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How can I apply person-affecting views to Effective Altruism?

by New_EA1 min read29th Apr 202021 comments



Hey everyone! I'm very interested in Effective Altruism, and most of my information on it comes from 80,000 Hours' website. The info is very useful, but, as the title of this question suggests, I hold person-affecting views, so occurs to me that the world's largest-scale and most serious problems might be different in my own worldview than in theirs (if you aren't familiar with the term, person-affecting views are views that actions are only morally relevant to beings that will exist independent of whether or not the action is taken; for example, I think the world ending would be bad because 7 billion people would die, but not because their descendants were prevented from ever being born). Does anyone have thoughts for where I can find problem profiles and recommendations for an Effective Altruism lifestyle based on a person-affecting worldview (especially for a conservative Christian worldview)?

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I'm struggling to think of much written on this topic - I'm a philosopher and reasonably sympathetic to person-affecting views (although I don't assign them my full credence) so I've been paying attention to this space. One non-obvious consideration is whether to take an asymmetric person-affecting view (extra happy lives have no value, extra unhappy lives has negative value) or a symmetric person-affecting view (extra lives have no value).

If the former, one is pushed towards some concern for the long-term anyway, as Halstead argues here, because there will be lots of unhappy lives in the future it would be good to prevent existing.

If the latter - which I think, after long-reflection, is the more plausible version, even though it is more prima facie unintuitive - then that is practically sufficient, but not necessary, for concentrating on the near-term, i.e. this generation of humans; animals won't, for the most part, exist whatever we choose to do. I say not necessary because one could, in principle, think all possible lives matter and still focus on near-humans due to practical considerations.

But 'prioritise current humans' still leaves it wide-open what should you do. The 'canonical' EA answer for how to help current humans is by working on global (physical) health and development. It's not clear to me that this is the right answer. If I can be forgiven for tooting my own horn, I've written a bit about this in this (now somewhat dated) post on mental health, the relevant section being "why might you - and why might you not - prioritise this area [i.e. mental health]".

If I weren't interested in creating more new beings with positive lives I'd place greater priority on:

  • Ending the suffering and injustice suffered by animals in factory farming
  • Ending the suffering of animals in the wilderness
  • Slowing ageing, or cryonics (so the present generation can enjoy many times more positive value over the course of their lives)
  • Radical new ways to dramatically raise the welfare of the present generation (e.g. direct brain stimulation as described here)

I haven't thought much about what would look good from a conservative Christian worldview.


It's a common view. Some GiveWell staff hold this view, and indeed most of their work involves short-term effects, probably for epistemic reasons. Michael Plant has written about the EA implications of person-affecting views, and emphasises improvements to world mental health.

Here's a back-of-the-envelope estimate for why person-affecting views might still be bound to prioritise existential risk though (for the reason you give, but with some numbers for easier comparison).

Dominic Roser and I have also puzzled over Christian longtermism a bit.

This paper is also relevant to the EA implications of a variety of person-affecting views. https://globalprioritiesinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/Teruji_Thomas_asymmetry_uncertainty.pdf

If you think that embryos and fetuses have moral value, then abortion becomes a very important issue in terms of scale. However, it's not very neglected, and the evidence suggests that increased access to contraceptives, not restricted access to abortion services, is driving the decline in abortion rates in the U.S.

Designing medical technology to reduce miscarriages (which are spontaneous abortions) may be an especially important, neglected, and tractable way to prevent embryos/fetuses and parents from suffering. (10-50% of pregnancies end in miscarriages.)

80,000 Hours has a cause quiz, possibly a bit dated and sometimes a bit buggy (sometimes you see the rankings during the quiz, sometimes you only see them at the end, and sometimes there's an extra question).

Question 4 is particularly relevant fvor person-affecting views, but it might not get at your specific views, since there are many different kinds of person-affecting views:

Question 4: Here’s two scenarios:
A nuclear war kills 90% of the human population, but we rebuild and civilization eventually recovers.
A nuclear war kills 100% of the human population and no people live in the future.
How much worse is the second scenario?

Besides the causes listed there, there could also be mental health and pain relief, and since you think death is bad, cryonics and life extension.

Whether or not you think it's bad to bring absolutely miserable lives into existence (the asymmetry), that could have important consequences. If you do think it's bad, then the longterm future could matter a lot.

Your response to the nonidentity problem also matters. Essentially, do you think if either A or B will be born, and the value in (total quality of) their lives will be X and Y, respectively, with X < Y, does it matter to you whether A or B is born? Is this the same to you as whether A is born and lives with value X or Y? As an example, if a couple wants to have a child, but the mother has been infected with the Zika virus, considering only the effects on the child, should the couple wait to conceive until it's unlikely the child would be affected by Zika? If they wait, a different child will be born. If you don't think it matters whether A or B is born, regardless of X and Y (even if one or either would be miserable), then basically the longterm future shouldn't matter to you.

If you do think it's bad to bring bad lives into existence or that it matters whether A or B is born (considering only their interests), then the longterm future could still matter a lot, and assuming you do focus on the longterm future (you might still have empirical doubts) your focus would be on preventing s-risks or ensuring its quality is as good as possible, conditional on moral patients existing, but not ensuring moral patients exist for their own sake. See the link about s-risks, trammell's answer about this paper, or the talk about that paper here.

The Effective Altruism for Christians website and Facebook group might be a useful place to start, if you haven't come across those before.

I don't think they have developed problem profiles etc., but the people there may have a similar outlook to you and be able to point you to resources that are more relevant from a Christian and/or person-affecting perspective.

Even if you're just 99% sure that Christianity is true, it might still make sense to focus on worlds where it's false given in the world where it's true we already have an aligned superintelligence, and are all immortal.

The book The Ethics of Cryonics: Is it Immoral to be Immortal? talks about cryopreserving all fetuses. Cryonics might also be the only way to bring people currently existing to a time when they can live rich and long lives.

Hey there!

The universe/multiverse may be very large and (in the fullness of time) may contain a vast number of beings that we should care about and that we (and other civilizations similar to us) may be able to help in some way by using our cosmic endowment wisely. So person-affecting views seem to prescribe the standard maxipok strategy (see also The Precipice by Toby Ord).

[EDIT: by "we should care" I mean something like "we would care if we knew all the facts and had a lot of time to reflect".]