A little background:  I have an above average commute to work and make use of the time by listening to public radio.  I have been doing this for just over a year without "doing my part" and contributing.  The primary justification of this has been that my commute path and times have me listening to three different public radio stations.  I never could decide which station to pledge; which needed it more, which I liked best, which had the least annoying pledge breaks.

The other day, during a pledge break, they played a promo by Ira Glass which went something like:

I'm going to say something that has never happened in a pledge break before.  We don't need your money. You do not have to call.  There is no evidence to back that up.  Every year we say you have to pledge and give your money or we will go away, but year after year, we are still here, even though you didn't pledge.

You should call because its the right thing to do.  You like public radio, enough to listen to a pledge break, so you should pledge, not because it is logical but because it is right...

This struck a note with me.  Perhaps because of my recent attention here at LW (does that count as focus bias?).  It brought two LW relevant questions to mind.

If pledging public radio is the right thing to do, but all of the evidence suggests I personally do not have to pledge, what rational algorithm achieves that outcome?  It is not like you can make a 'lives saved per dollar' figure for NPR, it is either there or not.  I guess in a really poorly funded station, one might be able to come up with a figure for minutes of programming per dollar.  Does doing the "right thing" simply produce a warm feeling?  Or is it more like I should pledge because everyone should pledge, similar to  "I should tell the truth so no one lies to me"?


Would pledging public radio make a good metric for the friendliness of an AI?  Obviously not an unchangeable line of code that says "pledge NPR", but an AI that decides becoming a member of KQED is a good thing to do.  I'm sure there are plenty of other situations that are similar like donating to open source software that you use or paying to park in the state forest parking lot instead of parking on the street and walking in for free.  It might seem silly, but an AI that chooses to become a member of the local public radio will probably also choose not killing everyone over some increase in another utility function.  

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Responding to title.

When what is rational is not what is "right"

Reminds me of something else:

The novice goes astray and says "My art failed me", the master goes astray and says "I failed my art"

In general, if you find that the "rational" thing is not "best" it is because you have missed some criteria, or you named the art and failed the twelfth virtue.

It is more like a very poorly worded version of the question, "What have I missed?", that manifested as me attempting to sound wise while in reality sounding foolish.

Like Emile, I am not sure how the funding through pledge system works. That said, let me break down a few scenarios:

  • If the radio is supported by contributions of its audience, and there are enough of them that your contribution would make a negligible difference to the existence and quality of it, we are in a standard Tragedy of the Commons situation, where you are better by defecting and not contributing regardless of what the others do, but you would prefer everyone to contribute rather than everyone not to (and the radio to disappear). TDT would say, I guess, that you should "cooperate" and donate if and only if you are similar enough to the rest of the audience that you can expect (most of) them to decide the same as you. (How many is most of them would depend on the details of how much you value money vs. the radio.)

  • If the radio is primarily funded through some other medium, like public funds or private advertisement, and even if all the audience decided together to donate or not to donate this would not make a big difference to the quality of the programming, then consequentalist morality coupled to any plausible decision theory would say not to donate. However, there might be non-consequentialist reasons to donate, such as affiliation with a cause you agree with, or a sense that justice requires paying for what you get.

This is something I'm confused by. Musicians perform on the street for donations. I enjoy this enough that if they played with magical instruments that I could only hear after making a donation. I would gladly pay. And if no one donated, the street musicians would not play. Therefore, by Kantian/timeless considerations, I should donate. But when I go into Kantian/timeless mode, it seems much more important to give that money to the Against Malaria Foundation. Should I donate to street musicians or not?

This is an instance of the more general question of whether I want to apply timeless reasoning to my selfish goals.

And if no one donated, the street musicians would not play. Therefore, by Kantian/timeless considerations, I should donate.

This doesn't follow. Other people do, in fact, pay street musicians. Their decision to do so is not at all related to your decision. They are not modelling your decision or executing any algorithm remotely like TDT.

Going "timeless" is orthogonal to arbitrarily being nice. TDT would not preclude making such donations but if a TDT agent did make them (in the circumstances described) it would be out of intrinsically valuing the altruistic act or some other additional nuance of it's utility function unrelated to the "it will make me get to hear music" term.

Should I donate to street musicians or not?

Perhaps. It comes out of your "warm fuzzies" budget.

Ah. Do you disagree generally with Gary Drescher's thesis that human morality is an approximation to timeless reasoning?

Ah. Do you disagree generally with Gary Drescher's thesis that human morality is an approximation to timeless reasoning?

Not as a decision theoretic prerogative. I do see certain parallels.

An interesting complication is if the radio is supported by large private donations. Then a non-wealthy listener might want to donate so that wealthy listeners would donate. Then the question is how much to donate. If wealthy donors behave like you, you could donate a fraction x of your income such that donations of x of wealthy donors' income would suffice to support the radio. If wealthy donors behave like you in deciding whether or not to donate, but behave differently from you when deciding how much to donate, you could adopt the policy of making a minimum donation in the hopes that wealthy donors will similarly make donations, and that enough of them will decide for their own reasons to donate substantially.

Do you think pledging public radio is the right thing to do for you/public radio listeners/everyone? I can't really tell. If any of those, can you explain what you mean by that without the word "right" or other closely related words?

I would define right in this instance as what is required by moral/ethical/etiquette standards. However what is rational is the correct thing to do (assuming we are all on the same page that the rational choice is the correct choice).

I am no less confused about your position than I was before.

I felt a certain level of guilt for not donating to public radio, which was alleviated by donating. The level of guilt is somewhere between what I imagine is the guilt for shoplifting and the guilt for not holding a door open for an elderly lady carrying a lot of packages.

Note that as a Frenchman I have no idea what you mean when you say "I have been doing this for just over a year without "doing my part" and contributing.", though from the following context I guess there's some system in your country (the states, right?) where public radio is supported by "pledges" and ... "calling"? (like, you pay on the phone?)

Sorry for the ethnocentricity of my post. In the US, most radio stations are private/corporate entities funded by advertising, public radio stations are usually not-for-profit and do not have ads. If you believe their numbers between 50 and 90% of the funding comes from "members", people who donate to the station (the fraction depends on the station). Several times a year they do a pledge drive. For a week or two, they interrupt the usual programming with 5-10 minute pledge breaks, when the radio staff tell you how much they need to raise and what gifts they will give you for donating. Traditionally they have multiple people waiting by phones to take callers who pay over the phone or arrange a monthly payment plan (pledging). Again if you believe their numbers, only 10% of listeners actually pony up and become members. Hope that clears it up.

Is listing to public radio really a better use of your time than listening to a podcast about an interesting topic?

As a non-American, the way I listen to American public radio is via podcasts. And the programmes that I listen to are, in general, about topics I find interesting.

The factory radio in my vehicle (which is almost as old as me) does not have the capacity to play a podcast and I do not own an mp3 player. Also, the public radio station plays programming which is produced by National Public Radio during my commute (I'm not listening to Wayne's World Radio or the like). This programming is, in my experience, fairly neutral news, which varies from super serious, important news to fascinating fluff pieces.
I find that when left to my own devices for news, I have something akin to confirmation bias, where I only pick news that is really important and interesting to me, which tends to be a fairly narrow picture of the world (mostly science and tech news). NPR's news tends to push my boundaries enough that I get a better picture of what is happening in the world. So if I were to download podcasts of NPR news programming, I would the be getting the same service also without paying. I guess I could contribute directly to NPR instead of local station (which in turn pays NPR for the programming) but if everyone did that, there would be not local stations, which would possibly mean less funding for NPR, which would negatively impact their programming, which I find valuable. It is really the same scenario on a bigger scale.