Richard Y Chappell🔸

Associate Professor of Philosophy @ University of Miami
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Academic philosopher, co-editor of, writes

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Fair point - updated accordingly. (The core point remains.)

re: "being an actual cause", is there an easy way to bracket the (otherwise decisive-seeming) vainglory objection that MacAskill raises in DGB of the person who pushes a paramedic aside so that he can instead be the actual (albeit less competent) cause of saving a life?

we had several completely different vaccines ready within just a single year.

Possibly worth flagging: we had the Moderna vaccine within two days of genome sequencing - a month before the first confirmed COVID death in the US. a month or so. Waiting a whole year to release it to the public was a policy choice, not a scientific constraint. (Which is not to say that scaling up production would have been instant. Just that it could have been done a lot faster, if the policy will was there.)

My impressions: I was very struck by how intellectually incurious and closed-minded Alice Crary was about EA (thought this wasn't surprising given her written work on the topic). She would respond to Peter's points by saying things like, "That all sounds very reasonable, so you just must not really be an EA, as I use the term." I had the strong impression she'd never actually spoken to an EA before.

Her overarching framing took the form of a dilemma: either EA is incapable of considering any evidence beyond RCTs (this seemed to be her core definition of EA), or else there is nothing distinctive about EA. Her underlying reasoning, as emerged at a few points, was that EA doesn't tend to fund the (self-evidently good) social justice advocacy of her political allies. The only possible explanation is that EA is blinded by an RCT-obsessed methodology. (Extrapolating a bit from her written work: Demands for evidence constitute moral corruption because proper moral sensitivity lets you just see that her friends' work ought to be funded.) EA is grievously harmful (again, by definition), because it shifts attention and resources (incl. the moral passions of the smartest college students) away from social justice activists. As such, it ought to be "abolished".

In my question, I tried to press her on whether she saw any "moral risks" to her opposition to EA. (In particular, since less effectiveness-focus would predictably lead to fewer donations to anti-malarial charities, is she at all concerned that her advocacy could result in more children dying of malaria.) She offered a politician-style non-response, that in no way acknowledged that trade-offs are real, or that there could be any possible downsides to abolishing EA. I was not impressed.

Fortunately, Peter did a great job of pushing back against all this, clarifying that:

  • RCTs are great, but obviously not the only kind of evidence. EA is about evidence, not just about RCTs. (Some projects can be quite speculative. Peter stressed that expected value reasoning can be quite open to "moonshots".) Still, it is important to do followups and be guided by evidence of some sort because otherwise you risk overinvesting in debacles like Playpumps.
  • If there's evidence that justice-oriented groups are doing work that really does a lot of good, then he'd expect EA orgs to be open to assessing and funding that.
  • Before GiveWell came along, charities weren't really evaluated for effectiveness. Charity Navigator used financial metrics like overhead ratios which are entirely disconnected from what actual impact the charity's programs are having. Insofar as others are now starting to follow GiveWell's lead and consider effectiveness, EA deserves credit for that.

You might like my 'Nietzschean Challenge to Effective Altruism':

The upshot: I’ll argue that there’s some (limited) overlap between the practical recommendations of Effective Altruism (EA) and Nietzschean perfectionism, or what we might call Effective Aesthetics (EÆ). To the extent that you give Nietzschean perfectionism some credence, this may motivate (i) prioritizing global talent scouting over mere health interventions alone, (ii) giving less priority to purely suffering-focused causes, such as animal welfare, (iii) wariness towards traditional EA rhetoric that’s very dismissive of funding for art museums and opera houses, and (iv) greater support for longtermism, but with a strong emphasis on futures that continue to build human capacities and excellences, and concern to avoid hedonistic traps like “wireheading”.

P.S. I think you mean to talk about 'ethical theory'. 'Metaethics' is a different philosophical subfield entirely.

To be clear, I'm all in favor of aiming higher! Just suggesting that you needn't feel bad about yourself if/when you fall short of those more ambitious goals (in part, for the epistemic benefits of being more willing to admit when this is so).

I agree with all this. If any Forum moderators are reading this, perhaps they could share instructions for how to update our display names? (Bizarrely, I can't find any way to do this when I go to edit my profile.)

That's an interesting case! I am tempted to deny that this (putative unconscious desire to be near the ocean) is really a mental state at all. I get that it can be explanatorily convenient to model it as such, using folk (belief-desire) psychology, but the same is true of computer chess programs. I'd want to draw a pretty sharp distinction between the usefulness of psychological modelling, on the one hand, and grounds for attributing real mental states, on the other. And I think it's pretty natural (at least from a perspective like mine) to take consciousness to be the mark of the mental, such that any unconscious state is best understood as mere information-processing, not meaningful mentality.

That's an initial thought, anyway. It may be completely wrong-headed!

Hi Derek, great post! A couple of points of push-back:

Suppose that the global workspace theory of consciousness is true – to be conscious is to have a certain information architecture involving a central public repository — why should that structure be so important as to ground value? What about other information architectures that function in modestly different ways? The pattern doesn’t seem all that important when considered by itself.

Maybe this is my dualist intuitions speaking, but the suppositions here seem to be in some tension with each other. If there's nothing "all that important" about the identified pattern, whyever would we have identified it as the correct theory of consciousness to begin with? (The idea that "consciousness is just one specific algorithm among many" seems very odd to me. Surely one of the most central platitudes for fixing the concept is that it picks out something that is distinctive, or special in some way.)

If things can matter to us even though they don’t affect how we feel, we may be inclined to think that similar things can matter to systems that feel nothing at all.

One reason to reject this inference is if we accept the phenomenal intentionality thesis that consciousness is necessary for having genuinely representational states (including desires and preferences).  I agree that consciousness need not be what's represented as our goal-state; but it may still be a necessary background condition for us to have real goals at all (in contrast to the pseudo-intentionality of mere thermostats and the like).

"Eugenics" is the worst word. (Is there any other word in the English language where the connotations diverge so wildly from the literal denotation?) "Liberal eugenics" is effectively a scissor-statement to generate utterly unnecessary conflict between low and high decouplers. Imagine if the literal definition of "rape" didn't actually include anything about coercion or lack of consent, and then a bunch of sex-positive philosophers described themselves as being in favor of "consensual rape" instead of picking a less inflammatory way of describing being sex-positive. That's eugenics discourse today.

ETA: my point being that it would seem most helpful (both for clear thinking and for avoiding unnecessary conflict) for people to use more precise language when discussing technologically-aided reproductive freedom and technologically-aided reproductive coercion. The two opposites are not the same, just because both involve technology and goal-directedness in relation to reproduction!

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