Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

I'm in the HPR!

I'm in the Harvard Political Review today, with a guest piece responding to Eric Posner's anti-effective-altruism opinion in Slate:

Posner...is convinced that this tendency toward scrupulosity is enough of an issue that we should abandon the concept of effectiveness in altruism entirely. His critique, though, is not a new one—several effective altruists are also concerned about scrupulosity, and many of them have shared stories from their own lives about balancing giving effectively against more personal cares. For me, these stories are important because they demonstrate that caring about effective opportunities to do good is not mutually exclusive with making the world better in other ways you choose. (...)

Much-deserved thank-yous go to Advik Shreekumar, Ben Kuhn, and Leah Libresco for helping with edits. Meanwhile, here's the original version with footnotes (the HPR doesn't do footnotes).

Man, writing for real publications is so stressful. Word limits, even if they're only suggestions, suck.

A few things that didn't make it into the HPR version (besides those glorious, glorious footnotes):

Scott Alexander defends a definition of "doing effective good" that's keyed to a 10% donation, rather than a [maximum]% one:

If you want to feel anxiety and self-loathing for not giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to call that "not being perfect". I would prefer to say that if you feel like you will live in anxiety and self-loathing until you have given a certain amount of money to charity, you should make that certain amount ten percent.

Why ten percent?

It's ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of "No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it," then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say "You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more," then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and -- crucially -- the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It's ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define "good person" in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can't reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in precisely that way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much. (...)

He's got another post on how, if we want to remain sane while doing this at all, we're going to have to be at least a bit hypocritical, or else deny the entire project of caring for increasing circles of others:

And now I think I might have a consistent policy of allowing some of my resources into each new circle of concern while also holding back the rest of it for the sake of my sanity. Thus my endorsement of GiveWell's principle that you should donate at least 10% of your income to charity, but then feel okay about not donating more if you don't want to. I am allowed to balance resources devoted to sanity versus morality and decide how much of what I have I want to send into each new circle of concern -- without denying that the circle exists. (...)

Meanwhile, Leah draws parallels between the treat-everything-seriously fundamentals of unbounded effective altruism and moral purism, noting that for many people new to EA, this will be their first experience with a moral system that (looks like it) expects purity, and that can be disorienting:

My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a "purity" decision than other modes of thought people have used to date. You can be inoculated against moral culture shock by previous exposure to other purity-flavored kinds of reasoning (deontology, religion, etc), but, if not (and maybe if you're also predisposed to anxiety), the sudden clarity about a best mode of action, that is both very important, and very unlikely for you pull off everyday may trigger scrupulosity.

Lots of the effective and healthy exalted purity lifestyles I can think of are monastic -- where you live in community, as part of a tradition with people who have been doing this for a while. The effective altruism movement, at present, might be a little more like a group of novices holding a copy of Benedict's Rule. Even if it's a good set of principles, it'll be rocky to live by trial and error as beginners together. (...)

This hypothesis makes the prediction that similar "purity paralysis" (cf. analysis paralysis) should be observable in social movements which make moral claims about many/most everyday actions, and are hard/impossible to live up to fully (e.g. most rigorized progressive social activism).

And...it's my impression that this is sort of true? Like, newcomers being overwhelmed by social movements because "everything is problematic" seems like a thing which we see happening? How do they deal with it? How do they deal with other people taking that stereotype and running with it? Do they?

Anyway, Leah has more thoughts on how making failure forgiveable is a crucial bulwark against paralyzing scrupulosity spirals:

Acknowledging that we all don’t live perfectly — we put other people off/misread their cues, are complicit in structural oppresssion, give in to anger, etc, can make it easier to figure out what to do for the people who are erring (including ourselves) when we internalize that making mistakes is the cost of asking ourselves to be more than what we are today. (...)

Anyway, there's a reason that I only plan to donate between 10 and 20 percent effectively this year, and remain firmly of the belief no current student should feel bad for not donating [N]% effectively, for any [N]>1. (One substantial chunk of the rest goes to impulse-buying cool things with zero remorse; another goes to ineffective donations to things that I have personal connection to.)

Meanwhile, during the time this article was in-flight, the New York Times released a profile of Matt Wage, whom I had the pleasure of working with at my internship this past summer:

Wage reasoned that if he took a high-paying job in finance, he could contribute more to charity. Sure enough, he says that in 2013 he donated more than $100,000, roughly half his pretax income. (...)

...which, if you do only minimal arithmetic, means that he failed to donate $100,000. This doesn't bother me a bit; I think that if $100,000 is the cost of keeping Matt in EA and not poached off by the high-finance lifestyle, that's perfectly fine. (Disclosure: My current career options under consideration may include earning-to-give work in finance. Take opinions with salt.)

Anyway. I think that one of the major challenges that EA will face for the next couple of years is its image problem, where everyone outside the movement assumes we're a lot more hardline and unforgiving than we actually are. (Have I mentioned that the most that anyone I know gives is half? I mean, half is a lot, but it's not a lot if you're earning more than $100k, seeing as how plenty of people live and live well on $50k.) There's not much better to end on than Will McAskill's EA Forum | What's the Best Domestic Charity?:

Here's a very tentative thought: A lot of people respond to effective altruism by saying that they want to give to charities that work on their home country. Insofar as effective altruists (typically, roughly speaking) care about everyone equally, they obviously care about the welfare of Americans (Brits, Australians, Canadians, etc). It's just that, because of diminishing returns, the best opportunities for helping people are very likely to be abroad...

[But] it's at least somewhat plausible to me that the best response to "charity begins at home" is "ok, if that's what you value you should give to [insert good domestic charity]." That response would:

  1. Show people that we're supportive of all attempts to do good, even if there are value-disagreements (a lot of recent criticism comes down to "how dare you be so moralistic and condemn such-and-such cause as unworthy" which isn't what we're trying to say at all).

  2. Make for an easier entry into a conversation about values, and to then discuss why people choose to support domestic charities over international ones. It would show we're on the same side -- maximising impact -- and are just differing in our implementation of that general maxim. (Obviously, many people might just be trying to come up with excuses for not giving effectively in general. But then giving domestic recommendations would test whether that's the case or not.)

  3. Potentially get a much wider demographic of people interested in effective altruism.

  4. Potentially -- if we actually can find great domestic charities (including, perhaps, ones with positive international externalities) -- move poorly spent charitable giving to more effective causes. (...)

The problem, of course, is that we don't have research on great domestic charities yet, because few enough of us in the movement care that much about researching the effectiveness of domestic charities in any more detail than "Is this even within an order of magnitude of the medial pretty-effective third world intervention? No?", because the movement is, at the moment, not that appealing to people with domestic interests, because we don't have research on great domestic charities yet.

So there's something of a circular dependency, and I'm rather embarassed on behalf of the EA community that it's been sitting around for at least a year and a half and there seems to be no active conversation about it.

Expect more posts about effective altruism in the future, and head over to the HPR site if you'd like to join in the discussion.