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

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Comment author: brianwang712 13 March 2018 02:27:53PM 10 points [-]

One additional objection that one might have is that if Bob, Susie, and Amy all knew beforehand that you would end up in a situation where you could donate $10 to alleviate either two of them suffering or one of them suffering, but they didn't know beforehand which two people would be pitted against which one person (e.g., it could just as easily be alleviating Bob + Susie's suffering vs. alleviating Amy's suffering, or Bob + Amy's suffering vs. Susie's suffering, etc.), then they would all sign an agreement directing you to send a donation such that you would alleviate two people's suffering rather than one, since this would give each of them the best chance of having their suffering alleviated. This is related to Rawls' veil of ignorance argument.

And if Bob, Susie, Amy, and a million others were to sign an agreement directing your choice to donate $X to alleviate one person's suffering or a million peoples' suffering, again all of them behind a veil of ignorance, none of them would hesitate for a second to sign an agreement that said, "Please donate such that you would alleviate a million people's suffering, and please oh please don't just flip a coin."

More broadly speaking, given that we live in a world where people have competing interests, we have to find a way to effectively cooperate such that we don't constantly end up in the defect-defect corner of the Prisoner's Dilemma. In the real world, such cooperation is hard; but in an ideal world, such cooperation would essentially look like people coming together to sign agreements behind a veil of ignorance (not necessarily literally, but at least people acting as if they had done so). And the upshot of such signed agreements is generally to make the interpersonal-welfare-aggregative judgments of the type "alleviating two people's suffering is better than one", even if everyone agrees with the theoretical arguments that the suffering of two people on opposite sides don't literally cancel out, and that who's suffering matters.

Bob, Susie, Amy, and the rest of us all want to live in a world where we cooperate, and therefore we'd all want to live in a world where we make these kinds of interpersonal welfare aggregations, at the very least during the kinds of donation decisions in your thought experiments.

(For a much longer explanation of this line of reasoning, see this Scott Alexander post: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/08/24/the-invisible-nation-reconciling-utilitarianism-and-contractualism/)

Comment author: Jeffhe  (EA Profile) 22 March 2018 01:32:28AM *  0 points [-]

Hey Brian,

I just wanted to note that another reason why you might not want to use the veil-of-ignorance approach to justify why we should save the greater number is that it would force you to conclude that, in a trade off situation where you can either save one person from an imminent excruciating pain (i.e. being burned alive) or another person from the same severe pain PLUS a third person from a very minor pain (e.g. a sore throat), we should save the second and third person and give 0 chance to the first person.

I think it was F. M. Kamm who first raised this objection to the veil-of-ignorance approach in his book Morality, Mortality Vol 1. (I haven't actually read the book). Interestingly, kbog - another person I've been talking with on this forum - accepts this result. But I wonder if others like yourself would. Imagine Bob, Amy and Susie were in a trade off situation of the kind I just described, and imagine that Bob never actually had a chance to be in Amy's or Susie's position. In such a situation, do you think you should just save Amy and Susie?

Comment author: brianwang712 23 March 2018 02:39:21PM 0 points [-]

Yes, I accept that result, and I think most EAs would (side note: I think most people in society at large would, too; if this is true, then your post is not so much an objection to the concept of EA as it is to common-sense morality as well). It's interesting that you and I have such intuitions about such a case – I see that as in the category of "being so obvious to me that I wouldn't even have to hesitate to choose." But obviously you have different intuitions here.

Part of what I'm confused about is what the positive case is for giving everyone an equal chance. I know what the positive case is for the approach of automatically saving two people vs. one: maximizing aggregate utility, which I see as the most rational, impartial way of doing good. But what's the case for giving everyone an equal chance? What's gained from that? Why prioritize "chances"? I mean, giving Bob a chance when most EAs would probably automatically save Amy and Susie might make Bob feel better in that particular situation, but that seems like a trivial point, and I'm guessing is not the main driver behind your reasoning.

One way of viewing "giving everyone an equal chance" is to give equal priority to different possible worlds. I'll use the original "Bob vs. a million people" example to illustrate. In this example, there's two possible worlds that the donor could create: in one possible world Bob is saved (world A), and in the other possible world a million people are saved (world B). World B is, of course, the world that an EA would create every time. As for world A, well: can we view this possible world as anything but a tragedy? If you flipped a coin and got this outcome, would you not feel that the world is worse off for it? Would you not instantly regret your decision to flip the coin? Or even forget flipping the coin, we can take donor choice out of it; wouldn't you feel that a world where a hurricane ravaged and destroyed an urban community where a million people lived is worse than a world where that same hurricane petered out unexpectedly and only destroyed the home of one unlucky person?

If so, then why give tragic world A any priority at all, when we can just create world B instead? I mean, if you were asked to choose between getting a delicious chocolate milkshake vs. a bee sting, you wouldn't say "I'll take a 50% chance of each, please!" You would just choose the better option. Giving any chance, no matter how small, to the bee sting would be too high. Similarly, giving any priority to tragic world A, even 1 in 10 million, but be too high.

Comment author: Jeffhe  (EA Profile) 23 March 2018 04:35:44PM *  0 points [-]

Hi Brian,

I think the reason why you have such a strong intuition of just saving Amy and Susie in a choice situation like the one I described in my previous reply is that you believe Amy's burning to death plus Susie's sore throat involves more or greater pain than Bob's burning to death. Since you think minimizing aggregate pain (i.e. maximizing aggregate utility) is what we should do, your reason for just Amy and Susie is clear.

But importantly, I don't share your belief that Amy's burning to death and Susie's sore throat involves more or greater pain than Bob's burning to death. On this note, I have completely reworked my response to Objection 1 a few days ago to make clear why I don't share this belief, so please read that if you want to know why. On the contrary, I think Amy's burning to death and Susie's sore throat involves just as much pain as Bob's burning to death.

So part of the positive case for giving everyone an equal chance is that the suffering on either side would involve the same LEVEL/AMOUNT of pain (even though the suffering on Amy's and Susie's side would clearly involve more INSTANCES of pain: i.e. 2 vs 1.)

But even if the suffering on Amy's and Susie's side would involve slightly greater pain (as you believe), there is a positive case for giving Bob some chance of being saved, rather than 0. And that is that who suffers matters, for the reason I offered in my response to Objection 2. I think that response provides a very powerful reason for giving Bob at least some chance, and not no chance at all, even if his pain would be less great than Amy's and Susie's together. (My response to Objection 3 makes clear that giving Bob some chance is not in conflict with being impartial, so that response is relevant too if you think doing so is being partial)

At the end of the day, I think one's intuitions are based on one's implicit beliefs and what one implicitly takes into consideration. Thus, if we shared the same implicit beliefs and implicitly took the same things into consideration, then we would share the same intuitions. So one way to view my essay is that it tries to achieve its goal by doing two things:

1) Challenging a belief (e.g. that Amy's burning to death plus Susie's sore throat involves more pain than Bob's burning to death) that in part underlies the differences in intuition between me and people like yourself.

2) Reminding people of another important moral fact that should figure in their implicit thought processes (and thus be reflected in their intuitions): that who suffers matters. This moral fact is often forgotten about, which skews people's intuitions. Once this moral fact is seriously taken into account, I bet people's intuitions would not be the same. Importantly, I bet the vast majority of people (including yourself) would feel that giving Bob some chance of being saved is more appropriate than none, EVEN IF you still thought that Amy's pain and Susie's pain involve slightly more pain than Bob's.