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AlasdairGives comments on Should Giving What We Can change its Pledge? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: AlasdairGives 22 October 2014 05:40:24PM *  7 points [-]

As a GWWC member, my initial reaction is that I would be strongly against this change - one of the reasons I joined was infact specifically because GWWC was committed only to the narrow cause and not a club for EA types in general.

GWWC has brand equity precisely because it focuses on the specific cause within EA that has wide appeal and impeccable credentials. Making this change would basically allow other causes that may have significant philosophical and/or practical baggage to trade on that reputation while undermining the focus and work on extreme poverty. It does nothing to help the fight against extreme poverty and may harm it, while boosting those who are seeking to advance other causes.

I think it would be inevitable that in the near future - this change would also change the type of research that GWWC is focused on - if a significant number of the members of the organisation primarily gave to charities and causes unconnected to those that GWWC researched - then it seems inevitable that a shift in the priorities would occur - why only research one area when many of your new members don't care about it and think other areas are more important?

To be a little rude, we don't need more ways for people looking to blur the lines between their "Institute for Rich White Guys to write Harry Potter Fan Fiction" (as it was described in one recent debate elsewhere) and the reputations of charities fighting malaria in the developing world - there are more than enough other avenues within effective altruism where this happens already as a historical accident of where it first found purchase.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 22 October 2014 08:37:24PM 12 points [-]

one of the reasons I joined was infact specifically because GWWC was committed only to the narrow cause and not a club for EA types in general.

I think that cause agnosticism is probably the most important novel ingredient of effective altruism, so seeing this kind of sentiment is disheartening. (I don't have strong views on the pledge itself.)

Comment author: Dale 23 October 2014 12:08:39AM 5 points [-]

One could be a GWWCer without being an effective altruist. Indeed, given that GWWC is focused on global poverty, a priori it seems to be inherently cause-partial.

Comment author: Larks 23 October 2014 01:41:57AM 3 points [-]

I think you might mean prima facie? A priori is much stronger - it entails (perhaps absolute) knowledge, rather than a mere presupposition.

Comment author: Ervin 22 October 2014 10:30:09PM *  4 points [-]

I think that cause agnosticism is probably the most important novel ingredient of effective altruism, so seeing this kind of sentiment is disheartening. (I don't have strong views on the pledge itself.)

As I said to Jess Whittlestone, it's worth being clear that the attitude that AlasdairGives expresses isn't a narrow-minded rejection of people who favour other causes and more general EA types. If you read him charitably, he's saying that he joined because he sincerely thought that GWWC-recommended charities were the ones which he should support, and that he wanted to express this rather than joining a club for EA types in general. Not that he favours a commitment to a narrow cause for its own sake.

I'm glad that you're open to GWWC being a poverty-focused community, so this may not ultimately be an important disagreement :-)

Comment author: AlasdairGives 22 October 2014 08:59:24PM 5 points [-]

I am fairly cause agnostic to causes that have provable impact and don't rely on highly contestable philosophical premises for their justification. I consider evidence of impact (making beliefs pay rent) to be central to that. There are lots of causes (for example - open borders, x-risk also) that I think may plausibly have a large impact but don't have the evidence to show that my donations will pay rent in the way charities currently supported by GiveWell & GWWC do.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 22 October 2014 09:13:08PM *  6 points [-]

I don't see how this is consistent with pledging to support the cause indefinitely. (I'm not objecting to GWWC being a poverty-focused community.)

It's worth noting that your stance towards evidence appears to be unusual amongst modern philanthropists, and in particular the standard of "provable" seems both counterproductive and radical. I hope that this stance doesn't become a standard part of what makes effective altruism distinctive.

I am glad that the open philanthropy project (formerly givewell labs) exists; given that foothold, I think that overreliance on measurement is a significantly less likely failure mode than it otherwise would be. Low epistemic standards and insufficient skepticism seem like more plausible failure modes, and I think we are on the same page concerning those issues. (I agree that more openness exacerbates these difficulties, though I am skeptical that an exclusive focus on poverty per se is too helpful.)

Comment author: Joey 23 October 2014 01:24:49AM 3 points [-]

"It's worth noting that your stance towards evidence appears to be unusual amongst modern philanthropists, and in particular the standard of "provable" seems both counterproductive and radical. I hope that this stance doesn't become a standard part of what makes effective altruism distinctive."

I think this stance towards evidence is pretty common in GiveWell donors (which far outnumber EAs) and I agree it's not super common among general philanthropists (although pretty common in government health aid) circles but many EA concepts are not common among general philanthropists.

Comment author: Vincent_deB 22 October 2014 06:16:40PM 6 points [-]

GWWC has brand equity precisely because it focuses on the specific cause within EA that has wide appeal and impeccable credentials. Making this change would basically allow other causes that may have significant philosophical and/or practical baggage to trade on that reputation while undermining the focus and work on extreme poverty. It does nothing to help the fight against extreme poverty and may harm it

This seems true. If people focused on animal welfare would benefit from their own pledge, we could maintain clear messaging by having Animal Charity Evaluators revive the old Effective Animal Activism one, without muddying the GWWC pledge (which I'd find upsetting).

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 22 October 2014 08:43:23PM *  12 points [-]

The issue isn't one of fitting several goals in one pledge. If you take the current GWWC pledge to literally require supporting interventions in developing countries, then that's not something that a cause-agnostic donor should be willing to agree to early in their life, even if they currently think that interventions in developing countries are most promising.

Which cause you support should be open to change as you learn and as the available opportunities change.

Comment author: Larks 23 October 2014 01:38:48AM 4 points [-]

This is in large part the reason I didn't take the pledge.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 23 October 2014 03:13:00PM 2 points [-]

Does that mean that the change in pledge would prompt you to join, Larks?

Comment author: Larks 24 October 2014 02:01:12AM *  1 point [-]

Nope, sorry.

edit: but I think my personal requirements are sufficiently idiosyncratic that it's not worthwhile taking them into account.

Comment author: ChristianKleineidam 23 October 2014 10:20:24PM -1 points [-]

If you take the current GWWC pledge to literally require supporting interventions in developing countries, then that's not something that a cause-agnostic donor should be willing to agree to early in their life

I guess that in this community we have people who think that they will live a long time. They might think of "early in life" as 200 years.

Comment author: Joey 22 October 2014 07:19:38PM *  8 points [-]

There is in fact already an EA system for cause neutral pledging that includes AR rights and far-future causes. http://effectivealtruismhub.com/donations

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 24 October 2014 12:52:57PM 2 points [-]

Joey, Tom Ash and Michelle Hutchinson, among others, discussed the Effective Altruism Hub in another comment thread here. I interpreted their conclusion being that the Giving What We can pledge, in any form, as having more gravitas, i.e., feeling of moral weight and legitimacy, to it, than the Effective Altruism Hub. This seems to be because Giving What We Can is a community that is organized, and whose members keep each other to the pledge, while anyone can make a generic pledge on the Effective Altruism Hub that won't be enforced.

It seems Giving What We Can wants that gravitas for the broader effective altruism community, perhaps working in tandem with Effective Altruism Outreach. Note that I don't mean this to imply that Giving What We Can should change their pledge. I merely mean to inform you why Giving What We can might perceive need to change its pledge regardless of the Effective Altruism Hub.

Comment author: ciphergoth 23 October 2014 08:14:38PM 7 points [-]

"Institute for Rich White Guys to write Harry Potter Fan Fiction"

I'd prefer if you were at least a little less rude - I think we generally manage a much higher level of civility here, do you mind editing this bit? It's clear you don't feel altogether comfortable with it because you distance yourself from it in two ways, so maybe just speaking in your own words would be best. Thanks!

Comment author: Dale 22 October 2014 11:54:45PM 5 points [-]

It's worth noting that GWWC already includes many MIRI donors. Certainly much of the CEA management thinks that Xrisk/animals/other speculative causes is more important than global poverty, and MIRI is even listed (in a very hard to see spot) on the GWWC front page (scroll down to the 'donated' pie chart, then hit the down arrow to scroll through the recipient charities). GWWC has accepted Xrisk charities as fulfilling the pledge at least since 2011, and perhaps longer.

However, I agree with you that this would damage GWWC's brand equity. It is already a hard enough sell at the moment. Once upon a time, GWWC was concerned about being publicly associated with 80k, let alone XRisk.

Comment author: Toby_Ord 23 October 2014 11:54:28AM 7 points [-]

I don't think it is accurate to say that it includes 'many' MIRI donors. At least not compared to its total of 644 members. Note that MIRI was listed as the 42nd out of 43 listed charities in order of how much members have donated to them, which seems about as marginal as it could be. In addition, the list of charities that our members have donated to is not supposed to be any kind of endorsement of them by Giving What We Can. We allow members to donate their pledged amounts anywhere so long as it is a sincere interpretation of the pledge.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 23 October 2014 03:25:32PM 5 points [-]

GWWC is definitely concerned to remain focused on poverty, and maintain its credibility as a community focused on donating to the causes which we believe help others the most, using evidence to find which causes those are. But so far we haven't had trouble with people associating it with specific charities a minority of members give to. With regard to 80k, the main change was actually that they became way less controversial. ;)

Comment author: Vincent_deB 23 October 2014 12:58:26AM *  4 points [-]

Certainly much of the CEA management thinks that Xrisk/animals/other speculative causes is more important than global poverty

That feels a bit odd given that they're recruiting people who care about poverty to GWWC :(

Comment author: Joey 23 October 2014 01:36:58AM 2 points [-]

It is a pretty common belief among x-risk/meta focused people that poverty is a good introduction to EA and people will later switch to x-risk/meta causes.

Comment author: Dale 25 October 2014 04:10:02PM 2 points [-]

Yes - I think it is disingenuous not to acknowledge this.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 25 October 2014 06:36:34PM 0 points [-]

I think people who believe this do typically acknowledge it: from my understanding they generally think that effectiveness can be tough to get one's head around, that x-risk and meta interventions can seem weird, and that the most intelligible way to present the concept is to give concrete examples of the kinds of interventions people are already familiar with. This reasoning seems pretty plausible to me. This is similar to the fact that GWWC often starts by giving the example of different ways to treat HIV in order to illustrate cost-effectiveness: it's not that we don't think cost-effectiveness should be applied across different diseases, and indeed across different ways of alleviating poverty. Rather it's that showing the difference in effectiveness between treating Karposi's Sarcoma and condom distribution is a particularly clear way to show the importance of cost-effectiveness when it comes to helping people.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 24 October 2014 01:00:04PM *  0 points [-]

It is a pretty common belief

I'm aware this is the impression you formed while living in Oxford. However, would you mind qualifying this statement a bit more? I'm curious. I mean, you don't need to name names, but do you only mean some closer to the core of the Centre for Effective Altruism, or do you just mean everyone concerned about more speculative causes?

Of course, this is a request, not a demand. Feel free to not answer my question at all, as i would understand if you don't want to.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 23 October 2014 03:19:15PM 1 point [-]

I'm not convinced that statement is true, although most definitely think what the most effective cause is a really difficult question.

Comment author: Jess_Whittlestone 22 October 2014 07:56:04PM 3 points [-]

Making this change would basically allow other causes that may have significant philosophical and/or practical baggage to trade on that reputation while undermining the focus and work on extreme poverty. It does nothing to help the fight against extreme poverty and may harm it, while boosting those who are seeking to advance other causes.

This makes it sound like the causes are competing with each other, which I don't think is true. Changing the pledge isn't about undermining the focus on extreme poverty, it's about recognising that what we ultimately care about is saving lives, no matter where or when they are, whether they are in the developing world, the developed world, or in the future. Some people think the best way to save lives is to donate to far-future oriented causes, others think the best way is to donate to poverty causes - these people disagree, but mostly they agree that what they ultimately care about is the same and this is just a really tough question. Given that none of us can be certain that poverty is the best cause to focus on, it seems beneficial to be more inclusive of other potentially effective cause areas, so we can encourage more discussion and debate amongst the people who disagree. It is not a competition or a matter of one cause trying to crowd out the other.

To be a little rude, we don't need more ways for people looking to blur the lines between their "Institute for Rich White Guys to write Harry Potter Fan Fiction" (as it was described in one recent debate elsewhere) and the reputations of charities fighting malaria in the developing world - there are more than enough other avenues within effective altruism where this happens already as a historical accident of where it first found purchase.

Again, you're assuming that there being a link between people focused on fighting malaria and those concerned about existential risk is a bad thing. I acknowledge that there are PR issues with xrisk, and there are concerns there - but ultimately, it seems a good thing to me to have a community where people from both these groups can acknowledge their shared values and have productive debates with one another.

Comment author: Dale 23 October 2014 12:10:41AM 6 points [-]

This makes it sound like the causes are competing with each other, which I don't think is true.

Well, they are competing for time and money, both of which are scarce.

Comment author: AlasdairGives 22 October 2014 08:27:42PM *  6 points [-]

"it's about recognising that what we ultimately care about is saving lives, no matter where or when they are"

This is not why I joined GWWC. I joined because I am concerned about causes that demonstrably and effectively help human people today - not causes that may conceivably if we accept unfalsifiable/provable premises help people in the future or causes that provably help animals (because I reject the philosophical premises of that cause).

I fully support cause X - effectively fighting poverty in the developing world. I find causes Y & Z interesting but highly problematic, and don't want to be a part of an organisation that lends them undue credibility and support beyond discussion and debate. I signed up because I believe in cause X - if the organisation changes to be about causes XYZ I would probably leave to find somewhere that only supports the cause I actually support or just declare my donations independently or something.

So this new pledge would change the whole relationship of the pledge. Currently, GGWC members make a pledge to give 10% of their income to a very narrow range of charities based on very strict criteria. Under the new pledge, all you need is a philosophical argument about why the cause you support is one that does "the most good" - all the rigour and testing based on actually comparable measures is gone.

There are loads of other causes , not much discussed around here, which would qualify under the new pledge. For example, there are many people in the world today who believe that the best cause to help other people is to donate a significant part (10% infact) of their income towards god's plan by funding the expansion of evangelical churches across the world. Would you be comfortable with them signing the GWWC pledge and associating themselves with the organisation? What about those who feel that legalising drugs is the most important cause because they like to get high? or Hindu charities who fund sanctuaries for cows because they believe cows are sacred animals with incommensurable value above mere people?

Comment author: Jess_Whittlestone 22 October 2014 08:40:21PM 5 points [-]

For example, there are many people in the world today who believe that the best cause to help other people is to donate a significant part (10% infact) of their income towards god's plan by funding the expansion of evangelical churches across the world. Would you be comfortable with them signing the GWWC pledge and associating themselves with the organisation? What about those who feel that legalising drugs is the most important cause because they like to get high? or Hindu charities who fund sanctuaries for cows because they believe cows are sacred animals with incommensurable value above mere people?

I'm not sure these people are much more easily excluded by the current pledge. You could still get people who have very bizarre beliefs about the best way to help people in poverty. This is always going to be a risk - but it seems unlikely people who are overly attached to specific causes are going to find the GWWC community that appealing.

I joined because I am concerned about causes that demonstrably and effectively help human people today - not causes that may conceivably if we accept unfalsifiable/provable premises help people in the future or causes that provably help animals (because I reject the philosophical premises of that cause).

Are you saying that you genuinely care more about people alive today than people who will live in the future? Or that you care about them equally but think we have much more evidence for helping the former category and so should focus our efforts there? If the former, then I think you'll find a lot of the existing GWWC community disagree with you. If the latter, then it seems that you should at least be open to considering and investigating causes that help people in the future, even if you don't currently think that the standards of evidence are anywhere near high enough, which I agree is reasonable.

Comment author: Ervin 22 October 2014 10:53:58PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure these people are much more easily excluded by the current pledge. You could still get people who have very bizarre beliefs about the best way to help people in poverty.

Technically that's possible but in practice GWWC members don't currently tend to have those beliefs - the pledging community has a clear feel of being focused on evidence-based poverty charities. The new pledge that's being consulted about would certainly include more people, and AlasdairGives is right that there's nothing in it that'd exclude the large numbers of people who tithe to their churches. If they joined in mass (which is unlikely absent a concerted effort to sign them up) that would certainly change the feel of the community to me.

Are you saying that you genuinely care more about people alive today than people who will live in the future?

It's worth noting that many people do, and that this isn't obviously indefensible. So people can genuinely care more about existing people or existing creatures :-)

Comment author: Jess_Whittlestone 23 October 2014 10:18:23AM 1 point [-]

It's worth noting that many people do, and that this isn't obviously indefensible. So people can genuinely care more about existing people or existing creatures :-)

Yeah, I don't mean that it's unheard of - but I do think this is a pretty rare view within the EA community.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 24 October 2014 01:09:37PM 1 point [-]

I consider existing online communities, and official organizations aligned with effective altruism, sufficient to host such debates (between existential risk reduction, poverty reduction, and/or other popular cause areas). If they aren't doing so already, I believe an investment of effort would make them so. Thus, I don't that as an argument in favor of Giving What We Can changing its pledge.