2419 karmaJoined Aug 2014



Thanks so much for writing this, and even more for all you've done to help those less fortunate than yourself.

I'm glad I did that Daily Politics spot! It was very hard to tell in the early days how impactful media work was (and it still is!) so examples like this are very interesting.

Thanks so much for all your hard work on CEA/EV over the many years. You have been such a driving force over the years in developing the ideas, the community, and the institutions we needed to help make it all work well. Much of that work over the years has happened through CEA/EV, and before that through Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours before we'd set up CEA to house them, so this is definitely in some sense the end of an era for you (and for EV). But a lot of your intellectual work and vision has always transcended the particular organisations and I'm really looking forward to much more of that to come!

Oh, I definitely agree that the guilt narrative has some truth to it too, and that the final position must be some mix of the two, with somewhere between a 10/90 and 90/10 split. But I'd definitely been neglecting the 'we got used' narrative, and had assumed others were too (though aprilsun's comment suggests I might be incorrect about that).

I'd add that for different questions related to the future of EA, the different narratives change their mix. For example, the 'we got used' narrative is at its most relevant if asking about 'all EAs except Sam'. But if asking about whether it is good to grow EA, it is relevant that we may get more Sams. And if asking 'how much good or bad do people who associate with EA do?' the 'guilt' narrative increases in importance. 

This is a very interesting take, and very well expressed. You could well be right that the narrative that 'we got used' is the most correct simple summary for EAs/EA. And I definitely agree that it is an under-rated narrative. There could even be psychological reasons for that (EAs being more prone to guilt than to embarassment?).

I note that even if P(FTX exists | EA exists) were quite a bit higher than P(FTX exists | ~EA exists), that could be compatible with your suggested narrative of EAs being primarily marks/victims. To reuse your example, if you were the only person the perpetrator of the heist could con into lending their car to act as a getaway vehicle, then that would make P(Heist happens | Your actions) quite a bit higher than P(Heist happens | You acting differently), but you would still be primarily a mark or (minor) victim of the crime, rather than primarily one of the responsible parties for it.


Nick is being so characteristically modest in his descriptions of his role here. He was involved in EA right from the start — one of the members of Giving What We Can at launch in 2009 — and he soon started running our first international chapter at Rutgers, before becoming our director of research. He contributed greatly to the early theory of effective altruism and along with Will and I was one of the three founding trustees of the Centre for Effective Altruism. I had the great pleasure of working with him in person for a while at Oxford University, before he moved back to the States to join Open Philanthropy. He was always thoughtful, modest, and kind. I'm excited to see what he does next.

Thanks so much for writing this Arthur.

I'm still interested in the possibilities of changing various aspects of how the EA community works, but this post does a great job of explaining important things that we're getting right already and — perhaps more importantly — in helping us remember what it is all about and why we're here.

The term 'humanity' is definitely intended to be interpreted broadly. I was more explicit about this in The Precipice and forgot to reiterate it in this paper. I certainly want to include any worthy successors to homo sapiens. But it may be important to understand the boundary of what counts. A background assumption is that the entities are both moral agents and moral patients — capable of steering the future towards what matters and for being intrinsically part of what matters. I'm not sure if those assumptions are actually needed, but they were guiding my thought.

I definitely don't intend to include alien civilisations or future independent earth-originating intelligent life. The point is to capture the causal downstream consequences of things in our sphere of control. So the effects of us on alien civilisations should be counted and any effects we have of on whether any earth species evolves after us, but it isn't meant to be a graph of all value in the universe. My methods wouldn't work for that, as we can't plausibly speed that up, or protect it all etc (unless we were almost all the value anyway).

I think I may have been a bit too unclear about which things I found more promising than others. Ultimately the chapter is more about the framework, with a few considerations added for and against each of the kinds of idealised changes, and no real attempt to be complete about those or make all-things-considered judgments about how to rate them. Of the marginal interventions I discuss, I am most excited about existential-risk reduction, followed by enhancements.

As to your example, I feel that I might count the point where the world became permanently controlled by preference utilitarians an existential catastrophe — locking in an incorrect moral system forever. In general, lock-in is a good answer for why things might not happen later if they don't happen now, but too much lock-in of too big a consequence is what I call an existential catastrophe. So your example is good as a non-*extinction* case, but to find a non-existential one, you may need to look for examples that are smaller in size, or perhaps only partly locked-in?

I think "open to speed-ups" is about right. As I said in the quoted text, my conclusion was that contingent speed-ups "may be possible". They are not an avenue for long-term change that I'm especially excited about. The main reason for including them here was to distinguish them from advancements (these two things are often run together) and because they fall out very natural as one of the kinds of natural marginal change to the trajectory whose value doesn't depend on the details of the curve. 

That said, it sounds like I think they are a bit more likely to be possible than you do. Here are some comments on that.

One thing is that it is easier to have a speed-up relative to another trajectory than to have one that is contingent — which wouldn't have happened otherwise. Contingent speed-ups are the ones of most interest to longtermists, but those that are overdetermined to happen are still relevant to studying the value of the future and where it comes from. e.g. if the industrial revolution was going to happen anyway, then the counterfactual value of it happening in the UK in the late 1700s may be small, but it is still an extremely interesting event in terms of dramatically changing the rate of progress from then onwards compared to a world without an industrial revolution.

The more natural thought is that, at some point in time, we either hit a plateau, or hit some hard limit of how fast v(.) can grow (perhaps driven by cubic or quadratic growth as future people settle the stars).

Even if v(.) hits a plateau, you can still have a speed-up, it is just that it only has an impact on the value achieved before we would have hit the value anyway. That could be a large change (e.g. if the plateau isn't reached in the first 1% of our lifetime), but even if it isn't, that doesn't stop this being a speed-up, it is just that changing the speed of some things isn't very valuable, which is a result that is revealed by the framework.

Suppose v(.) stops growing exponentially with progress and most of its increase is then governed by growing cubically as a humanity's descendants settle the cosmos. Expanding faster (e.g. by achieving a faster travel speed of 76%c instead of 75%c) could then count as a speed-up. That said, it is difficult for this to be a contingent speed-up, as it raises the question of why (when this was the main determinant of value) would this improvement not be implemented at a later date? And it is also difficult in this case to see how any actions now could produce such a speed-up.

Overall, I don't see them as a promising avenue for current efforts to target, and more of a useful theoretical tool, but I also don't think there are knockdown arguments against them being a practical avenue.

I think that is indeed a good analogy. In the chapter, I focus on questions of marginal changes to the curve where there is a small shock to some parameter right now, and then its effects play out. If one is instead asking questions that are less about what we now could do to change the future, but are about how humanity over deep time should act to have a good future, then I think the optimal control techniques could be very useful. And I wouldn't be surprised if in attempting to understand the dynamics, there were lessons for our present actions too.

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