COO at Rethink Priorities.

I previously co-founded and served as Executive Director at Wild Animal Initiative and one of its predecessor organizations, Utility Farm. I also ran corporate animal welfare campaigns for Mercy For Animals.

I run a monthly newsletter on invertebrate welfare. Archives are here: https://www.invertebratewelfare.org/newsletter


Critiques of EA that I want to read

Definitely mostly using it to mean focused on x-risk, but most because that seems like the largest portion / biggest focus area for the community.

I interpret that Will MacAskill quote as saying that even the most hardcore longtermists care about nearterm outcomes (which seems true), not that lead reduction is supported from a longtermist perspective. I think it's definitely right that most longtermists I meet are excited about neartermist work. But I also think that the social pressures in the community currently still push toward longtermism.

To be clear, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing - it definitely could be good given how neglected longtermist issues are. But I've found the conversation around this to feel somewhat like it is missing what the critics are trying to get at, and that this dynamic is more real than people give it credit for.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

I think something you raise here that's really important is that there are probably fairly important tensions to explore between the worlds that having a neartermist view and longtermist view suggest we ought to be trying to build, and that tension seems underexplored in EA. E.g. an inherent tension between progress studies and x-risk reduction.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

I mean, my personal opinion is that is there was a concerted effort of maybe 30-50 people over ~2015-2020, the industry could have been set back fairly significantly. Especially strong levers here seem to be around convincing venture capital not to invest in the space, because VC money is going to fund the R&D necessarily to get insectmeal cost-competitive with fishmeal for the industry to succeed. But the VC firms seemed to be totally shooting in the dark during that period on whether or not this would work, so I think plausibly a pretty small effort could have had a substantial impact on whether or not funding got into the space. At least, I think there would have been an opportunity to delay its development by several years, and give the animal welfare community time to organize / figure out better strategies.

Now, the biggest bottleneck for this space is finding people interested in working on it. (which would have been a bottleneck before too). It's definitely weird, but there just aren't that many people who want to do this work. Finding capable founders for new animal charities focused on highly neglected animals seems especially difficult.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

Yeah that's fair - there are definitely people who take them seriously in the community. To clarify, I meant my comment as person-affecting views seem pretty widely dismissed in the EA funding community (though probably the word "universally" is too strong there too.).

Critiques of EA that I want to read

That doesn't seem quite right - negative utilitarians would still prefer marginal improvements even if all suffering didn't end (or in this case, a utilitarian might prefer many become free even if all didn't become free). The sentiment is interesting because it doesn't acknowledge marginal states that utilitarians are happy to compare against ideal states, or worse marginal states.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

Yeah, I think that some percentage of this problem is fixable, but I think one issue is that there are lots of important critiques that might be made from a place of privileged information, and filling in a form will be deanonymizing to some extent. I think this is especially true when an actor's actions diverge from stated values/goals — I think many of the most important critiques of EA that need to be made come from actions diverging from stated values/goals, so this seems hard to navigate. E.g. I think your recent criminal justice reform post is a pretty good example of the kind of critique I'm thinking of, but based on actions that aren't public or at least aren't written up anywhere. 

Related to this, I feel like a lot of people in EA lately have expressed a sentiment that they have general concerns like the one I outlined here, but can't point to specific situations. One explanation for this is that their concerns aren't justified, but another is that people are unwilling to talk about the specifics.

That being said, I think the anonymous submission form is really helpful, and glad it exists. 

For what its worth, I've privately been contacted more about about this particular critique resonating with people than any other in this post by a large degree, which suggests to me that many people share this view.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

Thanks for the response!

RE 5d chess - I think I've experienced this a few times at organizations I've worked with (e.g. multiple funders saying, "we think its likely someone else will fund this, so are not/only partially funding it, though we want the entire thing funded," and then the project ends up not fully funded, and the org has to go back with a new ask/figure things out. This is the sort of interaction I'm thinking of here. It seems costly for organizations and funders. But I've got like an n=2 here, so it might just be chance (though one person at a different organization has messaged me since I posted this and said this point resonated with their experiences). I don't think this is intentional on funders part!

RE timelines - I agree with everything here. I think this is a tricky problem to navigate in general, because funders can have good reasons to not want to fund projects for extended periods.

RE vocabulary - cultural differences make sense as a good explanation too. I can think of one instance where I felt like this was especially noticeable - I encouraged a non-EA project I thought was promising to apply for funding, and they didn't get it. I pitched the funder on the project personally, and they changed their mind. There are obviously other factors at play here (e.g. maybe the funder trusted my judgement?), but I felt like looking at their application, it seemed like they just didn't express things in "EA terms" despite being pretty cool, and their application wasn't overly sensational or something.

RE brain drain - I agree with everything here. I think I'm more concerned about less prestigious but really promising organizations losing their best people, and that grantmaking in particular is a big draw for folks (though maybe there is a lot of need for talented grantmakers so this isn't a bad thing!).

Critiques of EA that I want to read

Yeah that makes sense to me. To be clear, the fact that two smart people have told me that they disagree with my sense that moral realism pushes against consistency seems like good evidence that my intuitions shouldn't be taken too strongly here.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

I definitely agree with this. Here are a bunch of ideas that are vaguely in line with this that I imagine a good critique could be generated from (not endorsing any of the ideas, but I think they could be interesting to explore):

  • Welfare is multi-dimensional / using some kind of multi-dimensional analysis captures important information that a pure $/lives saved approach misses.
    • Relatedly, welfare is actually really culturally dependent, so using a single metric misses important features.
  • Globalism/neoliberalism are bad in the longterm for some variety of reasons (cultural loss that makes human experience less rich and that's really bad? Capitalism causes more harms than benefits in the long run? Things along those lines).
  • Some change is really expensive and takes a really long time and a really indirect route to get to, but it would be good to invest in anyway even if the benefits aren't obvious immediately. (I think this is similar to what people mean when they argue for "systemic" change as an argument against EA).

I think that one issue is that lots of the left just isn't that utilitarian, so unless utilitarianism itself is up for debate, it seems hard to know how seriously people in the EA community will take lefty critiques (though I think that utilitarianism is worth debating!). E.g. "nobody's free until everyone is free" is fundamentally not a utilitarian claim.

Critiques of EA that I want to read

Yeah those are fair - I guess it is slightly less clear to me that adopting a person-affecting view would impact intra-longtermist questions (though I suspect it would), but it seems more clear that person-affecting views impact prioritization between longtermist approaches and other approaches.

Some quick things I imagine this could impact on the intra-longtermist side:

  • Prioritization between x-risks that cause only human extinction vs extinction of all/most life on earth (e.g. wild animals).
  • EV calculations become very different in general, and probably global priorities research / movement building become higher priority than x-risk reduction? But it depends on the x-risk.

Yeah, I'm not actually sure that a really convincing person-affecting view can be articulated. But I'd be excited to see someone with a strong understanding of the literature really try.

I also would be interested in seeing someone compare the tradeoffs on non- views vs person-affecting. E.g. person affecting views might entail X weirdness, but maybe X weirdness is better to accept than the repugnant conclusion, etc.

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