Thursday, December 03, 2015

Lichtenberg on Effective Altruism

Judith Lichtenberg has a pretty misguided -- and often misleading -- hit piece on the Effective Altruism movement, which concludes:
The effective altruists have shown that, without undue burdens, many of us can and should do a lot more than we do now. But in their zeal to maximize effectiveness, they distort human psychology, undervalue the contributions made by ordinary people, and neglect the kind of structural and political change that is ultimately necessary to redress the suffering and radical inequality we see around us.

Her criticisms are not well-supported.

(1) Some EAs, like Peter Singer, are sympathetic to impartial moral theories like utilitarianism, but (i) not all are, and (ii) it seems an is/ought confusion to accuse a normative theory of "distort[ing] human psychology".

Lichtenberg paints EAs as cold and emotionless: "To do the most good we must ignore our natural sentiments and calculate, or else let others (like the analysts at GiveWell) do the calculating for us." This is a ridiculous caricature (a real distortion of others' psychologies!).  The nugget of truth here is that the Effective Altruism movement indeed urges us to seek to ensure that our philanthropic efforts are evidence-based, and as effective as possible.  But this is a far cry from "dismiss[ing] the role" of emotions altogether, as JL accuses us of.  For many EAs, an emotional concern for the wellbeing of others is precisely what drives them!  (Nor, for that matter, is "calculating" a particularly accurate characterization of the kind of analysis that GiveWell does.)

JL seems not to like the suggestion that we should (ever?) override our initial inclinations to help groups that we are familiar with in favour of strangers whom we are able to help even more.  She apparently finds ideals of universal love and beneficence to be "chilling".  But it is hardly a "distort[ion of] human psychology" to suggest that such efforts are often worth making -- unless we are to think that every effort to compensate for our ordinary biases in order to better promote our values is an objectionable form of psychological "distortion"?

(2) Do EAs "undervalue the contributions made by ordinary people"?  On the contrary, organizations like Giving What We Can stress how much "ordinary" westerners (who are, by global standards, pretty much all extremely wealthy) can easily contribute, potentially saving lives every year without much cost to our own material standard of living at all.

So I think JL is simply incorrect when she claims that "focusing so heavily on what elites can do denigrates the contributions of ordinary people, who cannot make huge differences understood in the quantitative and aggregative terms the effective altruism movement prizes." I think that saving a life is a pretty "huge" deal, and it's something that any ordinary person can do (with a modest but well-targeted donation), and that is highly prized within the EA movement.  It's obviously true that those with vastly greater resources are able to achieve even more.  But it's no part of EA that this "denigrates" the more modest efforts of the rest of us; that invidious idea is wholly JL's own, and I think we should reject it.

JL adds:
[T]here are ways of making a difference that can only be achieved by getting your hands dirty—in soup kitchens, clinics, prisons, schools, and neighborhoods, not to mention through political action and lobbying. For many people, this is the best or the only way they can contribute.

Really?  Many such local actions are good and worthwhile, of course.  But again, for almost anyone who is in a sufficiently comfortable position to be volunteering at all (or following these sorts of debates), they could almost certainly achieve even more good through well-targeted donations.  (Of course there are always some exceptions, so I don't think that anyone would deny that JL's listed activities could, in some circumstances, be the best way for a particular individual to help others.  But these debates are about changing the norms, or what kind of marginal shifts it would be good to see.  And the idea that we would do better to shift people away from donating to the global poor and towards instead helping out in their local neighbourhoods is, I think, patently ridiculous.  On the other hand, if EAs succeed in shifting efforts from local to global arenas then that will be a clear win for global justice and the state of the world as a whole.)

(3) What about "structural and political change"?  The EA movement is generally very open to the idea (though critics would do well to note the higher risk of error on politically controversial issues). Granted, the kind of structural change we're interested in is less "raise the minimum wage" and more "let's ensure that we've safeguards in place against global catastrophic risks" or "is lobbying for more open borders something that could feasibly have some success?"  We're not Marxist revolutionaries, to be sure.  We're too concerned to ensure that any changes we bring about will actually have good consequences!

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of Effective Altruism is its cosmopolitan nature.  People are too often near-sighted (or even explicitly nationalistic) by default, and a big part of the message of EA is that we need to change that.  If we can do more good overseas than we can in our home country, then that's precisely where we should be focusing our philanthropic efforts.  JL doesn't like this:
The movement also underestimates the seriousness of poverty in the U.S. and other advanced countries. By ignoring relative deprivation and inequality and their effects on both material and psychic well-being, effective altruists fail to acknowledge the intolerable deprivations and indignities poor people in rich countries often face. These cannot simply be moved to the back burner until global poverty disappears.

There's a lot to dislike about this passage.  Firstly, there's an awfully reactionary "You say Black Lives Matter? I say All Lives Matter!" vibe to it.  Does anyone honestly think that the problem with western society today is that we attend too much to the global poor and not enough to our fellow countrymen?  Really?  I mean, if you're not a total xenophobe, how about at least waiting until the EA movement makes a bit more progress on changing societal attitudes before pulling out these kind of complaints?

Secondly, there just seems a total unawareness of the concept of opportunity costs.  If local problems "cannot simply be moved the the back burner", then you're going to have to move the global poor to the "backburner" while you prioritize the locals, right?  It seems kind of dishonest to not mention this.

Tradeoffs have to be made, and that means an honest discussion must be had about our moral priorities.  Conventionally, folks have implicitly prioritized local needs, even when they could do many times more good for the global poor.  I think that's wrong.  A central message of the EA movement is that this is wrong.  It is not an intellectually honest or respectable way to engage with this criticism to insist that "poor people in rich countries... cannot simply be moved to the back burner", without acknowledging that by doing so you will be prioritizing these people over other human beings in greater need.

* * *

There are other unhelpful and/or misleading aspects to the rhetoric in JL's article.
MacAskill describes a documentary filmmaker who criticizes one of his own subjects, a cosmetic surgeon to the stars, for wasting his talent rather than saving lives. But MacAskill argues that the filmmaker’s attitude “is misplaced. It’s the cosmetic surgeon’s decision about how to spend his money that really matters.” Is that really all that matters?

Did anyone claim that it's all that matters?  It is plausibly what most matters.  One can imagine an EA cosmetic surgeon who, by earning to give, saves many more lives than they would have had they made a different career decision.  Plausibly intentions matter some too, so we can also imagine that the surgeon chose their earning-to-give career precisely because they want to save lives, and they're not so narcissistic that they feel a need to be the most proximate cause in the life-saving chain of events.  That makes a really big difference, right?  So, isn't MacAskill basically spot-on, here?  What further criticism is JL's rhetorical question here supposed to suggest?

Next, JL portrays several EA exemplars as "obsessed", without bothering to mention that there are over 1300 members of Giving What We Can, and most of us happily donate 10% of our incomes to where it's most needed without making "altruism" our central life project or anything.  Then, in discussing the GWWC pledge, she writes:
Remember that effective altruists urge giving ten percent of one’s (gross) income to global poverty relief. That means that contributions to domestic poverty relief, racial justice, prison reform, disease research, religious organizations, public radio, the opera, your alma mater, and whatever other causes you care about must come after and above that ten percent. If these normally comprise half of your annual contributions (just to take a number out of a hat), you’d have to donate 20 percent. That starts to look like a lot to demand of people—but so does foregoing giving to these causes.

[Correction: EAs urge donating 10% however you expect will do the most good, which need not be direct poverty relief, though that's certainly an obvious candidate.]

Why does she hold fixed the proportion of one's annual contributions that go to sub-optimal causes?  If you normally donate half of 1% to these other causes, for example, you could easily combine that with the GWWC pledge to donate 10.5% in total, which is not very demanding at all.  JL's presentation artificially inflates the difficulty here, in -- again -- a very dishonest-seeming fashion.

It's frustrating to see such misleading rhetoric and poor argumentation targeting what I think is such an obviously good movement.  The main effect of articles like JL's, it seems to me, is to "poison the well" against the Effective Altruism movement, encouraging the conventionally-minded to dismiss, rather than seriously engage with, the important challenges that EA presents to conventional thinking about morality.


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