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


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.


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 hasĀ 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.

Average Utilitarianism and Agriculture

This post makes an argument that, if you believe A, you have some reason to believe B. I don’t believe A, but hopefully I have done a good job of mentally modelling the concerns of those who do. Please note that “but A is false” is not a valid response to this post (ex falso quodlibet notwithstanding).

On Agricultural Matters

Suppose you are an average utilitarian, who only cares about the average level of human happiness.1 Suppose further that all crops (wheat, rice, soybeans etc.) are used for human consumption – there are no ethanol or biodiesel industries, for example.

In the short-run, the supply of crops is mainly dependant on the weather. 2014 is looking like a good year for the US crop, as was 2013, while 2012 was bad. US corn production was 29% higher in 2013 than 2012, which was itself 13% lower than 2011. Short-term variations in crop supply are mainly due to weather, but the long run average volume comes down to the acreage planted and the amount farmers invest in raising yields (tractors, GM seeds, fertilisers, etc).

In order to prevent occasional famines, where insufficient crops are produced to feed people, you need to make sure farmers plant and invest enough to ensure that even in bad weather years, there will be enough harvested to feed everyone. Unfortunately this means that in most years, where the weather is not awful, there will be significantly more harvested than is required. Demand for bread is quite inelastic: we need a certain amount to live, but we’re not interested in eating very much more than that. So in years of good harvests, supply would massively exceed demand, and the price of crops would plummet to a low level, as happened this year. As most years do not have exceptionally bad weather, in most years prices will be very low – which will not encourage farmers to plant enough. As such, farmers are likely to under-plant so as to keep expected (average) profitability reasonable, which will ensure famines in years with bad harvests.

One solution is to stockpile grains between years. This is so straightforward it doesn’t warrant further comment.

Another is to make the demand for crops more elastic, so that even in good harvest years there will be sufficient demand. Setting aside moral qualms, in theory the government could do this, for example by buying excess crops to turn into ethanol. However, it is important not to confuse the omniscient, benevolent government planner of economists’ models with actually existing governments. The real-world implementations of such policies, like the US ethanol mandate or the Common Agricultural Policy, have been awful.

Fortuitously, there is a natural mechanism in place that makes the demand for crops elastic; meat consumption. As meat is a luxury on the margin (though some level of consumption seems to have substantial health benefits), demand for meat is significantly more sensitive to price than food in general. And it requires a large amount of grain to make a relatively small amount of meat. So farmers plant and invest enough to supply the demand from both humans and cattle herds in good times; then in years of exceptionally bad harvests, the price of grain rises, so animal husbandry is no longer economic. Farmers slaughter their herds, and the grain they were consuming is now available for human consumption. Even better, there is a short-term massive supply of beef, which can also help make up for the poor harvest. (I guess this is basically a way of storing grain inside cows.)

This reasoning is significantly more persuasive to average utilitarians than total utilitarians. By supporting agricultural investment this system helps prevents famines, which presumably lower average happiness. But it keeps the overall human population lower than it could be. In years of good harvest, the grain that is slowly wasting in storage, or being turned to Ethanol, or being fed to livestock, could instead by directly feeding people, and supporting a higher population, albeit one prone to periodic famines. The total utilitarian would also have to take into account how much pleasure people get from meat consumption, how much displeasure is caused by famines, and how many additional people could be supported on a more vegetarian diet.

  1. I think this is a silly view: it might commit your ethics to massive dependence on unknowable alien populations; it might require you to murder millions or billions of people for being insufficiently happy; it might force you to create really miserable people to ‘dilute’ the effect of sufficiently many even more unhappy people. And perhaps we should be concerned about the welfare of animals too. But suppose.