Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hosting an effective altruism discussion

(Edit: Xio points out that there's a more complete post about these resources on the EA forum.)

Recently a friend and I were talking about hosting effective altruism meetups in our respective cities. If you're considering hosting a gathering for people to discuss effective altruism, how do you get started?

First, find out who's already in your area. Here's a list of upcoming events, Giving What We Can chapters, and The Life You Can Save groups. There's also a map of individual EAsmaybe you'll find someone near you.

If you'd like to host a gathering, this document has some ideas from different people (including me). If you've ever hosted an EA meetup, please add your thoughts to this document.
How to host an effective altruism meetup

If you want to start a group at a university, Ben's writeups are especially well-done:
Thoughts on outreach
Student group notes

Jeff talks about how to start a discussion at work:
Effective altruism at your work

This is probably an especially good time of year to host a gathering, since so many people donate in December. GiveWell expects to publish their 2014 charity recommendations by December 1, so consider organizing an informal gathering a little after that. Maybe just sending out an email and staking out a table in your workplace's lunch room for those who want to discuss charity selection.

I've also found that a lot of good conversations happen one-on-one when someone says, "I'm passing through Boston! Want to meet up for coffee?" Take a look at the map of EAs, add yourself to it, and consider having a chat with people near you or near where you travel.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Aim high, even if you fall short

Let’s say I believe it would be good for my health to go running every day. But I quickly realize that I don’t want to run every day, and that realistically I’ll only run a few times a month. It’s embarrassing to think of myself as being inconsistent, so perhaps I decide that running isn't actually good for my health after all. In short, I come up with new beliefs to suit the action I was already planning to take.

It's obviously silly to come up with new "facts" for the sake of convenience. Is it any better to come up with new moral beliefs for the same reason?

Sometimes I hear people say, "It seems reasonable to believe that people on the other side of the world matter as much as anyone else. But if I believed that, I should be trying a lot harder to help them, and that would require drastic changes to my life. So that's why I don't believe we have the same responsibility to help everyone." This way their actions are consistent with their beliefs—or at least, their beliefs are consistent with their actions.

Let’s take the question, “Is it wrong for me to eat meat?” Upon hearing the question, I immediately translate it as, “Do I want to stop eating meat?” The answer to that is, “No, I want to keep eating it.” So it’s tempting to answer the first question as, “No, animals don’t really suffer, so it’s fine for me to eat meat.” Very tidy.

Inconsistency, in addition to feeling icky, opens you up to criticism. People love to catch vegetarians eating things they’re “not supposed to,” while catching an omnivore eating a turkey sandwich gives no such pleasure. People love to criticize Peter Singer because he wrote an essay saying we should give money to poor people rather than buying new clothes and cars for ourselves, and yet he personally doesn’t wear rags or live in a hovel. (People rarely talk about the fact that he would find it harder to work as a professor and would persuade fewer people if he wore rags.)

And yet people might accomplish more good if they were willing to set high goals and fail sometimes. Give yourself permission to go partway. I’ve often heard people say, “I couldn’t be vegetarian because I’d miss [particular food] too much.” I felt that way about ice cream. So I spent a summer eating vegan - except for ice cream. It was morally inconsistent, and it felt much less morally pure to say, "I'm eating vegan, except for ice cream," but it resulted in me eating far fewer animal products than I usually did.

And maybe if I'm honest about what I believe is right, someone else with more willpower or different life circumstances will be persuaded and go farther than I will. Certainly Peter Singer has persuaded many people that giving money is a good thing to do, even if he hasn't given away every last penny of his own.

In the end, it’s about what your goals are. Is your goal to be able to take pride in how consistent you are? To be irreproachable because your standards for yourself are low enough that you can easily meet them? Or is it more important to be honest about your moral beliefs and actually make some progress toward them, even if you don’t get everything done as well as you would like to?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Donating as a student

Today I was talking with some undergraduates, and the topic of how to manage donations while in school came up. When you're taking on student loans, it can seem like a bad time to be giving money away.

Reasons to donate now, even in small amounts:
  • It keeps you in the habit of giving. There will always be a reason to delay — student loans, a mortgage, a child. If you're ever going to donate, you might as well start now.
  • It keeps you in the loop. If you need to decide where to donate each year, you end up looking at the latest charity recommendations. And you're thinking about your values and how you want to go about picking a place (or places) to give.
  • It lets you talk to others about your choices. Better to be able to mention “this great charity that I support” than “this great charity that I’m going to support . . . eventually.”
Some more thoughts on the student years:
  • Invest in yourself. It's worth it to spend extra money or time if you will gain useful skills, experiences, and connections. (Not that this means spending years backpacking in Europe. I always think of Bill Cosby's sketch on finding yourself.)
  • Value your time, not just your money. Katja Grace writes a good post on Using Time Effectively as a Student.
  • This is a time in life when people and experiences are probably much more important to you than material things. After school, keep your needs small rather than ramping up your spending.
  • Keep good relationships with your family. It’s not worth fighting with your parents about small expenses in order to donate a little more.
  • You probably have some money you spend on clothes, entertainment, etc. Consider donating a portion of that. For example, the Giving What We Can pledge asks students and other people without their own income to donate 1% of their spending money.
  • Tweak your budget once a month, or once a semester, or once a year.  Experiment to find what works for you.
  • This is a great time to join or start a group on effective altruism. Organizing gets a lot harder after you don't have friends and classmates all living on campus together. See if there's a chapter of Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours near you. Or consider organizing something of your own, even if it's just talking with people over coffee.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When intuition isn't good enough

Recently I was at a talk given by Rachel Glennerster of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty
Action Lab (JPAL).  In speaking about cost-effectiveness, she gave examples from
several different education interventions in Africa:

1) merit scholarships for girls
2) free primary school uniforms
3) providing information to parents on how schooling increases income
4) deworming through primary schools

All the interventions sounded pretty good to me. I could see how all of them might increase the number of years children spend in school.

But JPAL compared randomized controlled trials of each intervention, and when they looked at the additional years of education you get for the cost, these are the results:

Source: JPAL
This isn't perfect information: the studies are from different countries, and as with any studies, there's some uncertainty. But it's a lot better than relying on guesswork.

In retrospect, it makes sense that parents would prioritize schooling if they know more about education's economic benefits to their children. But I can make up just-so stories for why any of these would be the most effective. You could have presented me with any of those interventions, told me it was a great method to get children more schooling, and I would have found it believable.

(In fact, the Madagascar study tested whether it works better to give parents statistics about children's expected earnings or to have "role models" speak to parents about how education benefited them. The role model intervention is more common, based on the theory that impoverished parents with poor literacy aren't able to understand statistics. But the study indicated that they are able to understand the information given, and that it actually works better than having role models speak to them.)

These studies go beyond asking "Does it work?" That's a good starting place  after all, some interventions don't work at all  but it's not enough. Everyone from small donors to government policymakers needs to know about cost-effectiveness. Unless we have infinite money, we need to know where our money will go the farthest so we can start there. If we have $100 to give, there's a big difference between buying school uniforms (which we expect to result in less than one year of additional education) and providing information to parents (which we expect to result in over twenty years of education!)

This is why research is important. I'm glad there are people out there like JPAL getting more information so we're not just guessing.  

You can hear Rachel Glennerster's talk and others from the Good Done Right conference here. Apologies for the occasional baby sounds in the background, which are my daughter.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The other mother

Years ago, I got in the habit of making financial decisions by considering someone I thought of as the Other Woman. Not a romantic rival, just a woman whose life is very different from mine. She's a mother somewhere in Africa, working hard to take care of her children. I think of how difficult it is for her family to get the basics: clean water, enough to eat, a decent dwelling, safety from disease, school fees.

I think of what that woman would want if she knew I was considering whether to spend the money on another pair of shoes or to give it to her. Maybe she would laugh at the absurdity of it, the excess of what I have compared to what she has. Maybe she would cry at the tragedy of it.  But I am almost certain she would want me to share some of my abundance so that her children could have the basics.

My first child will be born in a few weeks.  My life is about to change in a lot of ways.

People warned that parenthood would change me. Some of them said they would like to see me keep up my level of giving when it's my child screaming for sweets in the grocery store. Some of them indicated that it would be monstrous for me to even have children if I would potentially give money to help other people's children instead of spending it all on my own.

And of course parenthood will change me. The joys and fears will grip my heart like nothing else. My daughter will get more of my time, energy, and money than anyone else.  She will want for nothing that she actually needs.  But I reject the idea that I am responsible only to my child.  Not as long as the Other Woman has trouble buying food for hers.

Because I am a little closer to her now. That woman loves her child like I love mine.

New family, southern Somalia.  Photo credit: Trocaire / Foter / CC BY

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Too narrow?

I'm always interested to see what people criticize about the effective altruism movement. One critique I noticed lately is that we're too narrowly focused on a few interventions and instantly reject anything that doesn't have a GiveWell stamp of approval. There's some truth to that.

A related critique is, “If everyone focused so narrowly, virtually nothing would get done – no art, no civic projects, just mosquito nets all the time."

(The art thing is especially touchy. Every time someone from the effective altruist movement suggests that symphonies and museums might not be the best charitable causes, people freak out about how we hate the arts.  I'd like to invite them to see Robbie's photography, hear Ray's music, go to one of Catriona's Shakespeare productions, or talk architecture with Toby.)

While I'm thrilled to see more people interested in effectiveness, I don't see such a stampede to effective causes that I think we're about to fund all the best giving opportunities.  If that ever happens, I have no doubt that most effective altruist types will move on to whatever cause seems next best.  For example, smallpox was a huge problem well into the 20th century.  But now that vaccination has been so successful, people have moved on to other causes.

Aside from the fact that effective altruists will move on to next-best projects after the best ones are taken care of, I'm not concerned that a narrow focus will mean that all non-optimal causes get neglected. Even those of us who focus on finding effective causes don't spend all our time and money on them.  I spend my days as a mental health clinician for prisoners. I am about to start the (possibly even more emotionally intense) work of parenting.  I don't do those things because I think they're the most effective ways to improve the world – I do them because I want to, because I find them satisfying.  But at the end of the day, I want to give my earnings to the most effective organization I can find. And it annoys me when people categorize me as some kind of heartless utility-bot because of that.

If you're upset that effective altruist types don't seem concerned about some issue in your local community, the problem might not be that we're too narrow-minded.  In fact, one of us may well have a day job in that field, or have a special place in our heart for spending our Saturdays working against water pollution or homelessness or whatever.

But that's not the same as saying, "My pet cause is so important and has so much opportunity for change that everyone should drop what they're doing and work on this."  I have a special place in my heart for refugee services, and I've volunteered in that field for years.  But I don't think it's the best thing everyone should be doing, and I'm not saying it should get top billing as an effective cause.

Meanwhile, I think interventions like deworming, nutritional supplementation, and malaria prevention really do deserve top billing.  Some of my money and time will still go to other areas, but I will prioritize the causes that have been demonstrated most effective.

Sometimes it's good to narrow things down.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deciding where to give

I kept delaying writing this post because I'm not entirely sure where I'm donating over the coming year. I tend to spread donations out throughout the year, so I don't feel a particular rush in December. But, since the end of the tax year is a lot of people's giving season, I want to share my thoughts.

My previous favorite, the Against Malaria Foundation, is not looking so good lately due to problems distributing their mosquito nets. I'm not super concerned about this – I think it's likely that they'll get their act together in the next six months or so and resume distributing nets. But I don't plan to donate to them until that happens. (This is the kind of thing I'm really glad GiveWell is here to tell me about – as a donor, I would never have picked up on the problem.)

My parents usually make a donation as a Christmas present to me, and they asked where they should make it.  I asked them to give to Give Directly.  I think the just-give-cash method makes a lot of sense, given the evidence that recipients choose quite well what they need, and I hope this idea will catch on.  The organization itself seems quite transparent and sensibly run.  I also found it encouraging that so many GiveWell staff are making their personal donations there.

I can see advantages to donating later, especially given the fact that the Against Malaria Foundation (which looked like the strongest contender for a good while) may catch up again soon.  So I'll probably hold most of my donations for about six months and see how things look then.

If I were holding off longer, like years, I would probably put my donations in a donor-advised fund like GiveWell's or Giving What We Can's.

I also plan to donate some to organizations like GiveWell, Giving What We Can, or 80,000 Hours (I haven't decided on the breakdown yet).  I think this is an important time both for exposing more people to the idea of effective altruism and for developing better knowledge about where to give.  I need to look more specifically into what those organizations would do with more funding.

Lastly, I'll make some feel-good donations to causes that aren't the most effective (a fundraiser for a friend's business, my Quaker meeting, etc.) These donations come out of my personal spending budget, not my charity budget.

One obvious question is: why divide up money rather than giving all to one place? Giving What We Can makes some good points in their recent post about why to donate all to one charity.  But I'm also persuaded that we should act how we want other people to act, and I wouldn't want the whole effective altruist community to donate to only one place.  So I'm okay with dividing things up a bit.