Is it immoral to have children?

post by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T12:13:26.610Z · score: 17 (29 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 320 comments

In "The Immorality of Having Children" (2013, pdf) Rachels presents the "Famine Relief Argument against Having Children":

Conceiving and raising a child costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; that money would be far better spent on famine relief; therefore, conceiving and raising children is immoral.

They present this as a special case of Peter Singer's argument from Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972), which is why they haven't called it something more reasonable like the "Opportunity Cost Argument".

[Note: the use of "Famine Relief" here is in reference to Peter Singer's 1972 example, but famine relief is not where your money does the most good.  Treat the argument as "that money would be far better spent on GiveWell's top charities" or whatever organization you think is most effective.]

It's true that having and raising a child is very expensive. They use an estimate of $227k for the direct expenditure through age 18 while noting that college [1] and time costs could make this much higher. Let's use a higher estimate of $500k to account for these. Considered over twenty years, that's $25k/year or $2k/month. This puts it at the top of the range of expenses, next to housing. It's also true that this money can do a lot of good when spent on effective charities. At GiveWell's current best estimate of $2.3k this is enough money to save nearly one life per month. [2]

But perhaps we shouldn't be thinking of this money as an expense at all, and instead more as an investment? Could having kids be a contender for the most effective charity? That is, could having and raising kids be one of the most effective things you could do with your time and money?

For example you could convince your kid to be unusually generous, donating far more than they cost to raise. Except that it's much cheaper to convince other people's kids to be generous, and our influence on the adult behavior of our children is not that big. Alternatively, if you're unusually smart, by having kids you could help make there be more smart people in the future. But how many more generations will pass before we learn enough about the genetics of intelligence to make this aspect of parental genetics irrelevant? Rachels considers the idea that your having children might greatly benefit the world, and rightly finds it insufficient. While your child may do a lot of good, for the expense there are much better options. Having kids is not a contender for the most effective charity, or even very close.

Having kids is a special case of spending your time and money in ways that make you happy. A moral system for human beings needs to allow some amount of this. It's like working for $56k at a job you enjoy instead of getting $72k at a job you like less. [3] Or spending your free time reading instead of working extra hours building up a consulting business. Keeping in mind both the cost and that on average people don't seem to be happier parenting, if having kids is what would make you most happy for the expense in time and money then it seems justified.

(This is how Julia and I thought of it when deciding whether we should have kids.)

 

I also posted this on my blog.


[1] College is currently in a huge state of flux. Advertised costs are rising far faster than inflation as colleges realize they can get away with near perfect price discrimination in the form of "either pay the extremely high sticker price or give us all your financial data so we can determine exactly how much you can afford." At the same time online courses and mixed models are getting to where they can provide much of the value of traditional lecture courses, and in some ways do better. I have very little idea what to budget for college for a kid born now; likely costs range from "free" to "all you have".

[2] Rachels uses a much lower number:

Givewell.org, which assesses charities, estimates that a life is saved for every $205 spent on expanding immunization coverage for children in Africa Sub-Saharan—apparently one of the most cost-effective projects. See L. Brenzel et al. 2006, p. 401

Their Brenzel citation is to the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases section of the DCP2. The $205 number is "Estimated cost per death averted for the Traditional Immunization Program in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia" in table 20.5.

[3] This is a $16k difference, which comes from taking $500k over 20 years and dividing by two for the two parents, and then adding some for taxes.  Though the earnings difference is likely to last more like 40 years.

320 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T15:37:35.768Z · score: 20 (30 votes) · LW · GW

This argument renders virtually everything immoral. Why is having children singled out? Resources spent on a drink from Starbucks are resources that could be spent on famine relief, therefore going to Starbucks is immoral. Resources spent developing philosophical arguments against various activities are resources that could be spent on famine relief, therefore Rachels's work is immoral. And so on.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T18:12:25.272Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Broadly I agree with you, but the reason to single out having children is that it is so much more expensive than other things people do for enjoyment. At $2k/month its comparable to all my other spending combined.

comment by cousin_it · 2013-10-22T19:00:59.926Z · score: 16 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Having kids doesn't seem to be about enjoyment, it's more on the "want" side of the want/like distinction. I think wants are a valid part of human values and don't have to be grounded in likes, though people who talk about "utility" seem to be mostly talking about likes.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-10-22T20:19:21.019Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How do you reach the conclusion that people "want" to have children in the sense of that link?

I am skeptical of giving much weight to "wants" in the sense of that link, but I don't think children are such a want. I do think that there is another relevant distinction in happiness research, between asking people "How do you feel right now?" vs "How satisfied are you with your life?" Childcare is very bad on the "like" scale, but a child produces much pride and life satisfaction.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T04:04:10.665Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's quite clear that having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to effective charity under the average WEIRD+liberal morality. I think we might have guessed that this was the case even without checking the numbers.

However, if we want to use the word "immoral" and keep its traditional connotations intact, we have to show that having children is less moral than not having children and taking the money you would have spent out of circulation. (And that would be a problem we could realistically be uncertain about)

Otherwise, things like donating to the arts become "immoral" and I'd consider that too far from common use to be useful.

Edit: After running a few examples through it, I find I really like this method of defining im/morality dichotomously. Anyone have a reason that it doesn't conform to intuition?

Edit2: "WEIRD+liberal" originally said "average lesswrong user morality" but people seemed to read that as 'utilitarianism" or some other moral philosophy, which was not my intention. I simply meant "the values of people whose morality is roughly like Lesswrong users" (and I suspect this ill-defined category also contains the majority of humans by a narrow margin, but I'm not confident about that)

comment by Emile · 2013-10-23T07:42:43.154Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's quite clear that having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to effective charity under the average Lesswrong-user morality.

I don't think I "should" be giving my money to charity instead of having kids. So either I'm not an average Lesswronger, or you're wrong about the beliefs of LessWrongers. In any case, I don't think it's "quite clear".

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T19:45:19.784Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That's not how morality is defined, for me and I think most others. It's not about what you would do. It's about what how you wish people would act in a world where you personally were out of the picture. (So "people shouldn't hurt each other" is a moral instinct since you are out of the picture, "people should give me money" is not a moral instinct since you are in the picture).

Egg A contains an upper-middle class Westerner, will one day wish to have a child and be able to carry out that wish. Egg B contains an upper middle class Westerner, will one day wish to donate the equivalent amount of money to charity, and be able to carry out that wish. Only one egg can get fertilized and become a person. Which Egg would you have hatch?

I don't think I "should" be giving my money to charity instead of having kids.

You use the word "should". That's precisely the misunderstanding that I was hoping to dissolve. I too, do not wish you to feel compelled to give money to charity instead of having kids out of some sense of moral duty.

That's why I'm making a distinction between "immoral" and "less moral". It's usually not immoral to spend money on things that you like, but it's less moral than minimizing your consumption and donating all the money to charity. I would admire a person who took the latter path more than a person who took the former path - and this despite the fact that I am currently on the former path (as in, I still eat out sometimes and stuff). I'd consider that person to be more good than I currently am, because their actions reveal that they have a preference function which weights morality more highly than mine does...but that doesn't make me bad, just less good.

Tautologically, I prefer to achieve all my preferences, not just the moral ones. Tautologically, my aim is to be as good as I prefer to be, no more and no less. This should be true for all agents. For any given individual, having children is probably not the most moral thing, but it might be the most preferred thing.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-24T12:16:11.967Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would choose Egg A. I am interested in knowing if Lesswrong users agree.

[pollid:570]

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T20:23:45.252Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's not how morality is defined, for me and I think most others. It's not about what you would do. It's about what how you wish people would act in a world where you personally were out of the picture.

We understand morality differently.

For me morality is defined as a set of my own axiomatic values (I generally think of morals as a set of values and of ethics as consequences of morals in terms of behavior). Other people have their own morality, of course. Many moralities are sufficiently similar so we can talk about systems of morality (which in the West used to be the province of religion, mostly).

I certainly do not think of morality as how I would like the world to be.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T20:42:46.113Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For me morality is defined as a set of my own axiomatic values

I'm parsing "morals" and "values" as equivalent terms (and I think you are too), so this statement doesn't convey me any information about your definition of "moral" and "value". I share your reading of "ethical" as more behaviorally focused.

I don't perceive the point at which we disagree or diverge. Can you elaborate on what "values" mean to you and what distinguishes them from other preferences?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T20:53:09.773Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, the most obvious divergence is that for you morality is "not about what you would do. It's about what how you wish people would act...". For me morality is mostly about what I would do or would not do.

As to differences between values and other preferences, hmm... Let's see:

  • Values are axiomatic. They are not internally derived from other preferences (though, of course, you can explain them externally).
  • Values are important.
  • Values are mostly stable and their change is usually seen as a big deal.
  • In case of a conflict between a value and a mere preference, value wins.
comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T21:07:38.187Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, the most obvious divergence is that for you morality is "not about what you would do. It's about what how you wish people would act...". For me morality is mostly about what I would do or would not do.

For me, "acting morally" is acting in such a way which is consistent with how you would have others behave (after removing the pathological "I wish others would give me cash" cases). It applies to myself and others

If for you, morality is only about what you would do, then you have no bases to judge the morality of others. This causes your definition of morality to diverge from the common one. Most people treat morality as something by which all people can be judged. You've got an unusual definition.

As to differences between values and other preferences, hmm... Let's see:

By your description, your "values" are analogous to my "terminal preferences". The difference is that I have terminal preferences unrelated to morality (my learning, my fun, my loved one's happiness, etc) as well as terminal preferences related to morality (human learning, human comfort, etc with extension to some non-human entities), whereas all your values seem to class as moral. In my terms, you define yourself as one whose terminal preferences are all moral - a person who prefers to be maximally good by their own standards.

Unless you wish to be a perfectly moral person, with every action crafted to bring about good and none towards personal gain, either your values cannot be equivalent to morality, or your definition of morality includes selfish behavior.

(If you really do strive towards perfect morality, and if your morality is similar enough to mine, then that's admirable. That implies that you are a force for an incredible amount of good.)

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T00:48:22.982Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For me, "acting morally" is acting in such a way which is consistent with how you would have others behave

I see major problems with the Golden Rule (mostly stemming from the fact that people are different) but that's a separate discussion.

you have no bases to judge the morality of others

Mostly correct. I can still judge the internal consistency of their morals as well as the match (or lack thereof) between what they say and what they do.

This causes your definition of morality to diverge from the common one.

Yep. That's fine.

Most people treat morality as something by which all people can be judged.

Most people also treat morality as a set of rules sent from above. And, of course, I can and do judge people on the basis of my own morals. I just accept that they can and do have morals different from mine.

your "values" are analogous to my "terminal preferences".

Yes, that's close enough.

all your values seem to class as moral

Yes, but remember that my understanding of morality is different from yours.

a person who prefers to be maximally good by their own standards.

Well, of course, but I think I understand that sentence a bit differently from you. The problem is in the word "good" which I treat as pretty meaningless unconditionally and which has meaning only conditional on some specific morality which defines what is good and what is evil. Different moralities define good and evil differently. So technically speaking this sentence is correct, but in practice people with different morals will not perceive me as "preferring to be maximally good".

or your definition of morality includes selfish behavior.

Why, yes, it does. I am not an altruist.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-24T06:30:58.131Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yep. That's fine.

I am of the opinion that non-standard, completely personalized definitions of words should be avoided whenever possible, or it becomes impossible to communicate. My definition of morality stems from the way the word is commonly used.

And, of course, I can and do judge people on the basis of my own morals. I just accept that they can and do have morals different from mine.

This statement applies to me as well. However, earlier you said, " For me morality is mostly about what I would do or would not do." This means you cannot even judge others on the basis of your own morals! (When I say that moral instincts are the way one would prefer a disinterested party to behave, that doesn't preclude other people having different morals. It's just a way to separate moral instincts from other instincts.

Why, yes, it does. I am not an altruist.

Yet you must have altruistic impulses sometimes, right? Sometimes you want to be nice to people. And sometimes, you want to do things for no reason other than that you personally benefit.

The definition I gave defines the former preferences as usually moral, while the latter as usually morally neutral. (A definition which is in keeping with the common use). Your definition seems to just lump everything together under "moral". I like my definition of morality better because it seems to draw more useful distinctions and is also in keeping with the common tongue.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T14:44:54.373Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

non-standard, completely personalized definitions of words should be avoided

It's not a definition problem here, it's a concept problem. My concept of morality differs from the standard one. I could, of course, start inventing new words for it or decorate the word with qualifiers, but that doesn't seem to be called for in this case.

Words are used for communication -- did I make myself sufficiently clear about what I mean by the word "morality"?

This means you cannot even judge others on the basis of your own morals!

I should have expressed myself better. What I mean is that morality for me is local rather than global. It's a personal, individual yardstick, not a universally agreed-upon measure. That's why it's applied to me (or, for any given person, to her) and not to the entire world. Having said that, I see no problem with judging other people's behavior on the basis of my own morals. If I believe doing X is bad it's still true when person A does X.

Your definition seems to just lump everything together under "moral".

Not really. Again, I probably should have been clearer. Notice how I talked about values (which are similar to your terminal preferences) and wasn't keen on using terms like good and evil? That's basically the reason -- you can say that I lump everything under "moral" but then my "moral" is much wider and less judgemental that standard "moral".

We can use the more common definition of morality, but in the territory of my mind there is no bright line between values which are "moral" and values which are "terminal preferences". So it's not particularly useful for describing my beliefs.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T13:58:42.600Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

either I'm not an average Lesswronger ...

By "average Lesswrong-user morality" I read "utilitarianism, but without utility being well settled".

Briefly, what moral system do you follow?

comment by Emile · 2013-10-23T22:32:55.450Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a clear enough idea of what utilitarianism entails exactly (what counts as utility? "happiness" is too simplified ... how do you aggregate?); but overall I consider it more useful for thinking about say, public policy than it is about individual choices.

I don't really know which moral system I follow, and am even slightly suspicious of the idea of trying to put it down formally as a "system", since there's a risk of changing one's judgements to fit what system one has professed whereas it should go the other way around. I think it's more useful to try to understand things like incentives or happiness or lost purposes or mechanism design or institutions or the history of morality than it is to try to describe/verbalize one's moral "system".

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T01:17:35.116Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a clear enough idea of what utilitarianism entails exactly

While there are several flavors of utilitarianism, they all involve some definition of utility which is computed per individual and then aggregated over the whole society. When making choices the moral option is the one that gives the highest aggregate utility. The most common variants for utility are "happiness" and "preference satisfaction" while the most common methods of aggregation are summing and averaging. Wikipedia may be helpful.

Note that Utilitarianism isn't required for the argument in the post. You just need to think that others matter and do the multiplication.

overall I consider it more useful for thinking about say, public policy than it is about individual choices

It is widely used in public health, but I don't see why we should have a different morality at large scale than small.

I think it's more useful to try to understand things like incentives or happiness or lost purposes or mechanism design or institutions or the history of morality than it is to try to describe/verbalize one's moral "system".

So how do you go about determining whether something is moral?

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T20:06:17.329Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By "average Lesswrong-user morality" I read "utilitarianism, but without utility being well understood".

Oh...that's not what I meant, but I can see why you thought that. My fault for phrasing it that way. Bad communication on my part.

I initially phrased it as "average Human morality", but then I realized that I lacked confidence in the resulting statement. There are humans who see the maintenance of the reproductive family unit as an intrinsic good, and there might be a sufficient number of such people to make the average human morality more reproductively-centered

I'll edit the parent comment. Would WEIRD+liberal suffice to capture what I mean?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T20:16:26.388Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'll edit the parent comment.

A post-edit comment: "liberal morality" is not utilitarianism. Classic liberalism is concerned with individual rights and liberties and not with self-sacrifice to improve the lot others. I don't believe that having children instead of donating to a charity is "less moral" under liberal morality.

In fact, doing good works instead of having children sounds like straightforward traditional Christian morality: enter the monastery and do as much good as you can.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-11-01T02:29:04.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's because Christianity as practiced is a religion of WEIRD-liberal people, as is Buddhism, Islam, post-classical Hinduism etc. The environments that produced those religions were relatively affluent and cosmopolitan.

For an example of non WEIRD-liberal thinking, read the Old Testament, or Norse texts, or the Rig Veda...all produced in harsh, scarce environments.

I know that neither Liberal nor WEIRD isn't the right word, but what is? I'm talking about people who care less about in-out group boundaries, who care less about loyalty, less about tradition, less about retributive justice, and more about avoiding pain, increasing pleasure, keeping things fair, and preventing coercion.

I'm talking about the sorts of values which tend to increase with plentiful resources and education. Such values are over-represented on Lesswrong, and over-represented within the social bubble that Lesswronger's tend to inhabit.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T20:18:28.946Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

there might be a sufficient number of such people

I would estimate that more than 90% of human population would disagree with the statement "It is more moral to give money to an effective charity than to have children".

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T21:50:40.937Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd guesstimate 5%-60% would disagree with that statement, with a 95% confidence interval.

Our species has a long history of people who aim for moral perfection foregoing family life and becoming ascetics, nuns, etc ... in pursuit of that goal. Such people have been historically admired and the sacrifice has been associated with morality.

I'm estimating based on a question in the following format:

"Person A does not donate to charity. He earns Y$/time, and devotes X$/time to running the family, spending the rest on himself. His actions have created Q happy and well-cared for children.

How moral are these person's actions?

[pollid:568]

"Person B has no children. She earns Y$/time, and gives X$/time to charity, and spends the rest on herself. Her money has done good stuff P and saved Q lives."

How moral are these person's actions?

[pollid:569]

The answer would obviously depend on what the precise numbers are, and you'd ideally want to ask the questions separately and counterbalance so that you could see what people said to each question without any reference to the next question. (A direct comparison might trigger motivated cognition)

This is not intended as a real poll, just an illustration...although feel free to vote if you like.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T00:55:28.185Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd guesstimate 5%-60% would disagree with that statement, with a 95% confidence interval.

Are you sampling from general humanity or from the LW crowd? They are very very different.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-24T06:38:51.649Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Let's just say for now that my estimate is for everyone with sufficient English to understand that poll. Americans would be an acceptable sample population.

Among Lesswrong, I suspect only 1%-40%|95%CI would disagree with the statement

However, for my estimate it is required that the questions are posed separately (so that a given respondent only sees one of the two questions, and so must make a judgement relative to absolute scale rather than a side-by-side comparison. Asking questions one at a time and counterbalancing would achieve this.)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T11:54:31.700Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If Lesswrong caused people to be more likely to think that it is more moral to donate money to effective charity than to have children (which you did not say), then that would lower my opinion of Lesswrong significantly.

comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2013-10-23T12:35:52.340Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Regardless of the actual arguments? That would lower my opinion of your opinions significantly.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T12:48:45.899Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No, and I did not say that. However, I have priors about what the correct answer is and priors about what causes people to believe certain false answers. My opinion of the rationality of members of the Flat Earth Society is not very high, even though I have not explored their arguments in depth and even though I realize they probably know arguments in favor of the round earth hypothesis better than I do.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T14:01:49.346Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In a discussion of arguments about morality, why are you not at least looking at the arguments? Or if you have looked at them, could you say why you disagree instead of just falling back your priors?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T16:22:59.723Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If we were discussing the reasons "that having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to effective charity under the average Lesswrong-user morality," then I would look at those arguments, but we are not discussing that. The original post is only one argument, a weak one, and that is the one being discussed here.

I was merely mentioning my priors. At the very least, Lesswrongers should be aware that what seems obvious to them might seem highly implausible to others. No arguments were offered for the position that "having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to effective charity," only the claim that the average Lesswrong-user believes this. It is that statement that I was addressing.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T18:15:51.200Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No arguments were offered for the position that "having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to effective charity"

That's kind of the whole point of Rachels' paper.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-10-25T00:32:52.801Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If?

I think it's pretty clear that LessWrong both disproportionately attracts people who tend to believe that and that those people mutually reinforce that belief.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-25T01:20:30.529Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wold appreciate it if anyone could point me to material about this subject that has been influential to LessWrong users.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T22:13:41.957Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The quoted excerpt from Rachels doesn't mention enjoyment. In Rachels's view (or yours), is it moral to have kids so long as I am doing so out of a sense of duty rather than because I expect it to be fun? If I was a starving kid in Africa, I am not sure I would see the difference, assuming that a vitamin A deficiency hasn't rendered me blind.

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-22T17:18:02.775Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty sure the OP rarely if ever patronizes Starbucks.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:20:36.307Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

True, but I do spend money on things I want out of a discretionary self-spending budget of $45/week.

comment by DanielLC · 2013-10-23T01:47:22.371Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can you afford to raise children on that?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T14:05:11.388Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Definitely not. My answer to Nisan was misleading in this context. Brief budget summary:

  • Any money Julia earns is donated.
  • 30% of what I earn is donated.
  • The remaining 70% can't be donated, and is spent on whatever we want, including taxes, housing, discretionary spending, etc.

That remaining 70% of my income is enough to raise kids on. Currently we're saving most of it.

I brought in the $45/week because that's the piece of our budget that Starbucks would come out of, but it looks like it just confused things.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-10-22T21:42:02.280Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't every avoidable act (i.e. decision) that yields negative consequences (or less positive consequences) when compared to the alternatives immoral? If no, how do you define immoral?

Your tone indicates to me that you believe the OP's argument to be unreasonable as it is exceedingly hard to follow. But does that preclude it from being (1) possible and (2) morally sound?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T22:38:14.520Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on what you mean. Would I prefer if people ceased their selfish behavior to ruthlessly attack the world's greatest problems? No. To a small degree perhaps. The way people demonstrate more concern for their morning beverage than for the millions of poor and starving people in the world is part of what makes them human. I wouldn't want that to go away.

Nor given people's selfishness would I want a social norm that people should sacrifice what they have for the sake of the poor. People would respond to this norm by not gathering many resources in the first place, and the aid would be carried out ineffectively, without much attention paid to quality.

However, if I could just snap my fingers and reduce the wealth of the average wealthy Westerner and transfer that wealth to where it could do a great deal of good alleviating poverty and hunger, I would.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-10-23T13:58:59.934Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on what you mean. Would I prefer if people ceased their selfish behavior to ruthlessly attack the world's greatest problems? No. To a small degree perhaps. The way people demonstrate more concern for their morning beverage than for the millions of poor and starving people in the world is part of what makes them human. I wouldn't want that to go away.

Nor given people's selfishness would I want a social norm that people should sacrifice what they have for the sake of the poor. People would respond to this norm by not gathering many resources in the first place, and the aid would be carried out ineffectively, without much attention paid to quality.

So, Ayn Rand is right? Except...

However, if I could just snap my fingers and reduce the wealth of the average wealthy Westerner and transfer that wealth to where it could do a great deal of good alleviating poverty and hunger, I would.

...this doesn't fit. At all.

Wouldn't a one-time transfer of wealth be doomed to fail quickly due to your view of humans' innate selfishness and laziness? That is, resource inequality would restore itself quickly, no?

I think it is odd that you see some sort of moral value to "flip the big equality switch" via a snap of your fingers, yet you push back against the idea of more gradual steps toward a similar end.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T16:34:57.627Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, Ayn Rand is as silly as any other highly influential and successful political philosophy. However, the truth is that people are remarkably selfish. Observe the many who are more concerned about their coffee-based beverages than wars and starvation. This makes them human. I don't want them to stop being that way, not completely, not even to a great extent.

Resource inequality is not the concern here. Poverty is. Poverty can be reduced by giving people wealth.

If a person said to me, "I used to be selfish and spend a lot of money on Starbucks, but now I see the error of my ways and will devote my life to fighting poverty," I would applaud his morality.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T17:07:55.889Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Poverty can be reduced by giving people wealth.

It's not obvious this is true other than in the short term.

This sentence also exists in a large number of variations with the word "wealth" replaced by "power", "technology", "information", "self-confidence", "government assistance", etc. etc.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-10-23T18:14:51.253Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, Ayn Rand is as silly as any other highly influential and successful political philosophy. However, the truth is that people are remarkably selfish. Observe the many who are more concerned about their coffee-based beverages than wars and starvation. This makes them human. I don't want them to stop being that way, not completely, not even to a great extent.

I don't know that this is the place or format to come to a conclusion, but I would argue your views as expressed are in close correlation with Rand's Objectivism. Broad strokes, limited sample. But correlation.

Is it possible that people must refrain from acting in remarkable selfish ways, at least in regard to physical resources, in order to bring about an improvement in net global conditions (poverty rate, etc.)? Is it possible that "greed (or selfsihness) is good" in terms of leading to financial growth, technological progress, etc...but it also leads to an eventual extreme inequality in wealth?

Resource inequality is not the concern here. Poverty is. Poverty can be reduced by giving people wealth.

Can poverty be defined as (one aspect of) an extreme inequality in resources? If no, why not?

If a person said to me, "I used to be selfish and spend a lot of money on Starbucks, but now I see the error of my ways and will devote my life to fighting poverty," I would applaud his morality.

Didn't you just say you didn't want people to stop behaving selfishly?

comment by Strange7 · 2013-12-14T13:14:12.944Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Can poverty be defined as (one aspect of) an extreme inequality in resources? If no, why not?

No.

Let's say there was a day, tens of thousands of years ago, when the wealthiest human alive owned nothing more than a sharp stick and a basket full of raw fish. That was still a condition of poverty, despite the lack of any more-successful rivals.

Poverty is not a comparative thing, for all that the formally recognized thresholds have been adjusted as conditions change. It is the condition of scarcity so severe as to perversely inhibit using any remaining resources at all efficiently. Poverty is jamming the round peg into the square hole because there's ice-cold water coming through that hole, you need to block the flow somehow, at least a little bit, it's up to your knees already. You don't have a square peg. The last time you had a square peg, using it up was the only adequately expedient way to deal with some other goddamn ridiculous deathtrap mechanism.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-14T17:40:52.152Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Let's say there was a day, tens of thousands of years ago, when the wealthiest human alive owned nothing more than a sharp stick and a basket full of raw fish. That was still a condition of poverty, despite the lack of any more-successful rivals.

Good point. So it is possible for 100% of the world to live in poverty.

However, the earth bears sufficient resource for this to not be the case. In fact, it bears sufficient resource so that no one need be impoverished.

Inequality in wealth at extreme levels is often the product of systemic issues -- the rules allow for, and in some cases even encourage, oppression.

comment by ialdabaoth · 2013-12-14T17:47:49.347Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In this case, it might be worthwhile to conceive of the poverty/wealth spectrum as being a separate dimension from the oppression/power spectrum.

Wealth can be positive-sum, but social power isn't. It might be interesting to see how they correlate - it seems that a large component of the debate between various political ideologies, for example, is over what effect a given level of social power disparity has on the amount that wealth is positive-sum vs. zero-sum. (Ugh, that's an ugly sentence.)

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-14T18:04:25.529Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In this case, it might be worthwhile to conceive of the poverty/wealth spectrum as being a separate dimension from the oppression/power spectrum.

Hm. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around this. Please elaborate, if you will?

comment by ialdabaoth · 2013-12-14T18:26:08.509Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hm. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around this. Please elaborate, if you will?

Gladly. (EDITED: I originally used 'wealth' and 'power' instead of 'wealth' and 'coercion'. It was rightly pointed out that 'wealth' is just a form of 'power'. So rather than "separating wealth from power", what I'm really talking about is "separating our ideas about wealth from our ideas about coercion".)

On one axis, we have poverty/wealth, which is a measure of "how much stuff do I have?" - how much food, water, air, shelter, etc. - up to and including how much control I have over my physical environment. Near one end of the spectrum, we can imagine skeletal children waiting for vultures to eat them. Near the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine eloi living within utility fogs, waiting to condense anything they dream of out of thin air.

On another axis, we have the social ladder / status games that humans play so well. Near one end of that spectrum, we can imagine abject slaves, whose right to live is up to the whim of others; near the other end of that spectrum, we can imagine despotic conquerors, whose whim controls the lives of millions.

The poverty/wealth spectrum is NOT zero-sum, because even if we collapse a society's span on that spectrum down to a single point, WHERE that point falls matters - everyone being equally poor is materially different from everyone being equally rich.

On the other hand, the social coercion spectrum is fundamentally zero-sum - you can't remove B's inferiority to A, without removing A's superiority to B.

The problem is, most people don't seem to REALLY separate those two spectra - when we talk about "making people more equal", we usually talk about wealth redistribution, not coercion redistribution. Paul Graham discusses this at length.

The thing is, coercion influences wealth, and vice-versa. But the fact that they influence each other doesn't make them the same thing - it just means that the phase diagram covers a subset of the phase space, instead of the whole thing.

One thing you notice when you look at history, is how various technologies (which are physical objects, and therefore on the wealth spectrum) influence the course of society and governance (which are social objects, and therefore on the coercion spectrum). For example, look at how readily "freer" democratic governments break out when new military technology makes it easier to mount rebellions, and how readily authoritarian regimes break out when new military technology makes it easier to consolidate coercion. And look at how readily technological revolutions break out when a culture allows free exploration of possibilities, and how readily they die when a culture imposes direct control over what its entrepreneurs and researchers can study and make.

A testable claim that the Progressive movement might make, if these two continua are recognized as separate, is that minimizing the coercion disparity between individuals will tend to maximize their aggregate wealth, while maximizing the coercion disparity between individuals will tend to lower that aggregate wealth. The American version of Libertarianism seems to make the opposite claim, that allowing power disparities to naturally follow the individuals' innate abilities to seize and hold power will allow those individuals who are better at multiplying wealth to do so, while redistributing their wealth to those with less innate ability to seize and hold power is inefficient.

Even better, though, separating out those two concepts allows certain testable claims to be made more clearly - things like "we can redistribute coercive power without redistributing wealth, and regulation is one way to do that", and "all attempts to redistribute or nullify coercive power must use coercive power to do so, and will therefore favor those who currently have coercive power".

EDIT: Upon further reflection, I think it's not entirely true that people can't distinguish between these two concepts - plenty of people can and do distinguish between them, but then when they come to making policy decisions, they conflate them again. This looks like a cognitive bias at work, but I'm not sure which one - something that causes people to default to zero-sum thinking even when they know a situation has positive-sum solutions?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-14T19:28:33.848Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I might be out of my intellectual league here...and perhaps oversimplifying...

But I don't know that I accept the premise that wealth & power are separate (or even can be) in the way you describe.

I suppose it comes down to definitions. I'd say wealth is roughly "stuff you need and want"; power is roughly "the ability to get stuff you need and want".

In this sense, individual wealth is a result of power. And wealth also ensures the continuation (and even further accumulation) of power, as well as perpetuating further increases in wealth.

So, power --> wealth --> more wealth & power

As this process continues, power and wealth become concentrated among a small group relative to the population. When that happens, you have 80% of the pie being eaten be 20% (or <10%) of the people. 20% of the pie (wealth) ain't enough for 80% (or >90%) of the people. And they haven't sufficient means (power) to do anything about it.

In the past, revolutions take place to correct for this. The "haves" become too wealthy and not-powerful-enough to maintain the equilibrium against the huge (and therefore powerful enough) number of (too poor) "have-nots", so it shifts.

But, as you mentioned, we seem to living in an age with technology that can ensure power indefinitely on behalf of the "haves". In the global economy, there are large groups of have-nothings for whom no technology sufficient to mount a rebellion can be realized, and they are therefore marginalized from a power standpoint, and utterly impoverished in terms of wealth.

In any case, I don't see a meaningful distinction between wealth and power in regard to how to fix the world and end poverty.

comment by ialdabaoth · 2013-12-14T19:39:46.480Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I suppose it comes down to definitions. I'd say wealth is roughly "stuff you need and want"; power is roughly "the ability to get stuff you need and want".

Nod I see your complaint, and I think it's fundamentally about what "power" means. I'll edit my previous post to clarify terms:

Where I said "power", what I really meant was "coercion". "Wealth" and "Coercion" are both different kinds of "power", which can in fact be separated from each other.

Is that clearer?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-14T20:12:26.498Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps. Can you give me your definition of coercion?

comment by ialdabaoth · 2013-12-14T20:43:24.993Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've always liked "power to affect another agent's payoff matrix", but I'm afraid that might be over-general.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-15T21:37:32.106Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hm. I don't see a difference between power and coercion in that case. Power seems to include the ability to coerce.

It just seems to me there are ends (wealth) and means (power). Pure handouts are not sustainable to combat poverty in the long-term. You've got to create a means, and I think that is tricky to do given the current state of things in the world.

I'm probably risking a tangent here, but an example comes to mind: My uncle sold his farm and went to Africa to try and help battle poverty by teaching people to farm. Their first crop was very successful and yielded a strong harvest. They stored the harvest in a silo of some sort. In order to protect the harvest from thieves, they had to hire a guard. The cost of hiring a guard they could trust exceeded the value of the crop. So technically, the viability of working hard to grow a crop is exceeded by becoming a thief or waiting for handouts or even doing nothing at all.

Anyway, this speaks to the point (I think) I was trying to make somewhere way up the thread: Perhaps the only (or at least the best) way to end poverty is some sort of voluntary redistribution of wealth and power from the wealthy and powerful to the impoverished and non-powerful. Attempts to do this through government mandate seem to often exacerbate the problem because of all the inefficiency and corruption involved. So it seems to me that a direct, private (non-government), streamlined, voluntary redistribution is best.

My uncle, a Christian, summed up the futility of the current situation by concluding "we just needed more people to act like Jesus." I tend to agree, as long as he meant something like "we need people who arrive at a rational basis for being selfless and charitable in an efficient way, and then act on it instead of just talking about it".

I think we both, my uncle & I mean something like this. Or this, if you are (a lot) more wealthy.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-16T15:57:04.760Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It just seems to me there are ends (wealth) and means (power).

I disagree -- I think that for some people power is the terminal goal (e.g. consider how Soviet and Communist China elites worked).

Perhaps the only (or at least the best) way to end poverty is some sort of voluntary redistribution of wealth and power from the wealthy and powerful to the impoverished and non-powerful.

And then? You will have to forcibly suppress wealth differentiation or in a few years you'll have your underclass back again.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-16T19:20:21.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree -- I think that for some people power is the terminal goal (e.g. consider how Soviet and Communist China elites worked).

Good examples. It still seems power inherently involves owning means to sufficient wealth (i.e. enough to live comfortably for indefinite periods).

And then? You will have to forcibly suppress wealth differentiation or in a few years you'll have your underclass back again.

You've pointed out the problem, I think. Though I'm not as concern about differences in wealth, per se. Instead, I'm concerned with eliminating poverty.

Perhaps the norms will need to change? Perhaps it will be seen as increasingly negative to be super rich on a globe where some are dying of starvation? It will become a faux pas?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-16T19:32:00.144Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm concerned with eliminating poverty.

I recommend capitalism :-) By XIX-century standards, the First World countries have eliminated poverty.

Perhaps the norms will need to change?

And what will make them change?

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-12-16T22:21:49.210Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend capitalism :-) By XIX-century standards, the First World countries have eliminated poverty.

To the extent that this is true, I don't think it makes much sense to attribute it to capitalism as such. After all, some of the most extreme poverty in American history took place around the beginning of the 20th century, when American capitalism was at its most laissez faire. Without the institution of some kind of societal safety net, capitalism does not seem to eliminate poverty very effectively.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-18T04:45:02.119Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

After all, some of the most extreme poverty in American history took place around the beginning of the 20th century, when American capitalism was at its most laissez faire.

This is actually a common misconception.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-12-18T16:23:20.536Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm prepared to be convinced of this, but that link doesn't demonstrate this, or much at all really. It argues that history textbooks overemphasize the tilted income distribution relative to the economic growth that took place, but the only arguments it offers against the magnitude of the distribution skew being as great as the textbooks claim are strictly theoretical.

The notion that people simply would not immigrate if conditions were so poor, unless conditions were even worse where they already lived, is a supposition unworthy of the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter; people don't act as if they were rational agents operating on complete information now, and information availability was much lower then. Plus, once you're stuck in a system of wage slavery, it's extremely difficult to get out, unlike the work that people were emigrating from in the first place.

It's easy to avoid paying workers near the marginal productivity they generate if there's enough competition willing to take lowball compensation so that they can be the ones to get the job (and plenty of competition willing to do so when many families need to mobilize all their possible working force to stay above water.) Unionization can result in many negative side effects, and often produces ludicrously perverse incentives, but at the same time do not forget, with the dramatic improvements in compensation and working conditions they generated at the time for huge numbers of workers, how many industries stayed in business.

The whole thing barely even tries to refute the notion that conditions were that bad, it just complains about history textbooks focusing more on those conditions than the productivity gains generated by industrialization. The closest thing it offers to an empirical argument throughout is when the author claims that he finds one figure hard to believe, and that one historian offered him one he found more reasonable. What research did he do to determine which figure was more likely to be correct?

I am entirely willing to adjust my estimate of how bad conditions were at that time based on well researched empirical data. As for the notion that history textbooks emphasize the ills too much relative to the gains, well, my own discussed both at length, and I think it's appropriate that they should do such, because the historical record demonstrates both that industrialization has significant benefits, and that the conditions caused by its unregulated state can be substantially improved upon with certain effective regulations. Both points are important, and often discarded for ideological or theoretical reasons without empirical basis.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-18T16:42:51.049Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm prepared to be convinced of this

Well, the initial claim that "some of the most extreme poverty in American history took place around the beginning of the 20th century" sounds strange to me on its face. Do you think there was more extreme poverty at the beginning of the XX century or at the beginning of the XIX century, for example?

The notion that people simply would not immigrate if conditions were so poor

Is more plausible than you give it credit for. People used to immigrate by extended families, whole clans, and the way it worked was that some family members would move over, get a foothold, and then bring over the rest. There certainly was communication (post worked pretty well) and people already on the ground had first-hand knowledge of the conditions they would bring their entire family into. They mostly did bring their families.

The whole thing barely even tries to refute the notion that conditions were that bad

No one so far defined what do "bad conditions" mean, what are the relevant metrics, and what can you compare them to to establish the context.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-12-18T17:00:32.525Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, the initial claim that "some of the most extreme poverty in American history took place around the beginning of the 20th century" sounds strange to me on its face. Do you think there was more extreme poverty at the beginning of the XX century or at the beginning of the XIX century, for example?

Depends what metrics you use, but I am willing to bet that more people (and a greater proportion of people) at the beginning of the 20th century were living in conditions where they had less space, less access to food, more exposure to toxic and unsafe conditions, and less opportunity to move to a different environment.

Is more plausible than you give it credit for. People used to immigrate by extended families, whole clans, and the way it worked was that some family members would move over, get a foothold, and then bring over the rest. There certainly was communication (post worked pretty well) and people already on the ground had first-hand knowledge of the conditions they would bring their entire family into. They mostly did bring their families.

Many did, but then, many did not.

If a worker finds success, they're a lot more likely to encourage family or village members to come over than if they do not. If we suppose that one in five initial immigrants has a positive experience, and immigrants who have positive experiences on average encourage eight more people to come over, then we will have a scenario where most immigrants are encouraged to come over by someone who had positive experiences, but most do not have positive experiences (am I claiming that these are the correct figures or something close to them? No, but they illustrate why I don't think the argument proves much.)

No one so far defined what do "bad conditions" mean, what are the relevant metrics, and what can you compare them to to establish the context.

In the context of the comment, I am referring to the conditions being as bad as the textbooks Caplan is complaining about said they were, along whatever metrics they used. From his critique it's hard to know what they even asserted since he's arguing against them on ideological rather than empirical grounds.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-18T17:26:19.095Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depends what metrics you use

Certainly so. Your metrics, for example, look biased towards hunter-gatherer tribes :-)

Many did, but then, many did not.

This looks like an empirical question. I bet there are studies with data. I am also too lazy to go, google them up, read them, and figure out the answer :-D

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-16T20:12:55.610Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I recommend capitalism :-) By XIX-century standards, the First World countries have eliminated poverty.

Agreed. Though I think there are lots of variables here. I have no issue with capitalism. It works and leads to lots of growth. If left wholly unregulated, poverty will happen. But, add some social welfare programs and other wealth redistribution mechanisms, and if they are sufficient, you'll get a poverty free system (depending on how you define poverty).

The issue I'd raise in regard to a more open system (i.e. a global economy) is that you have some countries functioning just fine...in part becaused they used unregulated capitalistic means (i.e. Imperialism) to move wealth to their own coffers and leave whole continents in the dark ages.

And what will make them change?

Culture and morality will evolve. I'm proposing this as a way in which relatively unregulated capitalism can work without any mandated redistributions of wealth or "forcible suppression" of power.

I mentioned The Giving Pledge (somewhere on this thread). This is a great example of what I'm talking about. There is no rational reason for anyone to give up the majority of their wealth. But many billionaires are becoming convinced it is the right thing to do nonetheless.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-16T21:41:07.873Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There is no rational reason for anyone to give up the majority of their wealth.

Sure there is. The remainder of your wealth is enough to satisfy all your material needs and giving away wealth puts you ahead in the Status Game which you value very much.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-16T21:49:58.649Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Noted. And I agree. Though there are people who do so in secret.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-12-17T07:45:18.583Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There is no rational reason for anyone to give up the majority of their wealth.

What are you, a straw Vulcan? If you value what another person can do with it more than whatever else you could do with it, it is rational to give it to them.

What do you think of the EA movement?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-17T15:06:27.697Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Rational was a bad word for me to use here. Taboo it.

Also, saying there is "no rational reason" was overstating it.

I'll say this instead: Pre-humanity, nature had no behavior like this. During some large portion of human history, it has been considered strange to give away a majority of one's wealth. The Giving Pledge, for example, flies in the face of millions of years of precedent.

In the context of the discussion I was having (and in many such discussions I've had) I've learned that this...

If you value what another person can do with it more than whatever else you could do with it, it is rational to give it to them.

...does not compute for many people.

At the risk of being too political (And speaking way too generally), this is one of the main differences I observe between American conservatives and liberals: The rational basis for giving doesn't compute for conservatives.

They seem to want to win by accumulating wealth, and then keep wining, and winning, and winning by accumulating more wealth. Suggesting to them that "If you value what another person can do with it more than whatever else you could do with it, it is rational to give it to them." tends to make them look at you sideways.

The basis by which conservatives tend to reject "radical charity" is pretty sound, I think. From what I can gather, it is something like, "(1) It was nature's way (or God's providence) and my hard work that caused my wealth, (2) I have a right to use it to further my ends and provide for as many future generations of my family as possible & (3) unnatural (non-capitalistic) economic moves never work anyway...therefore, giving away my money is bad and not rational."

What do you think of the EA movement?

Huge fan.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-12-17T18:12:21.436Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

During some large portion of human history, it has been considered strange to give away a majority of one's wealth.

Customs relating to this vary quite a bit. In cultures with a strong potlatch tradition, for example, gift-giving is the primary way of displaying status and it's not at all unusual to give away most of one's wealth.

I'm not ready to make sweeping declarations about what has been normal for most of human history, or at least for the portion of it where talking about wealth would have made any sense.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-17T22:18:28.967Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've no doubt there are exceptions, but, when posed with the following question, how do you think the majority of humans who have ever walked the Earth would reply?:

Which word best describes your feelings about the act of giving away >50% of your possessions to benefit absolute strangers?

A. Normal B. Abnormal

Further, "wealth" has always had some meaning, even before humans. If we define wealth as "stuff we need or want", then the animal kingdom is full of this sort of wealth, and they tend to defend their wealth as a means to provide for themselves and their young with vigor.

It is perfectly natural to hoard wealth for yourself and your kin. It was point that movements like The Giving Pledge, or say, very large, anonymous charitable gifts seem to be anti-natural in this way.

I'm aware that what appears to be pure altruism may only be signalling, or some other mechanism for personal gain... But I do believe there is (possibly) something like rational altruism taking place where people are realizing that (1) every dollar past X million/billion is essentially worthless 'cuz you're gonna die and you can't use it all, (2) immense amounts of inherited wealth aren't as 100% positive as you might think so leaving gobs of money to family is not optimal & (3) other people's lives suck because they have no money or food and no way to get money or food.

There is also a group of people for whom this seems to make no sense. They see every red cent as having utility since they can find ways to pass it on (in some form) to their family.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-12-17T22:31:02.041Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

when posed with the following question, how do you think the majority of humans who have ever walked the Earth would reply?:

As I just said, I'm not willing to make that generalization; we don't have enough good data about prehistoric culture, or for that matter many historical cultures, to talk about it this specifically. A cladistic analysis of gift-giving behavior might be more tractable, but I don't have the data for that either.

(Granted, given the shape of the population curve, it might be -- though I don't remember, and haven't looked it up -- that the majority of humans ever to walk the earth lived in historical times. But I'm guessing that's not what you're getting at.)

Further, "wealth" has always had some meaning, even before humans. If we define wealth as "stuff we need or want", then the animal kingdom is full of this sort of wealth, and they tend to defend their wealth as a means to provide for themselves and their young with vigor.

I'm using "wealth" to indicate the kind of goods that can be usefully hoarded, which IIRC are primarily discussed as a post-Neolithic phenomenon. I'm not anthopologist enough to speak authoritatively on how things might have worked in the Paleolithic, but it should be clear that there are physical limits on how much you can hoard if you're leading a nomadic forager lifestyle, particularly without pack animals. I'd also expect people's cultural reasoning about generosity to differ under this sort of regime.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-17T22:43:53.926Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are over-thinking it.

I'm no anthropologist, but giving away the majority of one's wealth isn't the norm. If not self-evident, I'm not sure what else about human behavior is. You need resources to live, and the desire to live is a pretty hard wired drive inside any species that made it this far.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-18T05:00:31.065Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Customs relating to this vary quite a bit. In cultures with a strong potlatch tradition, for example, gift-giving is the primary way of displaying status and it's not at all unusual to give away most of one's wealth.

Incidentally, I've heard a reasonable argument that the so-called "gift-giving" cultures are largely an artifact caused by (mis)translating their languages words for different types of economic exchanges as "gift". This mistranslation was started by early settlers who didn't want to admit they were paying tribute to the natives. Later it was continued by anthropologists who believed or at least alieved the whole "noble savage" myth.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-12-18T06:00:57.273Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it an economic exchange in the same sense that we'd use for the phrase, but a prestige system denominated in (essentially randomly allocated) gifts doesn't seem all that much more or less noble to me than one denominated in dollars.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-17T17:04:54.323Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

this is one of the main differences I observe between American conservatives and liberals: The rational basis for giving doesn't compute for conservatives.

I vaguely remember that empirical studies show that conservatives give to charity noticeably more than liberals in the US.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-17T17:37:24.780Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've read differently.

In any case, one main factor that bolsters conservative charitable giving is religion. In many of these instances, I think the term "charitable" is being stretched quite a bit, since many churches do little with that donated money apart from teaching their members their particular brand of religious beliefs. (Also, if beside the point, many Christians I know give with the expectation they will re-acquire those funds in the form of special pleasures and blessings once the reach heaven. So, win-win. Nothing wrong with that...)

The other factor would be that liberals philsophically view the government as a means of redistrbuting resources to the places it is needed. They vote for policies that mandate "charitable" giving, and then trust the system to do what it is inteneded to do. They support higher taxes (generally) and then pay them.

My point (sincerely) wasn't to disparage conservatives, per se. I've just noticed in discussions with my friends, who are politically inclined as such, that they seem to have a very different utility function than my liberal friends in regard to charitable giving, and fiscal policy writ large. They both want good policies that work, but they disagree on what "good" and "work" mean.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-17T19:07:09.745Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've read differently.

Not really differently. This piece picks a favorable definition of "conservative" to avoid the result they don't like. And even then conservatives and liberals come out even -- hardly support for your hypothesis that conservatives just don't grok giving.

In many of these instances, I think the term "charitable" is being stretched quite a bit

That's irrelevant because what's under discussion is propensity of people to give away their wealth. In this context it doesn't matter whether the money is used effectively.

they seem to have a very different utility function than my liberal friends

Well, any reason to be surprised? Political disagreements are real and correlate with a whole bunch of other preferences.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-17T21:57:22.528Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's irrelevant because what's under discussion is propensity of people to give away their wealth. In this context it doesn't matter whether the money is used effectively.

Hm. I'm not necessarily talking about if the money is being used "effectively". Rather, the money given to the church is used for the good of the church and those who attend the church (i.e. the giver included). It is quite effective to that end.

I suppose all charities are like this in some way -- they benefit humanity, a group to which we all belong. But in the church, a very small amount of total revenue does anything for people outside the church. If it is a charity (which I'm not sure it is), then it is one that quite directly benefits the giver.

If this money is all counted as "charity", it's very easy to see how conservatives might out-give liberals. In fact, it's what I'd expect to see in a country that is so religious.

Well, any reason to be surprised? Political disagreements are real and correlate with a whole bunch of other preferences.

Not surprised, no. But it's a more helpful way of viewing things than simply concluding liberals are generous with money and conservatives are selfish with it. There is more to it than that, as you point out.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-18T05:06:36.064Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

They support higher taxes (generally) and then pay them.

Or rather they support higher taxes (on everyone) and then try to evade them.

comment by fortyeridania · 2013-10-22T17:35:24.399Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is a feature of any moral system wherein maximization of something is the standard of morality.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T03:24:36.489Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not true.

It's just that maximizing your preferences (having children, going to starbucks, whatever) is often at odds with maximizing the subset of your preferences which you identify under the category "moral". This example only seems single-minded because moral preferences are just a small subset of all your preferences.

If you strive to maximize all of your preferences (which is what you are striving for anyhow, in theory) rather than a limited subset called "morality", you'll see that every action which you would prefer to take is in fact the action which will best maximize your preference function.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T22:17:06.255Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, if the goal is only to maximize a particular good, then everything else must be sacrificed to it. That is the beauty of maximizing utility, which does not specify anything in particular. Thus it only demands that lesser utilities be foregone in order to obtain greater utilities, which is hardly counterintuitive.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T18:50:19.582Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Feature or misfeature?

comment by fortyeridania · 2013-10-24T01:31:26.809Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I just meant "characteristic".

comment by passive_fist · 2013-10-22T20:39:32.935Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The argument isn't very convincing; there are far better arguments to be made against having children.

comment by coffeespoons · 2013-10-24T22:04:01.346Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Because having children is just so incredibly expensive!

comment by wuncidunci · 2013-10-24T00:12:44.973Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Coffee purchases seem to be done by near-mode thinking (at least for me), while having children is usually quite planned.

Personally I like giving myself quite a bit of leniency when it comes to impulsive purchases in order to direct my cognitive energy to long-term issues with higher returns. Compare and contrast to the idea of premature optimization in computer science.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T13:15:58.707Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I think adoption needs to be delved into into a lot more detail. Rachels Paper only briefly mentions adoption:

First, it will say nothing about adoption. Adoptive parents do not conceive their children and thus do not "have children” in the sense relevant to my argument. (In another, perfectly normal sense, adoptive parents do of course have children.)

My wife and I are fairly well off, so over the course of our life, I would not be surprised if we could potentially give hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities. We are also going to be having our first in person, pre-adoption meeting with a adoption social worker this weekend. If we do adopt a child, we will likely spend that hundreds of thousands of dollars on the child and not on the charities.

So in terms of impact, now would be a VERY impactful time for me to hear any and all arguments for and against this being moral, immoral, or morally neutral, and I feel a bit let down the paper just sort of glosses over this.

Please don't worry about personally offending me! I'll even call Crocker's rules.

comment by lmm · 2013-10-22T19:57:23.810Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Purchase fuzzies and utilons separately. Adopting is not going to be anywhere near the most efficient way to improve the world. Certainly do not do it out of a sense of obligation; that will lead to a build up of resentment that will hurt you all. Do it if you want to, but recognise that you're doing it for your own sake.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T18:14:43.122Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Roughly: adopt if you would prefer a life with the child, not because you think it's making the world better.

comment by Benito · 2013-10-23T01:38:47.594Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Up voted for calling Crocker's Rules when things actually mattered.

comment by peter_hurford · 2013-10-22T22:59:24.175Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If we do adopt a child, we will likely spend that hundreds of thousands of dollars on the child and not on the charities.

What are you aiming to optimize for? If it's truly altruism, then it's unlikely a kid would generate the same utility as hundreds of thousands of dollars going toward great charities.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T13:14:22.643Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What are you aiming to optimize for?

Realistically, the current answer to this is "My wife's utility function." That includes a fair amount of altruism, although not necessarily in an organized way.

After review, I think most of my approaches to altruism also seem to be disorganized. The only thread that seems to run through them is that they seem to be focused on having minimum guilt, but that means I need to have a better grasp of 'What makes me feel guilty?' to answer the question well or I'm just pulling a phlogiston.

My current model of my own guilt sort of feels like something which slowly increases over time which can be removed by being altruistic in a similar manner to how people get hungry over time and they minimize that by eating.

That being said, that doesn't quite seem like it cleaves reality correctly, but I can't think of a better metaphor right now. I'm going to want to think more about this.

comment by juliawise · 2013-10-26T15:59:20.215Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Second comment on this page: www.givinggladly.com/2013/06/cheerfully.html.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-27T00:44:48.533Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

link

comment by Dorikka · 2013-10-24T02:49:49.091Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Heuristically, I agree with jkaufman and lmm, but I wonder if you can do something like a Fermi estimate of the impact of this decision? (Leaving your potential fuzzies out of it for now; after you estimate the impact, you can talk with people of the appropriate reference class to help you predict the level of fuzzies that you're likely to obtain or lose. Then, if the numbers are going in opposite directions, you can estimate how much you care about impact vs fuzzies to help make your decision.) Here are some factors you might want to estimate:

  • Some measure of how much of your income is likely to go to charity. What fraction of the income that you have left over after maintaining quality of life for yourself, family, etc do you think you will contribute to charity? (To get an estimate of this, consider how much you are contributing.) Consider whether this fraction will remain the same if you have a child.
  • Some measure of the effectiveness of your chosen charity per marginal dollar. If you want to remove this from the equation, you could just compare fuzzies vs dollars, but I don't think that would be as useful, since (money contributed to charity) is presumably not a terminal value for you.
  • Some measure of the costs of raising a child (may need to do this seperately for adopting vs creating a new human; I have no idea whether there is a significant cost difference).
  • Some measure of the opportunity cost of the time you spend raising the child. You'd need to think about how to evaluate this, since it's not accurate for most people to bill these as working hours.
comment by dougclow · 2013-10-23T14:06:08.359Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think the marginal difference you can make by adopting is probably surprisingly large. (If your expectations of the amount of good it's possible to do are well-grounded to start with.)

The difference in quality of life for a child who's adopted rather than staying in the care system is spectacularly large: it's a long time since I looked at the data but I remember it being eye-popping. And society is likely to be better as a result - there's a much greater chance of the child contributing positively to society rather than causing significant problems. (Of course, this is on average: some cared-for children grow up to do spectacularly positive things for society, and some adopted kids go on to a life of antisocial crime.)

There are way more children who would benefit from being adopted than there are adoptive parents. (In the UK it's something like 10- or 20-to-1 at the moment.) With some complex social issues, it's hard to see what the limiting factor is in improving things: not here. For looked-after children, the supply of adoptive parents is a runaway winner.

[EDIT: Woah, cultural assumptions there, sorry. From a quick glance, it looks like there is a shortage of adoptive parents in the US, but nothing like on the scale as in the UK.]

One of the big problems with organised altruism is the distance from the donor to the beneficiary: for instance, if you're trying to help people a continent away, and in a profoundly different social context, it's hard to be confident about what is genuinely improving things and what isn't. But an adopted child lives right in your house and is socialised by you, so the distance - literal and figurative - is much smaller.

I wouldn't advocate it as a life choice for people whose main goal is purely to benefit society. Parenting is bloody hard work, physically and emotionally. But some people (me included) find it hugely rewarding as well. So if you think you're likely to find it rewarding to parent, adopting seems to me like a great thing to do.

On a personal note, good luck with the process: friends and relations who've been through it have had mixed experiences. But the ones who ended up adopting report being very happy they did so.

(Bias declaration: I'm a parent of young children, and so likely to irrationally overvalue actions that benefit young children.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-10-23T15:08:33.029Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes adopted children were kidnapped from their families, rather than being in the care system. I don't know how common this is compared to adoption of children who don't have families or are being abused, but it should go into the calculation somewhere.

comment by dougclow · 2013-10-24T09:17:02.866Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes - I wasn't thinking of inter-country adoption in this context, because it's barely-on-the-radar where I live (UK) for people who want to adopt.

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T04:53:42.542Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think adopting a child will likely be superior to donation for your all your personal preferences, while donating the equivalent amount of money will likely be superior than adoption for the smaller subset of your personal preferences which you call "morality". Both the adoption and the effective charity donation are moral, but the donation is more moral. Additionally, both will likely satisfy the sum of all your preferences, but the adoption is likely to satisfy them more.

I may be wrong about your values, of course. At the end of the day, you will in theory do what you believe maximizes all your preferences rather than maximize the subset of preferences you label "moral". Truly maximizing morality would mean giving up a lot - what actually happens is that morality is just one weighted variable among many others that you wish to maximize.

Adoption moral pros you may not have considered:

1) When you spend, you use money to transfer resources from one place to another, where you believe they will be more efficient. When you adopt, it's true that you are likely diverting resources to a sub-optimal place morally, but the non-financial investment you put in is also creating resources.

2) Don't just look at "good you could do with the money you would otherwise spend on the kid" in a vacuum. An un-adopted child still diverts money from someone. Adoption frees up those resources for the adoption center / the state to do more good work. So when calculating the total moral loss inherent in this choice, it's [good you could have done with the money you will spend on the kid] - [good the state/adoption clinic will do with the money they will save from you adopting the kid] - [good you will do by raising the kid] ... which is be a fair bit less moral loss than you might initially assume.

Adoption moral cons you may not have considered

1) If you don't adopt the child, someone else is likely to do it. But if you don't donate to effective charity, no one is likely to take your place. (However, you can mitigate this by adopting a child that other people would for some reason be unlikely to adopt)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T13:13:50.656Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Considering my preferences/values are strongly connected to my wife's preferences/values, I should probably have her read some of this thread and get her thoughts as well. Getting a list of pros and cons and thinking about all of the items does help me think through decisions, and it helps me think of things that I may want to talk to the social worker about.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-28T13:02:26.918Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As a bit of a generic update about that meeting... very little of any dramatic import happened. The first visit seemed to be primarily focused on "Thank you for filling out that first chunk of paperwork. You still need to fill out these various forms of paperwork so that we can confirm that there are records that you and all adults living with you are sane/safe/non-criminal, etc. That being said, there are still 2 more home visits after the paperwork, and classes, and books.

I get the feeling I was substantially compressing all of the drama and moral decision making of adoption into a single meeting, when in fact, that isn't how it feels at all when you actually start going through the process. (For reference, I live in Maryland. I have no idea how other states or countries manage their adoption processes, and this may not apply to anyone else.)

The most comparable thing I can think of now is getting my driver's license, but more so. Not that I think there is ever a specific "Adoption License." but the relative amount of work, classes, and bureaucratic effort feels in about the same order of magnitude, if higher.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T18:38:30.331Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I do not think that you should decide to have or not have children based on you estimates of the impact on the world.

comment by phob · 2013-12-03T18:29:02.596Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Certainly not if you're trying to maximize your hedonic happiness. But children do not increase hedonic happiness; they increase your sense of living a meaningful life. To maximize the actual meaning of your life, you must use estimates of the impact of your decisions; whether or not this affects your perceived sense of meaning depends on how seriously you take moral arguments.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-03T18:39:38.400Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But children do not increase hedonic happiness; they increase your sense of living a meaningful life.

I think both of your statements are true for some people and not true for others. They are not general rules.

To maximize the actual meaning of your life

What is the actual meaning of my life?

comment by phob · 2013-12-20T20:47:56.179Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is variance in happiness, yes, but studies have shown that having children does not on average result in higher hedonic happiness, although it does increase a sense of living a meaningful life. If you doubt this, I can dig up the reference; I think it was actually referred to in the Rachaels paper. I said "certainly not", but that wasn't meant to be taken literally; of course it's not certain that you'll be equally or less happy with children.

I think I didn't word the second sentence correctly. I was trying to make the point that having a sense of meaning is not the same as doing reasonably well at improving the world in the ways you care about.

If you wanted to maximize your sense of meaning, you wouldn't object to being wireheaded in a blissful and maximally meaningful cyber-world. I think it's reasonable to say that most people object to such wireheading because they care about their actual impact on the world. At least, they want to appear as if they do.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-12-20T20:56:45.093Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

studies have shown that having children does not on average result in higher hedonic happiness

I am not average person, you don't look to be one either.

having a sense of meaning is not the same as doing reasonably well at improving the world in the ways you care about.

Well, again, it depends. For some people "meaningful life" has nothing to do with improving the world. And if your idea of meaningful life is improving the world, I don't see how you can have a sense of meaning and at the same time be aware that you're not "doing reasonably well".

comment by phob · 2013-12-20T21:23:56.124Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am not average person, you don't look to be one either.

Fair enough, but I still don't think I am very good at predicting whether I'll be happier with children. I also doubt that other people who do think they will be happier are very accurate. Humans are notoriously bad at determining what will make them happy/unhappy. I'm thinking in particular about the study about lottery winners vs. amputee victim from Dan Gilbert's TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html.

if your idea of meaningful life is improving the world, I don't see how you can have a sense of meaning and at the same time be aware that you're not "doing reasonably well".

Society as a whole regards having children as profoundly selfless, rather than selfish, so I think I am fair in concluding that some of the sense of meaning that people get from having children is related to improving the world for future generations. That particular self-satisfaction might not be disturbed by Rachaels' argument if one does not take moral arguments seriously.

comment by drethelin · 2013-10-22T16:06:36.466Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

In general I think it's better to assign x percent of your money to charity and then spend that money optimally rather than compare literally every thing you do to optimal charity. First, because t seems something you can get way more people to do and second because selfishness is a giant driving force behind optimization. Rich people spending money on cell phones in the 80s has led to better tech access now in Africa. If they instead spent that money on feeding people, nothing would be qualitatively different and the world would be worse off on net.

So if you're counting your kids as charity that's one thing, but if you're having kids because you WANT kids that's a different story.

On the kids as charity front: the world could use motivated high intelligence kids a lot more than it can use more people living on the edge of starvation. Even if you don't think smart kids are +EV for the world to begin with, bringing one up to care about Africa will get you a lot more value than you put in, I think. Assuming you're not averse to deliberately raising your kid to agree with your views on helping the world.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:34:42.505Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In general I think it's better to assign x percent of your money to charity and then spend that money optimally rather than compare literally every thing you do to optimal charity.

Agreed.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-10-22T19:57:55.794Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In general I think it's better to assign x percent of your money to charity and then spend that money optimally rather than compare literally every thing you do to optimal charity.

I was recently worrying about this argument (the one in the OP) independently, and this (the argument I've quoted from you) seems like the best response. In fact you may have just tipped me towards "have kids."

comment by shminux · 2013-10-22T15:12:55.065Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

There is a sleight of hand in the quote: it replaces "suboptimal" with immoral, where being optimal means maximizing a specific utility function.

For example, if your (fake) utility function is something like "total number of people on earth by the time you die", then yes, you should, among other things, forgo personal procreation. Fortunately, very few people have such a simplistic approach to life. If they did, they would find even better ways to maximize this number, like subverting birth control efforts or something.

Or maybe their utility function is the "total number of people who live to be at least 80 years old", that's why they want to save people from famine. Or something else.

My point is that the quote is an example of fake consequentialism, where some unspoken deontological or virtue ethics is couched in terms of utilitarianism, but without ever explicitly stating the utility function, because any particular action advocated by its proponents would then be revealed as suboptimal.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-10-22T15:19:57.095Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think their professed utility function would be maximizing something more like Quality Adjusted Life Years, under which efficient charity efforts would most likely be more effective than subverting birth control efforts, and it's certainly within the realm of plausibility that it would be more effective than having children.

However, the usual formulations of QALYs definitely do not adequately capture my own sense of utility, at least. I can't speak for those behind the calculations.

comment by shminux · 2013-10-22T17:27:56.083Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Right. Maximizing total QALY sounds good on paper, but can probably be gamed as easily as any other utilitarianism. Say, by wire-heading or drugging. Complexity of value and such.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T15:29:36.326Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How about the appropriate utility function being maximizing integral of all humans who have ever lived?

Because what does it matter if you maximize the number of people alive in one time interval, or maximize how happy they are, if this is followed by extinction?

comment by shminux · 2013-10-22T17:25:59.027Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How about the appropriate utility function being maximizing integral of all humans who have ever lived?

Any utilitarianism is subject to a repugnant conclusion of some form. In this case mandatory insemination of all fertile females and reducing subsistence to the minimum acceptable caloric levels would likely yield higher "integral of all humans who have ever lived" than famine relief.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T17:35:55.781Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But, in any case, I would expect this to lead to the Malthusian scenario we should be trying to avoid, not an overall maximization of all humans who have ever lived.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T17:34:27.311Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What if the reason repugnant conclusions come up is that we only have estimates of our real utility functions which are an adequate fit over most of the parameter space but diverge from true utility under certain boundary conditions?

If so, either don't feel shame about having to patch your utility function with one that does fit better in that region of the parameter space... or aim for a non-maximal but closer to maximum utility that that is far enough from the boundary that it can be relied on.

comment by shminux · 2013-10-22T17:44:25.767Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

adequate over most of the parameter space but diverge from true utility under some boundary conditions

Right, this is the issue Eliezer discussed at length in various posts, The Hidden Complexity of Wishes is one of the most illuminating. A utility-maximizing genie will always find a cheap way to maximize a given utility by picking one of the "boundaries" the wisher never thought of. And given that there are no obvious boundaries to begin with and so to stay "far enough from", it would simply pick a convenient point in the parameter space.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T17:55:56.326Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How about this as a rule of thumb, pending something more formal:

If a particular reallocation of resources/priority/etc. seems optimal, look for a point in the solution space between there and the status quo that is more optimal than the status quo, go for that point, and re-evaluate from there.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T18:54:27.917Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, looking at shminux' post above, you would suggest mandatory insemination of only some fertile females and reducing subsistence to slightly above the minimum acceptable caloric levels..?

If your seemingly-optimal point is repugnant why would you want to go in that direction anyway?

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T21:06:22.053Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, looking at shminux' post above, you would suggest mandatory insemination of only some fertile females and reducing subsistence to slightly above the minimum acceptable caloric levels..?

I believe that deliberately increasing population growth is specifically the opposite direction of the one we should be aiming toward if we are to maximize any utility function that penalizes die-offs, at least as long as we are strictly confined to one planet. I was just more interested in the more general point shminux raised about repugnant conclusions and wanted to address that instead of the specifics of this particular repugnant conclusion.

I think the way to maximize the "human integral" is to find the rate of population change at which our chances surviving long enough and ramping up our technological capabilities fast enough to colonize the solar system. That, in turn, will be bounded from above by population growth rates that risk overshoot, civilizational collapse, and die-off and bounded from below by the critical mass necessary for optimum technological progress and the minimum viable population. My guess is that the first of these is the more proximal one.

At any rate, we have to have some better-than-nothing way of handling repugnant conclusions that doesn't amount to doing nothing and waiting for someone else to come up with all the answers. I also think it's important to distinguish between optima that are inherently repugnant versus optima that can be non-repugnant but we haven't been able to think of a non-repugnant path to get from here to there.

comment by Creutzer · 2013-10-22T16:20:32.726Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What's wrong with extinction, except probably that the last generation people (like many others) have sucky lives?

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T16:32:14.567Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that for starters.

Then there is the drive to insure the survival and happiness of your children. I have found that this increases with age. If you don't have that drive yet, simply wait. There's a good chance you will be surprised to see that you will develop one, as I have. I imagine this drive undergoes another burst when one's children have children.

Then there is foreclosing on the possibility of the human race reaching the stars. If that doesn't excite you, what does? Sports? Video games? I'm sure those will also spread through the galaxy if we do.

Then there there is the possibility that medical science has a breakthrough or two during your lifetime that makes these more than just theoretical futures.

comment by Creutzer · 2013-10-25T11:10:38.131Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Then there is the drive to insure the survival and happiness of your children

I assume you mean people's drive to have children, since nobody talked about extinction through killing off anyone. But given what you said - that maximising living people's happiness doesn't matter if this is followed by extinction -, one would expect a more principled objection to the latter event.

There's a good chance you will be surprised to see that you will develop one.

No there isn't, but this is not to the point here. I'm not committing the typical mind fallacy in denying that many people have one.

I'm sure those will also spread through the galaxy if we do.

I don't care about spreading anything through the galaxy, actually. I wonder how much the average person does. (I immensely admire certain works of art, for example, and yet, the thought that nobody should be there to enjoy them, or create any more like them, does not bug me in the slightest.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-10-22T14:07:28.412Z · score: 8 (16 votes) · LW · GW

If having children were a net cost, humanity would have gone extinct long ago -- in fact, it would never have got started. The reality is, though, that on average, over a person's life, they produce more than they consume. For evidence, look around you, and compare the modern cornucopia with 100 years ago, or 1000. The investment that parents make in raising a child is paid back (to the world, not to those parents) in the resulting adult's life's works. This payback is ignored by the above argument.

comment by 9eB1 · 2013-10-23T03:53:24.934Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

One controversial or taboo possibility is that an intellectually elite Less Wrong poster may have much more of an impact on technological/economic progress by investing in a child than an equivalent investment in the third-world poor. One could argue that the majority of technological progress is driven by the top few % of people (measured either through intellect or economic resources), and that people in third-world countries (i.e. those who would benefit from bed nets) aren't really in a position to cause much impact.

comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2013-10-23T12:44:20.149Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Why invest the money in your child? If you want to produce smart children, donate to science camps, college funds of tech colloeges or whatever seems most promising. It seems a priori highly unlikely that the best way to invest 500k into producing top researchers or inventors (or basically anything) is by having a child yourself. Even if you have amazing genes, that would only be an argument for sperm donation.

comment by Jack · 2013-10-23T21:07:45.675Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to produce smart children, donate to science camps, college funds of tech colloeges or whatever seems most promising.

The per-dollar returns on education funding are unfortunately really dismal. The choke point in our Fritz Haber/Norman Borlaug/Edward Jenner pipeline is not the amount of science education out there. It's a combination of the low-hanging fruit being picked, insufficient investment in novel approaches and not enough geniuses. You could invest the money in far-horizon science research but 500k dries up really quickly that way. If you can have a kid with say, a 5% chance of an IQ over 155 it seems plausible that is the optimal use of that money.

Even if you have amazing genes, that would only be an argument for sperm donation.

Not everyone has sperm. But even if you do donating is really unlikely to have the same effect as finding a woman whose genes are similarly excellent and have a bunch of children with her.

The investment of 500k is certainly still sub-optimal but the lesson there is to not spend half a million dollars on your child. You can reduce this cost by having more children (which will bring the per-child cost down), by not spoiling them with status signal purchases and not paying $200,000 for an elite college education when a state-school is sufficient.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T22:42:04.885Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The choke point in our Fritz Haber/Norman Borlaug/Edward Jenner pipeline is not the amount of science education out there. It's a combination of the low-hanging fruit being picked, insufficient investment in novel approaches and not enough geniuses.

Very true. Each year we produce thousands of new Ph.D.s and import thousands more, while slowly choking off funding for basic research, so they languish in a post-doc holding pattern until many of them give up and go do something less innovative but safer.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-10-25T00:17:57.108Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's a combination of the low-hanging fruit being picked, insufficient investment in novel approaches and not enough geniuses.

but the lesson there is to not spend half a million dollars on your child.

If genius is a limiting factor, and genius is often under utilized, then spending half a million on increasing the odds of full utilization of a genius may be a good investment. If you can arrange for that genius to be your own child, you would be best situated to spend that half million for maximal effect.

comment by Jack · 2013-10-25T04:44:09.069Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Only if you're only allowed to have one child, for some reason.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T17:57:29.091Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

not enough geniuses

Is this really the case? Maybe the US and Western Europe are covered but is you have someone really smart born in a poorer part of the world how likely are they to come anywhere near their potential in terms of positive impact on humanity?

comment by 9eB1 · 2013-10-23T16:26:20.426Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One scenario that makes it relatively more attractive is if you believe that society already provides the resources needed for similarly situated people to achieve close to their potential, so there isn't more "room for funding" in GiveWell parlance. Another possibility is that it's actually more expensive to have an impact than naive analysis would suggest because actually influencing other people's children in a meaningful way is very difficult and having direct control of the environment is the most important aspect.

comment by ikrase · 2013-10-23T17:12:04.160Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed. Plus the child themself will have a blessed life.

comment by fortyeridania · 2013-10-22T17:46:52.555Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

You are right, but I don't think that's relevant to the argument.

The argument isn't that having kids makes people on net worse than before. The argument is that it makes people worse than another action would. (And even then, it's not always suboptimal; the more costly it is to raise a child--and in the first world it is very costly--the less moral it is to raise one.)

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T15:36:36.723Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell from the OP's summary, the book could just as well be arguing that having children is a net asset... and instead of wasting resources on your one or two children, you should use them to help a dozen other people have 40 or 80 children.

This is a view I disagree with because the utility function should be evaluated over the entire support range, and maximizing child output on a local time-scale at the cost of a long-term overshoot, collapse, and dark ages (or at worst extinction) does not do that.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:23:07.390Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell from the OP's summary, the book could just as well be arguing ...

It's not a book, it's a 2013 journal article (pdf).

comment by Brillyant · 2013-10-22T15:00:42.545Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, reproduction provides a net gain to progress. Exactly what the net consequence of progress will be when all has been cast and counted remains to be seen. It's possible that having kids = good...until having kids all of the sudden = bad.

comment by coffeespoons · 2013-10-26T11:59:05.878Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, there will be payback to the world, but not as much as if you spend the money on efficient charity (I would think).

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-10-26T15:24:40.833Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, there will be payback to the world, but not as much as if you spend the money on efficient charity (I would think).

Why do you think that? Here's a simple model. Suppose that the value of what you do and create (excluding offspring) in your life is A. You are paid some amount B for this. (If you have an honest job, B is less than A.) Of that, you spend C on your own household excluding children, leaving B-C for either charitable giving or raising offspring. Let D be the cost of raising a child. The number you can afford to raise is N = (B-C)/D.

If you do not have a child, the value of your life to others is A-C.

If you have K children, the value of all your lives (assuming the same figures apply to your children) is (K+1)(A-C-KD).

The former minus the latter is (K+1)KD-K(A-C). This favours not reproducing only if K > (A-C)/D - 1. But suppose you have one less child than the maximum you can afford. Then K = N-1 = (B-C)/D - 1. If you have an honest job, this must be less than (A-C)/D - 1. The optimum value of K turns out to be ((A-C)/D - 1)/2 (or some value a little less than N, if that is smaller).

So the conclusion of this calculation is "be fruitful and multiply".

comment by lmm · 2013-10-22T20:00:15.375Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's only true in a global average sense. For the cost of raising one child in America you could no doubt save the lives of several elsewhere.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-10-22T15:09:41.380Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If having children were a net cost over an unlimited time window, globally, at any time sufficiently far in the past for the effects to propagate, then humans would already be extinct. We can take the fact that this has not been the case so far as evidence that it isn't the case now, but it's not a necessary inference given that the cost of raising kids is not constant. In some cultures, one's offspring might be considered autonomous adults by the age of fourteen with skills their parents were able to impart in their free time, whereas in the present day it's becoming more and more important for the average adult, in order to be hired as a worker, to be credentialed by institutions which are following their own incentives to capture a greater and greater proportion of the workers' future wealth. Other costs may rise similarly.

Additional money may enter the economy (although it's technically possible that negative externalities render even this illusory as an increase in actual wealth,) without utility increasing; as is the crux of the argument, that wealth could be applied to more valuable causes.

comment by Jennifer_H · 2013-10-23T03:58:56.497Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
  • retracted -
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-23T04:18:35.652Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Doesn't this assume, however, that the bulk of the human population is inclined to behave rationally and consider net costs when deciding whether or not to have kids?

No, only that evolution exists.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T18:49:38.591Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Considered over twenty years, that's $25k/year or $2k/month.

That is very much inconsistent with the fact that the median household income in the US, one of the richest countries in the world, is about $50K (before taxes).

The estimate looks bogus to me.

comment by pinyaka · 2013-10-24T12:34:22.251Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you cut the estimate by 75%, down to about $500/mo the argument doesn't change very substantially. That money could certainly directly save more lives and could indirectly be used to get more than one person to do good.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T14:47:58.025Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you cut the estimate by 75%, down to about $500/mo the argument doesn't change very substantially.

Does the argument change substantially if you cut the estimate down to the price of the standard unit of indulgence, a Starbucks latte?

comment by pinyaka · 2013-10-24T17:23:54.161Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If the price of raising children becomes arbitrarily cheap, will someone eventually buy the entire market?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:31:29.881Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This includes college and the cost of time, which not everyone pays but I and most lesswrong readers probably would.

EDIT: this was too terse. More on opportunity cost:

Imagine a two-earner household where both people work full time making $32k each. This is below the median for the US, but let's be conservative. Let's say that after going on (unpaid) maternity leave for 6 weeks the mother goes back to work part time, and now makes $18k. The household income has gone down by $14k, which is a real cost of having kids, but this is a cost that is paid out of potential income, not actual income.

The higher your earning capacity, the higher this opportunity cost. Someone who takes the idea of "donate to charity as much as possible" seriously should probably be maximizing earning capacity, and probably earns much more than average. This means they're more likely to put their kid in daycare, and more likely to live in areas where daycare is more expensive, so instead of an opportunity cost we're back to having a real cost. (Daycare can range from $5k/year in the poorest states to $15k/year in the richest, it's higher in cities, and the highest paying jobs tend to be in urban areas in expensive states.)

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T19:50:36.299Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

LW readers' kids should get merit scholarships to college :-P

But if you're doing your estimate for a specific subset of the population, you should mention which subset it is.

College costs are also rarely fully paid by the parents -- typically a large chunk of them ends up being student loans to be repaid by the kids later. And time costs are a very fuzzy/squishy thing, you can make them anything you want them to be.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T21:06:14.804Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

if you're doing your estimate for a specific subset of the population, you should mention which subset it is.

Like most of us I tend to write about "people like me" vaguely defined. Is that actually a problem?

If you'd like to use the article's estimate of $250k that doesn't really change the argument.

College costs are also rarely fully paid by the parents

The current student loan limit is $25k while the cost of the school I attended is now $232k, both over four years. My family got financial aid, but as someone earning to give my children likely wouldn't. The argument "don't have kids so you have more money to give away" applies even more strongly to "work a higher paying job so you have more money to give away" so I think this cost applies broadly. This college cost is definitely on the high end, but schools are expensive all around.

comment by peter_hurford · 2013-10-22T23:02:52.283Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There's some relevant Mr. Money Mustache stuff on having kids "on a budget". He suggests $300/month for a kid, which is substantially less. But I'd guess that he's just missing something, because I expect you do much of the things he already suggests.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T23:48:43.229Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

They're talking about having one parent stay home. In opportunity costs that's several thousand dollars. As my wife and I both get paid several times what daycare costs we'd pay for daycare instead. There's also housing: a kid roughly doubles our housing needs.

(But we haven't done this yet, and don't know what our real costs will be.)

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T21:30:05.196Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Like most of us I tend to write about "people like me" vaguely defined. Is that actually a problem?

I don't know what "people like you" look like. I have no idea about your socioeconomic status or where you live or what sub-cultures you hang out in (except for LW).

It is a problem insofar you produce numbers which don't seem to be based on much and, as it turns out, it's quite unclear to whom they apply -- and then proceed to make an argument on the basis of those numbers.

The current student loan limit is $25k

No, it is not. Even if you look at only Federal loans, the limit is over $57K.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T01:06:48.850Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

you produce numbers which don't seem to be based on much

The numbers are based on the article's estimate with an attempt to account for the opportunity costs of parenting in terms of time as well as college. The argument is also not very sensitive to particular numbers. Even at $150k it would still be larger than any other expense I have. I would like better data, and intend to continue keeping track of all our spending as we have a kid, which will at least help people coming along a few years later.

Even if you look at only Federal loans, the limit is over $57K.

That's for independent students, right? But I think here we're talking about dependents. There are both yearly and total limits, it's only $57k if you take more than four years by which point tuition goes up even more. The $25k number I gave is the dependent limits summed over four years ($5.5k + $6.5k + $7.5k + $7.5k). But: (a) this is all way less than the $232k total and (b) not a very good predictor of what it would look like in 20 years.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-25T09:58:18.631Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

but schools are expensive all around.

“All around” meaning ‘in the US’? Tuitions are one or two orders of magnitude cheaper in continental Europe.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2013-10-24T21:43:21.623Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My oldest son tops his class easily in cognition. But he is also smart emough to not invest more energy in school than necessary. He has lots of pet projects (constructing a fighting vest, collecting a survival kit, organizing a fly market, exploring the suburb, planning his birthday) which don't gain him merit in school but from which he also learns a lot. So whether he will merit scholarships to college depends a lot on whether he specializes in signalling ability or in actual ability. And currently I'd bet on the latter (which I guess will earlier or later earn him merit anyway).

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-25T01:00:49.581Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If he gets high enough SAT scores it should compensate for the lack of silly extracurricular stuff...

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2013-10-25T07:29:34.688Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Here in Germany admission to university still depends on grades.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-05T19:07:45.697Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not if he goes to university out of the country.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-01-05T19:34:52.180Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Noted. A possibility that will be considerd in due time.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-05T20:13:43.067Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course in-country has the advantage of being free :) But there are a few free or near-free options within the EU for german passport holders. And there's also the possibility of winning a scholarship.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-03T22:39:26.394Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My hourly rate is $1000/hr. You owe me $1.39 for reading this comment. (Fallacy that time spent in activity X can be converted into dollars at hourly rate to arrive at realistic opportunity cost.)

Seriously in most parts of the world people have kids in order to make more money (e.g. by working more fields). That's one big reason why birthrate inversely correlates with prosperity.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-05T15:51:35.562Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Fallacy that time spent in activity X can be converted into dollars at hourly rate to arrive at realistic opportunity cost"

I'm not arguing that "time spent with children" should be converted to dollars and counted as a cost of raising children. Instead I'm saying we should apply that to time you would work if you didn't have kids, but now that you have kids aren't working. For example, here's a post that claims raising kids is not that expensive, but they do it by having one of the parents stay home. If that parent were to work for pay instead they would bring in $X, which is a real non-fallacious opportunity cost.

"in most parts of the world people have kids in order to make more money"

I agree that child labor changes the economics of having children a lot, but I live in the US.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-05T19:31:40.091Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Instead I'm saying we should apply that to time you would work if you didn't have kids, but now that you have kids aren't working. For example, here's a post that claims raising kids is not that expensive, but they do it by having one of the parents stay home.

I think that is rather missing the point of the post which has some very good suggestions about restructuring your life around having kids, of which some methods are very practical just not in line with social norms.

For most people (by which I mean >50% of the population) the post you linked to is correct. Day care is f#&@ing expensive. Where I live it is $1500 per child, per month which amounts to about ~$9/hr. That's above minimum wage. (Sadly I'm not sure where I'd find median numbers for this.) Factor in other costs associated with working (food, gas, clothing, car maintenance, etc.) and you'd better be making >$12 or $15/hr for it to make any kind of sense. And that's assuming you have someone else paying your rent. And that's just where it economically breaks even - you'd have to be making more than that to make it worth spending 8-9hrs a day at a grueling job instead of playing with your kids. And it had better be 8-9 hrs - daycare doesn't get cheaper if you do a half-day, and gets more expensive per hour if you cut down the number of days.

The median wage in the U.S. is about $13.25 (and not all Americans work). So yes, having someone watch your kids while you go off and work is the lifestyle of the rich minority.

I agree that child labor changes the economics of having children a lot, but I live in the US.

The entire debate becomes much less interesting if it's just about your socioeconomic status and geographic location.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-07T20:29:03.357Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"that's assuming you have someone else paying your rent"

This falls on both sides of the question.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-07T20:13:31.055Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Day care is f#&@ing expensive. Where I live it is $1500 per child, per month which amounts to about ~$9/hr. That's above minimum wage. (Sadly I'm not sure where I'd find median numbers for this.)"

Here's some 2007 data from the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies via USA Today. I think it's extracted from a previous version of this document. Taking a straight up median of their state-by-state numbers gives an average cost of daycare of $6499.75/year. This is very rough, but no state had numbers as high as the $18k/year you give.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-06T21:40:29.075Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Minor:

"spending 8-9hrs a day at a grueling job instead of playing with your kids"

A lot of people don't see it this way. Taking care of a young child can be similarly grueling and I know a few people who have taken jobs that only paid about the same as the cost of daycare because that's what they preferred to do with their time.

"The median wage in the U.S. is about $13.25"

Source? It seems low to me. The median annual income for full time workers over 25 is $39,509 (US Census, 2006, via wikipedia) and if you divide that by 40 hours a week you get $19/hour. To get the median wage down to $13.25 you'd need people working about 57 hours a week.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-01-07T20:22:08.474Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Taking care of a young child can be similarly grueling and I know a few people who have taken jobs that only paid about the same as the cost of daycare because that's what they preferred to do with there time.

The issue isn't only whether you find taking care of kids "grueling". In comparing staying at home to working, don't think only about the immediate balance of salary vs. day care, think about the situation in the future. What will be your salary in 15 years if you stay in the workforce and if you try to re-enter the workforce after a 15-year break? What will you work skills be?

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-07T20:28:06.993Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed, though in both of the cases I'm thinking of the jobs weren't ones where you build up long-term skills.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-01-06T23:37:26.433Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To get the median wage down to $13.25 you'd need people working about 57 hours a week.

Or a lot of people with part-time jobs who are making less than $19/hour. Which matches observation pretty well.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-06T23:33:32.240Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Social security administration:

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/central.html

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-07T13:56:14.292Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The SSA link gives a median annual compensation of $27,519 but doesn't give an hourly rate. I notice that if I divide that number by 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year I get about $13.25; is that what you did? The SSA data includes lots of people working less than 40 hours a week, so if you want to use their numbers you need some way to connect that to hours worked. While I can't find median hours worked, I found a mean of 33/week. Matching up the median compensation with mean hours worked is very dodgy, but lets assume it's ok and also that this average employee gets no vacation or holidays. This gives us 33*52=1716 hours per year earning $27,519, or $16/hour. This is below the $19/hour I estimated from Census data above, which we should expect if part time workers tend to be paid less, but nowhere near as low as $13.25. And lots of people do get vacation, holidays, sick time, etc.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-07T17:09:06.462Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I divided by 40 hrs per week because that was the daycare hours under consideration.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-07T20:13:47.761Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I'm confused. To estimate how much people are paid per hour, you took total pay and divided it by the number of hours their kids would need to be in daycare? Dividing total pay by hours worked would make much more sense.

comment by jkaufman · 2014-01-06T21:27:09.715Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"very good suggestions about restructuring your life around having kids, of which some methods are very practical just not in line with social norms."

Agree. If you're optimizing for life satisfaction I think the MMM posts are excellent.

"the post you linked to is correct ... having someone watch your kids while you go off and work is the lifestyle of the rich minority."

I'm not saying the post is wrong or that people should put their kids in day care even if they lose money, I'm saying that this is a situation where opportunity cost argument is totally applicable. Imagine a married couple deciding between two options: (1) don't have kids and give any extra money to effective charity (2) have kids and give any extra money to effective charity. If they choose option #1 they earn $X and $Y each and need to spend $Z to live, so they can donate $X+$Y-$Z. If they choose option #2 and they don't earn enough for daycare to make sense then say the person earning $Y stays home full time. They also have additional costs related to having children like needing a bigger house; let's call that $W. Now they have available to donate $X-$Z-$W.

In terms of money they actually pay, the cost of kids is just $W. But they no longer earn that $Y/year, so their money available to donate has also gone down by $Y. The "cost of kids" for this couple as measured by decreased donations to charity is $W+$Y not $W.

comment by Emile · 2013-10-23T08:47:41.486Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I value having and raising children of my own. I also live in a country with low demographic growth (like most of us), and I think pretty confidently my country would be better off in the long run if educated people with stable lives had more children (assuming no singularity etc.).

I roughly value, in decreasing order: my family and friends; "people like me" (nerds, educated people, etc.); western countries; the rest of the world.

It's not clear to me whether jkaufman is arguing that it is wrong for me to value that (wrong according to whose values? mine??), or that even according to my values, I should still help poor countries instead of having kids.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T22:11:09.672Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We should be careful to make the distinction between jkaufman's own opinions and those of the paper they posted a link to.

By the way, it's refreshing to see people be honest with themselves and others about what they value instead of the posturing/kool-aid one often sees around this topic.

comment by D_Alex · 2013-10-23T07:32:08.671Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe...

a) having and raising well-educated and well-brought-up kids is expensive, but in the end it is a fantastic investment (and from my own experience, makes one happy) b) having and raising kids who will require charity to survive is cheap, and also immoral

Unfortunately, giving to famine relief promotes b).

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T14:08:48.095Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The term "famine relief" in this context is unfortunate. Rachels is extending a 1972 paper of Peter Singer's which used that term. The argument is much stronger if you mentally substitute "most effective charity" for "famine relief".

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T22:12:24.770Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You should repeat this at the top level. This changes things quite a bit.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T00:54:47.405Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Done.

comment by blacktrance · 2013-10-23T06:58:22.866Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Conceiving and raising a child costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; that money would be far better spent on famine relief

Only if you're operating under a utility function that assigns an equal value to all people, or at least the value of one person's well-being is not significantly different from another's. If you reject this premise (as I do), it's not necessarily true that the money would be better spent on famine relief. Perhaps I could donate $200 to a charity that would buy food for starving people, or I could use it to buy a Nintendo 3DS for my girlfriend, or for myself. I value my girlfriend (and myself) much more highly than I value the well-being of strangers, so I see nothing wrong with spending that money on a person I value more highly.

The same goes for raising a child. Presumably, I would value my child's well-being much more highly than the lives of strangers, and value the fulfillment of having a child similarly.

All of these "what you should do if you are a utilitarian" articles should start with "Assuming you are a being for whom utility matters roughly equally regardless of who experiences it..."

comment by gjm · 2013-10-23T10:31:30.311Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

That assumption is part of what "utilitarian" usually means. In particular, "utilitarian" does not mean the same thing as "entity that tries to maximize some utility function".

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T22:14:31.346Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

All of these "what you should do if you are a utilitarian" articles should start with "Assuming you are a being for whom utility matters roughly equally regardless of who experiences it..."

Yes! Thank you for articulating in one sentence what I haven't been able to in a dozen posts.

comment by juliawise · 2014-01-03T03:01:08.438Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't that what "utilitarian" means?

comment by satt · 2014-01-06T11:56:03.546Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think "utilitarian" has picked up too many different meanings for us to use the word without saying which meaning we mean. I see people using it in (at least) 5 different senses.

  1. Someone who prioritizes function over form, which might be the most common lay definition. (See e.g. Wiktionary defining "utilitarian" as an adjective meaning "practical and functional, not just for show".)

  2. Someone trying to maximize a utility function or welfare function, whatever that function's form. (I mentally call this "utilityfunctionarianism" to distinguish it from the other meanings.)

  3. Someone trying to maximize an additively separable utility function or welfare function, i.e. someone who defines social utility as a weighted sum or average of each person's utility. (Ken Binmore uses this definition in his Game Theory and the Social Contract and says it's a "not uncommon definition".)

  4. Someone trying to maximize an unweighted sum or average of each person's utility, i.e. an egalitarian utility maximizer. (Which seems to be the meaning being used here, and sometimes elsewhere on LW, e.g. here.)

  5. A Benthamite, which (I think?) is close to meaning 4, but with "utility" operationalized as "happiness".

So it's a fuzzy term.

comment by satt · 2014-02-12T22:53:31.013Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

An argument elsewhere on LW reminds me of a 6th meaning for "utilitarian": a synonym for "consequentialist".

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-10-25T00:53:05.734Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, this is the winner.

"Well being" is nebulous enough, but without specifying the relative weighting, it means very little, particularly with the "weight everyone equally" variant finding such strong support, and being so at odds with what people actually do.

comment by Omid · 2013-10-22T15:36:29.444Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Making a child gives them ~70 QALY's. That's not a lot by efficient charity standards, but it's a lot by "helping the people closest to you" standards. If sibling needed $100K to purchase 14 QALY's, would you help them?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:21:18.856Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Depending on how your "helping the people closest to you" works, should it include people who don't exist yet?

comment by moridinamael · 2013-10-22T14:47:25.922Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

There are two ways of making the world better: you can remove suckiness, or you can increase awesomeness. Deciding to never have kids is ceding one of the primary ways in which global awesome can be increased in favor of decreasing global suck. If you live your life only concerned with decreasing suck - or, more importantly, if everyone lived this way - the worldwide suck level would likely equilibrate to tolerable levels and then stagnate.

Space exploration is indulgent; that money should be spent on mosquito nets. Arts detract from time which could be spent earning money to donate; give it up. Having children is selfish; instead, make the lives of people you will never meet slightly less intolerable. Instead of studying to be an engineer so you can build/find/create hospitals/oil/technology, become a day trader and increase the efficiency of markets by a negligible fraction while donating your earnings.

Of course I am being tongue in cheek. You should do both things - increase awesome and decrease suck. There can't be a knockdown argument against having children because it would generalize to a knockdown argument against trying to do anything except perfectly optimal cash generation and donation.

comment by gjm · 2013-10-22T17:07:10.909Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose you're a book-lover and your house is on fire. You get your spouse and children out and ignore your books. That doesn't mean you don't care about books, it means you've got an emergency that requires you to focus on other things.

Suppose you love awesomeness and the world is full of cheaply fixable suckiness. Maybe you fix the suckiness first and ignore the tempting vistas of awesomeness. That doesn't mean you don't value awesomeness, it means there's an emergency.

So if someone decides that they need to make big sacrifices to decrease suck, it doesn't necessarily mean that they think decreasing suck is all that matters. They might care about awesome too, but trade off awesome against suck in such a way that right now concentrating on suck is important.

Does thinking that way mean endorsing a world in which no one ever does anything but suck-minimization? Nope, not quite. It means endorsing a world in which everyone concentrates on suck-minimization as long as there's a huge suckiness problem. Once we've dealt with the mass starvation, vast numbers of deaths from malaria, horrendous poverty, etc., then we can start paying a lot more attention to awesomeness. And at that point there'll be a lot more people with a reasonable prospect of some awesomeness in their lives, so maybe we actually maximize long-term awesomeness that way too.

(I do not necessarily endorse that position. I certainly don't act in a manner perfectly consistent with it. But I don't think it's at all fair to say that arguing for sacrifices in the name of reduced suckiness amounts to preferring a world in which everyone spends all their time toiling for minimized suck and nothing awesome happens. Our book-lover doesn't want a world in which everyone spends all their time rescuing people from fires -- but as long as the fire is burning and people need rescuing, what else should one do?)

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T17:46:56.961Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Once we've dealt with the mass starvation, vast numbers of deaths from malaria, horrendous poverty, etc., then we can start paying a lot more attention to awesomeness.

What if, for practical purposes, there is an inexhaustible supply of suck? What if we can't deal with it once and for all and then turn our attention to the fun stuff?

So, judging from the reception of my post about the Malthusian Crunch certain Wrongians sense this and have gone into denial (perhaps, if they're honest with themselves, privately admitting the hope that if they ignore the starving masses long enough, they will go away).

I propose a middle ground between giving everything and giving nothing-- a non-arbitrary cutoff for how much help is enough. A cutoff that can be defended on pragmatic grounds without having to assume a shared normative morality.

You put just enough resources into pure suckiness remediation to insure that spillover suckiness will not derail your awesomeness plans. I emphasize pure because there are pursuits that simultaneously strive for new heights of awesomeness and fix suck in equal measure. Obviously this quality is desirable and such projects should not be penalized for having it.

comment by gjm · 2013-10-22T22:59:59.243Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What if, for practical purposes, there is an inexhaustible supply of suck?

Well, that would be very bad, and it might mean that an altruist of the sort I describe would in fact think the best course of action would be relentless suck-mitigation, for ever. A world of relentless suck-mitigation wouldn't be a lot of fun, but if you're faced with an inexhaustible supply of suck it might be the best you could do.

[EDITED to add: I see you've been downvoted. For what it's worth, that wasn't me.]

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:26:50.436Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

you can remove suckiness, or you can increase awesomeness

The charities I think are doing the most good are working along "remove suckiness" lines, but an "increase awesomeness" charity could get you much more awesomeness per dollar than having kids.

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-22T17:36:19.371Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Think marginally. The argument is that right now, the world's population would be better off on net if more people gave to effective charities instead of having kids.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T15:32:18.949Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I want to increase awesome by decreasing suck.

There are a lot of paths in science and engineering that accomplish that, and space travel (in the long view) is definitely one of them.

comment by Jess_Riedel · 2013-10-27T21:07:16.428Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I mostly disagree with both parts of the sentence "Except that it's much cheaper to convince other people's kids to be generous, and our influence on the adult behavior of our children is not that big." I would argue that

(1) Almost all new EA recruits are converted in college by friends and/or by reading a very small number of writers (e.g. Singer). This is something that cannot be replicated by most adults, who are bad writers and who are not friends with college students. We still need good data on the ability of typical humans to covert others to EA ideas, but my anecdotal observations (e.g. Matt Wage) suggest that this is MUCH harder than you might think.

(2) Despite one's acceptance of genetic fatalism, it's known that the biggest influences a parent can have are the religious and political associations of their children. Insofar as donating is determined more by affiliating with the EA movement than by bio-determined factors like IQ, we can expect parents to strongly induce giving by their children.

We can look to evangelical religions to get an idea of what movement building techniques are most effective for the bulk of the population. Yes, many religions have missionaries, but this is usually a small group of unusually motivated and charismatic people. But having lots of children is a strategy that many religions have effectively employed for the bulk of their members.

(One potential counter example I'd be interested to hear about is the effectiveness of the essentially compulsory missionary work for Mormon men.)

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-28T00:53:19.046Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Almost all new EA recruits are converted in college by friends and/or by reading a very small number of writers (e.g. Singer).

Maybe currently, but it doesn't have to be. Many people within the Boston EA community seem to have come to it post college and through in-person discussions.

This is something that cannot be replicated by most adults, who are bad writers and who are not friends with college students.

Do college EAs need more support? Would better versions of things like ThINK's modules help? Funding for free food for meetings? Would subsidizing TLYCS distribution or some upcoming EA book do much to increase the spread of ideas?

If you can convince one new person to be an EA for $100k you're more efficient than successfully raising your kid to be one, and that's ignoring time-discounting.

having lots of children is a strategy that many religions have effectively employed for the bulk of their members

I think religions mostly expand at first through conversion and then once they start getting diminishing returns switch to expanding through reproduction. EA isn't to this changeover point yet, and isn't likely to be for a while. But I also don't know that much about it.

comment by Jess_Riedel · 2013-10-28T04:18:23.432Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Many people within the Boston EA community seem to have come to it post college and through in-person discussions.

Hmm. I haven't spent much time in the area, but I went to the Cambridge, MA LessWrong/Rationality "MegaMeetup" and it was almost exclusively students. Is there a Boston EA community substantially disjoint from this LW/Rationality group that you're talking about?

More generally, are there many historical examples of movements that experience rapid growth on college campuses but then were able to grow strongly elsewhere? Civil rights and animal welfare are candidates, but I think they mostly fail this test for different reasons.

If you can convince one new person to be an EA for $100k you're more efficient than successfully raising your kid to be one, and that's ignoring time-discounting.

I honestly do not think this is possible, and again I look to religious organizations as examples where (my impression is that) finding effective missionaries is much harder than getting the minimal funding they need to operate at near-maximum efficiency. This is something we need more data on, but I expect a lot of the rosy pictures people have of translating money or other fungibles into EA converts will not stand up to scrutiny, in much the same way that GiveWell has raised by an order of magnitude its estimates of the cost of saving a life in the developing world. I especially think that the initial enthusiasm of new EAers converted through repeatable methods (like 80k hours) will fade more quickly in time than "organic" converts and children raised in EA households (to an even greater extent than for religions).

I think religions mostly expand at first through conversion and then once they start getting diminishing returns switch to expanding through reproduction. EA isn't to this changeover point yet, and isn't likely to be for a while.

Maybe. I have the impression that religions most used missionaries to expand geographically, and hit diminishing returns very quickly once they had a foothold. Basically, I guess that as soon as a potential convert knows the organization exists, you've essentially already hit the wall of diminishing returns. I agree as long as EA stuff has non-structural geographic lumpiness (i.e. geographic concentrations that are a result of accidents of history rather than for intrinsic reasons related to where EA memes are most effective) then EA missionary work may be the major driver of growth. But I think the EA memes are most effective on a wealthy, technologically connected sub-population which we may quickly saturate in just a few years.

I hear many more people describe their own conversion experience as something akin to "I heard the argument, and it just immediately clicked" (even if personal inertia prevented them making immediate drastic changes). I do not hear many people describe it as "I had heard about these ideas a few times, but it was only when Bob [who was supported by EA funding] took the time to sit and talk with me for a few hours that I was convinced." (Again, that's just anecdotal.)

Can we look at the history of the Catholic church during times when new populations of potential converts became accessible through exploration/colonization? What fraction of the church's resources went to missionary work, and did the church reduce its emphasis on having children so that parents would have more free money to give to the church?

Incidentally, these kind of questions are what make me wish we had more EA historians. We could use a lot more data and systematic analysis.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-28T12:25:30.979Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I went to the Cambridge, MA LessWrong/Rationality "MegaMeetup" and it was almost exclusively students

Weird; that's not my memory of it or my perception of the group. The meetup was at Harvard, which meant we had a couple more students than usual, but I think 80%+ of the local people at the meetup were out of school.

At the meetup yesterday night, which I remember better, there were about 15 of us and I think only one student (late 30s statistics grad student).

Is there a Boston EA community substantially disjoint from this LW/Rationality group that you're talking about?

There's a lot of overlap, but it's a separate group. Looking over the rsvps at our most recent dinner I count 8 people who also go to lesswrong, and 15 who don't. On the same list i count three students.

are there many historical examples of movements that experience rapid growth on college campuses but then were able to grow strongly elsewhere?

The history of movements is something I'd like to know more about, but haven't really looked into much. (One thing I found frustrating when I did is that there's a huge amount of survivorship bias.)

Facebook did this, though it's not a movement.

I expect a lot of the rosy pictures people have of translating money or other fungibles into EA converts will not stand up to scrutiny

I agree, and am similarly pessimistic. But $100k is still a lot of money, and we don't yet have that much experience trying to figure out how to spend it.

I do not hear many people describe it as "I had heard about these ideas a few times, but it was only when Bob [who was supported by EA funding] took the time to sit and talk with me for a few hours that I was convinced."

There are very few Bobs who are supported by EA funding, but I can think of several people who switched to EA after lots of talking with existing EAs. Right now we have relatively little personal outreach and relatively more digital/idea-based outreach, so we should expect to meet more people who were receptive to the arguments when they heard them remotely.

did the church reduce its emphasis on having children so that parents would have more free money to give to the church?

I'm not sure the church was strategic or flexible enough to do this, and even then I doubt kids were anywhere near as expensive as then. Specifically, I think the age at which a kid went from net-consumer to net-producer was something like 9 compared to today's 22. (But I'm not very informed on this.)

historians ... we could use a lot more data and systematic analysis.

Yes!

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-10-24T16:58:34.775Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

There are several fundamental problems here, but I'm just going to focus on this one; if we intelligent people stop breeding due to this kind of intellectual argument, why do we expect the less intelligent masses to follow suit?

More intelligent wealthy and responsible people, exactly the people this kind of argument (and it's middle class equivalent, "A nineteenth British scholar unfamiliar with technology curves decided we're all doomed!") targets, have the lowest birth rates in our society. This gets more and more extreme the more highly educated and wealthy the people in question are.

On the other side of the coin, the incentive structure of our society encourages our least responsible members to reproduce as much as possible by shouldering most of the burden their children create. Adding more private charity on top of these existing government incentives and cutting off the right-end of the bell curve just means the dysgenic trends in our society will get worse and worse.

Since IQ is 60-80% heritable, and correlates strongly with income education and social responsibility, it is extraordinarily unwise to trade a short-term gain in QALYs for long term damage to the intelligence of the species. Especially if we think technological innovation will be key to solving future problems, any method which puts selective pressure against high intelligence is absolutely poisonous on a societal level.

If we really care about making the world better for humanity in the long run, people with IQs even slightly above the mean need to commit to having enough children to offset the current dysgenic trends in our society and pursue political/economic solutions to reduce dysgenic population growth. This kind of pathological altruism is ultimately short sighted and suicidal.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T18:51:12.977Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How long do you think it will be until we understand the genetics of intelligence to the point that "dysgenic trends" don't matter?

Isn't this a much stronger argument for sperm/egg donation than having kids?

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-10-24T19:07:11.957Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How long do you think it will be until we understand the genetics of intelligence to the point that "dysgenic trends" don't matter?

From what we do know now, intelligence is extraordinarily polygenic. Once we've identified specific alleles linked to high / low IQ respectively, and figured out what they do well enough to be confident messing with them, and have the ability to modify the genome on the scale of dozens to hundreds of genes at once... well, I'd like to think I'll still be alive and in the industry by then but who the hell knows.

Isn't this a much stronger argument for sperm/egg donation than having kids?

The two are hardly exclusive; even in countries with no legal limits to donation you can still always raise another half dozen yourself in addition to whatever number of children you can conceive through donation. We're talking about reversing trends involving billions of people, no-one can afford to be a slouch.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T20:41:51.371Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

intelligence is extraordinarily polygenic...

I agree it's complicated, but are we talking about more than 50 years? Claimed dysgenic effects are very slow.

The two are hardly exclusive.

Fair point.

comment by Moss_Piglet · 2013-10-24T22:21:28.405Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree it's complicated, but are we talking about more than 50 years?

That's not really a question I can answer, but I wouldn't be too surprised if it did.

Basically, to do it right, we'd need a lot of different fields that are in their infancy right now to mature more-or-less all at once. We're talking about taking macroscopic structural issues like brain volumes in different regions or the size of axon paths between them which are vaguely described by modern neuroscience and the huge number of genes potentially implicated in intelligence and then turning that into a single theory of what 'g' actually represents and then using that as a basis for therapy. And that will very likely depend on how good our ability to transfect large amounts of DNA into living cells are; right now you can't even move the gene for hemoglobin, much less whatever is needed for the hundreds of alleles you might have to change in a full overhaul. Throw in 15-20 years for FDA approval and your standard political controversy and you're looking at a big question mark.

I mean sure it could be that the problem isn't as difficult as it looks or the Singularity materializes and drops a solution in our laps, but I really wouldn't advise you to count on it.

Claimed dysgenic effects are very slow.

The problem is that the rate isn't constant; Vining, the guy people usually refer to for the "whites lose 1.6 IQ points a generations" figure, pointed out that the fertility differential is highly dependent on overall population growth. In periods of population increase the high IQ tend to lead the pack and the trend is eugenic, while in periods of population decline they trail and create a dysgenic trend.

Currently the US birth rate is below the death rate, with higher-IQ whites and east asians having the worst of it, so it wouldn't be surprising if by 2048 we see a much larger decrease in global IQs than you could have predicted with data from the 1940s birth cohort.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-25T10:19:10.762Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't this a much stronger argument for sperm/egg donation than having kids?

See here.

comment by Strange7 · 2013-12-14T12:03:53.310Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How long do you think it will be until we understand the genetics of intelligence to the point that "dysgenic trends" don't matter?

That depends on how many smart people are available, over time, to analyze the genetics of intelligence.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T18:57:53.576Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

a much stronger argument for sperm/egg donation than having kids?

Within this context, isn't donating sperm/eggs the same thing as having kids except that someone else will have to bring them up and bear the costs?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T20:40:09.417Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not really. If I donate my genetic material it doesn't decrease the amount of money I have available to donate and only very slightly decreases my time.

If there were lots of people who wanted to have kids but couldn't because of an egg/sperm shortage, and a significant number were likely to donate lots to charity only if they didn't have kids, then it would be wrong to donate genetic material. We're nowhere near that situation on either count, though.

comment by linkhyrule5 · 2013-10-24T00:38:26.150Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'd argue that there's a significant benefit to increasing the proportion of rational thinkers, which I would think would happen significantly more often with children of rationalists. Your individual child probably won't make a difference, but other rationalists probably think like you, so you're really making a timeless decision that produces many thousands of more-likely-rational children.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T00:51:54.005Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For the amount of money a child requires couldn't CFAR do more to spread rational thinking?

comment by linkhyrule5 · 2013-10-24T05:04:54.506Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure, insufficient data. At first, probably, but at some point CFAR's capacity will stop being the limiting factor, being replaced by the low sanity waterline itself; meanwhile, the rate of rational parents producing rational children is something I'd expect to be constant.

comment by cousin_it · 2013-10-23T07:13:41.824Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In Rachels' paper, comparing the happiness of parents to the happiness of voluntarily childless people seems wrong, because childlessness hurts most when it's involuntary. (See how much people spend on fertility treatments.) That said, I don't know if deciding to donate instead of having kids would be more similar to voluntary or involuntary childlessness. That depends on how strongly you feel the urge to have kids. And in the long term, if we view the paper as a call to social engineering, it depends on whether that urge is biological or social.

comment by SisterY · 2013-10-23T13:08:02.294Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, the first happiness studies that found that having children massively decreases happiness were using involuntarily infertile couples, not voluntarily childfree folks, as their comparison group; the authors were very surprised that involuntarily infertile childless couples were happier than their child-having peers!

A few of these early studies: Glenn, N.D., & McLanahan, S. (1982) Children and marital happiness: A further specification of the relationship. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 44, 63-72 (great quote: negative effect of offspring on both marital and global happiness of parents "is not absolutely conclusive, of course, but it is perhaps about as nearly conclusive as social scientific evidence on any topic ever is."

Anderson, S.A., Russell, C.S., & Schumm, W.R. (1983). Perceived marital quality and family life-cycle categories: A further analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 127-139.

Bernard, J. (1982). The Future of Marriage. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Campbell, A., Converse, P.E., & Rodgers, W.L. (1976). The quality of American life: Perceptions, evaluations, and satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage.

Campbell, A. (1981). The sense of well-being in America. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Elderly childfree are happy too: Rempel, J. (1985). Childless elderly: What are they missing? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 343-348.

comment by cousin_it · 2013-10-23T14:32:07.883Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's surprising, thanks!

I just looked through the first study on your list and couldn't find any mention of infertility. The second one's behind a paywall. Maybe I'm missing something, can you give some quotes about the happiness of involuntarily infertile couples?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T03:30:36.459Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, the first happiness studies...

Which family characteristics did they control for?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T06:31:44.989Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I clicked this hoping it would be about Sister Y's arguments. :(

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T01:48:38.928Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a lot of posts. Are there particular entries you'd recommend reading to start?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-10-22T21:45:57.477Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Is it immoral to have children?

According to what moral theory?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T23:35:35.380Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Both Rachels and I are considering consequentialist moral theories that involve valuing the well-being of others. Utilitarianism is one of these, but many lesswrongers value others and are consequentialist without being confident in what would count as utility or believing it scales linearly with people.

comment by peter_hurford · 2013-10-22T23:00:17.443Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Presumably utilitarianism.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-23T00:03:21.972Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

With which utility function?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T01:10:30.308Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Does it matter? All of the standard utilitarianisms come to the same conclusion here. It doesn't matter whether you're aggregating preferences, happiness, satisfaction, or wellbeing when the level of global inequality is this high. In all of these systems there are other people who can get far more utility out of a marginal dollar than you can.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-23T04:13:11.353Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

The question is how you do the aggregating.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T14:09:41.832Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Both total and average give the same result here.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-25T01:31:11.829Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Not if you're comparing states with different numbers of people.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T02:16:26.432Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

They both give the same result in the sense that "give your money to the best charity" yields far higher aggregate utility than "have a kid".

(As your kid would be one in 7 billion, they're even quite close in how much charity beats reproducing by.)

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-10-22T20:26:17.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

College is currently in a huge state of flux. Advertised costs are rising far faster than inflation

They have been rising exponentially at about 6% for 60 years. I don't think it's fair to call that a "state of flux" or a sudden realization.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T21:11:58.579Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The state of flux is MOOCs being new, so much cheaper, and the cost disparity getting constantly larger.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-10-22T22:13:50.988Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you're really talking about MOOCs and price is a minor adjunct to that, you should mention MOOCs first.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T01:16:49.013Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Reasonable. I like presenting it as "we have X trend which was becoming increasingly unsustainable and is now being challenged by Y trend" but if people are finding it confusing I should edit. Is it confusing to other people?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T18:58:16.740Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Having kids is a special case of spending your time and money in ways that make you happy.

Really? And kids are not persons and their happiness does not count?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:33:28.894Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Kids are definitely persons and their happiness definitely counts, but so are the thousands of other people you could be helping with that $500k.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T19:52:35.704Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

These thousands of people already exist. You're making new people to be happy.

And there is, of course, the obvious observation that if everyone follow that logic, this will be the last generation of humans on Earth.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T21:10:18.419Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Rachels considers this, and I agree with their argument:

Some objections point to disastrous consequences that would ensue if everyone remained childless. If nobody had kids, then the human race would die out, and before it did, there would be the Era of the Elderly, when every living person would be over 70. After that would come the Era of the Very Elderly, the Era of the Half Dead, and, finally, the Era of Please Kill Me But There’s No One Still Around Able to Do That. A different objection laments the prospect of taking all the good people out of parenting. It says that if every good person were to refrain from procreating, then tomorrow’s parents would come only from the Pool of Scoundrels, and the future of humankind would be bleak. The first objection is of the form, “What if everybody did that?” The second objection is of the form, “What if all the good people did that?”

It would be fair, if un-philosophical-sounding, to respond by saying, “But they won’t.”Both objections are fallacious. Consider the principle underlying them: it would be wrong to do x if some very large number of people’s doing x would have bad consequences. On this principle, it would be wrong for the cable guy to come to my house, because if billions of people came to my house, then there would be no place for anyone to park. Or, it would be wrong for me to go to law school, because if everyone did that, then who would teach the classes? The principle is indefensible.

I have not been arguing that we should all refrain from having kids; I’ve only been arguing that you, the reader, shouldn’t have kids. Or, to put the thesis more generally: anyone in our position shouldn’t have kids (where “our position” includes facts about how others will behave as well as facts about our own economic situation).

There is nothing paradoxical in saying that you should do something but that it might be bad if everyone or if many people did it. In deciding what to do, we need to be realistic about what others will do. If we become saints, then we do so alone. The rest of the world won’t follow our lead, nor will all the people whom we think would make good parents. Kant notwithstanding, we choose only for ourselves. And the choice that you or I should make is not to have children.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-24T08:02:26.065Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It would be fair, if un-philosophical-sounding, to respond by saying, “But they won’t.”

Actually they already do.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T15:22:10.267Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually they already do.

And there's lots of literature on that, too.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T15:53:04.056Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

On this principle, it would be wrong for the cable guy to come to my house, because if billions of people came to my house, then there would be no place for anyone to park.

There are many problems with this analogy -- for example, Rachels asks people NOT to do something so the proper parallel would be for billions of people not to come to her house which seems perfectly fine to me.

But to make clear the major flaw of this comparison let me ask you a question: What percentage of human population would you like to follow the advice of not having kids? And if it's less than 100% what would you consider to be the best way of dividing people into those who should have kids and those who should not?

This question solves the silly problem of "but what if everyone did that" -- please tell me how many people do you want to do that.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T19:34:38.083Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What percentage of human population would you like to follow the advice of not having kids?

Having kids is justified altruistically if the benefit to the world of having kids is greater than the benefit to the world of spending a similar amount of money and time on the most effective charity. This isn't a percentage thing; it depends on people's individual situations. Right now donation probably wins for nearly everyone, but as more money went into the best charitable options it would become more and more expensive to dramatically improve a stranger's life, which would decrease the fraction of people that shouldn't have kids.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-23T20:09:36.642Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This isn't a percentage thing; it depends on people's individual situations.

That's not what Rachels and you say. From her quote with which you agree:

I’ve only been arguing that you, the reader, shouldn’t have kids.

I don't see any qualifications like "depending on your individual situation". Neither do I see them in the OP.

Rachels is inviting people to sainthood (" If we become saints...") and as far as I can see she wants as many people as possible to do so.

which would decrease the fraction of people that shouldn't have kids.

I'll repeat the question: in your opinion, right now, what is the fraction of people that shouldn't have kids?

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-10-25T00:05:17.901Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's not what Rachels and you say. From her quote

Stuart Rachels is a male philosopher.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-25T00:59:06.072Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. I had an obvious contamination...

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T21:45:23.638Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see any qualifications like "depending on your individual situation".

I interpret Rachels' use of "in our position" as being that qualification, and I think that's how it was intended.

right now, what is the fraction of people that shouldn't have kids?

100%. But I would also say that everyone reading this should spend their marginal dollar on the most effective charity and not on themself. This sense of "would the world be better if you did X instead of Y? Then X is moral and Y is not" is incredibly demanding.

Translating this into practical behavior, I think people should set a (high) bound for their altruism and then optimize for their own happiness and life satisfaction within that limit. Which is why I'm choosing to have kids anyway.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T00:54:07.177Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don' see how

(1) "I interpret Rachels' use of "in our position" as being that qualification, and I think that's how it was intended."

and (2) "I'm choosing to have kids anyway."

is consistent with

(3) "100%"

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T01:28:28.458Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The right thing to do would be to completely maximize earnings and minimize expenses to the point where any additional decrease in spending on yourself would decrease earnings by even more. This would involve not having kids, but also not eating at restaurants, traveling, having a phone, going to movies, or anything else optional. In practice I don't think this works, and so what I think people should actually do is divide up their money into two pools: set an amount to donate and an amount to keep. Within the amount you keep, spend the money in whatever way you think will make you happiest and most fulfilled.

So I divide my spending into 30% to donate and 70% for everything else (taxes, housing, food, fun). In choosing to have kids my wife and I are displacing a lot of spending we would do on ourselves, but still keeping that 30/70 split.

comment by Strange7 · 2013-12-14T12:23:49.816Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not having a phone? Really? That degree of isolation would make it harder to acquire or maintain gainful employment.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-12-15T20:52:07.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it depends what field you're in and how you use your phone. You basically can't be a plumber without a phone, but until 2011 I didn't have a phone working as a programmer and it didn't seem to be causing me any work trouble. (Just social trouble, like people no longer having functional doorbells and expecting you to call them when you arrived.)

For this "incredibly demanding" view (which I don't actually think humans should apply) the question is "does the phone bring in more money than it costs, all things considered?" and if it does then I've mischaracterized it above.

comment by ikrase · 2013-10-23T17:11:04.557Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see any answer to this other than "everybody should have kids at the replacement rate".

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T11:47:28.523Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Kant notwithstanding, we choose only for ourselves.

If you're going to f*** superrationality / rule consequentialism / TDT and be an act consequentialist, why not engage in prudent predation and give the proceeds to optimal charity?

(And even CDTically, if you discuss your motivations out loud in public you choose not only for yourselves but also for anyone who listens at them and is convinced by them.)

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-23T15:53:47.309Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

So, superrationality arguments aren't of the form "what if everyone did that?" but rather of the form "what if everyone did that for the same reasons?" It looks like the argument under consideration argues that on the margin, we'd be better off if more people gave to charity instead of having children. If everyone reasoned similarly, we'd have a decrease in birth rate and increase in charity until charity is no longer better than children on the margin. Which would be good. I think a TDT agent would reject spurious arguments like Rachels' cable technician example where the individual act doesn't hurt people, on net and on the margin.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-25T09:48:50.111Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is the marginal bank robbery¹ worse than the marginal n kids dying from malaria (where n = (money you'd get by robbing a bank)/(money it costs for the AMF to save a kid))? If not, should we rob banks and give the proceeds to the AMF until it is?


  1. That's supposed to be an abstract example (I know literal bank robberies aren't actually such a great deal); feel free to mentally replace it with a better one.
comment by Nisan · 2013-10-25T17:26:43.528Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So, that's an objection that any form of consequentialism has to tackle. I'm not sure why you're bringing it up here. I thought you were objecting to Rachels' rejection of superrational reasoning and their objection to the "what if no one had kids?" argument. I endeavored in the grandparent to show that it makes sense, from a superrational perspective, to invite the cable technician over and also to not have children. I am steelmanning Rachels here.

Can you clarify your position?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-26T07:06:57.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Er, no, in rule consequentialism there is a reason why you don't kill a healthy person who happens to be in your hospital to donate their organs to five people who need them, even if no-one is going to find out. See Consequentialism Need Not Be Nearsighted. It'd be a stretch to say that for a cable technician to come over is to defect in a PD-like problem.

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-27T00:26:48.992Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We don't actually disagree here. I said that dilemmas like the transplant problem form the basis of an objection that any form of consequentialism has to tackle, and I agree that rule consequentialism successfully tackles the objection. I think we both agree that there are superrational consequentialisms that also successfully tackle the objection. If you disagree with any of the following:

  1. It's good for the cable technician to visit.
  2. It's bad to kill the healthy person.
  3. If one could do more good by donating than by having children, then it's better to donate.
  4. (1)-(3) fall out of both rule consequentialism and superrationality.

then let's see where the dispute takes us; otherwise I'll be happy to tap out of the conversation.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-27T09:22:32.723Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Would you agree with 3'. If one could do more good by donating the healthy person's organs than by not killing them, then it's better to do so?

(BTW, I was using “superrationality” and “rule consequentialism” more or less synonymously, but you seem to be taking them to be distinct; what's the difference?)

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-27T20:00:16.580Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I still don't understand your position; I'm going to respectfully tap out.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T01:15:18.029Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You're making new people to be happy.

I've seen people argue that we should prioritize the happiness of existing people over new people, but I haven't seen it the other way around before. Why do you value creating new people over improving the lives of existing ones?

(There are also charities that have the effect of creating new people.)

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-22T19:41:40.846Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's not what the OP meant. Rather, "if the decision to have children is justified, then it is justified by considering how happy it makes you, not by how happy your children will be."

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-22T19:53:10.807Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Why is that?

comment by drethelin · 2013-10-22T19:08:08.852Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As all fun activities that involve more than one person, you're morally fine as long as you make a reasonable effort not to ruin their fun. Kids mostly turn out fine especially if you spend 500k on them, so if you want them and don't plan on making their lives hell, might as well have em

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T13:34:24.146Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW · GW

You can choose to save lives, but I disagree that you have a moral obligation to actively save lives.

There are people who believe that morality is just a bug-ridden adaptation to improve inclusive fitness, and that upon analysis any moral intuition will collapse into one of "contributes to your inclusive fitness", "meaningless/obsolete", or "hijacked by others to make you contribute to their fitness". In this case, they are the people who will keep reproducing even if you convince them that by doing so they forego the chance to save the lives of strangers. Insofar that they pass this outlook to their children, they will in time outbreed those who believe that having children is immoral.

What ought appeal to both pragmatists and idealists, is the threat overpopulation (or more specifically sustainable per-capita availability of resources being sufficient to ) poses to humanity surviving long enough to expand beyond Earth. Or, if you're dealing with unimaginative types, delete the last four words.

But from that point of view, indiscriminately saving lives unaccompanied by any incentives to promote family planning is as bad as having too many children of one's own. Perhaps that $205 is even better spent funding the development of such incentives or funding technological advancement that will allow us to continue expand Earth's effective carrying capacity faster than population growth.

comment by benkuhn · 2013-10-22T13:53:13.236Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Saving lives does promote family planning, in a sense.

The excess growth caused by reducing mortality is temporary; once people's kids stop dying of random diseases all the time, they don't feel the need to have so many for insurance, and birth rates fall as part of a demographic transition.

When you save lives the most major effects are preventing short-term suffering and saving society all the resources that it's invested in the dying person.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-22T14:36:29.430Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The slower population growth that comes with improved education and standard of living is partly offset by increased per-capita resource demands. The quantity I don't have a clear idea how to estimate is how much per-capita consumption (lets say in fractions of an American or European) is sufficient to achieve a stable population.

comment by Neph · 2013-10-25T03:27:32.552Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I previously made a comment that mistakenly argued against the wrong thing. so to answer the real question- no.

the person who commented to my response said "$50 to the AMF gets someone someone around an additional year of healthy life."

but here's the thing- there's no reason it couldn't give another person- possibly a new child- an additional year of healthy life.

a life is a life, and $50 is $50, so unless the charity is ridiculously efficient (in which case, you should be looking at how to become more efficient) the utility would be the same (when comparing giving to AMF vs. doing the same thing as AMF to someone who may or may not be your child)

however with the having a child option, there is one more life- and all the utility therein- than the charity option- the people the charity would benefit would exist in either case. and since we've just shown that it doesn't really matter whether you donate to AMF or do the same thing as AMF to someone, that puts having a child at greater utility.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T18:08:52.531Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

there's no reason it couldn't give another person- possibly a new child- an additional year of healthy life. ... doing the same thing as AMF to someone who may or may not be your child

Very much not so. You have to look at how the AMF goes about providing that year of healthy life (QALY). They distribute antimalarial nets to places where malaria is a large problem. Their distribution keeps down malaria rates, fewer people get malaria and suffer or die. If you child grows up in a rich area, they're really unlikely to get malaria, so this efficient way to keep people from getting malaria doesn't apply.

comment by mwengler · 2013-12-14T14:18:36.394Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why wouldn't having children in areas without malaria be just slightly more efficient than distributing malaria nets in areas with malaria, ceteris paribus?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-12-15T20:59:56.586Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? The idea is distributing five hundred $5 malaria nets averts the death of one person who would otherwise live 50 quality-adjusted years (on average) so $50 per QALY. By contrast, you deciding to have children in an area without malaria costs $100k-$500k for maybe 75 quality-adjusted years or around $3k per QALY. Or are you saying something else?

(This is not "don't have kids" this is "having kids is not a particularly efficient way to bring about more quality adjusted life years".)

comment by mwengler · 2013-12-16T18:15:11.068Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

By contrast, you deciding to have children in an area without malaria costs $100k-$500k for maybe 75 quality-adjusted years or around $3k per QALY. Or are you saying something else?

It costs the parents $100k to $500k, but the child living 75 QALY produces an economic surplus including, lets say typically, another child living 75 QALY who produces another child living 75 QALY etc etc. Whereas the subsidized malaria net children do not appear to produce sufficient economic surplus to purchase a $5 malaria net, so are they producing enough economic surplus to produce children with 50 QALY, who are then likely to produce an economic surplus?

My point was if you are going to have people forego having children, it would make sense to forego having children where people can't afford to keep their children alive. Environments where people can afford to spend 100k to 500k to have children who can then afford to spend 100k to 500k to have children etc etc seem like precisely where you would WANT to have children.

I think subsidizing children who will never produce an economic surplus over children who will produce gigantic (by comparison) economic surpluses is a foolish proposition.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-01-03T02:04:04.906Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

" if you are going to have people forego having children, it would make sense to forego having children where people can't afford to keep their children alive"

But you don't seem to be talking about foregoing having children, but about letting more children die by not having mosquito netting. Ignoring the morality of that for a moment, I think it's been shown that when a people has to worry less about children surviving to adulthood, they have fewer children even beyond the rate of compensation for the deaths, and population growth slows. Though I don't have such statistics at my fingertips and maybe my impressionistic memory of this is unreliable, don't be too hard on me unless you can produce statistics to the contrary -- i.e. that higher child mortality rates lead to a decline in population.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-01-03T02:12:36.744Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Besides which, giving people $5 mosquito nets is something one can actually do, while "having" people "forego having children" is meaningless verbiage unless you mean to take over the world, and trying to do that has always had a shitload of unforeseen consequences.

comment by mwengler · 2014-01-03T20:40:21.286Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, saving other culture's children is a luxury consumer good, and a nice one at that. I am in favor of a program which would divert some of our entertainment dollars towards seeing if we can pull the poor parts of Africa out of its animalistic black hole.

comment by mwengler · 2014-01-03T20:38:46.252Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The original discussion suggested diverting resources from having children locally so that mosquito nets could be provided to existing children elsewhere. That is what I was arguing against, somewhat elliptically I'll admit. Some of what I left unstated is that I think it is foolish for a culture to not sustain itself. For us to provide mosquito nets to others may be sensible for a variety of reasons. But for us to provide mosquito nets to others at the expense of our own pre-eminence is long run suicide.

Cultures compete like organisms do, and in some sense as mindlessly. The cultures that survive will dominate all future discussions. If "we" stop having children so we can toss mosquito nets over the transom to other loser cultures, we will not be meaningful participants in the future of humanity, and given the mosquito net recipients failure to even be able to afford mosquito nets for themselves, neither will they. That makes it a loser proposition in my opinion which makes it stupid in my opinion.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T10:53:52.855Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

ITYM “Is it immoral to have children in the US?” Having children is cheaper in other parts of the world.

comment by mwengler · 2013-12-14T14:24:20.794Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Should we be telling effective altruists "stop living in the Bay Area because it is cheaper to live in other parts of the world?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-14T18:57:04.261Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if by living in the Bay Area they manage to earn so much more than even after the higher expenses they can donate more...

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T19:35:46.970Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is it cheaper enough? Including opportunity costs?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T10:26:40.176Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If not having children is moral, then moral people will have fewer children, and so the next generation will be less moral. That's clearly not a moral result. Therefore, not having children can't be moral.

comment by khafra · 2013-10-23T10:21:31.332Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The famine relief argument for having children is much more macabre.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2013-10-23T06:50:46.662Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm curious as to what conditions you think allow colleges to price discriminate. Do you assert that colleges have monopolistic control over prices? Is a Harvard education considered to be a good distinct enough from a Yale education that each can set prices independent of the other? Or is there some sort of collusion?

comment by Ishaan · 2013-10-23T03:43:49.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's quite clear (even without calculating) that having children is less moral than donating the equivalent number of funds to charity under the average Lesswrong-human morality.

However, if we want to use the word "immoral" and keep its traditional connotations intact, we have to show that having children is less moral than not having children and taking the money you would have spent out of circulation. (And that would be a problem we could realistically be uncertain about)

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-10-22T20:50:22.847Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Is it immoral to have children? (...) A moral system for human beings needs to (...).

All hail the unified global moral system. What a dystopia that would be.

Keeping in mind both the cost and that on average people (...)

Well, that's not the reference group you'd want to be looking at (thus weak evidence).

(...) our influence on the adult behavior of our children is not that big.

You provide both nature and nurture, and it's up to you to avoid the usual pitfalls. There were some recent posts on LW on how to raise critical thinkers. Now, intent doesn't equal intended effect, but a large disparity in effect size -- relative to "the norm" -- is to be expected.

comment by Aryanking · 2013-10-26T19:13:18.300Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This argument against having children is framed within a flawed economic and social system of belief and behavior, and suffers under the basic assumption that there is actually a famine, one whereby donating money to charity will provide a relief of and has moral value, and therefore falsely concludes that choosing to procreate over donating to famine relief charities during this perceived famine ( what i refer to as the famine problem) is bad for humanity.

In reality, the famine problem is predominantly caused by one moral problem split in two and will persist as long as our relief efforts are focused on the more indirect causes and therefore on more uncertain solutions :

ONE MORAL PROBLEM SPLIT IN TWO :

A LACK OF :

1/ moral education (thought/values/beliefs)

2/ moral behavior (resource sharing habits - intent/action/effects)

MY REASONS:

1/ It takes basic resources (not necessarily money) to raise a child ( Imagine the wide variety of people that are raised all around the world - from the isolated jungles to the congested cities) (i am not aware of the world being in any shortage of resources)

2/ Scarcity and greed are only mindsets and psychological states (beliefs) , which the existence of the famine problem depends on , therefore mindset substitution ( thought/values/beliefs) through proper education, and developing resource sharing habits (intent/action/effects) through moral behavior is the only true moral relief of the perceived scarcity and by extension the famine problem

3/ Conceiving and raising children properly (i.e. with moral eduction and behavior ) is a necessity condition for the continuous existence of a moral humanity and by that measure is a virtue . Its virtuous nature does not depend on a practitioners decision to chose it over addressing the the famine problem ( Though In the case of the actual argument against children and for famine relief donations, i don't believe either of these two (2) choices/actions are moral in and of itself as i think action or choice is only one subcomponent to assessing the moral aspect of human behavior (intent,action,effect) , and i can imagine many situations when the act of conceiving and raising a child, or making donation to a famine relief charity can be considered immoral - On reflection of these situations, the following proverbs came to mind - all that glitters is not gold ; don't judge a book by its cover)

4/ In Conceiving and raising children you have more and direct influence over the moral effect or outcome of your behavior than you would have when making charitable donations for famine relief. There is more moral value uncertainty (many more variable at play) with the charity option due to the fact that one has less and indirect influence over second and third order moral effects in the causal chain of the expected moral goal (e.g. whether the charity will distribute fairly, whether the real cause of the famine problem (i.e a lack of moral education and behavior) will get worst or better regardless of charity donations , whether the beneficiaries are or will be morally abiding citizens, etc) ( On Reflection of the moral value certainty of both options, i imagine pouring water into a cup with holes at the bottom, where the donate option has many more holes that the procreate option)

NB: I also believe there are some condition under which procreation and raising a child can be immoral: 1/ Done by people with immoral beliefs and behaviors (the kid and society will suffer) 2/ Done by people with high genetic and biological predispositions to giving birth to infirm offspring (the kid and society will suffer)

But even under these conditions, the immoral attribute or value is causally independent of a practitioner's decision to choose it over addressing the famine problem through charitable donations.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-10-23T00:16:57.300Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Why are we trying to analyze this in terms of utilitarianism given that this is the domain where we are least sure what utilitarianism should say?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-23T01:23:14.865Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As I wrote in my reply to buybuydandavis this doesn't require utilitarianism, just consequentialism and valuing the wellbeing of others.

But why do you believe that "this is the domain where we are least sure what utilitarianism should say"? The bit of utilitarianism that I think is most dodgy is what counts as personal utility. Summing it up over all people over all time seems the simple part.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-10-25T00:45:52.752Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And that's an equally weighted sum?

Until you've specified how "well being" is weighted in the sum, you haven't said much. I could weight it overwhelmingly on me.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T02:21:50.746Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Requiring an equally weighted sum would just be utilitarianism, so I don't mean that. If you value the wellbeing of others a trivially small amount then this approach concludes it's fine for you just to spend your money on yourself. But if you value others much at all then giving someone an extra year of life for $50 (on average) is pretty hard to argue with.

comment by Costanza · 2013-10-22T19:18:32.293Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Having kids is a special case of spending your time and money in ways that make you happy.

I don't know, maybe a very special case. I'd say rather it's a way of creating new people with their own utility [I see now Lumifer made this point before me], and ideally their own contributions to overall utility. Alternatively, some new people may represent losses to overall utility overall.

If you think you can produce net-positive children...parents of Isaac Newton, I'm looking at you...it's worthwhile to spend all the time and effort and money to raise them. It may be immoral not to have kids. If your children are likely to be sociopaths, or merely net drains on society, then maybe you should just get a cat or something.

But how do you tell in advance whether a child is going to be extraordinarily good or bad in advance? Probably you can't, but I'd bet you can take a good Bayesian guess in advance as to whether the product of a given union is going to be above or below some given point for contributions to society.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T19:32:40.538Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you think you can produce net-positive children...parents of Isaac Newton, I'm looking at you...

Considered as an altruistic endeavor, you probably do better to find existing kids with the potential to be net-positive and help them reach their potential.

comment by Costanza · 2013-10-22T19:50:36.800Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you probably do better to find existing kids with the potential to be net-positive and help them reach their potential.

I have my doubts, or rather, I think it depends on a lot of things. I take it Steve Jobs' parents were decent average people who went out of their way to raise their brilliant adoptive son as best they could, with great success. But, of course, this involved for them almost exactly the same expense of time or money as it would to raise a biological child of their own, which nullifies a good chunk of the original argument, as I understood it. Maybe "finding existing kids with the potential to be net-positive and helping them reach their potential" is as expensive as raising children in the ordinary way.

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T21:14:34.963Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

as expensive as raising children in the ordinary way

What about targeted vaccinations and other health interventions for smart kids? I don't think this is a good idea, partly because it's going to be so much less efficient than just helping everyone, but you may. Alternatively tutoring is free and with a similar level of time costs to raising your own children you could tutor a lot of others.

comment by bokov · 2013-10-23T22:25:16.072Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Alternatively tutoring is free and with a similar level of time costs to raising your own children you could tutor a lot of others.

Yes! The school system in my state spends far more on remedial education than on GT. Education is seen as a status symbol instead of a costly investment that should be allocated in a manner that gives the highest returns (in terms of innovation, prosperity, and sane policy decisions).

comment by Costanza · 2013-10-22T23:04:30.614Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What about targeted vaccinations and other health interventions for smart kids? I don't think thiis is a good idea, partly because it's going to be so much less efficient than just helping everyone, but you may.

Not at all, that sounds great, if it were possible. Certainly generally effective health interventions sound even far more likely. But if there were a health intervention that only benefited smart kids, I would definitely consider that a net plus as to not having it exist at all.

[ETA] If it imposed some extrinsic cost on everyone else, that would be a different matter, but that's not how vaccines work, is it?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T11:16:16.029Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But how do you tell in advance whether a child is going to be extraordinarily good or bad in advance? Probably you can't, but I'd bet you can take a good Bayesian guess in advance as to whether the product of a given union is going to be above or below some given point for contributions to society.

See here

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2013-10-23T16:23:07.682Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Kant's Categorical Imperative is directly applicable to this problem.

comment by aelephant · 2013-10-23T23:30:58.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you expand on that a bit?

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2013-10-24T02:34:22.973Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. The principle says

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

If everyone were to stop having kids so they could donate more money to charity, the following would happen:

  • there would be a lot less starvation and disease in the next couple of decades
  • humanity would vanish in about seven decades

So you can't want the maxim "stop having kids so you can donate more to charity" to become a universal law; thus (according to Kant) you shouldn't follow the maxim yourself.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-10-24T09:24:40.451Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

That's like saying that being a computer programmer is immoral, because if everyone would become a computer programmer, no one would cultivate food, and within a month the humanity would vanish.

It's possible to make a more complex algorithm saying that those who have a comparative advantage in computer programming should become computer programmers and those who have a comparative advantage in cultivating food should cultivate food. This way humanity can survive.

Analogically we should be thinking about consequences of a world where people with a comparative advantage in donating don't have children and instead donate the money to efficient charities, and some other people have children and ensure that humanity survives. -- There are some things that could go wrong in that scenario, but it's not that trivially wrong.

(Also, it is important to note that most people don't behave according to Kant's rules, so even a strategy that would maximize global utility if everyone used it, is not necessarily the global utility maximizing choice for an individual in real life.)

EDIT: I am not deeply familiar with Kant's philosophy. It just seems to me that it makes sense to seek an algorithm that maximizes global utility when used by everyone, but it would be stupid to require that the algorithm produce the same output for everyone. If two people have different comparative advantages, they can both use an algorithm "do what is your comparative advantage and trade with the other person", and yet their behavior will not be identical. Children are valuable, in my opinion; the topic of this discussion is that maybe some people can create a lot more value by doing something else.

comment by aelephant · 2013-10-24T11:51:50.170Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From Daniel's post, it seems like the categorical imperative defines whether some behavior could be considered morally required, not whether a particular behavior is immoral. Being a computer programmer couldn't be morally required of everyone, but that doesn't mean that it is immoral for some people to be computer programmers.

comment by Protagoras · 2013-10-24T09:55:18.099Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that the best way to capture Kant's intent and avoid these sort of computer programmer problems is to interpret the first categorical imperative as saying something like "always choose in such a way that your choice can universally rationally be regarded as valuable." This seems to make it possible to endorse some people being computer programmers while others farm, without so far as I can tell endorsing having some people tell the truth while others lie. It also, incidentally, helps slightly narrow the gap between the first and second categorical imperatives, which is an advantage as a matter of Kant exegesis since Kant insists the first and second (and third) CI are in fact the same. I'm not actually certain what this interpretation would say about the choice to be childless, but then one of the reasons I'm not a Kantian myself is that I think it's much harder than Kant pretended, indeed sometimes impossible, to figure out what the CI actually recommends. Only a few cases work out as neatly as Kant's preferred example of lying (and even that case is probably more difficult than Kant admits).

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-10-24T03:14:50.898Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, Kant's imperative does not obviously oppose the maxim "stop having kids so you can donate more to charity for as long as the marginal value of another child is lower than the marginal value of your differential charitable contributions." (Nor does it obviously oppose a large number of other competing maxims.)

comment by smk · 2013-10-24T16:33:06.504Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Probably immoral, yeah. But why would you even want a child in the first place? All I can think of are really icky reasons.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T17:15:09.032Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But why would you even want a child in the first place? All I can think of are really icky reasons.

Really? That's very interesting. So you literally cannot think up of any non-icky reason to have a child?

comment by smk · 2013-10-24T17:34:17.098Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Doing it to improve the world is maybe ok? Kind of still a bit icky though. But as this article suggests, it might not be such a good way of improving the world compared to other ways, and anyway I don't think it's a primary reason that most parents have. What non-icky reasons can you think of?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-24T18:09:54.226Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You're shifting the burden of proof, but whatever. How about: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3106

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-24T18:06:27.486Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, liking kids is one reason.

In which meaning are you using the word "icky"?

comment by smk · 2013-10-24T19:44:01.022Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Of course I chose that word because it's vague. I guess, if I have to narrow it down, it's a feeling that something is disrespectful.

I think people's reasons for having kids usually fall into one of the following categories:

  1. It's what normal people do, so I'll just go with the flow.
  2. I have an emotional desire for a parent-child relationship.
  3. I want someone to take care of me when I'm old.
  4. I want an extension of myself to provide me with a kind of proxy immortality.

It might be more obvious why I find 1, 3, and 4 to be disrespectful? So I'll just talk about 2, which I suspect includes the kind of "liking kids" that you are talking about.

Imagine that, from now on, as soon as a baby is born, it will be instantly granted certain benefits. The baby is given the size, strength, and agility of an adult. They get the intellectual capacity of an adult. They get an assortment of knowledge and skills implanted into their minds, well-suited to independent living in their society, and proof of having those skills. They get the wisdom, rationality, and emotional skills of an adult. But they do not get any episodic memories implanted. They don't come pre-loaded with any emotional attachments to specific people, which is just fine, because they have great emotional and self-care skills to support them as they meet various people and decide who they want to form relationships with.

Does this even count as a child anymore? Would a relationship with this person satisfy the parental desire in #2? I bet it wouldn't. All because the person is no longer weaker or more incompetent than the "parent", and is free to form emotional attachments of their choice based on getting to know people. Liking kids, specifically as kids, usually amounts to liking the weakness and vulnerability of kids. I have heard some people say that what they like about kids is their "innocence" but I don't believe in this innocence thing, except as a euphemism for ignorance. I cannot think of a single thing about my child psyche which was better than my adult psyche. My child self was more trusting, which I bet many adults liked, but I think my current state of being less trusting is better, and therefore the fact that those adults liked that about me was disrespectful--it was liking my weakness. Some adults may have enjoyed teaching me things. That is a case of them enjoying my ignorance.

I'm not so put off by people wanting to adopt kids, because they see a need that they feel well-suited to fill. But creating a brand-new kid because you want a relationship specifically with a small, weak, ignorant person who is almost guaranteed to love you? Icky.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-25T00:57:06.620Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, I see now where you're coming from.

Well, let me just say that you're describing what I'd call a very dysfunctional family. Not all families are dysfunctional.

comment by smk · 2013-10-25T09:50:03.238Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My preferred transhumanist "eutopia" is one where people generally do not die, and new people generally are not created, but if for some reason people do have to be created, they are created with adult-level competencies such as I described above.

I think that the vast majority of people who currently have parental desires would not get to satisfy those desires in my eutopia, because their desires can only be satisfied in a world with a class of temporarily less-competent people. Are you suggesting that "people whose parental desires can only be satisfied in a world with a class of temporarily less-competent people" are dysfunctional, and not really the majority as I suspect? If so, then what state of affairs is required for the majority of parental desires be satisfied? Could they do it in my eutopia? If they could do it in my eutopia, then it seems like they could do that same thing in this world in a relationship with an adult, and not have to create a brand-new child at all.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-10-27T03:03:58.797Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Are you suggesting that "people whose parental desires can only be satisfied in a world with a class of temporarily less-competent people" are dysfunctional, and not really the majority as I suspect?

Let me offer you some concepts for consideration. The concepts are: "responsibility" (as in "I'm responsible for the well-being and happiness of that human"), "bonding" (as in "The shared emotional experiences bonded us"), "caring" (as in "I care for that person, my happiness is a function of her happiness"), and, simply, "love" (as in "I love him").

comment by Neph · 2013-10-24T06:38:12.107Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to assume that we're comparing "having a child" vs. "adopting a child" as opposed to "having a child" vs. "lolrandomly dumping a ton of money into [insert charity here]" ...although, arguably, the utility generated by adoption and donation should be pretty close to equal.

adopting a child has obvious positive utility benefits. there's the joy of getting out of the orphanage, the toys you buy him, the food he eats, etc. etc. etc.

having a child has those same benefits, BUT the child you would have adopted would still exist, and would still have positive utility of his own, (unless you are in a completely primitive society in which orphans have literally NO chance of success) thus resulting in higher utility

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-25T01:55:22.679Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to assume that we're comparing "having a child" vs. "adopting a child" as opposed to "having a child" vs. "lolrandomly dumping a ton of money into [insert charity here]"

Rachels' argument is specifically that you should not have kids and instead donate the money.

arguably, the utility generated by adoption and donation should be pretty close to equal

Why would you expect that? $50 to the AMF gets someone someone around an additional year of healthy life. That's really hard to compete with.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2013-10-23T10:16:40.580Z · score: -3 (11 votes) · LW · GW

To create a life is to create a death. Moral calculus aside, human beings are far too brittle for this to be a good idea. Better to wait and see if a singularity can improve things.

comment by Nisan · 2013-10-22T19:36:28.118Z · score: -3 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Yep, this argument seems correct.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-22T15:55:59.821Z · score: -5 (13 votes) · LW · GW

The name for this question in the affirmative is antinatalism. It is not a distortion of Buddhism to say that since life is suffering, dedication to end suffering means not creating new life (and thus celebacy among Buddhist clergy). You have asked an old question and an important one. Here is the new twist: if it is wrong to have children, how is it right to make an AI?

comment by jkaufman · 2013-10-22T18:17:25.530Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The argument here is "whether or not having children is good it is nowhere near as good as the other things you could spend your money on". That's not antinatalist, and even could be natalist.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-10-23T05:51:54.853Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Only for white people...