The Triumph of Humanity Chart

One of the greatest successes of mankind over the last few centuries has been the enormous amount of wealth that has been created. Once upon a time virtually everyone lived in grinding poverty; now, thanks to the forces of science, capitalism and total factor productivity, we produce enough to support a much larger population at a much higher standard of living.

EAs being a highly intellectual lot, our preferred form of ritual celebration is charts. The ordained chart for celebrating this triumph of our people is the Declining Share of People Living in Extreme Poverty Chart.

Share in Poverty

(Source)

However, as a heretic, I think this chart is a mistake. What is so great about reducing the share? We could achieve that by killing all the poor people, but that would not be a good thing! Life is good, and poverty is not death; it is simply better for it to be rich.

As such, I think this is a much better chart. Here we show the world population. Those in extreme poverty are in purple – not red, for their existence is not bad. Those who the wheels of progress have lifted into wealth unbeknownst to our ancestors, on the other hand, are depicted in blue, rising triumphantly.

Triumph of Humanity2

Long may their rise continue.

 

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Ashley Madison was an Effective Altruist Conspiracy

Much as been said about the Ashley Madison hacks. Needless to say, my husband and I agree that anyone committing or attempting to commit infidelity is an abhorrence, who should be shunned by society. But that is not the topic of this essay. The question is, was the creation of the website itself a bad thing? Here is a theory that suggests its creation was actually a grand stroke of Effective Altruism.

Here is my conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it ex-post fits the facts well, but probably should not be given a very high credence.

  1. Ashley Madison was set up by an activist who wanted to promote ethical behavior and punish the unjust.
  2. Firstly, it took money from people who wanted to commit infidelity. Taking money from people makes them worse off.
  3. Then, it didn’t provide any services. It never matched any cheaters up.
  4. After having handed over credit card details but not received anything, the would-be cheaters realized it was a scam.
  5. Then can’t take Ashley Madison to court, because that would be public record.
  6. So they try to get out … but realize Ashley Madison has them in an incriminating position.
  7. Ashley Madison extorts more money from them to delete their data.
  8. Ashley Madison does not delete the data.
  9. Ashley Madison discusses a possible IPO purely for the publicity. It knows it’s a fraud and could never stand up to auditing.
  10. Ashley Madison then hacks itself. This explains why they were able to access the data so easily. They had previously hacked another competing service.
  11. Ashley Madison then releases the data. This provides early downloaders with the opportunity to extort the would-be cheaters.
  12. Eventually all the would-be cheaters are revealed, and face the wrath of their poor spouses.
  13. No-one ever trusts an infidelity website again, making it harder to commit infidelity in future

So the net result is:

  1. Would-be cheaters are effectively fined a significant amount of money.
  2. And then exposed.
  3. And no-one can ever create an infidelity website.

Ideally I would like to test this theory against the third dump of Noel Biderman’s emails. Unfortunately my torrent, like everyone else, seems to be stuck at 93.3%.

The Importance of GWWC Cohort Data

There are a few pieces of information that are required to properly analyze the value of Giving What We Can‘s membership.

They’re necessary for GWWC’s managers to evaluate different strategies. If GWWC was an object-level charity, we wouldn’t donate to it without knowing these numbers. And if GWWC were a public company, investors would not provide funding without such disclosure. As such, hopefully these metrics are already being collected internally, and publicly sharing them should not be very difficult, though very valuable. If not, GWWC should start collecting them!

GWWC already publishes the number of members it has at any given point and the total amount pledged. From this it’s easy to derive how many joined in any given year. However, it’s hard to judge what these people did later – how many fulfilled the pledge, and how much did they donate? Worse, this makes it hard to forecast the value of a new member, so we can’t tell how much effort we should put into extensive growth. As far as I can see (sorry if I just couldn’t find the data), we do not currently release the data required to make this analysis.

As part of it’s annual report, GWWC should release data on each cohort: how many of that cohort fulfilled the pledge by donating 10%; how many were ‘excused’ from donating 10% ( e.g. by being students); how many failed to abide by the pledge, donating less than 10% despite having an income; and how many did not respond.

Example Disclosure

In case it’s confusing what exactly I’m suggesting GWWC release, here’s an example (with totally made-up numbers). As part of it’s 2014 annual report, GWWC could report:

  • 2011 cohort:
    • Of the 107 who joined in 2011…
    • 75 donated over 10% in 2014
    • 15 were students and did not donate 10% in 2014
    • 10 had incomes but did not donate 10% in 2014
    • 7 could not be contacted in 2014
    • Total of $450,000 donated in 2014
  • 2012 cohort:
    • Of the 107 who joined in 2012…
    • 50 donated over 10% in 2014
    • 53 were students and did not donate 10% in 2014
    • 2 had incomes but did not donate 10% in 2014
    • 2 could not be contacted in 2014
    • Total of $300,000 donated in 2014
  • 2013 cohort:
    • etc.

While in the 2013 annual report, GWWC would have reported

  • 2011 cohort:
    • Of the 107 who joined in 2011…
    • 45 donated over 10% in 2013
    • 56 were students and did not donate 10% in 2013
    • 3 had incomes but did not donate 10% in 2013
    • 3 could not be contacted in 2013
    • Total of $250,000 donated in 2013
  • 2012 cohort:
    • Of the 107 who joined in 2012…
    • 16 donated over 10% in 2013
    • 89 were students and did not donate 10% in 2013
    • 1 had incomes but did not donate 10% in 2013
    • 1 could not be contacted in 2013
    • Total of $100,000 donated in 2013

This would allow us to see how each cohort matures of time, answering some very important questions:

  • How much is a member worth, after taking into account the risk of non-fulfillment?
  • How much does the value of a member differ with the discount rate we use?
  • How does the donation profile of a member change over time – does it rise as they progress in their career or fall as members drop out?
  • Are the cohorts improving or deteriorating in quality? Are the members who joined in 2012 more likely to still be a member in good standing in 2014 than they 2010 cohort were in 2012? Do they donate more or less?

There are some other numbers that might be nice to know, for example breaking the data down by age, sex, nationality, or even CEA employee vs non-employee, but it’s important not to impose too high a reporting burden.

Why this is not idle speculation

This might seem a bit ambitious. Yes, it would be nice if GWWC released this data. But is it really a pressing issue?

I think it is.

Bank problems: Extend and Pretend

Sometimes banks will make a series of bad loans – loans which are repaid at a significantly lower than expected rate, perhaps because the bank was trying to grow aggressively. When the first signs of this emerge, like people being late on payments, banks have two alternatives. The honest one is to admit there is a problem and ‘write down’ the loan – take a loss to profits. The perhaps less honest one is to extend and pretend – give the borrowers more time to repay and pretend to yourself/auditors/investors that they will come good in the end. This doesn’t actually create any value; it just delays the day of reckoning. Worse, it propagates bad information in the meantime, causing people to make bad decisions.

Unfortunately they neglected the Litany of Gendlin:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
—Eugene Gendlin

GWWC: Dilutive Growth?

About a year ago, people were concerned that GWWC’s growth was slowing – only growing linearly, rather than exponentially. This would be pretty bad, and people were justifiably concerned. However, GWWC made a few changes with the aim of promoting growth. Most pertinently:

  • Allowing people to sign up online, rather than having to mail in a hand-signed paper form. This happened between April and June 2013.
  • Adjusting the pledge to become more cause-neutral, rather than just about global poverty. This happened late 2014.

GWWC signups labeled

source

The latter change was somewhat controversial, but I didn’t see much discussion of the former at the time.

The concern is that, though these measures have increased the number of members, they may have done so by reducing the average quality of members. Making it easier to join means more marginal people, with less attachment to the idea, can join. This is still good if their membership adds value, but they dilute the membership, which means we shouldn’t account for the average new member being signed up now as being equally valuable as the members who joined up in 2010. Additionally, the reduction in pomp and circumstance might reduce the gravitas of the pledge, making people take it less seriously and increase drop-out rates. If so, moving to paperless pledges might have reduced the value of sub-marginal members as well as diluting them.

The comparison with banks should be pretty clear – a bank that’s struggling to grow starts accepting less creditworthy applicants so it can keep putting up good short term numbers, but at the cost of reducing the long-run profitability. Similarly GWWC, struggling to grow, starts accepting lower quality members so it can keep putting up good short term numbers, but at the cost of reducing the long-run donations. This makes it harder to forecast the value of members, and might lead to over-investment in acquiring new ones.

This seems potentially a big risk, and it’s the sort of issue that this data would allow us to address. Of course, there are many other applications of the data as well.

And GWWC in fact has even stronger reasons than banks to report this data. The bank might be wary of giving information to its competitors, but GWWC has no such concerns. Indeed, if releasing more data makes it easier for someone else to launch a competing, better version of GWWC, all the better!

If you liked this you might also like: Happy 5th Birthday, Giving What We Can and GiveWell is not an Index Fund

Blind Spots: Compartmentalizing

This is my contribution to the December blogging carnival on “blind spots”.

Summary: People frequently compartmentalize their beliefs, and avoid addressing the implications between them. Ordinarily, this is perhaps innocuous, but when the both ideas are highly morally important, their interaction is in turn important – many standard arguments on moral issues are dramatically undermined or otherwise effected by EA considerations, especially moral uncertainty.

A long time ago, Will wrote an article about how a key part of rationality was taking ideas seriously: fully exploring ideas, seeing all their consequences, and then acting upon them. This is something most of us do not do! I for one certainly have trouble.

Similarly, I think people selectively apply EA principles. People are very willing to apply them in some cases, but when those principles would cut at a core part of the person’s identity – like requiring them to dress appropriately so they seem less weird – people are much less willing to take those EA ideas to their logical conclusion.

Consider your personal views. I’ve certainly changed some of my opinions as a result of thinking about EA ideas. For example, my opinion of bednet distribution is now much higher than it once was. And I’ve learned a lot about how to think about some technical issues, like regression to the mean. Yet I realized that I had rarely done a full 180  – and I think this is true of many people:

  • Many think EA ideas argue for more foreign aid – but did anyone come to this conclusion who had previously been passionately anti-aid?
  • Many think EA ideas argue for vegetarianism – but did anyone come to this conclusion who had previously been passionately carnivorous?
  • Many think EA ideas argue against domestic causes – but did anyone come to this conclusion who had previously been a passionate nationalist?

Yet this is quite worrying. Given the power and scope of many EA ideas, it seems that they should lead to people changing their mind on issues were they had been previously very certain, and indeed emotionally involved. That they have not suggests we have been compartmentalizing.

Obviously we don’t need to apply EA principles to everything – we can probably continue to brush our teeth without need for much reflection. But we probably should apply them to issues with are seen as being very important: given the importance of the issues, any implications of EA ideas would probably be important implications.

Moral Uncertainty

In his PhD thesis, Will MacAskill argues that we should treat normative uncertainty in much the same way as ordinary positive uncertainty; we should assign credences (probabilities) to each theory, and then try to maximise the expected morality of our actions. He calls this idea ‘maximise expected choice-worthiness’, and if you’re into philosophy, I recommend reading the paper. As such, when deciding how to act we should give greater weight to the theories we consider more likely to be true, and also give more weight to theories that consider the issue to be of greater importance.

This is important because it means that a novel view does not have to be totally persuasive to demand our observance. Consider, for example, vegetarianism. Maybe you think there’s only a 10% chance that animal welfare is morally significant – you’re pretty sure they’re tasty for a reason. Yet if the consequences of eating meat are very bad in those 10% of cases (murder or torture, if the animal rights activists are correct), and the advantages are not very great in the other 90% (tasty, some nutritional advantages), we should not eat meat regardless. Taking into account the size of the issue at stake as well as probability of its being correct means paying more respect to ‘minority’ theories.

And this is more of an issue for EAs than for most people. Effective Altruism involves a group of novel moral premisses, like cosmopolitanism, the moral imperative for cost-effectiveness and the importance of the far future. Each of these imply that our decisions are in some way very important, so even if we assign them only a small credence, their plausibility implies radical revisions to our actions.

One issue that Will touches on in his thesis is the issue of whether fetuses morally count. In the same way that we have moral uncertainty as to whether animals, or people in the far future, count, so too we have moral uncertainty as to whether unborn children are morally significant. Yes, many people are confident they know the correct answer – but there many of these on each side of the issue. Given the degree of disagreement on the issue, among philosophers, politicians and the general public, it seems like the perfect example of an issue where moral uncertainty should be taken into account – indeed Will uses it as a canonical example.

Consider the case of a pregnant women Sarah, wondering whether it is morally permissible to abort her child1. The alternative course of action she is considering is putting the child up for adoption. In accordance with the level of social and philosophical debate on the issue, she is uncertain as to whether aborting the fetus is morally permissible. If it’s morally permissible, it’s merely permissible – it’s not obligatory. She follows the example from Normative Uncertainty and constructs the following table

abortion table 1

In the best case scenario, abortion has nothing to recommend it, as adoption is also permissible. In the worst case, abortion is actually impermissible, whereas adoption is permissible. As such, adoption dominates abortion.

However, Sarah might not consider this representation as adequate. In particular, she thinks that now is not the best time to have a child, and would prefer to avoid it.2 She has made plans which are inconsistent with being pregnant, and prefers not to give birth at the current time. So she amends the table to take into account these preferences.

abortion table 2

Now adoption no longer strictly dominates abortion, because she prefers abortion to adoption in the scenario where it is morally permissible. As such, she considers her credence: she considers the pro-choice arguments slightly more persuasive than the pro-life ones: she assigns a 70% credence to abortion being morally permissible, but only a 30% chance to its being morally impermissible.

Looking at the table with these numbers in mind, intuitively it seems that again it’s not worth the risk of abortion: a 70% chance of saving oneself inconvenience and temporary discomfort is not sufficient to justify a 30% chance of committing murder. But Sarah’s unsatisfied with this unscientific comparison: it doesn’t seem to have much of a theoretical basis, and she distrusts appeals to intuitions in cases like this. What is more, Sarah is something of a utilitarian; she doesn’t really believe in something being impermissible.

Fortunately, there’s a standard tool for making inter-personal welfare comparisons: QALYs. We can convert the previous table into QALYs, with the moral uncertainty now being expressed as uncertainty as to whether saving fetuses generates QALYs. If it does, then it generates a lot; supposing she’s at the end of her first trimester, if she doesn’t abort the baby it has a 98% chance of surviving to birth, at which point its life expectancy is 78.7 in the US, for 78.126 QALYs. This calculation assumes assigns no QALYs to the fetus’s 6 months of existence between now and birth. If fetuses are not worthy of ethical consideration, then it accounts for 0 QALYs.

We also need to assign QALYs to Sarah. For an upper bound, being pregnant is probably not much worse than having both your legs amputated without medication, which is 0.494 QALYs, so lets conservatively say 0.494 QALYs. She has an expected 6 months of pregnancy remaining, so we divide by 2 to get 0.247 QALYs. Women’s Health Magazine gives the odds of maternal death during childbirth at 0.03% for 2013; we’ll round up to 0.05% to take into account risk of non-death injury. Women at 25 have a remaining life expectancy of around 58 years, so thats 0.05%*58= 0.029 QALYs. In total that gives us an estimate of 0.276 QALYs. If the baby doesn’t survive to birth, however, some of these costs will not be incurred, so the truth is probably slightly lower than this. All in all a 0.276 QALYs seems like a reasonably conservative figure.

Obviously you could refine these numbers a lot (for example, years of old age are likely to be at lower quality of life, there are some medical risks to the mother from aborting a fetus, etc.) but they’re plausibly in the right ballpark. They would also change if we used inherent temporal discounting, but probably we shouldn’t.

.abortion table 3

We can then take into account her moral uncertainty directly, and calculate the expected QALYs of each action:

  • If she aborts the fetus, our expected QALYs are 70%x0 + 30%*(-78.126) = -23.138
  • If she carries the baby to term and puts it up for adoption, our expected QALYs are 70%*(-0.247) + 30%*(-0.247) = -0.247

Which again suggests that the moral thing to do is to not abort the baby. Indeed, the life expectancy is so long at birth that it quite easily dominates the calculation: Sarah would have to be extremely confident in rejecting the value of the fetus to justify aborting it. So, mindful of overconfidence bias, she decides to carry the child to term.

Indeed, we can show just how confident in the lack of moral significance of the fetuses one would have to be to justify aborting one. Here is a sensitivity table, showing credence in moral significance of fetuses on the y axis, and the direct QALY cost of pregnancy on the x axis for a wide range of possible values. The direct QALY cost of pregnancy is obviously bounded above by its limited duration. As is immediately apparent, one has to be very confident in fetuses lacking moral significance, and pregnancy has to be very bad, before aborting a fetus becomes even slightly QALY-positive. For moderate values, it is extremely QALY-negative.

abortion table 4

Other EA concepts and their applications to this issue

Of course, moral uncertainty is not the only EA principle that could have bearing on the issue, and given that the theme of this blogging carnival, and this post, is things we’re overlooking, it would be remiss not to give at least a broad overview of some of the others. Here, I don’t intend to judge how persuasive any given argument is – as we discussed above, this is a debate that has been going without settlement for thousands of years – but merely to show the ways that common EA arguments affect the plausibility of the different arguments. This is a section about the directionality of EA concerns, not on the overall magnitudes.

Not really people

One of the most important arguments for the permissibility of abortion is that fetuses are in some important sense ‘not really people’. In many ways this argument resembles the anti-animal rights argument that animals are also ‘not really people’. We already covered above the way that considerations of moral uncertainty undermine both these arguments, but it’s also noteworthy that in general it seems that the two views are mutually supporting (or mutually undermining, if both are false). Animal-rights advocates often appeal to the idea of an ‘expanding circle’ of moral concern. I’m skeptical of such an argument, but it seems clear that the larger your sphere, the more likely fetuses are to end up on the inside. The fact that, in the US at least, animal activists tend to be pro-abortion seems to be more of a historical accident than anything else. We could imagine alternative-universe political coalitions, where a “Defend the Weak; They’re morally valuable too” party faced off against a “Exploit the Weak; They just don’t count” party. In general, to the extent that EAs care about animal suffering (even insect suffering ), EAs should tend to be concerned about the welfare of the unborn.

Not people yet

A slightly different common argument is that while fetuses will eventually be people, they’re not people yet. Since they’re not people right now, we don’t have to pay any attention to their rights or welfare right now. Indeed, many people make short sighted decisions that implicitly assign very little value to the futures of people currently alive, or even to their own futures – through self-destructive drug habits, or simply failing to save for retirement. If we don’t assign much value to our own futures, it seems very sensible to disregard the futures of those not even born. And even if people who disregarded their own futures were simply negligent, we might still be concerned about things like the non-identity problem.

Yet it seems that EAs are almost uniquely unsuited to this response. EAs do tend to care explicitly about future generations. We put considerable resources into investigating how to help them, whether through addressing climate change or existential risks. And yet these people have far less of a claim to current personhood than fetuses, who at least have current physical form, even if it is diminutive. So again to the extent that EAs care about future welfare, EAs should tend to be concerned about the welfare of the unborn.

Replaceability

Another important EA idea is that of replaceability. Typically this arises in contexts of career choice, but there is a different application here. The QALYs associated with aborted children might not be so bad if the mother will go on to have another child instead. If she does, the net QALY loss is much lower than the gross QALY loss. Of course, the benefits of aborting the fetus are equivalently much smaller – if she has a child later on instead, she will have to bear the costs of pregnancy eventually anyway. This resembles concerns that maybe saving children in Africa doesn’t make much difference, because their parents adjust their subsequent fertility.

The plausibility behind this idea comes from the idea that, at least in the US, most families have a certain ideal number of children in mind, and basically achieve this goal. As such, missing an opportunity to have an early child simply results in having another later on.

If this were fully true, utilitarians might decide that abortion actually has no QALY impact at all – all it does is change the timing of events. On the other hand, fertility declines with age, so many couples planning to have a replacement child later may be unable to do so. Also, some people do not have ideal family size plans.

Additionally, this does not really seem to hold when the alternative is adoption; presumably a woman putting a child up for adoption does not consider it as part of her family, so her future childbearing would be unaffected. This argument might hold if raising the child yourself was the only alternative, but given that adoption services are available, it does not seem to go through.

Autonomy

Sometimes people argue for the permissibility of abortion through autonomy arguments. “It is my body”, such an argument would go, “therefore I may do whatever I want with it.” To a certain extent this argument is addressed by pointing out that one’s bodily rights presumably do not extent to killing others, so if the anti-abortion side are correct, or even have a non-trivial probability of being correct, autonomy would be insufficient. It seems that if the autonomy argument is to work, it must be because a different argument has established the non-personhood of fetuses – in which case the autonomy argument is redundant. Yet even putting this aside, this argument is less appealing to EAs than to non-EAs, because EAs often hold a distinctly non-libertarian account of personal ethics. We believe it is actually good to help people (and avoid hurting them), and perhaps that it is bad to avoid doing so. And many EAs are utilitarians, for whom helping/not-hurting is not merely laud-worthy but actually compulsory. EAs are generally not very impressed with Ayn Rand style autonomy arguments for rejecting charity, so again EAs should tend to be unsympathetic to autonomy arguments for the permissibility of abortion.

Indeed, some EAs even think we should be legally obliged to act in good ways, whether through laws against factory farming or tax-funded foreign aid.

Deontology

An argument often used on the opposite side  – that is, an argument used to oppose abortion, is that abortion is murder, and murder is simply always wrong. Whether because God commanded it or Kant derived it, we should place the utmost importance of never murdering. I’m not sure that any EA principle directly pulls against this, but nonetheless most EAs are consequentialists, who believe that all values can be compared. If aborting one child would save a million others, most EAs would probably endorse the abortion. So I think this is one case where a common EA view pulls in favor of the permissibility of abortion.

I didn’t ask for this

Another argument often used for the permissibility of abortion is that the situation is in some sense unfair. If one did not intend to become pregnant – perhaps even took precautions to avoid becoming so – but nonetheless ends up pregnant, you’re in some way not responsible for becoming pregnant. And since you’re not responsible for it you have no obligations concerning it – so may permissible abort the fetus.

However, once again this runs counter to a major strand of EA thought. Most of us did not ask to be born in rich countries, or to be intelligent, or hardworking. Perhaps it was simply luck. Yet being in such a position nonetheless means we have certain opportunities and obligations. Specifically, we have the opportunity to use of wealth to significantly aid those less fortunate than ourselves in the developing world, and many EAs would agree the obligation. So EAs seem to reject the general idea that not intending a situation relieves one of the responsibilities of that situation.

Infanticide is okay too

A frequent argument against the permissibility of aborting fetuses is by analogy to infanticide. In general it is hard to produce a coherent criteria that permits the killing of babies before birth but forbids it after birth. For most people, this is a reasonably compelling objection: murdering innocent babies is clearly evil! Yet some EAs actually endorse infanticide. If you were one of those people, this particular argument would have little sway over you.

Moral Universalism

A common implicit premise in many moral discussion is that the same moral principles apply to everyone. When Sarah did her QALY calculation, she counted the baby’s QALYs as equally important to her own in the scenario where they counted at all. Similarly, both sides of the debate assume that whatever the answer is, it will apply fairly broadly. Perhaps permissibility varies by age of the fetus – maybe ending when viability hits – but the same answer will apply to rich and poor, Christian and Jew, etc.

This is something some EAs might reject. Yes, saving the baby produces many more QALYs than Sarah loses through the pregnancy, and that would be the end of the story if Sarah were simply an ordinary person. But Sarah is an EA, and so has a much higher opportunity cost for her time. Becoming pregnant will undermine her career as an investment banker, the argument would go, which in turn prevents her from donating to AMF and saving a great many lives. Because of this, Sarah is in a special position – it is permissible for her, but it would not be permissible for someone who wasn’t saving many lives a year.

I think this is a pretty repugnant attitude in general, and a particularly objectionable instance of it, but I include it here for completeness.

May we discuss this?

Now we’ve considered these arguments, it appears that applying general EA principles to the issue in general tends to make abortion look less morally permissible, though there were one or two exceptions. But there is also a second order issue that we should perhaps address – is it permissible to discuss this issue at all?

Nothing to do with you

A frequently seen argument on this issue is to claim that the speaker has no right to opine on the issue. If it doesn’t personally affect you, you cannot discuss it – especially if you’re privileged. As many (a majority?) of EAs are male, and of the women many are not pregnant, this would curtail dramatically the ability of EAs to discuss abortion. This is not so much an argument on one side or other of the issue as an argument for silence.

Leaving aside the inherent virtues and vices of this argument, it is not very suitable for EAs. Because EAs have many many opinions on topics that don’t directly affect them:

  • EAs have opinions on disease in Africa, yet most have never been to Africa, and never will
  • EAs have opinions on (non-human) animal suffering, yet most are not non-human animals
  • EAs have opinions on the far future, yet live in the present

Indeed, EAs seem more qualified to comment on abortion – as we all were once fetuses, and many of us will become fetuses. If taken seriously this argument would call foul on virtually ever EA activity! And this is no idle fantasy – there are certainly some people who think that Westerns cannot usefully contribute to solving African poverty.

Too controversial

We can safely say this is a somewhat controversial issue. Perhaps it is too controversial – maybe it is bad for the movement to discuss. One might accept the arguments above – that EA principles generally undermine the traditional reasons for thinking abortion is morally permissible – yet think we should not talk about it. The controversy might divide the community and undermine trust. Perhaps it might deter newcomers. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this argument – I take the virtue of silence seriously, though eventually my boyfriend persuaded me it was worth publishing.

Note that the controversial nature is evidence against abortion’s moral permissibility, due to moral uncertainty.

However, the EA movement is no stranger to controversy.

  • There is a semi-official EA position on immigration, which is about as controversial as abortion in the US at the moment, and the EA position is such an extreme position that essentially no mainstream politicians hold it.
  • There is a semi-official EA position on vegetarianism, which is pretty controversial too, as it involves implying that the majority of Americans are complicit in murder every day.

Not worthy of discussion

Finally, another objection to discussing this is it simply it’s an EA idea. There are many disagreements in the world, yet there is no need for an EA view on each. Conflict between the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians notwithstanding, there is no need for an EA perspective on which end of the egg to break first. And we should be especially careful of heated, emotional topics with less avenue to pull the rope sideways. As such, even though the object-level arguments given above are correct, we should simply decline to discuss it.

However, it seems that if abortion is a moral issue, it is a very large one. In the same way that the sheer number of QALYs lost makes abortion worse than adoption even if our credence in fetuses having moral significance was very low, the large number of abortions occurring each year make the issue as a whole of high significance. In 2011 there were over 1 million babies were aborted in the US. I’ve seen a wide range of global estimates, including around 10 million to over 40 million. By contrast, the WHO estimates there are fewer than 1 million malaria deaths worldwide each year. Abortion deaths also cause a higher loss of QALYs due to the young age at which they occur. On the other hand, we should discount them for the uncertainty that they are morally significant. And perhaps there is an even larger closely related moral issue. The size of the issue is not the only factor in estimating the cost-effectiveness of interventions, but it is the most easily estimable. On the other hand, I have little idea how many dollars of donations it takes to save a fetus – it seems like an excellent example of some low-hanging fruit research.

Conclusion

People frequently compartmentalize their beliefs, and avoid addressing the implications between them. Ordinarily, this is perhaps innocuous, but when the both ideas are highly morally important, their interaction is in turn important. In this post we the implications of common EA beliefs on the permissibility of abortion. Taking into account moral uncertainty makes aborting a fetus seem far less permissible, as the high counterfactual life expectancy of the baby tends to dominate other factors. Many other EA views are also significant to the issue, making various standard arguments on each side less plausible.


  1. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral language one can use here, so I’m just going to switch back and forth between ‘fetus’ and ‘child’ or ‘baby’ in a vain attempt at terminological neutrality. 
  2. I chose this reason because it is the most frequently cited main motivation for aborting a fetus according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

2014 charity choice: The Machine Intelligence Research Institute

This year, I’m donating to MIRI. Here’s a quick summary of the classic argument:

Even ignoring the risk of UFAI, I think that FAI may be one best ways of preventing run-away value drift from destroying all value in the future.

Happy 5th Birthday, Giving What We Can!

Giving What We Can recently celebrated its 5th birthday. It’s not much of a party if no-one external congratulates you, so here we go: Happy Birthday, GWWC!

It’s pretty impressive how much GWWC has grown since those early days. Here’s a chart of total membership, which I’ve put together from GWWC emails and liberal use of the internet archive. I’m sure they have better data (without gaps!) internally, but I’ve never seen this chart before. Notably, growth seems to have picked up since the fall of 2013. Did GWWC change their strategy at that point? (or their membership-counting-methodology?)

Lines going up are always good

Putting the same chart on a log scale, we can see that GWWC have actually done a reasonably good job of sustaining exponential growth.

Lines that go up on a log scale are even better!

Fitting a line of best fit to the chart, I estimate GWWC’s membership is growing 73.1% a year. Assuming 2% population growth, it will take just 30.25 years before all the world’s population are GWWC members. Taking over the world by the time I’m 58 sounds like pretty good going!

Happy Birthday, Giving What We Can!

Diseased reporting about Africa

The Giving What We Can facebook group recently linked to a Washington Post article called ‘The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place.’ GWWC didn’t actually write the piece, but they did share it, and described it as ‘a warranted critique’, so we’ll assume they basically agree with the contents.

The article had many interesting parts on Ebola, where they said basically exactly what you would expect them to say on the basis of their political views. But I’m not an expert on ebola, so I shan’t address that.

They have a section on phrenology, where they attack the idea that ‘the size, shape and other physical characteristics of a person’s skull determine that individual’s intelligence.’ Well-known example of scientific misconduct notwithstanding, in truth it appears that skull size does positively correlate with intelligence.. Perhaps one could excuse Seay and Dionne (the authors) by saying that correlation is not the same as determination – there are still clever people with small heads, and idiots with big heads. But at the very least they were extremely misleading.

But the really interesting thing is the accusation that westerns have unfairly portrayed Africa as being a ‘diseased place’. Strangely, nowhere in the article do the authors actually argue that Africa does not suffer from a heavy burden of disease. Perhaps this is one of those things that are wrong to say, even though they’re true?

Yet if so, how strange for GWWC to share it! After all, GWWC recommends Against Malaria Foundation, which combats malaria in Africa. True, AMF also has operations in Asia and South Africa – but when called upon to describe AMF’s good work, GWWC describe it as saving “primarily African children who have been unable to develop immunity. It is one of Africa’s biggest killers.”

GWWC also recommends Deworm the World, which also operates in Africa. As does Project Healthy Children, another GWWC top pick. And SCI, a long-standing GWWC favorite, only operates in Africa.

Why does GWWC recommend these charities? Because they tackle diseases that are very cheap to treat, so we can easily do a lot of good by funding their treatments. They’re so cheap that they’ve been irradicated from western countries.

So GWWC should be well aware that Africa suffers from many diseases unknown in the west. Indeed, much of GWWC’s public relations work involves educating people about the opportunity for improvement these diseases represent. GWWC spends a lot of time talking about diseases prevalent in Africa, but absent in the west. So isn’t GWWC basically guilty of representing Africa as a ‘diseased place’?

Sure, GWWC could argue that there’s nothing wrong with saying this. It is, after all, true. But they why are we representing the Washington Post’s article as ‘warranted’?

GiveWell is not an Index Fund.

Someone1 on facebook recently asked

Can we think of donating to GiveWell- or GWWC-recommended charities as being the philanthropic analogue of investing in an index fund? In the sense that it may be possible in principle to do better, but it’s close to the best among readily available options, and almost everybody who tries to do better will do worse.

I think this analogy overlooks some important points about the underlying structure.

An Index contains all the stocks that satisfy some very broad criteria – for example, the S&P500 is basically “is very large US company”. Index funds invest in all the stocks in a specific index.2 Index funds try to do as well as the index on the whole – no better, no worse.

Active managers, on the other hand, by small subsets of the stocks in the index, and try to beat the index. That is, they try to buy stocks that will do better than the average stock in the index.

Part of the appeal of index funds is that many people think that all stocks have basically equally good prospects, ex ante, due to the Efficient Market Hypothesis.There are good reasons to think that free markets are in general very efficient.

Givewell looks at a large number of charities, and selects a very small number to recommend. In this way they’re much more like an active manager than an index fund. An index fund for charities would mean spreading out your donations between thousands of different charities.

There are important differences between the stock market and the charity market. Virtually any time you think you see an inefficiency in the stock market, you are probably wrong. But this does not apply to the charity market. Effective Altruists habitually and credibly claim that there are many orders of magnitude difference between the expected values of different charities (pdf). And the sorts of arguments about risk and diversification that motivate balanced portfolios of investments simply do not apply to charities; with charities, you should pick the best one and donate everything to it.3

Some perhaps Index Funds are Givewell are similar insomuchas they are both good things. But so is chocolate.

This analogy glosses over important differences, and potentially causes sloppy thinking. Just because two things are good doesn’t mean they are good for the same reasons or in the same way. Effective altruists would do well to understand that markets are not like charities. Others would do well to understand the there is no Efficient Charity Hypothesis!


  1. who will remain anonymous until they request otherwise. 
  2. technically some merely invest in representative sub-baskets, but S&P500 indexes probably buy all the constituents. 
  3. unless you are very rich. 

Laying down the Law

Recently Bill Barlow wrote an excellent piece in the Harvard Law Record, recommending law students go into corporate law so they could donate money to charity. Sima Atri wrote a response, to which Jeff Kaufman wrote a convincing rebuttal. I’m going to address one very small part of Atri’s article, which to be fair she probably didn’t put much thought into.

Because if you choose to go into Big Law and care about the poor and otherwise marginalized, giving your money to charity is the least you can do. I say this because you are not choosing to go into neutral, apolitical, work. None of us working in the legal profession are. Your firm, Bill, has represented JPMorgan Chase, a bank that backed thousands of predatory and racist loans and helped create the foreclosure crisis.

I think this attack on Bill’s firm is almost impressive in how mistaken it is. Specifically, I think
1) The banks were not at fault for what it did
2) What it did was not predatory
3) What it did was not racist
4) Even if 1,2,3) are all wrong, it’s still good to represent banks.
This is a lot to show, so lets begin.

1) The banks were not at fault.

Yes, banks lent to many poor people: subprime lending. But in part this was because the government forced them to make these loans, in an attempt to promote home-ownership. If anyone if to blame, it is the government, not the banks. Left to themselves, the banks would have preferred not to lend to such people, as they present higher risks. So it’s strange to blame the banks for this, who had little choice in the matter. The high default rates among minorities during the crisis was the result of government intervention, not the fault of the banks.

2) The banks were not predatory

Given 1), the worst we can really accuse the banks of is “only following orders” or being involuntarily predatory. But even this isn’t the case. Banks didn’t force anyone to borrow money. Having the opportunity to take out a loan is a benefit – it’s the reason we try to maintain good credit scores! As Arnold Kling noted, borrowers get a free option on rising house prices. Being given the option to borrow money is a good thing – you’re not taking advantage of people by giving them choices. (And stories about people not understanding that their repayments rates would rise don’t work, as the defaults frequently happened among people still paying the introductory rate.

Indeed, one part of the crisis was the so called ‘NINJA’ loans, where borrowers frequently defrauded the banks. It is hard to see how the banks can be taking advantage of people by being defrauded.

3) The banks were not racist

Indeed, JPMorgan Chase made many loans to minorities. As we noted in 1), left to their own devises, banks apparently made too few loans to minorities – they were accused of being racist for refusing to lend money. This was why the Community Reinvestment Act was passed. So it seems very strange to accuse them of being racist for making too many loans to minorities as well. Maybe it’s just impossible to win.

4) Even if 1,2,3) are all wrong, it’s still good to represent the banks.

Ok, so suppose 1),2) and 3) are all false; the banks are truly evil companies. Is it therefore bad to defend them in court? Well, the adversarial court system depends on their being lawyers available to defend the guilty. The ACLU often defends extremely unpopular causes, because it is in these cases that harmful precedents are most likely to be created. In the same way that anti-terrorist laws, originally aimed only at extremely dangerous and unpopular people are now being abused in much more mundane situations, so too will the extraordinary legal steps being used against the big banks one day be used against other targets.

I realize that this was just a small part of Atri’s article. But it’s worth commenting on anyway.

Concern for those we know not

Many social movements involve attempts to improve the welfare, rights or status of the movement’s own members. For example:

  • Nationalist Parties: try to support the people in the country, and are generally mainly supported by people in that country. It’s rare to very actively support another country’s nationalist movement, unless as a proxy in a war.
  • Labor Unions: at least initially, these were formed of working class people trying to benefit themselves.
  • Feminism: though there is considerable debate about the definition, this is generally considered to be about supporting women, and has over twice as many female supporters as male supporters. This is especially unusual when you realize that most social movements (including effective altruism) are primarily male.*

In other examples, the people in the movement are closely related to but distinct from the supposed beneficiaries:

  • Home-schooling: the parents who lobby for the legality of home-schooling are too old to benefit from it themselves, but do hope to benefit their children.
  • Soup Kitchens: people donating to soup kitchens probably have enough to eat themselves, but they hope to benefit others in their community.
  • Upper-class socialists, straight LGBT activists, male feminists and so on would also fit into this category.

Effective Altruism takes this one step further, however. Not only do most EAs care about people with little regard for nationality, most of our causes have beneficiaries extremely remote from ourselves:

  • Third World Hunger/Health: Virtually all EAs are part of the middle classes of the developed world. Few have ever been to Africa, and fewer still have ever met a beneficiary of GiveWell. Yet EAs continue to send large amounts of money to them, motivated only by abstract benevolence.
  • Animal Rights: Very few EAs have been to a factory farm, and the animals won’t reciprocate our concern. I guess everyone has seen animals in person, but rarely the intended beneficiaries.
  • Existential Risk: Here, the benefits mainly accrue to people so remote they don’t even exist yet.

I wonder if this is related to the typical backgrounds of effective altruists: physics, math and philosophy, all of which are extremely abstract, and rely on generalizing ideas from the specific to the general. Perhaps only those with a case of memetic immune disorder are capable of forgetting the original purpose of ethics was reciprocal altruism and kin selection, and instead generalize it to include people they have never met and never will.

I can think of only a few examples of other social movements with beneficiaries as remote:

  • Anti-Slavery in northern England: the Manchester cotton mill workers supporting abolition, even though they had never met a slave, and actually directly personally benefited from slavery.
  • The Pro-Life Movement: pro-life activists can hardly be said to be directly benefiting, and nor have they ever met an unborn child (though they may have seen ultrasounds, EAs have seen pictures of third world hunger). Pro-abortion people would argue that this case is almost identical to the Existential Risk case, as the beneficiaries aren’t yet people.

These examples do not seem to support my memetic immune disorder theory: Lancaster mill workers were not well-known for their educational level. But England as a whole was very well educated, and banned the slave trade for apparently largely altruistic reasons.

 


 

*I realize there is much debate on these points; some people argue that feminism is good for men, some that it is bad for women, and the YouGov article even argues there is little gender difference in support, though I think they have made the motte and bailey error. But you are welcome to substitute your own examples.