Altruism is Incomplete

Previously (SlateStarCodex) on Effective Altruism: Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017


A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast from Freakonomics Radio that purported to ask the question, Are The Rich Less Generous Than The Poor?

A clever researcher decided he wanted to measure altruism. He’s tried testing it in the laboratory, but lab settings are often importantly different than the outside world, so he wanted to do an experiment in ‘the field’.

His idea was that he would pose as a postal worker in The Netherlands, and drop off envelopes addressed to someone else, with the envelope window showing visible cash money, up to 20 euros, along with a card like “thanks to Grandpa on his birthday.” He then waited to see how many rich and poor people returned the envelopes.

He found, to his surprise, that rich people returned far more of the envelopes than the poor. One thing he noted was that rich people returned the envelope at the same rate regardless of how much money was there, whereas the poor were more likely to return 10 euros than 20 euros, but he still essentially disbelieved the result.

To his credit, he still presented his findings at a conference, even though they were in conflict with his priors and the agenda pretty much everyone is trying to push these days.

Then Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame got up, and said you aren’t measuring altruism, you’re measuring who has the life skills and available time to return misaddressed envelopes.

Story checked out, at least to some extent. Rich people were more likely to know how to return an envelope or to have the time to do so. The findings were adjusted for this variable, and a new story emerged that rich and poor were exactly equally generous. What a coincidence!

My instincts tell me that if you issue a correction for an unexpected and hard to measure hidden variable, ignoring many other potential hidden variables and differences, and your result is now to find no result at all, there are two possibilities. Either your study is under-powered and you’re saying ‘no effect’ when you mean ‘the effect isn’t that large,’ or you “corrected” for the variable in a way that effectively assumed it was the entire difference.

Rich and poor differ in lots of different ways. There are reasons to think poor people would be more generous, and reasons to think rich people would be more generous. Neither result would surprise me. The idea that you’ve found one of those reasons, decided that reason doesn’t really count, and then miraculously all the other reasons exactly cancel out? TINACBNIEAC. Omega doesn’t happen to equal one by happy accident. You did that.

Those mistakes are illustrative and important. It’s good to see them in a low-stakes place where all participants are truth seeking and admit their errors once the errors are found. Ten points for all!

The most important mistake was that returning a lost envelope isn’t only not effective altruism. It mostly isn’t altruism at all.

Returning a lost envelope is honesty. Returning a lost envelope is honor. You return the envelope because it isn’t yours. It belongs to someone else and it is your honor-bound duty to make sure that it reaches its intended destination, to the extent that you are willing to go out of your way to do so even if the cost to you in lost time exceeds the expected benefits to the recipient of this particular envelope. You are defending the system, upholding the public trust, and reinforcing the habits that make you the person you want to be.

Returning the envelope isn’t entirely not about altruism. You certainly can feel compassion for the person who is about to lose money, to worry about the relatives who will argue over what happened to the envelope and who forgot whose birthday. You could have the argument over whether it would be better to do that or to donate the money to mosquito nets or existential risk prevention. If you do have that argument, even in your mind, to me you are already lost, because it’s beside the post. The envelope isn’t yours. Give it back. That’s all there is to it.

I am not claiming it is never right to take what is not yours. I am not arguing for death before dishonor. I am not arguing against it, either. That’s beyond scope. I am simply saying that in such a context, it should completely dominate the calculus.


Effective altruists are trying to do good. We salute you for that.

We even salute you even when you are worried about things I do not care about at all. Even when they pursue plans that would actually be a negative for me, and make my life noticeably worse. Even when they pursue plans that would be both pointless and catastrophic, proposing killing off wildlife or collapsing physics.

We even salute you when we think that it’s more than a little worrisome that your statements logically imply you really should be trying to wipe out humanity. Even when I think they’re completely wrong and have made rather silly and fundamental errors. You’re trying to do good, and at least for now all such people claim to have the ‘but killing people or using force to do that would still be bad’ hack going on, although that has a shaky historical track record under pressure.

Charity and non-profit work is one path to doing good, and optimizing its impact is a great idea on the margin. Some of you should do that.

Some of you should do the other. They have the more important job.

What concerns me about the culture of effective altruism is the implication that the altruistic actions are the ones that count.

I worry many in EA are looking at life like a game where giving money to charity is how the world scores victory points.

I worry that others in EA are looking at life like a game where giving money to charity is how the world saves lives, and saving lives is how you score victory points. You can also substitute prevent suffering, or other such worthy (and unworthy) causes.

I am not saying to stop giving money to charity*, stop saving lives or stop preventing suffering. I am saying that this is not The Good, how good is primarily done, how most victory points are scored, or what the game of life is or should be about.

Life is mostly about getting things done. Most good is done on the object level, and most of it is done for other reasons. A lot of it is done for profit or survival. A lot is done for love and friendship. A lot is done for status, for your tribe, for fame, for sex or for power. A lot is done because of curiosity, or because it is interesting, or because it is the virtuous thing to do. A lot is done because of how it would look if you didn’t do it, and people found out. A lot is done because it’s bothering the heck out of someone that it isn’t being done, to prove that it can be done, or simply because it’s there. A lot is done incidentally while doing something else; simply going out and doing things tends to create lots of positive side effects.

There are also some reasons that are less fine, but I think even they are far less not fine than people act like they are.

Stop feeling bad about doing things for those reasons. As long as you’re doing good, those reasons are absolutely fine. All of them. Yay motivation. Object level stuff has to get done. Life must go on, so must the show and so must business. People need to stay motivated to do things.

Stop feeling bad about not sacrificing everything including exploration, and doing the theoretical maximum amount of good on the margin. Jesus told us, take all you have and give it to the poor, as a suggestion to improve behavior on the margin, and anchor us. He correctly assumed almost no one would do that. It would not even be good if everyone did that, even if they did the sane William MacAskill version of that and kept the bare minimum. He knew that some people had to keep on doing the productive work, and getting rewarded for that, at least until some big changes happened. He didn’t actually want everyone to do it, and he also didn’t want everyone to feel bad about not doing it. 

The most impactful and successful charity in the world is

Most importantly, for the love of utility, stop making other people feel bad about this, and stop using manipulative techniques to steer them towards what you think is more effective at scoring the world some victory pointsI understand the temptation. I really do. To not do this, from a certain utilitarian point of view, is to implicitly say that you value your own scrupulousness and honor, or the feelings and abstract accuracy of those you are interacting with, more than you value saving human lives. Tough sell. Again, I really do get it.

We still have to do it. We still have to protect The Mission. EA is good to the extent that it shares with us The Mission. The other way lies madness.

You say people gonna die. I agree. Sad. Balance is tricky. Death rate stable at 100%. We should fund further research. We should fix it. This is not The Way.

It is also not the Official Party Line of EA. I’ll get to that at the end.

It is tricky to balance giving the right encouragements and rewards to those who do hugely ambitious projects, altruistic and otherwise, while also giving ordinary efforts the credit and honor they deserve, as well. Certainly, though, we need to stop feeling bad about doing better than almost everyone. More than that, we should make people feel good when they are doing better than almost everyone. Hell, we should probably do that even if they’re doing way worse than that!

I apologize to anyone who got the impression from last week’s post that they are bad and they should feel bad, simply because they weren’t out there saving the world, or they were not ambitious enough. Please do not do that. All that I ask is that you honor those who do set out to do so, and continue to seek what is true. Based on who has commented on this blog so far, I can say with high confidence and no known exceptions: You are not bad, nor should you feel bad.

I suspect that in some sense, rather than feeling bad one should instead feel what some traders call sad. You can be sad that you’re not doing more, because doing more would be great, without it being an ethical issue that more wasn’t done. No blame is assigned. You’re simply expressing the fact that more being done would have been better, and it would have been (or would be) nice to do more. If you bet on your favorite team, either you lose (and are sad you bet at all) or win (and are sad you didn’t bet more). It can’t be helped. Sad!

Que this week’s Quote That Should Freak You Out:

(I had been avoiding the 80,000 Hours people out of embarrassment after their career analyses discovered that being a doctor was low-impact, but by bad luck I ended up sharing a ride home with one of them. I sheepishly introduced myself as a doctor, and he said “Oh, so am I!” I felt relieved until he added that he had stopped practicing medicine after he learned how low-impact it was, and gone to work for 80,000 Hours instead.)

— Scott Alexander

This is insane on a minimum of three levels.

The first level is that Scott Alexander is feeling bad about being a doctor. On the list of ‘people who have done the most for EA’ he is probably not number one right now, but if he ended up at the top by doing what he’s already doing I would not be terribly surprised.

Scott Alexander is doing a hell of a lot of good, both for his patients and for other people, and the work he does as a doctor is vital to that.

Scott’s work as a doctor, seeing patients, experiencing how the other almost everyone lives, is vital to the jobs he does advocating and writing. Scott provides lots of value with his in-depth discussions of research, of drugs, of treatments, of how to deal with various problems and safely interact with various questionable ideas for self-modification. Having someone in our space that fills that role is incredibly valuable for its own sake, and having it be Scott allows those people to find his blog, find each other and be exposed to our ideas including EA.

The last thing Scott should be thinking about is not practicing because it’s eating too much time that could be used elsewhere.

The second level is that someone else quit being a doctor to do career counseling, because being a doctor wasn’t impactful enough.

It is one thing for a person to decide not to study medicine because what they want to do is save lives, and it isn’t the best way to save lives. I totally, totally get that. Learning to be a doctor is often a decade of misery, during which you are earning little, and by going to medical school you are taking a slot that could have been used by someone else. The link makes some good points, although it seems to be slanting its presentation to justify its conclusion.

It is entirely another thing to quit practicing medicine after getting your license to go work for 80,000 hours instead because you don’t think you are saving enough lives.

The calculation is completely different once you are already a practicing doctor.

That decade of work you were looking at before you could help much or earn much money? Already completed.

That slot in medical school? It’s gone. That slot in residency? Also gone. No one will replace you. There will be one less doctor. Yes, that’s stupid, we should train lots more doctors, and that would be a Worthy Cause to lobby for, but for now we don’t and that’s not changing soon.

The system spent a quite large amount of money on training you, and all of that is gone now. Demand will exceed supply by that much more, prices will rise to clear the market. More doctors will opt out of insurance, especially Medicaid and Medicare. More people will be unable to afford care, or find themselves bankrupted. The government will be under that much more burden to pay the higher fees.

It seems hard to me to look at a profession where the skeptical view is that you create four years of healthy life for every year you work, and you get one of the highest pay scales, and where no one can legally replace you if you quit, and where high costs from lack of supply are threatening to strangle the entire economy, and which gives you a high level of trust and a potential strong public platform, as something you have an ethical motivation to quit so you can spend more time telling other people what their ethical motivations are.

I am not saying that this former doctor is bad and should feel bad. I am certainly not saying that going to medical school is an implicit social contract that then obligates you to use that degree to help others. Even if I believed them, I would not have any social right to make such claims. Certainly there are good reasons to decide not to practice medicine, including simply no longer being interested in the practice of medicine. If the true justification was that staying wasn’t sufficiently ethical due to opportunity cost, that makes me quite sad.

The third is the level discussed earlier – even if being a doctor is not locally victory-point-maximizing-on-the-margin it’s pretty terrible to go around putting so much implicit pressure on well-meaning people that doctors start avoiding you out of the shame of continuing to practice. Seriously, everyone. Cut it out.


Scott then ends where I will end, on the Official Party Line:

And one more story.

I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him pretty much what I’ve said here: the effective altruists seemed like great people, and I felt kind of guilty for not doing more.

He responded with the official party line, the one I’ve so egregiously failed to push in this blog post. That effective altruism is a movement of ordinary people. That its yoke is mild and it accepts everyone. That not everyone has to be a vegan or a career researcher. That a commitment could be something more like just giving a couple of dollars to an effective-seeming charity, or taking the Giving What We Can pledge, or signing up for the online newsletter, or just going to an local effective altruism meetup group and contributing to discussions.

And I said yeah, but still, everyone here seems so committed to being a good person – and then here’s me, constantly looking over my shoulder to stay one step ahead of the 80,000 Hours coaching team, so I can stay in my low-impact career that I happen to like.

And he said – no, absolutely, stay in your career right now. In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about altruism at all, because eventually you’ll work through your own problems, and figure yourself out, and then you’ll just naturally become an effective altruist.

And I tried to convince him that no, people weren’t actually like that, practically nobody was like that, maybe he was like that but if so he might be the only person like that in the entire world. That there were billions of humans who just started selfish, and stayed selfish, and never declared total war against suffering itself at all.

And he didn’t believe me, and we argued about it for ten minutes, and then we had to stop because we were missing the “Developing Intuition For The Importance Of Causes” workshop.

Rationality means believing what is true, not what makes you feel good. But the world has been really shitty this week, so I am going to give myself a one-time exemption. I am going to believe that convention volunteer’s theory of humanity. Credo quia absurdum; certum est, quia impossibile. Everyone everywhere is just working through their problems. Once we figure ourselves out, we’ll all become bodhisattvas and/or senior research analysts.

The Official Party Line is saying that the heroic values are optional. This is a movement of ordinary people, its yoke is mild and it accepts everyone.

Sorry. The Official Party Line is bullshit. It is philosophical bullshit. The people saying the Official Party Line are saying it because it helps spread the movement, rather than because it is true. This is what they have to say in the pitch meeting. This is what you have to tell the people who aren’t ready to give everything they have. You don’t say, “We are Out To Get You for every waking moment of your entire life, because doing less is letting children die” if you want to succeed. So you make sure not to say that.

You don’t have to be explicit. The logic of the movement implies it. Its culture implies it. Every interaction carries this undertone. Every action has the whispered motivation, ‘how can we make people give more of themselves’? Occasionally someone explicitly says that a night out drinking with your friends is tantamount to negligent homicide. The Life You Can Save isn’t exactly subtle.

You don’t have to be a vegan? Technically you don’t. In practice, if you touch on the community and aren’t vegan, you will get into fights and conversations about it. People will think less of you, and give you the impression you are bad and you should feel bad. Lots of people I know spend lots of time worrying exactly how vegan they need to be. Either your EA gathering is vegan, or it has a bunch of fighting about it not being vegan.

People pick up on all that. They follow this presumptions to their logical conclusions. One of those conclusions is to push others as hard as you can. Choices Are Bad, and many realize that under such conditions they are doomed to feel bad, so they look for solutions. Stopgaps are attempted, to contain the damage, like the Giving What We Can pledge. They help, sometimes. It’s a hard problem, and I’m sympathetic; I don’t think anyone is being malicious about this.

Life is mostly about life. That’s how and why it works and why we have nice things. Having nice things and selfish people trying to get them needs to take up a huge portion of GDP to make the system work and incidentally give us the power to help out with other stuff on the margin. Most people will start selfish and mostly stay selfish. It’s fine. Better than fine. If that hadn’t resulted in indoor pluming, industrialization and electronics, I wouldn’t be typing this, or even exist.

My model of EA is that it was originally founded by a few people who had money they wanted to give away, and wanted to make sure the money did as much good as possible, so they set out to analyze that question. That was insanely great. One of the things that kept it great was the framing that there was a certain budget to do the most good with, so it was time to focus on figuring out what was true. Once you put ‘how big is your budget’ into the mix, that starts to be the knob most attractive to try and turn, and the dangers of culture drift towards what is persuasive are upon you.


[Author’s note/edit: Several quite smart people have said this conclusion is hard to parse and they aren’t sure what I’m getting at. I agree that it is not as clear as I would like, so if you’re confused, assume that the point you previously thought I was making is in fact the point I was making, because chances are that you are mostly correct. Sorry. Tsuyoku Nairitai.]

Last week I was talking about how a group dedicated to pursuit of truth and saving the world ended up with a different culture and organizing principle, and was mostly accomplishing living life, and noting that this seemed badly in need of fixing. To now say ‘life is mostly about life’ and worry about people feeling overly pressured to help others seems to directly contradict that.

To me, it’s not a contradiction at all. It’s the same concern. EA started out being about figuring out what charities had what effects, which meant its culture was all about pursuit of truth with a goal of world saving.

In both cases, there was a Worthy Cause, and to accomplish that Worthy Cause required creating a culture that put what is true above what sells. If anyone ever wants my help on a project like this, so long as I’m not actively against the cause in question, I’ll at least strategize with you.

Then people involved realized that selling to and recruiting others would actually be kind of neat, allowing more people to focus on what was true and/or the Worthy Cause, making the world a better place. It required some compromises, but that’s life. That brought in more people, who were more concerned with selling and Worthy Cause and less with truth, and suggested how great it would be if we compromised a little more, and perhaps added this additional Worthy Cause.

In EA’s case, the good news is that at least this worked, and they’re now busy moving nine figure amounts to Worthy Causes, and at least some of that is going to the ones I consider most worthy, even if they’re also distorting them in ways that make me nervous. In fact, it seems likely that it was the very over-the-top actions themselves that largely led to those nine figure sums being moved.

In the other case, the good news is that it at least sort of worked in the sense that the people involved are happier, and people are now giving serious thought and money to Worthy Cause even if they’re mostly doing it in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons.

Truth is on the defensive these days. So are reasoning and discourse. Speaking the truth causes one’s voice to tremble more than it should, or than it used to. Many even speak of the post-truth era. My model of why this is happening would be beyond scope. I do feel the need to point out that the compromises seem to be happening in the places and people near and dear to me. That which makes truth-focused groups unique and valuable risks being lost as they are transformed into something else, and we risk passing future points of no return soon.

None of this is easy. Make no compromises and you have no movement. Make too many, or make the wrong ones, and you have no movement worthy of the name.

When you are looking to expand your group, it is hard to say, we’re going to only do exactly the welcoming things that the people who properly value our mission truly like. It is hard to intentionally not do the things that would attract other smart, nerdy, nice, sexy people that would make our lives happier in the short and medium term, but who do not share the mission.

It is really freaking hard to see nine figure sums being moved in ways that save lives, say the reason we get to move around these nine figure sums is by seeking truth and doing good on our own, so we need to keep doing only that, and trust in that enough. It is super hard to follow the decision theoretic implications that lead to that conclusion. Keeping your end of that deal means refusing to compromise your integrity even in the ways everyone compromises all the time. Even when you believe this means a lot people will die.

The good news is we don’t need to compromise on truth or say “Credo quia absurdum; certum est, quia impossibile” to avoid feeling bad about not being perfectly good. We can care about things that don’t show up as the maximum direct good done in a utilitarian calculus, do mostly object level things, and still sleep at night.

Believing that everyone will eventually become Bodhisattva and/or senior research analyst is absurd. Believing this will happen on its own is doubly absurd. But we don’t want everyone to be that. It wouldn’t even be a good idea. It is safe to not feel bad for spending your time and money doing object level things and enjoying ordinary life. You do not need to make everyone an effective altruist. Mostly you should confirm you do a lot of good, then make yourself effective.

*: The exception is if you’re not in a position to do this. You need to pay off your debts and get yourself an emergency fund. Seriously. If you are in debt, focus on paying it off, and stop giving large amounts of money away. Please.



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Paths Forward on Berkeley Culture Discussion

Epistemic Status: Not canon, not claiming anything, citations not provided, I can’t prove anything and you should definitely not be convinced unless you get there on your own.

Style Note: Phrases with Capitalized Words other than that one, that are not links, indicate potential future posts slash ideas for future rationalist concepts, or at least a concept that is (in a self-referential example) Definitely A Thing.

I got a lot of great discussion, at this blog and elsewhere, about my post What Is Rationalist Berkley’s Community Culture? There are a lot of threads worth full responses. I hope to get to at least some of them in detail.

This post came out of a discussion with Ben Hoffman. I mentioned that I had more places to go next and more threads to respond to than I could possibly have time to write, and he suggested I provide a sketch of all the places. As an experiment, I’m going to try that, at least for the subset that comes to mind. Even as I finish up writing this, I think of new possible paths.

None of this is me making claims. This is me sketching out claims I would like to make, if I was able to carefully build up to and make those claims, and if after doing that I still agreed with those claims; trying to robustly defend your own positions is sometimes a great way to end up changing your mind.

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Seattle Minimum Wage Study (Part 3): Tell Me Why I’m Wrong, Please!

Previously: On the Seattle Minimum Wage Study (part 1)On the Seattle Minimum Wage Study (part 2)

To summarize the finding of my previous two part analysis:

There was a study of the recent raising of the Seattle minimum wage and its effects on low wage workers. Everyone who wrote about the paper thought that it showed that the rise in the minimum wage severely hurt the hours and pay of lower wage workers, or thought it was a bad study and should be ignored.

The numbers seemed odd to me, so I took a closer look. I found what appears to me to be a fundamental error. During this period, overall wages in Seattle rose by 13.3%. If you raise the threshold for ‘low-wage worker’ by 13.3% between the two time periods, all bad effects from the minimum wage disappear, it looks like nothing bad happened, and low wage workers likely benefited. It also presumably didn’t hurt Seattle much, since it was booming the whole time.

If anything, the study seems to be providing evidence that, at least in some situations, raising the minimum wage is good, rather than it being bad. It’s still weak evidence, because Seattle was unusually well situated to handle the change, but it seems important. It also seems like a lot of people have a strong interest in shouting this result from the rooftops, if true.

Several hundred people saw the posts in question, and I got two good detailed comments, both of which essentially agreed with the analysis.

No one told me where I went wrong.

So while I work on harder, more substantive posts that I’m a bit stuck on at the moment, I’m going to ask: If no one’s going to start shouting the result from the rooftops, can someone please explain why I’m wrong here?


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What Is Rationalist Berkley’s Community Culture?

Rationalist Status: Wonky (if you are not interested in the rationalist community or mission, this one is not for you)

Epistemic Status: Continuing the discussion

Response to (read this first): The Craft Is Not The Community (Otium)

Sarah’s post, The Craft Is Not The Community, was explicitly intended to start a discussion. Her central thesis is that the community has proven itself bad at doing outward-facing projects, so members should do their community-focused projects together, and form a community that can fulfill its members emotional needs, but do their outward-facing and world-saving projects in the outside world and play by the outside world’s rules.

I want to focus elsewhere, at least for this post, and accuse Sarah of burying the lead. She does not actually bury it – it’s right up at the top of the post – but she views it as background rather than the thing to be focused on.

We need to focus on it.

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Choices Are Really Bad

Previously: Choices are Bad

Last time, I gave two (related) reasons Choices are Bad: Choices Reduce Perceived Value and Choices Force You Into Choosing Mode. Despite not looking like much, these reasons are Serious Business. They can render us unable to enjoy, think or relax even when it might seem that everything is awesome. That’s what that song is about, really: how great things are, on every axis, when we let ourselves go with the flow and not get distracted.

The rabbit hole goes deeper. It gets much worse.

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Something Was Wrong

Previously (elsewhere): The Order of the Soul (Compass Rose)

Last week we went to see a classroom for our son.

The school in question had quite a good reputation. This was a place people wanted their kids to go, and when we had been there previously to see a different type of classroom, we understood why, or thought we did. It was doing the thing it was doing and hitting all the bases.

We had just been to a place with a less good reputation, and seen a run-down, not-well-equipped, kids-not-under-control version of this classroom, and were hoping that this version would be better.

We walked in and it looked nice. It had the things such places have. There were things to play with and kids were scattered around playing quietly. Our son walked towards one of the things. One of the kids already there said hi to him. We and the school’s people watched. I surveyed the room.

Everything looked like it was supposed to look. This was a nice classroom. Kids were playing.

Something was wrong.

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Complexity Is Bad

Previously: Choices are BadChange Is Bad

Meta Note: Early drafts were too complex. Complexity is Bad. I simplified.

Mark Rosewater, head of design at Magic: The Gathering who I recently praised for writing down his process, has a podcast called Drive to Work. Commuting is really bad (citation not needed), so recording a podcast is a great idea. Usually it is a great geek out, but incomprehensible to non-players.

The recent episode on complexity is an exception. No game knowledge is needed and the insights transfer to life in general. He is explaining how to think about complexity. The central point is: Complexity is Bad.

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