7705 karmaJoined Sep 2015


I'm the Director of the Happier Lives Institute and  Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford's Wellbeing Research Centre. I'm a philosopher by background and did my DPhil at Oxford, primarily under the supervision of Peter Singer and Hilary Greaves.  I've previously worked for an MP and failed to start a start-up


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Minor points

These respond to bits of the discussion in the order they happened.

1. On the meaning of SWB

Rob and Elie jump into discussing SWB without really defining it. Subjective wellbeing is an umbrella term that refers to self-assessments of life. It’s often broken down into various elements, each of which can be measured separately. There are (1) experiential measures, how you feel during your life – this is closest to ‘happiness’ in the ordinary use of the word; (2) evaluative measure are an assess of life a a whole; the most common is life satisfaction; (3) ‘eudaimonic’ measures of how meaningful life is. These can give quite similar answers. As an example, see the image below for what the UK’s Office of National Statistics asks (which it does to about 300,000 people each year!) and the answers people give.

2. On the wellbeing life-year, aka the WELLBY

The way the discussion is framed, you might think HLI invented the WELLBY, or we’re the only people using it. That gives us too much credit: we didn’t and we’re not! Research into subjective wellbeing – happiness – using surveys has been going on for decades now and we’re making use of that. The idea of the WELLBY isn’t particularly radical – it’s a natural evolution of QALYs and DALYs – although the first use seems of the term seems have only been in 2015 (1, 2). The UK government has had WELLBYs as a part of their official toolkit for policy appraisal since 2021.

It is true that HLI is one of the first (if not the first) organisations to actually try to do WELLBY cost-effectiveness; although the UK government has this ‘on the books’, our understanding is it’s not being implemented yet.

3. Is SWB ‘squishy’ and hard to measure?

Elie: I think the downside [of measuring SWB], or the reasons not to, might be that on one level, I think it can just be harder to measure. A death is very straightforward: we know what has happened. And the measures of subjective wellbeing are squishier in ways that it makes it harder to really know what it is

As noted, there are different components of SWB: happiness is not the same thing as life satisfaction. I don’t think either of these are that squishy or that we don’t know what they are; they are different things. I don’t think measuring them isn’t hard: you can just ask “how happy are you, 0-10” or “how satisfied are you with your life nowadays, 0-10”! People find it easier to answer questions about their SWB than their income, if you look at non-response rates (OECD 2013). Of course, they are a measure of something subjective, but that’s the whole point. I don’t know how happy you feel: you need to tell me!

4. Does anyone’s view of the good not include SWB?

Elie: I think some people might say, “I really value reducing suffering and therefore I choose subjective wellbeing.” I think other people might say, “I think these measures are telling me something that is not part of my ‘view of the good,’ and I don’t want to support that.”

What constitutes someone’s wellbeing, that is, ultimately makes their life go well for them? In philosophy, there are three standard answers (see our explainer here). What matters is (1) feeling good – happiness, (2) having your desires met – life satisfaction, roughly – or (3) objective goods, such as knowledge, beauty, justice, etc, plus maybe (1) and/or (2). It would be a pretty wild view of wellbeing where people’s subjective experience of life didn’t matter at all, or in any way! It might not be all that matters, but that’s another thing.

5. On organisational comparative advantage

Elie: Because we’re not trying to add value by being particularly good philosophically. That’s not part of GiveWell’s comparative advantage.

If I can be forgiven for tooting our horn, I do see HLI’s comparative advantage as being particularly philosophically rigorous, as well as really understanding wellbeing science (I’m a philosopher; the other researchers are social scientists). We’re certainly much less experienced than GiveWell at understanding how well organisations implement their programmes.

6. On moral weights

Elie: I think this is an area — moral weights — where I don’t feel the same way. I don’t think this is a mature part of GiveWell. Instead, this is a part of GiveWell that has a huge amount of room for improvement

We could be talked into helping with this! In 2020 we explored how SWB would change GiveWell’s moral weights (GiveWell didn’t respond at the time). We subsequently have been doing more work on how to compare life-saving to life-improving interventions, including a survey looking at the ‘neutral point’ and other issues about interpreting SWB data.

7. On the challenges of using SWB given data limitations

Rob Wilbin: So just the number of studies that you can draw on if you’re strictly only going to consider subjective wellbeing is much lower.

I think another thing that really bites is that subjective wellbeing outcomes are really at the end of the chain of all of these different factors about someone’s life — their income, their health, their education, their relationships, all of these different factors.

We see data limitations as the biggest single challenge for SWB. The sort of data we’d want is scarce in low-income countries. We’ve started to talk to organisation working in LIC and to encourage them to collect data. Our capacity to do this is, however, very limited, but we would expand it if we had the resources. We found enough to compare mental health to cash transfers etc. (and even then we had to convert from mental health scores to SWB scores) but we expect to find much less data to look at other interventions.

On the complex causal chain, part of the virtue of SWB is that, if you have the SWB data, you don’t need to guess at how much all the different changes an intervention makes to someone’s life affects their wellbeing: you can just look at their answers, and they tell you! Take an education programme. It might change someone’s life in all sorts of ways. But if you’ve done an RCT and measured SWB, you can see the impact without needing to identify where it came from.

Elie: Maybe there’s reason to give credence to the measures that are easier to deal with and easier to know that you’ve done something good and made someone’s life better.

All this raises a good question: what should we do if we don’t have the data we want? As Daniel Kahneman reminds us, we should distinguish two concerns about measurement (and judgement). One is noise, the other is bias.


From Kahneman et al. (2016).

One way to put Elie and Rob’s concern is that SWB is a noisy measure. Now, if you have loads of data, you should use a noisy measure over a biased one because all the noise will average out. However, if you don’t have much data, and you have a choice between (C on the figure) a non-noisy, biased measure or (B on the figure) a noisy, non-biased one, you could sensibly conclude you’d get closer to the bull’s eye with (B).

Here’s a hypothetical example that brings this thought. Imagine we’re evaluating a new intervention. There is a n = 20,000 RCT that shows it doubles income for pennies. If we convert the income effects to WELLBYs it’s much more cost-effective than StrongMinds. But there’s an n = 100 RCT with SWB that shows it has a slightly negative but very very imprecisely measured effect on SWB. In this case, I think we’d mostly go with the income evidence (more technically: we’d combine the uncertainty of the income estimate with the conversion to SWB estimate and then combine both the income-converted and the SWB evidence in a bayesian manner).

But the issue is this. How do you know how biased your measures are? You need to establish bias by reference to a ‘ground truth’ of accuracy – how far are they from the bull’s eye? I’d argue that, when it comes to measuring impact, SWB data is the least-bad ground truth: you learn how important income, unemployment, health etc are by seeing their relationship to SWB. Hence, in the above example, I’d be inclined to go with the income data because there’s so much evidence already income does improve SWB! If the full sweep of available data showed income had no effect, I wouldn’t conclude that the income data from the hypothetical example was evidence the programme was effective. Of course there will be gaps in our evidence, and sometimes we have to guess, but we should try to avoid doing that.

8. On the tricky issue of the value of saving a life

It’s too long to quote in full, but I don’t think Rob or Elie quite captured what HLI’s view is on these issues, so let me try here. The main points are these; see our report here.

(1) comparing quality to quantity of life is difficult and complicated; there isn’t just ‘one simple way’ to do it. There are a couple of key issues which are discussed in the philosophical literature which haven’t, for whatever reason, made it into the discussions by GiveWell, effective altruists, etc.

(2) One of these issues, the one Elie and Rob focus on, is the ‘neutral point’: where on a 0-10 life satisfaction should count as equivalent to non-existence? We think it’s not obvious and merits further research. So far, there’s been basically no work on this, which is why we’ve been looking into it.

(3) how you answer these philosophical questions and make quite a big difference to the relative priorities of life-saving vs life-improving interventions. We got into that in a big report we did at the end of 2022, where we found that going from one extreme of ‘reasonable’ opinion to the other changes the cost-effectiveness of AMF by about 10 times.

(4) HLI doesn’t have a ‘house view’ on these issues and, if possible, we’ll avoid taking one! We think that’s for donors to decide.

(5) GiveWell does take a ‘house view’ on how to make this comparison. We’ve pointed out that GiveWell’s view is at the ‘most favourable to saving lives, least favourable to improving lives’ end of the spectrum, and that (on our estimates) treating depression does good more if you hold even slightly less favourable assumptions. This shouldn’t really need saying, but philosophy matters!

I'm writing from the perspective of the Happier Lives Institute. We’re delighted that HLI’s work and the subjective wellbeing approach featured so prominently in this podcast. It was a really high-quality conversation, and kudos to host Rob Wiblin for doing such an excellent job putting forward our point of view. Quite a few people have asked us what we thought, so I’ve written up some comments.

I split those into four main comments and a number of minor ones. To preview, the main comments are:

  1. We’re delighted, but surprised, to hear GiveWell are now so positive about the SWB approach; we’re curious to know what changed their mind.
  2. HLI and GiveWell disagree on what does the most good based on differences of how to interpret the evidence; we’d be open to an ‘adversarial collaboration’ to see if we can iron out those differences.
  3. We’d love to do more research, but we’re currently funding constrained. If you – GiveWell or anyone else – want to see it, please consider supporting us!
  4. Finally, Rob, it’s about time you had us on the podcast!

Main points

1. We’re delighted, but surprised, to hear GiveWell are now so positive about the SWB approach; we’re curious to know what changed their mind.

Elie Hassenfeld says the differences in opinion between HLI and GiveWell aren’t because HLI cares about SWB and GiveWell does not, but down to differences of opinion interpreting the data1. This is great news – we’re glad to see major decision-makers like GiveWell taking happiness seriously – but it is also news to us!

Listeners of the podcast may not know this, but I (as a  PhD student) and then HLI  have been publicly advocating for SWB since about 2017 (e.g., 1, 2). I/we have also done this privately, with a number of organisations, including GiveWell, who I spoke to about once a year. Whilst lots of people were sympathetic, I could not seem to interest the various GiveWell staff I talked to. That’s why I was surprised when earlier this year, GiveWell made its first public written comment on SWB and was tentatively in favour; Elie’s podcast this week seemed more positive.

So, we’re curious to know how thinking in GiveWell changed on this. This is of interest to us but I’m sure others would like to know how change happens inside large organisations.

2. HLI and GiveWell disagree on what does the most good based on differences of how to interpret the evidence; we’d be open to an ‘adversarial collaboration’ to see if we can iron out those differences.

Elie explained that the reason GiveWell doesn’t recommend StrongMinds2[2] which HLI does recommend, is due to differences in the interpretation of the empirical data. Effectively, what GiveWell did was look at our numbers, then apply some subjective adjustments on factors they thought were off. We previously wrote a long response to GiveWell’s assessment and don’t want to get stuck into all those weeds here. Elie says – and we agree! – that reasonable people can really disagree on how to interpret the evidence. That’s why we’d be interested in an ‘adversarial collaboration’ to see if we can resolve them. I can see three areas of disagreement.

First, on the general theoretical issue of whether and how to make subjective adjustments to evidence. GiveWell are prepared to make adjustments, even if they’re not sure exactly how big they should be. For example, Elie says he’s unsure about the 20% reduction for ‘experimenter demand effect’. Our current view is to be very reluctant to make adjustments without clear evidence of what size is justified. Our reluctance is motivated by cases such as this: these ‘GiveWellian haircuts’ can really add up and change the results, so the conclusion ends up being more on the researcher’s interpretation of the evidence than the evidence itself. But we’re not sure how to think about it either!

A second, potentially more tractable issue, is clarifying what evidence would change our mind about the specific issues. For instance, if there was a well conducted RCT that directly estimated the household spillover effects of psychotherapy in a setting similar to StrongMinds, we’d likely largely adopt that estimate.

A third issue is deworming. Elie and Rob discuss HLI’s reassessment of GiveWell’s deworming numbers, for which GiveWell very generously awarded us a prize. However, GiveWell haven’t commented – on the podcast or elsewhere – on our follow-up work, which finds the available evidence suggests that there are no statistically significant long-term effects of deworming on SWB. This uses the exact same studies that GiveWell relies on; it indicates that GiveWell aren’t as bought into about SWB as Elie sounds or they haven’t integrated this evidence yet.

3. We’d love to do more research, but we’re currently funding constrained. If you – GiveWell or anyone else – want to see it, please consider supporting us!

As a small organisation – we’re just 4 researchers – we were pleased to see our ideas and work is influencing the wider discussion about how to do have the biggest impact. As the podcast highlights, HLI brings a different (reasonable) perspective, we have provided important checks on other’s work, we provide unique expertise in philosophy and wellbeing measurement, and we have managed to push difficult issues up to the top of the agenda3,4,5. We think we ‘punch above our weight’.

Elie mentions a number of areas where he’d love to see more research including in SWB and the difficult question of how to put numbers on the value of saving a life. We think we’d be very well placed to do this work, for the reasons given above; we’re not sure anyone else will do it, either (we understand GiveWell don’t have immediate plans, for instance). However, we don’t have the capacity to do more and we can’t expand due to funding constraints. So, we’d love donors to step forward and support us!

Of course we’re biased, but we believe we’re a very high leverage, cost-effective funding opportunity for donors who want to see top-quality research that changes the paradigm on global wellbeing and how to do the most good. Please donate here or get in touch at Michael@happierlivesinstitute.org. We’re currently finalising our research agenda for 2023-4 (available on request).

4. Finally, Rob, it’s about time you had us on the podcast!

We’ve got much more to say about topics covered, plus other issues besides: longtermism, moral uncertainty, etc. (Rob has said we’re on the list, but it might take a while because of the whole AI thing that’s been blowing up; which seems fair).


Yeah, I would frame the event as "this is a topic being are going to be discussing something, now is the time to pitch in"

Oh, excited to learn this is happening! I would write something. Most likely: a simplified and updated version of my post from a couple of weeks back (What is EA? How could it be reformed?). Working title: The Hub and Spoke Model of Effective Altruism.

That said, in the unlikely event someone wants to suggest something I should write, I'd be open to suggestions. You can comment below or send me a private message. 

Points taken. The reaction I'd have anticipated, if I'd just put it the way I did now, would be

(1) the point of EA is to do the most good (2) we, those who run the central functions of EA, need to decide what that is to know what to do (3) once we are confident of what "doing the most good" looks like, we should endeavour to push EA in that direction - rather than to be responsive to what others think, even if those others consider themselves parts of the EA community.

You might think it's obvious that the central bits of EA should not and would not 'pick favourites' but that's been a more or less overt goal for years. The market metaphor provides a rationale for resisting that approach.

I've just made a similar comment to Ryan. The central bits are more like natural monopolies. If you're running a farmers' market, you just want one venue that everyone comes to each market day, etc. The various stallholders and customers could set up a new market down the road, but it would be a huge pain and it's not something any individual wants to do.

Regarding 80k, they were originally set up to tell people about careers, then moved to advertising EA more broadly. That's a central function and in the market analogy, they were advertising the market, as a whole, to new customers and were sort of a 'market catalogue'. 80k then switched to promoting a subset of causes (i.e. products), specifically longtermism. I wasn't then, and still am not, wild about this for reasons I hope my post provides: it's perverse to have multiple organisations fulfilling the same function, in this case advertising the EA market, so when they switched to longtermism, it meant they left a gap that wasn't easy to fill. I understand that they wanted to promote particular causes, but hopefully they would appreciate that it meant they were aiding a sub-section of the community, and the remaining less-served subsections would feel disappointed by this. I think someone should be acting as a general advertiser for EA - perhaps a sort of public broadcast role, like the BBC has in the UK - and 80k would have been the obvious people to fulfil that role. Back to the farmers market analogy, if I sell apples, and the market advertiser decides to stop advertising fruit in its catalogue (or puts it in tiny pictures at the back), it puts the fruit sellers at a relative disadvantage.

Yeah, as I say, you don't need to buy the market metaphor - curious where you think it goes wrong though. All you really need to observe is

(1) that there are central 'hub' functions, where it makes sense to have one organisation providing these for the rest of the community (they are sort of mini natural monopolies) vs the various 'spokes' who focus on particular cause areas.

(2) you want there to be good mechanisms for making the central bits responsive to the needs of the community as a whole (vs focusing on a subgroup)

(3) it's unclear if we have (2).

Not the main point of what you said, but there's a bit of a difference between the dynamic of one-on-ones discussion and a public forum.

Hello Ben and thanks for this!

As I said in my comment to Fin Moorhouse below, I'm not sure what difference it makes that market participants are buying for others in the EA market, but themselves in the normal market. Can you spell out what you take to the relevant feature, and what sort of 'market distortions' it specifically justifies? In both the EA and normal markets, are trying to get the 'best value', but will disagree over what that is and how it is to be achieved.

If the concern is about externalities, that seems to strongly count against intervening in the EA market. In normal markets, people don't account for externalities, that is, their effects on others. But in the EA market, people are explicitly trying to do the most good: they are looking to do the things that have the best result when you account for all the effects on everyone; in economics jargon, they are trying to internalise all those externalities themselves. Hence, in the EA market -distinctively from any other market(!) - there are no clear grounds for intervening on the basis of externalities.

Thanks for this. Reading this, and other comments, I don't think I'm managed to convey what I think could and should be distinctive about effective altruism. Let me try again!

In normal markets, people seek out the best value for themselves. 

In effective altruism (as I'm conceiving of it) people seek out the best value for others. In both cases, people can and will have different ideas of what 'value' means in practice; and in the EA market, people may also disagree over how to think of who the relevant 'others' are too.

Both of these contrast with the 'normal' charity world, where people seek out value for others, but there is little implicit or explicit attempt to seek out the best value for others; it's not something people have in mind. A major contribution of EA thinking is to point this out. 

The normal market and EA worlds thus have something in common that distinguishes them from the regular charity world. The point of the post is to think about how, given this commonality, the EA market should be structured to achieve the best outcomes for its participants; my claim is that this, given this similarity, the presumption is that the EA market and normal market should run along similar lines. 

If it helps, try to momentarily forget everything you know about the actual EA movement and ask "Okay, if wanted to design a 'maximum altruist marketplace' (MAM), a place people come to shop around for the best ways to use resources to help others, how would we do that?" Crucially, in MAM, just like a regular market, you don't want to assume that you, as the social planner, have a better idea of what people want than they do themselves. That's the Hayekian point (with apologies, I think you've got the wrong end of the stick here!)

Pace you and Ben West above, I don't think it invalidates the analogy that people are aiming at value for others, rather than themselves. There seems to be a background assumption of "well, because people are buying for others in the MAM, and they don't really know what others want, we (the social planner) should intervene". But notice you can say the same thing in normal markets - "people don't know really what they want, so we (the social planner) should intervene". Yet we are very reluctant to intervene in the latter case. So, presumably, we should be reluctant here too. 

Of course, we do think it's justified to intervene in normal markets to some degree (e.g. alcohol sales restricted by age), but each intervention needs to be justified. Not all interventions are justified. The conversation I would like to have regarding MAM is about which interventions are justified, and why.

I get the sense we're slightly speaking past each other. I am claiming (1) the maximum altruist market should exist, and then (2) suggesting how EA could be closer to that. It seems you, and maybe some others, are not sold on the value of (1): you'd rather focus on advocating for particular outcomes, and are indifferent about (1). Note it's analogous to someone saying "look, I don't care about whether there's a free market: I just want my company to be really successful." 

I can understand that many people won't care if a maximum altruism marketplace exists. I, for one, would like it to exist; it seems an important public good. I'd also like the central parts of the EA movement to fulfil that role, as they seem best placed to do it. If the EA movement (or, rather, its central parts) end up promoting very particular outcomes, then it loses much of what appeared to be distinctive about it, and it looks more like the rest of the charity world. 

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