During a recent discussion with komponisto about why my fellow LWers are so interested in the Amanda Knox case, his answers made me realize that I had been asking the wrong question. After all, feeling interest or even outrage after seeing a possible case of injustice seems quite natural, so perhaps a better question to ask is why am I so uninterested in the case.

Reflecting upon that, it appears that I've been doing something like Eliezer's "Shut Up and Multiply", except in reverse. Both of us noticed the obvious craziness of scope insensitivity and tried to make our emotions work more rationally. But whereas he decided to multiply his concern for individuals human beings by the population size to an enormous concern for humanity as a whole, I did the opposite. I noticed that my concern for humanity is limited, and therefore decided that it's crazy to care much about random individuals that I happen to come across. (Although I probably haven't consciously thought about it in this way until now.)

The weird thing is that both of these emotional self-modification strategies seem to have worked, at least to a great extent. Eliezer has devoted his life to improving the lot of humanity, and I've managed to pass up news and discussions about Amanda Knox without a second thought. It can't be the case that both of these ways to change how our emotions work are the right thing to do, but the apparent symmetry between them seems hard to break.

What ethical principles can we use to decide between "Shut Up and Multiply" and "Shut Up and Divide"? Why should we derive our values from our native emotional responses to seeing individual suffering, and not from the equally human paucity of response at seeing large portions of humanity suffer in aggregate? Or should we just keep our scope insensitivity, like our boredom?

And an interesting meta-question arises here as well: how much of what we think our values are, is actually the result of not thinking things through, and not realizing the implications and symmetries that exist? And if many of our values are just the result of cognitive errors or limitations, have we lived with them long enough that they've become an essential part of us?

New Comment
276 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

how much of what we think our values are, is actually the result of not thinking things through, and not realizing the implications and symmetries that exist?

A very, very large portion.

When I was a child, I read a tract published by Inter-Varsity Press called "The salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer". It's a story about a Christian who tries to actually live according to Christian virtues. Eventually, he concludes that he can't; in a world in which so many people are starving and suffering, he can't justify spending even the bare minimum food and money on himself that would be necessary to keep him alive.

It troubled me for years, even after I gave up religion. It's stressful living in America when you realize that every time you get your hair cut, or go to a movie, or drink a Starbucks latte, you're killing someone. (It's even more stressful now that I can actually afford to do these things regularly.)

You can rationalize that allowing yourself little luxuries will enable you to do enough more good to make up for the lives you could have saved. (Unlikely; the best you can do is buy yourself "offsets"; but you'd usually save more lives with more self-denial... (read more)


It's not actually that hard to make a commitment to give away a large fraction of your income. I've done it, my wife has done it, several of my friends have done it etc. Even for yourself, the benefits of peace of mind and lack of cognitive dissonance will be worth the price, and by my calculations you can make the benefits for others at least 10,000 times as big as the costs for yourself. The trick is to do some big thinking and decision making about how to live very rarely (say once a year) then limit your salary through regular giving. That way you don't have to agonise at the hairdresser's etc, you just live within your reduced means. Check out my site on this, http://www.givingwhatwecan.org -- if you haven't already.

Toby, ignoring donations to SIAI and possibly FHI I'm still very skeptical of your claims. GiveWell have done analysis strongly indicating that the cheapest lives to save actually cost between $1K and $2K, but one would have to search for a long time to find them GiveWell and much longer to do GiveWell's analysis yourself. Evaluating GiveWell is intermediate and most people lack the cognitive abilities to do that. Furthermore, the lives in question are fairly low value compared to our own lives. I don't have any qualms in saying that if purely selfish I'd unhesitatingly play 5 full chamber Russian Roulette rather than being economically, physically, and mentally reduced to the conditions of a typical Tuberculosis victim regardless of what happiness researchers may say about them. Note that I have lived in the 3rd world and have known such people so it's not just distance that makes me say that. I have some feel for the odds against snake eyes and with more hesitation I'd go for that too. In any event I have more feel for that then I do for what giving up essentially all my human capital would mean from the inside. Anyway, based on the numbers I just gave, saving a quality of life comparable to my own would cost more like $50K. Would I spend $50K to save my life? Hell yes. To avoid a 1% chance of death? Maybe. Lets try that again like a behavioral economist. To reduce my chance of death in the next 10 years by half? Not so sure. I'm a 31 year old male so ignoring other considerations that would constitute a 1% risk of death. http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/STATS/table4c6.html Other considerations probably halve it already so make it 15 years and it's still borderline. Though inclined to consider it somewhat for altruistic reasons, I don't pay for cryonics, which is pretty much pure selfish survival along the above lines and which would be considerably cheaper. This leads me to conclude that I would have to be over 1% altruistic to spend on third world aid, not .01% as you
Toby, I am curious: How many children do you have or plan to have? Couldn't one argue that the expense of having a child in the West is like buying 100,000 Starbuck's lattes?

I was pondering that article about Zachary Baumkletterer again.

Summary: Zachary Baumkletterer is that guy who had so much empathy for the starving people in the world and felt so guilty about being so much more fortunate than them, that he voluntarily lowered himself to their standard of living, and donated the rest of his income and posessions to charity (which charity? that's critically important!) Unfortunately, that meant that he was starving himself to death.

One way to resolve this situation would have been for Zachary's boss to give him a budget specifically for food, explaining that he must use all of it on food, and must not give any of it away, etc. This budget qualifies as a business expense, since it directly affects Zachary's productivity. Or if the boss really can't afford to give him any raise at all, then he could allocate part of Zachary's current salary for a food budget.

Another option would have been for his boss to threaten to fire him if he refuses to eat enough to stay healthy and productive.

Another option would be for the people who know Zach to invite him to talk and eat with them. He would have had a hard time refusing an opportunity to talk with other ... (read more)

I know I'm 5 years late on this but on the offchance someone sees this, I just want to mention I found Yvain's/Scott Alexander's essay on the subject incredibly useful*. The tl;dr: Use universalizability for your actions moreso than direct utilitarianism. His suggestion is 10% for various reasons, mainly being a round number that's easy to coordinate around and have people give that exact number. Once you've done that, the problems that would be solved by everyone donating 10% of their income to efficient charities are the responsibility of other people who are donating less than that amount (I'd also suggest trying to spread the message as much as possible, as I'm doing here). Of course it'd be better to donate more of your income. I would say that if feeling bad about donating 10% causes you to donate more, then... donate more. If it just causes you to feel like you'll never be good enough so you don't even try, it's useless and you'd do more good by considering yourself completely absolved. 10% is also incredibly useful for convincing people who aren't already convinced of unlimited utilitarian duty to donate to efficient charity. *http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/19/nobody-is-perfect-everything-is-commensurable/

Nick Tarleton said it well, but to try it another way: Depending on how you phrase things, both to yourself and others, the situation can appear to be as bleak as you describe it, or alternatively rather good indeed. If you were to phrase it as being stuck with a brain built for chasing deer across the savanna and caring about the few dozen members of your tribe, being able to try to gain money (because it's the most effective means to whatever your ends) and investing some appreciable fraction of it in the cause with highest expected future payoff, despite being abstract or far in the future, starts to sound fairly impressive -- especially given what most people spend their time and money on.

If Starbucks lattes (or more obviously living above the subsistence level) makes it more likely for me to maintain my strategy of earning money to try to protect the things I value, my indulgences are very plausibly worth keeping. Yes, if I had another psychology I could skip that and help much more, but I don't, so I likely can't. What I can do short-term is to see what seems to happen on the margin. Can I sustain donating 1% more? Can I get by without a fancy car? House? Phone? Conversely, does eating out regularly boost my motivations enough to be worth it? Aim for the best outcome, given the state of the board you're playing on.

That gives you an incentive to not try to change your psychology, or even see if it's possible to change. If seeing your psychology as immutable gives you a reason to get what you want, you'll be biased against seeing it any other way. It's perfectly fine to choose Starbucks lattes over strangers' lives, lest we end up like Zachary Baumkletterer, but let's at least be honest about our preferences.

But ultimately, the only way I find to cope is not caring.

It's important to distinguish between emotions and decision theory. You can (try to) be perfectly altruistic in calculated decisions, while not caring on an emotional level. Better, you can care in more positive ways: feel good when you help, but don't feel guilty for not helping, or feel painfully strong empathy for the suffering, except to the extent that doing so actually motivates you sustainably. You aren't obligated to feel any emotion that doesn't win.

You aren't obligated to feel any emotion that doesn't win.

There is a flipside to this that I would like to point out: you're allowed to feel any emotion that does help you to win.

7Wei Dai
But it's really hard to tell which emotions one should or shouldn't feel in order to win, and part of the problem is that feeling emotions can cause our consciously held values to change, in a way that we don't fully understand and can't accurately predict. Perhaps this is why some people seek out clear moral principles, so that they can commit to them and thus stop their values from drifting uncontrollably.

Keep in mind you evolved to be vicious, selfish and short sighted. You may as well feel guilty for not figuring out Friendly AI yet, and ignore the fact that we weren't designed to be good at math.

You can lament part of what you are and try to change it or minimize the negative effects, but much of the 'blame' is on evolution.

I just put $2 in a vending machine, we can't even optimize selfish goals very well.

Well put.
I disagree. I don't know about you, but my morale is very highly related to my productivity. The fact that I'm working to save lives actually causes me to engage in less self-denial: I reason that if I have the opportunity to waste 30 minutes of someone else's time in exchange for 5 more minutes for myself, I should take the opportunity because it results in the most expected lives saved. (Keeping in mind Eliezer's point about holding doors open for little old ladies, of course. If doing what I just described violated some clear societal convention, I wouldn't do it because I would be stressed out and unable to think clearly afterwards.) I'd say you should definitely get at least semi-regular haircuts, because how you look strongly affects what people think of you, and what people think of you strongly affects your morale. Buying coffee from Starbucks is probably a better idea than brewing it yourself. Coffee might actually be a detriment to your productivity, but you won't be effective trying to change everything about your life at once, so only work on it if it's one of the most effective and practical changes to your life you can think of. Going to the movies is probably a bad idea, although watching movies that you've downloaded from the internet when you don't seem to be able to get any work done is a good one. Doing things with friends that are more socially intensive than movie-watching is a good idea, especially if you can talk to them about the stuff you're working on.
I'm working on a top-level post about a failed viral meme of mine that would have raised one billion for charity. I couldn't take it viral on my own due to some mistakes in design but think it could work with some help from the Less Wrong community and some tweaks for virality. If it works it would completely absolve every member of Less Wrong of empathic self-loathing for a long time.

:) Sorry.

In 2006, Craigslist's CEO Jim Buckmaster said that if enough users told them to "raise revenue and plow it into charity" that they would consider doing it. (source: http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=4082 ) They really do listen to their users and the reason there is no advertising on Craigslist is that no one is asking for it.

A single banner ad on Craigslist would raise at least one billion for charity over five years. They could put a large "X" next to the ad, allowing you to permanently close it. There seems to be little objection to this idea. The optional banner is harmless, and a billion dollars could be enough to dramatically improve the lives of millions, save very real people from lifetimes of torture or slavery, or make a serious impact in the causes we take seriously around here. As a moral calculus, the decision is a no brainer. So we just need a critical mass of Craigslist users telling Jim that we need a banner ad on Craigslist. Per a somewhat recent email to Craig, they are still receptive to this idea if the users suggest it.

The numbers involved are a little insane. Fifty thousand people should count as critical mass, which means each person could effectively cause $20,000 to be generated out of nowhere and donated to charity. My mistake last time was doing it as a Facebook group rather than a Facebook fan page, where the more useful viral functions have moved. This time I would also drop the money on advertising to get an easy initial critical mass.

Initially voted down because I was sure it was going to be stupid, but this is the first crazy idea I've ever heard for generating a billion dollars out of nothing that could actually work. I mean, ever. You win some kind of award.

That's actually a significant problem to overcome with the virality here -- the idea is complicated enough that it needs a solid paragraph or two to be explained, whereas for max virality it needs to be snappy enough to fit in 200 characters or so. "Join this group to raise $20,000 for charity!" is normally a nearly ideal viral meme and in this case is true, but since 99.99% of things like this are fake people are annoyed by meme copy that is obviously not true, even though it is actually true. What I'm leaning towards now is something about "togetherness", how together we can make a difference or something. I am very open to suggestions on this point.

"Craigslist users matter. 100 million lives could be saved by a billion dollars. That's ONE banner ad on CL for five years - for charity. Craig'll do it if we ask for it. We just need to ask."

194 characters.

Hotlink the word ask to a page with a larger pitch that's one more click away from the place they need to type. The $20k per person thing goes in the larger pitch.

I think the people doing it would have to actually be regular CL people. Maybe see about checking first with CL forums in big metro areas... make a meetup out of it maybe? I don't personally think its money "out of nothing" though. Even if people don't feel the "epistemic pain" I suspect ads do impose a dust speck style cost on their viewers.

But those numbers are grossly wrong. $10 per life saved isn't true of any easy-to-explain method.

I agree. I'm not even sure if there are hard-to-explain methods for that price. If you were really going to do it you'd want to figure out a lot more about the details (like where to direct the money to maximize the goodness of the outcome in a way that was intelligible to people, and whether ads of the sort proposed could really generate the predicted amount). But the numbers you ended up with could be plugged into the text without changing the emotional impact. The pitch is aimed at people's sense of "making a difference" and "belonging to a community" and "being heard" and so on, not at their excitement for dollar-efficient charity. The stated problem was the difficulty of pressing the right buttons in a compact and readable way that would (hopefully) get viral traction. The numbers just have to be enough to feel like they matter for the text to be sufficient. The emotional impact of "Half a million..." versus "100 million" is probably not large, even if the real world impact is 200 times less. This is (if I understand correctly) the whole point of the "shut up and multiply" slogan in this community - recognition of our lack of cognitive sensitivity to numerical differences. But that is part of what I meant about the fact that its really not money "out of nothing". Watching a single ad costs you something. Equally, a trillion ad impressions is a lot of cost to impose on people's minds. At some point, the damage to CL and the world might really be worse than the number of lives saved. It's not clear to me that the relative impacts could even be worked out in advance... if ads were put up according to the whims of the passionate few, the money ended up in dumb places, there was a backlash and CL's functioning as an institution people can trust was damaged, and the world economy had X amount of value destroyed thereby, then the whole thing might be a net negative. The damage to CL's reputation with people who didn't understand why the ads had suddenly appeared
Asteroid defence, for one: http://jgmatheny.org/matheny_extinction_risk.htm
Anna Salamon gives an estimate for lives the SIAI can save per dollar in this talk: http://vimeo.com/7397629
That is a good 194 characters. As for "regular Craigslist people", the people who post on the forums are not regular Craigslist people. Maybe some of the local forums are representative Craigslist users, but the Craigslist meta-discussion forum where this would be on-topic has particularly hardcore users. I expect the regular posters in the Craigslist feedback forum to respond negatively to this because they do not like change. I can't know until I ask, but I think we want to build some momentum separately before making the case to the people who populate the Craigslist feedback forum. Most people are Craigslist users. I've certainly used it and I expect >50% of people here have used Craigslist at least once. I guess my point is that whatever people we get to do this will effectively count as regular CL people. Craigslist is a public service that is supposed to belong to everyone, right? I do think that converting hardcore Craigslist users to our cause is a good target, as they will have more influence and will be willing to work harder.
This is probably my fault for not looking at the right reference class again, but most people don't have Internet access. stats (though most North Americans and (by a tiny margin) Europeans do)
Yeah, reference class thing, I meant most North American internet users have used and are aware of Craigslist. Even someone who doesn't use it regularly, but is aware of Craigslist's existence and when it is useful counts as a user, imo.
* "Help Craigslist donate a BILLION dollars to charity!" * "Support Craigslist in donating a BILLION dollars to charity!" * "Convince Craigslist to donate a BILLION dollars to charity!" In order of increasing truthiness and decreasing pizazz.
Using the word BILLION in all the marketing without good evidence that's what's at stake seems dubious.
Sure, that's advertising though. The vast majority of people on facebook wouldn't be put off by such a title, even after reading the full description and learning that the words "a BILLION" should have actually read "potentially a billion". Regardless, you can replace "BILLION" with any non-specific alternative. "Convince Craigslist to donate a ton of money to charity!"
I actually think there could be a decent angle in promoting your group like similar groups with some simpleminded emphasis that your group is different, e.g. "How to ACTUALLY raise money for charity with just a few clicks" or some improved variant of that. I know I would be curious enough to click.
Not unless you agree with the charity in question. Say some people request a pro-life charity, and some people request a pro-choice charity; some people want to donate to African aid agencies, and some people want to oppose African aid agencies because they think they're harmful. Depending on the charity chosen, many people would want to oppose this decision.

Using meta-charities like GiveWell might help make the choice of charity less controversial.

Indeed, there are huge differences between how much good the best charities accomplish and how much good the middle of the road charities accomplish. I am not sure why this was downvoted.
That's true, I suppose, but it shouldn't be hard to make sure that a sizable minority of the funds are doing real good in the world. I'm very open to ideas as to how to optimally have a community distribute the money, but that seems like a problem that we can solve when we get there. I also expect that Craig and Jim themselves would have strong opinions about the charities involved. I'm going to put a top level post up shortly; we can move all discussion there.
I'd make a top level post on this right now if it wouldn't steal your karma.
As a rationalist, when you see a strange number like this, you have to ask yourself: Did I really just discover a way to make lots of money very efficiently? Or could it be that there was a mistake in my arithmetic somewhere? That one billion dollars is not being generated out of nowhere. It is being generated as payment for ad clicks. Let's check your assumptions: How much money will the average user generate from banner ad clicks in five years? How many users does Craigslist have? What fraction of those users would have to request banner ads, for Craigslist to add them? My completely uneducated guess is 100$, ten million, and 50%. This matches your "generate one billion dollars" number but suggests that critical mass would be five million rather than fifty thousand. Note, also, that Facebook users are not necessarily Craigslist users. I would be interested to hear what numbers you are using. Mine could easily be wrong.
That's amazing if true. It's consistent with the background I've heard on Craigslist though.
Jim Buckmaster has what is by far my favorite CEO biography. http://www.craigslist.org/about/jim_buckmaster
What's the best charity (in utilitarian terms) that might get 50,000 supporters? ISTM that starting a Facebook group is a good way to find 50,000 to request Craig's list ads.
I think I have a good answer for this, but I'm going to be trying to figure out a better one. By now I know the people running most of the rational philanthropy orgs.
Maybe something against nuclear proliferation? Even then, that cause does not seem to inspire people deeply anymore. I had planned on letting the users themselves pick where the money goes, something like proportional voting charity distribution. Basically, if we lead this, I think we'd have enough control and influence that we could convince users to vote for the money to go to our pet causes, even if the majority is going to mainstream causes. There might be enough work involved in community management that it made sense to hire a full time employee to organize the charitable distributions -- if someone from the community took that job, it would again give our causes more influence. Twitter will also be a useful tool. Craig obsessively checks his Twitter and replies to most messages, so once we get what we feel to be a useful mass we can start aggressively tweeting at Craig. But to me, it seems logical to get the users organized on Facebook before moving on to Twitter, as I don't want to blow annoying Craig on Twitter by annoying him just enough to ignore us, but not enough to do what we say.
So you're defining 'nice' as what is inside, while he is defining it as what you do. Personally I like it better that way as lots of people who claim to be nice if only you got to know them are needy jerks.
I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was impossible to be a good man and a philosopher. If you believe you are obligated to help others, you will instinctively come up with justifications why helping others means doing what you wanted to anyway, instead of selling off all your earthly possessions to feed the starving. If you seek to believe the truth above all else, you can't allow yourself any reason to want to deceive yourself, to regret knowing the truth. Altruism creates these regrets in spades. A true seeker of truth must rid himself of altruism. Of course, this does not apply if, like Eliezer, you only seek truth in the service of your altruism. It would do Eliezer no good to toss aside his altruism in search of the truth. However, this is his weakness as a rationalist. You can only maximize one variable, and if you're maximizing altruism, you're not maximizing truth.

If you believe you are obligated to help others, you will instinctively come up with justifications why helping others means doing what you wanted to anyway, instead of selling off all your earthly possessions to feed the starving.

Of course, you can mitigate this by, y'know, actually trying.

You can only maximize one variable, and if you're maximizing altruism, you're not maximizing truth.

This is only necessarily the case if you're on the Pareto frontier, which no human is. There are reasons to think that there are sometimes better ways to optimize X than trying to optimize X. (I agree that an altruist and a truthseeker would and (by their preferences) should do different things, but it's not as simple as you make it sound.)

Me too. I hear of a tragedy, and I think, "So what? People die every day."
Caring should be different than being surprised that it happened. If I stole $1 from you everyday I suspect you would still care every time I did it. The reason I say this is because "So what?" applies to both surprise and caring. If I tell you the sun rose today you could reply, "So what?" You don't care, but in a surprised sense of the word, not in an sympathetic sense of the word. Likewise, if you don't feel sympathetic by someone dying it is more likely because you don't have any emotional investment in them. If your best friend died you wouldn't respond by saying, "So what? People die every day." In other words, you don't care because (a) it isn't a surprise and (b) you aren't emotionally invested in the tragedy.
I don't think so. Most people in the US pay more than $400/yr in taxes which support things they claim to despise (though not all the same things, of course). Yet the vast majority of Americans do not seem to be upset about paying taxes, something which they typically have no choice in except not to make the money. Once you've been stealing money for a while, it's relatively easy to convince people that it's okay "because it's always been this way".
Indeed. Milton Friedman regretted his part in inventing income tax withholding, for this reason.
Awesome. Where do you live?
I sometimes try to imagine simple relevant situations such as being presented with two buttons: Blue button: kill the man Red button: save the man I often find myself being able to choose very quickly, without being required to feel any excessive emotion about the matter. This way I know if I care for things, even though I might just feel like "So what?"
I had a whole grid of these at one point. They got pretty interesting after a while, but I never typed it all up and condensed it into anything useful. A fun one: Is someone morally responsible for accidently pushing a button that will kill a crowd of people but then choosing not to stop it before it happens?
4Paul Crowley
I'll try and find the sources I was linked to when I asked my friends about this, but the conclusion was that saving a life costs much more than I had thought: it's around $500 per life. Of course the utility of SingInst donations weren't factored into that, I shan't speculate on the per-life cost of donations there... EDIT: it was indeed GiveWell - thanks gregconen!
Givewell pegs VillageReach at $545 (Look under "what you get for your dollar"). That charities own numbers put it at $200. So it's not quite one per latte, but most people could save a few.
Can you explain more about what you mean by this, exactly? If I'm killing several people a day, I'd really like to know about it.
By spending that money on yourself, instead of sending it to buy bags of rice for a famine-stricken region, or mosquito nets for malaria-ridden countries, or tin wood stoves, or water pumps, or water filters, or transparent plastic bottles, or latrines, or condoms, or any of the various simple and inexpensive supplies or devices that aid agencies are distributing around the world. There are a lot of aid agencies that waste money; but there are some that don't. I don't know how much money it takes nowadays to save a life; the value keeps changing, and different studies biased in different ways conclude different things. But it's certainly less than what I spend each month on coffee. It's less than I could save each month by turning my heat down. It's much less than I could make over the weekend by taking a second job. It's also true that many of the attempts to save lives are foiled by the people whose lives are at stake. Cultural conventions prevent people in one area prevents people from boiling their water, because drinking water that has been heated is believed to be a confession of weakness. In some places, people won't believe in germs. In some places, the first people who do what the aid workers tell them to are poor people who hope to gain status by associating with foreigners; and this taints whatever it is as "something poor people do". I remember someone saying they'd gone and built concrete latrines somewhere, and the people refused to use them, because of negative cultural implications of concrete. So they built wooden latrines that wouldn't last, but that people would use. And the stories of aid workers who give people things that they don't take care of and so break soon after the foreigners leave are numerous.

I never understood how this morality worked. The problem I see with this view is that you are double counting the value of money.

  • You work an hour and get $10, but the employer just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • You buy a latte and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring you instead of sending it for aid
  • LatteShop pays LatteBoy $10 for an hour of work and just killed $10 worth of people by hiring him instead of sending it for aid

The $10 doesn't leave the system and everyone who touches it just killed a whole slew of people because they sent it somewhere other than aid. Why are you carrying the moral burden?

Even if you did send it to aid you can blame them for charging $10 for their work instead of $9. (Or whatever company that is selling the rice, nets, stoves, filters, bottles, condoms.)

You could even blame the person receiving the aid for using the aid instead of giving it to someone less fortunate. Or using less of it. Or selling it for $11 and putting the extra money back into aid.

Somewhere in here something goes horribly wrong and it gets ridiculous. Where did I misstep?

EDIT: I really don't want to give the impression that you shouldn't give money or help people less fortunate than yourself. I think these are great things. I just don't understand the jump from "I bought a latte" to "I killed people."


When your employer pays you $10, it's not as simple as him having $10 and giving it to you. You, in part, created that $10 out of nothing.

Otherwise, what would be the point of hiring you in the first place?

That doesn't really detract from his point.
It actually does. If you see wealth as zero-sum, then you start worrying about how to distribute it, as in the Zachary Baumkletterer reductio ad absurdum above (which was amazing). However, if you understand capitalism and realize that wealth is positive-sum, and that when someone makes money, the world becomes richer, you can avoid making Zachary's mistake. In other words, you can help people by creating more wealth, not just by reducing your own.
Right, yeah, I ended up coming to a similar conclusion. (I think. Your input would be valued. :D )
I agree that understanding capitalism and the fact that wealth distribution is not a zero sum game help avoid Zachary's mistake. I actually thought that was the obvious moral of MrHen's example but in retrospect its probably not sufficiently obvious to everyone.
I wasn't trying to detract from his point. I was merely offering a clarification.
4Wei Dai
In this chain of money changing hands, only you have a real moral choice. If your employer didn't hire you and instead gave the $10 to aid, then it wouldn't have had a service or produce to sell and therefore wouldn't have gotten that $10 in the first place. Similarly for LatteShop. But if you didn't buy a latte, you would still have gotten the $10.
Okay... this makes some sense. I had to work it out like this before I understood it: * My employer hires me * I do work * Employer gets stuff * Employer sells stuff * Employer pays me * I kill people But I don't really think this addresses the problem. In this scenario, whoever bought the stuff my employer sold just killed a bunch of people. So... my original question gets changed to: * I work for an hour and get paid $10, but whoever bought the fruits of my labor just killed $10 worth of people * I buy the fruits of someone else's labor and kill $10 worth of people Obviously this is simplifying economy and labor and yada, yada. We could go into more detail, but unless you think the answer lies in those details I would rather not.
6Wei Dai
Yes, assuming that the fruits of your labor that was bought for $10 is another luxury (say a bottle of wine) instead of a necessity, then that person also killed $10 worth of people. Because suppose he had bought $10 worth of mosquito nets, then you could have worked as a mosquito net maker instead of a vintner, and you still would have gotten the $10. The two of you could have saved $20 worth of people, so not doing that is equivalent to each killing $10 worth of people.
Yeah, it finally clicked. The key point I was missing was that $10 costs time for me to obtain. By the time I obtain it, more people die.
Upvoted for clarity.
They almost certainly would have anyway. I really don't see why this matters. You're (presumably) not trying to minimize aggregate sinfulness or anything like that, you're trying to save lives. Therefore, you choose the action with the highest expected lives saved. It's that simple.
The puzzle has nothing to do with lives saved. The puzzle has to do with assigning moral responsibility. But elsewhere I figured out my missing piece.
Presumably by providing goods or services to other people who chose not to give their money to aid.
Right at the beginning, when you failed to distinguish between killing and failing to save. These are not morally equivalent.
Imagine a 1st world economy where nobody ever spends any money on aid. If you live in that hypothetical world you (anybody) could take $200 that is floating around and prevent a death (which is not the same as killing somebody but that's a different point). Our world is somewhat like that. I don't think things are as convenient as you're implying.
Actually, this is exactly the point. My comment is directly addressing an explanation for this claim: This claim was backed up with this paragraph: Your point is still very valid, which is why I went out of my way to say this:
The point I'm responding to is: Because everyone is. I'm assuming you meant that comment as saying something like the burden is diluted since so many people touch the money, but I don't think that is valid.
Ah, okay. Thanks for clarifying. That phrase did not mean to imply anything about diluted burdens. It is there to ask the question, "Wait, if you're killing all of these people, isn't everyone killing all of these people?" Your response seems to be, "Yes, they are." The followup question is: If one of the people who receives aid is included in the swath of killers? Theoretically, the recipient could have given the aid to someone else and that person could have lived. Instead, the recipient was selfish and chose to live by killing another person. Actually, everyone who could have received the aid but didn't and died was killed by the one who did receive. Something is going wrong here. What is it?
Possibly that "killing people" is connotationally a horrible unforgivable thing, but you (correctly) perceive that it's a bad idea to regard letting people die as always a horrible unforgivable thing. Certainly that you're disputing mere definitions.
I don't understand a morality system can look at someone who is dying receive aid and blame them for the deaths of the people next to them when the aid ran out. Why in the world should they be given any moral responsibility in the situation?
Agreed. This is part of what I meant by "it's a bad idea to regard letting people die as always a horrible unforgivable thing"; I also meant that even comfortable First Worlders wouldn't necessarily do the most good by regarding themselves, or other comfortable First Worlders, as horrible people for acting suboptimally. (In contexts like this, I see "moral responsibility" as purely instrumental: A's moral responsibilities are just those things it would be expected-utility-maximizing to hold A responsible for. Ditto praise/blameworthiness and which actions to label as "killing".)
Fair enough. I have not convinced myself that "drinking lattes is killing people" necessarily leads to "accepting aid is killing people." I followed a path there, but I am assuming that people who believe "drinking lattes is killing people" don't believe "accepting aid is killing people." Where did I step differently?
Others are probably just not willing to bite the bullet of blaming people (if only connotationally) for accepting aid. Or they may be thinking about it instrumentally, like me, in which case the different reasonableness of the demands actually is relevant. Also, there's what Nisan said.
When you make a decision that results in fewer people living than might have lived, Phil Goetz calls that "killing a person". If you are an aid recipient, then giving up your aid and your life to save another person will not change the number of people who live, so it doesn't count as "killing a person". If, however, you have the means to save two people with the aid you're receiving, then you're "killing a person" by not sacrificing your life -- assuming your life counts as much as anyone else's.
I suppose another point to add is that "aid" is worth "one life." The actual specific life doesn't matter as long as one life is being redeemed with the aid. If you do this, than the value of aid could be forecasted to include scenarios where the cost of aid decreases or the amount available to spend on aid increases. It would be okay to spend $10 to get $20 and then turn it into 2 lives saved. So, the question becomes 1 life now, 2 lives later. Okay, yeah, this makes it work. The trick is valuing $10 at one life. If you are getting less than one life for $10 than you are getting robbed. Or, more accurately, you are saying that whatever you did get for $10 is worth the same as a life. $10 is just a number. We could put in $X. So... does this mean anything? If 1 life is $X and a random material thing costs $X, than of course they cost the same. By definition, they have the same dollar value. Does the question become how much moral value can you get per dollar value? In that case, the best moral value per dollar is spending all of your dollars on lives saved. This throws us back into the field of value systems, but in a way that makes sense. Okay, so does this actually answer my original question? It answers the question by saying, since $10 can be spent to save 1 life but you are instead spending the money on a latte, you value a latte as much as you value 1 life. But this is a tautology. The next step is saying, "Therefore, you are killing someone by not saving them and buying a latte instead." The implication could be that if X equals Y in one value system than X equals Y in all value systems. But this is obviously false. The implication could be that you should spend all dollars in a way that maximizes moral value. Or, more accurately, it is more moral to trade dollars for higher moral value. The inverse would be that it is less moral to trade dollars for lower moral value. I can see the jump from this to the statement, "[E]very time you get your hair cu
Part of it is that person let someone else die (theoretically) to save his own life. You let someone die for the Latte. Note: I drink the Latte (occasionally), but it's because I think I can be more effective on the big stuff and that not saving is less bad than killing (as we both agree).
He didn't let someone else die. He let a whole lot of someone elses die. I get the point of there being a difference between him and the latte, but I still think something weird is going on here.
The point is that if, counterfactually, you chose to act to reduce death and suffering in the world today you could save lives. Others could do the same, but both you and they are refraining from doing so. And your post (talking about "money in the system") sounds like it is confusing money as a medium of exchange for the productive value of your labor (which has a certain market value).
I get the point. What I don't understand is why the point ends up at: A weird part of this sentiment is that it has nothing to do with haircuts or Starbucks. If I stop going to movies, I don't stop killing people. If I spend all of my money not killing people, I don't stop killing people. No matter how I act, I will always be killing people. In addition, everyone is always killing people. The people dying are killing people. This is obviously wrong but I don't see how the beginning parts about drinking Starbucks can be true but the latter parts about everyone killing people can be false. $10 is an easy way to talk about value. The specifics of monetary systems and their relation to labor isn't really relevant to the point. (At least, as far as I can tell.)
Under conventional legal and ethical principles, not providing someone with aid that may extend their life is not generally considered the same as killing them. Your personal ethical code may see it that way but you will find many people disagree with you (me included).
I agree. Anyway you also need to consider the "don't feed stray animals" principle. Will saving lives in the Third World ultimately cause more suffering and misery? I was a bit surprised to hear that Ethiopia's population has doubled since the famine there in the 1980s. Where does it end?
Expected to double again by 2050. I think it is a very fair point that by alleviating suffering today we may be compounding it in the future. A rebuttal might be that it is 'merely' a matter of doing the right thing today as well as in the future.
I see a couple problems with this: First, is it fair for us (meaning westerners) to leave a problem like this for our descendants to solve? Second, it seems that these poor folks are growing in numbers much faster than our numbers are growing. So the burden of feeding them may end up getting worse and worse until it's no longer possible. I suppose it might be argued in response that if and when the Singularity comes, we will be able to address these other problems. Still, I'm not sure it's fair to actually bet our descendants' futures on this.
Does our "solving it" in the present lead to its exacerbation in the future? How will Ethiopians manage to control their population? Will our aid today directly cause 20 million people to starve in 2050? On your points: * Is it us westerners' or the Ethiopians' problem to solve? I mean they've so far made it ~2.5 times worse than We are the world. * At some point their birth rate will either have to equal their death rate (+ immigration) or their starvation will not be solvable by anyone or anything short of a Singularity. The way I see it, the primary responsibility is on Ethiopians. We may alleviate, but we cannot cure.
That's a flimsy rejection, since Phil mentioned donating to programs that provide contraceptives in the Third World.
GDP per capita is a better predictor of fertility than access to contraceptives. The rejection is only as flimsy as the contraceptive programs are effective, on the margins where increased funding might make a difference. They may not be very effective at all while additional children are still profitable. "Socioeconomic development is considered the main cause of a decline over time in the benefits of having children and a rise in their costs." "http://www.jstor.org/pss/20058399"
Well I agree that to the extent that the "aid" we are talking about is contraception, then my "don't feed stray animals" objection clearly doesn't apply.
Fair enough. I agree with mattnewport as well, though I'd say that 'providing someone with aid that may extend their life' is probably a moral obligation to some extent, in a reasonable extrapolation of my and your revealed values.
According to GiveWell it costs something on the order of $1,000 to save a life.
Also according to Bill Gates. But that calculation is wrong in an important way. In fact (AFAICT) it currently costs something on the order of $1000 x N to save some large number of lives N via any single method whose efficacy has low variance in the number of lives saved. If you're willing to use a lot of different methods and only fund them up to some relatively low limit, you can save a lot more expected lives per dollar - but the cheap methods aren't always scalable due to (e.g.) not enough people with an easily cured fatal disease, and if you're spending enough money the costs of finding all of the cheap unscalable methods may be fairly high. If you're willing to accept a high variance, like p=0.9 of saving no one and p=0.1 of saving tons of people, you can save a lot more expected lives per dollar - but you're a lot more susceptible to error here, since these methods often don't have nearly as many data points that show p is really 0.1 and not 0.001.
I agree, and feel the same way, though I suppose I'm not as generally nice as you. Just recently, I was talking with some friends about the earthquake in Haiti. I said that the Haitian relief effort was inappropriate to the scale of the tragedy considering existential risk, deaths by aging, even overshadowed by mundane things like starvation in Africa, etc. I said, wouldn't it be so much better if people could look at the Haitian earthquake and say to themselves, "Suffering is horrible! Where can I, personally, correct the most suffering?" The phrase I've created to cope with the situation is, "The only way out is through." That is to say, people will die regardless of how much I work to save them. So, find what has the highest chance of saving the most people over the longest time, invest there, and trust in forward progress to create technologies and energy sources that can alleviate all this suffering before it's too late.

You speak a little as if Eliezer is literally a quadrillion times more concerned about the future of humanity than he is about a single sick child he meets on a train. This would be absolutely impossible for a human being. Though recognising the error of scope insensitivity will and should change the extent of your emotional reaction some, "shut up and multiply" can't sensibly be an injunction to actually scale them to match. We can't feel these numbers, but we can and should think them.

I haven't read the other comments here and I know this post is >10yrs old, but…

For me, (what I'll now call) effective-altruism-like values are mostly second-order, in the sense that a lot of my revealed behavior shows that a lot of the time I don't want to help strangers, animals, future people, etc. But I think I "want to want to" help strangers, and sometimes the more goal-directed rational side of my brain wins out and I do something to help strangers at personal sacrifice to myself (though I do this less than e.g. Will MacAskill). But I don't really detect in myself a symmetrical second-order want to NOT want to help strangers. So that's one thing that "Shut up and multiply" has over "shut up and divide," at least for me.

That said, I realize now that I'm often guilty of ignoring this second-orderness when e.g. making the case for effective altruism. I will often appeal to my interlocutor's occasional desire to help strangers and suggest they generalize it, but I don't symmetrically appeal to their clearer and more common disinterest in helping strangers and suggest they generalize THAT. To be more honest and accurate while still making the case for EA, I should be appealing to their second-order desires, though of course that's a more complicated conversation.

5Wei Dai
What do you think your second order “want to want to help" desire is based on or came from? For example one possibility is that someone previously appealed to your occasional (first order) desire to help strangers and suggested you generalize it, which caused you to have a cached thought that that's what you "should" do. I mean this seems to be exactly what Peter Singer's Drowning Child argument tries to do, and a lot of people cite it as their introduction/conversion to EA. (And you also say that you personally did it to others.) Or suppose you only have your second order desire because it's useful for gaining/maintaining your social status. I imagine it might be hard to work with or socialize with other EAs, if you told them that you didn't even "want to want to help" :) For me personally, I feel like I already "help" a decent amount (motivated by my first order desires), given my moral credences/uncertainties. My second order desires include both doing more and less, depending on whether I feel like I've done too much or too little "altruism" recently or overall, although they don't kick in much and I mostly just go with doing whatever I want (e.g., find interesting) at the moment.

I (unfortunately) keep misreading "Shut up and multiply" to instead say "Shut up and procreate", to significant humorous (at least to me) effect.

Personally, I think the correct thing to do is to recognize that a simple abstraction like "number of people involved" isn't the only thing that is relevant to deciding whether a course of action is appropriate.

Note that the behavior consequences of "shut up and multiply" and "shut up and divide" are largely the same in this particular case... both argue that one should ignore Amanda's situation because she's only one person and based on raw numbers she (as well as you, and I, and pretty much every individual person on the planet) don't really matter relative to the rest of the world in aggregate.

The big behavioral consequence of the two paths (multiplication versus division) seems to be the distinction between taking one's personal selfishness (say, the objective fact that you'd cry more if a fingernail were ripped off than if you heard of the death of 1000 strangers on the far side of the planet) to mean that you really would or should choose to preserve your fingernail over the people, if the choice was somehow actually presented to you in reality. That is, the theories have different consequences only in one's behavioral orientation towards "... (read more)

While that might be a defensible reason for not getting "involved", I'm curious about why it prevented you from merely posting your estimates in the survey.
To a large degree, public commitment is involvement. My fair share, as an American, to a hypothetical "free Amanda Knox if independent investigation determines she should actually be freed" fund would be less than a penny. Between my stopping to consider it earlier and posting about it here I've already done more than that. The transaction costs here are so large that the right thing is probably for something like one in a thousand people to randomly be assigned to even worry if they should care, and if they do donate a few bucks to the cause. Also, I was mostly a lurker at that time, and assuming I started posting (as I have recently) I didn't want such a controversial and specific issue to determine my initial trajectory here. I consider Wei Dai's meta-meta-ethical considerations to be much more relevant to an actual concrete project that I care about much more: building mutual cooperation protocols with this community, starting with abstract principles and methods for deriving them, and working through to implications, and eventually (hopefully) reaching actions in the world that benefit me, the rest of the community here, and the broader world that I assume most of us care about.
Right, but the exercise had a lot of value independent whatever it did to aid Amanda Knox. The reason it was so popular wasn't because it hit our "protect young, attractive American women button" but because we were really excited to have a chance to test out rationality. This was very smart of you.
Well, honestly, I think you may be overestimating the extent to which spitting out a probability estimate on a survey post would have represented "commitment", or would have "determined your initial trajectory" on LW (you could always have done it anonymously, after all!). But, given what you've written here, I can't complain. As one who cares about this cause, I'm glad you stopped to think about it at all, and even more happy that you've now told us what you thought.

I divide likewise.

In fact, I'm more disgusted by people who care about small groups but not large groups than I am by the mass suffering of large groups itself.

You seem to be saying that you find some peoples scope insensitivity to be more discusting than actual human suffering, but that seems like a perfect example of a pretty severe case of scope insensitivity in itself?
This isn't nonsensical: modest reductions in the scope sensitivity of one Westerner can avert the suffering or death of many poor people, or increase the chance of a vast future.
It may not be nonsensical, but it's still scope-insensitive.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky
Well, first of all, I don't see how that's an example of scope insensitivity. Second, suppose a deadly flu virus starts sweeping a country. Getting upset and outraged at the existence of flu and human suffering is unlikely to change the universe's mind. On the other hand, an inefficient response to that and other problems, making them worse, is very much our own fault. So it looks to me like that is very much a defensible position.
Interesting. I've never actually tried to defend my 'position'. I just wrote it off as a near/far effect: I don't see suffering, but I'm surrounded by scope insensitive people. I'll have to think more about your response and whether the position is actually defensible. Thanks.
It might conceivably be worth the suffering of a few to correct inconsistencies, but the suffering of large numbers is about the worst thing there is -- far worse than anybody's reasoning errors. EDIT: Actually, on second thought, you may be right: scope insensitivity may not be the fundamental problem here. It's probably something more basic, like the fact that it's just wrong to prioritize people's-preferences-being-a-certain-way over avoiding suffering. I don't see how the defensibility of the original commenter's position follows from the previous two sentences.
Whether it's scope insensitivity/defensible or not can be resolved by clarifying two things: 1) Jordan_2010's utility function 2) The purpose of disgust/{upset and outrage} Say disgust is a feeling that arises only in response to certain types of ignorance, and a feeling which serves terminal values by neurochemically compelling one to reduce the ignorance, so increase awareness in such a way as to increase one's utility. Then disgust 'would make sense at' ignorance, and not at the terminal bad itself. Eliezer gave another example: It might not be effective ('unlikely to change the universe's mind') to be upset and outraged at matters of fact, and might be effective to be so at people with the power to reduce the utility-eating facts. It might've been the case that it seemed initially that Jordan_2010 was suffering scope insensitivity due to a different initial sense of 'disgust', such as a general dismay that compels one to action. In that case, ceteris paribus, the terminal value should cause much more disgust, because it is the worse thing, and this general sense of disgust is more dense on terminal values than instrumental values. Then after reading Eliezer's comment mentioning upset and outrage, your sense of disgust/etc. changed to something more like what I mentioned earlier in this comment.

Shut up? Maybe not. Divide? Yes: divide labor.

We don't all care about exactly the same things; we may have, as some philosopher has doubtless put it, different "moral tastes". But these tastes probably vary continuously, and there's bound to be enough overlap to make effective cooperation possible.

There probably isn't anybody else here who cares about the Knox case to quite the same extent that I do; but there are a fair number who care about it enough to have had a discussion about it. And I expect that even those (such as yourself) who don't ca... (read more)


I don't know what kind of person this makes me but I was interested in the Knox case because it was a fun puzzle that involved sex, drugs, murder, conspiracy, abuse of power, and Satanic orgies.

More on what you're actually asking, once I process it.

I think I'm with Wei in his analysis - resolving the inconsistency from the top down, not from the bottom up.

I accept that our feelings of empathy and compassion are something evolution came up with in order to make us function decently in small groups. I accept that this empathy works only for small groups, and cannot scale to groups that are too large for everyone to keep track of each other. Maintaining cohesion and functionality in larger groups requires formal mechanisms such as hierarchy and money, and empathy is at best of marginal value, or at wors... (read more)

How so?
I agree with you for the most part, except that actually thinking that out loud has the tendency to make one a heartless bastard, and I don't want to be that sort of person.
Depends how you define 'heartless bastard'. The attitude denisbider describes is actually more compatible with specific, personal acts of kindness than hardcore utilitarianism. Accepting that empathy and compassion evolved to deal with small groups and embracing it means you don't have to feel bad about helping someone you have direct contact with because your help would be more 'effective' from a utilitarian perspective if directed towards a stranger who is objectively worse off. A consistent utilitarian might, for example, refuse to contribute to a charitable collection to pay for treatment for a co-worker's child's leukemia treatment because that money would save more lives if used to help starving children in Africa. Most people would view that as being more of a heartless bastard than someone who contributes but doesn't donate much if anything to African aid. I happen to think that the majority opinion is right in this case and the utilitarians are the ones who are both wrong and horribly confused.
You don't have to feel bad about it in any case. Decision theory and emotions are different things. (Previous comment on this.)
Actually thinking that out loud makes you honest. People who think of themselves as compassionate are much the same as I described, except that they would rather have me not exist, because my existence violates their values. Instead, they would prefer the existence of non-contributing people who need their help. (I have actually heard that from folks like that, in quite those words.) The difference between me and such people is that they don't understand themselves - nor the dynamics of the world we live in. It's frustrating to be labeled a heartless bastard, but understanding what I do and acting differently would make me a hypocrite and spread falsity. According to my values, that's much worse. It's also interesting to see how karma on this site falls steadily with honesty, and what that implies about what the balance of readers come here for. Sadly, it seems to be to further their existing preconceptions. :)

It's also interesting to see how karma on this site falls steadily with honesty,

People downvote views that are ill-defined, poorly thought out, impolite, morally repugnant or just dumb. The fact that someone might hold such views honestly is basically irrelevant.

Most of your criticisms here appear to be resulting from "morally repugnant", which means that I hold a view wildly different from that which you find acceptable, but you can't quite figure out why. If you test me, you may find that my views are neither ill-defined, nor poorly thought out, nor dumb; nor even morally repugnant. Your criticism about politeness is valid however. I do not try to be polite unless the other person is already polite, which creates a sort of vicious circle half the time. I'd like to improve that.
I'm sure this is often the case, but please don't overgeneralize. Your grandparent post is at +2 as I write this.
True; point taken. I find it likely that many (perhaps most here) are not like that. True. But overall, I'm down about 50 karma today, and still counting. :)

The only way failing to save lives can be equated with killing people is by subscribing to pure utilitarianism. But by that philosophy, contraception is also equivalent to killing people: the end result is that fewer people are alive than in the counterfactual case where you had children. The counterargument that contraception is not immoral because you aren't obliged to have children is fine, but it also applies to the other case: you aren't obliged to give your money away either. In other words, we don't actually subscribe to pure utilitarianism, so we s... (read more)

Naive total utilitarianism implies that - which is why I don't follow it. But you can have more complicated utilitarianist systems where failing to save lives is equivalent with killing people (and thus bad) while contraception is perfectly fine and in some cases laudable. That's close to the system I'm currently trying to formalise; we'll see if it works.
I would be interested in seeing that done.
I might essay a post soon, on the subject.

The problem with the Amanda Knox case is not scale, but distance. The farther away something is, the less influence I have over it, and the less influence it can have over me. Amanda Knox is far away in every sense - it's in a different country, a different time (the court case is already over), and a different language. It's like watching a year old YouTube video of an already-fired policeman from a town I've never heard of abusing his power - lots of people do it, but it's just getting riled up for no reason.

On the other hand, the point of the original L... (read more)

Actually, komponisto pointed out one way in which you could have an influence on the Knox case: by donating money to the coalition formed by friends and relatives of Amanda. I point this out because the exact same rationalization occurred to me: "The reason I can't get myself worked up about the case is that I'm entirely powerless to influence further events." But no: I did notice and even comment on komponisto's appeal to donate.
1Paul Crowley
Is there a case to be made that this is an efficient way to give, compared to eg GiveWell's recommendations?
That's a different question. Perhaps a different rationalization: "No, I'm not going to give $10 to the Knox defense fund, because it wouldn't make much of a difference." One idea that I'm struggling to express (or perhas refute, if it's just a misconception of mine) is that investing effort in an area where someone else is likely to invest a countervailing effort may be less effective than investing in an area where you meet no opposing force. Suppose, for instance, that a $10 donation to the Amanda Knox fund is somewhat likely to be matched by a $10 donation from someone else to a "justice for Meredith Kercher" fund. Then you may want to look instead for a way to use the same amount of money to improve the judicial system so that future occurrences are made less likely. Or on improving education in general, to raise the world's sanity level.
The prosecution of Knox is funded by the involuntary contributions of Italian taxpayers; the defense fund itself helps to provide (a small measure of) support against an already formidable opposing force.
I hear you. Yet, what I'm trying to express seems to make some intuitive sense, and I'd appreciate help in spotting whatever might be wrong with it. Think of it in game theoretic terms: you have 10 points to can allocate between games A and B. Game A is a winner-take-all scenario, and your opponent has allocated 1000 points; the payoff is P. Game B is a percentage-return scenario; the payoff to each player is proportional to the amount they allocated (perhaps in much smaller proportion). In game A as in game B, your allocation may be aggregated with that of other players, but you are uncertain of how many are playing. It seems to me that, depending on P and on your probability assignments for how many other players you're likely to be cooperating with in game A, it can be rational to choose to pass up game A altogether. (Having expressed it that way, it seems somewhat similar to the "should I vote" question, as in "I should only vote if it's likely that my vote is the one that will tip the scales.")
Not a good one, as far as I can tell. Hundreds of thousands in legal fees, etc, could save hundreds of African lives.
See my comment.
It was explicitly proposed as a form of warm-fuzzy giving, not as an efficient purchase of utilons. Of course, for the specific purpose of helping Amanda and her family, it's the most efficient way of giving I know of.
2Paul Crowley
When I want to buy fuzzies, I am nice to my friends or by tuna for the cats. When it comes to spending on benefiting strangers, I can't see why I'd want to choose an inefficient way over an efficient way. But your mileage may vary.
If you don't sympathize with Amanda enough that helping her would give you a fuzzy feeling, then obviously it's not a good use of your money (from your perspective).
1Paul Crowley
Rather, if my sympathy for her is not at least two orders of magnitude greater than it is for unknown Africans. I don't mean that to sound moralistic - my sympathy for my cats really is greater, awful as that sounds.
For me, helping unknown Africans generally comes out of the utility budget, rather than the fuzzy budget. You may be different. In any case, yes, it's a question of amount-of-fuzziness per unit-of-money donated.
FYI, there will be an appeal in the coming months.
o_0 If only. Journalism is telling stories about the world.[1] The primary sources of history are stories, put together by humans. And just because the humans in question were contemporaneous doesn't mean the stories are in any way free of most of the distortions of fiction. [1] It's also many other things, but it's certainly that one.

This is a form of cognitive dissonance, where you notice your actions and your values are incongruent, and the resulting discomfort motivates you to reduce the gap between them. You can change your actions and leave your values the same, leave your actions the same and change your values, or somewhere in between.

Other people much, much prefer you change your actions - this is because your values are the guilt-free way of manipulating you. If I want Albert to make a paperclip, and I know Albert also wants to make a paperclip, then I can motivate Albert by ... (read more)

I wonder if this is resolvable by biting the bullet that we don't care equally about all humans. "shut up and multiply" should more properly be called "shut up and sum".

You can't just divide the sum equally either - you have to realize that your preferences are different for different segments of the population.

I'm not bothered by my scope insensitivity.

That's because it's greater than you can comprehend.

The title of this post jumped out at me. From a comment of mine, long ago:

Maximize happiness in the individual ... I say, "in the individual", in strong opposition to dust specks. I remain puzzled by why the "shut up and multiply" maxim would not be accompanied by "shut up and divide". (That is, 3^^^3 specks / 3^^^3 individuals = no pain.) I remain open to good arguments to the contrary - I haven't read one yet.

EDIT: That last sentence is no longer true. I regard this comment by Eliezer as the best argument I've seen, a... (read more)

1Wei Dai
Actually, are we making the same point? Or am I just stealing your phrase for my own use?
I do not think we are talking about the same subject/application. I do think you are using the phrase to refer to roughly the same concept, and in the same context of how to do 'morality calculus'.
0Wei Dai
Thanks, I forgot to Google that phrase. :) I'll link to your comment.

I've had both factors; a diminshed caring for individual cases, and an increased caring for humanity. Some sort of mixed divinding/multiplying going on here...

I have a strong, visceral negative reaction to this. I'll point out that it seems contradictory, for one thing. "Humanity" is made up of humans; concern for humanity should be approximately the result of adding together one's concern for individual humans. If utility is multiplicative, then it's also divisible -- in which case an increased concern for humanity cannot be accompanied by a decreased concern for individuals without a significant increase in the population size (beyond what has happened in our lifetimes). Of course, I'm not sure if the above is the true reason for my negative reaction. But it's darn well worth considering all the same.
Put it this way: I had concern level H for humanity, and h for a given individual. However, H was very far from being 6 billion times h. Now, this is closer to being the case; for this to happen, H has gone up while h has gone down.
This still bothers me; I feel like you should have just increased H without decreasing h.
Why would you say that when you have no idea what his H or his h were in the first place? It's intuitively difficult for us to accept, or at least to say, that having too much concern for a person is as possible as having too little.
Well, I don't have "no idea" -- I have a probability distribution informed by experience. Having too much concern for an individual is theoretically possible I suppose, but it's not a problem anyone is terribly likely to suffer from. The reason most people don't care about most other people is not the fact that the human population is large; it's the fact that most of that large population isn't psychologically close enough for them to care. It's possible that utilitarian calculations could argue for downgrading one's level of concern for e.g. Amanda Knox -- but I'm far more inclined to suspect rationalization of pre-existing natural indifference on the part of someone who makes a claim like that.
Actually, h has increased on average; it's just that h has decreased for the immediately available examples. i.e. I care much less about Amanda Fox or a single salient example, but more about general, systematic effects that might cause great harm to people that I don't hear about.
I assume you mean Amanda Knox. Also, do you really care less about (i.e. assign less utility to the welfare of) someone like Amanda than previously, or is it just that you try to avoid strong emotional reactions to such individual cases?
Let's look at it this way: if I had cash to hand, and was given the option: pay X to solve this particular salient injustice, then I'd be less inclined to do it than before. On the other hand, if I was given the option: pay X to solve this particular class of injustices, then I'd be more inclined to do it than before. Emotional involvement follows a similar trend.

WRT to not caring about the Knox case, I think the reason I don't care is the fact that I don't have the cognitive facilities to care about everything I feel like I should care about.

That being the case, I don't see anything wrong with using things that I do care about as filters to bring things to the fore for me to care about.

For example, I care about various home-brew energy solutions for poor people in developing countries because those things are related to other things that I already care about and am interested in.

The Knox case, as far as I can tell, barely brushes things that I'm already interested in. It may be a very big injustice, but there's lots of those.


There is no general reason to be so concerned with your emotional consistency as to want to modify your emotions. You and Eliezer might simply be abnormally concerned with being consistent, or being perceived as such.


What ethical principles can we use to decide between "Shut Up and Multiply" and "Shut Up and Divide"?

Why do we have to decide between them? Long before I ever heard of "Shut Up and Multiply," I used a test that produced the same results, but worked equally well for "Shut Up and Divide." My general statement was, "Be consistent." I would put things in the appropriate context and make sure to apply similar value functions regardless of size or scope - or, perhaps to phrase it better, making sure my consist... (read more)


I definitely agree to what you are trying to imply. This issues needs to be clarified and should be taken care of with the proper values but with but not in the extent that it would be senseless. We should really justify the means because it will definitely affect the ends of a certain thing or issues. Like large corporations do for their employees bu they are not credited as the best but the company itself. If you look at the track record over the last couple of decades, one begins to question the status of manyhttp://personalmoneystore.com/moneyblog/2010... (read more)