Comment author: Darius_Meissner 10 August 2018 01:03:12PM *  5 points [-]

Given how incredibly positive I see the influence that EA has had on my own life, this post is a fantastic opportunity for me to say ‘thank you’. Thanks to all of you for your contributions to building such an awesome community around (the) ‘one thing you’ll never regret’ – altruism (I got this quote from Ben Todd). I have never before met a group of people this smart, caring and dedicated to improving the world, and I am deeply, deeply grateful that I can be a part of this.

I remember that in elementary school was the first time I was confronted with other students believing in what they referred to as ‘GOD’. Having grown up in a secular family myself, I was at first confused by their belief, and then started debating them. This went on to the point when one day I screamed insults at the sky to prove that there was no one up there listening and no lightning would strike to pulverize me. My identity started to grow, and after reading the Wikipedia article on atheism in early middle school, ‘agnostic-atheist’ was the first of a number of ‘-isms’ that I added to my identity over the years (though, as I will describe, some of these ‘-isms’ were only temporary). Unsurprisingly, when I encountered the writings and speeches of Richard Dawkins in my teens, I quickly became a staunch fan (let it be pointed out that I am more critical nowadays about his communication style and some of his content).

I can contribute my early political socialization to attending summer camps and weekend seminars of a socialist youth organisation in Germany in middle school. There, for the first time, I met people who really cared about improving the world, and I learned about social problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and – the mother of all problems, from the socialist perspective – capitalism. Furthering this process of ideological adaptation, I learned that the supposed solutions for these and other social problems were creating a socialist, communist or possibly anarchist world-order – if need be, by means of violent revolution. In hindsight, it’s interesting for me to look back and see that this belief in a violent revolution required an element of consequentialist thinking (along with very twisted empirical beliefs largely grounded in Marxism): to create a better society for the rest of all time, we might need to make sacrifices today and fight. I always had a great time with the other young socialists, made friends, had my first kiss, went to various left-wing protests and sat around camp fires where we sang old socialist workers’ songs. (A note on the songs: I remember how powerful and determined they would make me feel in my identity as a social-ist, connected to a cause that was larger than myself and celebrating those ‘partisans’ who were killed fighting (violently) in socialist revolutions. Hopefully, this was a lasting lesson with regards to methods of ideological indoctrination). The most long-lasting and positive effect this part of my life had on my personality, was in igniting a strong dedication to improving the world – I had found my ultimate and main goal in life (provided and hoping that won’t change again).

During my last lesson in ethics class in middle school, we (around 30 omnivore students) debated the ethics of eating animals. The (to me at the time) surprising conclusion we reached was that, in the absence of an existential necessity for humans to eat meat to survive, it was ethically wrong to raise, harm and slaughter animals. On this day, I decided to try vegetarianism. I began to look into the issue of animal farming, animal ethics, vegetarianism and veganism, and I was shocked by the tremendous suffering endured by billions of non-human animals around the world, and that I had contributed to my whole life. Greedy for knowledge, I read as much as I could about these topics. It still took me a year to decide to be vegan henceforth. I read Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ only after I went vegan, but it certainly increased my motivational drive to dedicate my life to reducing the suffering of non-human animals – what I then perceived as the most pressing ethical problem in the world (+ the book was my first real exposure to utilitarian thought). Throughout my high school years, I would write articles about veganism for our school’s student magazine, organise public screenings of the animal-rights movie ‘Earthlings’, distribute brochures of animal rights organisations, debate other students on the ethics of eating meat and supply our school’s cafeteria with plant-based milk alternatives. Later, as part of my high school graduation exams I wrote a 40-page philosophical treaty on animal ethics.

In high school I also learned about environmental degradation – caused, of course, by evil multinationals and, ultimately, capitalism – and started caring about environmental preservation (considering myself an environmental-ist). Reasoning that changing only my own consumer behaviour would have limited effects, once again I started taking actions to affect the behaviour of others. For instance, I started a shop from my room in the boarding school, reselling environmentally-friendly products, such as recycled toilet paper, to other students (I would sell the goods at the market price, without making a profit). I also decided that after my graduation from school, I would take a gap year and go to India to volunteer for a small environmental non-profit organisation. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, in hindsight I don't think that my work as a volunteer had a big impact).

And then I attended the single most transformational event of my life: an introductory talk on effective altruism, brilliantly presented by the EA Max Kocher, who at the time interned with the predecessor organisation of what would later become the Effective Altruism Foundation. I was immediately attracted by the EA perspective on reducing animal suffering (though I remember finding the ‘risks to the far-future from emerging technologies’ part of the presentation weird). Previously, I had read a lot of stuff online written by vegans and animal rights activists, but somehow I had never come across a group of people who were thinking as rationally and strategically about achieving their ethical goals as EAs. Once again, I became greedy for knowledge, and – in reading many EA articles, books, listening to podcasts and watching talks – felt like a whole new world was opening up to me. A world that I couldn’t get enough of. And in the process of engaging with EA, I encountered a great many arguments that challenged some of my dearly held beliefs – many of which I subsequently abandoned.

Some of the major ways I changed my mind through EA include:

  • I got convinced that what ultimately counts morally are the conscious experiences of sentient beings, and thus stopped caring about ‘the environment’ for its own sake. Learning about the prevalence and magnitude of the suffering of animals living in the wild, I left behind my beliefs in environmental preservation, the protection of species over individuals, and the intrinsic importance of biodiversity.

  • The most important normative change I underwent is growing closer to hedonistic utilitarianism, and totalism in population ethics. In parallel to this process, I engaged more with arguments like Bostrom’s astronomical waste argument, and ultimately accepted the long-term value hypothesis. That said, keeping epistemic modesty in mind and the wild divergence in favoured moral theories among moral philosophers, I do attempt to take moral uncertainty seriously.

  • The most important change in my empirical worldview came with learning more about the benefits and achievements of market economies and the tremendous historical failures of its so-called socialist and communist alternatives. I stopped attributing everything that was going wrong in the world to ‘capitalism’ and adopted (what I now think of as) a much more nuanced view on the costs and benefits of adopting particular economic policies.

  • Relatedly, I became much more uncertain with regards to many political questions, due to giving up many of my former tribe-determined answers to policy questions. In particular, I have reduced my certainty in policies with strong factual disagreement among relevant experts.

After having engaged with EA intensely, though passively for more than one year in India, upon my return to Germany I was aching to get active and finally meet other EAs in person. Subsequently, I completed two internships with EAF in Berlin, started and led an EA university chapter at the University of Bayreuth, before ultimately transitioning to the University of Oxford, where I am now one of the co-presidents of EA Oxford.

The philosophy and community behind effective altruism have transformed my life in a myriad of beneficial ways. I am excited about all the achievements of EA since its inception and look forward to contributing to its future success!

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 10 August 2018 01:44:00PM 1 point [-]

Some parts of this sound very similar to me, down to 'left-wing youth political organisation who likes to sing socialist songs' (want to PM me which one it was?).

I have noticed before how much more common activist backgrounds are in German EAs vs. Anglo-Saxon EAs. When I talked about it with other people, the main explanation we could come up with was different base rates of sociopolitical activism in the different countries, but I've never checked the numbers on that.

Comment author: MvdSteeg 08 August 2018 04:49:30PM 0 points [-]

I guess when I say "more impactful" I mean "higher output elasticity".

We can go with the example of x-risk vs poverty reduction (as mentioned by Carl as well). If we were to think that allocating resources to reduce x-risk has an output elasticity 100,000 higher than poverty reduction, but reducing poverty improves the future, and reducing x-risk makes reducing poverty more valuable, then you ought to handle them multiplicatively instead of additively, like you said.

If you'd have 100,001 resources to spend, that'd mean 100,000 units against x-risk and 1 unit for poverty reduction, as opposed to the 100,001 for x-risk and 0 for poverty reduction when looking at them independently(/additively). Sam implies the additive reasoning in such situations is erroneous, after mentioning an example with such a massive discrepancy in elasticity. I'm pointing out that this does not seem to really make a difference in such cases, because even with proportional allocation it is effectively the same as going all in on (in this example) x-risk.

Anyway, not claiming that this makes the multiplicative approach incorrect (or rather, less correct than additive), just saying that in this case which is mentioned as one of the motivations for this, it really doesn't make much of a difference (though things like diminishing returns would). Maybe this would have been more fitting as a reply to Sam than you, though!

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 10 August 2018 01:21:15PM *  0 points [-]

What you're saying is correct if you're assuming that so far zero resources have been spent on x-risk reduction and global poverty. (Though that isn't quite right either: You can't compute an output elasticity if you have to divide by 0.)

But you are supposed to compare the ideal output elasticity ratio with how resources are being spent currently, those ratios are supposed to be equal locally. So using your example, if there were currently more than 1mil times as many resources spent on x-risk than global poverty, global poverty should be prioritised.

When I was running the numbers, my impression was that global wellbeing increases had a much bigger output elasticity than x-risk reduction. I found it a bit tricky to find numbers for global (not just EA) x-risk reduction efforts, so I'm not confident and also not confident how large the gap in resource spending is. 80k quotes $500 billion per year for resources spent on global wellbeing increases.

In response to When causes multiply
Comment author: MvdSteeg 07 August 2018 04:03:47PM *  2 points [-]

While it's hard to disagree with the math, would it not be fairly unlikely for the current allocation of resources to be close enough to the actual allocation of resources that this would realistically lead to allocating an agent's resources to more than one cause area? Like you mention, the allocation within the community-building cause area itself is one of the more likely candidates, as we have a large piece of the pie in our hands (if not all of it). However, the community is not one agent, so we would need to funnel the money through e.g. EA Funds, correct?

Alternatively, there could be top-level analysis of what the distribution -ought- to be, and what it -currently is-, and suggest people donate to close that gap. But is this really different from arguments in terms of marginal impact and neglectedness? I agree your line of thinking ought to be followed in such analysis, but am not convinced that this isn't incorporated already.

It also doesn't solve issues like Sam Bankman-Fried mentioned where according to some argument one cause area is 44 orders of magnitude more impactful, because even if the two causes are multiplicative, if I understand correctly this would imply a resource allocation of 1:10^44, which is effectively the same as going all in on the large cause area. I think that even in less extreme cases than this, we should actually be far more "egalitarian" in our distribution of resources than multiplicative causes (and especially additive causes) suggest, as statistically speaking, the higher the expected value of a cause area is, the more likely that it is overestimated.

I do think this is a useful framework on a smaller scale. E.g. your example of focusing on new talent or improving existing talent within the EA community. For local communities where a small group of agents plays a determining role on where the focus lies, this can be applied much more easily than in global cause area resource allocations.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 08 August 2018 03:41:59PM *  0 points [-]

I address the points you mention in my response to Carl.

It also doesn't solve issues like Sam Bankman-Fried mentioned where according to some argument one cause area is 44 orders of magnitude more impactful, because even if the two causes are multiplicative, if I understand correctly this would imply a resource allocation of 1:10^44, which is effectively the same as going all in on the large cause area.

I don't think this is understanding the issue correctly, but it's hard to say since I am a bit confused what you mean by 'more impactful' in the context of multiplying variables. Could you give an example?

In response to When causes multiply
Comment author: Carl_Shulman 07 August 2018 09:31:59PM 6 points [-]

"Note also that while we’re looking at such large pools of funding, the EA community will hardly be able to affect the funding ratio substantially. Therefore, this type of exercise will often just show us which single cause should be prioritised by the EA community and thereby act additive after all. This is different if we look at questions with multiplicative factors in which the decisions by the EA community can affect the input ratios like whether we should add more talent to the EA community or focus on improving existing talent."

I agree that multiplicative factors are a big deal for areas where we collectively have strong control over key variables, rather than trying to move big global aggregates. But I think it's the latter that we have in mind when talking about 'causes' rather than interventions or inputs working in particular causes (e.g. investment in hiring vs activities of current employees). For example:

"Should the EA community focus to add its resources on the efforts to reduce GCRs or to add them to efforts to help humanity flourish?"

If you're looking at global variables like world poverty rates, or total risk of extinction it requires quite a lot of absolute impact before you make much of a proportional change.

E.g. if you reduce the prospective risk of existential catastrophe from 10% to 9%, you might increase the benefits of saving lives through AMF by a fraction of a percent, as it would be more likely that civilization would survive to see benefits of the AMF donations. But a 1% change would be unlikely to drastically alter allocations between catastrophic risks and AMF. And a 1% change in existential risk is an enormous impact: even in terms of current humans (relevant for comparison to AMF) that could represent tens of millions of expected current lives (depending on the timeline of catastrophe), and immense considering other kinds of beings and generations. If one were having such amazing impact in a scalable fashion it would seem worth going further at that point.

Diminishing returns of our interventions on each of these variables seems a much more important consideration that multiplicative effects between these variables: cost per percentage point of existential risk reduced is likely to grow many times as one moves along the diminishing returns curve.

"We could also think of the technical ideas to improve institutional decision making like improving forecasting abilities as multiplying with those institution’s willingness to implement those ideas."

If we're thinking about institutions like national governments changing willingness to implement the ideas seems much less elastic than improving the methods. If we look at a much narrower space, e.g. the EA community or a few actors in some core areas, the multiplicative factors key fields and questions.

If I was going to look for cross-cause multiplicative effects it would likely be for their effects on the EA community (e.g. people working on cause A generate some knowledge or reputation that helps improve the efficiency of work on cause B, which has more impact if cause B efforts are larger).

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 08 August 2018 03:20:15PM 3 points [-]

Great comment, thank you. I actually agree with you. Perhaps I should have focussed less on discussing the cause-level and more the interventions level, but I think it is still good to encourage more careful thinking on a cause-wide level even if it won't affect the actual outcome of the decision-making. I think people rarely think about e.g. reducing extinction risks benefiting AMF donations as you describe it.

Let's hope people will be careful to consider multiplicative effects if we can affect the distribution between key variables.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 07 August 2018 01:14:51AM *  11 points [-]

Earlier this year Good Judgment superforecasters (in nonpublic data) gave a median probability of 2% that a state actor would make a nuclear weapon attack killing at least 1 person before January 1, 2021. Conditional on that happening they gave an 84% probability of 1-9 weapons detonating, 13% to 10-99, 2% to 100-999, and 1% to 100 or more.

Here's a survey of national security experts which gave a median 5% chance of a nuclear great power conflict killing at least 80 million people over 20 years, although some of the figures in the tables look questionable (mean less than half of median).

It's not clear how much one should trust these groups in this area. Over a longer time scale I would expect the numbers to be higher, since there is information that we are currently not in a Cold War (or hot war!), and various technological and geopolitical factors (e.g. the shift to multipolar military power and the rise of China) may drive it up.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 07 August 2018 11:32:35AM 3 points [-]

Do you have private access to the Good Judgement data? I've been thinking before about how it would be good to get superforecasters to answer such questions but didn't know of a way to access the results of previous questions.

(Though there is the question of how much superforecasters' previous track record on short-term questions translates to success on longer-term questions.)


When causes multiply

Preface: Searching for ‘the one true cause area’, or perhaps several of them, strikes me as a poor model of how cause prioritisation should be thought about. Much better is an emphasis on what the best allocation of resources to various cause areas looks like over time and what we... Read More
Comment author: ZachWeems 05 August 2018 12:01:52AM 0 points [-]


It might be worthwhile to have some sort of flag or content warning for potentially controversial posts like this.

On the other hand, this could be misused by people who dislike the EA movement, who could use it as a search parameter to find and "signal-boost" content that looks bad when taken out of context.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 05 August 2018 08:47:01AM 8 points [-]

What are the benefits of this suggestion?

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 05 August 2018 08:30:59AM 9 points [-]

Great idea!

When I was around 10, I found the killing and torture of animals for meat and fur atrocious, so this is when I decided to become vegetarian. I have been vegetarian since then.

It wasn't until a few years later that I became more interested in a larger variety of issues, with my pet topics being environmentalism and feminism. I started doing political work when I was 16. I joined a left-wing political group that also focussed on a lot of other issues, like global poverty, democracy and animal rights. It was the first time in my life I met smart and dedicated people.

Apart from that, I spent most of my time reading through all the non-fiction books in the library I could find. I had always wanted to go into academia. I think I started looking forward to doing a PhD when I was around 10.

When I was 17 I found LessWrong. A year later someone who was also interested in LessWrong introduced me to EA and I started talking to the Swiss EA crowd. I had never previously thought about cause prioritisation and was really excited about the concept. This was in 2012.

At the same time, I started a cultural anthropology degree. Given the focus of psychology on WEIRD subjects, it seemed like a great starting point to dismantle misconceptions about humanity. But I was quite disappointed in how the subject was taught, so half a year later, I switched to maths.

It was 2013 by now and I stayed in touch with the EA Community online and visited the UK and Swiss EA Hubs a couple of times. I lived in Germany at the time where no EA Community existed yet. I started organizing a local LW meetup.

I stopped doing political work when I was around 19 because I thought it wasn't "effective" enough. I thoroughly regret this. I had a great network and know quite a few people who have great roles now and lots of experience. EA only came around to politics as a worthwhile avenue to doing good years later.

I focussed on finishing my degree, continued to make sure to stay in touch with the international EA Community and started organizing a local EA meetup once there was more interest in EA in Germany. I mostly regret now how I spent those years. I wish I had been around more people who were actually trying to do things which I cannot say about my local EA/LW network. Continuing political work would have been good, or moving to an EA Hub. But the latter would have conflicted with my degree.

I finished my degree last year and moved to London and recently also spent a few months in Berkeley. This has been a large improvement compared to the previous situation.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 05 August 2018 04:36:52AM 16 points [-]

It's a helpful list and I think these considerations deserve to be more well known.

If you were going to expand further, it might be useful to add in more about the counterarguments to these points. As you note in a few cases, the original proponents of some of these points now work on long-term focused issues.

I also agree with the comment above that it's important to distinguish between what we call "the long-term value thesis" and the idea that reducing extinction risks is the key priority. You can believe in the long-term value thesis but think there's better ways to help the future than reducing extinction risks, and you can reject the long-term value thesis but still think extinction risk is a top priority.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 05 August 2018 08:22:27AM 1 point [-]

I also agree with the comment above that it's important to distinguish between what we call "the long-term value thesis" and the idea that reducing extinction risks is the key priority. You can believe in the long-term value thesis but think there's better ways to help the future than reducing extinction risks, and you can reject the long-term value thesis but still think extinction risk is a top priority.

Agreed. Calling reducing X-risks non-near-term-future causes strikes me as using bad terminology.

Comment author: Brendon_Wong 11 July 2018 06:53:47PM *  2 points [-]

I propose an infrastructure to generate more active qualified grant makers by making people who are close to qualified/good grantmakers (as Gregory says, good judgement, domain knowledge, relevant network, etc) into grantmakers by giving them the ability to recommend grants from a centralized fund that donors can contribute to in order to fund small projects without the hassle of evaluating dozens of projects themselves, and with the possibility of earmarking funds for specific grantmakers.

I also aim to solve the awareness problem of EA projects that are requesting funding, since EA Grants does not at present have a way for non-CEA staff to learn about possible grants, so only a handful of people can actually assess grants and people that might be great grantmakers are left out. This also requires infrastructure.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 11 July 2018 07:23:44PM 0 points [-]

That’s fair.

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