism, which regards suffering and happiness as equally important, and is a leading example of a suffering-focused view, a broader family of ethical positions that assign primary—though not necessarily exclusive or overriding—moral importance to the alleviation of suffering.(Read More)

Okay, I added a section on types of NU. After reading some of this literature, I came to the conclusion that Toby's definition was preferable, so I restored it. If you think we should change it (or revise this edit in any other way), let me know.

Negative utilitarianism (NU) is a version of utilitarianism whose paradigmaticstandard account holds that the only determinant of whether an act is morally right is whetherif and only if it minimizes expected suffering. It may be contrasted withleads to less suffering than any of its alternatives. NU was originally presented as an alternative to classical utilitarianism, which does not give higher weight to reducingregards suffering over promoting happiness. Negative utilitarianismand happiness as equally important, and is ana leading example of a suffering-focused view, a broader family of ethical positions that assign primary—though not necessarily exclusive—exclusive or overriding—moral importance to the alleviation of suffering.

Types of negative utilitarianism

Negative preference utilitarianismAs noted, the standard form of NU requires agents to minimize suffering. However, several variants to this canonical version have been proposed. These variants result from revising standard NU along one or more dimensions.

The first and most commonly discussed dimension of variation concerns the relative moral weight accorded to suffering and happiness. Standard NU may be regarded as a "strong" form of NU, holding that no amount of happiness can ever count for more than any amount of suffering. By contrast, "weak" versions of NU hold instead that a given quantity of suffering counts for more than a corresponding quantity of happiness, but accept that large enough quantities of happiness can in principle outweigh any quantity of suffering (Griffin 1979; Arrhenius & Bykvist 1995; Ord ; Knutsson 2019: 1). Strong NU views may be further subdivided into lexical NU and absolute NU, which either affirm or deny, respectively that happiness counts for something (Ord 2013: 2). On strong lexical NU, of two outcomes equally unpleasant, one counts for more than the other if it is another prominent version,the more pleasant of the two; whereas on absolute strong NU both outcomes count equally. Between strong lexical NU and weak NU, there is room for an intermediate or hybrid form of NU, sometimes called lexical threshold NU (Ord 2013: 3; Tomasik 2013), according to which we ought to minimizethere is some amount of suffering that no amount of happiness can outweigh, but otherwise suffering can be outweighed by a large enough amount of happiness.

A second dimension of variation concerns whether or not NU is formulated in hedonistic terms. Standard NU is hedonistic in that it makes a claim about the relative moral weight of suffering and happiness. But versions of NU have also been formulated in terms of preferences, rather than hedonic states. These preferentist NU views hold that the frustration of desiresa preference counts for more than its satisfaction. (How much more will depend on the type of NU–strong absolute, strong lexical, lexical threshold, or preferences.weak–that preferentism is combined with.) More generally, NU may be presented as a broader theory about negative and positive wellbeing: on this variant, what is bad for a person counts for more than what is good for a person–regardless of whether these goods and bads are hedonic states, preferences, something else, or a combination thereof.

A third dimension of variation relates to the location of the boundary demarcating the states which are morally contrasted. Standard NU holds that the location of this boundary coincides with hedonic neutrality. But some hedonistic negative utilitarians have instead defended a view on which the boundary is below neutrality. On this view, sometimes called "critical-level (hedonistic) NU", the contrast is not between suffering and happiness, but rather between intense enough suffering and other hedonic states. This view also admits a formulation in terms of preferences, or wellbeing more generally.

Finally, different versions of NU may be distinguished depending on whether NU is presented as a criterion of rightness or as a decision procedure. Standard NU is generally understood to provide a criterion of rightness, that is, as a specification of the conditions under which acts are right or wrong. But NU may instead be understood as a decision procedure, that is, as a practical guide for choosing how to act. The claim here is that agents deliberating about what to do should strive to minimize suffering. Someone who is not a standard NU may still defend NU as a decision procedure if they think that following this procedure is more likely to result in acts that better conform to the requirements of morality, whatever those are. This view is analogous to some forms of prioritarianism or egalitarianism, where outcomes that benefit the worst off, or that promote a more equal distribution of resources, are favored not because intrinsic value is placed on priority or equality, but instead because following these principles generally produces better outcomes.

Further ReadingBibliography

Arrhenius, Gustaf & Krister Bykvist (1995) Future Generations and Interpersonal Compensations: Moral Aspects of Energy Use, Uppsala: Uppsala University.

Griffin, James (1979) Is unhappiness morally more important than happiness?, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 29, pp. 47–55.

Knutsson, Simon (2019) The world destruction argument, Inquiry, pp. 1–20.

Ord, Toby (2013), Why I'I’m not a negative utilitarian, Toby Ord'Ord’s Blog - Unpolished Ideas, March.February 28.

Tomasik, Brian (2013) Three types of negative utilitarianism, Essays on Reducing Suffering, March 23.

We hereby announce a new meta-EA institution - "Naming What We Can". 

Vision

We believe in a world where every EA organization and any project has a beautifully crafted name. We believe in a world where great minds are free from the shackles of the agonizing need to name their own projects. 

Goal

To name and rename every EA organization, project, thing, or person. To alleviate any suffering caused by name-selection decision paralysis

Mission

Using our superior humor and language articulation prowess, we will come up with names for stuff. 

About us

We are a bunch of revolutionaries who believe in the power of correct naming. We translated over a quintillion distinct words from English to Hebrew. Some of us have read all of Unsong. One of us even read the whole bible. We spent countless fortnights debating the in and outs of our own org’s title - we Name What We Can.

What Do We Do?

We're here for...

Lost it at Toby Ordering! 😂 

In March 2020, I wondered what I’d do if - hypothetically - I continued to subscribe to longtermism but stopped believing that the top longtermist priority should be reducing existential risk. That then got me thinking more broadly about what cruxes lead me to focus on existential risk, longtermism, or anything other than self-interest in the first place, and what I’d do if I became much more doubtful of each crux.[1]

I made a spreadsheet to try to capture my thinking on those points, the key columns of which are reproduced below. 

Note that: 

  • It might be interesting for people to assign their own credences to these cruxes, and/or to come up with their own sets of cruxes for their current plans and priorities, and perhaps comment about these things below.
    • If so, you might want to avoid reading my credences for now, to avoid being anchored.
  • I was just aiming to honestly convey my
...

Hmm - good question if that would be true for one of my 'cruxes' as well. FWIW my immediate intuition is that it wouldn't, i.e. that I'd have >1% credence in all relevant assumptions. Or at least that counterexamples would feel 'pathological' to me, i.e. like weird edge cases I'd want to discount. But I haven't carefully thought about it, and my view on this doesn't feel that stable.

I also think the 'foundational' property you gestured at does some work for why my intuitive reaction is "this seems wild".

Thinking about this, I also realized that maybe so... (read more)

6Denise_Melchin10hThank you for writing this! I'm currently drafting something similar and your post gave me some new ideas on how to structure it so it would be easy to follow.
4MichaelA10hGlad to hear that! I'll be interested to see yours once it's out, partly just because this sort of thing seems interesting in general and partly in case the structure you land on is better than my one. (I expected some confusion to be created by the fact that my approach just shows a single, conjunctive chain, and by the fact that much of the clarifications and justifications and implications are tucked away in the spreadsheet itself. And comments so far have indicated that those concerns may indeed have been justified.)