Topic Contributions


Some unfun lessons I learned as a junior grantmaker

[I]f feedback is scarce because of a lack of time, this increases the usefulness of going to conferences where you can meet grantmakers and speaking to them.

That sounds worse to me. Conferences are rare and hence conference-time is more valuable than non-conference time. Also, I don't want to be ambushed by people who are annoyed they didn't get money, or prospective applicants who are trying to network their way into a more favourable decision.

You should join an EA organization with too many employees

Interesting idea, but (based on about 20 seconds thought) I'm not convinced it holds in equilibrium. If for-profit firms under-invest by 50x, and charities adapt to this by ramping up their investment massively, aren't they then taking resources (e.g. labour) away from the for-profit sector and thus making for-profit under-investment even worse? (Assuming the total consumption/investment tradeoff is unchanged).

Guided by the Beauty of One’s Philosophies: Why Aesthetics Matter

The Enlightenment led to good foundational ideas of EA, but it was also full of philosophers who ... excluded pretty much everybody except for white men from the moral circle, and advocated for constant growth with no regard for sustainability (e.g. Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, Adam Smith).


I think this is pretty unfair. In general I think we should judge historical figures by the ways they were unusual for their period, not the ways they were typical, but in this case we don't even need to make this distinction. Here is Adam Smith on slavery for example:

By this we may see what a miserable life the slaves must have led; their life and their property intirely at the mercy of another, and their liberty, if they could be said to have any, at his disposall also. (link)

Smith was clearly not a big fan of slavery, and did not exclude african chattel slaves from the moral circle, though he was pessimistic about the prospects for abolition. He and other enlightenment-inspired economists were trenchant critics of the peculiar institution. Indeed their belief in fundamental human equality was what lead their pro-slavery critics to dub it the dismal science.

And since the global economy has grown by over 10,000% since he published The Wealth Of Nations I think it is hard to criticise him for being insufficiently Malthusian. Typically people who claim that we cannot safely grow the economy are not envisaging an upper limit 250 years in the future and thousands of percent higher.

Guided by the Beauty of One’s Philosophies: Why Aesthetics Matter

Thanks for writing this! I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion but it was definitely thought-provoking and novel, speaking as someone whose org doesn't even have a logo.

The biggest risk of free-spending EA is not optics or motivated cognition, but grift

That seems like a quite distinct case than what Ben is worrying about - more like a standard commercial interaction, 'buying' pandemic prevention. If I buy a pizza, it makes little difference to me if the cashier is deeply aligned with my dietary and health objectives - all I care about is that he got the toppings right. It is not from the benevolence of the pizza guy that we expect our dinner, but from his regard to his own interest. I think grift would be more like a politician writing a speech to cater to EA donors and then voting for exactly the same things they intended to anyway.

The biggest risk of free-spending EA is not optics or motivated cognition, but grift

CSER is the obvious example in my mind, and there are other non-public examples.

Some clarifications on the Future Fund's approach to grantmaking

I did a lot of structured BOTECs for a different grant-making organization, but decided against sharing them with applicants in the feedback. The main problems were that one of the key inputs was a 'how competent are the applicants at executing on this', which felt awkward to share if someone got a very low number, and that the overall scores were approximately log-normally distributed, so almost everyone would have ended up looking pretty bad after normalization. 

Did Peter Thiel give "the keynote address at an EA conference"?

That feels very uncharitable.

Phil isn't an unknown internet critic whose motivations are opaque; he is/was a well known person whose motivations and behaviour are known first-hand by many in the community. Perhaps other people have other motivations for disliking longtermism, but the question OP asked was about Phil specifically, and Linch gave the Phil specific answer.

What We Owe the Past

Yeah I basically agree with that. I think pasttermism is basically interesting because there are plausibly some very low hanging fruit, like respecting graves, temples and monuments. The scope seems much smaller than longtermism.

What We Owe the Past

Great, thank you so much for writing this and saving me from having to do it.

I think it's worthwhile comparing obligations to the past with those to the future. In many but not all ways ways obligations to the past look more plausible:

  • Future people are separated from us in time and their existence is uncertain; past people may be temporally distant but their existence is certain, which matters for the person-affecting view.
  • There are some ways of helping people (e.g. ensuring they have enough food) that work for future people but not past people.
  • We have better information about the values of people in the past. We don't know what religions people will believe in the future, but we know past people would prefer we didn't dynamite the Hagia Sofia.
  • There are a lot more people in the past than the present, but many more again in the future (hopefully).
  • Past people were much poorer than current people (and, conditional on non-extinction, likely also future people) and hence egalitarianism pushes in favour of helping them.
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