Tobias_Baumann

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Thoughts on patient philanthropy

I was just talking about 30 years because those are the farthest-out US bonds. I agree that the horizon of patient philanthropists can be much longer.

Thoughts on patient philanthropy

Yeah, but even 30 year interest rates are low (1-2% at the moment). There is an Austrian 100 year bond paying 0.88%. I think that is significant evidence that something about the "patient vs impatient actors" story does not add up.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

It is fair to say that some suffering-focused views have highly counterintuitive implications, such as the one you mention. The misconception is just that this holds for all suffering-focused views. For instance, there are plenty of possible suffering-focused views that do not imply that happy humans would be better off committing suicide. In addition to preference-based views, one could value happiness but endorse the procreative asymmetry (so that lives above a certain threshold of welfare are considered OK even if there is some severe suffering), or one could be prioritarian or egalitarian in interpersonal contexts, which also avoids problematic conclusions about such tradeoffs. (Of course, those views may be considered unattractive for other reasons.)

I think views along these lines are actually fairly widespread among philosophers. It just so happens that suffering-focused EAs have often promoted other variants of SFE that do arguably have implications for intrapersonal tradeoffs that you consider counterintuitive (and I mostly agree that those implications are problematic, at least when taken to extremes), thus giving the impression that all or most suffering-focused views have said implications.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

Re: 1., there would be many more (thoughtful) people who share our concern about reducing suffering and s-risks (not necessarily with strongly suffering-focused values, but at least giving considerable weight to it). That results in an ongoing research project on s-risks that goes beyond a few EAs (e.g., it is also established in academia or other social movements).

Re: 2., a possible scenario is that suffering-focused ideas just never gain much traction, and consequently efforts to reduce s-risks will just fizzle out. However, I think there is significant evidence that at least an extreme version of this is not happening.

Re: 3., I think the levels of engagement and feedback we have received so far are encouraging. However, we do not currently have any procedures in place to measure impact, which is (as you say) incredibly hard for what we do. But of course, we are constantly thinking about what kind of work is most impactful!

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

I would guess that actually experiencing certain possible conscious states, in particular severe suffering or very intense bliss, could significantly change my views, although I am not sure if I would endorse this as “reflection” or if it might lead to bias.

It seems plausible (but I am not aware of strong evidence) that experience of severe suffering generally causes people to focus more on it. However, I myself have fortunately never experienced severe suffering, so that would be a data point to the contrary.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

I was exposed to arguments for suffering-focused ethics from the start, since I was involved with German-speaking EAs (the Effective Altruism Foundation / Foundational Research Institute back then). I don’t really know why exactly (there isn’t much research on what makes people suffering-focused or non-suffering-focused), but this intuitively resonated with me.

I can’t point to any specific arguments or intuition pumps, but my views are inspired by writing such as the Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics, Brian Tomasik’s essays, and writings by Simon Knutsson and Magnus Vinding.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

I agree that s-risks can vary a lot (by many orders of magnitude) in terms of severity. I also think that this gradual nature of s-risks is often swept under the rug because the definition just uses a certain threshold (“astronomical scale”). There have, in fact, been some discussions about how the definition could be changed to ameliorate this, but I don’t think there is a clear solution. Perhaps talking about reducing future suffering, or preventing worst-case outcomes, can convey this variation in severity more than the term ‘s-risks’.

Regarding your second question, I wrote up this document a while ago on whether we should focus on worst-case outcomes, as opposed to suffering in median futures or 90th-percentile-badness-futures (given that those are more likely than worst-cases). However, this did not yield a clear conclusion, so I consider this an open question.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

One key difference is that there is less money in it, because OpenPhil as the biggest EA grantmaker is not focused on reducing s-risks. In a certain sense, that is good news because work on s-risks is plausibly more funding-constrained than non-suffering-focused longtermism.

In terms of where to donate, I would recommend the Center on Long-Term Risk and the Center for Reducing Suffering (which I co-founded myself). Both of those organisations are doing crucial research on s-risk reduction. If you are looking for something a bit less abstract, you could consider Animal Ethics, the Good Food Institute, or Wild Animal Initiative.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

I think a plausible win condition is that society has some level moral concern for all sentient beings (it doesn’t necessarily need to be entirely suffering-focused) as well as stable mechanisms to implement positive-sum cooperation or compromise. The latter guarantees that moral concerns are taken into account and possible gains from trade can be achieved. (An example for this could be cultivated meat, which allows us to reduce animal suffering while accommodating the interests of meat eaters.)

However, I think suffering reducers in particular should perhaps not focus on imagining best-case outcomes. It is plausible (though not obvious) that we should focus on preventing worst-case outcomes rather than shooting for utopian outcomes, as the difference in expected suffering between a worst-case and the median outcome may be much greater than the difference between the median outcome and the best possible future.

AMA: Tobias Baumann, Center for Reducing Suffering

I don’t think this view is necessary to prioritise s-risk. A finite but relatively high “trade ratio” between happiness and suffering can be enough to focus on s-risks. In addition, I think it’s more complicated than putting some numbers on happiness vs. suffering. (See here for more details.) For instance, one should distinguish between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal setting - a common intuition is that one man’s pain can’t be outweighed by another’s pleasure.

Another possibility is lexicality: one may contend that only certain particularly bad forms of suffering can’t be outweighed. You may find such views counterintuitive, but it is worth noting that lexicality can be multi-dimensional and need not involve abrupt breaks. It is, for instance, quite possible to hold the view that 1 minute of lava is ‘outweighable’ but 1 day is not. (I think I would not have answered “no amount can compensate” if it was about 1 minute.)

I also sympathise with the view mentioned by Jonas: that happiness matters mostly in so far as an existing being has a craving or desire to experience it. The question, then, is just how strong the desire to experience a certain timespan of bliss is. The poll was just about how I would do this tradeoff for myself, and it just so happens that abstract prospects of bliss does not evoke a very strong desire in me. It’s certainly not enough to accept a day of lava drowning - and that is true regardless of how long the bliss lasts. Your psychology may be different but I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent or illogical about my preferences.

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