Owen Cotton-Barratt

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Reflection as a strategic goal
On Wholesomeness
Everyday Longermism


Topic contributions

My guess is that the crux between people disagreeing is typically closer to: "is this mostly a question of managing the details of how someone else ran an event, or is this mostly a question of appropriate social signalling?"

Just a prompt to say that if you've been kicking around an idea of possible relevance to the essay competition on the automation of wisdom and philosophy, now might be the moment to consider writing it up -- entries are due in three weeks.

Totally agree that people can do whatever they want!

But: suppose there were a big online discussion about the clothing choices of a public intellectual (and while slightly quirky and not super flattering, these obviously weren't being chosen for the sake of being provocative). Then I think I'd feel like I cared about their privacy, and that it would be kinder for people to refrain from this discussion. Not that they wouldn't have a right to have it -- but that it might ultimately be more aligned with their values not to (even if they're totally right about the clothes).

I feel kind of similarly here. Manifest made some choices. They seem to me like they may have been mistakes, but it's important to me that they have the right to make their own choices (whether or not those are mistakes). Some of the discourse feels like it's an ungraceful attempt to muscle in on their autonomy -- like the vibe is "you shouldn't have had the right to invite him", even if people don't actually say that -- and thereby more likely to create an environment where people don't actually feel free. (Not all of the criticism has felt to me like that. I actually support a certain amount of tactfully-done criticism in this case. And I've upvoted a number of contributions on both "sides" of this debate, where I felt like they were adding something useful.)

(It's more plausible that Manifest's choices are causing indirect harm than that the intellectual's clothing choices are, so this analogy isn't perfect, and I'm not trying to say it's as clear-cut as that case, and it's possible this value could be outweighed by other values, which is why I'm in favour of some of the criticism. But I do think it's not a "non-argument", and I'm giving an analogy where I think it's clearer cut in order to demonstrate that it's at least a legitimate consideration.)

I agree that Manifest was platforming him.

(I wouldn't have done that, and at some level I feel sad that they did it -- but I think that is a bit norm violating to express publicly, and I'm trying to do it softly and only because it may help to avoid misunderstanding.)

However, I think Manifest has the right to choose who to platform just as people have the right to choose who to talk to. I do think this platforming decision is something Manifest's natural constituents can rightfully complain about, but I think it's kind of inappropriate for the EA forum at large to weigh in on. (Though I support people's right to be inappropriate this way! I just would try not to do it myself and might gently advise other people to try not to.)

As an observer to these discussions, a couple of comments:

  • I think you're right in your characterization of most of the anti-platforming comments
    • However, I'd guess you're wrong to describe most of the anti-anti-platforming comments/votes as "pro-platforming"
    • Rather, the more common sentiment, and the one I think is mostly attracting upvotes, seems to me to be like "who are we to tell other people who to talk to?"
      • I don't know much about him, but from what I do know I think the guy sounds like a jerk and I'd be meaningfully less interested in going to events he was at; I can't really imagine inviting him to speak at anything
      • But it also seems to me that it's important to respect people's autonomy and ability to choose differently
  • There's a sad irony that this whole debate is functioning to give him a weird kind of platform 
    • e.g. I'd otherwise never heard of him; now I have
      • As a matter of social game theory I think it's usually a mistake to read someone's writing when it's been drawn to your attention for being controversial. This incentivizes people to be provocative in order to draw audiences.
      • This means that I think it's likely correct for most people to never form strong opinions about him in the first place
        • And I feel uncomfortable that his critics are doing his work for him by demanding others have strong negative reactions to him, when I think it might usually be wiser for them to keep focused on other things and let him sink into obscurity

What does "controversial" mean, according to you?

I'm confused about what you're saying here. It feels like maybe you're conflating OP with GV? (Which may be functionally a reasonable approximation 99% of the time, but gets in the way of the point of the conversation here in the 1%.) e.g. at one point you say "better if OP doesn't have to spend its own money", but as far as I understand things, to a first approximation Open Philanthropy doesn't have any money; rather, Good Ventures does.

In the opening post, Alexander invites people interested in funding research on the potential moral patienthood of digital minds to reach out to OP, which I took as indicative of continued interest.

I want to express a few things.

First, empathy, for:

  • People who were receiving (or hoping for) funding from OP, and now won’t;
  • OP staff, navigating comms when there may be tensions between what they personally believe in, and their various duties (to donors and to grantees);
  • Cari and Dustin’s evident desire not to throw their weight around too much, but also not to be pushed into funding things they don’t properly believe in.

Second, a little local disappointment in OP. At some point in the past it seemed to me like OP was trying pretty hard to be very straightforward and honest. I no longer get that vibe from OP's public comms; they seem more like they're being carefully crafted for something like looking-good or being-defensible while only saying true things. Of course I don’t know all the constraints they’re under so I can’t be sure this is a mistake. But I personally feel a bit sad about it — I think it makes it harder for people to make useful updates from things OP says, which is awkward because I think a bunch of people kind of look to OP for leadership. I don’t think anything is crucially wrong here, but I’m worried about people missing the upside from franker communication, and I wanted to mention it publicly so others could express (dis)agreement and make it easier for everyone to get a sense of the temperature of the room. (I also get this vibe a little from the GV statement, especially in not discussing which areas they’re dropping, but it doesn’t matter so much since people less look to them for leadership; and I don't get this vibe from Dustin's comments on this thread, which seem to me to be straightforward and helpful.)

Third, some optimism. When I first heard this news I felt like things were somehow going wrong. Having read Dustin’s elaborations I more feel like this is a step towards things working as they should[1]. Over the last few years I’ve deepened my belief in the value of doing things properly. And it feels proper for things to be supported by people who wholeheartedly believe in the things (and if PR or other tangles make people feel it’s headachey to support an area, that can be a legitimate impediment to wholeheartedness). I think that if GV retreats from funding some areas, the best things there are likely to attract funding from people who more believe in them, and that feels healthy and good. (I also have some nervousness that some great projects will get hurt in the process of shaking things out; I don’t really have a view on Habryka’s claim that the implementation is bad.)

Fourth, a sense that perhaps there was a better path here? (This is very speculative.) It seems like a decent part of what Dustin is saying is that each different funding area brings additional bandwidth costs for the funder (e.g. necessity to think about the shape of the field being crafted; and about possible missteps that warrant funder responses). That makes sense. But then the puzzle is: given that so much of funding work is successfully outsourced to OP, why is it not working to outsource these costs too? If I imagine myself in Cari and Dustin’s shoes, and query my internal sense of why that doesn’t work, I get:

  • Some degree of failure-of-PR-insulation, as discussed in comment threads elsewhere on this post
    • (This also applies to responsibility for non-PR headaches)
  • Some feeling like OP may be myopically looking for the best funding opportunities, and not sufficiently taking responsibility for how their approach as a funder changes the landscape of things people are striving to do
    • And therefore leaving that responsibility more with GV
    • (It does sound from things Alexander has written elsewhere that OP is weighing PR concerns more now than in the past; I’m curious how much that’s driven by deference to Cari and Dustin)

That might be off, but it is sparking thoughts about the puzzle of wanting people to take ownership of things without being controlling, and how to get that. From a distance, it seems like there’s some good chance there might have been a relationship GV and OP could have settled into that they’d have been mutually happier with than the status quo (maybe via OP investing more in trying to be good agents of Cari and Dustin, and less backing their own views about what’s good?); although navigating to anything like that seems delicate, so even if I’m right I’m not trying to ascribe blame here.

Fifth, thoughts on implications for other donors:

  • If you believe in some of the work that isn’t being funded by GV any more, your dollars just got more valuable
  • It wouldn’t be surprising if it was correct for a bunch of people to shift a lot of their giving explicitly to things OP won’t support for donor-preference reasons
    • (I’d feel happier if OP or GV had shared both thoughts about what they weren’t funding, and thoughts about what the hazards in funding those areas were, so that other donors could make maximally informed decisions; but I’m currently assuming that that won’t happen, for some reason like “the impetus is basically from Cari and Dustin, and they don’t have the bandwidth to explain publicly”)
    • I say “a lot of their giving” rather than “all of their giving”, because of a feeling that for donor coordination/cooperation reasons, it may be a bit off to leave GV picking up the tab for everything that they’re willing to, even when others think these things may be excellent
  • If you liked being able to defer to OP (and don’t want to take responsibility for the donor oversight things yourself more directly), it’s possible it would be worth investigating the possibility of an OP-discretion fund, where donors can give to things which OP (or maybe individual OP staff members) chooses at their discretion 
  1. ^

    That is, given what I understand of Cari and Dustin’s views, it seems proper for them not to support these things. I’m not here taking a view on which parts of the object level they’re correct on.

Thanks, I think there's a real question here about how effective this work can be. Although note that in the pandemic case you're mostly hoping to get behaviour change from the general population, while in the nuclear war case you're mostly hoping to get behaviour change from a small number of key decision-makers (who I think are typically more likely to be somewhat receptive to arguments).

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