Most members of the EA community are much less risk-averse in their efforts to do good (i.e. "difference-making") than most of society. However, even within effective altruism, risk aversion in difference-making is sometimes cited as an argument for AMF over the Schistosomiasis Control initiative, for funding the Humane League rather than the Good Food Institute, for poverty alleviation over AI alignment research, …
Distinguishing two ways you can be risk-averse: over the difference you make vs. over how good the world is
Notice that there is a (somewhat subtle) difference in risk aversion between the following two preferences:
If you have the first preference, you are risk-averse about your own efforts to do good in the world. Call this risk aversion about difference-making.
If you have the second preference, you are risk-averse about the overall state the world is in. Call this risk aversion over states of the world.
You can be risk-averse over states of the world and not about difference-making, or vice versa. Importantly, this post is arguing against risk aversion about difference-making.
I refer to difference-making when someone aims to “make the biggest/a difference in the world” in contrast to “making the world as good as possible”.
I show some problems with risk-averse difference-making and difference-making as a framework more generally.
[ A bit more than half of the discussion is based on a draft paper from Greaves et al. "On the Desire to Make a Difference" (of which I have seen an early presentation). I got approval to write a more accessible version.]
Consider the following toy scenario:
You have five actions to choose from. There are four states of the world (A-D), each being 25% likely.
In other words, if you take option/action 1, you save 1 life in all possible states of the world. If you take action 2, 3, 4 or 5, you save 5 lives in 25% of states, and 0 lives in 75% of states.
You can think about "world A" as for instance: "AGI comes before 2030" or "Deworming works", etc. Which action does a risk-averse agent take?
So option 1 is preferred.
I describe 2 problems with risk aversion.
One might think that all of this is not super problematic. In certain situations, risk-averse difference-making is hard to justify from an altruistic perspective. One could exercise caution in being a risk-averse difference, and in particular make sure one is not in one of the three traps (time inconsistency, decision unit dependency, and choosing pareto-dominated outcomes in multi-agent scenarios).
I think this is not the right takeaway. First, I think it is actually very hard to impossible to avoid these weird conclusions. Secondly, I think this is also a wrong response, if one thinks that the repugnant conclusion is repugnant, then it also does not make sense to have the total view and to just avoid making many people who just happened to have lives barely worth living.
As a risk-neutral actor, you are allowed to behave risk-aversely to do more good
You don't have to be a pure altruist. I think that risk aversion about difference-making is a personal preference, like many others, and you are allowed to have selfish preferences [You can have more than one goal]
Thanks to Sam Clarke and Hayden Wilkinson for feedback.
 Risk aversion refers to the tendency of an agent to strictly prefer certainty to uncertainty, e.g. you strictly disprefer a mean-preserving spread of the value of outcomes.
Thanks - fwiw I think this merits being posted as a normal article as opposed to on the short form.
Thanks. Done here :)
Here is a Collection of Resources/Reading about (Constructing) Theories of Change - I provide a summary for all resources (except one) in the Google doc.
The overview of the collection/summary document is:
Theory of Change (Aaron Swartz's Raw Thought)
"Backchaining" in Strategy - LessWrong
Michael Aird: "theory of change in Research" workshop
What is a Theory of Change?
Hivos ToC Guidelines: Theory of Change Thinking in Practice
Key Tools, Resources and Materials
Charlotte’s Main Take-aways
Other resources I did not read:
Motivation and Takeaways:
For all that I've read and done with ToCs and critical path analysis, the first thing that comes to my mind is still 'avoiding this':
(I genuinely find thinking 'make sure you don't do this' at all stages is more effective than any theory I've read.)
Also, anything that has 2-3 paths to a potential goal that are at least partially independent will usually leave you in a better place than one linear path. Then it's not so much 'backchaining' as switching emphasis ('lobbying seems to have stalled, so let's try publicity/behaviour change... then who knows, lobbying might be back on again').
This short form is to point out that lots of -ism definitions, including speciesism and longtermism, share the same form. Also credits to Loren for thoughts.
Crossposting a response I wrote in December 2020.
Half a year ago, Scott Alexander argued that there is surprisingly little money spent in US politics. Stefan Torges responded and argued that there is less German money spent on politics than on chocolate . Is it correct that this means that an additional marginal unit of political influence is really that cheap?
I was curious to think about the European institutions, why Brussels one might argue and why about the little money in politics? This is a good thing, right?
Stefan found something between 1 and 3bn for Germany. However, there is also Brussels. And the European Union does partly create policy for Germans and German business (especially the internal market policy). It should be added to the German numbers.
There is this dataset of all registered groups in Brussels that had at least one meeting with the European Commission. I took the smallest number for every organization that fell within a budget interval. This makes 1,750,213,248 Euros overall. One might argue that a few countries might have added their complete budget instead of their policy budget. On the other hand, it seems plausible that most of the organizations have drastically underestimated their numbers (I am pretty sure Google spends more than 8 million in EU politics). In this data set, there are over 4000 organizations which self-report that they have a budget smaller than 500 Euros but 0.5 or even more full-time positions. If we assume that they all spend 50,000 per year and the others also slightly underestimate their numbers, we end up with approximately 3 Billion Euros. If you do not want to add everything you could also just take the organizations with headquarters in Germany (300,000,000). This would be an underestimate as you don’t take the European association which has headquarters in Brussels.
Why do ordinary people not give money?
And only 4.5 million for the EU elections are spent by all German parties. Almost no German gives money to election campaigns. We have strict institutional rules. However, almost no one gives money to lobby groups, e.g. environmental groups. Similarly to the little funding of any charity we are just faced with a classical tragedy of the commons. In addition, I believe that the knowledge that you can buy and might have to buy political influence – even if you are on the good side – is just not that widely known.
Should we only count the German numbers or everything to calculate the german budget?
I think it makes more sense to take the whole set of lobby groups in Brussels. Why?
My interest in the total political budget stems from the question of how crowded the political field is and why not more organizations or interest groups ‘buy’ political influence.
Because of this intention, it makes more sense to take everyone who is fighting about the same regulation. I believe that this gives us a better intuition about the crowdedness.
Is there more left? Perhaps, something else is the limiting factor
There is only a 0.45 correlation between the Budget of the lobby organizations and European Parliament accreditations as well as European Commission meetings.
Maybe this means that you cannot simply buy political influence but there are greater coordination issues and other bottlenecks.
The bottleneck might be something like ” knowing the right people in politics” rather than money and a much more limited good.
And maybe this is a good thing, stabilizing a political system. Other things are also bottle-necked. I would bet that the numbers in Washington are somewhat higher once we would really compulsory register and check everything.