[Link] Act of Charity

post by Milan_Griffes · 2019-05-30T22:29:41.518Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW · 4 comments

Jessica Taylor's Act of Charity dialogue (a) is definitely entertaining, and possibly highly relevant to the incentive matrix that Effective Altruism is embedded within.

It was cross-posted on LessWrong when it was published last winter, but not on the Forum, so I'm making a Forum post for it now.

Here's an excerpt:

Carl: “Well, it’s still plausible that they are effective, so I can’t condemn—”
Worker: “Stop. In talking of plausibility rather than probability, you are uncritically participating in the act. You are taking symbols at face value, unless there is clear disproof of them. So you will act like you believe any claim that’s ‘plausible’, in other words one that can’t be disproven from within the act. You have never, at any point, checked whether either charity is doing anything in the actual, material world.”
Carl: “… I suppose so. What’s your point, anyway?”
Worker: “You’re shooting the messenger. All or nearly all of these charities are scams. Believe me, we’ve spent time visiting these other organizations, and they’re universally fraudulent, they just have less self-awareness about it. You’re only morally outraged at the ones that don’t hide it. So your moral outrage optimizes against your own information. By being morally outraged at us, you are asking to be lied to.”


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comment by aarongertler · 2019-06-01T07:06:59.930Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I've now read this dialogue twice, and I'm still not sure whether any of it is very relevant to EA (as opposed to being a clever critique of the rest of the charity world). Any chance you could summarize the central points of the piece, or at least what you took away from it?

comment by anonymous_ea · 2019-06-02T05:16:59.309Z · score: 17 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Notably, Jessica says in the Less Wrong comments that "GiveWell is a scam (as reasonable priors in this area would suggest), although I don't want this to be treated as a public accusation or anything; it's not like they're more of a scam than most other things in this general area."

I do not find her evidence very convincing. Some of it relates to private information which she privately messaged to Jeff Kaufman. The first part of this private information, a rumor relating to GiveWell's treatment of an ex-employee, was disconfirmed by the person in question according to Jeff. The rest of this private information is advice to talk to specific people and links to public blog posts.

The rest of the evidence seems to center around arguments that international charities like AMF create dependency and apathy, sourced from a YouTube philosophy video creator and apparent worker in international development who cites personal anecdotes and Dambisa Moyo's book Dead Aid. This person alleges that AMF and other organizations have put the local bed net makers out of business and says that he has personally seen many families that only bring out their bed net when the AMF inspector comes around. Jessica emphasizes further that the strongest section of the video is where the he says that (quoting Jessica) "the problems caused by aid are extremely bad in some of the countries that are targets of aid (like, they essentially destroy people's motivation to solve their community's problems)."

Arguments about dependency and building sustainable institutions instead have been discussed a plenty in EA circles over the years, and I won't rehash them further here. I just want to note that Moyo says herself that her critique should not be applied to private NGOs, and even aid critics accept that health interventions, like those of most GiveWell top charities, can have positive impact.

I also do not think that, even if the evidence was rock solid, this would mean that GiveWell is a scam; people can be wrong or disagree without it meaning that they're scamming you or that they're deluding themselves.

Edit: Cleaned up a couple of sentences

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-06-02T05:29:33.969Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I think "X is a scam" is generally not a good framing, because its divisiveness distracts from interesting facts about social reality.

I think "functional information-processing institutions are important & we don't have those to the degree we'd like" is an important point (and one I haven't seen made elsewhere in EA).

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-06-01T09:13:58.576Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

If you didn't see it after two read-throughs, I don't think I'll be able to make a summary that conveys the relevance.

Maybe these excerpts draw it out a bit?

Worker: “Do you think any charity other than us would have run the calculation we did, and then actually believe the result? Or would they have fudged the numbers here and there, and when even a calculation with fudged numbers indicated that the intervention was ineffective, come up with a reason to discredit this calculation and replace it with a different one that got the result they wanted?”


Carl: “Why don’t you just run a more effective charity, and advertise on that? Then you can outcompete the other charities.”
Worker: “That’s not fashionable anymore. The ‘effectiveness’ branding has been tried before; donors are tired of it by now. Perhaps this is partially because there aren’t functional systems that actually check which organizations are effective and which aren’t, so scam charities branding themselves as effective end up outcompeting the actually effective ones. And there are organizations claiming to evaluate charities’ effectiveness, but they’ve largely also become scams by now, for exactly the same reasons. The fashionable branding now is environmentalism.”


Carl: “How do you even deal with this?”
Worker: “It’s already the reality you’ve lived in your whole life. The only adjustment is to realize it, and be able to talk about it, without this destroying your ability to participate in the act when it’s necessary to do so. Maybe functional information-processing institutions will be built someday, but we are stuck with this situation for now, and we’ll have no hope of building functional institutions if we don’t understand our current situation.”