Benjamin_Todd's Comments

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Interesting. My personal view is that the neglect of future generations is likely 'where the action is' in cause prioritisation, so if you exclude their interests from the cooperative portfolio, then I'm less interested in the project.

I'd still agree that we should factor in cooperation, but my intuition is then that it's going to be a smaller consideration than neglect of future generations, so more about tilting things around the edges, and not being a jerk, rather than significantly changing the allocation. I'd be up for being convinced otherwise – and maybe the model with log returns you mention later could do that. If you think otherwise, could you explain the intuition behind it?

The point about putting more emphasis on international coordination and improving institutions seems reasonable, though again, I'd wonder if it's enough to trump the lower neglectedness.

Either way, it seems a bit odd to describe longtermist EAs who are trying to help future generations as 'uncooperative'. It's more like they're trying to 'cooperate' with future people, even if direct trade isn't possible.

On the point about whether the present generation values x-risk, one way to illustrate it is that value of a statistical life in the US is about $5m. This means that US citizens alone would be willing to pay, I think, 1.5 trillion dollars to avoid 0.1ppt of existential risk.

Will MacAskill used this as an argument that the returns on x-risk reduction must be lower than they seem (e.g. perhaps the risks are actually much lower), which may be right, but still illustrates the idea that present people significantly value existential risk reduction.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding
At the bottom of this write-up I have an example with three causes that all have log returns. As long as both funders value the causes positively and don't have identical valuations, a pareto improvement is possible through cooperation.

Very interesting, thank you.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

This is a tangent, but if you're looking for an external critic maybe making a point along these lines, then the LRB review of DGB might be better. You could see systemic change is a public good problem, and the review claims that EAs neglect it due to their individualist focus. More speculation at the end of this:

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

I also wanted to attempt to clarify 80k's position a little.

With prisoner’s dilemmas against people outside of EA, it seems that the standard advice is to defect. In 80,000 Hours’ cause prioritization framework, the goal is to estimate the marginal benefit (measured by your value system, presumably) of an extra unit of resources being invested in a cause area [5]. No mention is given to how others value a cause, except to say that cause areas which you value a lot relative to others are likely to have the highest returns.

I agree this is the thrust of the article. However, also note that in the introduction we say:

However, if you’re coordinating with others in aiming to have an impact, then you also need to consider how their actions will change in response to what you do, which adds additional elements to the framework, which we cover here.

Within the section on scale we say:

It can also be useful to group instrumental sources of value within scale, such as gaining information about which issues are most important, or building a movement around a set of issues. Ideally, one would also capture the spillover benefits of progress on this problem on other problems. Coordination considerations, as briefly covered later, can also change how to assess scale.

And then at the end, we have this section:

On the key ideas page, we also have a short section on coordination and link to:

Which advocates compromising with other value systems.

And, there's the section where we advocate not causing harm:

Unfortunately, we haven't yet done a great job of tying all these considerations together – coordination gets wedged in as an 'advanced' consideration; whereas maybe you need to start from a cooperative perspective, and totally reframe everything in those terms.

I'm still really unsure of all of these issues. How common are prisoner's dilemma style situations for altruists? When we try to factor in greater cooperation, how will that change the practical rules of thumb? And how might that change how we explain EA? I'm very curious for more input and thinking on these questions.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

I wonder if EA as it currently exists can be reframed into more cooperative terms, which could make it safer to promote. I'm speculating here, but I'd be interested in thoughts.

One approach to cause prioritisation is to ask "what would be the ideal allocation of effort by the whole world?" (taking account of everyone's values & all the possible gains from trade), and then to focus on whichever opportunities are most underinvested in vs. that ideal, and where you have the most comparative advantage compared to other actors. I've heard researchers in EA saying they sometimes think in these terms already. I think something like this is where a 'cooperation first' approach to cause selection would lead you.

My guess is that there's a good chance this approach would lead EA to support similar areas to what we do currently. For instance, existential risks are often pitched as a global public good problem i.e. I think that on balance, people would prefer there was more effort going into mitigation (since most people prefer not to die, and have some concern for future generations). But our existing institutions are not delivering this, and so EAs might aim to fill the gap, so long as we think we have comparative advantage addressing these issues (and until the point where institutions can be improved that this is no longer needed).

I expect we could also see work on global poverty in these terms. On balance, people would prefer global poverty to disappear (especially if we consider the interests of the poor themselves), but the division into nation states makes it hard for the world to achieve that.

This becomes even more likely if we think that the values of future generations & animals should also be considered when we construct the 'world portfolio' of effort. If these values were taken into account, then currently the world would, for instance, spend heavily on existential risk reduction & other investments that benefit the future, but we don't. It seems a bit like the present generation is failing to cooperate with future generations. EA's cause priorities aim to redress this failure.

In short, the current priorities seem cooperative to me, but the justification is often framed in marginal terms, and maybe that style of justification subtly encourages an uncooperative mindset.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thank you for the post – very interesting and thought provoking ideas. I have a couple of points to explore further that I'll break into different replies.

I'd be curious for more thoughts on how common these situations are.

In the climate change, AI safety, conservation example, it occurred to me that if each individual thinks that their top option is 10 times more effective than the second option, it becomes clearly better again (from their pov) to support their top option. The numbers seem to only work because AI safety is marginally better than climate change.

You point out that the problem becomes more severe as the number of funders increases. It seems like there are roughly 4 'schools' of EA donors, so if we consider a coordination problem between these four schools, it'll roughly make the issue 2x bigger, but it seems like that still wouldn't outweigh 10x differences in effectiveness.

The point about advocacy making it worse seems good, and a point against advocacy efforts in general. Paul Christiano also made a similar point here:

I'd be interested in more thoughts on how commonly we're in the prisoner's dilemma situation you note, and what the key variables are (e.g. differences in cause effectiveness, number of funders etc.).

A naive analysis on if EA is Talent constrained

I’m really sad to hear how upset you are with 80,000 Hours and how you feel it has made it harder rather than easier to find a role in which you can have impact.

It’s a real challenge for us to decide whether to share our views or not publish them until we’re more certain and clear. We hope that by getting more information out there, it will let people make better decisions, but unfortunately we’re going to continue to be uncertain and unable to explain all our evidence, and our views will change over time. It’s useful to hear your feedback that we might be getting the tradeoff wrong. We’ve been trying to do a better job communicating our uncertainty in the new key ideas series, for instance by releasing: advice on how to read our advice

Thank you for collecting together all this specific information about different organisations in EA. The question of whether the issues we focus on are ‘talent constrained’ or not (though I prefer not to use this term), is a complicated one. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a full response here, though I do hope to write about it more in the future.

I do just want to clarify that I do still believe that certain skill bottlenecks are very pressing in effective altruism. Here are a couple of additional points:

  • To be specific, I think it’s longtermist organisations that are most talent constrained. Global health and factory farming organisations are much more constrained by funding relatively speaking (e.g. GiveWell top recommended charities could absorb ~$100m). I think this explains why organisations like TLYCS, Charity Science and Charity Entrepreneurship say they’re more funding constrained (and also to some extent Rethink priorities, which does a significant fraction of its work in this area).
  • Even within longtermist and meta organisations, not *every* organisation is mainly skill-constrained, so you can find counterexamples, such as new organisations without much funding. This may also explain the difference between the average survey respondents and Rethink Priorities’ view.
  • It doesn’t seem to me that looking at whether lots of people applied to a job tells us much about how talent constrained an organisation is. Some successful applicants might have still been much better than others, or the organisations might have preferred to hire even more than they were able to.
  • Something else I think is relevant to the question of whether our top problem areas are talent constrained is that I think many community members should seek positions in government, academia and other existing institutions. These roles are all ‘talent constrained’, in the sense that hundreds of people could take these positions without the community needing to gain any additional funding. In particular, we think there is room for a significant number of people to take AI policy careers, as argued here.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about all of these topics. I hope that gives at least a little more sense of how I’m thinking about this. Unfortunately, I’ve been focusing on responding to covid-19 so won’t be able to respond to questions. I want to reiterate though how sad it is to hear that someone has found our advice so unhelpful, not just because of the negative effect on you, but also on those you’re working to help. Thank you for taking the time to tell us, and I hope that we can continue to improve not only our advice, but also the clarity with which we express our degree of certainty in it and evidence for it.

EAF’s ballot initiative doubled Zurich’s development aid

Great news! I'd be keen to hear where the money ends up being allocated.

Is mindfulness good for you?

Have you come across the book Altered Traits? It tries to sum up the existing evidence for meditation, and in the latter half of the book, each chapter looks at the evidence for and against a proposed benefit. At the start, they talk about their criteria for which studies to include, and seem to have fairly strict standards.

One significant weakness is that it's written by two fans of meditation, so it's probably too positive. However, to their credit, the authors exclude some of their own early studies for not being well designed enough.

One advantage is that they try to bring together multiple forms of evidence, including theory, studies of extreme meditators, and neuroscience as well as RCTs of specific outcomes – though the neuroscience is pretty basic. They also do a good job of distinguishing how there are many different types of meditation that seem to have different benefits; and also distinguishing between beginners, intermediates and experts.

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