All of Devin Kalish's Comments + Replies

A hypothesis for why some people mistake EA for a cult

One theory that I'm fond of, both because it has some explanatory power, and because unlike other theories about this with explanatory power, it is useful to keep in mind and not based as directly on misconceptions, goes like this:

-A social group that has a high cost of exit, can afford to raise the cost of staying. That is, if it would be very bad for you to leave a group you are part of, the group can more successfully pressure you to be more conformist, work harder in service of it, and tolerate weird hierarchies.

-What distinguishes a cult, or at least ... (read more)

"Long-Termism" vs. "Existential Risk"

Really? I didn't find their reactions very weird, how would you expect them to react?

"Long-Termism" vs. "Existential Risk"

I'm not so sure about this. Speaking as someone who talks with new EAs semi-frequently, it seems much easier to get people to take the basic ideas behind longtermism seriously than, say, the idea that there is a significant risk that they will personally die from unaligned AI. I do think that diving deeper into each issue sometimes flips reactions - longtermism takes you to weird places on sufficient reflection, AI risk looks terrifying just from compiling expert opinions - but favoring the approach that shifts the burden from the philosophical controversy... (read more)

1timunderwood1mo
Hmmmm, that is weird in a way, but also as someone who has in the last year been talking with new EAs semi-frequently, my intuition is that they often will not think about things the way I expect them to.
Unsurprising things about the EA movement that surprised me

Re: "In particular, there is no secret EA database of estimates of effectiveness of every possible action (sadly). When you tell people effective altruism is about finding effective, research-based ways of doing good, it is a natural reaction to ask: “so, what are some good ways of reducing pollution in the Baltic Sea / getting more girls into competitive programming / helping people affected by [current crisis that is on the news]” or “so, what does EA think of the effectiveness of [my favorite charity]”. Here, the honest answer is often “nobody in EA kno... (read more)

3Sunny11mo
Well, no one has the "real" answers to any of these questions, even the most EA of all EAs. The important thing is to be asking good questions in the first place. I think it's both most truthful and most interpersonally effective to say something like "gee, I've never thought about that before. But here's a question I would ask to get started. What do you think?"
Brief Thoughts on "Justice Creep" and Effective Altruism

This is a good summary of my position. I also agree that a significant part of the reason for the three major cause areas is history, but think that this answers a slightly different question from the one I'm approaching. It's not surprising, from the outside, that people who want to good, and have interests in common with major figures like Peter Singer, are more likely to get heavily involved with the EA movement than people who want to do good and have other values/interests. However, from the inside it doesn't give an account of why the people who do w... (read more)

Brief Thoughts on "Justice Creep" and Effective Altruism

I mostly agree, I don’t think I was super clear with my initial post, and have edited to try to clarify more what I mean by the “odd one out”. To respond to your point more specifically, I also agree that the reason for caring in the first place is just the strong arguments in favor of caring about non-humans, and I even agree that the formal arguments for caring about non-human animals are probably more philosophically robust that those for caring about future generations (at least in the “theory X” no-difference-made-by-identity way longtermists usually ... (read more)

Twitter-length responses to 24 AI alignment arguments

I really appreciate this post. These types of memes (or more to the point the attitude towards common criticisms they reflect or normalize) bother me a lot, and I'm glad to see there's still appetite in the movement to take common arguments like these seriously.

Some thoughts on vegetarianism and veganism

I'm excited to read it when it comes out! I've read Askell's post on it before, I think it's mostly right, though I don't think it gets at the potential problems with offsetting for even more mild harms enough.

Some thoughts on vegetarianism and veganism

This comment captures a lot of my concerns about offsetting arguments in the context of veganism, as well as more generally. Spelled out a bit more, my worry for EAs is that we often:

1.Think we ought to donate a large amount

  1. Actually donate some amount that is much smaller than this but much larger than most people

  2. Discourage each other from sanctioning people who are donating much more than other people, for not donating enough

Offsetting bad acts can presumably fall into the same pool as other donations, which leads to the following issue:

let’s say... (read more)

Right. The problem with offsetting is that rather than (1) doing something bad (eg kicking (medieval) peasants) and then (2) offsetting it somehow (eg by donating money), the better outcome is where you do (2), ie the offset and then just don't do the bad thing at all.

Someone might claim they won't do (2) unless they do (1), and therefore the better outcome is that they do both (1) and (2) rather than neither (1) or (2). But this is deeply suspicious and suggests a very contorted psychology. ("Funny thing is that if I don't kick the peasant, I just can mak... (read more)

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

So, I didn't do a very good job sticking to this statement. I'm still new to the forum format, and getting a much bigger response than I had expected. I've therefore decided to just make a clean break and hold myself to it. Feel free to continue interacting in the comments, I will read all of the comments unless they really pile up, but I'll stop responding unless one of them is a direct question or something like that. If I figure out a way to, I'll pin this message at the top of the comments section.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

This is a possibility, admittedly my evidence doesn't say much about the old state of the field. If so I think that would be a good reason for optimism, so I kind of hope you're right. That said, I think some of the state of research has to come down to unintentional consequences as well. The Belmont Report is too strict even as intended for instance, but I think a great deal of its harm comes from the vagueness of the guidelines it inspired.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

On the one hand I agree that that piece of evidence is my least systematic and convincing. I mostly raise it because of Willy in the world asking for a bioethicist petition on challenge trials and Matt Yglesias citing the 1Day Sooner letter in claiming that bioethicists seem out of step with regular philosophers. In this context I thought it made sense to dig a little bit into the contents of the letter. On the other hand, I do think that Sebo and Singer and McMahan and Savulescu (and for that matter Jessica Flanigan and Anders Sandberg and others) should ... (read more)

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

This is all fair, and I appreciate the response. I don’t mean to say that you and other critics overall have bad takes on the issue of research oversight, I agree with most of the criticisms, and think they are important. It’s just on the topic of bioethicists specifically that I find a good deal of the discourse weird (I should also add that there are plenty of particular bioethicists, like Leon Kass, who are worthy of the criticisms, I just don’t think they are representative, or the root of the problem).

6Robert_Wiblin4mo
Cool yeah. I just want to provide another more boring reason a lot of us have piled on to bioethics that doesn't even require ingroup-outgroup dynamics. Basically all of the people you're citing (like me) have an amateur interest in bioethics as it affects legal policy or medical practice or pandemic control (the thing we actually follow closely). You and I agree that harmful decisions are regularly being made by IRBs (and politicians), often on the basis of supposed 'bioethics'. We also both agree there are at least a handful of poor thinkers in the field who do offer up low quality moral philosophy to support these bad decisions. It's only natural then for me and my fellow travelers to see these bad decisions, and these writings classified as bioethics justifying them, and suppose that the latter are an important cause of the former. And these decisions come week after week for years, progressively infuriating me more and more. I could see I'm making a mistake to judge bioethics as a field by sampling a representative bunch of papers (weighted by citations maybe), reading them, and deciding how reasonable they typically seem. Unfortunately that's an involved process that few people with an amateur interest are going to have time for. Each person can only go down a few rabbit holes like that each year in between our normal work, personal commitments, staying healthy, and so on. So I appreciate you and other people doing that heavy lifting and then sharing the results — it's the only way it's practical for our mistake to be corrected!
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

This is an interesting question, and you’re right that I don’t really address it directly. That said, I’m not sure I totally understand how your criticism applies to the issue of whether bioethics as a field is worthwhile. Are you saying that the IRB system is bad for research, and if it weren’t for the presence of bioethicists this system wouldn’t be in place? As I said in the piece, I’m not an expert on IRBs myself, but this seems implausible to me. The IRB system is in place because of unclear and excessive guidelines, and the strong risk of liability t... (read more)

5Davidmanheim4mo
First, I think that working within a broken system know you can't fix is bad, especially when it lends authority to the system. And second, the IRB system as it exists isn't being condemned or opposed by bioethicists, and in fact was put in place by the Belmont Report, which was written by a bioethics expert group.
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

I think there's a ton to criticize in the institutions, don't get me wrong, I just disagree that that's how lots of the criticisms I see come off.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

Quick PSA, I’m interacting in the comments pretty actively right now. If the comments section keeps growing, I will slow down on this in a bit. Please don’t think it means I don’t think your comment is worth some interaction as well, I’ve been very happy with the comments I’ve been getting so far! I just wanted to make quick note of this since I’m pretty new to the forum and a bit self-conscious about how I engage.

2Devin Kalish4mo
So, I didn't do a very good job sticking to this statement. I'm still new to the forum format, and getting a much bigger response than I had expected. I've therefore decided to just make a clean break and hold myself to it. Feel free to continue interacting in the comments, I will read all of the comments unless they really pile up, but I'll stop responding unless one of them is a direct question or something like that. If I figure out a way to, I'll pin this message at the top of the comments section.
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

The cases do seem somewhat different to me as well, but I don’t think this necessarily contradicts my thesis. If the key criticism is something like “bioethicists should make their actual leanings more well-known and influential” I would agree with that. It’s just this seems more modest and less unique than many of the criticisms I have seen.

6AllAmericanBreakfast4mo
I think that many of the people you quote are articulating the bioethical illusion. Take Matt's quote, for example: He's saying: a) It's not clear who these supposed "bioethicists" are. b) Whoever they are, they're misrepresenting their own controversial views as professional consensus. c) They are also exaggerating their professional standing, and it's not clear that they do or should have any standing as moral authorities at all. It seems to me that a primary skill of a competent professional ethicist is to be able to articulate arguments and counter-arguments in their field, and to be able to roughly articulate the professional consensus as well as popular opinion on the subjects they are most expert in. While people are entitled to their personal opinion, if a professional (bio)ethicist speaks out in their professional capacity to politicians or the media, they ought to qualify the strength of their statements based on an accurate representation of the state of the discourse and professional and popular views. This doesn't have to be done perfectly or in a uniform fashion, but a real attempt should be made. In turn, bioethicists ought to either work hard to organize their profession around this principle, and to invite the public, journalists, and lawmakers into a more open-minded view of the most pressing bioethical issues of our day. They don't have to fix PR problems or instill a particular viewpoint on specific bioethical issues, but they need to try to create a perception that bioethics doesn't have many universally-held conclusions on particular ethical issues in biotechnology. I don't hold them responsible for failing to restrain their loudmouthed colleagues, but I do feel resentment for their not trying harder to spread a more nuanced and representative view of unsettled debates. In fact, I think this is perhaps the primary responsibility of an ethicist. It's not to craft a conclusive argument to settle an ethical issue, but to make strong efforts
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

This is interesting, and I’m glad to see some pushback in the direction of the stronger thesis as well. Again, the evidence I have seen leans the other way and I have not seen evidence I consider as strong in the anti-bioethics direction, but each piece of my evidence is also fairly weak on its own. A first pass at these cases leaves me with the following reactions (the numbers don’t correspond to each of your numbered points, they’re just there for organization):

  1. My evidence is, I think, pretty anglocentric, and may leave room for the situation to be dif
... (read more)
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright
  1. I appreciate it!
  2. I hope the public is generally receptive to EA-style thinking, and there is some indication of it at least. I do still worry that when it comes to appeal-to-authority type reasoning, the public will find "bioethicists" more trustworthy, even if they are relatively disposed to agreeing with our ideas. I could be wrong on that, it is a fairly speculative harm.
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

I agree, the Bensinger piece was very helpful, and wasn't in my first draft. Credit to Applied Divinity Studies for linking me to something that linked to it, or I wouldn't have found it at all.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

I really appreciate you replying to this, and I read (I think) all of your blog posts on IRBs, and they are all to the best of my knowledge informative and accurate. My point is much more just that "bioethicists" seem to be a bad way of framing a bunch of these issues. As for:

  1. I think this is correct, but I still think it can be useful to try to get along, all else equal. As I briefly mentioned, it is possible that if bioethicists had better priorities they could make some indirect difference at least, and this is probably the best criticism of the field
... (read more)
2will_c4mo
Glad you didn't see any factual error in the posts! #1, Yeah, you're totally right that "bioethicists" is the wrong target. Will try to use "institutionalized research ethics" going forward. It is much more explicit about what the problem is and more fair to bioethicists. re #2, sort of agreed. I tend to think the public doesn't like weird ideas in general, but there was a recent paper showing higher public support for challenge trials than traditional trials. [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33334616/] So I'm not sure what counts as weird to the public as a whole. It might be the case that the public has surprisingly EA-ish ideas on medical ethics, at least on this specific issue. Not sure.
The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

I actually agree with this part of the Galef/Yglesias discussion, in that I think for major public health decisions they should generally be more a matter of public endorsement than ethical "expertise". As for what expertise might look like, I guess it would be understanding different well-known distinctions (hedonism versus desire satisfaction, act/omission versus intention) and well known dilemmas (totalist population axiology sounds no good, but neither does anything else) which can make a difference to how you think about the issues.

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

Actually I'm the one who posted this one, Nick edits all of my posts because they are published on his blog (though this one won't be there until he gets back to RIT). I'll be busy the next couple of days, but I'll take it under advisement!

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

Thanks so much! Applied Divinity Studies deserves a good deal of the credit for the style though, they really pushed me to make the tone more engaging/bold, and even gave me suggested rewrites in some places. I have gotten the subheading suggestion a couple of times now on different pieces, so you're right that I should look into doing that more going forward.

Yeah, I likewise appreciated this post and think this sort of pushback on common but under-justified or oversimplified views seems a useful service to provide. 

I'd recommend not just subheadings but also a summary / key takeaways section, ideally in the style used in Open Phil and Rethink Priorities posts and described in the post Reasoning Transparency.

This is a suggestion I very often make (i.e., it's not like a weird rare issue with just this post). One reason I make it here is that I can imagine wanting to point people to this post in future but n... (read more)