Jamie_Harris comments on A definition of effective altruism - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: MichaelPlant 20 March 2018 09:50:23PM *  1 point [-]

The thing I find confusing about what Will says is

effective altruism is the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others

I draw attention to 'benefit others'. Two of EA's main causes are farm animal welfare and reducing risks of human extinction. The former is about causing happy animals to exist rather than miserable ones, and the latter is about ensuring future humans exist (and trying to improve their welfare). But it doesn't really make sense to say that you can benefit someone by causing them to exist. It's certainly bizarre to say it's better for someone to exist than not to exist, because if the person doesn't exist there's no object to attach any predicates to. There's been a recent move by some philosophers, such as McMahan and Parfit, to say it can be good (without being better) for someone to exist, but that just seems like philosophical sleight of hand.

A great many EA philosophers, including I think Singer, MacAskill, Greaves, Ord either are totalists or very sympathetic to it. Totalis the view the best outcome is the one with the largest sum of lifetime well-being of all people - past, present, future and it's known as impersonal view in population ethics. Outcomes are not deemed good, on impersonal views, because they are good for anyone, or because the benefit anyone, they are good because there is more of the thing which is valuable, namely welfare.

So there's something fishy about saying EA is trying to benefit others when many EA activities, as mentioned, don't benefit anyone, and many EAs think we shouldn't, strictly, be trying to benefit people so much as realising more impersonal value. It would make more sense to replace 'benefit others as much as possible' with 'do as much good as possible'.

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 20 March 2018 11:14:32PM 3 points [-]

All points make sense. I find that when introducing the idea, however, people seem slightly confused by the idea of "doing as much good as possible" (I tend to use nearly identical phrasing). I think the idea seems too abstract to them, and I feel compelled to give some kind of more concrete example to help explain. Although I haven't really tried it out as an alternative, the idea of EA aiming to "benefit others" seems that it might be slightly clearer / more imaginable?

If you agree, this then raises the question of whether we should distinguish a definition of EA for "academic" and "outreach" / explanatory purposes. I'd argue that we should probably avoid separating a definition out for different contexts, so might need to keep thinking about how to word a definition which is clear, but also allows for nuance?

Comment author: arikagan 06 June 2018 01:06:38AM 1 point [-]

I'd agree with being hesitant to distinguish definitions of EA for "academic" and "outreach" purposes. It seems like that's asking for someone to use the wrong definition in the wrong context.

Comment author: Sanjay 21 March 2018 12:49:11PM 0 points [-]

Really? "doing as much good as possible" is confusing people? I tend to use that language, and I haven't noticed people getting confused (maybe I haven't been observant enough!)

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 22 March 2018 12:36:24AM 1 point [-]

Aren't you going further from the definition though?

Any short definition about EA by itself I find to be abstract. Most people I encounter assume it's about doing as much good small things as possible--or worse that it's a political philosophy (red/blue thinking). It's only when I give examples of myself or ask what their cause interests could be that they slowly break away from the abstract dictionary definitions.

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 02 April 2018 05:45:20PM 0 points [-]

Maybe "confusing" was the wrong word. But I tend to get the sense that people just have no idea what the concept means in practice when I say that, because its so vague / abstract. I'm guessing that people are thinking along the lines "what does he mean by 'doing good'? Surely he means something else / something more specific?" But I might just be misreading people slightly too.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 24 March 2018 09:40:40PM 0 points [-]

It's not confusing, but it's vague.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 21 March 2018 11:39:26PM 0 points [-]

maybe I haven't been observant enough

I've often observed your lack of observance :)