Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

I was waiting for this! I thought there were going to be lots of "this would be bad for the EA brand" comments. As some evidence against this, and to my surprise, across all the places where I posted this, or saw others post it (on the EA forum, facebook, and twitter) the post received very little pushback.

I was actually pretty disappointed with this as it made me think it hadn't reached many who would disagree. On the plus side, this suggests this cause is not going to objectionable amongst people who are sympathetic to EA ideas.

Re the second para, I wasn't claiming that a new organisation would need to exist. My concern what whether it was reasonable to think this is where (for someone) their money or time could do the most good. That doesn't imply they would need to start something.

Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

Right, so I do agree that if you're going to move away from prohibition, you do need to consider how non-prohibition would be implemented in reality, rather than some fictitious ideal world, and then whether it really would be better in reality. The thing people tend to forget is that you can evolve regulation, so I'm optimistic problems like those mentioned here can eventually be overcome.

Also, to state the obvious, that something has some problems is not an all-things-considered reason against doing it.

Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

What I think the three different replies to this comment indicate is that crudely thinking "how many resources go to this thing?" is, in itself, neither necessary nor sufficient to deem something a high priority. We need a fuller story about the nature of the problem, it's scale, potential solutions, obstacles, and the rest. I don't think anyone has tried to do that for this issue, which is why I'd like someone to dig into it.

This strikes me as an issue where it's not obviously high priority, but because it's not obvious, it is worth researching further to see if it is.

Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

Yes, there is some overlap here, certainly.

OPP has, I undestand it, worked on drug decriminalisation, cannabis legalisation, and prison reform, all within the US. What we might call 'global drug legalisation' goes further with respected to drug policy reform (legal, regulated markets for all drugs + global scope, rather than then US) but it also wouldn't cover non-drug related prison reforms.

Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

I'm partially sympathetic to this. However, I think EAs have got a bit hung up on 'neglectedness' to the extent it's got in the way of clear thinking: if lots of people are doing something, and you can make them do it slightly better, then working on non-neglected things is promising. Really, I think you need to judge the 'facts on the grounds', what you can do, and go from there. If there aren't ruthlessly impact-focused types working on a problem, that would a good heuristic for some such people to get stuck in.

What was salient to me, compared to when I knew very little of the topic, is how much larger the expected value of drug legalisation now seems.

Launching a new resource: 'Effective Altruism: An Introduction'

I think the least contentious argument is that 'an introduction' should introduce people to the ideas in the area, not just the ideas that the introducer thinks are most plausible. Eg a curriculum on political ideology wouldn't focus nearly exclusively on 'your favourite ideology'. A thoughtful educator would include arguments for and against their position and do their best to steelman. Even if your favourite ideology was communism and you were doing 'an intro to communism' you would still expect it not just to focus on your favourite strand of communism. Hence, I would have had more sympathy with (the original incarnation) if billed as "an intro to longtermism".

But, further, there can be good reasons to do things for symbolic or coalition reasons. To think otherwise implies a rather naive understanding of politics and human interaction. If you want people to support you - you can frame this in terms of moral trade, if you want - sometimes you also need to support to include them. The way I'd like EA to work is "this is what I believe matters most, but if you disagree because of A, B, C, then you should talk to my friend". This strikes me as coalitional moral trade that benefits all the actors individually (by their own lights). An alternative, and more or less what 80k had been proposing was, is "this is what I believe, but I'm not going to tell what the alternatives are or what you should do if you disagree". This isn't an engagement in moral trade.

I'm pretty worried about a scenario where the different parts of the EA world believe (rightly or wrongly) that others aren't engaging in moral trade and so decide to embark on 'moral trade wars' against each other instead.

2020 Annual Review from the Happier Lives Institute


I'm not really sure what Seligman means in the above quote, sorry. Perhaps it would make sense in a wider context.

Re PERMA, I'm not a fan of the concept and it strikes me as unmotivated. It's something like a subjective list theory of well-being, where Seligman takes well-being to consist in a bunch of different items, each of them subjective in some way. However, I don't see the justification for why he's chosen those 5 items (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishments) rather than any others. It seems to be the most plausible re-interpretation of PERMA is that those 5 items are major contributions to happiness, and well-being consists only in happiness.

I'm glad you like our transparency! We hope it helps us improve our decision-making and better allows others to see how we think.

Re Layard's book, Richard asked me to read a draft and I gave him extensive comments, primarily on the philosophical aspects, which were mostly in the earlier chapters. I also attended a conference he put on to discuss the book.

2020 Annual Review from the Happier Lives Institute

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "objective well-being". Here are two options.

One thing you might have in mind is that well-being is constituted by something subjective, eg happiness or life satisfaction, but you then wonder how objective life circumstances (health, wealth, relationship status, etc), positional concerns, etc. contribute to that subjective thing. In this case, health, etc are determinants of well-being, not actually well-being itself. This approach is pretty much exactly what the SWB literature does: you see how the right-hand side variables, many of which are objective,  relate to the left-hand side subjective one. I'm not sure what the shortcomings of this approach are in general - if you think well-being is subjective, this is just the sort of analysis you would want to undertake. 

An alternative thing you might mean is that well-being is properly constituted (at least in part) by something objective. One might adopt an objective list theory of well-being:

All objective list theories claim there can be things which make a person’s life go better which are neither pleasurable to nor desired by them. Classic items for this list include success, friendship, knowledge, virtuous behaviour, and health. Such items are ‘objective’ in the sense of being concerned with facts beyond both a person’s conscious experience and/or their desires

If one had this view, your question would be about how well-being, which is objective, relates to how people feel about their well-being. It's not clear what the purpose of this project would be: if you already know what well-being is, and you think it's something objective, why would you care how having well-being causes people to feel about their lives? So, I assume you mean the former!

2020 Annual Review from the Happier Lives Institute

Thanks for your comment and for bringing this to our attention. One of the pleasures, but also pains, of SWB research, is that there is simply an enormous scope of it; basically everything impacts well-being one way or another. The result is that many potentially fruitful avenues of research are left unturned.

I don't expect we'll be pursuing this specific line of inquiry, or headaches in general, with the next year or so. The only scenarios in which I would see that change would be if (1) a major donor appeared and would (only) fund us to look at headaches or (2) we already had a lot of donors following our recommendations - we don't have any such donors now, which is necessarily the case because we don't have any all-things-considered recommendations(!) - and our inside view what the headaches might be more effective than our hypothetical top pick and so worth investigating.

As a hot take on your particular suggestion, this is a very small study and I've heard lots of horror stories about dietary research, so this causes me only a (very) minor update, sorry!

2020 Annual Review from the Happier Lives Institute

Hello Engelhardt,

Thanks for the comment! In response to your comments:

  1. To clarify, the WELLBY is something that has come out of the academic SWB community - bits of economics and psychology, mostly. It's not been developed by us, as there are only a handful of papers that have used it so far; hence we're among the first to be applying it. I should add that, if you're already using measures of SWB, say, a 0-10 life satisfaction scale, it's not a big innovation to look at how much something changes that, then multiplying that by duration, which is really all the WELLBY is. (The more innovative bit is using SWB at all, rather than using WELLBYs given you're already using SWB.) So, it easiest to think of us as using a relatively new, but existing, methodology and applying it to new problems - namely, (re)assessing the cost-effectiveness of things EAs already focus on.

That said, there are some theoretical and practical kinks to be worked out in using WELLBYs - e.g. on the ‘neutral point’, mentioned above. Our plan - which we are already engaged in - is to do the work we think is necessary to improve the WELLBY approach, then feed that back into SWB academia. More generally, it’s not unusual that a measurement tool gets developed and then refined.

  1. Ideally, we’d like to see SWB metrics used across the board, where feasible, and we are pushing to make this happen. Part of the issue with Q/DALYs is that they are measures of health. Even if you thought they were the ideal measures of health (or, the contribution of health to well-being) you run into an issue comparing health to non-health outcomes. A chief virtue of SWB metrics is that you can measure changes in any domain in one currency, namely their impact on SWB.

Having said this, Q/DALYs are quite ingrained in the medical world and it’s an open question how valuable it is to push for change their vs do other things.

  1. I think the rules can be bent in search of a good name, and we're really just following what other SWB researchers call them. It has been suggested, notably by John Broome, that it should be the 'WALY', but that sounds a bit, well, silly (in British English, a ‘wally’ is a synonym for ‘fool’). Personally, I also like the SWELLBY, but that’s yet to catch on...
Load More