Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Effective Altruism, Radical Politics and Radical Philanthropy

It can sometimes be difficult to discern precisely what's in dispute between Effective Altruists and their (leftist) critics. This is perhaps in part due to EA's being such a big tent that objecting to one proposal or proponent is not necessarily an objection to EA itself.  To clarify the latter, I see Effective Altruism as a matter of two core commitments:

(1) The "Altruism" bit: A commitment to making the world a better place -- including a willingness to expend some non-trivial proportion of one's own resources to this end.

(2) The "Effective" bit: A commitment to using these resources as effectively and efficiently as possible (based on the best available evidence, analysis, etc.).

Monday, April 11, 2016

Final Value and Fitting Attitudes

An interesting new paper forthcoming in Phil Studies, 'The pen, the dress, and the coat: a confusion in goodness' by Miles Tucker, argues against the (now widely accepted) Conditionalist thesis that intrinsic value and final value are separable.

Consider, e.g., the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  Intuitively, it would seem to have final (non-instrumental) value in virtue of its extrinsic properties (i.e., its historical significance / relation to emancipation).  But, interestingly, Tucker argues that standard accounts of final value cannot accommodate this verdict.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Teaching Effective Altruism

A few people have asked for my EA syllabus from last term, so I thought I'd share it here with some general reflections.

It was a fun class to teach, but I'd do things a bit differently the next time around.  A big one is just the nature of the teaching: This one was organized as a very "student-led" module, all seminar discussions and no lectures.  While the students really enjoyed the discussions, they seemed a bit complacent in places (esp. regarding their dismissals of expected value / global catastrophic risks and of the significance of non-human animal interests), where in a lecture I might have been better able to develop these challenges in greater depth.

Anyway, here is the syllabus for the 9-week class, using MacAskill's Doing Good Better as the main textbook, with some supplementary readings...

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Philanthropic Focus vs Abandonment

This seems a lamentably common way of thinking:
[Chief Executive of Oxfam GB] Goldring says it would be wrong to apply the EA philosophy to all of Oxfam's programmes because it could mean excluding people who most need the charity's help. For a certain cost, the charity might enable only a few children to go to school in a country such as South Sudan, where the barriers to school attendance are high, he says; but that does not mean it should work only in countries where the cost of schooling is cheaper, such as Bangladesh, because that would abandon the South Sudanese children.

Fuzzy group-level thinking allows one to neglect real tradeoffs, and pretend that one is somehow helping everyone if you help each group a little bit.  But this is obviously not true.  If there are more Bangladeshi children in need of education than your current budget can provide for, then by spending the rest of your budget on educating a few kids in South Sudan, you are abandoning a greater number of Bangladeshi children.

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Basic Reason to Reject Naturalism: Substantive Boundary Disputes

I've been trying to work out what I think the most basic reason to reject naturalism (about mind and morality) is.  Sometimes it's suggested that normativity is just "too different" from matter to be reducible to it.  (Enoch and Parfit both say things along these lines.)  But that seems a fairly weak reason: plants and stars seem very different from atoms, after all, but that doesn't stop them from being wholly reducible to atoms.  Granted, mind and morality are even more different, being non-concrete and all, but still.  I think the non-naturalist can do better.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Student Spotlight: Intrinsically Irrational Instrumental Desires

I had always assumed that only ultimate ends, or telic / final / non-instrumental desires, could be intrinsically irrational.  (Think Future Tuesday Indifference.)  Instrumental desires, by contrast, may happen to be irrational if based on a false and irrational means-end belief, but then the problem is extrinsic to the desire itself -- the problem instead lies with the false belief, and one could presumably imagine circumstances in which the means-end belief would be true, thus making the instrumental desire in question a perfectly reasonable way of achieving one's goals.

Or so I assumed. (And I think it's a fairly common assumption.)

University of York undergraduate philosophy student Lorin Thompson (mentioned here with permission) drew my attention to an interesting class of counterexamples.  We can obtain intrinsically irrational instrumental desires if we consider instrumental desires that are essentially self-defeating.  His example is the "desire to think of a number, in order to not think of a number (simultaneously)."  The implicit means-end belief -- that one can achieve avoiding thinking of a number, by means of thinking of a number -- is logically incoherent, and the resulting instrumental desire is thus intrinsically (rather than merely extrinsically) irrational.

It's a cool case!  At the very least, I'll need to re-write my essay question for future years to ask something like whether there are "unworthy" ultimate ends rather than just "intrinsically irrational desires", as it now turns out that even Humean subjectivists should make room for the latter.

Does anyone know whether such cases have been discussed before, or could it potentially be a new contribution to the literature if Lorin were to write up his paper for an academic journal?

Friday, February 26, 2016

7 Things Everyone Should Know about Philosophy

Inspired by the ignorance of Bill Nye the science guy...

Some things I wish everyone know about philosophy:

(1) Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" does not imply that your existence depends upon your thinking.  It is merely intended to show that a thinker cannot coherently doubt their own existence.

My Giving Game results

In my Effective Altruism class this past week I've run a "giving game", getting the students, in small groups, to discuss & decide where to donate £100 of my money.  It was quite interesting.

One potential downside of requiring the decisions to be made by consensus in small groups (of three or four students each) was that this ended up creating a bit of a bias towards conservative / "safe" choices from GiveWell's top charities, rather than more speculative (but potentially high upside) options about which there were disagreements within the group.  For example, one group had members initially supporting animal welfare, climate change mitigation, and criminal justice reform, but since they couldn't resolve these disagreements in the hour allotted for discussion and debate, they ended up agreeing to fund a deworming charity instead.  Another student favoured existential risk reduction, but again could not reach consensus on this within their group.

If I do this again in future years, I might try to think of an alternative way of implementing the giving game to allow the students a bit more free reign. E.g., one option would be to give each student £50 (or whatever) that they can allocate individually, or perhaps with the additional requirement that they must find / convince at least one other student in the class to share their choice of charity (to encourage argument and discussion).  Discussion could then proceed in small groups of rotating membership (rather than having fixed groups as we did this year).  Something I'll think about, anyway.

As for the verdicts, following my students' directions, I have just donated:
* £200 to the Against Malaria Foundation,
* £200 to GiveDirectly,
* £100 to each of SCI and Deworm the World,
* £100 to Project Healthy Children,
* £100 to Cool Earth,
* £100 to Animal Equality, and
* £100 to Basic Needs (an international mental health charity).

Most of these donations got a further 25% boost from UK Gift Aid; for UK taxpayers, donating via the GWWC Trust is very helpful in this respect!

What charities do you consider most effective?  Comments / suggestions welcome!  (I'm quite partial to meta-charities, myself...)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Opposite Day: "Charity begins at home" edition

It's been almost a decade since my evil twin Ricardo last posted on this blog. I invite him back today to share a horribly misguided speech that he recently gave as part of a debate in St Andrews on the topic 'Charity begins at home'. (They needed someone to defend that awful claim, and I wasn't entirely comfortable about it myself, so sent along my evil twin to do the job. Here's what he came up with...)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Expected Value without Expecting Value

I'm currently teaching a class on "Effective Altruism" (vaguely related to this old idea, but based around MacAskill's new book).  One of the most interesting and surprising (to me) results so far is that most students really don't accept the idea of expected value.  The vast majority of students would prefer to save 1000 lives for sure, than to have a 10% chance of saving a million lives.  This, even though the latter choice has 100 times the expected value.