The despair of normative realism bot

This discussion reminds of a comment R.M. Hare made in his 1957 essay “Nothing Matters”:

Think of one world into whose fabric values are objectively built; and think of another in which those values have been annihilated. And remember that in both worlds the people in them go on being concerned about the same things - there is no difference in the 'subjective' concern which people have for things, only in their 'objective' value. Now I ask, What is the difference between the states of affairs in these two worlds? Can any other answer be given except 'None whatever'? How, therefore can we torment ourselves with doubts about which of them our own world resembles?

In another interesting parallel, in the same essay, Hare uses the term “play-acting” to refer to describe those who claim that nothing matters.

Donation multiplier

While not exactly the same, EA researchers are already doing something quite similar: https://givingmultiplier.org/.

Careers Questions Open Thread

That makes perfect sense! I agree that CE probably isn't the best fit for people most interested in doing EA work to mitigate existential risks. Feel free to shoot me a DM if you'd ever like to talk any of this through at greater length, but otherwise, it seems to me like you're approaching these decisions in a very sensible way.

Careers Questions Open Thread

Happy to help! Another thing that strikes me is that in my experience (which is in the U.S.), running an academic research team at a university (i.e., being the principal investigator on the team's grants) seems to have a lot in common with running a startup (you have a lot of autonomy/flexibility in how you spend your time; your efficacy is largely determined by how good you are at coordinating other people's efforts and setting their priorities for them; you spend a lot of time coordinating with external stakeholders and pitching your value-add; you have authority over your organization's general direction; etc.). This seems relevant because I think a lot of the top university economics research groups in the U.S. have a pretty substantial impact on policy (e.g., consider Opportunity Insights), and the same may well be true in the U.K. It seems to me that other avenues toward impacting policy (e.g., working in the government or for major, established advocacy organizations) are considerably less entrepreneurial in nature. Of course, you could also found your own advocacy organization to push for policy change, but 1) I think it's generally easier to get funding for research than for work along these lines (especially as a newcomer), in part because the advocacy space is already so crowded, and 2) founding an advocacy organization seems like the kind of thing one might do through Charity Entrepreneurship, which you seem less excited about. If you're mainly attracted to entrepreneurship by tight feedback loops, however, academia is probably the wrong way to go, as it definitely does not have those.

Careers Questions Open Thread

It sounds based on your description that a fairly straightforward step would be for you to try to set up calls with 1) someone on the Charity Entrepreneurship leadership team, and 2) some of the founders of their incubated charities. This would help you to evaluate whether it would be a good idea for you to apply to the CE program at some point, as well as to refine your sense of which aspects of entrepreneurship you’re particularly suited to (so that if entrepreneurship doesn’t work out—maybe you discover other aspects of it that seem less appealing—you’ll be able to look for the bits you care for in positions with more established organizations). If you came out of those calls convinced that you might want to apply to Charity Entrepreneurship down the road, it seems to me that a logical next step would be to start reading up on potential causes and interventions that you might want your charity to pursue. You could also, I’m sure, do volunteer work for existing, newly launched CE charities, where given that most of them only have two staff, you’d probably be given a fair amount of responsibility and would be able to develop useful insights into the entrepreneurial process. For you, the value of information from doing that seems like it might be quite high.

Careers Questions Open Thread

That seems like a sound line of reasoning to me — best of luck with the rest of your degree!

Careers Questions Open Thread

I think this is a really hard question, and the right answer to it likely depends to a very significant degree on precisely what you’re likely to want to do professionally in the near and medium-term. I recently graduated from a top U.S. university, and my sense is that the two most significant benefits I reaped from where I went to school were:

  1. Having that name brand on my resume definitely opened doors for me when applying for jobs during my senior year. I’m actually fairly confident that I would not have gotten my first job out of college had I gone to a less prestigious school, though I think this only really applies to positions at a fairly narrow set of financial services firms and consulting firms, as well as in certain corners of academic research.
  2. I think I personally benefited from a significant peer effect. My specific social circle pushed me to challenge myself academically more than I likely otherwise would have (in ways that probably hurt my GPA but served me well all things considered). That said, I know that the academic research on peer effects in education is mixed to say the least, so I’d be hesitant to extrapolate much from my own experience.

I’m not sure how to weigh the importance of the first of those considerations. On the one hand, your first job is just that: your first job. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about where you’ll end up at age 35. On the other hand, I do feel like I have observed this phenomenon of smart people graduating from relatively unknown universities and really struggling to find interesting work during their first several years out of college and then eventually resigning themselves to getting a master’s degree from a more well-known school (sometimes in a field where the educational benefit of the degree is relatively low) just so that they can get in the door to interview for jobs in their field of choice. This obviously comes at a significant cost, both in terms of time and—often but not always—in terms of money. That said, in some fields, you just do need a master’s to get in the door for a lot of roles, no matter where you went to undergrad or what you did while you were there, and maybe that’s all that’s really behind this.

Another thing potentially worth noting is that, in my experience, it seems as if U.S. research universities are most usefully divisible into three categories with respect to their undergraduate job placement: universities that “high-prestige” employers are unlikely to have heard of, universities that “high-prestige” employers are likely to have heard of and have vaguely positive associations with, and finally, the set of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Stanford (these are distinguished not only by their name brands but also by the extent of their funding and support for undergraduate research and internships, the robustness of their undergraduate advising, and other more “experiential” factors). There are certainly exceptions to this breakdown (the financial services and consulting firms mentioned above definitely differentiate between Penn and Michigan), but by and large, my sense has been that controlling for “ability,” the difference in early-career outcomes between a Harvard graduate and a Penn graduate is significantly larger than the difference in early-career outcomes between a Penn graduate and a Michigan graduate (note: the specific schools chosen as examples within each cohort here are completely arbitrary). Accordingly, I don’t think that very many people generally have a strong professional reason to transfer from UCLA to Brown or from the University of Virginia to Dartmouth, etc. However, I buy that those at lesser-known schools may, in many circumstances, have a strong professional reason to transfer to their flagship state school.

Other good reasons to transfer, I think, include transferring for the purpose of getting to a particular city where you know you want to work when you graduate, with an eye toward spending a portion of the remainder of your time in college networking or interning in your field of choice. In particular, I think that if you want to work in U.S. (national) policy after graduation, transferring to a school in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area can be hugely beneficial. The same goes for financial services in the New York City Metropolitan Area, entertainment in Los Angeles, and (perhaps, though I am less sure about this) tech in the San Francisco Bay Area. In your case, it might be worthwhile to submit a transfer application to Georgetown with the aim of trying to forge some connections at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (or perhaps the Center for Global Health Science and Security if you are interested in biosecurity policy), both of which are housed there. One other very strong reason to transfer, it seems to me, would be if you wanted to work on AI, but your current school didn’t have a computer science department, like a local state school near where I grew up. I assume from your post that that isn’t your situation, though.

Finally, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of mental health considerations, to the extent that those may be at all relevant to your choice. Mental health during college can have a huge impact on GPA, and while where you go to undergrad will only really be a factor in determining your grad school prospects for a relatively narrow set of programs (mainly, I think, via the way it affects the kinds of research jobs you can get during and post-college), GPA is a huge determinant of grad school admissions across basically every field, so that is important to bear in mind. The transfer experience, from what I have heard, is not always easy, especially, I imagine, in academic environments that are already very high-pressure.

If you’d like to talk through this at greater length, feel free to DM me. To the extent that my perspective might be useful, I’d be more than happy to offer it, and if you’d just like someone to bounce ideas off of, I’d be happy to fill that role, as well.

Wholehearted choices and "morality as taxes"

I really like this. To me, it emphasizes that moral reason is a species of practical reason more generally and that the way moral reasons make themselves heard to us is through the generic architecture of practical reasoning. More precisely: Acting in a manner consistent with one's moral duties is not about setting one's preferences aside and living a life of self-denial; it's about being sufficiently attentive to one's moral world that one's preferences naturally evolve in response to sound moral reasons, such that satisfying those preferences and fulfilling one's duties are one and the same.

Incompatibility of moral realism and time discounting

This is a fascinating argument — thank you for sharing it! I think it's particularly interesting to consider it in the context of metaethical theories that don't fall neatly within the realist paradigm but share some of its features, like R.M. Hare's universal prescriptivism (see Freedom and Reason [1963] and Moral Thinking [1981]). However, I also think this probably shouldn't lead most discounting realists to abandon their moral view. My biggest issue with the argument is that I suspect (though I am still thinking this through) that there exist parallel arguments of this form that would purport to disprove all of philosophical realism (i.e. including realism about empirical descriptions of the natural world). I think statements rejecting philosophical realism are pretty epistemically fraught (maybe impossible to believe with justification), which leaves me suspicious of your argument. (It's worth noting here that special relativity itself is an empirical description of the natural world.)

I have a feeling that the right way of thinking about this is that the rise relativistic physics changed the conventional meaning of a "fact" into something like: a true statement for which its truth cannot depend upon the person thinking it within a particular inertial frame of reference. Otherwise, I think we would be forced to admit that there are not facts about the order in which events occur in time, and that seems quite obviously inconsistent with the ordinary language meanings of several common concepts to me. I know that relativity teaches that statements about time and duration are not objective descriptions of reality but are instead indexical reports of "where the speaker is" relative to a particular object, similar to "Derek Parfit's cat is to my left," but (for basically Wittgensteinian reasons) I do not think that this is actually what these statements mean.

Ultimately, if you're someone who, like me, believes that a correct analysis of the question, "What is the right thing to do?" must start with a correct analysis of the logical properties of the concepts invoked in that sentence (see R.M. Hare, especially Sorting Out Ethics [1997]), and you believe that those logical properties are determined by the way in which those concepts are used (see Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations [1953]), then I think this argument is mainly good evidence that the proper understanding of what moral realism means today is the following: "Moral realism holds that moral statements are facts, and the truth of a fact must be universal within the inertial frame of reference in which that fact exists; that is, that truth cannot depend upon the person thinking the fact within that inertial frame of reference."

Careers Questions Open Thread

Glad to hear it helped! Of course, usual caveats apply about the possibility that your field is quite different from mine, so I wouldn't stop looking for advice here, but hopefully, this gives you a decent starting point!

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