Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December Donations

Happily, I was in a position this year to make donations worth around 8 kidneys, mostly split between SCI (deworming: most cost-effective "quality of life"-improving intervention) and GWWC (growing the effective altruism community, so more money is donated wisely in future).

For anyone interested in donating to GiveWell-recommended charities, check out the Effective Altruism hub on how to donate most tax-efficiently in your country.  E.g., for UK taxpayers, giving via the GWWC trust allows the charity to claim "Gift Aid" from the UK government -- increasing the size of your donation by 25% at no added cost to you. (Donations directly to SCI are already Gift Aid eligible, but this allows you to donate to other GiveWell-recommended charities in addition.)  If GiveWell doesn't process your donation, be sure to fill out a donation report to help them track their "money moved".

My take on GiveWell's top charities:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Philosophers' Carnival #170

Welcome to the 170th Philosophers' Carnival, a round-up of recent philosophical blog posts from around the web.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

E.J. Lowe on the Inescapability of Metaphysics

"How is it possible for creatures like us to chart the realm of possibilities? Of course, this is a curious question, to the extent that it is, itself, a question -- addressed to ourselves -- about the very realm of possibilities, access to which, by us, is being put in question.  Suppose, however, that we were to come up with an argument whose conclusion was that it is not possible for us to chart the realm of possibilities. That conclusion would seem to undermine itself, because the conclusion itself concerns the realm of possibilities, maintaining that that realm does not include the possibility of our charting it.  We could thus only have reason to believe the conclusion if the conclusion were false: so we can have no reason to believe it.  Is this just a trick? I don't think so; rather, it is yet another example of the unavoidability of metaphysics. As rational beings, we cannot but consider ourselves capable of knowing at least something about the realm of possibilities. This should not be surprising. Reasoning itself depends upon a grasp of possibilities, because a valid argument is one in which it is not possible for the conclusion to be false if the premises are true -- and a rational being is a creature which can discern the validity of at least some arguments." -- p.137 of 'Metaphysical Knowledge', in Matthew Haug (ed.) Philosophical Methodology: The Armchair or the Laboratory?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Health Improvement vs. Treatment

Appeals to quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) in medical resource allocation decisions are naturally supported by a broadly utilitarian view of the role of health institutions, i.e. as having the purpose of improving social welfare (via health improvement) as much as possible.  But is that the right view to have? My colleague Mary recently pressed me on an intuitive alternative conception of healthcare as aiming at treating localized health problems rather than yielding global health benefits to patients.  Might that be a better view?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kidney-Equivalent Donations

There's an interesting post over at the EA forums advocating live kidney donation as an effective way to do a lot of good.  The authors estimate that kidney donation to start a donor 'chain' could be expected to yield a benefit of approximately 14 quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs), with risks to the donor being much smaller than you might expect.  So that's cool.  Not something I'm inclined to do myself, but definitely a cool thing for those who are willing to follow the authors (and GiveWell's Alexander Berger) and go under the knife for their moral beliefs!

One thing that really struck me while reading this, though (and that also emerges in the comments to their post) is just how easy it is to do an equal amount of good through well-targeted financial donations.  Though GiveWell caution against putting too much weight on rough quantitative estimates, their top-rated charities appear to work at around $50 per QALY (see, e.g., these unofficial deworming estimates, and their estimate of bednets as costing at the margin around $3200 per life saved).  So perhaps we can think of each $700 (or £450) donated to GiveWell-recommended charities as a "kidney-equivalent donation".

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Is There a Moral Duty to Cut Taxes?

So claims David Cameron (ungated version here):
It is morally right that the rich pay their fair share in tax; and right that those who are able to contribute to our public services and safety nets do so.
But what is morally wrong is government spending money as if it grows on trees. Every single pound of public money started as private earning. Every million in the Treasury represents a huge amount of hard work: early morning alarms, long commutes, hours spent on the factory floor, the office, the hospital ward or the classroom. [...]
No one should doubt my position: with every spending commitment we must be mindful of who picks up the bill. It's easy for governments to trumpet what they spend money on - and claim a moral victory for it - but on the other side of the coin are those who work hard, many on low incomes, who would desperately like to spend more money on their family. The government has a moral duty to think of these people in any decisions made on tax and spending.

Cameron is surely right that governments should not waste money (e.g. fighting harmful and unnecessary wars).  I'm also sympathetic to the thought that individual citizens -- especially those with low incomes -- will often be able to make better use of money than the government does. But this is no reason for tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.  A better option would be to disburse the wealth as an unconditional basic income or fixed lump sum payment to each citizen.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Implicit Bias in Academic Service Expectations

I recently came across Brian Weatherson's excellent post from earlier in the year on "very junior [female] faculty doing demanding administrative tasks [...] at the level of workload of being a chair of a search committee."  He continues:
It is possible in principle that these faculty could be getting enough teaching relief that they have as much time for research as any other junior faculty. Even if so, I think it would be better to be teaching than doing admin. Teaching advanced courses is good for research, teaching lower level courses gives you re-usable teaching materials, and generally teaching is good training for teaching. No one cares how well you administrate; they do care how well you teach. In short, generous teaching reductions would make these administrative assignments less horrible, but wouldn’t I think make them acceptable.

There has been a growing awareness in recent years of the harms done by gendered implicit bias in academic hiring/recruitment. It would be good to see this awareness extend further in scope, to encompass the (all-too-familiar to many) harms of gendered implicit bias in service expectations and workloads.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Good Lives and Procreative Duties

Many philosophers seem inclined to accept
(Procreative Axiological Asymmetry): While it would be bad, or undesirable, to bring a miserable life into existence, it isn't good, or desirable, to bring an awesome life into existence.

in order to secure
(Procreative Deontic Asymmetry): While we are obliged to not bring miserable lives into existence, we are not obliged to bring awesome lives into existence.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Where QALYs Go Wrong

My paper 'Against "Saving Lives": Equal Concern and Differential Impact' defends the use of QALYs (Quality-Adjusted Life Years) in medical resource allocation against several traditional objections. But along the way, I note several respects in which (it seems to me) not all life years -- even in perfect health -- are equal, and hence a straightforward QALY-maximization approach falls short.  I'll briefly outline them below, and invite readers to suggest any further examples I may have missed...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bostrom's Superintelligence - Does AI constitute an Existential Risk?

The folks at OUP kindly sent me a review copy of Nick Bostrom's new book Superintelligence, exploring AI risk.  It's a topic that lends itself to eyerolls and easy mockery ("Computers taking over the world? No thanks, I already saw that movie.") -- but I don't think that's quite fair.  So long as you accept that there's a non-trivial chance of an Artificial General Intelligence eventually being designed that surpasses human-level general intelligence, then Bostrom's cautionary discussion is surely one well worth having.  For he makes the case that imperfectly implemented AGI constitutes an existential risk more dangerous than asteroids or nuclear war. To mitigate that risk, we need to work out in advance if/how humanity could safely constrain or control an AGI more intelligent than we are.