I think NunoSempere's answer is good and looking vNM utility should give you a clearer idea of where people are coming from in these discussions. I would also recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on expected utility theory.
You make an important and often overlooked point about the Long-Run Arguments for expected utility theory (described in the article above). You might find Christian Tarsney's paper, Exceeding Expectations, interesting and relevant.
On 3, this is a super hard practical difficulty that doesn't have a satisfactory answer in many cases. Very relevant is Hilary Greaves' Cluelessness.
As NunoSempere suggests, GiveWell is a good place to look for some tricky comparisons. My colleague, Stephen Clare, and I made this (very primitive!) attempt to compare saving human lives with sparing chickens from factory farms, which you might find interesting.
I found this really motivating and inspiring. Thanks for writing. I've always found the "great opportunity" framing of altruism stretched and not very compelling but I find this subtle reframing really powerful. I think the difference for me is the emphasis on the suffering of the drowning man and his family, whereas "great opportunity" framings typically emphasise how great it would be for YOU to be a hero and do something great. I prefer the appeal to compassion over ego.
I usually think more along Singerian obligation lines and this has led to unhealthy "morality as taxes" thought patterns. On reflection, I realise that I haven't always thought about altruism in this way and I actually used to think about it in a much more wholehearted way. Somehow, I largely lost that wholehearted thinking. This post has reminded me why I originally cared about altruism and morality and helped me revert to wholehearted thinking, which feels very uplifting and freeing. I plan on revisiting this whenever I notice myself slipping back into "morality as taxes" thought patterns.
My reading of the post is quite different: This isn't an argument that, morally, you ought to save the drowning man. The distant commotion thought experiment is designed to help you notice that it would be great if you had saved him and to make you genuinely want to have saved him. Applying this to real life, we can make sacrifices to help others because we genuinely/wholeheartedly want to, not just because morality demands it of us. Maybe morality does demand it of us but that doesn't matter because we want to do it anyway.
Great, sounds like you're on top of all of this!
Agreed. I didn't mean to imply that totalism is the only view sensitive to the mortality-fertility relationship - just that the results could be fairly different on totalism and that it's especially important to see the results on totalism and that it makes sense to look at totalism before other population ethical views not yet considered. Exploring other population ethical views would be good too!
If parents are trying to have a set number of children (survive to adulthood) then the effects of reducing mortality might not change the total number of future people much, because parents adjust fertility
I think my concern here was that the post suggested that saving lives might not be very valuable on totalism due to a high fertility adjustment:
A report writtenfor GiveWell estimated that in some areas where it recommends charities the number of births averted per life saved is as large as 1:1, a ratio at which population size and growth are left effectively unchanged by saving lives. For totalists, the value of saving lives in a 1:1 context would be very small (compared to one where there was no fertility reduction) as the value of saving one life is ‘negated’ by the disvalue of causing one less life to be created.
Roodman's report (if I recall correctly) suggested that this likely happens to a lower degree in areas where infant mortality is high (i.e. parents adjust fertility less in high infant mortality settings) so saving lives in these settings is plausibly still very valuable according to totalism.
This is a great summary of what I was and wasn't saying :)
Thanks for the link - looking forward to reading. Might return to this after reading
You're very welcome! I really enjoyed reading and commenting on the post :)
One thing I can’t quite get my head round - if we divide E(C) by E(L) then don’t we lose all the information about the uncertainty in each estimate? Are we able to say that the value of averting a death is somewhere between X and Y times that to doubling consumption (within 90% confidence)?
Good question, I've also wondered this and I'm not sure. In principle, I feel like something like the standard error of the mean (the standard deviation of the sample divided by the square root of the sample size) should be useful here. But applying it naively doesn't seem to give plausible results because guesstimate uses 5000 samples, so we end up with very small standard errors. I don't have a super strong stats background though - maybe someone who does can help you more here
I wish this preference was more explicit in Founders Pledge's writing. It seems like a substantial value judgment, almost an aesthetic preference, and one that is unintuitive to me!
We don't say much about this because none of our conclusions depends on it but we'll be sure to be more explicit about this if it's decision-relevant. In the particular passage you're interested in here, we were trying to get a sense of the broader SWB benefits of psychedelic use. We didn't find strong evidence for positive effects on experiential or evaluative measures of SWB. As you rightly note, just using PANAS leaves open the possibility that life satisfaction could have increased (the former is an experiential measure and the latter is an evaluative one). But there wasn't evidence for improvements in evaluative SWB either so that fact that we place more weight on experiential than evaluative measures didn't play a role here.
The only time that we've used SWB measures to evaluate a funding opportunity, we looked at both happiness (an experiential measure) and life satisfaction (an evaluative measure).
I wonder which of hedonistic and preference utilitarianism you're more sympathetic to, or which of hedonism and preference/desire theories of well-being you're more sympathetic to. The former tend to go with experiential SWB and the latter with evaluative or eudaimonic SWB (see Michael Plant's recent paper). I don't think it's a perfect mapping but my inclination towards hedonism is closely related to my earlier claim that
experiential measures, such as affective balance (e.g. as measured by Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)), capture more of what we care about and less of what we don't care about, compared to evaluative measures, such as life satisfaction
This might explain our disagreement.
e.g. favoring affective balance over life satisfaction implies that having children is a bad decision in terms of one's subjective well-being. (If I recall correctly, on average having kids tends to make affective balance go down but life satisfaction go up; many people seem very happy to have had children.)
This is an interesting example, thanks for bringing it up. I don't have a strong view on whether having children increases or decreases hedonistic well-being (though it seems likely to increase well-being in desire/preference terms). So I'm not too sure what to make of it but here are a few thoughts:
1. This could well be a case in which life satisfaction captures something important that affect and happiness miss - I don't have a strong view on that.
2. The early years of parenting intuitively seem really hard and sleep-depriving but also fulfilling and satisfying in a broad sense. So it seems very plausible that they decrease affect/happiness but increase life satisfaction. I'd expect children to be a source of positive happiness as well, later in life though, so maybe having children increases affect/happiness overall anyway.
3. If having children decreases affect/happiness, I don't find it very surprising that lots of people want to have children and are satisfied by having children anyway. There are clearly strong evolutionary pressures to have strong preferences for having children but much less reason to think that having children would make people happier (arguably the reverse: having children results in parents having fewer resources for themselves!)
Hi Milan, thanks very much for your comments (here and on drafts of the report)!
On 1, we don't intend to claim that psychedelics don't improve subjective well-being (SWB), just that the only study (we found) that measured SWB pre- and post-intervention found no effect. This is a (non-conclusive) reason to treat the findings that participants self-report improved well-being with some suspicion.
As I mentioned to you in our correspondence, we think that experiential measures, such as affective balance (e.g. as measured by Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)), capture more of what we care about and less of what we don't care about, compared to evaluative measures, such as life satisfaction. But I take your point that PANAS doesn't encompass all of SWB.
On 2, behaviour change still hasn't been studied enough for there to be more than "weak evidence" but yeah, I agree that reports from third-parties are stronger evidence than self-reported changes.
Also interesting here – individuals may rescale their assessments of subjective well-being over time. I speculate that the particulars of the psychedelic experience may drive rescaling like this in an intense way.
Yeah, I don't think we understand this very well yet but it's an interesting thought :)