MichaelPlant

MichaelPlant's Comments

Problem areas beyond 80,000 Hours' current priorities

Thanks for this write up. The list is quite substantial, which makes me think: do you have a list of problems you've considered, concluded are probably quite unpromising and therefore dissuade people from undertaking? I could imagine someone reading this and thinking "X and Y are on the list so Z, which wasn't mentioned explicitly [but 80k would advice against], is also likely a good area".

Towards Donor Coordination Via Mechanism Design

Just a quick note. It would be helpful if, at the start, you explained who you think this post is for and/or its practical upshot. I skimmed through the first 30% and wasn't sure if this was a purely academic discussion or you were suggesting a way for donors to coordinate.

HLI’s Mental Health Programme Evaluation Project - Update on the First Round of Evaluation

A couple of quick replies.

First, all your comments on the weirdness of Western mental healthcare are probably better described as 'the weirdness of the US healthcare system' rather than anything to do with mental health specifically. Note they are mostly to do with insurance issues.

Second, I think one can always raise the question of whether it's better to (A) improve the best of service/good X or (B) improve distribution of existing versions of X. This also isn't specific to mental health: one might retort to donors to AMF that they should be funding improvements in (say) health treatment in general or malaria treatment in particular. There's a saying I like which is "the future is here, it just isn't very evenly distributed" - if you compare Space-X launching rockets which can land themselves vs people not having clean drinking water. There seems to be very little we can say from the armchair about whether (A) or (B) is the more cost-effective option for a given X. I suspect that if there were a really strong 'pull' for goods/services to be provided, then we would already have 'solved' world poverty, which makes me think distribution is weakly related to innovation.

Aside: I wonder if there is some concept of 'trickle-down' innovation at play, and whether this is relevant analogous to that of 'trickle-down' economics.

HLI’s Mental Health Programme Evaluation Project - Update on the First Round of Evaluation

I'm not sure what you mean by going from 0 to 1 vs 1 to n. Can you elaborate? I take it you mean the challenge of going from no to current best practice treatment (in developing countries) vs improving best practice (in developed countries).

I don't have a cached answer on that question, but it's an interesting one. You'd need to make quite a few more assumptions to work through it, e.g. how much better MH treatment could be than the current best practice, how easy it would be to get it there, how fast this would spread, etc. If you'd thought through some of this, I'd be interested to hear it.

How to Measure Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status

Right. My thought is that we assume humans have the same capacity on average, because while there might be differences, we don't know which way they'll go so they should 'wash out' as statistical noise. Pertinently, this same response doesn't work for animals because we really don't know what their relatively max capacities are.

FWIW, the analogue to my response here would be to say we can expect all chickens to have approximately the same capacity as each other, even if individuals chickens differ. The claim isn't about humans per se, but about similarities borne out of genetics.

How to Measure Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status

Thanks for your response, but I don't think you're grasping the nettle of my objection. I agree with you that you and I both think we know something about the mental states of other adult humans and, further, human babies. I also think such assumptions are reasonable, if empirically unprovable. But that's not my point.

In short, my challenge is: articulate and defend the method you will use to determine how much more or less happy humans are than non-humans animals in particular contexts - say the average humans vs the average factory farmed chicken.

Here's what I think we can do with humans. We assume you and I have the same capacity for happiness. We assume we are able to learn about the experiences of others and communicate them via language, e.g. we've both stubbed our toes, but I haven't broken my leg, and when you say "breaking my leg is 10x worse" I can conclude that would be true for me too. Hence, when you say "I feel 2/10" or "I feel terrible" I might feel confident you mean the same things by those as I do.

What can do with chickens? We really have no idea what chickens' capacities for happiness are - is it 1/10th, 1/100th, etc? It doesn't seem at all reasonable to assume they are roughly the same as ours. The chicken cannot tell us how happy how it is relative to its maximum, our maximum, or, indeed, tell us anything at all. Of course, we may have intuitions - what we might perjoratively call "tummy feelings" - about these things. Fine. But what method do we use to assess if those intuitions are correct? The application of further intuitive reflection? Surely not. I cannot think of a justifiable empirical method to inform our priors. If you can explain why this project is not doomed, I would love to know why! But I fear it is.

How to Measure Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status

Thanks for writing this up. It seems what you've done with the atomistic approach is stated what, in principle, one would need to do, but not really wrestled with the difficulties and details of doing it. By analogy, it's a bit like you've said "if we want to get to space, we need to build a spaceship" and but not said how to build a spaceship ("well, it would need to get into space, and carry people, ...")

I think it would help to spell out a particular issue. Suppose we think happiness, the intrinsic pleasurableness/displeasurableness of experiences is one of the things that constitutes welfare. Okay, what proxy do we use for that? Happiness is a subjective experience, so no objective measure is possible. Of course, we have intuitions about relative magnitudes of happiness in different animals, but what makes us think we're right, even approximately?

(I note I raised effectively the same concern in your previous post and you haven't (yet) replied to my latest comment. You linked me this paper, but it doesn't address my concern: the author surveys didn't "suffering calculators" but doesn't provide an account of how we would test that some are more valid that others).

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

To fill out the details of what you're getting at, I think you're saying "the welfare level of an animal is X% of its capacity C. We're confident of both X and C in the given scenario for animal A is high enough that it's better to help animal A than animal B". That may be correct, but you're accepting that than you can know the welfare levels because you know the percentage of the capacity. But then I can make the same claim again: why should we be confident we've got the percentage of the capacity right?

I agree we should, in general, use inference to the best explanation. I'm not sure we know how to do that when we don't have access to the relevant evidence (the private, subjective states) to draw inferences. If it help, trying putting on the serious sceptic's hat and ask "okay, we might feel confident animal A is suffering more than animal B, and we do make these sort of judgement the whole time, but what justifies this confidence?". What I'd really like to understand (not necessary from you - I've been thinking about this for a while!) is what the chain of reasoning is that would go into that justification.

Comparisons of Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status Across Species

Thanks for writing this up - I thought this was a very philosophically high-quality forum post, both in terms of its clarity and familiarity with the literature, and have given it a strong upvote!

With that said, I think you've been too quick in responding to the first objection. An essential part of the project is to establish the capacities for welfare across species, but that's neither necessary or sufficient to make comparisons - for that, we need to know about actual levels of well-being for different entities (or, at least the differences in their well-being). But knowing about the levels seems very hard.

Let me quickly illustrate with some details. Suppose chicken welfare has a range of +2 to -2 well-being levels, but for cows it's -5 to +5. Suppose further the average actual well-being levels of chickens and cows in agriculture are -1 and -0.5, respectively. Should we prevent one time-period of cow-existence or of chicken-existence? The answer is chicken-existence, all else equal, even though cows have a greater capacity.

Can you make decisions about what maximises well-being if you know what the capacities but not the average levels are? No. What you need to know are the levels. Okay, so can we determine what the levels, in fact, are? You say:

Of course, measuring the comparative suffering of different types of animals is not always easy. Nonetheless, it does appear that we can get at least a rough handle on which practices generally inflict the most pain, and several experts have produced explicit welfare ratings for various groups of farmed animals that seem to at least loosely converge

My worry is: what makes us think that we can even "get a least a rough handle"? You appeal to experts, but why should we suppose that the experts have any idea? They could all agree with each other and still be wrong. (Arguably) silly comparison: suppose I tell you a survey of theological experts reported that approximately 1 to 100 angels could dance on the head of a pin. What should you conclude about how many angels can dance on a pin? Maybe nothing. What you might want to know is what evidence those experts have to form their opinions.

I'm sceptical we can have evidence-based inter-species comparisons of (hedonic) welfare-levels at all.

Suppose hedonism is right and well-being consists in happiness. Happiness is a subjective state. Subjective states are, of necessity, not measurable by objective means. I might measure what I suppose are the objective correlates of subjective states, e.g. some brain functionings, but how do I know what the relationship is between the objective correlates and the subjective intensities? We might rely on self-reports to determine that relationship. That seems fine. However, how do we extend that relationship to beings that can't give us self-reports? I'm not sure. We can make assumptions (about general relationship between objective brain states and subjective intensities) but we can't check if we're right or not. Of course, we will still form opinions here, but it's unclear how one could acquire expertise at all. I hope I'm wrong about this, but I think this problem is pretty serious.

If well-being consists in objective goods, e.g. friendship or knowledge, it might be easier to measure those, although there will be much apparent arbitrariness involved in operationalising these concepts.

There will be issues with desire theories too either way, depending whether one opts for a mental-state or non-mental-state version, but that's a further issue I don't want to get into here.

New data suggests the ‘leaders’’ priorities represent the core of the community

Ben, could you elaborate on how important you think representativeness is? I ask, because the gist of what you're saying is that it was bad the leaders' priorities were unrepresentative before, which is why it's good there is now more alignment. But this alignment has been achieved by the priorities of the community changing, rather than the other way around.

If one thought EA leaders should represent the current community's priorities, then the fact the current community's priorities had been changed - and changed, presumably, by the leaders - would seem to be a cause for remorse, not celebration.

As a further comment, if representativeness is a problem the simple way to solve this would be by inviting people to the leaders' forum to make it more representative. This seems easier than supposing current leaders should change their priorities (or their views on what they should be for the community).

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