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MichaelPlant comments on Considering Considerateness: Why communities of do-gooders should be exceptionally considerate - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: MichaelPlant 01 June 2017 12:01:06AM 9 points [-]

Thanks for this. I think I strongly agree with what you've said. I've often noticed/got the impression that lots of EAs seem to be quite interested in pursuing their own projects and don't help each other very much. I worry this results in an altruistic tragedy of the commons problem; it would be better if people helped each other, but instead we chose to do our own good in our own way, resulting in less good done overall. Now I think of it, I've probably done this myself.

The real challenge, as you noted, is the following:

Being considerate often makes others happier to interact with you. That is normally good, but in some circumstances may not be desirable. If people find you extremely helpful when they ask you about frivolous matters, they will be incentivized to keep asking you about such matters. If you would prefer them not to, you should not be quite so helpful.

This seems to be quite a common problem, at least in academia. VIPs (very important people) will often deliberately make themselves unavailable so they have time for their own projects. Presumably, this has some reciprocal costs to the VIP too: if they had helped you, you would be more inclined to help them in future.

Relatedly, suppose people accept more considerate norms and so are reluctant to bother some VIP in case it's annoying to the VIP. We can imagine this backfiring. Take an extreme scenario where considerate people dont ask VIPs (or indeed anyone) else for help. This means people don't get help from the VIPs, and VIPs only get requests from inconsiderate people. Presuming these VIPs do grant some requests for help and the requests from considerate people would have done more good, this is now a worse situation overall. Extreme considerateness, call it 'meekness', seems bad.

It strikes me that it would be important to develop some community norms for navigating this difficulty. Perhaps people asking for help should be encouraged to do so, ask once or twice and leave the other person plenty of room to turn the request down. Perhaps receipients of requests should make a habit of replying to them but being polite and honest about their current capacity to help.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 01 June 2017 09:18:22AM 4 points [-]

I think you're right that there's a failure mode of not asking people for things. I don't think that not-asking is in general the more considerate action, though -- often people would prefer to be given the opportunity to help (particularly if it feels like an opportunity rather than a demand).

I suppose the general point is: avoid the trap of overly-narrow interpretations of considerateness (just like it was good to avoid the trap of overly-narrow interpretations of consequences of actions).

Comment author: MichaelPlant 01 June 2017 10:23:06AM 1 point [-]

I agree. In which case it's possibly worth pointing out one part of considerateness is giving people the opportunity to help you, which they may well want to do anyway.