35 Comments

From a utilititarian viewpoint it doesn't make that much sense to think about the "obligatory" level of donation (or doing good in general). You could say that there's an obligation to do the thing that maximises happiness. Or you could say that there's an obligation to not maximise suffering. Or you could draw the line anywhere in between those two extremes. But where the line for what's considered obligatory is just an arbitrary deccision and not a moral fact according to utilitarianism. It's looking at something which is clearly continous as binary.

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1) Nobody really knows the correct level of charitable giving to maximize "utility".

2) Charitable giving is likely subject to diminishing returns, like everything else.

3) The level and nature of charitable giving is you do is probably not going to be optimized, even if you try your best. This applies to EA people too.

4) It's probably easier and more efficient for society to have some rule of thumb that most people can follow as to their level of charitable giving. It reduces investment of each individual into figuring out what it should be, and it limits competitive social signaling spirals.

5) "Tithe 10% of your income to good works" has a really long tradition that appears to have worked for a long time. If you believe in diminishing returns of charity, 10% seems to pass the eyeball test to me as well.

7) The same logic above applies to most things, including immigration.

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I saw the debate and I found Singer's positions sort of arbitrary. I am sure he's done a lot of good, and I don't dislike the man, but I was kind of expecting more of a debate. It was a nice conversation more than a debate. Which was fun too.

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The whole thing is arbitrary. Who decided we should be altruistic?

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". . . . praise philanthropists as “heroes.”"

Perhaps this is a miss-perception on my part, but a philanthropist appears to be someone who is so wealthy that, after giving away large chunks of it, doesn't notice the loss, but is showered with public accolades. This isn't a hero.

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From a utilitarian point of view, a hero is not someone who is unusually selfless or self-sacrificing, but someone who does a lot of good.

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Thanks for the clarification. Perhaps 'hero' wasn't the best choice of word. In my mind, heroism isn't the same as benevolence.

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The point is that calling someone a hero is a low price to pay if it causes them to donate some of their billions to help people instead of not doing that.

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No, the point is that what actually makes someone admirable is how much of a net positive impact on the world they have.

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Calling them heroes devalues the word and insults the true heroes of the world. If they need their egos stroked in order to donate money, perhaps we could give them shiny little statues in a televised award show instead. Perhaps the award could be tied to outcomes rather than inputs. . .

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I think there are now a decent number of EAs who are middle class ish and give away a large fraction of their income to charity. That isn't crippling but is definitely noticeable.

I think the point is that you can say one of the following

1) What these people are doing is not good or bad

2) What they are doing is good, and therefore people who are not doing it are bad.

3) What they are doing is good, but it is not necessary for someone to do as much as they are doing to be considered a good person. So they're going above and beyond, i.e. being heroic.

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It's hard to pin down what a hero is or what's heroic.

There is some correlation with doing good, but we sometimes call people who accomplish bad ends "heroic". Perhaps they fought bravely on the "bad" side of a war. If they did things that were brave and above the call of duty that won them honors, those actions would still be considered heroic in at least some sense.

I think most effective altruists have bad instincts and that the things they are doing will lead to bad outcomes, but I would still consider giving up half your income for something you consider a good cause a heroic action. Even the misguided can be heroic.

I do feel we have a moral duty to figure out whether we are doing good, and that people who are really good at figuring out how to do good are heroic in a certain way.

However, it feels wrong to hinge heroism entirely on whether or not the utilitarian ends of an individuals actions in a complex system they have little control over or complete knowledge of turned out good.

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Re: the hero question, as a psychologist, I find it hard to praise those who can make sacrifices without too much effort. Bryan mentioned he is not materialistic so giving away more money to EA charities causes less pain than it would for someone who likes material things. The same is true for many who can successfully reduce/eliminate animal product consumption--some just dislike meat/dairy, and others enjoy being nonconformist and sowing chaos at family dinners. I read Singer's Practical Ethics and was only able to sustain veganism for 3 months (and this was in the rather supportive environment of Boulder, CO). Am I am moral failure or is there more for me to overcome than the average vegan faces? Singer did not hide his distain for materialist people, so no doubt it's not hard for him to resist spending money on frivolous things. On another note, I'm also curious about how many EAs would do something like make a significant personal sacrifice without telling anyone? No doubt part of the appeal is being in the club of people who are extremely rational about their charity, and signaling this rationality + resources to give is important. But ultimately if what matters is doing the most good, then who cares. Skip the moral judgment and self-loathing and do what you can, and encourage others to as well.

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Thanks, Bryan. I've read older Singer papers and interviews a few years ago, and didn't like his philosophy (even if his heart may have been in the right place). But your post will make me revisit him now.

Regardless if he has shifted from a more left(ist) position to center-left, I'd imagine his profound influence on all the nonprofits, left-leaning development economists, UN/World Bank/IMF, University "intellectuals", etc... are still based on the old-Singer and that influence will be quite an uphill battle to shift

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I think you way overestimate Singer’s influence. His godchild movement of effective altruism only developed many decades after his writings. And it’s a controversial movement in the nonprofit space because nonprofits don’t like being told they could be doing more effective things.

I’m also not aware of what Singer’s influence on the UN/IMF/World Bank are, if any.

Singer’s also detested by many on the left because of his views on capitalism and euthanasia.

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I’m willing to grant quantifying his influence is challenging, so your point could be correct.

I’ve heard/read Melinda Gates and other billionaire/ charities quote his works to justify what they advocate for, but I guess it’s also possible they had those bad ideas to begin with and then cherry-pick Singer’s views.

And while many on the left and nonprofits may detest him because of his favorable views on capitalism (which I’m not fully convinced that is the case), most of the left and nonprofits would acknowledge (at least Privately) that they need capitalism to achieve their goals... “a necessary evil...”. But like the above point, his other views would trump these disagreements.

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Peter Singer has done more to make the world a better place than any other academic alive today. Even offsets the bad of any handful of white males pining for the days they ruled unquestioned.

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Sep 24, 2022·edited Sep 24, 2022

10% makes sense as a general discipline - a minimal guideline that can be adopted across social classes, without undue hardship (at least in a rich country) or invidious comparisons. (A much higher standard level might give rise to that, as evinced by the unpleasantness at the end of a restaurant meal in the US: the upper-middle class person who leaves 20% will berate as "cheap" the person who left 15%-18%; the latter person is more likely to have read the menu from right to left (i.e. did not get what they really wanted because they are on a budget), be from a different part of the country, etc. A small consideration perhaps, but one that can affect how the movement is perceived.) One can simultaneously make that the guideline while aiming oneself for 20%, or believing that one should leave as much as one can. Or as much as one can while allowing oneself to buy a flat or house appropriate to one's use, say, as one will then not be forced to pay a large part of one's income to landlords, and can leave the house to charity upon one's death. But then the 10% guideline is really necessary, as otherwise people could easily lie to themselves: "I'll give 0% so that I can buy a house sooner, or because I really need a balcony, etc." - and then, once that is done, something else is sure to come up.

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What do you think of the case for buying tabloid newspapers to stop them putting out scare stories any immigration? Or maybe a relentless focus on reducing bad news stories rather than reducing immigration.

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Sep 22, 2022·edited Sep 22, 2022

I don't think he abandoned his view at all. He's being strategic. He knows most people would not find the extreme conclusion appealing. This is similar for a lot of his other arguments (summarized in Practical Ethics). Some of the implications of utilitarian reasoning are pretty strange and unpalatable, at least at first blush. I believe he's admitted to not living up to his own standard but aspires to. He's a remarkable man!

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> I believe he's admitted to not living up to his own standard but aspires to.

This seems like damning with faint praise. After all, what is a hypocrite besides someone who doesn't live up to his own standard. I think the error is in your choice of word, maybe Singer's. I suggest that what Singer fails to meet is an aspiration rather than a standard. Unfortunately for his view, utilitarianism really is about standards and obligations moreso than aspirations.

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Probably it's my poor choice of words, not Singer's ;) But my main point is I am skeptical that his standards have changed. He knows psychology and that you can't tell people they are obligated to give up much of their income, become vegan, etc. and expect most people not to recoil. He is trying to appeal to a broader audience than the typical EA personality. I volunteered for one of his EA charities devoted to promoting veganism and the goal was not to make maximally rational appeals but to analyze the data and understand what appeals work.

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Bryan writes: "you get better utilitarian results by misstating the implications of utilitarianism," as though 'utilitarianism' per se has implications. That presupposition is flat-out wrong.

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What? Of course utilitarianism has implications, e.g. that decreasing net well being is not morally good.

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;-) That no doubt is the implication that Bryan nails Singer on for trying to elide.

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Sure, and I'm in agreement with Bryan. It's just that your comment made it sound as if utilitarianism has no implications whatsoever

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I had thought you ironic. Saying that utilitarianism implies that a decrease in net well being is not morally good is like saying that utilitarianism implies utilitarianism. Does A imply A?

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Sep 23, 2022·edited Sep 23, 2022

Ok, so what you mean't was "utilitarianism has no implications which aren't in some way deducible from the content of the theory"? If so, then this is self-evidently true, but completely uninteresting - how can ANY moral theory have an implication which cannot be deduced from the content of the moral theory? That seems logically impossible.

Whether utilitarianism has the implication Bryan says it does is debatable - a straightforward argument for it would be:

P1) All our acts ought to be moral (this follows straightforwardly if we accept the majority view which says that morality trumps all other considerations)

P2) An act is moral if and only if it maximises well being (we're assuming utilitarianism for the sake of discussion)

P3) Only donating 10% of our income doesn't maximise well being (this seems self-evident to me, hard to believe you don't grant this)

C) Therefore, we ought not only donate 10% of our income

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Utilitarianism per se does not imply (P3).

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