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brianwang712 comments on Is Effective Altruism fundamentally flawed? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: brianwang712 17 March 2018 07:00:58AM *  1 point [-]

Regarding the first point, signing hypothetical contracts behind the veil of ignorance is our best heuristic for determining how best to collectively make decisions such that we build the best overall society for all of us. Healthy, safe, and prosperous societies are built from lots of agents cooperating; unhappy and dangerous societies arise from agents defecting. And making decisions as if you were behind the veil of ignorance is a sign of cooperation; on the contrary, Bob's argument that you should give him a 1/3 chance of being helped even though he wouldn't have signed on to such a decision behind the veil of ignorance, simply because of the actual position he finds himself in, is a sign of defection. This is not to slight Bob here -- of course it's very understandable for him to be afraid and to want a chance of being helped given his position. Rather, it's simply a statement that if everybody argued as Bob did (not just regarding charity donations, but in general), we'd be living in a much unhappier society.

If you're unmoved by this framing, consider this slightly different framing, illustrated by a thought experiment: Let's say that Bob successfully argues his case to the donor, who gives Bob a 1/2 chance of being helped. For the purpose of this experiment, it's best to not specify who in fact gets helped, but rather to just move forward with expected utilities. Assuming that his suffering was worth -1 utility point, consider that he netted 1/2 of an expected utility point from the donor's decision to give everyone an equal chance. (Also assume that all realized painful incidents hereon are worth -1 utility point, and realized positive incidents are worth +1 utility point.)

The next day, Bob gets into a car accident, putting both him and a separate individual (say, Carl) in the hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital is short on staff that day, so the doctors + nurses have to make a decision. They can either spend their time to help Bob and Carl with their car accident injuries, or they can spend their time helping one other indivdual with a separate yet equally painful affliction, but they cannot do both. They also cannot split their time between the two choices. They have read your blog post on the EA forum and decide to flip a coin. Bob once again gets a 1/2 expected utility point from this decision.

Unfortunately, Bob's hospital stay cost him all his savings. He and his brother Dan (who has also fallen on hard times) go to their mother Karen to ask for a loan to get them back on their feet. Karen, however, notes that her daughter (Bob and Dan's sister) Emily has also just asked for a loan for similar reasons. She cannot give a loan to Bob and Dan and still have enough left over for Emily, and vice versa. Bob and Dan note that if they were to get the loan, they could both split that loan and convert it into +1 utility point each, whereas Emily would require the whole loan to get +1 utility point (Emily was used to a more lavish lifestyle and requires more expensive consumption to become happier). Nevertheless, Karen has read your blog post on the EA forum and decides to flip a coin. Bob nets a 1/2 expected utility point from this decision.

What is the conclusion from this thought experiment? Well, if decisions were made to your decision rule, providing each individual an equal chance of being helped in each situation, then Bob nets 1/2 + 1/2 + 1/2 = 3/2 expected utility points. Following a more conventional decision rule to always help more people vs. less people if everyone is suffering similarly (a decision rule that would've been agreed upon behind a veil of ignorance), Bob would get 0 (no help from the original donor) + 1 (definite help from the doctors + nurses) + 1 (definite help from Karen) = 2 expected utility points. Under this particular set of circumstances, Bob would've benefitted more from the veil of ignorance approach.

You may reasonably ask whether this set of seemingly fantastical scenarios has been precisely constructed to make my point rather than yours. After all, couldn't Bob have found himself in more situations like the donor case rather than the hospital or loan cases, which would shift the math towards favoring your decision rule? Yes, this is certainly possible, but unlikely. Why? For the simple reason that any given individual is more likely to find themselves in a situation that affects more people than a situation that affects few. In the donor case, Bob had a condition where he was in the minority; more often in his life, however, he will find himself in cases where he is in the majority (e.g., hospital case, loan case). And so over a whole lifetime of decisions to be made, Bob is much more likely to benefit from the veil-of-ignorance-type approach.

Based on your post, it seems you are hesitant to aggregate utility over multiple individuals; for the sake of argument here, that's fine. But the thought scenario above doesn't require that at all; just aggregating utility over Bob's own life, you can see how the veil-of-ignorance approach is expected to benefit him more. So if we rewind the tape of Bob's life all the way back to the original donor scenario, where the donor is mulling over whether they want to donate to help Bob or to help Amy + Susie, the donor should consider that in all likelihood Bob's future will be one in which the veil-of-ignorance approach will work out in his favor moreso than the everyone-gets-an-equal-chance approach. So if this donor and other donors in similar situations are to commit to one of these two decision rules, they should commit to the veil of ignorance approach; it would help Bob (and Amy, and Susie, and all other beneficiaries of donations) the most in terms of expected well-being.

Another way to put this is that, even if you don't buy that Bob should put himself behind a veil of ignorance because he knows he doesn't have an equal chance of being in Amy's and Susie's situation, and so shouldn't decide to sign a cooperative agreement with Amy and Susie, you should buy that Bob is in effect behind a veil of ignorance regarding his own future, and therefore should sign the contract with Amy and Susie because this would be cooperative with respect to his future selves. And the donor should act in accord with this hypothetical contract.

I would respond to the second point, but this post is already long enough, and I think what I just laid out is more central.

I will also be bowing out of the discussion at this point – not because of anything you said or did, but simply since it took me much more time to write up my thoughts than I would have liked. I did enjoy the discussion and found it useful to lay out my beliefs in a thorough and hopefully clear manner, as well as to read your thoughtful replies. I do hope you decide that EA is not fatally flawed and to stick around the community :)

Comment author: Jeffhe  (EA Profile) 18 March 2018 09:53:22PM *  0 points [-]

Hey Brian,

No worries! I've enjoyed our exchange as well - your latest response is both creative and funny. In particular, when I read "They have read your blog post on the EA forum and decide to flip a coin", I literally laughed out loud (haha). It's been a pleasure : ) If you change your mind and decide to reply, definitely feel welcome to.

Btw, for the benefit of first-time readers, I've updated a portion of my very first response in order to provide more color on something that I originally wrote. In good faith, I've also kept in the response what I originally wrote. Just wanted to let you know. Now onto my response.

You write, "In the donor case, Bob had a condition where he was in the minority; more often in his life, however, he will find himself in cases where he is in the majority (e.g., hospital case, loan case). And so over a whole lifetime of decisions to be made, Bob is much more likely to benefit from the veil-of-ignorance-type approach."

This would be true if Bob has an equal chance of being in any of the positions of a given future trade off situation. That is, Bob would have a higher chance of being in the majority in any given future trade off situation if Bob has an equal chance of being in any of the positions of a given trade off situation. Importantly, just because there is more positions on the majority side of a trade off situation, that does not automatically mean that Bob has a higher chance of being among the majority. His probably or chance of being in each of the positions is crucial. I think you were implicitly assuming that Bob has an equal chance of being in any of the positions of a future trade off situation because he doesn't know his future. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, it would be a mistake to conclude, from a lack of knowledge about one's position, that one has an equal chance of being in any one's position. So, just because Bob doesn't know anything about his future, it does not mean that he has an equal chance of being in any of the positions in the future trade off situations that he is involved in.

In my original first response to you, I very briefly explained why I think people in general do not have an equal chance of being in anybody's position. I have sense expanded that explanation. If what I say there is right, then it is not true that "over a whole lifetime of decisions to be made, Bob [or anyone else] is much more likely to benefit from the veil-of-ignorance-type approach [than the equal-chance approach]."

All the best!