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The Effective Altruism Newsletter & Open Thread - 15 December 2015

I think this post is incredibly powerful, and a strong reminder for why we must fight on.

"I’ve talked a lot about my bad luck. I have a ’tragic backstory’ tag, after all. I was born in the third world, in a place with incredibly low incomes which fail to be mirrored in particularly low cost of living. As such, people make do with malnutrition, lack of medication, and ever present mosquitoes. There’s just no other way. You live cheap or die – living free was never an option.

I also happen to be transgender. If living in squalor wasn’t enough, try living in squalor while surrounded by hatred. I am queer in a place where politicians talk about the importance of getting rid of people like me, due to the threat we pose to “public morals”. Where, as a member of my school’s debate team, I was forced to argue for why people like me should be barred entry to the country. The head of the team wanted to know why I found the topic upsetting. Of course, I didn’t tell him. I didn’t want to be expelled.

However, despite all that and more, I have a lot of good luck[...] I don’t deserve my luck. I don’t deserve the bad that’s happened to me, but I don’t deserve the good either..."

Should Giving What We Can change its Pledge?

"Perhaps this is difficult for utilitarians, who despite perhaps academically understanding the importance of game theory and rules, in practice often act like the stereotype of act utilitarians."

I'm curious what you think the "stereotype of act utilitarians" is, unless it's "hypocrite." I literally know exactly zero people who "in practice often act" in a manner that is most conducive to the greater good in the short term (you can probably argue about burnout and self-care, complicated game theory and signaling, etc...but then you're closer in practice to rule or Two-Level/Hare's utilitarianism, certainly not the stereotype of act utilitarians!) Some trivially obvious examples:

-People generally think nothing of taking the bus to work instead of walking/biking, even when the time cost is about the same, or if their time outside work isn't going to be used productively anyway.

-On the flip side, bikers often refuse rides, even if it'll save them time and the added costs to their friends are either a)nonexistent or b)irrelevant from the perspective of the universe (since their friends either don't donate effectively or have a separate donation budget that won't be affected)

-Most people, even claimed "act utilitarians", happen to have two kidneys.

-People's dietary choices seem mostly to be about personal comfort, rather than careful calculations about cost vs. time savings.

-People don't "marry-to-give" (This is probably a good thing!)

-EAs spend substantially less time on strategic cause selection than a naive calculation of the value of information would suggest -etc, etc

Speaking as someone who has two kidneys, etc, I think it's fine that people, even people who in principle agree with act utilitarianism, in practice act like Two-Level or rule utilitarians or virtue ethicists, etc., and in the long run probably optimal (burnout and signaling are very important considerations!) I'm just suggesting that you're attacking a caricature that's entirely nonexistent.

GiveBots vs. Humans

Interesting post! I think you raise several points that others on the fringes of the effective giving movement have brought up before. Please don't treat the following critiques as attacks but rather as "tough love," or perhaps tentative explorations by somebody else cautiously trying to discern right and wrong in a screwed-up world.

1) As a factual matter, living on $25,000 isn't just "far more than the average income in any developing nation," it's also a higher individual income than almost 50% of the US.

Note that a)the above number is before taxes and savings and b)the US is rich even among the developed world, so all else being equal I'd expect the median person in the developed world to spend less per year.

2) Is somebody who gives away a kidney less "human", in your view? What about a First Worlder who lives on less than $20,000*? A man who cooks for himself&family rather than go to restaurants? A woman who commits to never having children? An American citizen who's neutral (and thus triages) between complete strangers in the local elementary school in Newark and complete strangers in a local elementary school in Malawi? Someone who's vegan? Someone who eats beef and drinks milk but not chickens or eggs? Somebody who bikes to work? Somebody who cries at the thought of drowning strangers? Somebody who doesn't cry?

The way I see it, all of those are examples of what it means to be "human" (Case in point: the very same humans who exhibit those traits!), and much more. I don't think it's too strong a claim to say this and that you, ironically enough, severely under-estimate the richness of human experience.

* (The numbers are smaller than the above figure since "per capita" also includes children).

3 Your claim for what is and is not a human isn't just a problem in a definitional sense of inaccuracy, it's also rather harmful emotionally. Put another way, you're literally dehumanizing the views/actions of myself and some of my friends, and that makes me sad.

4) Combative language aside, I definitely agree with point that people are not idealized givers,. nor are they capable of being so. Julia Wise writes a lot of good articles about this:

5) Some people give more than you. Some people give less than you. Some people don't give at all. Some people kill orphans and other people save them. They're all human, no more or less than you are. This post is not meant to guilt you for not giving more, or for being "human". As DavidNash and Julua Wise talks about, people should factor in burnout/productivity/influence, and figure out the level of giving that works best for them. Different people have different limitations, different things that makes them "human." It's too high-level a critique to say that our foibles rather than our virtues are what makes us human, and I think human foibles are just that-foibles. Some of them can be avoided, but we all have limitations (different limitations) that we can't overcome. And that's fine! But despite our foibles, despite our limitations, our humanity can and will shine through, and we can and will strive to make the world a better place, together.

Boost Your Impact by Matching for the Christmas Fundraiser

Would the exact timing of my donation matter for the match? I want to wait until January for tax reasons.

How does fighting diarrhoea stack up to malaria in effectiveness?

Is cost-effective magic the next Neglected and Tractable funding opportunity?

EA's Image Problem

This is far from obvious to me. I retracted a suggestion for someone to donate after I learned that their income is lower than my consumption...

As a rough heuristic, it is not reasonable to ask others to commit to a higher ethical standard than myself.

EA's Image Problem

Definitely agree with the point about Gates.

EA's Image Problem

I mentioned this on Facebook before (I hope I don't sound like a broken record!), but the feelings of fellow aspiring EAs, while no doubt important, completely pales in comparison to that of the population we're trying to serve. Here's an analogy from GiveDirectly:

"through my interactions with the organization, it's become clear that their commitment is not just to evidence – it's to the poor. Most international charities' websites prominently feature photos of relatable smiling children, but not GiveDirectly, because of respect for beneficiaries' privacy and security. Many charities seem to resign themselves to a certain degree of corruption among their staff, but GiveDirectly is willing to install intrusive internal controls to actively prevent corruption."

Is intrusive internal controls "unfair" to GiveDirectly's staff members? In some sense, of course...other NGOs don't do this. In another, more important sense, however, GiveDirectly workers are still way better off than the people they're transferring money to.

In a similar sense, while "the poor" (by that, I assume you mean people making in the 80th percentile of income) will find it more difficult to meet the GWWC pledge, and maybe it's less "fair" for them to feel altruistic, it's even less fair to die from malaria. Ultimately my greatest priority isn't fellow EAs. Paul Farmer said that his duty is [paraphrasing] "first to the sick, second to prisoners, and third to students." I think this is the right model to have. Conventional models of morality radiates outwards from our class and social standing, whereas a more universalist ethic will triage.

If this is not obvious to you, imagine, behind the veil of ignorance, the following two scenarios:

1) You're making minimum wage in the US. You heard about the Giving What We Can pledge. You would like to contribute but know that you have a greater obligation to your family. You feel bad about the situation in Africa and wished that those elitist EAs didn't shove this into your face.

2) Your child, your second child, has convulsions from a fever. You don't know why, but you suspect that it's due to malaria. Your first child has already died of diarrhea. You didn't work today to take care of your child, but you know your family has very little savings left for food, never mind medicine.You're crying and crying and crying but you know you shouldn't cry because it's a waste of resources and anyway the world isn't fair and nobody cares.

I apologize for the pathos, but it seems blatantly clear to me that 2) is a substantially greater issue than 1). I suspect that my usual M.O of arguing rationally isn't getting this across clearly.