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Against Naive
Effective Altruism
Lucius Caviola

15 October 2017
Overview
• Argument

• Examples

• Disregard of interpersonal values

• Bad life choices

• Unbalanced views
Argument
• Effective altruism: “Doing the most good by using reason
and evidence”

• An explicit attempt of following this simple principle can
sometimes result in systematic mistakes
Why?
• Methods and moral theories associated with EA such as
expected value theory, Bayesian probability theory,
utilitarianism

• It’s easy to make a mistake when running on corrupted
hardware (human brains)

• Paradoxical: new knowledge about rationality can in
some cases lead to worse decisions compared to no
such knowledge
Yudkowsky, E. (2007) Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People.
Disregard of
interpersonal values
• Dismissing interpersonal virtues and social rules such as
honesty, integrity, friendship, kindness

• Lying/stealing to save money to donate

• Behaving arrogantly

→ Being perceived as unfriendly, rude, untrustworthy,
manipulative

Sources
• Short-sightedness (not taking into account long-term
effects and unintended consequences)

• Ignorance or disregard of human psychology in social
contexts

• Not integrating reasonable aspects of other moral views
Instrumental harm
• Impartial altruism and instrumental harm are psychologically dissociated
(Oxford Utilitarianism Scale; Kahane et al., 2017)

• Impartial altruism is central for EA:

willingness to give personal resources to help impartially

• Instrumental harm not relevant for EA:

willingness to harm a few for the greater good

• Associated with psychopathic tendencies (Kahane et al., 2015)

• Signals untrustworthiness (Everett et al., 2016)
Kahane, G., Everett, J. A. C., Earp, B.D., Caviola, L., Faber, N.S., Crockett, M.J., Savulescu, J. (2017). Beyond Sacrificial Harm: Positive and
Negative Dimensions of Everyday Utilitarian Decision-Making. Psychological Review.
Kahane, G., Everett, J. A. C., Earp, B. D., Farias, M., & Savulescu, J. (2015). ‘Utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect
impartial concern for the greater good. Cognition, 134, 193-209.
Everett, J. A. C., Pizarro, D. A., & Crockett, M. J. (2016). Inference of trustworthiness from intuitive moral judgments. Journal of Experimental
Psychology: General, 145(6), 772.
Countermeasures
• Follow virtue ethical and deontological standards in
everyday life

• Be honest, trustworthy, cooperative, friendly, kind

• Don’t push people from footbridges
Schubert, S., Garfinkel, B. & Cotton-Barratt, O. (2017) Considering Considerateness: Why communities of do-gooders should be exceptionally
considerate
Christiano, P. (2016) Integrity for consequentialists.
Tomasik, B. (2013) Why honesty is a good policy.
Bad life choices
Examples
• Working too much (burnout)

• Working on something you don’t enjoy (not sustainable)

• Hastily giving up your current career 

• Hastily giving away all your money 

• Not allowing yourself to live a normal life (hobbies,
friends, family)

• Giving up on old friendships (interpersonal virtues)
Sources
• Over-enthusiasm

• Dedication signalling (to others and yourself)

• Short-sightedness

• Ignorance or disregard of human psychology, its needs
and limitations

• Disregard of common-sensical lifestyle and life choices
Countermeasures
• Don’t be less dedicated! But don’t let
your dedication drive epistemic/
instrumental mistakes

• Make important life decisions very
carefully

• Take outside view

• Take the needs and limitations of human
psychology seriously

• Take common sense seriously and adopt
some moderation (e.g. working hours)
Unbalanced views
• Unreflective endorsement of anti-commonsensical views

• Fragile conclusions

• Conclusions implying that everything else is unimportant
and everyone else is wrong

• Conclusions considered unethical by other reasonable
perspectives

• Too strong belief oscillations
Sources
• Sequence thinking

• Explicit Expected Value and Bayesian

• Signalling contrarianism
Sequence thinking
• Considering only one view

• Not considering plausible alternative
assumptions

• Easy to make a mistake somewhere
Karnofsky, H. (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking.
Explicit EVT and Bayes
• Underestimating complexity and uncertainty

• Overestimating the discrepancies between different
options’ expected value

• Hastily identifying unjustified Pascalian scenarios 

• Updating too strongly on new weak evidence
Signalling contrarianism
• Appearing cool and wise by holding weird beliefs

• Bias against common sense

Alexander, S. (2010) Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism.
Countermeasures
• Be epistemically modest

• Integrate many plausible views

• Consider the opposite view

• Apply some “cluster thinking”

• Identify convergences between different views

• Take common sense and outside view seriously
Karnofsky, H. (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking.
Beckstead, N. (2013) Common sense as a prior.
How can progress still occur?
• If a conclusion is extremely anti-commonsensical, a red flag should be raised

• But the conclusion can still be justified if

• the case for it is extremely strong

• it is robust, i.e. many perspectives converge towards it

• there is agreement among experts

• there is reason to assume disagreers (e.g. general public) are wrong, biased

• Examples: far future, anti-speciesism, but not: steal-to-give

• Weird and anti-commonsensical ideas are important and should be encouraged

• New ideas will sometimes justifiably result in anti-commonsensical conclusions
Conclusion
• Doing the most good is a simple principle but difficult to
implement

• Given our limited cognitive abilities, it’s easy to make
mistakes when attempting to follow the principle

• Let’s identify and avoid these mistakes!
Questions?
Opposite
• Unwillingness to change the status quo (e.g. career)

• e.g. due to low dedication or self-serving reasons (maybe
with rationalizations)

• Probably more people in the latter category, but the
former is more harmful on an individual level
Groupthink
• Groupthink within EA community

• “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that
occurs within a group of people in which the desire for
harmony or conformity in the group results in an
irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. “
Fanaticism
Fanaticism
Extreme version and combination of above points

• Too extreme views

• Anti-commonsensical views and behavior

• Violation of prevailing social norms

• Behavior considered unethical by others

• Obsessive enthusiasm

• Uncritical zeal

• Little tolerance for other views
Fanaticism
• If a set of ideas has the potential of being interpreted the
wrong way, be careful. historically, lots of harm has been
caused by fanatics

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Against Naive Effective Altruism

  • 1. Against Naive Effective Altruism Lucius Caviola
 15 October 2017
  • 2. Overview • Argument • Examples • Disregard of interpersonal values • Bad life choices • Unbalanced views
  • 3. Argument • Effective altruism: “Doing the most good by using reason and evidence” • An explicit attempt of following this simple principle can sometimes result in systematic mistakes
  • 4. Why? • Methods and moral theories associated with EA such as expected value theory, Bayesian probability theory, utilitarianism • It’s easy to make a mistake when running on corrupted hardware (human brains) • Paradoxical: new knowledge about rationality can in some cases lead to worse decisions compared to no such knowledge Yudkowsky, E. (2007) Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People.
  • 6. • Dismissing interpersonal virtues and social rules such as honesty, integrity, friendship, kindness • Lying/stealing to save money to donate • Behaving arrogantly → Being perceived as unfriendly, rude, untrustworthy, manipulative

  • 7. Sources • Short-sightedness (not taking into account long-term effects and unintended consequences) • Ignorance or disregard of human psychology in social contexts • Not integrating reasonable aspects of other moral views
  • 8. Instrumental harm • Impartial altruism and instrumental harm are psychologically dissociated (Oxford Utilitarianism Scale; Kahane et al., 2017) • Impartial altruism is central for EA:
 willingness to give personal resources to help impartially • Instrumental harm not relevant for EA:
 willingness to harm a few for the greater good • Associated with psychopathic tendencies (Kahane et al., 2015) • Signals untrustworthiness (Everett et al., 2016) Kahane, G., Everett, J. A. C., Earp, B.D., Caviola, L., Faber, N.S., Crockett, M.J., Savulescu, J. (2017). Beyond Sacrificial Harm: Positive and Negative Dimensions of Everyday Utilitarian Decision-Making. Psychological Review. Kahane, G., Everett, J. A. C., Earp, B. D., Farias, M., & Savulescu, J. (2015). ‘Utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good. Cognition, 134, 193-209. Everett, J. A. C., Pizarro, D. A., & Crockett, M. J. (2016). Inference of trustworthiness from intuitive moral judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(6), 772.
  • 9. Countermeasures • Follow virtue ethical and deontological standards in everyday life • Be honest, trustworthy, cooperative, friendly, kind • Don’t push people from footbridges Schubert, S., Garfinkel, B. & Cotton-Barratt, O. (2017) Considering Considerateness: Why communities of do-gooders should be exceptionally considerate Christiano, P. (2016) Integrity for consequentialists. Tomasik, B. (2013) Why honesty is a good policy.
  • 11. Examples • Working too much (burnout) • Working on something you don’t enjoy (not sustainable) • Hastily giving up your current career • Hastily giving away all your money • Not allowing yourself to live a normal life (hobbies, friends, family) • Giving up on old friendships (interpersonal virtues)
  • 12. Sources • Over-enthusiasm • Dedication signalling (to others and yourself) • Short-sightedness • Ignorance or disregard of human psychology, its needs and limitations • Disregard of common-sensical lifestyle and life choices
  • 13. Countermeasures • Don’t be less dedicated! But don’t let your dedication drive epistemic/ instrumental mistakes • Make important life decisions very carefully • Take outside view • Take the needs and limitations of human psychology seriously • Take common sense seriously and adopt some moderation (e.g. working hours)
  • 15. • Unreflective endorsement of anti-commonsensical views • Fragile conclusions • Conclusions implying that everything else is unimportant and everyone else is wrong • Conclusions considered unethical by other reasonable perspectives • Too strong belief oscillations
  • 16. Sources • Sequence thinking • Explicit Expected Value and Bayesian • Signalling contrarianism
  • 17. Sequence thinking • Considering only one view • Not considering plausible alternative assumptions • Easy to make a mistake somewhere Karnofsky, H. (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking.
  • 18. Explicit EVT and Bayes • Underestimating complexity and uncertainty • Overestimating the discrepancies between different options’ expected value • Hastily identifying unjustified Pascalian scenarios • Updating too strongly on new weak evidence
  • 19. Signalling contrarianism • Appearing cool and wise by holding weird beliefs • Bias against common sense Alexander, S. (2010) Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism.
  • 20. Countermeasures • Be epistemically modest • Integrate many plausible views • Consider the opposite view • Apply some “cluster thinking” • Identify convergences between different views • Take common sense and outside view seriously Karnofsky, H. (2014) Sequence thinking vs. cluster thinking. Beckstead, N. (2013) Common sense as a prior.
  • 21. How can progress still occur? • If a conclusion is extremely anti-commonsensical, a red flag should be raised • But the conclusion can still be justified if • the case for it is extremely strong • it is robust, i.e. many perspectives converge towards it • there is agreement among experts • there is reason to assume disagreers (e.g. general public) are wrong, biased • Examples: far future, anti-speciesism, but not: steal-to-give • Weird and anti-commonsensical ideas are important and should be encouraged • New ideas will sometimes justifiably result in anti-commonsensical conclusions
  • 22. Conclusion • Doing the most good is a simple principle but difficult to implement • Given our limited cognitive abilities, it’s easy to make mistakes when attempting to follow the principle • Let’s identify and avoid these mistakes!
  • 24.
  • 25.
  • 26. Opposite • Unwillingness to change the status quo (e.g. career) • e.g. due to low dedication or self-serving reasons (maybe with rationalizations) • Probably more people in the latter category, but the former is more harmful on an individual level
  • 27. Groupthink • Groupthink within EA community • “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. “
  • 29. Fanaticism Extreme version and combination of above points • Too extreme views • Anti-commonsensical views and behavior • Violation of prevailing social norms • Behavior considered unethical by others • Obsessive enthusiasm • Uncritical zeal • Little tolerance for other views
  • 30. Fanaticism • If a set of ideas has the potential of being interpreted the wrong way, be careful. historically, lots of harm has been caused by fanatics