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...

1: Introducing 'Effective Altruism'
* MacAskill, introduction + chapters 1 & 2

Key Questions: Are QALYs a useful measure?  Is it better to make hard trade-offs in cause selection (engaging in philanthropic 'triage') to maximize the good done, or to select causes on some other basis such as flipping coins or emotional resonance?

2: Global Poverty
* MacAskill, chapter 3
* Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality

Key Questions:
How much good does (the best) aid do? Are we morally required to donate more (and if so, how much more)?

[In future I think I'd move MacAskill's chapter 3 (and the associated key question) into the first week (it's very easy reading), and add some responses to Singer (perhaps Miller's 'Beneficence, Duty and Distance') in here instead, for greater philosophical depth.]

3. Difference-Making and Expected Value
* MacAskill, chapters 4 - 6

Key Questions: Should we be guided by average or marginal utility?  Is 'expected value' reasoning the right way to take low-probability outcomes into consideration?  Is it important to be the direct cause of a benefit, or just to (even indirectly) maximize the total amount of good done?

4. Evaluating Charities / Catastrophic risk
* MacAskill, chapter 7
* Bostrom, 'Astronomical Waste'
* Karnofsky, 'Why We Can’t Take Expected Value Estimates Literally (Even When They’re Unbiased)'

Key Questions: Is there anything to be said for Charity Navigator-style "financial metrics" (overhead, CEO pay, etc.) as opposed to GiveWell-style impact analysis?  To what degree should a lack of "robustness" lead us to discount a cost-effectiveness estimate?  Should we accept the expected-value argument for prioritizing global catastrophic risk mitigation?

[Many of the students wouldn't take Bostrom's paper seriously. In future I might try replacing it with the first chapter of Nick Beckstead's dissertation, 'On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future'.]

5. Ethical Consumerism and Animal Welfare
* MacAskill, chapter 8
* Norcross, 'Puppies, Pigs, and People'

Key Questions: Assuming that sweatshop jobs are a step up from the alternatives, how should we weigh the benefit they provide vs worries about complicity in exploitation?  Is there anything wrong with carbon offsetting? Are other forms of moral offsetting (e.g. meat offsetting, murder offsetting) relevantly similar?  How much weight should we give to the interests of non-human animals?

6. Career Choice / Immigration
* MacAskill, chapter 9
* Clemens, 'Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?'
* [Background reading:] Fine, 'The Ethics of Immigration'

Key Questions: How should you choose what career to pursue? Is "earning to give" better than working in the social sector?  Do high-paying corporate jobs tend to be intrinsically immoral?  Should people have a right to accept a job (with an employer who wants them) regardless of their nationality?  How would an open borders policy compare to traditional aid as a means of fighting global poverty?

[Not sure how well the immigration topic worked.  Maybe it would help to swap out the Fine paper for one more easy to read, e.g. Huemer's.  Would further hurt the already dismal gender balance, however.]

7. Global Priorities / Giving Game
* MacAskill, chapter 10
* GiveWell and Open Philanthropy Project recommendations

Key Questions: How should one compare global poverty vs other potential causes (e.g. climate change, animal welfare, etc.)?  Where will you choose to donate £100 of my money?

8. Critiques
* Wolf, 'Moral Saints'
* Gabriel, 'Effective Altruism and Its Critics'

Key Questions: What is the proper role of moral considerations in the good life? Would a perfect moral agent be insufferably dull? Does EA neglect considerations of justice? (Is it unfair to distribute benefits in a utility-maximizing way?) Does EA neglect systemic change?

[In future I'd add Srinivasan's 'Stop the Robot Apocalypse'.]

9. The Meaningful Life: Altruism vs Perfectionism
* Singer, 'Why Act Morally' (Practical Ethics, chapter 12)
* Huddleston, 'Consecration to Culture' (pp. 138 - 146 only)

Key Questions: Why be moral? Is one better off as a happy couch potato, or slaving away in service to some larger goal? In seeking something "larger than ourselves", should we prioritize the interests of other individuals, or cultural projects? Is it reasonable to donate to art museums or opera houses over global health charities?

* * *

Further suggestions very welcome!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for publishing this. In case it is of interest to you or your readers, here's a list of all the EA reading lists I'm aware of.


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