Posts for September 2022

2022-09-17: Effective altruism and the control trap

William MacAskill has been on a book tour for What We Owe to the Future, which has put effective altruism back in the news. That plus the decision by GiveWell to remove GiveDirectly from their top charity list got me thinking about charity again. I think effective altruism, by embracing long-termism, is falling into an ethical trap, and I'm going to start heavily discounting their recommendations for donations.

Background

Some background first for people who have no idea what I'm talking about.

Effective altruism is the idea that we should hold charities accountable for effectiveness. It's not sufficient to have an appealing mission. A charity should demonstrate that the money they spend accomplishes the goals they claimed it would. There is a lot of debate around defining "effective," but as a basic principle, this is sound. Mainstream charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator measure overhead and (arguable) waste, but they don't ask whether the on-the-ground work of the charity has a positive effect proportional to the resources it's expending. This is a good question to ask.

GiveWell is a charity research organization that directs money for donors based on effective altruism principles. It's one of the central organizations in effective altruism.

GiveDirectly is a charity that directly transfers money from donors to poor people. It doesn't attempt to build infrastructure, buy specific things, or fund programs. It identifies poor people and gives them cash with no strings attached.

Long-termism is part of the debate over what "effectiveness" means. It says we should value impact on future generations more highly than we tend to do. (In other words, we should have a much smaller future discount rate.) A sloppy but intuitive expression of long-termism is that (hopefully) there will be far more humans living in the future than are living today, and therefore a "greatest good for the greatest number" moral philosophy argues that we should invest significant resources into making the long-term future brighter. This has obvious appeal to those of us who are concerned about the long-term impacts of climate change, for example.

There is a lot of overlap between the communities of effective altruism, long-termism, and "rationalism." One way this becomes apparent is that all three communities have a tendency to obsess over the risks of sentient AI taking over the world. I'm going to come back to that.

Psychology of control

GiveWell, early on, discovered that GiveDirectly was measurably more effective than most charities. Giving money directly to poor people without telling them how to spend it produced more benefits for those people and their surrounding society than nearly all international aid charities.

GiveDirectly then became the baseline for GiveWell's evaluations, and GiveWell started looking for ways to be more effective than that. There is some logic to thinking more effectiveness is possible. Some problems are poorly addressed by markets and too large for individual spending. Health care infrastructure is an obvious example.

That said, there's also a psychological reason to look for other charities. Part of the appeal of charity is picking a cause that supports your values (whether that be raw effectiveness or something else). Your opinions and expertise are valued alongside your money. In some cases, this may be objectively true. But in all cases, it's more flattering to the ego than giving poor people cash.

At that point, the argument was over how to address immediate and objectively measurable human problems. The innovation of effective altruism is to tie charitable giving to a research feedback cycle. You measure the world, see if it is improving, and adjust your funding accordingly. Impact is measured by its effects on actual people. Effective altruism was somewhat suspicious of talking directly to individuals and preferred "objective" statistical measures, but the point was to remain in contact with physical reality.

Enter long-termism: what if you could get more value for your money by addressing problems that would affect vast numbers of future people, instead of the smaller number of people who happen to be alive today?

Rather than looking at the merits of that argument, look at its psychology. Real people are messy. They do things you don't approve of. They have opinions that don't fit your models. They're hard to "objectively" measure. But people who haven't been born yet are much tidier. They're comfortably theoretical; instead of having to go to a strange place with unfamiliar food and languages to talk to people who aren't like you, you can think hard about future trends in the comfort of your home. You control how your theoretical future people are defined, so the results of your analysis will align with your philosophical and ideological beliefs.

Problems affecting future humans are still extrapolations of problems visible today in the world, though. They're constrained by observations of real human societies, despite the layer of projection and extrapolation. We can do better: what if the most serious problem facing humanity is the possible future development of rogue AI?

Here's a problem that no one can observe or measure because it's never happened. It is purely theoretical, and thus under the control of the smart philosopher or rich western donor. We don't know if a rogue AI is possible, what it would be like, how one might arise, or what we could do about it, but we can convince ourselves that all those things can be calculated with some probability bar through the power of pure logic. Now we have escaped the uncomfortable psychological tension of effective altruism and returned to the familiar world in which the rich donor can define both the problem and the solution. Effectiveness is once again what we say it is.

William MacAskill, one of the originators of effective altruism, now constantly talks about the threat of rogue AI. In a way, it's quite sad.

Where to give money?

The mindset of long-termism is bad for the human brain. It whispers to you that you're smarter than other people, that you know what's really important, and that you should retain control of more resources because you'll spend them more wisely than others. It's the opposite of intellectual humility. A government funding agency should take some risks on theoretical solutions to real problems, and maybe a few on theoretical solutions to theoretical problems (although an order of magnitude less). I don't think this is a useful way for an individual donor to think.

So, if I think effective altruism is abandoning the one good idea it had and turning back into psychological support for the egos of philosophers and rich donors, where does this leave my charitable donations?

To their credit, GiveWell so far seems uninterested in shifting from concrete to theoretical problems. However, they believe they can do better by picking projects than giving people money, and they're committing to that by dropping GiveDirectly (while still praising them). They may be right. But I'm increasingly suspicious of the level of control donors want to retain. It's too easy to trick oneself into thinking you know better than the people directly affected.

I have two goals when I donate money. One is to make the world a better, kinder place. The other is to redistribute wealth. I have more of something than I need, and it should go to someone who does need it. The net effect should be to make the world fairer and more equal.

The first goal argues for effective altruism principles: where can I give money to have the most impact on making the world better? The second goal argues for giving across an inequality gradient. I should find the people who are struggling the most and transfer as many resources to them as I can. This is Peter Singer's classic argument for giving money to the global poor.

I think one can sometimes do better than transferring money, but doing so requires a deep understanding of the infrastructure and economies of scale that are being used as leverage. The more distant one is from a society, the more dubious I think one should be of one's ability to evaluate that, and the more wary one should be of retaining any control over how resources are used.

Therefore, I'm pulling my recurring donation to GiveWell. Half of it is going to go to GiveDirectly, because I think it is an effective way of redistributing wealth while giving up control. The other half is going to my local foodbank, because they have a straightforward analysis of how they can take advantage of economy of scale, and because I have more tools available (such as local news) to understand what problem they're solving and if they're doing so effectively.

I don't know that those are the best choices. There are a lot of good ones. But I do feel strongly that the best charity comes from embracing the idea that I do not have special wisdom, other people know more about what they need than I do, and deploying my ego and logic from the comfort of my home is not helpful. Find someone who needs something you have an excess of. Give it to them. Treat them as equals. Don't retain control. You won't go far wrong.

Last spun 2022-11-25 from thread modified 2022-09-17