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Had never heard of effective altruism. Interesting concept. So when I give the homeless men and women in NYC a lunch I bought just for them and expect nothing in return am I doing good well? I hope so. I guess I’m not smart enough to really understand the philosophical twists of EA. But man, you sure can stinkin’ write. Like ice water on a hot day. My brain feels refreshed.

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I'm not 100% sure but I think many EA people would say that you would have done good better by using that money to pay for mosquito nests for people living in the Global South. Which is, fair to say, not my moral system!

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Aug 10, 2022·edited Aug 10, 2022

Hah! Did this come from a "GiveWell" podcast ad by any chance? I have this memory of listening to Ezra Klein back in the day and him endlessly repeating the same example of GiveWell directing your money to mosquito nets because they had the best moral ROI. This always seemed to go with ads for ZipRecruiter, which he said so fast it sounded like "ZipperCritter" - which always sounded like a much more fun service.

Also Ezra Klein, dare I say it is a stereotypical EA guy. Excellent essay - provoking much thought!

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Aug 10, 2022Liked by Freddie deBoer

The current argument seems to be, if you give money to a homeless person, to an artistic charity, etc., that's fine to do, but you should mentally count it as a personal expenditure, not a charitable contribution.

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Ahh artistic charity, the classic conundrum of how to broadly cultivate artistic material in a society that patronizes artistic elitism, while simultaneously not knowing how to fundamentally value artistic contributions, when too many people have access to either theorizing their art beyond function or diluting the pool of available art with mediocrity.

Artists should only starve if their art is bad and I don’t like it, since it’s all subjective anyway, right? /s

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The idea is to take a step back and really track resource allocation to see if it still makes sense compared to other choices available, instead of going on autopilot.

Like, if you spend $6 on the lunch you gave away, you can say, “I started with $6, and now I have fed one homeless guy 1/3rd of his meals for the day. But what else could I have spend that money on?”

So you do some research and find that a Non profit is building a shelter in the area with some fancy new drug program with a fifteen percent higher chance to permanently get people off the streets than anyone else, projected to reduce homelessness by 40% over twenty years.

They need $100,000 to finish the project.

So you crunch the numbers and find that the “utilons”- an arbitrary number represents the Amount of Good Done- of feeding a guy lunch is 800, but the utilons of getting this shelter built is 38 million. Simple math: $6 can either buy 800utilons or buy a 1/16,666 stake in providing 38 million utilons, or around 2,280 utilons in aggregate.

Therefore, buying a guy lunch is suboptimal compared to donating to the shelter instead.

Shit like that. You can see why it weirds people out.

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I see your point, but I suspect the homeless guy would prefer the meal

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Don't know anything about EA, but if this is the moral calculus then God help us. Giving a homeless person lunch is only suboptimal in this context if humans are analogous to rodents, which we are not. Seems the brain and it's ability to form connections and complex relationships is our greatest tool, why not put it to use?

Coincidentally I'm a reporter in California and spend a lot of time around the homeless because it's a personal interest of mine. I can't tell you how many looks I get from people when I'm standing on the sidewalk or sitting on a curb just talking and joking around with a homeless person. Not bad looks, mind you, just surprise and curiosity. At least that's what it seems like to me. Some of those same people even come up and give money to the person I'm talking to. People genuinely want to help homeless people. It's fear that stops them.

Also, on the topic of shelters. I've never met a homeless person who would willingly stay in one. They're pretty universally unpopular as a long-term solution. Their shit gets stolen and the righteous organizations that run them often make a minimal effort to ensure they are places people can actually, you know, live. I guess because they're sitting in air conditioned offices crunching "utilons."

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Aug 10, 2022·edited Aug 10, 2022

"People genuinely want to help homeless people. It's fear that stops them."

Right, this is a really good point. It's not always about making the best, most optimal choice - often the biggest barrier is finding the courage to make the choice at all.

And of course in some cases, the effort and attention. But courage in particular tends to be overlooked in some of the more abstract discussions about ethics.

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Lmao just help the dude out short term and contribute to the long term if you can do either/or, ez.

But seriously, it just seems like fluster over aggregation and scaling. Both the macro and micro issues hold different kinds of importance, and require the organizing and balancing of practice and theory to accomplish both effectively.

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Yeah, it seems as if a lot of this analysis is based on the assumption that you're only going to give to one cause, so choose the most efficient one. That makes sense if you're really poor, or if you're really rich and think you might be able to just get 'er done in one swell foop, but for all of us in-betweeners, why not just give to both?

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In your hypothetical scenario those actions make sense but until something that bombproof comes around: as somebody who spent most of their 20s working in shelters--honestly you should buy a guy lunch and NOT donate to a shelter.

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In terms of personal policy I prioritize charitable giving to organizations that serve the third world. Suffering in the developing world is orders of magnitude worse than in the US and Europe, and given the average wage in those areas of the world US dollars have a much greater impact.

But long term what really changes lives is the advancement of technology coupled with economic development--the best example being the the reduction in levels of global poverty due to China and India modernizing. And that's something that's just going to occur regardless of individual efforts.

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Freddie's thesis is a great way of looking at the world and I will now structure my identity around it.

Seriously, thanks for this piece. I am old enough to know that it is true but need reminding often enough.

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Aug 10, 2022Liked by Freddie deBoer

I've devoted the vast majority of my career to trying to do good well – many people do – and I can't overstate how much the mundane stuff matters. I work with public health data, and not only do you have to learn a lot about what people do day-to-day, you have to understand where your actions fit in to the world you're trying to improve.

EA sometimes feels like once you've optimised your solution you swoop into, say, Botswana with your billions of dollars and just dictate what they should do. But you need a whole boring and compromised and suboptimal process that involves the government, and the people, and the doctors, and the organisations, and everyone else, and _especially_ the law and democracy of that place that prevents you from doing whatever you want.

My current job is my most effective because a lot of my colleagues me do all those things that I would find both tedious and impossible, though I make sure not to stay away from the tedious in my work as well. It enables our work to survive changes in government staffing and myriad other day-to-day obstacles. What we make makes things a little better, and we improve it constantly, and even the exciting bits are often less impactful than the mundane ones. I've always felt that's the best way of doing effective altruism.

I've briefly engaged with the EA community a couple times, but the rabbit holes seem like way too much of a distraction, and at least in my corner of the world, I haven't seen too much in there that makes me do good better.

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I bummed around a few forums as a regular that cross-pollinated with rationalists and EA types.

What it all boiled down to, once you got past the low hanging fruit ideas like “maybe focus more on malaria nets than on X Y or Z”, was “What if the world was like THIS? Because then we could do some seriously crazy, malignant, psycho BS in the name of generations yet unborn.” And then instead of defending the assertion that the world was indeed like THAT, they defend the chain of logic that dictates the crazy, malignant, psycho response.

I will not impugn them with ill intent, but they are rather begging to become a key source of legitimacy for the first torturing, brutal authoritarian warlord that can lie convincingly to them.

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I used to work for a Hedge Fund. All day we worried incessantly that we were allocating capital to the best causes. We had a whole lot of really smart people devoting their lives to it.

The fund also donated low 7 figures a year to charity. We spent maybe 30 mins picking the charities. Usually we just picked what someone's wife was most interested in. A lot of it was super dumb and useless. We could have saved many thousands of lives through some EA charities.

So I think the idea that "everyone who has ever wanted to do good has wanted to do good well" is just incredibly wrong. I agree with much of the rest of the article. But the idea that we should do even the most basic research on charities is actually incredibly foreign to almost everyone.

The rest of EA I'm not so excited about.

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I agree with this. I was never in the EA community, but Kelsey Piper's writing explaining those bare basics - thinking of charities in terms of what they're actually doing, not just what they say they're doing - had a big effect on me.

I think places like GiveWell and GiveDirectly are doing excellent work engaging with the quotidian and ordinary - every year they do their research on how to allocate funds, and every year my "here's where your donation went" email sends me more or less the same list of charities that are working to prevent disease in impoverished parts of the world. No insect sentience there. I give more now because the EAs turned my head around and made it easier to prioritize.

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Spending other people’s money isn’t the same as spending your own (on charitable causes).

More scrutiny when it’s my personal checkbook.

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Aug 10, 2022Liked by Freddie deBoer

Maybe the value in the Effective Altruism movement actually goes the *other* way: by channeling the innate desire for novelty, excitement and coolness back toward being practical and ordinary?

Just like "Doing Good Well" has been normal ethics forever, so has "Interesting Beats Important" always been a part of human psychology. New is cool, old is boring, regardless of which is actually "better." The problem isn't so much getting people excited about new ideas, that's natural. The hard part is figuring out which new ideas are actually useful, and which ones are, you know, carnivore genocide.

So if EA can have a good effect, maybe it's not so much about creating new ideas that are good -- but rather, about doing a better job *testing* whether a bunch of new ideas actually are good or not. It could be about tying creative policy ideas back to the question of practical effectiveness.

Maybe what I'm talking about is literally the opposite of the EA mentality -- not firing a shotgun of cool ideas out, but picking through the shotgun blast to separate a couple of gold pellets out from all the lead ones (what a terrible metaphor this is!). But if it is the opposite of EA, well then, that sounds like a dialectic to me. EA seems like a thesis in need of an antithesis.

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I think EA started as a way to move charity away from novel, exciting and cool causes to practical and ordinary ones. However, I think that they have outsmarted themselves, and found ways to convince themselves that novel, exciting and cool causes are ~actually~ the best way to do good.

If you look at what we know do the most good per dollar, the answer is basically "bed nets." But this is boring. If you start assigning arbitrarily high probabilities to AI apocalypses, or assigning arbitrarily high values to the happiness of chickens, or the lives of hypothetical humans who will never be born in 4,157 because of a possible asteroid strike in 3,438, you can start justify switching your giving back to cool, interesting causes like rocket ships, AI research and veganism.

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"Bed nets" is the "answer" if and only if your prior is that maximizing the number of human lives, regardless of quality of life, is the highest good.

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I will admit that I'm being a bit glib. In this context "bed nets" is mostly a stand in for boring, evidence based solutions, although I think that, for most people's criteria, bed nets, deworming, vitamins and maybe some cash are going get you the most bang for your buck.

My real point is that I think a lot of people who fashion themselves part of the Effective Altruism movement suffer from the same desire to engage in flashy, interesting, but low efficacy giving as everyone else, and the pivot to longtermism and existential risk is a form of self-deception that allows them to do this while still convincing themselves that they being logical and evidence based.

If you want to do something "cool" with your money, go for it. It's your money. Personally, I am not a big fan of private giving. However, you shouldn't kid yourself that starting a Mars colony so as to protect the human race against extinction is really the best way to do good.

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I think people get so caught up on the crazy shit some EA groups do that they lose sight of what 95% of it actually is. Most EA is incredibly, incredibly boring: Malaria, vitamins, giving money to poor people. It's so boring that the West no longer cares about it. And most of it has a very heavy focus on testing.

It's mainly when EA people start tackling existential risks that things get wacky.

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I think there's maybe also an effect that comes from groups that form specifically around an EA identity, as there is in any group that gathers to discuss one and only one thing. I deleted this comment because I didn't think it made any kind of useful point, but elsewhere I mentioned that I bailed on the one EA discord I ever joined within a few days because shit got so weird so fast. It was unrecognizable compared to, say, the GiveDirectly research presentations I sometimes sit in on. But it feels inevitable that a 24-hour discussion forum with dozens and dozens of people in it would have to start getting weird quick just to keep the conversation from petering out.

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Utility questions always get bad answers when infinity is involved, whether it's rationalist prioritizing immortality research and galactic colonization over malaria nets, or medieval Catholics justifying forced conversion via torture because Heaven is infinitely between than Hell.

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I always thought of EA as essentially "evidence based charity." People generally pick charities semi-randomly. They might give to diabetes research b/c their cousin has diabetes, or they might donate to an animal rescue because Sarah McLachlan made them sad. EA came along with the idea that we should actually look into what charities actually do the most good on a dollar-per-dollar basis, and basically concluded the answer was "bed nets."

Where I think they went off the rails was with the turns toward longtermism and existential risk. My take away is that "bed nets" is boring, which is why, pre EA, people didn't donate enough to buy new bed nets. OTOH, AI apocalypses and asteroid strikes and global pandemics are all cool things that you can read about in sci-fi novels. At some point, Scott Alexander (or someone) figured out that, if we apply arbitrary odds to these risks, and count all the hypothetical harm people who might never be born as part of the harm calculous, EA people can shift all their donations to cool sciencey things that make their STEM hearts flutter, rather than bed nets. Maybe it shakes out in the end (although I'm skeptical), but i really think that it is an example of EA people falling into the same trap EA was designed to avoid - donating to cool flashy causes rather than things that actually help the most people, i.e. bed nets.

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Yeah, Freddie's post is not grappling with how absurdly ineffective many (if not most) charities are, for a number of reasons.

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There is a glaring conflict of interest in the altruism non-profit industry in that those working within the industry require it to be perpetual... thus they have a natural incentive to perpetuate the need for their services. Then add to this that the altruism non-profit industry is headed by multi-billionaires that have control of the mainstream media and direct those reports to inflame the public perception of their need and hence glorify their participation.

In its extreme, it is a form of Munchhausen disease.

Meanwhile problems do not get solved, and the shrinking inventory of real productive leaders silently inventing, building & growing real beneficial things and fixing the worlds problems.... they have to do so with the constant threat of being attacked by the "virtuous" in control for their lack of altruism.

Frankly, this nation is sick this way. The producer is the real hero. Of course there are people doing great work in the altruism space, but unless they are doing it silently without the seek for notoriety, they should be suspected charlatans and looters without the true motivation to do good in the spaces they claim to occupy.

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I have to wonder if it's just hubris, of a kind specifically related to living in the first world, that spawns this kind of thinking.

To my mind the greatest factors of the last 100 years in terms of alleviating human suffering in the third world have been technological and economic development. Those forces are so massive and fundamental that they are immune to the efforts of individual human beings in terms of either impeding or advancing the tide.

Consider: Robert Wright wrote an article years ago that pointed out that in the 1970's South Korea's number one export was human hair. Now of course it is the country of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and KIA. What changed? Foreign investment from startup's like Nike built factories that fostered infrastructure that fostered further economic development. That's a story that's being repeated around the world in places like China, India, Vietnam, etc.

What really matters is science and capitalism. Charitable giving of any sort is just froth on the surface of the waves.

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Aug 10, 2022·edited Aug 10, 2022Liked by Freddie deBoer

--EA: Does 99 boring things and 1 crazy thing

--FDB: Ignores all the boring things because they're boring (totally fair! we all do this!), then asks "Why is EA only doing crazy things and never the boring things?"

Quick example: GiveWell continues to direct ~$500 million/year, mostly to deworming, malaria nets, and cash grants to poor Africans. My guess is the total amount of money ever spent on researching/discussing carnivore eradication is <$500,000 (though I could be wrong), AFAIK no money has ever been spent implementing it.

The boring things are literally a thousand times more prominent and important, people just never talk about them because they're boring.

As for everyone agreeing with EA - I think the biggest difference from ordinary people is something like utilitarianism. Without utilitarianism it's not completely coherent to talk about "do the *most* good" (although you can kind of vaguely gesture at the same concept). Once you do have utilitarianism, you start getting questions like "why aren't you donating more of your money?" and "why would you donate to a college instead of to malaria nets?" which I think are already pretty EA and not what normal people do/support/ask. So I do think the "do the most good" thing is actually kind of unique.

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"Once you do have utilitarianism, you start getting questions like "why aren't you donating more of your money?" and "why would you donate to a college instead of to malaria nets?" which I think are already pretty EA and not what normal people do/support/ask. "

I'm far from convinced by these two points. The amount people donate tends to fluctuate a bit year on year, suggesting they do think about how much they give, even if they don't give as much as they think they should. And "shopping" for charities to give to is so commonplace there's huge advertising budgets that go towards exploiting it. Someone might give to their college while being aware of malaria *and still think they are doing good* - they might be wrong, but it's inaccurate to say the calculus doesn't exist. Maybe they've read something about backfiring aid in Africa, or they think charity begins at home, or they know the college is doing something about malaria. Again, it can be right or wrong, but vaguely gesturing at the concept (as you put it) doesn't preclude asking the questions you ask. It just lacks the utilitarian label and its attendant fussiness.

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I think this is overrating the average charitable giver's knowledge of what an opportunity cost is. I only interact with people giving a relatively small amount to charity, not wealthy people though, so it might be different on the high end.

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Very possibly. "Retail" charity giving can often be spontaneous and hence people won't consider the opportunity cost at all.

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People are doing good when they give to their college. They're just not doing good for malaria victims. Likewise, they are doing good when they give to the humane society, the boys and girls' club, the local environmental advocacy group, and the homeless shelter.

There are loads of ways to 'do good' out there, and as you pointed out, loads of ways for charities to compete for money. But speaking as a charity-giver, the least effective way to stay on my list of causes would be to tell me that I only *think* I'm doing good when I give to the others.

The second least effective way is to send me a wall calendar. Last year I got 36 of them. #eyeroll

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People would do better if we started forcing so-called elite colleges to pay their share of taxes. Let’s start with the Ivy League and work our way down.

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Yeah, from my outsider perspective EA=GiveWell. And GiveWell itself is just one more special focus organization. I suppose I could dive into the innards of EA and argue about worm welfare vs human welfare or trypanosome rights, but why would I bother? I get some ideas from GiveWell, some from the Humane Society, CharityWatch, the Sierra Club, my own experiences, etc. etc. etc. There are a zillion legit places to give money.

If you get into the innards of any organization, you find self-congratulatory hyperbole, recreational arguments, funny hat days, dank memes, and other stuff that is fun for insiders but not accomplishing the goal. Every such group highlights this fun stuff, in order to attract possible new members. For an old-time example, I remember churches that lured kids in with 'God loves you' and then switched to 'No, God doesn't even like you unless you tithe and volunteer and write grant proposals, and even that will never be enough' for their adult members.

The incentives that will make people join an organization will always be different from the jobs that organization needs them to be doing. But I think Freddie is falling too far on the 'God doesn't even like you' end in this article. People who join a group need to keep getting a fix of whatever made them join the group in the first place, or they become demotivated. And folks whose real interest is in whether those jobs are done or not, like GiveWell users, shouldn't pick on the internal stuff that keeps the volunteers motivated. We don't have to like it; we're not the ones doing the work.

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I think the biggest difference from ordinary people is insisting on a framework. For example, the idea that it’s better to give your money to mosquito nets than a homeless person you pass on the street has been criticized in this thread. As someone with a largely consequentialist utilitarian EA-ish worldview (influenced, in my case, way more by being an economist than by EA), I think it’s trivially true that it’s better to give the money to mosquito nets…but I REALLY want to hear other people’s reasoning for why they disagree, and I think most EA people are like that. In my experience, some people really want all their actions to be consistent and flow from basic principles, and most people don’t really care. To be clear, I don’t think either kind of person is better; honestly, basically no one actually is consistent, so wanting to be consistent is mostly a recipe for anxiety. But I think EA mostly draws the former kind of person; while there are plenty of moral frameworks to support giving money to the homeless person instead of mosquito nets, I think most people object to it out of a sense that it just feels wrong, and nothing more.

As Freddie pointed out, this wanting a framework thing isn’t exactly new; there are plenty of Catholics who have long, esoteric debates about whether or not transubstantiation occurs during Mass in the vernacular. But most Catholics don’t think about that; they just go to church every Sunday and try not to sin. EA has been compared unfavorably to a religion, but honestly I’d compare it kind of favorably to one; I think right now it’s disproportionately attracting people who want esoteric debates, but success would look like a world where donating to GiveWell is an incredibly normie thing to do, even among people who have never thought about utilitarianism in their lives. Maybe I have a warped view of it, but I actually think it might manage something along those lines.

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My argument for giving money to the homeless person is that I'm the sort who will use the mosquito net argument as an excuse for my own reluctance to engage with the homeless person, or to justify my feeling bothered/ indignant/ taken advantage of by their asking me. I need to get over this and interact with the people in front of me in a different way. And the $5 I didn't give the homeless person wouldn't end up in a 'bed nets jar' at home; it would stay in my wallet and be spent on something else. I will give the same amount to bed nets at the end of the year anyway.

Sure, I could set up a bed nets jar. But what that would really be, to me, is a reminder of how many times I snatched at any excuse to avoid actually being kind to a person who was right in front of me. I need way more practice in that than I do in giving money to help people I'll never see act on my behalf in remote causes that will never involve me in the slightest.

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The justification behind the "don't give the homeless cash" argument is that there's an outsize chance that the money will go towards fueling addiction, from alcohol or meth or heroin or fentanyl or whatever.

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Do you have any evidence for this "outsize chance"? I've seen you assert this several times in this thread but my own experience with the homeless suggests otherwise.

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Data on overall incidence of addiction in homeless people is not relevant to the act of giving money to homeless people because, like with charities, people can choose which homeless people they give money to. Sure, if you give $5 to every homeless person who asks for it, some of that money will be used to buy booze and weed or worse. But honestly, I fail to see how that is a meaningful observation to make when there are liquor stores, dispensaries and Taco Bells on every American street corner with a market mandate to ply an overworked and chemically-dependent population with poison.

A simple solution is to just ask a homeless person what they need from the store and go buy it for them. Or bring them in and let them pick what they want. Or talk to them and get a sense for who they are. It's much easier than contorting statistics to justify doing what you were always going to do anyway.

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To be clear, I was making the argument that even if homeless people spend the money in the best possible way to support themselves (buying a nutritious meal or whatever), it’s STILL better to donate the money to mosquito nets.

Now the comments section can decide which argument is more offensive.

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Death from hunger in the US is almost unknown. That is not true of the third world. I am almost completely unfamiliar with "EA" but the argument that dollars buy more in the third world is one that's been made for decades and requires little more than a modicum of critical thinking.

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"Utilitarianism", as defined by the EA folks, is just a particular prior on what is "good".

And that choice of prior is what leads to debating insect sentience.

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EA gets credit for GiveWell and its competitors as a new, meaningfully different class of NGO. If the EA movement ended today, it would have a gold star on its report card. But leaving that new type of NGO aside, it's not clear whether EA philosophy has a net positive utility. On balance is it convincing a few 10s of thousands of people to give a little more money for bednets? Or is it net negative utility, because it gave cover for n=1 billionaire to convince himself to freeze billionaires' brains on Ceres rather than build libraries, because <something> <something> 10 quadrillion people in the future. In any case, Freddie nailed the root cause of the pathologies of the movement brilliantly.

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I think the example you’re giving is clearly net positive utility. Bed nets are way more valuable than libraries, so if the cost of giving 10s of thousands of people to donate more to bed nets is that a billionaire doesn’t build libraries, then yeah, that’s totally worth it.

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Poor people have an inner life. They had a need for information. Libraries are an absolute social good. It's sociopathic, literally sociopathic, to oppose them because you'd rather buy more mosquito nets.

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I could argue it’s sociopathic to say it’s more important to support poor people’s need for information than to prevent young children from dying of malaria.

I’m not going to pretend that there’s any sort of absolute moral certainty around any of these things, but the moral intuition that money spent helping the global poor goes farther than money spent on the domestic poor seems to be pretty widespread; in fact, a lot of these comments seem to say things like, “Well everyone knows that’s true, so EA types have to move to more obscure, edgelordy things to get attention.” And yet, when I make a simple application of that observation and say bed nets are more important than libraries, I get called a sociopath. That’s the sort of thing that makes me think EA has real value.

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Scott's comment just proves Freddie's point, though: EA has already discovered all the low-hanging fruit. Mosquito nets and cash payments to third world citizens can continue without wannabe thinkfluencers disappearing up their own arses about the importance of "doing good well." As time goes on the ratio of useful, boring activity to carnivore eradication will get smaller and smaller. They should quit while they're ahead.

Scott appears to be a reasonable "rationalist" because he's not actually a rationalist like his followers: he's just a smart, cool dude adopting the label who is unfortunately used by the subculture of "rationalist" losers to make itself more popular.

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This is the definition of sanewashing, for the record.

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No good ever comes of people making one of their interests into their whole identity.

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I've actually never heard of this. Is it like when someone mansplains to you that if you want to help homeless people you should donate to a food bank because that means your $ goes further than giving a person on the street money if they ask for it?

Like, sure, that's "true" if you ignore how human beings function an that you can't "rationally measure" what if means to someone when you stop and have a respectful conversation instead of looking at them like their a bag of trash?

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The massive EA overlap with the "rationalist" community means that very few of them have any social or emotional intelligence at all...so basically you've hit the nail on the head here.

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Right? I assume "donate to a food bank" isn't edgy enough, but yes, just the idiot idea that ALL humans aren't entirely ruled by emotions is like ... no offense guys, but women should be in charge of my stuff because they have more emotional intelligence is MY edgelord position.

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*more stuff. Also "my stuff"

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The knock on giving money directly to the homeless is the large percentage that will use handouts to buy drugs and alcohol.

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I mean I'm obviously kidding about spending all my money on alcohol and drugs, I'm a nerd, not GG Allen. But there's something intangible but very important that happens when you say, "Yeah I'll help you out!" to someone who's probably gotten shit on their whole day while also respecting their autonomy to do what they want with the money.

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Somebody who's out on the streets, as compared to sleeping in their mom's basement or on a friend's couch, has more than likely passed the line of no return with all of their friends and family. That means they have stolen one too many televisions to pawn for heroin or fentanyl. Since their friends and family can't trust them why should you?

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deletedAug 10, 2022·edited Aug 10, 2022
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The majority of "homeless" aren't homeless for precisely the reasons that you mention: because they try it for one night and find put that it's fucking disgusting and dangerous and call a buddy with a couch. This type never flies a sign.

It's the category of chronic homeless who are the visible ones. And they are disproportionately mentally ill and abusing drugs.

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You're right I should make them sign a legally binding contract that they'll spend the money on kale.

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Ot just give them a Big Mac. At least then you're killing them slowly with coronary artery disease.

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I haven't drunk an entire fourth in one go in years. If I do get drunk I'm not going to pass out in a snowbank, or aspirate my own vomit. I'm going to end up unconscious on my couch in my nice, comfy, temperature controlled living rooms and not on a sidewalk where other wandering bums can pull shit out of my pockets.

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"Million Dollar Murray" by Malcolm Gladwell.

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Lol I mean... either I use my money for drugs and alcohol, or I share some of that money. Consider that alcohol withdrawal can be lethal so it's actually not insane to get a homeless guy money for beer.

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So he takes your fiver and buys himself a fourth of cheap vodka and passes out in a snowbank. Or he passes out, pukes while unconscious and aspirates the vomit.

Forget it. If I see somebody begging outside of a McDonald's I'll buy them a Big Mac. Giving a bottle of booze to an alcoholic is like giving them a loaded gun.

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I wouldn't buy a bottle of vodka for an alcoholic about to die by freezing on a snow bank. What?

I'm saying it's none of my business if they want to get tipsy and high with my fiver.

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*in mild weather.

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Unless you have a crystal ball you have no idea what's going to happen to that guy after he drinks that vodka.

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It does rely on the idea that you should think about where the money you donate would go furthest; usually the suggestion is that money goes furthest when donated to the developing world, particularly mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa. Mosquito nets are extremely cheap and extremely effective at preventing malaria; the usual estimate is that approximately $2,000 saves the life of a young child, which is about the cheapest you can save a life for.

I will fully admit to be the sort of person with low social/emotional intelligence described elsewhere in this thread, but I think it’s absolutely valuable to stop and have a respectful conversation with someone, even if it’s difficult to measure how valuable it is. But the question is how that value compares to the fraction of a life saved by donating the money elsewhere. Taking that tradeoff really seriously is, to me, most of what an EA type outlook is.

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This is kind of parallel to discussions about how in some contexts, empathy can be harmful right? I do think that's true or at least a good thought experiment.

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Sure, like the idea that empathy can lead you to care more about lesser, super visible harms than greater unseen harms.

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Yes, kind of, but there's a whole culture around it and somehow all conversations involve vector calculus and whether tree-based statistical methods should be considered predictive models and there's this odd underlying harshness about how you're terrible if you care more about your own children than about children in sub-Saharan Africa.

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lol, I mean. I think any movement based on trying to force people to care less about the beings they have been biologically programmed to love after millions of years of evolution is DOA.

It's not even THAT rational! "My EA parents cared more about children in the third world than me and so I became a mass shooter that killed more people than they saved!"

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Ha! Well, there are several things going for EA. The biggest one for me is what you might call values clarification, if you were being all 1970s about it. When someone points out to me that $100 spent on bed nets results in greater utility than $100 given to some local charity, it does cause me to think through what I'm trying to accomplish. What are my goals for charitable giving? Some of them are stuff like community building, and that in turn makes me think about the value of community building, and so I get an hour of navel-gazing out of it.

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I think it requires neither fancy math nor caring more about third world children than your own to recognize that poor people in developing countries are way more impoverished than poor people in the US, so if you’re going to make charitable donations, it’s a good idea to focus on the developing world.

People in this comments section seem to see a lot of people who spend their time making weird, complicated arguments for bizarre-sounding things to support. I know those people exist, and I do occasionally encounter them, but it’s WAY more often that I encounter people who insist on only supporting local charities, because the most important thing is to support their community. I find the latter sort of person annoying; I find the former sort of person mostly annoying to the extent that they’re antipersuasive to the latter sort of person.

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I think though this goes back to Freddie's original point about the (emotional!) draw of being an edgelord. It's undisputed that poor people in poor countries are worse off than poor people in rich countries (Tho... perhaps not if you account for tighter familial ties and less overall inequality?) but there's a difference between prioritizing your community over needier ones — which to me always seems to end in ugly nativism — and demanding that ethical people care less about their own kids than less fortunate kids. That's not a thing. It's impossible and where it does happen is basically narcissistic child abuse.

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I totally agree; my thing is that, in my experience, I see WAY more people prioritizing their own community over needy ones (and I agree that's ultimately ugly and nativist, though I mostly see it from people with ostensibly progressive political commitments) than I do people demanding that ethical people care less about their kids than needier ones, so I find it weird that people seem to be more bothered by the edgelords. It's absolutely possible I have a skewed perspective on the matter.

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Was EA big before Substack? I only ever heard of it because of Yglesias (explaining what it is or means to be), and I only ever see updates about it because of Scott Alexander (who seems very involved).

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How are mosquito nets versus computers for inner city schools just not basic common sense and a rudimentary grasp of mathematics? Why does this require an entire school/philosophy of charitable giving?

And once you accept that mosquito nets give you the most bang for your buck why not redeploy DDT? (BTW I recommend Malcolm Gladwell's article on Fred Soper for anybody that's interested.)

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EA is mostly pathetic in the same way that all "rationalist" ventures are: they lack the ability to evaluate the world qualitatively so they think they can replace that lack by evaluating absolutely EVERYTHING quantitatively. Throw in a few magic buzzwords like "bayesian" and "priors" and you have just another on-the-spectrum circlejerk.

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Some of the wisest articles about emotion that I've read were on rationalist blogs. Unfortunately, none of those blogs are still posting. But perhaps their merit is just that -- they posted as long as they had something worthwhile to say, and then stopped.

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