Say 50, 100, 150 or 200 years ago

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A couple relevant pieces: In this talk, Tyler Cowen talks about how impartial utilitarianism makes sense today since we can impact humans far from ourselves (in both time and space), but how deontology may have been more sensible in the distant past.

In this talk, Devin Kalish argues that utilitarianism is the correct moral theory on the basis of its historical track record. He argues that utilitarianism correctly "predicted" now widely recognized ethical positions (women's rights, anti-slavery, etc).

So I think it's interesting to ask, if GiveWell was around 200 years ago, what would they have recommended, and in hindsight, would that have been the correct cause to advocate for.

One common criticism of EA is that it focuses too much on incremental rather than Systemic Change. We might worry that in 1800, GiveWell would have advocated for better farming practices, but not for abolition, though in retrospect, the latter seems to have been more important.

This is more or less the point Patrick Collison makes here when he says: "It's hard to me to see how writing a treatise on human nature would score really highly in an EA framework, and yet, ex-post, that looks like a really valuable thing for a human to do. And similarly, when we look at things that in hindsight seem like very good things to have happened, it's unclear to me how an EA intuition would have caused someone to do so"

Overall, I don't think this is a super damning criticism. The world has changed. It's more legible, and more subject to utilitarian calculus.

But still, it's an interesting quesiton.

Nitpicky point: Depending on how much better the farming practices were, and how wide they might have spread, the hypothetical comparison to abolition may not be as clear as it looks. If this list is even close to accurate, famines seem to have killed millions of people in the average decade of the 19th century. I'm not sure what better practices might have been possible to introduce "early" in that era, but I think EA circa 1800 might have had "famine" as a major cause area!


I can't easily find the link, but GiveWell's early discussions of U.S. interventions focused on how difficult it can be to make a permanent change in someone's life in the developed world. One example (this is mine, not theirs): some of the worst-off people in the U.S. are prisoners, and you can't pay to get someone out of jail.

On the other hand, Open Philanthropy made multiple grants to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, with the goal of reducing the amount of time Americans spend in a state of imprisonment. The first of these came two years after the GiveWell Labs -> Open Philanthropy transition, which means the organization was being seriously considered and researched even earlier.

If GiveWell of 1800... (read more)

I think the systemic change point and the treatise on human nature points are meaningfully different. One presumes that "we" (leftist society) knows how to do good and EA is empirically mistaken, while the latter is saying that we're lost on how to do good but having smart people explore their inclinations is plausibly a better path on getting there. Just addressing the latter point for now:

I find Hume a bad example from Collison, since empirically EA has a lot of philosophers and interest in psychology/philosophy, and "understanding human nature or we can... (read more)

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Interesting question - I'm curious what makes you ask?

This looks super interesting to me. We can, in a sense, simulate a longer history of Effective Altruism and see what patterns there are.

Another angle (/ piece of the puzzle) to compare different decision-making processes

Going back a little more than 200 years, would it have recommended supporting the anti-slavery movement? Presumably it would agree that abolishing slavery was good, but the evidence that the movement would work would not be there beforehand, and it might have seemed very unlikely to succeed. 

Another question: Would it have supported Christian missionary efforts because of education/healthcare they spread? Would it instead have competed with such efforts? 

(I am assuming that we are talking of an organisation founded in the Western world. What a Chinese GiveWell in the 19th century would have done I have absolutely no idea about.) 

Mayyybe it would have bought slave's freedom one by one instead? (I don't know; just speculating)

If that was done before the slave trade was abolished it would have encouraged the enslavement of more people. 

Good point, and GiveWell would probably have figured that one out