The Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism 2014-10-21T23:33:59.138Z


Comment by geuss on What is the Most Helpful Categorical Breakdown of Normative Ethics? · 2018-08-26T19:07:36.675Z · EA · GW

I don't think the tripartite division is particularly helpful. It smacks of parochialism. It's only been the standard way of breaking down 'normative ethics' among a small clique of analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world - i.e. a few thousand people - beginning sometime in the twentieth century. It's a shame that it has become the default pedagogical tool for introducing students to ethics. It has some merit as such, but students end up thinking that it's 'the' division of ethics, and it invariably ends up occluding more than it illuminates.

If you try and fit most 'canonical' figures in the history of social and political thought into the tripartite division - e.g. Thucydides, Epictetus, Augustine, Montaigne, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, Wittgenstein - it becomes immediately apparent that it's an incredibly crude and misleading way of looking at ethics, and assumes a great deal about what 'ethics' is. Let alone if you go beyond the canon and look at more marginal figures, or ethnography/anthropology/cultural history for that matter. As someone else said, most thinkers are sui generis; it is almost always unhelpful to impose these kind of blunt ex post categories on them. The subject is infinitely richer and more complicated than that.

Comment by geuss on Capitalism and Selfishness · 2017-09-15T10:11:44.286Z · EA · GW

"This does not mean that capitalism is bad because capitalism is not conceptually tied to selfishness. The question of which system of economic ownership we ought to have is entirely separate to the question of which ethos we ought to follow."

This is almost solipsistic - it sounds like you're denying that a complex social world exists out there with powerful and entrenched system of causation. Only for the most remote, cerebral idealist are these two things possibly separate. What's the point of this kind of philosophy?

Comment by geuss on Capitalism and Selfishness · 2017-09-15T10:04:41.179Z · EA · GW

I don't way to be too harsh, but this is the apotheosis of obtuse Oxford-style analytic philosophy. You can make whatever conceptual distinctions you like, but you should really be starting from the historical and sociological reality of capitalism. The case for why capitalism generates selfish motivations is not obscure.

Capitalism is a set of property relations that emerged in early modern England because its weak feudal aristocracy had no centralised apparatus by which to extract value from peasants, and so turned to renting out land to the unusually large number of tenants in the country - generating (a) competitive market pressures to maximise productivity; (b) landless peasants that were suddenly deprived of the means of subsistence farming. The peasants were forced to sell their labour - the labour they had heretofore been performing for themselves, on their own terms - to the emerging class of agrarian capitalists, who extracted a portion of their product to re-invest in their holdings.

The capitalists have to maximise productivity through technological innovation, wage repression, and so forth, or they are run into the ground and bankrupted by market competition. There is, as such, a set of self-interested motivations which one acquires if one wants to be a successful and lasting capitalist. It is a condition of the role within the structure of the market. The worker has to, on the other hand, sell themselves to those with a monopoly of the means of subsistence or face starvation. To do so they have to acquire the skills, comport and obedience to be attractive to the capitalist class. Again, one has to acquire certain self-interested motivations as a condition of the role within the market. Finally, capitalism requires a sufficiently self-interested culture such that it can sustain compounding capital accumulation through the sale of ever-greater commodities.

Comment by geuss on Which five books would you recommend to an 18 year old? · 2017-09-15T09:21:49.941Z · EA · GW

Leiter is an ideologue and a bully, so that wouldn't surprise me. I think Srinivasan is a careful thinker, though. In fact she believes that because all of our beliefs are caused by antecedent factors outside of our control, that we cannot fully and sincerely commit to any belief. She has a view that is not unlike Rorty's ironism. So she's definitely 'epistemically aware'.

And the same is true, in my opinion, in the opposite direction: the EA community is extremely homogeneous. Its members generally share the same utilitarian, rationalist, technocratic, neoclassical worldview.

Comment by geuss on Which five books would you recommend to an 18 year old? · 2017-09-14T19:10:26.469Z · EA · GW

I meant socialist in broad terms. One can be a socialist and not think much of a project for change based on the 'voluntaristic' exchange of money without demolishing capitalist social relations. It pushes back to your philosophy of society, and whether you think capitalism operates as a systemic whole to generate those things which you think need to be changed.

I'm not sure that you're not building a strawman, either. The defining problem of anti-capitalist thought since the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution to spread to Germany has been why it isn't obvious. And it's worth saying that no one wants to abolish private property altogether, just the historically specific property relations that emerged in the early modern period and made it such that peasants could not earn a living except by selling themselves to those who owned the means of production. Even more ambitious forms of social anarchism allow for usufruct.

Comment by geuss on Which five books would you recommend to an 18 year old? · 2017-09-13T10:00:22.624Z · EA · GW

Libertarian capitalism dovetails with EA insofar as it respects side-constraints on property rights - one has a right to that which one receives through 'free' contract - and conceives of person-to-person help as voluntaristic. Of course, Rand didn't think much of helping others either.

That's also why, correctly in my view, socialists don't think much of EA.

Comment by geuss on Should you switch away from earning to give? Some considerations. · 2016-09-04T05:37:57.202Z · EA · GW

I think you're reflexively looking for a heuristic explanation for something which is in fact fairly obvious. Most people consider stereotypical earning-to-give careers - management consultancy, IB and so on - as both stultifyingly dull and ethically nebulous on their own terms. The one redeeming fact of the situation is supposed to be that you are giving away an appreciable portion of your earnings. A life of this order requires you to meet a fairly high threshold of asceticism.

The idea that people might avoid earning-to-give because of the psychological toll of loss aversion fails to take into account that a lot of the people who are attracted to EA rate personal income as a low priority (or even something to be avoided).

Comment by geuss on Moral anti-realists don't have to bite bullets · 2015-12-27T21:38:42.176Z · EA · GW

Moral anti-realists think that questions about how people ought to act are fundamentally confused. For an anti-realist, the only legitimate questions about morality are empirical. What do societies believe about morality? Why do we believe these things (from a social and evolutionary perspective)? We can't derive normative truth from these questions, but they can still be useful.

That is not true in the slightest. If I reject that social action can be placed within a scheme of values which has absolute standing, I suffer from no inconsistency from non-absolutist forms of valuation. Thucydides, Vico, Machiavelli, Marx, Nietzsche, Williams and Foucault were neither moral realists nor refrained from evaluative judgement. But then evaluative thought is an inescapable part of human life. How do you suppose that one would fail to perform it?

Comment by geuss on Population ethics: In favour of total utilitarianism over average · 2015-12-27T14:29:46.337Z · EA · GW

I agree that given the amount of good which the most effective charities can do, there are potentially strong reasons for utilitarians to donate. Yet utilitarians are but a small sub-set of at least one plausible index of the potential scope of effective altruism: any person, organisation or government which currently donates to charity or supports foreign aid programmes. In order to get anywhere near that kind of critical mass the movement has to break away from being a specifically utilitarian one.

Comment by geuss on Population ethics: In favour of total utilitarianism over average · 2015-12-27T11:55:01.850Z · EA · GW

Perhaps I have not been clear enough. I am not disputing that average and total utilitarianism can lead to radically different practical conclusions. What I am saying is that the assumptions which underlie the two are far closer together than the gap between that common framework and much of the history of moral and political thought. From the point of view of the Spinozian, Wittgensteinian, Foucauldian, Weberian, Rawlsian, Williamsian, Augustinian, Hobbesian, the two are of the same kind and equally alien for being so. You are able to have this discussion exactly because you accept the project of 'utilitarianism'. Most people do not.

Comment by geuss on Population ethics: In favour of total utilitarianism over average · 2015-12-26T02:41:21.920Z · EA · GW

I realise the difference between average and total utilitarianism, but in the context of the the whole history of moral and political thought the gap between the two is infinitesimal as compared to the gap between the utilitarian framework in which the debate operates and alternative systems of thought. There is no a priori reason to think that the efficacy of charitable giving should have any relation whatsoever to utilitarianism. Yet it occupies a huge part of the movement. I think that is regretful not only because I think utilitarianism hopelessly misguided, but because it stifles the kind of diversity which is necessary to create a genuinely ecumenical movement.

I am still struggling to follow any line of reasoning in the second half of what you have written. Why is that quote the part I want? What is it supposed to be doing? Can you summarise what you are doing in one paragraph of clear language?

Comment by geuss on If you don't have good evidence one thing is better than another, don't pretend you do · 2015-12-24T01:28:10.482Z · EA · GW

I agree with this kind of humility wholeheartedly. Although I think part of the problem is inseparable from what has to be called the righteous belief of most effective altruists that they are not propounding one way of doing good, but the single best way - one at which any rational reflection must conclude. Of course, they might disagree about which particular intervention has the greatest impact, but that disagreement occurs within the agreed framework of effective altruism.

Comment by geuss on Population ethics: In favour of total utilitarianism over average · 2015-12-24T01:13:47.549Z · EA · GW

I am struggling to comprehend the second half of your post. Sorry! Can you clarify exactly why you believe that you have effectively invalidated average utilitarianism one proposition at a time, and the reasons you are alluding to as 'already discussed' in favour of total utilitarianism?

Also, I have said this before, but should a forum for effective altruism be a place in which to discuss what are - from the outside - the minutia of highly obscure moral theories? This is supposed to be a normatively ecumenical movement focused upon the efficacy of charitable giving, is it not? I doubt this is helpful in cultivating that kind of diversity.

Comment by geuss on Random idea: crowdsourcing lobbyists · 2015-07-10T22:47:07.635Z · EA · GW

Political conflict and its filtration into policy has many causal pathways, only a small dimension of which is captured by your scenario: a small minority significantly effected by policy X, and a large majority moderately effected by policy X, such that the minority has cause to exert a influence on policy X disproportionate to its membership. How would a crowd-sourced platform limit itself only to these cases? What would prevent it from becoming a forum for the pitting of distinct values or material interests against one another? Yet if you do pre-select campaigns in some way, what would distinguish the platform from existing mass-membership political campaign groups?

Comment by geuss on You have a set amount of "weirdness points". Spend them wisely. · 2015-02-04T02:44:54.590Z · EA · GW

Firstly, I think this is entirely contextual: certainly in academia, as in many other typically formal environments, one can only dress casually with a certain prior status. Those who dress-down are those who don't need to impress, and thus openly signal that fact. Secondly, in many dissenting subcultures, how one dresses is an important part of that identity, i.e. for an EA to dress and behave modestly is to advertise, and indeed, help enact, ones charitable duties. Thirdly, self-objectification is pretty inhuman to most peoples sensibilities, and especially in the case of women, a pretty negative social pressure. It's also, obviously, extremely conservative ('look and behave like everyone else!' - 'sexually instrumentalise yourself to get more money!').

I'm certainly not saying one should flatly disregard their appearance, just that it contextually holds, often in dissenting subcultures, and can be rather problematic.

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-02-03T15:00:14.517Z · EA · GW

Most think that one's reason for action should be one's actual reason for action, rather than a sophistic rationalisation of a pre-given reason. There's no reason to adopt those 'axioms' independent of adopting those axioms; they certainly, as stated, have no impersonal and objective force. Insofar as that reason is mere intuition, which I see no reason for respecting, then clearly your axioms are insufficient with regard to any normal person - indeed, the entire post-Rawlsian establishment of Anglophone political theory is based exactly on the comparatively moving intuit of placing the right prior to the good.

"In cases where helping your parents helps only your parents, why not help someone else who you could help more effectively?"

That rhetorically begs the question of the evaluative content of help, or that helping persons is of especial value.

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-01-31T17:25:15.526Z · EA · GW

I was mostly referring to the vast majority of people who are disposed, for natural and extra-rational reasons, to generally want to help people. I'm rather sceptical of subsuming the gamut of the history of moral philosophy into EA. I suppose, and its increasingly so right now, such concerns might be incorporated into neo-Kantianism and virtue ethics; but then that's a rather wide remit, one can do almost anything with a theoretical body if one does not care for the source material. The big change is ethical partialism: until now, very few thought their moral obligations to hold equivalently across those inside and outside one's society. Even the history of cosmopolitanism, namely in Stoic and late eighteenth century debates in Germany, refuses as much: grounding particularistic duties, pragmatically or otherwise, as much as ethical impartialism.

Kant, for example, wrote barely anything on distributive justice, leaving historians to piece together rather lowly accounts, and absolutely nothing on international distributive justice (although he had an account of cosmopolitan right, namely of a right to hospitality, that is, to being able to request interaction with others who may decline except when such would ensure their demise - anticipating refugee rights, but nothing more). The most radical reading of Kant's account of distributive justice (and many reputable thinkers have concluded him to be a proto-Nozick) is that a condition of the perpetuation of republican co-legislation, itself demanded by external freedom, is the perpetuation of its constituent citizenship. The premise for which is obviously domestic. It seems that Kant did advocate a world state, at which time the justification would cross over to the global; prior to which, however, on even this most radical account, he appears to deny international distributive justice flatly.

As for Rawls, his global distributive minimalism is well-known, but probably contingently justifies altruism to his so-called burdened societies. That the veil of ignorance (which is basically the sum of its parts, and is thus superfluous to the justification, being expressly a mere contrivance to make visible its conditions) yields the two principles of justice, and not utilitarianism, is rather fundamental to it: in such a situation self-interested representative agents would not elect principles which might, given the contingent and thus unknown balance of welfare in a system, license their indigence, abuse or execution. When the conditions of justice hold, namely an economic capacity to ensure relatively decent lives for a society, then liberty is of foremost concern to persons conceived as rational and reasonable, as they are by Rawls.

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-01-31T03:01:21.323Z · EA · GW

Helping other people more rather than less and, consequently, the instrumental rationality of charitable giving?

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-01-31T02:54:03.559Z · EA · GW

Yes, I read, appreciated and indeed commented upon it! I thought it was a welcome contribution to what is mostly a stagnant diversity in EA, and certainly not a humanistic one.

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-01-31T02:48:52.855Z · EA · GW

This strikes me as a highly wishful and ad hoc adaptation of utilitarianism to pre-given moral dispositions, and personally, as something of a reductio.

Are you honestly suggesting the following as an inter-personal or intra-personal justification?:

"Taking care of parents when they get older might also seem fairly non-consequentialist, but if there is a large inheritance at stake it could be the case that taking good care of your family is the highest utility thing for you to do."

It follows, I suppose, if there is no inheritance at stake, that you should let them rot.

How do you justify utilitarianism? I can only hope not via intuitionism.

Comment by geuss on Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism · 2015-01-30T21:19:03.683Z · EA · GW

I'm unsure on what grounds the plausibility non-consequentialist theories is to be judged. Insofar as they affirm distinct premises they are thusly incommensurable, and consequently hold value only and insofar as you indeed affirm those premises. If we hypothetically assume those premises we can judge internal coherence: do the conclusions deductively follow. Historically, a non-negligible number of evaluative theories are plausible beyond their affirmation being unreasonable; they are internally coherent and somehow move us. They cannot be satisfactorily rejected independently of rejecting their major premises, but as can any theory of the historical set. Further, many highly influential candidates for judgement reject this moral rationalism: communitarianism, the later Rawls, Marxism, Habermasian discourse ethics, post-modernism, Rortyian liberal ironism, the political realism of Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss, the Hellenistic sceptics, emotivism, early German Romanticism, and so forth. What are we to make of this? I am rather doubtful that one can, qua utilitarian, pass independent judgement as to the relative plausibility of the constituents of the history of moral and political philosophy.

This is borne out by your, with respect, exceedingly narrow list of plausible respects in which consequentialism might be false: nearly all of which are questions internal to utilitarian theory, of the scope and weight of the levers across which aggregative value is to be distributed, notwithstanding the mild opposition of your third point. In view of the fact that utilitarianism has markedly receded in post-Rawlsian anglophone political philosophy, that most philosophy and social theory since the linguistic turn rejects its basic structure, and that for most it fails on its own intuitionism, I would like to think there are more fundamental questions to ask than 'is agent type X a candidate for inclusion in aggregative valuation'.

To be frank, I lament the extent to which EA's ostensible ecumenicism, facilitating charitable giving without presupposing any particular normative or otherwise grounding, quickly falls apart as soon as one interacts with the community: nearly all of whom are utilitarians, and take possession of the movement as such. That so large a proportion of discussions on this forum are ruminations on utilitariansim is indicative; but it seeps into and infects the entire identity of the movement. I think this is probably tremendously self-limiting as a social movement, and it certainly profoundly alienates me. Sometimes it seems like EA has become the latest play-thing of Oxfordian moral philosophy.

Comment by geuss on Dorothea Brooke: an alternative origin story for Effective Altruism · 2015-01-28T01:33:07.669Z · EA · GW

That Dorothea so closely resembles an effective altruist is not all that surprising, historically. George Eliot edited and wrote for the Westminster Review, a progressive journal established by Jeremy Bentham, and circulated in a milieu of Victorian high culture counting J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer among its members. As did her husband, George Henry Lewes - a philosopher. I should also perhaps clarify that insofar Eliot spoke of utilitarianism herself, it was mostly negatively.

In any case, that a notional effective altruist is the moral core in one of the putatively greatest texts of the nineteenth century is to be celebrated, and of great affective potential.

Comment by geuss on The perspectives on effective altruism we don't hear · 2015-01-04T19:40:22.669Z · EA · GW

Some of these negative beliefs I hold, others I don't but appeal to the intellectual identities I circulate in, and thus at least register as possible negative beliefs:

(i) EA is elitist: in being largely constituted, particularly in staff, by well-to-do Oxbridge or Ivy League graduates; in being premised on, and thereby implicitly valuing people according their capacity to, earn-to-give; and in being conducted, within the movement, at a relatively technical level of discourse. There's also a potential anti-egalitarianism in the respect in which charitable giving is normally evaluated, namely, as a percentage of net income rather than, say, relative to a generalised baseline of minimally or moderately decent living.

(ii) EA is highly individualistic, rendering everything instrumental to the aggregate utility one can discharge through impersonal donations. Structural political and social change are mostly irrelevant, and insofar as they are, it is typically as new sites for impersonal donations.

(iii) EA is overwhelmingly populated by utilitarians and utilitarian thinking, despite external pretensions of being an ecumenical movement unified by concern for charitable giving. This is self-limiting as a movement, in that it discourages those not observing, what is for most people, a highly controversial ethical theory.

(iv) From my experience, most people simply don't accept - intellectually and/or psychologically - the demanding moralism implicit in charitably donating 10% of one's income; they don't see any impersonal and objective reason for doing so, and thus are not moved (the second most common response, in my experience, is for them to rationalise that charities are uniformly money-grubbing and ineffective).

Obviously these are not unrelated.

Comment by geuss on Problems and Solutions in Infinite Ethics · 2015-01-04T02:00:58.285Z · EA · GW

The 'E' relates to efficiency, usually thought of as instrumental rationality, which is to say, the ability to conform one's means with one's ends. That being the case, it is entirely apart from the (moral or non-moral) end by which it is possessed.

I have reasons for charitable giving independent of utilitarianism, for example, and thus find the movement's technical analysis of the instrumental rationality of giving highly valuable.

Comment by geuss on Problems and Solutions in Infinite Ethics · 2015-01-04T01:48:17.227Z · EA · GW

A minuscule proportion of political philosophy has concerned itself with aggregative ethics, and in my being a relatively deep hermeneutical contextualist, I take what is important to them to be what they thought to be important to them, and thus your statement - that intergenerational equity is perennially important - as patently wrong. Let alone people not formally trained in philosophy.

The fact I have to belabour that most of those interested in charitable giving are not by implication automatically interested in the 'infinity problem' is exactly demonstrative of my initial point, anyhow, i.e. of projecting highly controversial ethical theories, and obscure concerns internal to them, as obviously constitutive of, or setting the agenda for, effective altruism.

Comment by geuss on Problems and Solutions in Infinite Ethics · 2015-01-03T13:41:07.451Z · EA · GW

"The universe may very well be infinite, and hence contain an infinite amount of happiness and sadness. This causes several problems for altruists; for example: we can plausibly only affect a finite subset of the universe, and an infinite quantity of happiness is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of a finite amount of happiness. This would imply that all forms of altruism are equally ineffective."

I have no particular objection to those, unlike me, interested in aggregative ethical dilemmas, but I think it at least preferable that effective altruism - a movement aspiring to ecumenical reach independent of any particular ethical presuppositions - not automatically presume some cognate of utilitarianism. The repeated posts on this forum about decidedly abstract issues of utilitarianism with little or no connection with the practice of charitable giving is, perhaps, not particularly helpful in this regard. Most basically however, I object to your equivalence of altruism and utilitarianism as a matter of form: that should not be assumed, but qualified.

Comment by geuss on Problems and Solutions in Infinite Ethics · 2015-01-03T13:20:04.639Z · EA · GW

I think it quite obvious that if one does not observe a given theory they are not thereby disarmed from criticism of such a theory, similarly, a rejection of moralism is not equivalent with your imputed upshot that "nothing is right or wrong" (although we can imagine cases in which that could be so). In the case of the former, critiquing a theory adhering to but contradicting intuitionistic premises is a straightforward instance of immanent critique. In the case of the latter, quite famously, neither Bernard Williams nor Raymond Geuss had any truck with moralism, yet clearly were not 'relativists'.

Comment by geuss on Optional whether to give, therefore optional where to give? · 2014-12-19T19:44:34.578Z · EA · GW

This gripe is at least partly derivative from my wider dislike of Oxfordian conceptual analysis, but I really do find this wanting, I'm sorry to say. I read it twice-over, and still found myself bereft of any demonstration of its main thesis, namely, that supererogatory giving is not morally unconditional; unless one counts the reference to the Parfit essay as independently sufficient. I have surely missed something?

Comment by geuss on Generic good advice: do intense exercise often · 2014-12-15T07:55:05.695Z · EA · GW


Comment by geuss on Generic good advice: do intense exercise often · 2014-12-15T04:35:54.819Z · EA · GW

Does anyone have firm research on the relationship between exercise and cognitive performance? Specifically on this dimension, what's the optimal weekly exercise duration?

Comment by geuss on Generic good advice: do intense exercise often · 2014-12-15T04:33:21.566Z · EA · GW

Just set up an account!

Comment by geuss on How can you compare helping two different people in different ways? · 2014-12-13T22:01:57.084Z · EA · GW

I know you qualify this process as you own heuristic rather than a philosophical justification, but I fail to see the value of empathetic projection in this case which, in practice, is an invite for all sorts of biases. To state just two points: (i) imagining the experiential world of someone else isn't the same, or anywhere near to, experientially being someone else; (ii) it is not obvious that the imagined person's emotional and value set have any normative force as to what distributions we should favour in the world, i.e. X preferring Y to Z is not a normative argument for privileging Y over Z.

In Rawls' original position, judgement is exercised by a representative invested with a books-worth of qualifications as to why its conclusions are normatively important, i.e. Rawls tries to exactly model the person as free and equal in circumstances of fairness (it has frequently been argued, quite correctly, that Rawls' OP is superfluous to Rawls' actual argument, for the terms of agreement are well-defined outside of it). In the case of your procedure, judgement is exercised by whoever happens to be using it.

IMO, the possibility of normative interpersonal comparisons requires at least: (i) that we can justify a delimited bundle of goods as normatively prior to other goods; (ii) that those goods, within and between themselves, are formally commensurable; (iii) that we can produce a cardinal measure of those goods in the real-world; (iv) that we use that measure effectively to calculate correlations between the presence of those goods and the interventions in which we are interested; (v) that we complement this intervention efficacy with non-intervention variables, i.e. if intervention X yields 5 goods and intervention Y 10 goods, but we can deliver 2.5 X at the price of 1 Y in circumstance Z, then in circumstance Z we should prioritise X intervention.

I'm sure that, firstly, you know this better and more comprehensively than I, and secondly, that this process itself is a highly ineffective (i.e. resource-consuming) means of proceeding with interpersonal comparisons unless massively scaled. That said, I don't see why it shouldn't be a schematic ideal against which to exercise our non-ideal judgements. Your heuristic might roughly help (iii), and in this respect might be very helpful at the stage of first-evaluations, but there is more exacting means, and four other stages, besides.

Comment by geuss on The Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism · 2014-10-24T00:35:56.505Z · EA · GW

Great to hear!

Comment by geuss on An epistemology for effective altruism? · 2014-09-24T22:18:44.061Z · EA · GW

The obvious gap here is the process formative of the pre-given question digested by this methodology, that obviously being the most consequential step. How are such questions arrived at and by whom? It seems difficult for such questions to completely transcend the prejudices of the group giving rise to them, ergo, value should be attributed to the particular steps taken in their formation.

I have a related concern about boundary problems between questions. If you artificially individuate questions do you arrive at an appropriate view of the whole? i.e. the affect of one question on another, and the value of goods which have a small but significant positive influence across questions. I'm thinking particularly of second-order goods whose realisation will almost certainly benefit any possible future; like collective wisdom, moral virtue, world peace, and so forth. These issues clearly aren't reducible to a single question about a particular type of career, or assimilable to an 'expert common sense'. Or do you reject wide-spectrum goods at first principle because of analytic intractability?

Comment by geuss on Effective altruism quotes · 2014-09-17T10:04:05.802Z · EA · GW

"Though he has made a swift ascent of the ivory tower, Bostrom didn’t always aspire to a life of the mind. ‘As a child, I hated school,’ he told me. ‘It bored me, and, because it was my only exposure to books and learning, I figured the world of ideas would be more of the same.’ Bostrom grew up in a small seaside town in southern Sweden. One summer’s day, at the age of 16, he ducked into the local library, hoping to beat the heat. As he wandered the stacks, an anthology of 19th century German philosophy caught his eye. Flipping through it, he was surprised to discover that the reading came easily to him. He glided through dense, difficult work by Nietzche and Schopenhauer, able to see, at a glimpse, the structure of arguments and the tensions between them. Bostrom was a natural. ‘It kind of opened up the floodgates for me, because it was so different than what I was doing in school,’ he told me.

But there was a downside to this epiphany; it left Bostrom feeling as though he’d wasted the first 15 years of his life. He decided to dedicate himself to a rigorous study programme to make up for lost time. At the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, he earned three undergraduate degrees, in philosophy, mathematics, and mathematical logic, in only two years. ‘For many years, I kind of threw myself at it with everything I had,’ he told me."

Ross Anderson's piece in Aeon on Bostrom (2013).

It reminds me of and inspires myself; I was politicised at a similar period, and always feel like I'm 'catching up'.

Comment by geuss on Effective altruism quotes · 2014-09-17T10:01:38.398Z · EA · GW

A contrasting note on the limits of instrumental rationality (which Adorno thought led to the holocaust):

"Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion."

Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Cummings trans.), p.7

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-17T00:32:02.192Z · EA · GW

In modern discourse, varieties of consequentialism and utilitarianism have family resemblance sufficient to warrant their interchange in utterance, in my opinion. If you think otherwise, and mark the relevant function of their distinction, I will observe it.

As for the substance of your point:

(i) in terms of its marginality, 23% (third out of four, one long dead) is appreciable but hardly impressive, given its absence from the neighbouring, larger field of political philosophy, to which I alluded (which, in the poll you cite, doesn't include utilitarianism as an option). Moreover, if you look at the normative books achieving most (top 15) citations in post-war Anglophone philosophy, utilitarianism is absent: Rawls' A Theory of Justice (26,768), Dworkin's Taking Rights Seriously (7,892), MacIntyre's After Virtue (6,579), Rawls' Political Liberalism (6,352), Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (6,246). The first possible utilitarian is all the way down at 30, at Parfit's Reasons and Persons, with just 2,972 citations (which no one would ever call utilitarian, and which is only very partially ethically concerned at that). That is to say, liberal egalitarianism (Rawls seconded by Dworkin) is completely dominant, with Aristotelianism (MacIntyre) and libertarianism (Nozick) trailing. Of course, most citations of MacIntyre probably affirm his positive argument of the failure of the Enlightenment project, and reject his substitute reversion to Aristotelianism. In that sense, it might even be a two-horse race (although, again, it's not really a race: liberal egalitarianism boasts over 40,000 citations between the three works above, libertarianism just 6,000). I should also add that the other lead works are not favourable to the whole enterprise of ethics: Wittgenstein, Rorty, Kuhn and so forth. If you allow the continent, Foucault and Sartre shoot to the top and below Rawls respectively, at the very least, I imagine (Beauvoir's The Second Sex probably ranks as well).


(ii) I agree that researching optimum means of bringing about ones preferred unit of consequence can well integrate with a wider plurality of values; my issue is internal to the movement however, as I have discussed above with some elaboration

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-17T00:06:48.410Z · EA · GW

[I rearranged this to put the last paragraph first, because it gives the most concise and direct attention to my point of concern]

Let me put the question of tactics, with simplification, this way: insofar as you admit that optimising units of consequences is a subset of the panoply of moral obligations one faces, two things appear true. (i) externally, an organisation claiming merely to evaluate the best means of increasing valuable units of consequence per donation appears unproblematic; it facilitates your meeting of part of your moral obligations; (ii) an organisation internally operating, across its management, personnel and dissemination, with the sole goal of maximising valuable units of consequence per available resource, excludes the full range of the human values you recognise. Note that something similar holds for the internal composition of the movement. That is to say, while the movement might outwardly facilitate value pluralism, internally in organisation and composition, it abides by an almost singular logic. That can be extremely alienating for someone who doesn't share that world-view, like myself.

I don't encounter it as sinister in the slightest. I feel respondents are running away with the possible allusions or intended implications of my post. The EA community is seething with a very particular and on the whole homogeneous identity, a caricature of which might be drawn thus: a rigorous concern with instrumental rationality, with conforming available techniques and resources with given ends; an associated, marked favouring of analytically tractable meads/ends; and an unsophisticated intuitionistic or simply assumed utilitarianism, augmented in a complementary naturalistic world-view.

There is a whole lot to value there, exemplified well enough in the movement's results. I do find two things alienating, however: the rationalization of the whole human experience, such that one is merely a teleological vessel to the satisfaction of the obvious and absolute good of benefits over costs (which for at least the few 'professional' members of the movement I have encountered, sits squarely alongside neoclassical economic orthodoxy); and the failure to ever talk about or admit human values other than the preferred unit of consequence.

I should stress immediately, contrary to the sentiment of your (generous) reply, these are largely experiences of individuals. I occasionally find that it contaminates analysis itself: such as in inter-generational comparisons (i.e. FHI's straight-faced contemplation of the value of totalitarianism in guarding against xrisk), or tactical questions of how to best disseminate EA (i.e. again, in caricature: 'say and do whatever most favourably brings about the desired reaction'). But for the most part, it does not make donor-relevant analysis problematic for me.

I want to say two things then: (i) that I find something problematic in an absolutising rationalization without great reflection; with being highly adept in means, without giving pause to properly consider ends. (ii) with the dominance this tendency has internal to the movement. (i) is a question of personal world-view adequacy, (ii) is one of organisational adequacy. Obviously I don't expect those affirming (i) or its cognates to agree, but I do think (ii) has significance regardless of whether one observes or rejects it. Namely, for the idea, suggested in this thread, that the movement can both present itself as only attempting to satisfy an important subset of possible moral values, while being internally monological. You might readily accept this, but it is consequential for the limits of the movement's membership at least.

*to repeat thrice for want to avoid misunderstanding and too heavy a flurry of down-votes, I readily admit that the study of maximising favoured consequences is of ecumenical interest, and is sufficient in itself to warrant its organisational study.

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-16T10:46:00.936Z · EA · GW

That sentence you quoted doesn't exhaust my normativity, but marks the extent of it which motivates my interest in EA. The word 'maximally' is very unclear here; I mean maximally internal to my giving, not throughout every minutia of my consciousness and actions.

The issue I wanted to raise was several-fold: that very many effective altruists take as obvious and unproblematic that utilitarianism does exhaust human value, which is reinforced by the fact that almost no one speaks to this point; that it seriously effects the evaluation of outcomes (i.e. the xrisk community, including if not especially Nick Bostrom, speak with a straight-face about totalitarianism as a condition of controlling nanotechnology and artificial intelligence); and the tactics for satisfying those outcomes.

In regard to the last point, in response to a user suggesting that we should reshape our identity, presentation and justification when speaking to conservatives, in order to effectively bring them to altruism, I posted:

"I find the this kind of rationalization - subordinating ones ethics to what can effectively motivate people to altruism - both profoundly conservative and, to some extent, undignified and inhuman, i.e. the utility slave coming full circle to enslave their own dictate of utility maximisation."

That kind of thinking, however, is extremely common.

In response to your second paragraph:

"It just seems obvious to me that, all other things equal, helping two people is better than helping one."

This simply begs the question: "helping" and "people" are heavily indeterminate concepts, the imputation of content to which is heavily consequential for the action-guidance that follows.

"If various moral theories favoured by academics don't reach that conclusion, then so much worse for them; if they do reach that conclusion, then all the better. And in the latter case, the precise formulations of the theories matter very little to me."

I find this perhaps culpable of wishful thinking; insofar as it would be nice if the natural structure of the world inhered an objective morality dovetailing with my historically specific intuitions and attitudes, that doesn't itself vindicate it as so. More often that not, the imposition of the latter on the former occurs. Something seeming obvious to oneself isn't premise for its truth.

If you follow the history of utilitarianism, it is a history of increasing dilution, from the moral naturalism of Bentham's conception of a unified human good psychologically motivating all human action, to Mill's pluralising of that good, to Sidgwick's wholesale rejection of naturalism and value commensurability, and argument that the only register of independent human valuation is mere intuition, to Moore's final reductio of the tradition in Principia Ethica ('morality consists in a non-natural good, whatever I feel it to be, but by the way, aesthetics and interpersonal enjoyment are far and away superior'). Suffice it to say that nearly all utilitarians are intuitionists today, which I honestly can't take seriously as an independent reason for action, and is a standard by which utilitarianism sowed its own death - any and all forms of utilitarianism entail serious counter-intuition. Hence the climb of Rawls and liberal egalitarianism to predominance in the academy; it simply better satisfies the historical values and ideology of the here and now.

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-16T10:16:46.123Z · EA · GW

I would, as I already have, readily admit that EA is of ecumenical moral interest. Its practitioners, however, are overwhelmingly of a singular stripe. I have certainly never heard it discussed, having followed and somewhat intermingled with the community for some time.

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-15T22:37:23.885Z · EA · GW

That Effective Altruists, implicitly if not explicitly, nearly always assume a single moral epistemology: some version of utilitarianism. It is only one of very many plausible registers of human value, whose prominence in the Anglophone academy has long waned post-Rawls (nevermind on the continent). I find the fact that this is a silent unanimity, tacit but never raised to the level of explicit discussion, doubly problematic.

I say this as someone who completely rejects utilitarianism, but recognises the obvious and ecumenical value in gauging high-utility giving opportunities and donating accordingly, i.e. as an analytic proxy for interpersonal comparisons, which can guide my (non-utilitarian) want to maximally remedy unnecessary human indigence.

Comment by geuss on Open Thread · 2014-09-15T22:16:26.346Z · EA · GW


Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:46:02.337Z · EA · GW

I find the this kind of rationalization - subordinating ones ethics to what can effectively motivate people to altruism - both profoundly conservative and, to some extent, undignified and inhuman, i.e. the utility slave coming full circle to enslave their own dictate of utility maximisation.

Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:39:43.197Z · EA · GW

I'm going to be honest, the target audience is privileged liberals for the most part, i.e. people with unexceptional centre to centre-left politics, with an enormous (relative to history and the world) amount of wealth, education and so forth, with a certain moralism about them. That composition is not flattering, being mostly white graduates or academics from the USA/UK, but is necessarily so for a world-view turning on giving away ones money and/or doing high-level research into how to give away ones money.

Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:34:07.878Z · EA · GW

I'm not sure it makes sense to invoke 'cosmopolitanism' in the singular, when it admits great internal diversity. Insofar as I can tell however, cosmpolitanism in the global justice literature is overwhelmingly predicated on either luck egalitarianism (that persons should not receive benefit or burden for things they cannot reasonably be held accountable for) and/or utilitarianism, neither of which allow any necessary moral distinction between friend and stranger.

Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:29:16.433Z · EA · GW

"I worry a bit that "cosmopolitan" is a term that has "elitist" connotations."

Why do you think that? (curious)

Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:27:23.065Z · EA · GW

"This argument doesn't work against more sophisticated forms of anti-cosmopolitanism, however."

I'm sorry but luck egalitarianism, the conception of moral responsibility implicit in your first paragraph, cannot be refuted; it's partly an uncontroversial empirical claim on the causal determinants of social agents, but largely a claim on intuition. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see how it could 'fail to work' in itself, absent you simply disagreeing with it at first principle (which is fine, obviously).

Comment by geuss on Cosmopolitanism · 2014-09-12T21:22:14.913Z · EA · GW

Just a few remarks. Firstly, Rawls (1971) exercised several (grossly) simplifying assumptions pursuant to a domestic conception of justice, necessarily including the omission of questions of international distribution and migratory rights. This is exactly what gave rise to his students thinking A Theory of Justice could be unproblematically extended to the global sphere, only to be disappointed when Rawls views formalised twenty-years later in The Law of Peoples. Secondly, in my exposure, the emergence of global justice as a dominant issue in Anglophone political philosophy since the 1990s is, like the rest of the field, constituted almost entirely by various stripes of liberal egalitarianism. Most of whom admit no intrinsic right of national cultures to closed memberships of bounded territories. They are nearly all luck egalitarians to start with. Thirdly and most importantly, the persuasion of philosophical literature, which yields just about zero policy effect, has no relation whatsoever to whether 'cosmopolitanism...[entails that] governments should give the interests of foreigners more weight in decisions that affect them'. In the terminology of the philosophical literature, and the definition given by the original poster, cosmopolitanism and ethical impartialism are one and the same.