Shut Up and Divide?

post by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-09T20:09:06.208Z · score: 75 (74 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 274 comments

During a recent discussion with komponisto about why my fellow LWers are so interested in the Amanda Knox case, his answers made me realize that I had been asking the wrong question. After all, feeling interest or even outrage after seeing a possible case of injustice seems quite natural, so perhaps a better question to ask is why am I so uninterested in the case.

Reflecting upon that, it appears that I've been doing something like Eliezer's "Shut Up and Multiply", except in reverse. Both of us noticed the obvious craziness of scope insensitivity and tried to make our emotions work more rationally. But whereas he decided to multiply his concern for individuals human beings by the population size to an enormous concern for humanity as a whole, I did the opposite. I noticed that my concern for humanity is limited, and therefore decided that it's crazy to care much about random individuals that I happen to come across. (Although I probably haven't consciously thought about it in this way until now.)

The weird thing is that both of these emotional self-modification strategies seem to have worked, at least to a great extent. Eliezer has devoted his life to improving the lot of humanity, and I've managed to pass up news and discussions about Amanda Knox without a second thought. It can't be the case that both of these ways to change how our emotions work are the right thing to do, but the apparent symmetry between them seems hard to break.

What ethical principles can we use to decide between "Shut Up and Multiply" and "Shut Up and Divide"? Why should we derive our values from our native emotional responses to seeing individual suffering, and not from the equally human paucity of response at seeing large portions of humanity suffer in aggregate? Or should we just keep our scope insensitivity, like our boredom?

And an interesting meta-question arises here as well: how much of what we think our values are, is actually the result of not thinking things through, and not realizing the implications and symmetries that exist? And if many of our values are just the result of cognitive errors or limitations, have we lived with them long enough that they've become an essential part of us?

274 comments

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comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-02-09T20:50:04.428Z · score: 33 (37 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

how much of what we think our values are, is actually the result of not thinking things through, and not realizing the implications and symmetries that exist?

A very, very large portion.

When I was a child, I read a tract published by Inter-Varsity Press called "The salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer". It's a story about a Christian who tries to actually live according to Christian virtues. Eventually, he concludes that he can't; in a world in which so many people are starving and suffering, he can't justify spending even the bare minimum food and money on himself that would be necessary to keep him alive.

It troubled me for years, even after I gave up religion. It's stressful living in America when you realize that every time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone. (It's even more stressful now that I can actually afford to do these things regularly.)

You can rationalize that allowing yourself little luxuries will enable you to do enough more good to make up for the lives you could have saved. (Unlikely; the best you can do is buy yourself "offsets"; but you'd usually save more lives with more self-denial.) You can rationalize that saving lives today inevitably leads to losing more lives in the future. (This carried me for a long time.) But ultimately, the only way I find to cope is not caring.

Recently, Michael Vassar told me I was one of the nicest people he knows. And yet I know that every day, I make decisions that would horrify almost everyone in America with their callousness. Other people act the same way; they just avoid making the decisions, by not thinking about the consequences of their actions.

I'm not a nice person inside, by any stretch of the imagination. I just have less of a gap between how nice my morals tell me to be, and how nice I act. This gap, in most people, is so large, that although I have morals that are "worse" than everyone around me, I act "nicer" than most of them by trying to follow them.

comment by Henrik_Jonsson · 2010-02-10T07:49:03.092Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nick Tarleton said it well, but to try it another way: Depending on how you phrase things, both to yourself and others, the situation can appear to be as bleak as you describe it, or alternatively rather good indeed. If you were to phrase it as being stuck with a brain built for chasing deer across the savanna and caring about the few dozen members of your tribe, being able to try to gain money (because it's the most effective means to whatever your ends) and investing some appreciable fraction of it in the cause with highest expected future payoff, despite being abstract or far in the future, starts to sound fairly impressive -- especially given what most people spend their time and money on.

If Starbucks lattes (or more obviously living above the subsistence level) makes it more likely for me to maintain my strategy of earning money to try to protect the things I value, my indulgences are very plausibly worth keeping. Yes, if I had another psychology I could skip that and help much more, but I don't, so I likely can't. What I can do short-term is to see what seems to happen on the margin. Can I sustain donating 1% more? Can I get by without a fancy car? House? Phone? Conversely, does eating out regularly boost my motivations enough to be worth it? Aim for the best outcome, given the state of the board you're playing on.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-15T12:43:01.792Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If Starbucks lattes (or more obviously living above the subsistence level) makes it more likely for me to maintain my strategy of earning money to try to protect the things I value, my indulgences are very plausibly worth keeping. Yes, if I had another psychology I could skip that and help much more, but I don't, so I likely can't.

That gives you an incentive to not try to change your psychology, or even see if it's possible to change. If seeing your psychology as immutable gives you a reason to get what you want, you'll be biased against seeing it any other way. It's perfectly fine to choose Starbucks lattes over strangers' lives, lest we end up like Zachary Baumkletterer, but let's at least be honest about our preferences.

comment by PeerInfinity · 2010-05-01T22:03:51.905Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was pondering that article about Zachary Baumkletterer again.

Summary: Zachary Baumkletterer is that guy who had so much empathy for the starving people in the world and felt so guilty about being so much more fortunate than them, that he voluntarily lowered himself to their standard of living, and donated the rest of his income and posessions to charity (which charity? that's critically important!) Unfortunately, that meant that he was starving himself to death.

One way to resolve this situation would have been for Zachary's boss to give him a budget specifically for food, explaining that he must use all of it on food, and must not give any of it away, etc. This budget qualifies as a business expense, since it directly affects Zachary's productivity. Or if the boss really can't afford to give him any raise at all, then he could allocate part of Zachary's current salary for a food budget.

Another option would have been for his boss to threaten to fire him if he refuses to eat enough to stay healthy and productive.

Another option would be for the people who know Zach to invite him to talk and eat with them. He would have had a hard time refusing an opportunity to talk with other people about his mission.

Another option would have been for the people who know him to offer to donate two dollars to charity for every one dollar that Zach spent on himself, up to a certain limit.

Spoiler: But noone, not even Zachary himself, thought of any of these options. They sent him to a mental institution instead. This story fills me with rage. Lots of rage. Even though I'm pretty sure it's fictional.

Two facts remain though:

1) Zachary's strategy is obviously suboptimal from a utilitarian perspective. If Zachary starves himself to death, then he won't be able to help anyone else at all.

2) If everyone in the world followed Zachary's strategy, of lowering their standard of living to match the poorest people in the world, and donated the rest of their income to helping raise the standard of living of the poorest people in the world, then the world would be... a whole lot better than it is now. Though of course there are still some ways that this scenario could go wrong.

Anyway, if Zachary had thought of any of the points I mentioned here, and actually suggested them to people, allowing himself to stay alive without compromising his ethics... then I would have considered him a hero. I would have considered him a role model. Someone who I would like to be more like. Someone who I would actively try to be more like. Someone who I could compare my own performance with, to see how well I'm doing.

But the Zachary that was actually described in the story was... a misguided fanatic. An example of why you sometimes need to resist your sense of empathy. An excuse to be lazy and apathetic. An excuse to be selfish.

Anyway, personally, I think I'll just stick with utilitarianism, and instead of trying to lower my standard of living as much as I can possibly get away with, just out of a sense of guilt, I'll try to maximize the net utility of my actions, even if this means sometimes spending money on luxuries that I could easily live without. For example, in cases where not buying the thing would cost too much willpower. I'll try not to let my sense of empathy and guilt cause me to do stupid and counter-productive things.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-11-14T22:31:38.550Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know I'm 5 years late on this but on the offchance someone sees this, I just want to mention I found Yvain's/Scott Alexander's essay on the subject incredibly useful*.

The tl;dr: Use universalizability for your actions moreso than direct utilitarianism. His suggestion is 10% for various reasons, mainly being a round number that's easy to coordinate around and have people give that exact number. Once you've done that, the problems that would be solved by everyone donating 10% of their income to efficient charities are the responsibility of other people who are donating less than that amount (I'd also suggest trying to spread the message as much as possible, as I'm doing here).

Of course it'd be better to donate more of your income. I would say that if feeling bad about donating 10% causes you to donate more, then... donate more. If it just causes you to feel like you'll never be good enough so you don't even try, it's useless and you'd do more good by considering yourself completely absolved. 10% is also incredibly useful for convincing people who aren't already convinced of unlimited utilitarian duty to donate to efficient charity.

*http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/19/nobody-is-perfect-everything-is-commensurable/

comment by Toby_Ord · 2010-02-10T11:56:23.168Z · score: 11 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Phil,

It's not actually that hard to make a commitment to give away a large fraction of your income. I've done it, my wife has done it, several of my friends have done it etc. Even for yourself, the benefits of peace of mind and lack of cognitive dissonance will be worth the price, and by my calculations you can make the benefits for others at least 10,000 times as big as the costs for yourself. The trick is to do some big thinking and decision making about how to live very rarely (say once a year) then limit your salary through regular giving. That way you don't have to agonise at the hairdresser's etc, you just live within your reduced means. Check out my site on this, http://www.givingwhatwecan.org -- if you haven't already.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-02-10T19:08:57.932Z · score: 9 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Toby, ignoring donations to SIAI and possibly FHI I'm still very skeptical of your claims. GiveWell have done analysis strongly indicating that the cheapest lives to save actually cost between $1K and $2K, but one would have to search for a long time to find them GiveWell and much longer to do GiveWell's analysis yourself. Evaluating GiveWell is intermediate and most people lack the cognitive abilities to do that.

Furthermore, the lives in question are fairly low value compared to our own lives. I don't have any qualms in saying that if purely selfish I'd unhesitatingly play 5 full chamber Russian Roulette rather than being economically, physically, and mentally reduced to the conditions of a typical Tuberculosis victim regardless of what happiness researchers may say about them. Note that I have lived in the 3rd world and have known such people so it's not just distance that makes me say that.
I have some feel for the odds against snake eyes and with more hesitation I'd go for that too. In any event I have more feel for that then I do for what giving up essentially all my human capital would mean from the inside.

Anyway, based on the numbers I just gave, saving a quality of life comparable to my own would cost more like $50K. Would I spend $50K to save my life? Hell yes. To avoid a 1% chance of death? Maybe. Lets try that again like a behavioral economist. To reduce my chance of death in the next 10 years by half? Not so sure. I'm a 31 year old male so ignoring other considerations that would constitute a 1% risk of death. http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/STATS/table4c6.html Other considerations probably halve it already so make it 15 years and it's still borderline. Though inclined to consider it somewhat for altruistic reasons, I don't pay for cryonics, which is pretty much pure selfish survival along the above lines and which would be considerably cheaper. This leads me to conclude that I would have to be over 1% altruistic to spend on third world aid, not .01% as you suggest.

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-10T17:00:16.375Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Toby, I am curious: How many children do you have or plan to have?

Couldn't one argue that the expense of having a child in the West is like buying 100,000 Starbuck's lattes?

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-13T14:29:40.870Z · score: -3 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Toby, since you didn't answer my question, I will guess that you do not have any children and do not plan to have any children.

So then the question comes: Who will tend to the needs of the children and grandchildren of the impoverished folks you are helping now? If history is any guide, the folks you are helping will have a lot of descendants and they will all be very needy.

Even if you are having children, it is likely that your descendants will be far fewer in number than the descendents of the poor folks you are helping.

So respectfully, it seems to me you are being selfish by helping to create problems in the future which other peoples' children will be forced to help address. All so you can feel good about yourself by reducing your cognitive dissonance.

JMHO

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-13T14:57:32.493Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

JMHO

I am compiling a list of phrases never to use; that's one of them.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-15T09:58:45.781Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love to know what else is on your list.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-15T10:11:51.139Z · score: 2 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One like the above is "I was only trying to make you think". Two others that would need separate discussion are "political correctness", and "I am not someone who is in thrall to the prevailing reality distortion field".

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-15T12:15:43.083Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now I'm curious why you're against the phrase "political correctness", which I like. As Paul Graham put it,

You can attack labels with meta-labels: labels that refer to the use of labels to prevent discussion. The spread of the term "political correctness" meant the beginning of the end of political correctness, because it enabled one to attack the phenomenon as a whole without being accused of any of the specific heresies it sought to suppress.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-15T19:59:02.915Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That one might need a post of its own...

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-15T20:04:29.407Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you ever feel like making it, I'd be interested. Short summary?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-02-15T13:41:50.301Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Going up to the meta-level is often itself a way of preventing discussion.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-13T14:40:50.244Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Enter the esoteric doctrine.

comment by Jack · 2010-02-15T12:23:04.152Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Economic development tends to decrease population growth.

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-15T14:44:40.611Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well how exactly would you use outside money to stimulate economic development in places like Liberia, Zambia, Nigeria, or Mali?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T16:04:38.273Z · score: -2 (22 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Charity is the process of taking purchasing power away from functional, creative individuals and communities, and giving it to dysfunctional, destructive individuals and communities.

Charity doesn't change the nature of the dysfunctional and destructive. It only restructures the reward system so that the dysfunctional and the destructive is rewarded, and the functional and constructive is penalized.

A person who does this willingly is, I am sad to say, stupid. You are only supposed to do this if people force you at gunpoint (taxes), and even then it's more patriotic to flee.

You should reward people for doing the right thing - providing a quality product or service - not for when they fail miserably.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T18:48:35.152Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obligatory Less Wrong link.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T18:53:12.147Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please clarify. The article you link to is sensible, yet I do not see what part of it is at odds with what I wrote.

I am essentially saying that charity is harmful because the cost-benefit calculation comes out negative when charity is used outside of the context in which it works (a small, closely knit social group).

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-11T19:40:45.122Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like a drastic overgeneralization to say that the cost-benefit calculation will always come out negative when charity is used outside of that context.

For instance, I'm sympathetic to your argument when applied to giving money to a homeless person in my neighborhood who looks like they might buy liquor with it, far less so when you denounce efforts to aid starving people in countries that remain poor after having been essentially pillaged by my ancestors and yours. How are these people "dysfunctional and destructive"?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T20:04:19.178Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Haiti and Africa are not the way they are because anyone pillaged them. You need to read types of books you do not want to read, or try to live among them for a while, to get a glimpse of the nature of their dysfunction.

Or ask yourself this question. Many Asian countries are poor, but among them, some are marvelously prosperous. How come, though, there is no Singapore of African descent?

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-11T20:26:19.922Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Book pointers welcome.

I'm not claiming great knowledge of either region, but I did read Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, for instance, which seems to broadly answer your question about an African Singapore. If you have an alternate theory, I'm interested in seeing specifics.

We seem to have strayed a fair bit from your general assertion about charity being always negative outside of a narrow context.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T20:46:47.696Z · score: 4 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't read Guns, Germs and Steel, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia. My impression is that Diamond discusses the reasons why civilization developed in Europe (rather than elsewhere) in the past. The synopsis on Wikipedia does not, however, discuss anything relevant to why Africa has been unable to pick up civilization after it has already been developed. Are you aware of a synopsis of Diamond's argument that addresses specifically that?

I gave the example of Singapore specifically because it is a country that grew from virtually nothing to prosperity in a matter of decades. Japan and Taiwan could also be used as examples, and China is not faring too bad either. There are still a large number of countries in Asia that are dysfunctional, but many countries, some of them very large, have picked up the lessons of what works, and have applied them, or are now applying them, to create a functional civilization.

This, however, is not happening in Africa, nor in Caribbean (where independent), nor in the Philippines, nor in the Bronx - nor anywhere with a majority of largely African descent.

In all these places, the reverse process took place. The locals took control away from colonizing foreigners, and then instead of a proliferation of prosperity, it all broke down and fell apart. Why is that?

The short answer is: their average IQ is 70.

The long answer is:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/159368021X

If you want to be shocked some more, follow an international news source such as BBC for a few years, and pay attention to news from Africa and the Caribbean. The pieces will fall in place in time.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-11T21:17:01.726Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are definitely shifting the goal posts. Are you now saying that charity shouldn't be directed to countries inhabited by races which by virtue of low IQ will be unable to make good use of it?

Comparing the above post to your original comment, one has to wonder why you didn't start there.

It still seem clear that health, nutrition and education can have major effects on IQ regardless of the extent to which IQ differences might be due to genetic factors associated with ethnicity. (Imagine raising your kids in exactly the same conditions as slum dwellers in Haiti or Africa.)

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T22:10:31.479Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't believe that I'm shifting the goal posts; I stand behind both my original comment and the one above. They are different aspects of a greater concept.

Are you now saying that charity shouldn't be directed to countries inhabited by races which by virtue of low IQ will be unable to make good use of it?

That's part of what I'm saying. It should also not be directed towards the homeless and other failures.

I am in favor of a social net for those who are legitimately out of luck and soon regain gainful employment.

It still seem clear that health, nutrition and education can have major effects on IQ regardless of the extent to which IQ differences might be due to genetic factors associated with ethnicity. (Imagine raising your kids in exactly the same conditions as slum dwellers in Haiti or Africa.)

I've been looking for about a decade now, but have not encountered evidence that would discredit Lynn. I have however seen a lot of evidence which corroborates his findings.

If you have evidence that discredits his work, I would appreciate it.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-13T14:07:58.311Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of that "data" is hard to take seriously when you come across quotes such as the following:

Upon reading the original reference, we found that the “data point” that Lynn and Vanhanen used for the lowest IQ estimate, Equatorial Guinea, was actually the mean IQ of a group of Spanish children in a home for the developmentally disabled in Spain.

There's a similar issue with the next lowest IQ on the list, and when you learn that the greater portion of the "country IQ" figures were obtained by averaging IQ data from nearby countries, you see how this kind of data quality issue could have contaminated the entire data set. But say I am inclined to take the data seriously and dismiss a few mistakes. This is from Wikipedia's page on "IQ and the Wealth of Nations" by Lynn and Vanhanen:

The authors believe that average IQ differences between nations are due to both genetic and economic factors. They also believe that low GDP can cause low IQ, just as low IQ can cause low GDP. [...] The authors write that it is the ethical responsibility of rich, high-IQ nations to financially assist poor, low-IQ nations, as it is the responsibility of rich citizens to assist the poor.

IOW, the authors whose work justifies your conclusions arrive at more or less opposite conclusions from yours. You're seeing a correlation, and assuming a causation in one direction, without (so far as I can see) a proper argument for that direction. Since this is one of the classic mistakes people are warned against in the sciences, I'll maintain my skeptical attitude until you adress my actual arguments.

When you do, please take into account how cognitive abilities actually develop (i.e. if you're fed, healthy and go to school you'll end up smarter than if you're starving, sick and nobody ever talks to you, and the former is more likely in a rich country).

comment by CharlieSheen · 2012-06-09T10:59:05.994Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The short answer is: their average IQ is 70.

I disagree, my current best estimate is the low 80s. The main reasons for this is various factors like parasites lowering IQ and lingering iodine and micro nutrient deficiencies have been empirically demonstrated to have measurable impacts on cognition and these factors are a bigger problem in Africa than elsewhere. Another reason is the analysis of other authors who tried to disprove his claims by using other tricks to try to infer g and the equivalent IQ (but could only rig the IQs up to the high 80s).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-27T13:29:21.071Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why is this answer down voted?

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T21:05:31.923Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even the maximalist (and implausible in light of other data) Rushton-Lynn hypothesis is perfectly consistent with aid (external provision of disease treatment, etc) having massive benefits in reducing disease and increasing wellbeing until biotech or more radical things can bypass any genetic disadvantage.

And there's no need to be smug.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T22:31:34.779Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even the maximalist (and implausible in light of other data) Rushton-Lynn hypothesis

I've been looking for about a decade now, but have not encountered evidence that would discredit Lynn. I have however seen a lot of evidence which corroborates his findings.

If you have evidence that discredits his work, I would appreciate it.

is perfectly consistent with aid (external provision of disease treatment, etc) having massive benefits in reducing disease and increasing wellbeing until biotech or more radical things can bypass any genetic disadvantage.

Why stop at Africa then? Shouldn't we invest billions in animal shelters, so that dogs and cats can live long lives until we find a way to bypass their genetic disadvantage? Wouldn't those be just as "massive benefits"?

And there's no need to be smug.

Perhaps it came across as smugness, but I do find that every piece of news I see, either from South Africa, or from Haiti, or from Nigeria, or from Zimbabwe, or from Turks and Caicos, just adds to the pile of evidence.

Also, I myself live in a place like that. Which is why I suggest (in all seriousness!) that people should consider visiting a country like South Africa for a while.

There's no better cure for academic distance than direct contact with the hard facts on the ground.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T22:50:51.053Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

African-American IQ in the 80s, with only 20% European admixture, shows that African IQs are depressed by environment. The Dickens-Flynn model explains how to reconcile the Flynn effect and heritability increasing with age: gene-environment interactions, suggesting that any genetic difference would be amplified by feedback environmental effects. Even Jensen gives a chunk of the gaps to environment.

Animals have short lives so it wouldn't work well, and I care less about them than people with long term plans hopes and fears.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:01:43.891Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

African-American IQ in the 80s, with only 20% European admixture, shows that African IQs are depressed by environment.

I wouldn't say so. I think it shows that genes for higher IQ are inherited dominantly.

This has also been proposed as an explanation for the Flynn effect - whole countries getting "smarter" over time - being due to the gene pool mixing more in cities, and thus with dominant pro-IQ genes gaining ground.

The same mechanism has been proposed for the increasing height.

Animals have short lives so it wouldn't work well, and I care less about them than people with long term plans hopes and fears.

See, that's fine with me. You want to indulge in X because you like it, not because of rationalization Y or Z. Just like I want to indulge in chocolate. That's fine with me.

I just don't like the claim that it is morally superior. Or that it's something everyone should do. Or that it's how resources "should" be spent. If it is an indulgence, though, then indulgences are fine with me.

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-11T23:07:22.870Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Btw, I'm just going to interject and say that this conversation has been done at Hacker News many times and it never really goes anywhere. I'm going to wait five years until more genome wide association studies are done before I try to enter this argument again. It seems obvious to me that there are some genetic differences in intelligence, but it's a touchy enough subject that I don't feel it's worth entering an argument based on individual interpretations of incomplete evidence.

comment by Rain · 2010-02-11T20:52:30.043Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought racial disparity in IQ was proven to be minimal or nonexistent?

comment by loqi · 2010-02-13T20:43:37.675Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cases so thoroughly closed tend not to have Wikipedia pages that look like this.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T21:09:59.242Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regardless, I advise not talking about the idea now. If it's true large genomics studies will conclusively indicate that in the next few years without harming anyone's reputations today. If it's false, one will have avoided reputational costs as well as stoking racism.

comment by tut · 2010-02-11T21:05:07.478Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That depends on what you mean by proven nonexistent. There are differences between the populations of black and white Americans in terms of what results you get if you measure their intelligence. There are also explanations for those differences that don't involve any inherent differences in intelligence.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-02-13T21:41:35.962Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also worthy of note: whatever IQ measures, second and third-generation immigrants to First World nations from Third World ones have more and more of it.

comment by CharlieSheen · 2012-06-09T11:01:52.231Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yet at least in the case of those of African ancestry don't seem to ever catch up. Those of East Asian ancestry don't seem to ever drop to European levels either. It makes perfect sense that lower exposure to parasites and better nutrition will boost IQs for quite some time. Since stupid people generally earn less, this means their children get to enjoy fewer of the benefits of a good envrionment.

Remember even Lynn, Jensen, ect., the scientists favouring the hereditarian hypothesis consider a 50-50 split between genetic and environmental factors to best match their data. Their opponents claim it is nearly all envrionment.

I'm pretty much certain Askenazi Jews are smarter than gentile Europeans because of genetics. I'm also very certain that East Asians are smarter than Europeans because of genetics. The IQs of these groups have been measured in environments that appear to be as optimal as we can make them.

I'm not so sure where South Asian and Middle Eastern IQs would lie under 1st world conditions but if I had to make a guess I'd say the difference in intelligence is probably comparable to the difference between Europeans and Asians, putting their average somewhere in the mid 90s.

I'm also unsure how much of this low IQ is just the result of inbreeding, which is something "easily" fixed. It seems very plausible that the European vs. Middle Eastern gap can entirely be explained by different levels of inbreeding.

African IQs until quite recently seemed very firmly and robustly one standard deviation (15 points) below the European average, but there's recently been some strange educational achievement data from the UK, which suggests the difference may be as low as half a standard deviation. Low 90s quite honestly seems a stretch considering all the other data though, so my best estimate is in the 80s. Which also happens to be about right considering educational attainment of second generation immigrants elsewhere in Europe and African Americans.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T20:50:23.576Z · score: -5 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

boo racism

(hooray beer)

comment by eirenicon · 2010-02-11T21:12:16.846Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have any reason to believe Lynn is a racist, or is that just a knee-jerk reaction? Lynn is too contrarian and I am too unqualified to agree or disagree with him, but I believe his work is done in good faith. At the very least, it's unreasonable to label any research into race and intelligence 'racist' just because you don't like the conclusions.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T21:30:22.128Z · score: -10 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Claims about race and intelligence are racist. They suppose that race is a relevant factor to consider. I submit that the idea of 'race' is based solely on bad science and doesn't have any real meaning such that it can be related to anything else.

I will also give a dismissive "boo phrenology" to anyone posting a link to a book that talks about the relationship between intelligence and lumps on one's skull. It deserves no further comment.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T22:21:33.740Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is impossible to draw a clear line between races, but it is also impossible to draw a clear line between colors of the visual spectrum, and yet "red" and "blue" exist. For a non-IQ related example, people of Ashkenazim heritage are known to be at risk for certain genetic issues, while people of African heritage are known to be exposed to heart-related risks.

The concept of race (or any other word that symbolizes this concept) is statistically significant and useful - more so in countries that are much more homogeneous than the USA.

comment by eirenicon · 2010-02-11T22:00:01.895Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I submit that the idea of 'race' is based solely on bad science and doesn't have any real meaning such that it can be related to anything else.

Nevertheless, the word "race" remains a useful shorthand for "populations differentiated genetically by geographic location" or what have you. If you don't think there are genetic differences between, say, Northern Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans, you are literally blind. They obviously belong to groups that evolved in different directions. That does not have to include intelligence, but it's not reasonable to refuse to consider a hypothesis just because you find it repugnant.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T22:02:53.337Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nevertheless, the word "race" remains a useful shorthand for "populations differentiated genetically by geographic location" or what have you.

That isn't what it means. It's a useful shorthand for nothing, or at least nothing of worth. If you're referring to a particular clade, for instance, don't use the word "race" to differentiate that clade. That's just using the word wrong.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-02-12T03:38:10.734Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're referring to a particular clade, for instance, don't use the word "race" to differentiate that clade. That's just using the word wrong.

In the 19th century, such phrases as "the English race" or "the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" were popular.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T22:10:01.217Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know the history here right? These bogus definitions were crafted by humanities scholars to have empty extensions so that the scholars could claim that the biologists and ordinary folk were using the words (with their ordinary meanings) illegitimately. It's like if I suddenly redefined 'atheism' to mean 'the worship of 4-sided triangles' and started browbeating atheists for their confusion.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T22:20:12.200Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't take your characterization of the history as fact. I don't have the resources to dispute it.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T22:27:51.930Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The articles and referrences thereof that I linked to cover include most sides of this debate.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T21:56:51.170Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Famously anti-racist psychologists like James Flynn and Richard Nisbett disagree, and make claims about race and intelligence fairly frequently, namely that phenotypic differences in IQ between groups are not caused by direct genetic effects on IQ ('direct' because of indirect effects like genetic effects on skin color which elicits discrimination, etc). Are they misusing words?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:11:58.774Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find Flynn and Nisbett's position unconvincing. Asians are obviously different and were heavily discriminated against, yet have integrated in America regardless, and now have comparable or better outcomes. There must be a more substantial reason why Africans haven't done the same, and the most plausible reason so far for me is genetics.

Pretty much the one major argument against genetics is that people just don't want this to be the case, because it's one of the least hopeful explanations. But this is bias. Once you eliminate it, it becomes strikingly evident what the most likely explanation is.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T23:19:48.609Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Flynn and Nisbett think that Asians have better cultures in this respect (cultures are passed down from parent to child, and note that the transracial adoption studies, the most powerful evidence have had mixed results) and Africans worse. Note that Asian-American kids lag in IQ before they enter school (when their parents talk less to them than white Americans) but then surge ahead after entering school, as their parents put intense pressure on them to learn and succeed. Also Asian-Americans are much more successful educationally and professionally than their IQs would predict.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:34:21.570Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good points. But then why don't African Americans perform much better when adopted and raised by non-African parents? If it's about parent pressure, then an African American kid adopted by Asian parents should perform at about Asian level. Why do they not?

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T23:41:49.804Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They do in some of the handful of transracial adoption studies, and don't in others. Rushton and Jensen et al hype the Minnesota study, because it's the one that supports their case, and note data quality problems with the other studies. Nisbett and Flynn do the reverse. But very little work is done in this area (yes, because of PC issues with funding bodies), so the data is still too thin to be very confident either way.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:54:27.527Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They do in some of the handful of transracial adoption studies, and don't in others. Rushton and Jensen et al hype the Minnesota study, because it's the one that supports their case, and note data quality problems with the other studies. Nisbett and Flynn do the reverse. But very little work is done in this area (yes, because of PC issues with funding bodies), so the data is still too thin to be very confident either way.

Agreed. More data would be nice.

I am open to a different explanation, it's just that the genetic one seems most compatible with what I do know at this time.

Seeing a prosperous and competent country arising out of Africa would surely be nice. I would prefer living in a universe like that. It's just that I don't see it happening - regardless of the aid - at this time.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T22:01:08.375Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

phenotypic differences in IQ between groups are not caused by direct genetic effects on IQ ('direct' because of indirect effects like genetic effects on skin color which elicits discrimination, etc).

This in itself does not use the mal-formed concept of "race". I have no problem with assessing genetic influences on intelligence.

Famously anti-racist psychologists like James Flynn and Richard Nisbett disagree, and make claims about race and intelligence fairly frequently ... Are they misusing words?

No, they're privileging the hypothesis

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-11T21:43:53.454Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I submit that the idea of 'race' is based solely on bad science and doesn't have any real meaning such that it can be related to anything else.

Source?

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T21:53:50.684Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not aware of a simple, accessible guide to the history of science regarding race. The AAA Statement on "Race" seems to disagree with me, claiming that the concept of "race" was based on bad philosophy and political motivations instead of bad science.

comment by UNPC · 2010-02-11T22:01:30.944Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The AAA is at odds with biologists, esp. geneticists, and that statement is the result of heavy politicization. The philosophers and anthropologists (among others) have used a silly strategy to attack research on group differences, by assigning bogus meaning to the word race and pretending that there is no such thing. Neven Sesardic is a philosopher with some good (in the journal Philosophy of Science, etc) articles on the subject, and reveals the blatant dishonesty of some of the philosophical misrepresentations on the subject:

http://www.ln.edu.hk/philoso/staff/sesardic/getfile.php?file=Race.pdf http://www.ln.edu.hk/philoso/staff/sesardic/getfile.php?file=POS-2000.pdf

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T22:12:40.650Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree with him on the proper stance to take on the word "race", but I doubt our disagreement goes any deeper than that. At the end of the day, my feeling on the matter probably does have more to do with politics than linguistics.

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-11T20:34:10.628Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mauritius?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T21:22:37.785Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems like a funny link, I've watched a bit of it and will continue to watch it.

But comparing the per capita GDP of $7,000 in Mauritius, vs $39,000 in Singapore...? Granted, $7,000 in Mauritius is more than $270 in Zimbabwe, but still.

The difference remains similar in PPP terms.

Also, about 2/3 of the Mauritius population appear to be Asian.

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-11T21:30:06.535Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hans Rosling has a ton of good presentations.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-11T19:42:36.349Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are interested in understanding the case against aid to Africa, I'd suggest reading Dead Aid.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T19:54:07.668Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's important to distinguish between economic aid and public health aid. Economic aid seems to have failed to have any dramatic effects on per capita GDP, while public health aid has drastically extended lifespans and reduced infant mortality in Africa and elsewhere. Bill Easterly, the leading critic of 'foreign aid' spends hundreds of pages critiquing World Bank type economic aid and very briefly mentions that public health aid (one bright spot) has saved hundreds of millions of lives. It is the latter that groups like GiveWell and the Gates Foundation identify as offering value. Controlling malaria, tuberculosis, smallpox, etc offer very large benefits to the recipients, success is comparatively easy to measure, and are less subject to theft (thieves can only use so many malaria drugs).

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T20:08:01.035Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good points. But when are they going to start feeding themselves and making their own medicines?

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T20:26:47.387Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Africans do mostly feed themselves. Most countries (and regions of the U.S., for that matter) don't make their own medicines, they buy them. When will poor countries or people in poor countries buy all those drugs themselves in adequate quantity (although note that rich country governments paid for mass vaccination and treatment of infectious diseases, as well as eradication of disease vectors, since reducing infectious disease has big externalities and is a public good)? China and India have undergone significant development, but certainly Africa has some additional problems facing it. It looks unlikely that Africa will surge forward (although there has been some growth in the last decade) in a sustained way in the near future, but there remain various possibilities for change, and in the long-term technology should radically change the game.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-11T19:54:11.164Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quoting from that site's front page about the book's author: "Dambisa is a Patron for Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), a hedge fund supported children’s charity."

I take it that she does not disapprove of all aid? I can readily imagine that there are indeed harmful forms of aid (e.g. that gets intercepted by corrupt governments).

My preferred form of aid would in fact be in the area of education, because you can only be a self-reliant adult if you're given in childhood the memes required for self-reliance. Aid that does allow people to bootstrap out of aid.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T20:09:05.267Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aid in health care and education would in fact be the best way if the problem was something that can be solved with health care and education.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T20:38:01.278Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I cure one person of TB, who would otherwise die, and the patient goes on to have several decades of happy life, I have solved a problem. That's so even if the patient isn't turned into a rich-country computer programmer whose kids never get sick.

This is like attacking the idea of working at a job to buy food for yourself: since you'll just get hungry again later it's not a solution to the problem of your hunger.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T21:59:50.197Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If it makes one happy to go around and cure people of TB, then one should by all means do so. However, I do not perceive this as significantly different, or more valuable, than running a huge animal shelter, if the recipient of aid doesn't pay you back. As with an animal shelter, you are expending external resources to maintain something for the sake of it. Doing so does not contribute towards creating resources. It is a form of indulgence, not investment.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T22:16:13.786Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So valuable_denisbider charity is charity that is a profitable investment for denisbider? Or profitable for the giver? Even if the recipients were highly functional and creative thereafter?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T22:51:42.155Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the recipients are highly functional and creative thereafter, they should make money. If they make money, even if you don't want it, they can pay you back.

I do approve of charity which gives to things that do go on to create more than was invested. An example would be investing into basic research that isn't going to pay off until decades later. Investing in that is, I think, one of the most commendable charitable acts.

Most charity, however, is not that. It is more so charitable indulgence; it is spending money on something that is emotionally appealing, but never provides a return; neither to the giver, nor to anyone else.

I despise the travesty of such acts being framed as morally valuable charity, rather than as an indulgent throwing of resources away.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T23:15:35.994Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, if you want to say that curing a TB patient to have a mostly happy life with low economic productivity in tradables is a despicable "travesty" and an "indulgent" waste of resources (and not because the return on investment could be used to do more good later), you can use words that way.

But in future it would be nice to make it plain when your bold conclusions about "cost-benefit analysis" depend so profoundly on normative choices like not caring about the lives or welfare of the powerless, rather than any interesting empirical considerations or arguments relevant to folk who do care.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:24:20.948Z · score: -7 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No one is powerless unless they are physically or mentally incapacitated.

To give an example of someone who is physically incapacitated. A pig. He's smart, but he doesn't have thumbs and can't speak. Are you out to help him?

For another example of someone who is mentally incapacitated. A chimpanzee. He has thumbs, but he's not so bright. Are you out to help him?

If you believe that Africans are somehow physically or mentally incapacitated, then you should treat them much the same as you treat chimpanzees.

On the other hand, if you believe that they are not incapacitated, then they aren't powerless. If they aren't powerless, they can organize their community any way they like.

They haven't yet created any highly functional societies over the past few decades, whereas many others have. So apparently, they're either incapacitated (so proper treatment = same as chimps), or they've decided that their current situation is what they want.

Either way, foreign aid is inconsistent. Either we should be helping animals as much as we help Africans, or else, they are people who have the power to better themselves, and do not need aid.

Edited to add: Again, people downvoting, but nary a peep about why this logic is wrong. Focus on the essence, rather than the blasphemy? Anyone?

Sigh...

I think I'm just going to give up on this community. Good luck with your goals, everyone. ;)

comment by Rain · 2010-02-12T13:21:30.015Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your analogy is flawed. We cannot spend a few dollars to ensure that a chimpanzee gains cognitive ability. We can spend a few dollars to ensure that someone with nutritional deficiencies or easily curable diseases has a vaccine or proper vitamins to substantially increase their IQ and ability to function. In which case, the "incapacitation" you refer to is actually a vicious cycle, a structural problem, that's aid-solvable.

Also, there's an enormous leap from "they're not incapacitated... " to "they can do whatever they want!"

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-12T13:45:29.625Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, there's an enormous leap from "they're not incapacitated... " to "they can do whatever they want!"

Yes.

In which case, the "incapacitation" you refer to is actually a vicious cycle, a structural problem, that's aid-solvable.

Surely some part of it reflects such positive feedbacks, but not obviously all. E.g. public health aid is not very well-suited to overthrowing kleptocrats and replacing them with efficient institutions, or changing cultural norms.

Also, note that there has been a Flynn Effect in Africa too, and it's one of the only regions of the world that still lacks broad iodization of salt, and thus suffers from the associated IQ deficiencies and retardation. Likewise for iron..

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-12T16:25:19.358Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edited to add: Again, people downvoting, but nary a peep about why this logic is wrong. Focus on the essence, rather than the blasphemy? Anyone?

Sigh...

I think I'm just going to give up on this community. Good luck with your goals, everyone. ;)

Firstly, I am not obligated to tell you why I downvote.

Secondly, it is hard to justify responding to a comment like this. The amount of clarifying questions I need to ask to fully understand how your examples relate to the point requires more effort than I want to expend.

As best as I can tell, this is the crux of your point:

If you believe that Africans are somehow physically or mentally incapacitated, then you should treat them much the same as you treat chimpanzees.

On the other hand, if you believe that they are not incapacitated, then they aren't powerless. If they aren't powerless, they can organize their community any way they like.

If we narrow the field from Africa to someone unjustly imprisoned, should we help them? The point of this question is to clarify whether there is a difference between someone who is powerless and someone who has the potential for power. It makes no implicit claim on whether we should help Africa.

This is similar to Rain's comment about spending a few dollars on chimp cognition.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-02-11T19:01:28.928Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't read these as equivalent:

[C]harity is harmful because the cost-benefit calculation comes out negative when charity is used outside of the context in which it works (a small, closely knit social group).

.

Charity is the process of taking purchasing power away from functional, creative individuals and communities, and giving it to dysfunctional, destructive individuals and communities. [...] A person who does this willingly is, I am sad to say, stupid.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T19:09:27.387Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see it as equivalent if your cost-benefit calculation values that which is functional and creative.

comment by tut · 2010-02-11T19:21:15.088Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which is more functional and creative: A child who gets vaccinated at the nearby clinic, or the same child getting polio and losing the use of their legs because there was no nearby clinic.

Your portrayal of charity is accurate if you look at what you get if you try to vote for charity, but it is not an accurate description of the best charities that have been discussed in this thread.

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-13T17:20:42.431Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would say it depends on the child.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T19:24:21.946Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which is more functional and creative: a community that leverages its own potential and builds its own clinic, or a community that relies on outsiders to provide that clinic?

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-11T19:35:13.947Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which is more functional: An investment that leverages its own potential and uses its own resources, or an investment that leverages the resources of outsiders?

A good investment is a good investment, regardless of where the resources are coming from. Bickering about which investments are better than others is fine and should be done, but I am not willing to write off all investments in others simply because they are unable to come up with the resources on their own.

comment by tut · 2010-02-11T19:31:58.724Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Communities where the latter is an option are not prime targets for the project I was referring to. If you're in a poor community, scattered over a large swath of rural Africa, and the first thing you need to do to get a clinic is to build a few thousand klicks of road to someplace where you can get vaccines, what potential do you think that you can leverage to get that done?

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T19:45:26.338Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, have you actually been to Africa? I recommend visiting for a prolonged period several times. You might see it in a different perspective then.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T19:42:31.380Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looks like you're just going to have to build that road then.

You are focusing on the immediate needs of people now, whereas I am focusing on the dysfunctionality that's going to continue into the future.

Freebies from the Western world aren't going to improve the lot of Africa. The only way their lot can be sustainably improved is by them reorganizing the way their communities work. No outsider can do that, and if they don't, no amount of external aid will help.

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-11T19:31:35.347Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How about a community that, thanks to charity-delivered polio vaccines 20 years ago, has the potential to build its own infrastructure (and the motivation, since, at the time under discussion, charity efforts have been redirected towards communities with higher incidence of polio)?

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-02-11T19:41:25.501Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cost-benefit calculations are about contingent facts, which may be different in different cases; they do not indict the very nature of activities such as charity. I too value that which is functional and creative, and I agree that simply giving people money creates harmful incentive problems, but that just means that specific charitable programs must be carefully evaluated for their actual effectiveness. Money is indeed a useful mechanism, but this doesn't mean that the default market outcome is the best possible; it would be awfully strange if deliberate altruism had no power whatsoever.

I think cost-benefit calculations usually take this kind of form. You know, "X is net bad under specific conditions A and B which usually obtain, unless C; however, ancillary considerations D, E, and F; therefore recommend Y until we get better evidence." Not: "X is bad and you're stupid for supporting it." Policy debates should not &c.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T20:15:23.564Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is generally true. In extreme cases, however, things can get near black and white. The case I was responding to does seem such an extreme case to me.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T19:25:30.642Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I.e. if one is a Randian Objectivist who redraws the sphere of moral concern in an unusual way so that libertarian policies are always morally best no matter what. This is exactly the sort of antics discussed in the article I linked. These are not broadly shared normative assumptions here and, as Robin Hanson says the resulting statements are boring. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Ayn Rand Objectivists and axiomatic libertarians can predict the forthcoming normative exclamations and the bottom-line reasoning in favor of certain pre-ordained conclusions, regardless of the empirical evidence.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-11T19:29:46.345Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hardly think that linking to Robin Hanson is a good way to backup a criticism that someone is 'redrawing the sphere of moral concern in an unusual way'. Robin Hanson's ethics/moral concerns are among the most unusual I've encountered.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T19:37:42.276Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

True.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-11T19:40:50.999Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also think it is worth noting that although utilitarianism remains a bafflingly (to me) popular ethical position around here it is very unusual in the broader population. Broadly libertarian ethics are probably less unusual in the general population than strict utilitarian ethics.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T19:45:35.239Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure the prevailing view here is actually some sort of consequentialist egoism, not utilitarianism in a sense recognizable to an ethicist. Planning a top-level post about that.

comment by Rain · 2010-02-11T19:54:42.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd rather see a definition than a label. Calling it 'consequentialist egoism rather than utilitarianism' is perhaps useful to professional or enthusiast ethical philosophers, but it doesn't convey much information to me. A list of properties used in the ethical system would be far more useful.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T19:55:31.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. Thus the planned top-level post.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T19:26:41.390Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not a Randian Objectivist, nor do I insist on everything leading to libertarian policies.

You seem to have misinterpreted me based on a preconceived notion of what other things are usually said by people who say this sort of thing. But I'm not one of those people.

comment by tut · 2010-02-11T19:33:52.575Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And this unoriginal bashing of a view not represented here is also boring.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T19:28:26.916Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See here.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T16:16:37.834Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should reward people for doing the right thing - providing a quality product or service - not for when they fail miserably.

That's not the only valuable thing, or rule for action. You should also help people when they are suffering and you are able. This definition:

Charity is the process of taking purchasing power away from functional, creative individuals and communities, and giving it to dysfunctional, destructive individuals and communities.

willfully ignores the entire point of charity.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T16:23:25.678Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should also help people when they are suffering and you are able.

Quite the opposite. Most suffering is self-inflicted, and as such is a reminder that you need to learn a lesson. External help removes the suffering and makes it seem as though no lesson needs to be learned. This perpetuates the cycle and leads to more suffering.

One shouldn't do one's kids' homework.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T17:40:40.723Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One shouldn't do one's kids' homework.

Leaving aside my usual objection to schools, one should help one's kids do their homework.

That said, it seems like your example is chosen specifically to sound paternalistic, which seems at odds with the free-market view you're espousing.

Most suffering is self-inflicted

I dispute that, but don't have relevant numbers. If your friend falls and breaks his leg, is that "self-inflicted"? Is it best to bring him to the hospital, or to leave him crying on the ground so he can learn something?

comment by Torben · 2010-02-14T12:47:09.866Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your friend falls and breaks his leg, is that "self-inflicted"? Is it best to bring him to the hospital, or to leave him crying on the ground so he can learn something?

It seems that for some countries, falling accidentally is pandemic, while other countries rationally attempt to avoid it? Isn't this comment willfully ignoring the analogy denisbider was using?

comment by Furcas · 2010-02-11T17:25:27.131Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One shouldn't do one's kids' homework.

Okay, but what if some "kids" don't have the necessary tools to do their "homework"?

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-11T17:04:29.723Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Charity doesn't change the nature of the dysfunctional and destructive.

I think this is where your argument goes off the rails. Sometimes, possibly even most of the time, it's true, but I doubt it's always true. For example, I have a hard time seeing how it is true of GiveWell's four top-rated charities. The implication is that before giving to charity, one should assess whether the money will be put to good use; I doubt that sentiment is controversial around here.

comment by Entropy · 2010-02-11T16:27:16.547Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I derive joy from helping people in need then you could view that process as part of a very specialised industry. In this view I am not really paying to alleviate suffering, I am paying to make myself feel better but may in fact help others as a by-product. This suggests that a large proportion of efforts devoted to charity would be fairly inefficient as "makes me feel better" doesn't necessarily equate with "helps people", nevertheless it is still "productive" as it is producing a sense of well being among the givers.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T16:45:31.097Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but charity is not without external consequence.

The continuous rewarding of the dysfunctional does have long term effects, which I believe are negative on balance.

The reason we evolved empathy is for cohesion with our immediate social group, where our empathy is balanced with everyone keeping track of everyone else, and an effective sense of group fairness.

But this only works within our immediate social group. Charity towards complete strangers is harmful because it is not balanced with fairness.

To balance our economic interactions outside the immediate social group that we can monitor, we already have a functioning system that's fair and encourages constructive behavior.

That system is money. Use it for what it's for.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-11T17:47:01.012Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See reply here.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-09T22:22:25.205Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But ultimately, the only way I find to cope is not caring.

It's important to distinguish between emotions and decision theory. You can (try to) be perfectly altruistic in calculated decisions, while not caring on an emotional level. Better, you can care in more positive ways: feel good when you help, but don't feel guilty for not helping, or feel painfully strong empathy for the suffering, except to the extent that doing so actually motivates you sustainably. You aren't obligated to feel any emotion that doesn't win.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-09T22:55:23.914Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You aren't obligated to feel any emotion that doesn't win.

There is a flipside to this that I would like to point out: you're allowed to feel any emotion that does help you to win.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-11T16:51:05.020Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You aren't obligated to feel any emotion that doesn't win.

But it's really hard to tell which emotions one should or shouldn't feel in order to win, and part of the problem is that feeling emotions can cause our consciously held values to change, in a way that we don't fully understand and can't accurately predict.

Perhaps this is why some people seek out clear moral principles, so that they can commit to them and thus stop their values from drifting uncontrollably.

comment by JamesAndrix · 2010-02-10T19:57:51.304Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Keep in mind you evolved to be vicious, selfish and short sighted. You may as well feel guilty for not figuring out Friendly AI yet, and ignore the fact that we weren't designed to be good at math.

You can lament part of what you are and try to change it or minimize the negative effects, but much of the 'blame' is on evolution.

I just put $2 in a vending machine, we can't even optimize selfish goals very well.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-02-15T01:36:38.917Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just put $2 in a vending machine, we can't even optimize selfish goals very well.

Well put.

comment by Nominull · 2010-02-10T04:03:48.911Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was impossible to be a good man and a philosopher. If you believe you are obligated to help others, you will instinctively come up with justifications why helping others means doing what you wanted to anyway, instead of selling off all your earthly possessions to feed the starving.

If you seek to believe the truth above all else, you can't allow yourself any reason to want to deceive yourself, to regret knowing the truth. Altruism creates these regrets in spades. A true seeker of truth must rid himself of altruism.

Of course, this does not apply if, like Eliezer, you only seek truth in the service of your altruism. It would do Eliezer no good to toss aside his altruism in search of the truth. However, this is his weakness as a rationalist. You can only maximize one variable, and if you're maximizing altruism, you're not maximizing truth.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-10T04:18:31.734Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you believe you are obligated to help others, you will instinctively come up with justifications why helping others means doing what you wanted to anyway, instead of selling off all your earthly possessions to feed the starving.

Of course, you can mitigate this by, y'know, actually trying.

You can only maximize one variable, and if you're maximizing altruism, you're not maximizing truth.

This is only necessarily the case if you're on the Pareto frontier, which no human is. There are reasons to think that there are sometimes better ways to optimize X than trying to optimize X. (I agree that an altruist and a truthseeker would and (by their preferences) should do different things, but it's not as simple as you make it sound.)

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-09T23:41:52.022Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm working on a top-level post about a failed viral meme of mine that would have raised one billion for charity. I couldn't take it viral on my own due to some mistakes in design but think it could work with some help from the Less Wrong community and some tweaks for virality. If it works it would completely absolve every member of Less Wrong of empathic self-loathing for a long time.

comment by Jack · 2010-02-10T00:01:00.417Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

viral meme of mine that would have raised one billion for charity.

?!?!?!?!?!?

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T00:14:28.079Z · score: 32 (34 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

:) Sorry.

In 2006, Craigslist's CEO Jim Buckmaster said that if enough users told them to "raise revenue and plow it into charity" that they would consider doing it. (source: http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=4082 ) They really do listen to their users and the reason there is no advertising on Craigslist is that no one is asking for it.

A single banner ad on Craigslist would raise at least one billion for charity over five years. They could put a large "X" next to the ad, allowing you to permanently close it. There seems to be little objection to this idea. The optional banner is harmless, and a billion dollars could be enough to dramatically improve the lives of millions, save very real people from lifetimes of torture or slavery, or make a serious impact in the causes we take seriously around here. As a moral calculus, the decision is a no brainer. So we just need a critical mass of Craigslist users telling Jim that we need a banner ad on Craigslist. Per a somewhat recent email to Craig, they are still receptive to this idea if the users suggest it.

The numbers involved are a little insane. Fifty thousand people should count as critical mass, which means each person could effectively cause $20,000 to be generated out of nowhere and donated to charity. My mistake last time was doing it as a Facebook group rather than a Facebook fan page, where the more useful viral functions have moved. This time I would also drop the money on advertising to get an easy initial critical mass.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-02-10T00:50:16.025Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Initially voted down because I was sure it was going to be stupid, but this is the first crazy idea I've ever heard for generating a billion dollars out of nothing that could actually work. I mean, ever. You win some kind of award.

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T01:06:36.834Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's actually a significant problem to overcome with the virality here -- the idea is complicated enough that it needs a solid paragraph or two to be explained, whereas for max virality it needs to be snappy enough to fit in 200 characters or so.

"Join this group to raise $20,000 for charity!" is normally a nearly ideal viral meme and in this case is true, but since 99.99% of things like this are fake people are annoyed by meme copy that is obviously not true, even though it is actually true. What I'm leaning towards now is something about "togetherness", how together we can make a difference or something. I am very open to suggestions on this point.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-02-10T06:20:14.995Z · score: 10 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Craigslist users matter. 100 million lives could be saved by a billion dollars. That's ONE banner ad on CL for five years - for charity. Craig'll do it if we ask for it. We just need to ask."

194 characters.

Hotlink the word ask to a page with a larger pitch that's one more click away from the place they need to type. The $20k per person thing goes in the larger pitch.

I think the people doing it would have to actually be regular CL people. Maybe see about checking first with CL forums in big metro areas... make a meetup out of it maybe? I don't personally think its money "out of nothing" though. Even if people don't feel the "epistemic pain" I suspect ads do impose a dust speck style cost on their viewers.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T12:23:33.601Z · score: 8 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But those numbers are grossly wrong. $10 per life saved isn't true of any easy-to-explain method.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-02-10T20:43:21.328Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. I'm not even sure if there are hard-to-explain methods for that price.

If you were really going to do it you'd want to figure out a lot more about the details (like where to direct the money to maximize the goodness of the outcome in a way that was intelligible to people, and whether ads of the sort proposed could really generate the predicted amount).

But the numbers you ended up with could be plugged into the text without changing the emotional impact. The pitch is aimed at people's sense of "making a difference" and "belonging to a community" and "being heard" and so on, not at their excitement for dollar-efficient charity. The stated problem was the difficulty of pressing the right buttons in a compact and readable way that would (hopefully) get viral traction.

The numbers just have to be enough to feel like they matter for the text to be sufficient. The emotional impact of "Half a million..." versus "100 million" is probably not large, even if the real world impact is 200 times less. This is (if I understand correctly) the whole point of the "shut up and multiply" slogan in this community - recognition of our lack of cognitive sensitivity to numerical differences.

But that is part of what I meant about the fact that its really not money "out of nothing". Watching a single ad costs you something. Equally, a trillion ad impressions is a lot of cost to impose on people's minds. At some point, the damage to CL and the world might really be worse than the number of lives saved.

It's not clear to me that the relative impacts could even be worked out in advance... if ads were put up according to the whims of the passionate few, the money ended up in dumb places, there was a backlash and CL's functioning as an institution people can trust was damaged, and the world economy had X amount of value destroyed thereby, then the whole thing might be a net negative. The damage to CL's reputation with people who didn't understand why the ads had suddenly appeared might have to be monitored in real time rather than predicted in advance.

But assuming there was an honestly great thing to be gained that was really blocked by nothing more than a bit of text... well... there was some text to work as the first draft :-)

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T20:53:51.552Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not even sure if there are hard-to-explain methods for that price.

Asteroid defence, for one: http://jgmatheny.org/matheny_extinction_risk.htm

comment by Kevin · 2010-03-09T10:53:48.461Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anna Salamon gives an estimate for lives the SIAI can save per dollar in this talk: http://vimeo.com/7397629

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T08:02:21.038Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is a good 194 characters.

As for "regular Craigslist people", the people who post on the forums are not regular Craigslist people. Maybe some of the local forums are representative Craigslist users, but the Craigslist meta-discussion forum where this would be on-topic has particularly hardcore users. I expect the regular posters in the Craigslist feedback forum to respond negatively to this because they do not like change. I can't know until I ask, but I think we want to build some momentum separately before making the case to the people who populate the Craigslist feedback forum.

Most people are Craigslist users. I've certainly used it and I expect >50% of people here have used Craigslist at least once. I guess my point is that whatever people we get to do this will effectively count as regular CL people. Craigslist is a public service that is supposed to belong to everyone, right?

I do think that converting hardcore Craigslist users to our cause is a good target, as they will have more influence and will be willing to work harder.

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-10T16:20:40.076Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people are Craigslist users.

This is probably my fault for not looking at the right reference class again, but most people don't have Internet access. stats (though most North Americans and (by a tiny margin) Europeans do)

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T23:31:18.320Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, reference class thing, I meant most North American internet users have used and are aware of Craigslist. Even someone who doesn't use it regularly, but is aware of Craigslist's existence and when it is useful counts as a user, imo.

comment by Jordan · 2010-02-10T06:18:49.886Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • "Help Craigslist donate a BILLION dollars to charity!"
  • "Support Craigslist in donating a BILLION dollars to charity!"
  • "Convince Craigslist to donate a BILLION dollars to charity!"

In order of increasing truthiness and decreasing pizazz.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T11:57:10.203Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Using the word BILLION in all the marketing without good evidence that's what's at stake seems dubious.

comment by Jordan · 2010-02-10T20:27:55.171Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, that's advertising though. The vast majority of people on facebook wouldn't be put off by such a title, even after reading the full description and learning that the words "a BILLION" should have actually read "potentially a billion". Regardless, you can replace "BILLION" with any non-specific alternative.

"Convince Craigslist to donate a ton of money to charity!"

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2010-02-14T09:59:05.107Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually think there could be a decent angle in promoting your group like similar groups with some simpleminded emphasis that your group is different, e.g. "How to ACTUALLY raise money for charity with just a few clicks" or some improved variant of that. I know I would be curious enough to click.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-10T02:15:26.503Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a moral calculus, the decision is a no brainer.

Not unless you agree with the charity in question. Say some people request a pro-life charity, and some people request a pro-choice charity; some people want to donate to African aid agencies, and some people want to oppose African aid agencies because they think they're harmful. Depending on the charity chosen, many people would want to oppose this decision.

comment by magfrump · 2010-02-10T05:43:10.372Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Using meta-charities like GiveWell might help make the choice of charity less controversial.

comment by jsalvatier · 2010-02-10T06:43:03.761Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, there are huge differences between how much good the best charities accomplish and how much good the middle of the road charities accomplish. I am not sure why this was downvoted.

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T02:19:54.230Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's true, I suppose, but it shouldn't be hard to make sure that a sizable minority of the funds are doing real good in the world. I'm very open to ideas as to how to optimally have a community distribute the money, but that seems like a problem that we can solve when we get there. I also expect that Craig and Jim themselves would have strong opinions about the charities involved. I'm going to put a top level post up shortly; we can move all discussion there.

comment by Cyan · 2010-02-10T02:08:45.892Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd make a top level post on this right now if it wouldn't steal your karma.

comment by PlatypusNinja · 2010-02-10T05:41:28.114Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

each person could effectively cause $20,000 to be generated out of nowhere

As a rationalist, when you see a strange number like this, you have to ask yourself: Did I really just discover a way to make lots of money very efficiently? Or could it be that there was a mistake in my arithmetic somewhere?

That one billion dollars is not being generated out of nowhere. It is being generated as payment for ad clicks.
Let's check your assumptions: How much money will the average user generate from banner ad clicks in five years? How many users does Craigslist have? What fraction of those users would have to request banner ads, for Craigslist to add them?

My completely uneducated guess is 100$, ten million, and 50%. This matches your "generate one billion dollars" number but suggests that critical mass would be five million rather than fifty thousand. Note, also, that Facebook users are not necessarily Craigslist users.

I would be interested to hear what numbers you are using. Mine could easily be wrong.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T00:25:45.394Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's amazing if true. It's consistent with the background I've heard on Craigslist though.

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T00:39:47.830Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jim Buckmaster has what is by far my favorite CEO biography.

Possibly the only CEO ever described as anti-establishment, a communist, and a socialistic anarchist...

http://www.craigslist.org/about/jim_buckmaster

comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2010-02-10T01:02:48.141Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's the best charity (in utilitarian terms) that might get 50,000 supporters? ISTM that starting a Facebook group is a good way to find 50,000 to request Craig's list ads.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-02-10T20:12:47.323Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I have a good answer for this, but I'm going to be trying to figure out a better one. By now I know the people running most of the rational philanthropy orgs.

comment by Kevin · 2010-02-10T01:09:48.393Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe something against nuclear proliferation? Even then, that cause does not seem to inspire people deeply anymore. I had planned on letting the users themselves pick where the money goes, something like proportional voting charity distribution. Basically, if we lead this, I think we'd have enough control and influence that we could convince users to vote for the money to go to our pet causes, even if the majority is going to mainstream causes.

There might be enough work involved in community management that it made sense to hire a full time employee to organize the charitable distributions -- if someone from the community took that job, it would again give our causes more influence.

Twitter will also be a useful tool. Craig obsessively checks his Twitter and replies to most messages, so once we get what we feel to be a useful mass we can start aggressively tweeting at Craig. But to me, it seems logical to get the users organized on Facebook before moving on to Twitter, as I don't want to blow annoying Craig on Twitter by annoying him just enough to ignore us, but not enough to do what we say.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-09T22:30:07.688Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But ultimately, the only way I find to cope is not caring.

Me too. I hear of a tragedy, and I think, "So what? People die every day."

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-09T22:49:37.386Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Caring should be different than being surprised that it happened. If I stole $1 from you everyday I suspect you would still care every time I did it.

The reason I say this is because "So what?" applies to both surprise and caring. If I tell you the sun rose today you could reply, "So what?" You don't care, but in a surprised sense of the word, not in an sympathetic sense of the word.

Likewise, if you don't feel sympathetic by someone dying it is more likely because you don't have any emotional investment in them. If your best friend died you wouldn't respond by saying, "So what? People die every day."

In other words, you don't care because (a) it isn't a surprise and (b) you aren't emotionally invested in the tragedy.

comment by randallsquared · 2010-02-10T14:13:06.657Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I stole $1 from you everyday I suspect you would still care every time I did it.

I don't think so. Most people in the US pay more than $400/yr in taxes which support things they claim to despise (though not all the same things, of course). Yet the vast majority of Americans do not seem to be upset about paying taxes, something which they typically have no choice in except not to make the money.

Once you've been stealing money for a while, it's relatively easy to convince people that it's okay "because it's always been this way".

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-10T16:14:20.058Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed. Milton Friedman regretted his part in inventing income tax withholding, for this reason.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T14:30:28.588Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awesome. Where do you live?

comment by Kutta · 2010-02-09T22:58:20.460Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I sometimes try to imagine simple relevant situations such as being presented with two buttons:

Blue button: kill the man

Red button: save the man

I often find myself being able to choose very quickly, without being required to feel any excessive emotion about the matter. This way I know if I care for things, even though I might just feel like "So what?"

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-09T23:26:11.541Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had a whole grid of these at one point. They got pretty interesting after a while, but I never typed it all up and condensed it into anything useful.

A fun one: Is someone morally responsible for accidently pushing a button that will kill a crowd of people but then choosing not to stop it before it happens?

comment by spriteless · 2010-02-09T21:59:23.266Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So you're defining 'nice' as what is inside, while he is defining it as what you do. Personally I like it better that way as lots of people who claim to be nice if only you got to know them are needy jerks.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2010-02-14T22:51:41.243Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Unlikely; the best you can do is buy yourself "offsets"; but you'd usually save more lives with more self-denial.)

I disagree. I don't know about you, but my morale is very highly related to my productivity. The fact that I'm working to save lives actually causes me to engage in less self-denial: I reason that if I have the opportunity to waste 30 minutes of someone else's time in exchange for 5 more minutes for myself, I should take the opportunity because it results in the most expected lives saved. (Keeping in mind Eliezer's point about holding doors open for little old ladies, of course. If doing what I just described violated some clear societal convention, I wouldn't do it because I would be stressed out and unable to think clearly afterwards.)

I'd say you should definitely get at least semi-regular haircuts, because how you look strongly affects what people think of you, and what people think of you strongly affects your morale. Buying coffee from Starbucks is probably a better idea than brewing it yourself. Coffee might actually be a detriment to your productivity, but you won't be effective trying to change everything about your life at once, so only work on it if it's one of the most effective and practical changes to your life you can think of. Going to the movies is probably a bad idea, although watching movies that you've downloaded from the internet when you don't seem to be able to get any work done is a good one. Doing things with friends that are more socially intensive than movie-watching is a good idea, especially if you can talk to them about the stuff you're working on.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-09T22:11:15.307Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll try and find the sources I was linked to when I asked my friends about this, but the conclusion was that saving a life costs much more than I had thought: it's around $500 per life. Of course the utility of SingInst donations weren't factored into that, I shan't speculate on the per-life cost of donations there...

EDIT: it was indeed GiveWell - thanks gregconen!

comment by gregconen · 2010-02-10T02:56:55.477Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Givewell pegs VillageReach at $545 (Look under "what you get for your dollar"). That charities own numbers put it at $200.

So it's not quite one per latte, but most people could save a few.

comment by Vive-ut-Vivas · 2010-02-09T21:01:41.308Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's stressful living in America when you realize that every time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone.

Can you explain more about what you mean by this, exactly? If I'm killing several people a day, I'd really like to know about it.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-02-09T21:44:11.518Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By spending that money on yourself, instead of sending it to buy bags of rice for a famine-stricken region, or mosquito nets for malaria-ridden countries, or tin wood stoves, or water pumps, or water filters, or transparent plastic bottles, or latrines, or condoms, or any of the various simple and inexpensive supplies or devices that aid agencies are distributing around the world.

There are a lot of aid agencies that waste money; but there are some that don't. I don't know how much money it takes nowadays to save a life; the value keeps changing, and different studies biased in different ways conclude different things. But it's certainly less than what I spend each month on coffee. It's less than I could save each month by turning my heat down. It's much less than I could make over the weekend by taking a second job.

It's also true that many of the attempts to save lives are foiled by the people whose lives are at stake. Cultural conventions prevent people in one area prevents people from boiling their water, because drinking water that has been heated is believed to be a confession of weakness. In some places, people won't believe in germs. In some places, the first people who do what the aid workers tell them to are poor people who hope to gain status by associating with foreigners; and this taints whatever it is as "something poor people do". I remember someone saying they'd gone and built concrete latrines somewhere, and the people refused to use them, because of negative cultural implications of concrete. So they built wooden latrines that wouldn't last, but that people would use. And the stories of aid workers who give people things that they don't take care of and so break soon after the foreigners leave are numerous.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-09T22:06:40.303Z · score: 25 (29 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I never understood how this morality worked. The problem I see with this view is that you are double counting the value of money.

  • You work an hour and get $10, but the employer just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • You buy a latte and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • LatteShop pays LatteBoy $10 for an hour of work and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring him instead of sending it for aid

The $10 doesn't leave the system and everyone who touches it just killed a whole slew of people because they sent it somewhere other than aid. Why are you carrying the moral burden?

Even if you did send it to aid you can blame them for charging $10 for their work instead of $9. (Or whatever company that is selling the rice, nets, stoves, filters, bottles, condoms.)

You could even blame the person receiving the aid for using the aid instead of giving it to someone less fortunate. Or using less of it. Or selling it for $11 and putting the extra money back into aid.

Somewhere in here something goes horribly wrong and it gets ridiculous. Where did I misstep?

EDIT: I really don't want to give the impression that you shouldn't give money or help people less fortunate than yourself. I think these are great things. I just don't understand the jump from "I bought a latte" to "I killed people."

comment by Dustin · 2010-02-09T22:29:17.401Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When your employer pays you $10, it's not as simple as him having $10 and giving it to you. You, in part, created that $10 out of nothing.

Otherwise, what would be the point of hiring you in the first place?

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-09T22:32:56.457Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That doesn't really detract from his point.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-02-10T02:20:54.870Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It actually does. If you see wealth as zero-sum, then you start worrying about how to distribute it, as in the Zachary Baumkletterer reductio ad absurdum above (which was amazing).

However, if you understand capitalism and realize that wealth is positive-sum, and that when someone makes money, the world becomes richer, you can avoid making Zachary's mistake. In other words, you can help people by creating more wealth, not just by reducing your own.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T03:21:49.395Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, yeah, I ended up coming to a similar conclusion. (I think. Your input would be valued. :D )

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-10T02:32:41.814Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that understanding capitalism and the fact that wealth distribution is not a zero sum game help avoid Zachary's mistake. I actually thought that was the obvious moral of MrHen's example but in retrospect its probably not sufficiently obvious to everyone.

comment by Dustin · 2010-02-09T22:54:14.494Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wasn't trying to detract from his point. I was merely offering a clarification.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-02-10T02:57:14.250Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhere in here something goes horribly wrong and it gets ridiculous. Where did I misstep?

Right at the beginning, when you failed to distinguish between killing and failing to save. These are not morally equivalent.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-10T02:21:53.597Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this chain of money changing hands, only you have a real moral choice. If your employer didn't hire you and instead gave the $10 to aid, then it wouldn't have had a service or produce to sell and therefore wouldn't have gotten that $10 in the first place. Similarly for LatteShop.

But if you didn't buy a latte, you would still have gotten the $10.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T02:44:58.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your employer didn't hire you and instead gave the $10 to aid, then it wouldn't have had a service or produce to sell and therefore wouldn't have gotten that $10 in the first place.

Okay... this makes some sense. I had to work it out like this before I understood it:

  • My employer hires me
  • I do work
  • Employer gets stuff
  • Employer sells stuff
  • Employer pays me
  • I kill people

But I don't really think this addresses the problem. In this scenario, whoever bought the stuff my employer sold just killed a bunch of people. So... my original question gets changed to:

  • I work for an hour and get paid $10, but whoever bought the fruits of my labor just killed $10 worth of people
  • I buy the fruits of someone else's labor and kill $10 worth of people

Obviously this is simplifying economy and labor and yada, yada. We could go into more detail, but unless you think the answer lies in those details I would rather not.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-10T03:12:06.686Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, assuming that the fruits of your labor that was bought for $10 is another luxury (say a bottle of wine) instead of a necessity, then that person also killed $10 worth of people. Because suppose he had bought $10 worth of mosquito nets, then you could have worked as a mosquito net maker instead of a vintner, and you still would have gotten the $10. The two of you could have saved $20 worth of people, so not doing that is equivalent to each killing $10 worth of people.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T03:24:54.493Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it finally clicked. The key point I was missing was that $10 costs time for me to obtain. By the time I obtain it, more people die.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T12:28:01.596Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted for clarity.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-10T04:22:32.592Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I work for an hour and get paid $10, but whoever bought the fruits of my labor just killed $10 worth of people

They almost certainly would have anyway. I really don't see why this matters. You're (presumably) not trying to minimize aggregate sinfulness or anything like that, you're trying to save lives. Therefore, you choose the action with the highest expected lives saved. It's that simple.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T04:28:07.227Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The puzzle has nothing to do with lives saved. The puzzle has to do with assigning moral responsibility.

But elsewhere I figured out my missing piece.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-10T02:34:04.703Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But if you didn't buy a latte, you would still have gotten the $10.

Presumably by providing goods or services to other people who chose not to give their money to aid.

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T00:12:03.855Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that if, counterfactually, you chose to act to reduce death and suffering in the world today you could save lives. Others could do the same, but both you and they are refraining from doing so. And your post (talking about "money in the system") sounds like it is confusing money as a medium of exchange for the productive value of your labor (which has a certain market value).

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T00:24:08.880Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I get the point. What I don't understand is why the point ends up at:

[E]very time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone.

A weird part of this sentiment is that it has nothing to do with haircuts or Starbucks. If I stop going to movies, I don't stop killing people. If I spend all of my money not killing people, I don't stop killing people. No matter how I act, I will always be killing people.

In addition, everyone is always killing people. The people dying are killing people. This is obviously wrong but I don't see how the beginning parts about drinking Starbucks can be true but the latter parts about everyone killing people can be false.

And your post (talking about "money in the system") sounds like it is confusing money as a medium of exchange for the productive value of your labor (which has a certain market value).

$10 is an easy way to talk about value. The specifics of monetary systems and their relation to labor isn't really relevant to the point. (At least, as far as I can tell.)

comment by ektimo · 2010-02-09T23:28:15.756Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Imagine a 1st world economy where nobody ever spends any money on aid. If you live in that hypothetical world you (anybody) could take $200 that is floating around and prevent a death (which is not the same as killing somebody but that's a different point). Our world is somewhat like that. I don't think things are as convenient as you're implying.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T00:26:42.201Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(which is not the same as killing somebody but that's a different point)

Actually, this is exactly the point. My comment is directly addressing an explanation for this claim:

[E]very time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone.

This claim was backed up with this paragraph:

By spending that money on yourself, instead of sending it to buy bags of rice for a famine-stricken region, or mosquito nets for malaria-ridden countries, or tin wood stoves, or water pumps, or water filters, or transparent plastic bottles, or latrines, or condoms, or any of the various simple and inexpensive supplies or devices that aid agencies are distributing around the world.

Your point is still very valid, which is why I went out of my way to say this:

EDIT: I really don't want to give the impression that you shouldn't give money or help people less fortunate than yourself. I think these are great things. I just don't understand the jump from "I bought a latte" to "I killed people."

comment by ektimo · 2010-02-10T00:44:48.559Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point I'm responding to is:

Why are you carrying the moral burden?

Because everyone is. I'm assuming you meant that comment as saying something like the burden is diluted since so many people touch the money, but I don't think that is valid.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T00:58:23.361Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, okay. Thanks for clarifying.

That phrase did not mean to imply anything about diluted burdens. It is there to ask the question, "Wait, if you're killing all of these people, isn't everyone killing all of these people?" Your response seems to be, "Yes, they are."

The followup question is: If one of the people who receives aid is included in the swath of killers? Theoretically, the recipient could have given the aid to someone else and that person could have lived. Instead, the recipient was selfish and chose to live by killing another person. Actually, everyone who could have received the aid but didn't and died was killed by the one who did receive.

Something is going wrong here. What is it?

comment by Nisan · 2010-02-10T01:47:24.758Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you make a decision that results in fewer people living than might have lived, Phil Goetz calls that "killing a person". If you are an aid recipient, then giving up your aid and your life to save another person will not change the number of people who live, so it doesn't count as "killing a person".

If, however, you have the means to save two people with the aid you're receiving, then you're "killing a person" by not sacrificing your life -- assuming your life counts as much as anyone else's.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T03:20:54.640Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suppose another point to add is that "aid" is worth "one life." The actual specific life doesn't matter as long as one life is being redeemed with the aid.

If you do this, than the value of aid could be forecasted to include scenarios where the cost of aid decreases or the amount available to spend on aid increases. It would be okay to spend $10 to get $20 and then turn it into 2 lives saved. So, the question becomes 1 life now, 2 lives later.

Okay, yeah, this makes it work. The trick is valuing $10 at one life. If you are getting less than one life for $10 than you are getting robbed. Or, more accurately, you are saying that whatever you did get for $10 is worth the same as a life.

$10 is just a number. We could put in $X.

So... does this mean anything? If 1 life is $X and a random material thing costs $X, than of course they cost the same. By definition, they have the same dollar value.

Does the question become how much moral value can you get per dollar value? In that case, the best moral value per dollar is spending all of your dollars on lives saved. This throws us back into the field of value systems, but in a way that makes sense.

Okay, so does this actually answer my original question?

I never understood how this morality worked. The problem I see with this view is that you are double counting the value of money.

  • You work an hour and get $10, but the employer just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • You buy a latte and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • LatteShop pays LatteBoy $10 for an hour of work and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring him instead of sending it for aid

The $10 doesn't leave the system and everyone who touches it just killed a whole slew of people because they sent it somewhere other than aid. Why are you carrying the moral burden?

It answers the question by saying, since $10 can be spent to save 1 life but you are instead spending the money on a latte, you value a latte as much as you value 1 life. But this is a tautology. The next step is saying, "Therefore, you are killing someone by not saving them and buying a latte instead."

The implication could be that if X equals Y in one value system than X equals Y in all value systems. But this is obviously false.

The implication could be that you should spend all dollars in a way that maximizes moral value. Or, more accurately, it is more moral to trade dollars for higher moral value. The inverse would be that it is less moral to trade dollars for lower moral value.

I can see the jump from this to the statement, "[E]very time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone."

The reason my initial criticism actually fails is because a latte costs $10 and the time it takes to earn $10. By the time I get another $10, someone dies.

The next person who touches the $10 has the same moral weight because time is ticking away. This is why we have the question of asking if 1 life now is better than 2 lives later. If the particular 1 life now was included in the 2 lives later the answer would be trivial. The actual question is, 1 life now, or 2 lives and 1 death later.

So the specific answer to my question:

  • $10 can be translated into time.
  • I can earn $10 with one hour-value.
  • The moral value of a life will expire in one hour.
  • $10 can save a life or buy a latte.
  • So, with one hour-value I can save a life or buy a latte.
  • If I don't save the life, it will expire.

The next person to touch the $10 doesn't matter because the real value being spent behind the scenes is the hour-value.

Tada! There was an answer.

And it was so close to something Dustin said. If only he had said "one hour" instead of "nothing."

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-10T01:03:52.721Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something is going wrong here. What is it?

Possibly that "killing people" is connotationally a horrible unforgivable thing, but you (correctly) perceive that it's a bad idea to regard letting people die as always a horrible unforgivable thing. Certainly that you're disputing mere definitions.

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T01:41:42.070Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand a morality system can look at someone who is dying receive aid and blame them for the deaths of the people next to them when the aid ran out. Why in the world should they be given any moral responsibility in the situation?

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-10T02:07:07.282Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. This is part of what I meant by "it's a bad idea to regard letting people die as always a horrible unforgivable thing"; I also meant that even comfortable First Worlders wouldn't necessarily do the most good by regarding themselves, or other comfortable First Worlders, as horrible people for acting suboptimally.

(In contexts like this, I see "moral responsibility" as purely instrumental: A's moral responsibilities are just those things it would be expected-utility-maximizing to hold A responsible for. Ditto praise/blameworthiness and which actions to label as "killing".)

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T02:11:39.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough.

I have not convinced myself that "drinking lattes is killing people" necessarily leads to "accepting aid is killing people." I followed a path there, but I am assuming that people who believe "drinking lattes is killing people" don't believe "accepting aid is killing people." Where did I step differently?

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-10T02:18:35.998Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Others are probably just not willing to bite the bullet of blaming people (if only connotationally) for accepting aid. Or they may be thinking about it instrumentally, like me, in which case the different reasonableness of the demands actually is relevant.

Also, there's what Nisan said.

comment by ektimo · 2010-02-10T01:09:12.355Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Part of it is that person let someone else die (theoretically) to save his own life. You let someone die for the Latte.

Note: I drink the Latte (occasionally), but it's because I think I can be more effective on the big stuff and that not saving is less bad than killing (as we both agree).

comment by MrHen · 2010-02-10T01:42:14.776Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Part of it is that person let someone else die (theoretically) to save his own life. You let someone die for the Latte.

He didn't let someone else die. He let a whole lot of someone elses die. I get the point of there being a difference between him and the latte, but I still think something weird is going on here.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-09T21:50:56.201Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Under conventional legal and ethical principles, not providing someone with aid that may extend their life is not generally considered the same as killing them. Your personal ethical code may see it that way but you will find many people disagree with you (me included).

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-10T02:19:57.218Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. Anyway you also need to consider the "don't feed stray animals" principle. Will saving lives in the Third World ultimately cause more suffering and misery?

I was a bit surprised to hear that Ethiopia's population has doubled since the famine there in the 1980s. Where does it end?

comment by Torben · 2010-02-14T12:01:02.189Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was a bit surprised to hear that Ethiopia's population has doubled since the famine there in the 1980s. Where does it end?

Expected to double again by 2050.

I think it is a very fair point that by alleviating suffering today we may be compounding it in the future. A rebuttal might be that it is 'merely' a matter of doing the right thing today as well as in the future.

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-14T13:31:04.997Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see a couple problems with this: First, is it fair for us (meaning westerners) to leave a problem like this for our descendants to solve?

Second, it seems that these poor folks are growing in numbers much faster than our numbers are growing. So the burden of feeding them may end up getting worse and worse until it's no longer possible.

I suppose it might be argued in response that if and when the Singularity comes, we will be able to address these other problems. Still, I'm not sure it's fair to actually bet our descendants' futures on this.

comment by Torben · 2010-02-16T20:47:08.475Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does our "solving it" in the present lead to its exacerbation in the future? How will Ethiopians manage to control their population? Will our aid today directly cause 20 million people to starve in 2050?

On your points:

  • Is it us westerners' or the Ethiopians' problem to solve? I mean they've so far made it ~2.5 times worse than We are the world.

  • At some point their birth rate will either have to equal their death rate (+ immigration) or their starvation will not be solvable by anyone or anything short of a Singularity.

The way I see it, the primary responsibility is on Ethiopians. We may alleviate, but we cannot cure.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-02-15T00:58:54.864Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a flimsy rejection, since Phil mentioned donating to programs that provide contraceptives in the Third World.

comment by SirBacon · 2010-02-16T04:42:25.760Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

GDP per capita is a better predictor of fertility than access to contraceptives.

The rejection is only as flimsy as the contraceptive programs are effective, on the margins where increased funding might make a difference. They may not be very effective at all while additional children are still profitable.

"Socioeconomic development is considered the main cause of a decline over time in the benefits of having children and a rise in their costs."

"http://www.jstor.org/pss/20058399"

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-15T02:10:52.319Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well I agree that to the extent that the "aid" we are talking about is contraception, then my "don't feed stray animals" objection clearly doesn't apply.

comment by orthonormal · 2010-02-15T02:36:46.127Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough. I agree with mattnewport as well, though I'd say that 'providing someone with aid that may extend their life' is probably a moral obligation to some extent, in a reasonable extrapolation of my and your revealed values.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-09T22:25:52.785Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know how much money it takes nowadays to save a life; the value keeps changing, and different studies biased in different ways conclude different things.

According to GiveWell it costs something on the order of $1,000 to save a life.

comment by GuySrinivasan · 2010-02-09T22:54:59.557Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also according to Bill Gates. But that calculation is wrong in an important way. In fact (AFAICT) it currently costs something on the order of $1000 x N to save some large number of lives N via any single method whose efficacy has low variance in the number of lives saved.

If you're willing to use a lot of different methods and only fund them up to some relatively low limit, you can save a lot more expected lives per dollar - but the cheap methods aren't always scalable due to (e.g.) not enough people with an easily cured fatal disease, and if you're spending enough money the costs of finding all of the cheap unscalable methods may be fairly high.

If you're willing to accept a high variance, like p=0.9 of saving no one and p=0.1 of saving tons of people, you can save a lot more expected lives per dollar - but you're a lot more susceptible to error here, since these methods often don't have nearly as many data points that show p is really 0.1 and not 0.001.

comment by Rain · 2010-02-10T02:54:04.407Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, and feel the same way, though I suppose I'm not as generally nice as you. Just recently, I was talking with some friends about the earthquake in Haiti. I said that the Haitian relief effort was inappropriate to the scale of the tragedy considering existential risk, deaths by aging, even overshadowed by mundane things like starvation in Africa, etc. I said, wouldn't it be so much better if people could look at the Haitian earthquake and say to themselves, "Suffering is horrible! Where can I, personally, correct the most suffering?"

The phrase I've created to cope with the situation is, "The only way out is through." That is to say, people will die regardless of how much I work to save them. So, find what has the highest chance of saving the most people over the longest time, invest there, and trust in forward progress to create technologies and energy sources that can alleviate all this suffering before it's too late.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-09T22:16:48.074Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You speak a little as if Eliezer is literally a quadrillion times more concerned about the future of humanity than he is about a single sick child he meets on a train. This would be absolutely impossible for a human being. Though recognising the error of scope insensitivity will and should change the extent of your emotional reaction some, "shut up and multiply" can't sensibly be an injunction to actually scale them to match. We can't feel these numbers, but we can and should think them.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-02-09T21:42:35.340Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I think the correct thing to do is to recognize that a simple abstraction like "number of people involved" isn't the only thing that is relevant to deciding whether a course of action is appropriate.

Note that the behavior consequences of "shut up and multiply" and "shut up and divide" are largely the same in this particular case... both argue that one should ignore Amanda's situation because she's only one person and based on raw numbers she (as well as you, and I, and pretty much every individual person on the planet) don't really matter relative to the rest of the world in aggregate.

The big behavioral consequence of the two paths (multiplication versus division) seems to be the distinction between taking one's personal selfishness (say, the objective fact that you'd cry more if a fingernail were ripped off than if you heard of the death of 1000 strangers on the far side of the planet) to mean that you really would or should choose to preserve your fingernail over the people, if the choice was somehow actually presented to you in reality. That is, the theories have different consequences only in one's behavioral orientation towards "the big picture".

If this distinction is the case, then maybe it makes more sense to limit yourself to thinking about the right thing to do for big picture questions? (Note that if you were going to truly apply a the division principle across all human circumstances this would apply to yourself just as much as Amanda... and I'm not sure if you're also advocating self-disregard or not.)

In the meantime, I personally think that it is important to pay attention to more than the number of people involved. In my case, I pay a lot of attention to my "responsibility" in terms of my actual literal ability to respond. This causes me to focus on my degree of knowledge and proximity to other people (or groups of people) when I try to decide if I can effectively improve a situation.

Assuming basically competent adults are involved, other adults can probably take care of themselves better than other people can take care of them, and if their self-help abilities are limited they may still think of attempts to help more as "meddling interference". The utility of assistance will thus be reduced by the transaction costs imposed by attempts to coordinate with the person or people being helped. If they're hostile and resistive to help, it may tragically be a case where leaving them to their own unfortunate circumstances is the best way to achieve good in the world. If they're falsely signaling greater need than they actually experience, that's also something I don't want to support.

In the meantime, if you've developed a good set of cooperative understandings with other people it can make more sense for you to continue to cooperate with those people even in the presence of more needy third parties, just because you don't know much about them and don't have cooperation protocols worked out.

When I saw komponisto's initial post about Amanda Knox I did stop and think about it for a while. My first impression based on 10 minutes of reading was that a miscarriage of justice was probably happening based on prosecutorial and investigative confirmation biases compounded by subsequent public commitment and unwillingness to lose political credibility. I estimated something like a 20% chance that she'd committed the crime (though obviously she was formally "guilty" because notionally legitimate legal forms had been followed to apply a legal status of "guilty" to Amanda).

The reason I worried about it in the first place was possibility that I'd someday be trapped in a foreign country, not having committed a crime, but subject to a crazy and xenophobic justice system, and I would be relying on moral compatriots to intervene on my behalf. The thing that prevented me from either posting my estimates in that thread or becoming politically involved in Amanda's actual case was the recognition that there were other people already in a better position to do the right thing than myself.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-09T21:58:38.943Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The thing that prevented me from either posting my estimates in that thread or becoming politically involved in Amanda's actual case was the recognition that there were other people already in a better position to do the right thing than myself.

While that might be a defensible reason for not getting "involved", I'm curious about why it prevented you from merely posting your estimates in the survey.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-02-09T22:13:43.032Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To a large degree, public commitment is involvement.

My fair share, as an American, to a hypothetical "free Amanda Knox if independent investigation determines she should actually be freed" fund would be less than a penny. Between my stopping to consider it earlier and posting about it here I've already done more than that. The transaction costs here are so large that the right thing is probably for something like one in a thousand people to randomly be assigned to even worry if they should care, and if they do donate a few bucks to the cause.

Also, I was mostly a lurker at that time, and assuming I started posting (as I have recently) I didn't want such a controversial and specific issue to determine my initial trajectory here.

I consider Wei Dai's meta-meta-ethical considerations to be much more relevant to an actual concrete project that I care about much more: building mutual cooperation protocols with this community, starting with abstract principles and methods for deriving them, and working through to implications, and eventually (hopefully) reaching actions in the world that benefit me, the rest of the community here, and the broader world that I assume most of us care about.

comment by Jack · 2010-02-09T22:32:40.808Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, but the exercise had a lot of value independent whatever it did to aid Amanda Knox. The reason it was so popular wasn't because it hit our "protect young, attractive American women button" but because we were really excited to have a chance to test out rationality.

Also, I was mostly a lurker at that time, and assuming I started posting (as I have recently) I didn't want such a controversial and specific issue to determine my initial trajectory here.

This was very smart of you.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-09T22:31:45.753Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, honestly, I think you may be overestimating the extent to which spitting out a probability estimate on a survey post would have represented "commitment", or would have "determined your initial trajectory" on LW (you could always have done it anonymously, after all!).

But, given what you've written here, I can't complain. As one who cares about this cause, I'm glad you stopped to think about it at all, and even more happy that you've now told us what you thought.

comment by aausch · 2010-02-11T19:18:15.877Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I (unfortunately) keep misreading "Shut up and multiply" to instead say "Shut up and procreate", to significant humorous (at least to me) effect.

comment by Jack · 2010-02-09T21:28:52.517Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know what kind of person this makes me but I was interested in the Knox case because it was a fun puzzle that involved sex, drugs, murder, conspiracy, abuse of power, and Satanic orgies.

More on what you're actually asking, once I process it.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T18:17:17.225Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I'm with Wei in his analysis - resolving the inconsistency from the top down, not from the bottom up.

I accept that our feelings of empathy and compassion are something evolution came up with in order to make us function decently in small groups. I accept that this empathy works only for small groups, and cannot scale to groups that are too large for everyone to keep track of each other. Maintaining cohesion and functionality in larger groups requires formal mechanisms such as hierarchy and money, and empathy is at best of marginal value, or at worst sabotages a constructive order. Universal empathy is, if not outright impossible, at least very difficult to reconcile with the things we do to other creatures for convenience.

Of abstract things related to humanity, my top values are creativity and prosperity, not individual people. My perception is that a relatively small proportion of people contribute the vast majority of that which I value. On the other hand, a relatively large proportion of people are having disruptive or destructive effects.

I therefore do not value human life in general, just like I don't value bacteria in general, but I value that human life (and that bacteria) which contributes towards the creativity and prosperity I want to see. People who undermine that, I have no compassion for, and I would in fact prefer them to not exist.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-05-13T13:17:06.481Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, a relatively large proportion of people are having disruptive or destructive effects.

How so?

comment by thomblake · 2010-02-11T18:25:10.139Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you for the most part, except that actually thinking that out loud has the tendency to make one a heartless bastard, and I don't want to be that sort of person.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-11T18:47:02.146Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depends how you define 'heartless bastard'. The attitude denisbider describes is actually more compatible with specific, personal acts of kindness than hardcore utilitarianism. Accepting that empathy and compassion evolved to deal with small groups and embracing it means you don't have to feel bad about helping someone you have direct contact with because your help would be more 'effective' from a utilitarian perspective if directed towards a stranger who is objectively worse off.

A consistent utilitarian might, for example, refuse to contribute to a charitable collection to pay for treatment for a co-worker's child's leukemia treatment because that money would save more lives if used to help starving children in Africa. Most people would view that as being more of a heartless bastard than someone who contributes but doesn't donate much if anything to African aid. I happen to think that the majority opinion is right in this case and the utilitarians are the ones who are both wrong and horribly confused.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-11T22:23:43.364Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Accepting that empathy and compassion evolved to deal with small groups and embracing it means you don't have to feel bad about helping someone you have direct contact with because your help would be more 'effective' from a utilitarian perspective if directed towards a stranger who is objectively worse off.

You don't have to feel bad about it in any case. Decision theory and emotions are different things.

(Previous comment on this.)

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T18:31:48.450Z · score: 1 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually thinking that out loud makes you honest. People who think of themselves as compassionate are much the same as I described, except that they would rather have me not exist, because my existence violates their values. Instead, they would prefer the existence of non-contributing people who need their help. (I have actually heard that from folks like that, in quite those words.)

The difference between me and such people is that they don't understand themselves - nor the dynamics of the world we live in. It's frustrating to be labeled a heartless bastard, but understanding what I do and acting differently would make me a hypocrite and spread falsity. According to my values, that's much worse.

It's also interesting to see how karma on this site falls steadily with honesty, and what that implies about what the balance of readers come here for. Sadly, it seems to be to further their existing preconceptions. :)

comment by Jack · 2010-02-11T23:33:20.647Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's also interesting to see how karma on this site falls steadily with honesty,

People downvote views that are ill-defined, poorly thought out, impolite, morally repugnant or just dumb. The fact that someone might hold such views honestly is basically irrelevant.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T23:44:23.577Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of your criticisms here appear to be resulting from "morally repugnant", which means that I hold a view wildly different from that which you find acceptable, but you can't quite figure out why. If you test me, you may find that my views are neither ill-defined, nor poorly thought out, nor dumb; nor even morally repugnant.

Your criticism about politeness is valid however. I do not try to be polite unless the other person is already polite, which creates a sort of vicious circle half the time. I'd like to improve that.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-02-11T22:21:01.999Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People who think of themselves as compassionate are much the same as I described, except that they would rather have me not exist, because my existence violates their values. Instead, they would prefer the existence of non-contributing people who need their help. (I have actually heard that from folks like that, in quite those words.)

I'm sure this is often the case, but please don't overgeneralize.

It's also interesting to see how karma on this site falls steadily with honesty

Your grandparent post is at +2 as I write this.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T22:41:36.357Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sure this is often the case, but please don't overgeneralize.

True; point taken. I find it likely that many (perhaps most here) are not like that.

Your grandparent post is at +2 as I write this.

True. But overall, I'm down about 50 karma today, and still counting. :)

comment by brazil84 · 2010-02-13T17:37:02.635Z · score: -4 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's call a spade a spade. I think your position is as follows:

Generally speaking and on average, black people are destructive and dysfunctional, so that any conduct which increases the number of black people in the world makes the rest of us worse off, in general and on average.

Does that pretty much sum up your position?

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T00:29:53.896Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shut up? Maybe not. Divide? Yes: divide labor.

We don't all care about exactly the same things; we may have, as some philosopher has doubtless put it, different "moral tastes". But these tastes probably vary continuously, and there's bound to be enough overlap to make effective cooperation possible.

There probably isn't anybody else here who cares about the Knox case to quite the same extent that I do; but there are a fair number who care about it enough to have had a discussion about it. And I expect that even those (such as yourself) who don't care about it at all would prefer, all else being equal, to live in a world where such things did not happen -- so, I'm guessing, they (you) don't really mind too much if others do care. A situation like this allows effective, cooperative moral action: I write a post, others discuss it, and still others allow said discussion to coexist in the same space where they discuss what they care about. Hopefully, some net benefit to the world is achieved. (Then, later, the roles switch, and the favors are reciprocated, resulting in some other, different benefit.)

I would like to raise the possibility that what's really going on here is not that you've made a decision to dilute all of your caring, but rather that you don't care about the exact same things that I do: a simple difference of personality. While I am hardly able to stop thinking about the Knox case, you are inclined to expend your psychological resources elsewhere (whether on other "moral causes", or other activities in general). So long as we are able to cooperate effectively and avoid negative-sum conflicts, this may not pose any serious problem.

I have, I think, a rather unusual psychological makeup. For some reason, I am susceptible to being moved by the plight of someone like Amanda Knox, to whom I don't have any known personal connection, to a greater degree than most people. But I don't particularly dislike this fact about myself. In fact, I think it's quite nice that there are a certain number of people like this out there, so that someone like Amanda doesn't have to rely only on those close to her to champion her cause. If it were me in that situation, I would certainly hope that some people other than friends and relatives would care.

Being this way doesn't interfere with my ability to shut up and multiply; indeed, I have already mentioned, in the discussion that you linked to, how it helps me to care more about humanity's problems in general than I otherwise would. So I actually think it's a pretty good way to be. But if others are differently constituted, or just have different particular interests, let us divide up the moral labor and cooperate to the extent possible.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-02-09T23:42:00.503Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem with the Amanda Knox case is not scale, but distance. The farther away something is, the less influence I have over it, and the less influence it can have over me. Amanda Knox is far away in every sense - it's in a different country, a different time (the court case is already over), and a different language. It's like watching a year old YouTube video of an already-fired policeman from a town I've never heard of abusing his power - lots of people do it, but it's just getting riled up for no reason.

On the other hand, the point of the original Less Wrong Amanda Knox article wasn't that we should care about the real event, but as a rationality test case. A similar fictional story would've worked just as well, but using a real news story guaranteed that it'd be free of the distortions that come with writing fiction.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-10T08:41:26.532Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, komponisto pointed out one way in which you could have an influence on the Knox case: by donating money to the coalition formed by friends and relatives of Amanda.

I point this out because the exact same rationalization occurred to me: "The reason I can't get myself worked up about the case is that I'm entirely powerless to influence further events." But no: I did notice and even comment on komponisto's appeal to donate.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-10T12:04:29.828Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there a case to be made that this is an efficient way to give, compared to eg GiveWell's recommendations?

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-10T12:58:45.341Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a different question. Perhaps a different rationalization: "No, I'm not going to give $10 to the Knox defense fund, because it wouldn't make much of a difference."

One idea that I'm struggling to express (or perhas refute, if it's just a misconception of mine) is that investing effort in an area where someone else is likely to invest a countervailing effort may be less effective than investing in an area where you meet no opposing force.

Suppose, for instance, that a $10 donation to the Amanda Knox fund is somewhat likely to be matched by a $10 donation from someone else to a "justice for Meredith Kercher" fund. Then you may want to look instead for a way to use the same amount of money to improve the judicial system so that future occurrences are made less likely. Or on improving education in general, to raise the world's sanity level.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T13:08:24.623Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The prosecution of Knox is funded by the involuntary contributions of Italian taxpayers; the defense fund itself helps to provide (a small measure of) support against an already formidable opposing force.

comment by Morendil · 2010-02-10T13:21:44.992Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hear you. Yet, what I'm trying to express seems to make some intuitive sense, and I'd appreciate help in spotting whatever might be wrong with it.

Think of it in game theoretic terms: you have 10 points to can allocate between games A and B. Game A is a winner-take-all scenario, and your opponent has allocated 1000 points; the payoff is P. Game B is a percentage-return scenario; the payoff to each player is proportional to the amount they allocated (perhaps in much smaller proportion). In game A as in game B, your allocation may be aggregated with that of other players, but you are uncertain of how many are playing.

It seems to me that, depending on P and on your probability assignments for how many other players you're likely to be cooperating with in game A, it can be rational to choose to pass up game A altogether.

(Having expressed it that way, it seems somewhat similar to the "should I vote" question, as in "I should only vote if it's likely that my vote is the one that will tip the scales.")

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-10T12:47:52.300Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not a good one, as far as I can tell. Hundreds of thousands in legal fees, etc, could save hundreds of African lives.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T12:52:27.140Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See my comment.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T12:48:28.914Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was explicitly proposed as a form of warm-fuzzy giving, not as an efficient purchase of utilons.

Of course, for the specific purpose of helping Amanda and her family, it's the most efficient way of giving I know of.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-10T13:15:19.594Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I want to buy fuzzies, I am nice to my friends or by tuna for the cats. When it comes to spending on benefiting strangers, I can't see why I'd want to choose an inefficient way over an efficient way. But your mileage may vary.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T13:21:21.295Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you don't sympathize with Amanda enough that helping her would give you a fuzzy feeling, then obviously it's not a good use of your money (from your perspective).

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-10T13:33:48.734Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rather, if my sympathy for her is not at least two orders of magnitude greater than it is for unknown Africans. I don't mean that to sound moralistic - my sympathy for my cats really is greater, awful as that sounds.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T14:00:05.088Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, helping unknown Africans generally comes out of the utility budget, rather than the fuzzy budget. You may be different.

In any case, yes, it's a question of amount-of-fuzziness per unit-of-money donated.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-10T02:14:54.893Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(the court case is already over)

FYI, there will be an appeal in the coming months.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-06-09T11:15:43.857Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

but using a real news story guaranteed that it'd be free of the distortions that come with writing fiction.

o_0 If only. Journalism is telling stories about the world.[1] The primary sources of history are stories, put together by humans. And just because the humans in question were contemporaneous doesn't mean the stories are in any way free of most of the distortions of fiction.

[1] It's also many other things, but it's certainly that one.

comment by rwallace · 2010-02-10T16:36:20.585Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only way failing to save lives can be equated with killing people is by subscribing to pure utilitarianism. But by that philosophy, contraception is also equivalent to killing people: the end result is that fewer people are alive than in the counterfactual case where you had children. The counterargument that contraception is not immoral because you aren't obliged to have children is fine, but it also applies to the other case: you aren't obliged to give your money away either. In other words, we don't actually subscribe to pure utilitarianism, so we shouldn't pretend we do.

That having been said, my guess as to the best way to help people in the Third World -- the way with the highest expected utility, as well as the most assurance of positive rather than negative utility once all the consequences have worked themselves out -- is to support economic development in poor countries, to help them get to the point where they aren't poor countries anymore. In other words, to buy goods and services produced in the Third World.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but remember what our intuition evolved for: the gain of social status by giving donations, thereby establishing ourselves as having higher status than the ones to whom we give. To engage in a mutually beneficial transaction is to acknowledge the other party as our equal; no wonder it doesn't trigger the altruism instincts. So if our goal is to actually do the most good, we should expect the method to be counterintuitive.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-11T14:34:30.977Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only way failing to save lives can be equated with killing people is by subscribing to pure utilitarianism. But by that philosophy, contraception is also equivalent to killing people:

Naive total utilitarianism implies that - which is why I don't follow it. But you can have more complicated utilitarianist systems where failing to save lives is equivalent with killing people (and thus bad) while contraception is perfectly fine and in some cases laudable. That's close to the system I'm currently trying to formalise; we'll see if it works.

comment by wnoise · 2010-02-12T00:27:46.905Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be interested in seeing that done.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-12T11:01:17.023Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I might essay a post soon, on the subject.

comment by Jordan · 2010-02-10T06:34:29.012Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I divide likewise.

In fact, I'm more disgusted by people who care about small groups but not large groups than I am by the mass suffering of large groups itself.

comment by Upset_Nerd · 2010-02-11T13:30:24.497Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You seem to be saying that you find some peoples scope insensitivity to be more discusting than actual human suffering, but that seems like a perfect example of a pretty severe case of scope insensitivity in itself?

comment by CarlShulman · 2010-02-11T14:02:19.058Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This isn't nonsensical: modest reductions in the scope sensitivity of one Westerner can avert the suffering or death of many poor people, or increase the chance of a vast future.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-11T16:30:31.430Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may not be nonsensical, but it's still scope-insensitive.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-02-11T16:40:17.079Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, first of all, I don't see how that's an example of scope insensitivity. Second, suppose a deadly flu virus starts sweeping a country. Getting upset and outraged at the existence of flu and human suffering is unlikely to change the universe's mind. On the other hand, an inefficient response to that and other problems, making them worse, is very much our own fault. So it looks to me like that is very much a defensible position.

comment by Jordan · 2010-02-11T21:13:29.662Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I've never actually tried to defend my 'position'. I just wrote it off as a near/far effect: I don't see suffering, but I'm surrounded by scope insensitive people. I'll have to think more about your response and whether the position is actually defensible. Thanks.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-11T17:03:46.016Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, first of all, I don't see how that's an example of scope insensitivity.

It might conceivably be worth the suffering of a few to correct inconsistencies, but the suffering of large numbers is about the worst thing there is -- far worse than anybody's reasoning errors.

EDIT: Actually, on second thought, you may be right: scope insensitivity may not be the fundamental problem here. It's probably something more basic, like the fact that it's just wrong to prioritize people's-preferences-being-a-certain-way over avoiding suffering.

Getting upset and outraged at the existence of flu and human suffering is unlikely to change the universe's mind. On the other hand, an inefficient response to that and other problems, making them worse, is very much our own fault. So it looks to me like that is very much a defensible position.

I don't see how the defensibility of the original commenter's position follows from the previous two sentences.

comment by KnaveOfAllTrades · 2013-01-25T03:36:53.838Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whether it's scope insensitivity/defensible or not can be resolved by clarifying two things:

1) Jordan_2010's utility function
2) The purpose of disgust/{upset and outrage}

Say disgust is a feeling that arises only in response to certain types of ignorance, and a feeling which serves terminal values by neurochemically compelling one to reduce the ignorance, so increase awareness in such a way as to increase one's utility.

Then disgust 'would make sense at' ignorance, and not at the terminal bad itself.

Eliezer gave another example: It might not be effective ('unlikely to change the universe's mind') to be upset and outraged at matters of fact, and might be effective to be so at people with the power to reduce the utility-eating facts.

It might've been the case that it seemed initially that Jordan_2010 was suffering scope insensitivity due to a different initial sense of 'disgust', such as a general dismay that compels one to action. In that case, ceteris paribus, the terminal value should cause much more disgust, because it is the worse thing, and this general sense of disgust is more dense on terminal values than instrumental values. Then after reading Eliezer's comment mentioning upset and outrage, your sense of disgust/etc. changed to something more like what I mentioned earlier in this comment.

comment by Dagon · 2010-02-11T18:09:13.097Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if this is resolvable by biting the bullet that we don't care equally about all humans. "shut up and multiply" should more properly be called "shut up and sum".

You can't just divide the sum equally either - you have to realize that your preferences are different for different segments of the population.

comment by snarles · 2010-02-10T03:32:08.042Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not bothered by my scope insensitivity.

comment by Tiiba · 2010-02-12T00:37:01.897Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's because it's greater than you can comprehend.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-02-10T03:04:19.747Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a form of cognitive dissonance, where you notice your actions and your values are incongruent, and the resulting discomfort motivates you to reduce the gap between them. You can change your actions and leave your values the same, leave your actions the same and change your values, or somewhere in between.

Other people much, much prefer you change your actions - this is because your values are the guilt-free way of manipulating you. If I want Albert to make a paperclip, and I know Albert also wants to make a paperclip, then I can motivate Albert by making a case that his actions negative impact further paperclip production. I wouldn't like it if I said, "Albert, this doesn't help paperclip production," and he responded, "Yeah, you're right. Well, paperclips are overrated."

Basically, I want Albert to want something he doesn't already have, because then I can manipulate him without threatening him, which has large social consequences for me. If the only things Albert wants are things he already has, then I'm boned - I can either threaten him or give up.

SU&M is when you want something you don't have. SU&D is when you have everything you want.

Nietzsche wrote about this. "I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things... I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation." This is about as SU&D as you can get.

comment by AndyWood · 2010-02-09T20:24:07.507Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The title of this post jumped out at me. From a comment of mine, long ago:

Maximize happiness in the individual ... I say, "in the individual", in strong opposition to dust specks. I remain puzzled by why the "shut up and multiply" maxim would not be accompanied by "shut up and divide". (That is, 3^^^3 specks / 3^^^3 individuals = no pain.) I remain open to good arguments to the contrary - I haven't read one yet.

EDIT: That last sentence is no longer true. I regard this comment by Eliezer as the best argument I've seen, and one that still confounds my moral intuitions on specks:

While some people tried to appeal to non-linear aggregation, you would have to appeal to a non-linear aggregation which was non-linear enough to reduce 3^^^3 to a small constant. In other words it has to be effectively flat. And I doubt they would have said anything different if I'd said 3^^^^3.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-09T20:36:17.161Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, are we making the same point? Or am I just stealing your phrase for my own use?

comment by AndyWood · 2010-02-09T21:35:04.654Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not think we are talking about the same subject/application. I do think you are using the phrase to refer to roughly the same concept, and in the same context of how to do 'morality calculus'.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-02-09T20:31:44.514Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I forgot to Google that phrase. :) I'll link to your comment.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-11T14:31:48.955Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've had both factors; a diminshed caring for individual cases, and an increased caring for humanity. Some sort of mixed divinding/multiplying going on here...

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-11T16:24:54.047Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a strong, visceral negative reaction to this.

I'll point out that it seems contradictory, for one thing. "Humanity" is made up of humans; concern for humanity should be approximately the result of adding together one's concern for individual humans. If utility is multiplicative, then it's also divisible -- in which case an increased concern for humanity cannot be accompanied by a decreased concern for individuals without a significant increase in the population size (beyond what has happened in our lifetimes).

Of course, I'm not sure if the above is the true reason for my negative reaction. But it's darn well worth considering all the same.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-11T16:29:02.361Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Put it this way: I had concern level H for humanity, and h for a given individual. However, H was very far from being 6 billion times h. Now, this is closer to being the case; for this to happen, H has gone up while h has gone down.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-11T16:41:18.527Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This still bothers me; I feel like you should have just increased H without decreasing h.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-02-16T05:04:58.995Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why would you say that when you have no idea what his H or his h were in the first place?

It's intuitively difficult for us to accept, or at least to say, that having too much concern for a person is as possible as having too little.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-16T16:54:38.472Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why would you say that when you have no idea what his H or his h were in the first place?

Well, I don't have "no idea" -- I have a probability distribution informed by experience.

Having too much concern for an individual is theoretically possible I suppose, but it's not a problem anyone is terribly likely to suffer from. The reason most people don't care about most other people is not the fact that the human population is large; it's the fact that most of that large population isn't psychologically close enough for them to care.

It's possible that utilitarian calculations could argue for downgrading one's level of concern for e.g. Amanda Knox -- but I'm far more inclined to suspect rationalization of pre-existing natural indifference on the part of someone who makes a claim like that.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-12T11:00:29.812Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, h has increased on average; it's just that h has decreased for the immediately available examples. i.e. I care much less about Amanda Fox or a single salient example, but more about general, systematic effects that might cause great harm to people that I don't hear about.

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-12T15:04:35.909Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Amanda Fox

I assume you mean Amanda Knox.

Also, do you really care less about (i.e. assign less utility to the welfare of) someone like Amanda than previously, or is it just that you try to avoid strong emotional reactions to such individual cases?

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-02-12T15:45:25.636Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's look at it this way: if I had cash to hand, and was given the option: pay X to solve this particular salient injustice, then I'd be less inclined to do it than before.

On the other hand, if I was given the option: pay X to solve this particular class of injustices, then I'd be more inclined to do it than before.

Emotional involvement follows a similar trend.

comment by Dustin · 2010-02-09T22:37:13.896Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

WRT to not caring about the Knox case, I think the reason I don't care is the fact that I don't have the cognitive facilities to care about everything I feel like I should care about.

That being the case, I don't see anything wrong with using things that I do care about as filters to bring things to the fore for me to care about.

For example, I care about various home-brew energy solutions for poor people in developing countries because those things are related to other things that I already care about and am interested in.

The Knox case, as far as I can tell, barely brushes things that I'm already interested in. It may be a very big injustice, but there's lots of those.

comment by snarles · 2010-02-10T03:20:00.957Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is no general reason to be so concerned with your emotional consistency as to want to modify your emotions. You and Eliezer might simply be abnormally concerned with being consistent, or being perceived as such.

comment by Rain · 2010-02-10T17:46:35.618Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What ethical principles can we use to decide between "Shut Up and Multiply" and "Shut Up and Divide"?

Why do we have to decide between them? Long before I ever heard of "Shut Up and Multiply," I used a test that produced the same results, but worked equally well for "Shut Up and Divide." My general statement was, "Be consistent." I would put things in the appropriate context and make sure to apply similar value functions regardless of size or scope - or, perhaps to phrase it better, making sure my consistently applied value function definitely considered size and scope.

Why should we derive our values from our native emotional responses to seeing individual suffering, and not from the equally human paucity of response at seeing large portions of humanity suffer in aggregate? Or should we just keep our scope insensitivity, like our boredom?

From where should we derive our values? Well, we've got the option of using what's already there (the value function implemented in the human brain), or we have the option of appealing to something else, or we can just apply our reason and alter the function as needed. It seems to me that we don't really have access to that "something else," so I doubt we have a choice on this part. Our natural empathic hardwiring will shoot off all kinds of flares when we see suffering up close and personal, and will fail to activate when it should on the larger scale. We can still place arbitrary hacks into the value function to try and correct the scope insensitivity. The function was arbitrary in the first place, so there's no conflict other than ease of application.

And an interesting meta-question arises here as well: how much of what we think our values are, is actually the result of not thinking things through, and not realizing the implications and symmetries that exist?

How much of our values are from hardwiring as opposed to reasoned thought? Well, probably however much we haven't put thought into. For most people, I expect this to be a large portion. However, once we've thought about it, and applied our function to our functions, we can label them good or bad, and work at adding more arbitrary hacks to the arbitrary, evolution-designed, hardwired values. I see this in a particular way: a piece of the function, an item on the list of human morality, is "this list may change or update as needed," or, "this function is subject to revision based upon its output when ran against itself." Again, the ease of doing this is a more interesting debate, in my opinion.

And if many of our values are just the result of cognitive errors or limitations, have we lived with them long enough that they've become an essential part of us?

If by "essential" you mean, "someone without it would not be human," then I grant that it's possible. But if you mean, "we can't change it," then I would disagree. We can change our values, now and certainly in the future as we begin rewiring things on a more fundamental level. I see it as another question of definitions: if we change ourselves "for the better," are we "extincting the human race," or "continuing as human and more"? It seems that practical reality won't care either way.

comment by LexieP · 2010-02-10T07:23:16.884Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely agree to what you are trying to imply. This issues needs to be clarified and should be taken care of with the proper values but with but not in the extent that it would be senseless. We should really justify the means because it will definitely affect the ends of a certain thing or issues. Like large corporations do for their employees bu they are not credited as the best but the company itself. If you look at the track record over the last couple of decades, one begins to question the status of manyhttp://personalmoneystore.com/moneyblog/2010/02/02/108-large-corporations/ as institutions. For one, the many defective and harmful products, worker abuse, and numerous bankruptcies past and pending – Eastman Kodak and US Airways are both heading there – and the largest financial institutions can't manage money at all, needing basically what amounts to payday loans from the public. Apparently, even Harvard MBA programs can't keep people from being incompetent. I'm starting to think bonuses don't reward a good performance – it's a reward for not screwing the pooch entirely.

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T15:55:04.132Z · score: -5 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you people worry so much about human suffering while eating meat?

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-11T15:57:27.768Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Voted down for "you people".

comment by denisbider · 2010-02-11T16:26:28.376Z · score: -3 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Voted down for failing to get the point.