This all makes sense, and I think it is a a very reasonable perspective. I hope this ongoing process goes well.
I at least would say that I care about doing the most good that I can, but am also mindful of the fact that I run on corrupted hardware, which makes ends justifying means arguments unreliable, per EY's classic argument (http://lesswrong.com/lw/uv/ends_dont_justify_means_among_humans/)
""The end does not justify the means" is just consequentialist reasoning at one meta-level up. If a human starts thinking on the object level that the end justifies the means, this has awful consequences given our untrustworthy brains; therefore a human shouldn't think this way. But it is all still ultimately consequentialism. It's just reflective consequentialism, for beings who know that their moment-by-moment decisions are made by untrusted hardware."
This doesn't mean I think there's never a circumstance where you need to breach a deontological rule; I agree with EY when they say "I think the universe is sufficiently unkind that we can justly be forced to consider situations of this sort.". This is the reason under Sarah's definition of absolutely binding promises, I would simply never make such a promise- I might say that I would try my best and to the best of my knowledge there was nothing that would prevent me from doing a thing, or something like that- but I think the universe can be amazingly inconvenient and don't want to be a pretender at principles I would not actually in extremis live up to.
The theory I tend to operate under I think of as "biased naive consequentialism", where I do naive consequentialism- estimating out as far as I can see easily- then introduce heavy bias against things which are likely to have untracked bad consequences, e.g. lying, theft. (I kind of am amused by how all the adjectives in the description are negative ones.). But under a sufficiently massive difference, sure, I'd lie to an axe murderer. This means there is a "price", somewhere. This is probably most similar to the concept of "way utilitarianism", which I think is way better than either act or rule utilitarianism, and is discussed as a sort of steelman of Mohist ideas (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mohism/).
One of the things I take from the thinking around the non-central fallacy aka the worst argument in the world (http://lesswrong.com/lw/e95/the_noncentral_fallacy_the_worst_argument_in_the/) is that one should smoothly reduce the strength of such biases for examples which are very atypical of the circumstances the bias was intended for, so as to not have weird sharp edges near category borders.
All this is to say that in weird extreme edge cases, under conditions of perfect knowledge, I think what people do is not important. It's okay to have a price. But in the central cases, in actual life, I think they should have either a very strong bias against deception and for viewing deceptive behaviour poorly, or an outright deontological prohibition if they can't reliably maintain that.
If I was to say one thing I think is a big problem, it's that in practice some people's price seems to be only able to be infinite or zero (or even negative- a lot of people seem to get tempted by cool "ends justify means" arguments which don't even look prima facie like they'd actually have positive utility. I mean, trading discourse and growth for money in a nascent movement is, um, even naive utilitarianism can track far enough out to see the problems there, you have to have an intuitive preference for deception to favour it).
I disagree with you in that I think infinite works fine almost always, so it wouldn't be a big problem if everyone had that- I'd be very happy if all the people who had their price to cheat at around zero moved it to infinite. But I agree with you in that infinite isn't actually the correct answer for an ideal unbiased reasoner, just not that this should affect how humans behave while under the normal circumstances that are the work of the EA movement.
The alarming part for me is that I think in general these debates do, because people erroneously jump from "a hypothetical scenario with a hypothetical perfect reasoner would not behave deontologically" to sketchiness in practice.
This definitely isn't the kind of deliberate where there's an overarching plot, but it's not distinguishable from the kind of deliberate where a person sees a thing they should do or a reason to not write what they're writing and knowingly ignores it, though I'd agree in that I think it's more likely they flinched away unconsciously.
It's worth noting that while Vegan Outreach is not listed as a top charity it is listed as a standout charity, with their page here: https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/charity-review/vegan-outreach/
I don't think it is good to laud positive evidence but refer to negative evidence only via saying "there is a lack of evidence", which is what the disclaimers do- in particular there's no mention of the evidence against there being any effect at all. Nor is it good to refer to studies which are clearly entirely invalid as merely "poor" while still relying on their data. It shouldn't be "there is good evidence" when there's evidence for, and "the evidence is still under debate" when there's evidence against, and there shouldn't be a "gushing praise upfront, provisos later" approach unless you feel the praise is still justified after the provisos. And "have reservations" is pretty weak. These are not good acts from a supposedly neutral evaluator.
Until the revision in November 2016, the VO page opened with: "Vegan Outreach (VO) engages almost exclusively in a single intervention, leafleting on behalf of farmed animals, which we consider to be among the most effective ways to help animals.", as an example of this. Even now I don't think it represents the state of affairs well.
If in trying to resolve the matter of whether it has high expected impact or not, you went to the main review on leafleting (https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/interventions/leafleting/), you'd find it began with "The existing evidence on the impact of leafleting is among the strongest bodies of evidence bearing on animal advocacy methods.".
This is a very central Not Technically a Lie (http://lesswrong.com/lw/11y/not_technically_lying/); the example of a not-technically-a-lie in that post being using the phrase "The strongest painkiller I have." to refer to something with no painkilling properties when you have no painkillers. I feel this isn't something that should be taken lightly:
"NTL, by contrast, may be too cheap. If I lie about something, I realize that I'm lying and I feel bad that I have to. I may change my behaviour in the future to avoid that. I may realize that it reflects poorly on me as a person. But if I don't technically lie, well, hey! I'm still an honest, upright person and I can thus justify visciously misleading people because at least I'm not technically dishonest."
The disclaimer added now helps things, but good judgement should have resulted in an update and correction being transparently issued well before now.
The part which strikes me as most egregious was in the deprioritising of updating a review on what was described in a bunch of places as the most cost effective (and therefore most effective) intervention. I can't see any reason for that, other than that the update would have been negative.
There may not have been conscious intent behind this- I could assume that this was as a result of poor judgement rather than design- but it did mislead the discourse on effectiveness, that already happened, and not as a result of people doing the best thing given information available to them but as a result of poor decisions given this information. Whether it got more donations or not is unclear- it might have tempted more people into offsetting, but on the other hand each person who did offsetting would have paid less because they wouldn't have actually offset themselves.
However something like this is handled is also how a bad actor would be handled, because a bad actor would be indistinguishable from this; if we let this by without criticism and reform, then bad actors would also be let by without criticism and reform.
I think when it comes to responding to some pretty severe stuff of this sort, even if you assume the people made them in good faith and just made some rationality failings, more needs to be said than "mistakes were made, we'll assume you're doing the best you can to not make them again". I don't have a grand theory of how people should react here, but it needs to be more than that.
My inclination is to at the least frankly express how severe I think it is- even if it's not the nicest thing I could say.
Thank you for the response, and I'm glad that it's being improved, and that there seems to be a honest interest in doing better.
I feel "ensure others don't get the wrong idea about how seriously such estimates should be taken" is understating things- it should be reasonable for people to ascribe some non-zero level of meaning to issued estimates, and especially it should be that using them to compare between charities doesn't lead you massively astray. If it's "the wrong idea" to look at an estimate at all, because it isn't the true best reasoned expectation of results the evaluator has, I think the error was in the estimate rather than in expectation management, and find the deflection of responsibility here to the people who took ACE at all seriously concerning.
The solution here shouldn't be for people to trust things others say less in general.
Compare, say, GiveWell's analysis of LLINs (http://www.givewell.org/international/technical/programs/insecticide-treated-nets#HowcosteffectiveisLLINdistribution); it's very rough and the numbers shouldn't be assumed to be close to right (and responsibly, they describe all this), but their methodology makes them viable for comparison purposes.
Cost-effectiveness is important- it is the measure of where putting your money does the most good and how much good you can expect to do, and a fully inclusive of risks and data issues cost effectiveness estimate is basically what one is arriving at when one determines what is effective. Even if you use other selection strategies for top charities, incorrect cost effectiveness estimates are not good.
I find it difficult to combine "I want to be nice and sympathetic and forgiving of people trying to be good people and assume everyone is" with "I think people are not taking this seriously enough and want to tell you how seriously it should be taken". It's easier to be forgiving when you can trust people to take it seriously.
I've kind of erred on the side of the latter today, because "no one criticises dishonesty or rationalisation because they want to be nice" seems like a concerning failure mode, but it'd be nice if I were better at combining both.
One very object-level thing which could be done to make longform, persistent, not hit-and-run discussion in this particular venue easier: Email notifications of comments to articles you've commented in.
There doesn't seem to be a preference setting for that, and it doesn't seem to be default, so it's only because I remember to come check here repeatedly that I can reply to things. Nothing is going to be as good at reaching me as Facebook/other app notifications on my phone, but email would do something.
Perhaps. It's certainly what the people suggesting that deliberate dishonesty would be okay are suggesting, and it is what a large amount of online advocacy does, and it is in effect what they did, but they probably didn't consciously decide to do it. I'm not sure how much credit not having consciously decided is worth, though, because that seems to just reward people for not thinking very hard about what they're doing, and they did it from a position of authority and (thus) responsibility.
I stand by the use of the word 'plundering'- it's surprising how some people are willing to hum and har about maybe it being worth it, when doing it deliberately would be a very short-sighted, destroy-the-future-for-money-now act. It calls for such a strong term. And I stand by the position that it would throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness if people played those sorts of games, withheld information that would be bad for causes they think are good, etc, rather than being scrupulously honest. But again to say they 'decided' to do those things is perhaps not entirely right.
I think in an evaluator, which is in a sense a watchdog for other peoples' claims, these kind of things really are pretty serious- it would be scandalous if e.g. GiveWell were found to have been overexcited about something and ignored issues with it on this level. Their job is to curb enthusiasm, not just be another advocate. So I think taking it seriously is pretty called for. As I mentioned in a comment below, though, maybe part of the problem is that EA people tried to take ACE as a more robust evaluator than it was actually intending to be, and the consequence should be that they shift to regarding it as a source for pointers whose own statements are to be taken with a large grain of salt, the way individual charity statements are.
Thanks for the feedback, and I'm sorry that it's harsh. I'm willing to believe that it wasn't conscious intent at publication time at least.
But it seems quite likely to me from the outside that if they thought the numbers were underestimating they'd have fixed them a lot faster, and unless that's not true it's a pretty severe ethics problem. I'm sure it was a matter of "it's an error that's not hurting anyone because charity is good, so it isn't very important", or even just a generic motivation problem in volunteering to fix it, some kind of rationalisation that felt good rather than "I'm going to lie for the greater good"- the only people advocating that outright seem to be other commenters- but it's still a pretty bad ethics issue for an evaluator to succumb to the temptation to defer an unfavourable update.
I think some of this might be that the EA community was overly aggressive in finding them and sort of treating them as the animal charity GiveWell, because EA wanted there to be one, when ACE weren't really aiming to be that robust. A good, robust evaluator's job should be to screen out bad studies and to examine other peoples' enthusiasm and work out how grounded it was, with transparent handling of errors (GiveWell does updates that discuss them and such) and updating in response to new information, and from that perspective taking a severely poor study at face value and not correcting it for years, resulting in a large number of people getting wrong valuations was a pretty huge failing. Making "technically correct" but very misleading statements which we'd view poorly if they came from a company advertising itself is also very bad in an organisation whose job is basically to help you sort through everyone else's advertisements.
Maybe the sensible thing for now is to assume that there is no animal charity evaluator that's good enough to safely defer to, and all there are are people who may point you to papers which caveat emptor, you have to check yourself, for now.
Copying my post from the Facebook thread:
Some of the stuff in the original post I disagree on, but the ACE stuff was pretty awful. Animal advocacy in general has had severe problems with falling prey to the temptation to exaggerate or outright lie for a quick win today. especially about health, and it's disturbing that apparently the main evaluator for the animal rights wing of the EA movement has already decided to join it and throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness in favour of plundering their reputation for more donations today. A mistake is a typo, or leaving something up accidentally, or publishing something early by accident, and only mitigation if corrective action was taken once detected. This was at the minimum negligence, but given that it's been there for years without making the trivial effort to fix it should probably be regarded as just a lie. ACE needs replacing with a better and actually honest evaluator.
One of the ways this negatively impacted the effectiveness discourse: During late 2015 there was an article written arguing for ethical offsetting of meat eating (http://slatestarcodex.com/.../vegetarianism-for-meat-eaters/), but it used ACE's figures, and so understated the amounts people needed to donate by possibly multiple orders of magnitude.
More concerning is the extent to which the (EDIT: Facebook) comments on this post and the previously cited ones go ahead and justify even deliberate lying, "Yes, but hypothetically lying might be okay under some circumstances, like to save the world, and I can't absolutely prove it's not justified here, so I'm not going to judge anyone badly for lying", as with Bryd's original post as well. The article sets out a pretty weak case for "EA needs stronger norms against lying" aside for the animal rights wing, but the comments basically confirm it.
I know that answering "How can we build a movement that matches religious movements in output (http://lesswrong.com/.../can_humanism_match_religions.../), how can we grow and build effectiveness, how can we coordinate like the best, how can we overcome that people think that charity is a scam?" with "Have we considered /becoming pathological liars/? I've not proven it can't work, so let's assume it does and debate from there" is fun and edgy, but it's also terrible.
I can think of circumstances where I'd void my GWWC pledge; if they ever pulled any of this "lying to get more donations" stuff, I'd stick with TLYCS and a personal commitment but leave their website.