2019 karmaJoined Jun 2017



Last nontrivial update: 2022-12-20.

Send me anonymous feedback: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1qDWHI0ARJAJMGqhxc9FHgzHyEFp-1xneyl9hxSMzJP0/viewform

Any type of feedback is welcome, including arguments that a post/comment I wrote is net negative.

I'm interested in ways to increase the EV of the EA community by mitigating downside risks from EA related activities. Without claiming originality, I think that:

  • Complex cluelessness is a common phenomenon in the domains of anthropogenic x-risks and meta-EA (due to an abundance of crucial considerations). It is often very hard to judge whether a given intervention is net-positive or net-negative.
  • The EA community is made out of humans. Humans' judgement tends to be influenced by biases and self-deception. That is a serious source of risk, considering the previous point.
    • Some potential mitigations involve improving some aspects of how EA funding works, e.g. with respect to conflicts of interest. Please don't interpret my interest in such mitigations as accusations of corruption etc.

Feel free to reach out by sending me a PM. I've turned off email notifications for private messages, so if you send me a time sensitive PM consider also pinging me about it via the anonymous feedback link above.

Temporary Mastodon handle (as of 2022-12-20): @ofer@mas.to.



After learning some more about the topic, it now seems to me that the word "untrustworthy" in my comment above is a severe understatement. Quoting from a Washington Post article (emphasis added):

The so-called “Dahiya Doctrine” took shape in the wake of the bruising 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. [...]

The doctrine that emerged out of the conflict was most famously articulated by IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he told an Israeli newspaper in 2008. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” [...] Around the same time, former Israeli colonel Gabriel Siboni wrote a report under the aegis of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies that argued the necessary response to militant provocations from Lebanon, Syria or Gaza were “disproportionate” strikes that aim only secondarily to hit the enemy’s capacity to launch rockets or other attacks. Rather, the goal should be to inflict lasting damage, no matter the civilian consequences, as a future deterrent.

“With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses,” he wrote. “Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

The doctrine appeared to be in operation during a round of hostilities between Hamas in Gaza and Israel at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. A U.N.-commissioned report regarding that conflict, which saw the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and Israelis, determined that Israel’s campaign was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

The doctrine endured in the years since. [...]


Disclosure (copying from a previous comment): I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75 years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic. I am not making here a claim that people in EA should or should not get involved and in what way.

The author mentioned they do not want the comments to be "a discussion of the war per se" and yet the post contains multiple contentious pro-Israel propaganda talking points, and includes arguments that a cease-fire is net-negative. Therefore it seems to me legitimate to mention here the following.

In interviews to foreign press, Israeli officials/politicians often make claims to the effect that Israel is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. Explaining why those claims are untrustworthy in a short comment is a hard task because whatever I'll write will leave out so much important stuff. (Imagine you had to explain to an alien, in a short text, why a certain claim by Donald Trump is untrustworthy.) But I'll give it a go anyway:

  • The current Minister of National Security in Israel is a far-right politician called Itamar Ben-Gvir. He has been convicted on at least eight charges, including supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism. For many years he has signaled admiration for a person that has massacred 29 Palestinians; he kept a portrait of that person in his living room. (He removed the portrait in 2020 because a prominent right-wing politician refused to run with him as part of an election.) As a member of the Security Cabinet of Israel, Ben-Gvir plausibly had[1] a substantial, direct influence on Israel's behavior in the Gaza strip.
  • It seems to me that when politicians from the ruling coalition communicate with the Israeli public (in Hebrew) about what Israel is doing in the Gaza strip, they ~never mention avoiding civilian casualties as a moral obligation. When they do mention steps that Israel takes to reduce civilian casualties, it is often presented as things that are done for the purpose of reducing international pressure and thereby allowing the war to continue. This is a good place to mention:
  1. This Hebrew article by a former Israeli Defense Minister, from 3 days ago, titled "[...] There are no innocents in Gaza" (Google Translated).
  2. The Deputy Knesset Speaker has tweeted in Hebrew that Israel had to do "no less than burn Gaza", according to the The Jerusalem Post.
  • The right-wing prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) is probably more concerned right now with surviving politically (and saving his legacy, and maybe also avoiding going to jail due to his unrelated trial) than he is concerned with minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties.

  • From the perspective of the Israeli government, even if this is not consciously optimized for, more Palestinian civilian casualties probably means a greater deterrence effect (and a greater revenge). In the Qibya massacre that occurred in 1953, 69 Palestinian villagers were killed, two thirds of which were women and children--according to an extended-protected Wikipedia entry--as a response to an attack in which an Israeli woman and her two children were killed. The international outcry seemingly caused Israel to no longer carry out such similarly orchestrated massacres. But during the current war, the Israeli government has the ability to act (perhaps subconsciously) in a way that is functionally similar to the Qibya massacre--at a much larger scale--while claiming (perhaps without technically lying[2]) that all the civilian casualties are killed in Israeli attacks with civilian casualties are attacks on "legitimate military targets".

(The Qibya massacre was led by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a Major in the IDF. Sharon personally ordered his troops to achieve "maximal killing and damage to property" (quoting from the extended-protected Wikipedia entry). Sharon later served as the prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006 and played a major role in Hamas taking over the Gaza strip; see my previous comment for more info on the incentive that Israel had to empower Hamas while weakening the much more peaceful Palestinian National Authority; while trying to avoid a peace process and its obligations to the Palestinian refugees.)

  1. EDIT: ~5 days after the war started a new, smaller version of the Security Cabinet was created without Ben-Gvir. The larger version of the Security Cabinet (which Ben-Gvir is part of) is now referred to as 'the extended cabinet'. I don't know how much power the extended cabinet currently has. I think at minimum members are getting updates and can use their position to "shame" the top decision makers for not being sufficiently 'tough' from the perspective of right-wing voters (e.g. if the decision makers allow certain humanitarian aid). In any case, I think it's plausible that the general tone of this war was set during its first days and still has a lot of influence on Israel's current behavior in the Gaza strip. UPDATE: This Hebrew article (published ~4 hours after this comment) says that the extended cabinet has approved doubling the amount of fuel that is allowed to enter the Gaza strip (for the operation of water desalination and sewage treatment systems, to prevent spread of diseases) due to pressure from the US. Ben-Gvir voted against. ↩︎

  2. EDIT: What I mean here is that Israel can internally make claims such as: "We are bombing that building with about X civilians inside because based on certain evidence it is more than 5% likely that a Hamas commander with such and such rank is currently there, which makes the building a legitimate military target". (I don't know much about international law but my best guess is that there is a huge gray area in which claims like that can be made while no one is consciously lying.) ↩︎

I'm trying to make a general point about improving Israel's incentives, not about whether one should press a button that magically makes Israel declare a ceasefire right now.

The way that the international community handles this situation may influence whether states/governments/politicians can expect to benefit from acting on incentives in a way that violates ~universal norms related to justice and human decency.

I feel like a lot of your comment is not really very relevant to this discussion. For example, in the same way that I don't think the My Lai massacre provides much evidence about the contemporary US military, I don't think Qibya, which took place 70 years ago, tells us much about contemporary IDF doctrine.

Unlike the My Lai massacre (which seemingly resulted from a command by a captain of infantry in the US Army), the Qibya massacre resulted from an order that was given by the Defense Minister of Israel in coordination with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The raid was led by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a Major in the IDF. Sharon personally ordered his troops to achieve "maximal killing and damage to property" (quoting from the extended-protected Wikipedia entry). Later, as Minister of Defense, Sharon bore personal responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, according to the official Israeli commission that investigated the cause and circumstances of the massacre. Sharon later served as the prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006 (and played a major role in Hamas taking over the Gaza strip).

There is some amount of fighting required to destroy Hamas, and some amount of collateral damage that will result.

Though pressure from the international community can cause Israel to be more careful about avoiding civilian casualties and to provide more humanitarian aid. Israel has an incentive to cause many civilian casualties for the sake of deterrence (which is an incentive that Israel has acted on in the past[1]), and perhaps in order to cause Palestinians to flee to Egypt at a later point in time.

My best guess is that in the current war ~every deadly attack by IDF is carried out by people who believe that the target they are attacking is definitely/possibly a "legitimate military target". But it is Netanyahu and other politicians who get to decide how many civilians the IDF is generally willing to kill to achieve a military objective X. If those numbers are sufficiently large, the outcome can be indistinguishable from a genocide.

Disclaimer: I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75+ years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic.

  1. In its early years, Israel Defence Forces committed massacres of Palestinians as acts of retaliation. This included the Qibya massacre (that was committed in 1953 under the command of Ariel Sharon) in which more than 69 Palestinian villagers where killed, two thirds of which were women and children, according to the extended-protected Wikipedia entry. This was a response to an attack that killed an Israeli woman and her two children. The prime minister Ben-Gurion (the primary national founder of the State of Israel) lied about that massacre and claimed it was done by civilians. ↩︎

I think the general question about voting norms w.r.t. conflicts of interest--and the more specific questions that are relevant here--are important and very hard, and I don’t think I currently have good/well-thought-through answers.

My current, tentative perspective/intuition/feelings on this is something like:

The point of this forum is to do good effectively. If the karma of a post on a sensitive topic is determined mostly by, say, the number of Israelis vs. number of Palestinians that are involved in the EA community (and have access to electricity + internet), that seems like a problem.

In the Guide to norms on the Forum (that is linked to from the about page) there is a section called Voting norm. It says:

Voting on a post helps to organize the Frontpage — it’s a signal of what you think would be useful for others to read in order to do more good — and provides feedback to the poster.

But then the guide lists things that users should not do, followed by the sentence "Other than that, you can vote using your preferred criteria." That list of things that users should not do does not seem to cover things like [casting votes that promote international legitimacy for the actions of my government in a deadly conflict that I have extreme emotions about].

Take for example this post titled "I'm a Former Israeli Officer. AMA". It seems to me reasonable to describe what the author did in that AMA as an attempt to promote 'pro-Israel propaganda'. So far the author never wrote anything on this forum (from that account) outside that AMA. That post currently has 64 karma points. Should Israelis feel welcome to strong-upvote such posts?

Finally, another relevant consideration: If we ask people to (not) vote in a particular way, but then we do not enforce that request, we can end up in a situation where only some users--ones that are more scrupulous than others--adhere to the request.

This post seems to have gotten several downvotes. I hope they are from relatively-impartial readers.

Note to Israelis who may be reading this: I did not upvote/downvote this post and I do not intent to vote on such posts going forward. I think you should do the same.


Disclosure: I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75 years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic. I am not making here a claim that people in EA should or should not get involved and in what way.

I want to add some context that I think many people are missing. (I think that context is necessary for applying the ITN framework to the topic).

TL;DR: Israel had a very problematic incentive to empower Hamas and to cause it to gain and maintain control over the Gaza strip, while weakening the much more peaceful Palestinian National Authority. The way that humanity will handle the current conflict and its aftermath may influence whether states can generally expect to benefit from acting on such incentives while violating basic, ~universal norms related to justice and human decency. A failure to uphold such norms can undermine the ability of humanity to coordinate and to achieve a peaceful future[1].

Quoting from Wikipedia (extended-protected entry):

During the 1947–49 Palestine war, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled, comprising around 80% of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of what became Israel.

I believe it is widely accepted that if that had not happened, it would have been impossible to establish a Jewish, democratic state in the current borders of Israel borders that Israel had after that war. The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1948 resolves that:

refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

In 1949, in the debates about Israel's admittance to the UN, Israel's UN representative promised to "co-operate with the organs of the United Nations with all the means at our disposal in the fulfillment of [Resolution 194]". It has been 74 years and Israel did not fulfill that promise so far.

The international community has put some amount of pressure on Israel over the years with respect to this issue and the related issue of allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the intensity of that pressure was negatively correlated with the amount of violence that Israel was facing from Hamas et al. But the international community was less inclined to put pressure on Israel while it was facing violence from Hamas et al. This gave Israel a problematic incentive: to make Hamas stronger and the Palestinian National Authority weaker. Israel had various ways possible ways to act on that incentive, including generally promoting violence (e.g. adapting policies that cause incidents in which settlers attack/harass Palestinian people) and allowing the establishment of new settlements that constitute "a flagrant violation under international law" according to the UN Security Council. It is often difficult to know whether a state did X due to an incentive Y. I will now provide some evidence that the incentive above was influential.

Here is a quote from a NY Times article; it refers to Benjamin Netanyahu who has been the prime minster of Israel from 1996 to 1999 and most of the time from 2009 until today (2023).

Over time, however, [Netanyahu] came to see Hamas as a way to balance power against the Palestinian Authority, which has administrative control over the West Bank and has long sought a peace agreement in Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu told aides over the years that a feeble Palestinian Authority lowered the pressure on him to make concessions to Palestinians in negotiations, according to several former Israeli officials and people close to Mr. Netanyahu.

Also, here is a quote from a CNN article that is based on WikiLeaks:

The leaked cables also indicate the Israelis appear to have seen an advantage in Hamas consolidating its control in Gaza. A cable from June 13, 2007, quotes the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, as saying that "Israel would be 'happy' if Hamas took over Gaza because the (Israel Defense Forces) could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state."

  1. Though we also have an intrinsic desire to enforce (our subjective sense of) justice, which can bias our judgment and make us overweight this utilitarian reasoning. ↩︎

I think that the survey should have been designed and carried out by an independent party. The author is a senior program officer at OPP who is known to have a lot of influence over funding in the AI x-risks space. It seems they themselves have selected “47 relatively senior people who have been full-time working on AI x-risk reduction for multiple years”. The author sent those people a request to fill a survey that starts with the words: “I want to launch […]”. The survey was not anonymous, a fact that was addressed on the survey form:

(Seeing names will be useful to me for doing "robustness sanity checks" on how different the outcome would have been if I had surveyed a moderately different population, and will thus inform my qualitative analysis.)

(I am not taking here a stance for or against the specific initiative that the survey was asking about.)

The words "I'm a utilitarian" in the OP link to a different interview.

Is this the interview you are talking about here? I failed to find that quote in the transcript of that interview either. (Both in the transcript that YouTube provides automatically and in the transcript that the description links to.)

It seems that currently the bottleneck is not funding for orgs that provide humanitarian aid, but rather Israel's willingness to allow that humanitarian aid to get to the civilians that need it.

The Israeli government and individuals within it seem to have some myopic incentives to cause harm to civilians, including: (1) as a lever over Hamas; (2) for the purpose of increasing its deterrence against Lebanon Hezbollah and in general; and (3) perhaps for the purpose of eventually causing civilians to flee to Egypt.

Unrelated note: This is an extremely contentious political issue around the world and especially in the US. We should consider that the involvement of EA in such issues can be harmful. It seems relevant to note here this AMA post about this war, from a seemingly strongly pro-Israel author who so far never wrote anything on this forum (from that account) outside that AMA. That post currently has 62 karma points.

Disclosure: I have served in Israel Defense Forces, live in Israel, feel horrible about what Israel has done so far to Palestinians and about the current war, and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic.

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