Against Cryonics & For Cost-Effective Charity

by multifoliaterose 9y10th Aug 2010189 comments

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Related To: You Only Live Twice, Normal Cryonics, Abnormal Cryonics, The Threat Of Cryonics, Doing your good deed for the day, Missed opportunities for doing well by doing good

Summary: Many Less Wrong posters are interested in advocating for cryonics. While signing up for cryonics is an understandable personal choice for some people, from a utilitarian point of view the money spent on cryonics would be much better spent by donating to a cost-effective charity. People who sign up for cryonics out of a generalized concern for others would do better not to sign up for cryonics and instead donating any money that they would have spent on cryonics to a cost-effective charity. People who are motivated by a generalized concern for others to advocate the practice of signing up for cryonics would do better to advocate that others donate to cost-effective charities.

Added 08/12:  The comments to this post have prompted me to add the following disclaimers:

(1) Wedrifid understood me to be placing moral pressure on people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. As I've said elsewhere, "I don't think that Americans should sacrifice their well-being for the sake of others. Even from a utilitarian point of view, I think that there are good reasons for thinking that it would be a bad idea to do this." My motivation for posting on this topic is the one described by rhollerith_dot_com in his comment.

(2) In line with the above comment, when I say "selfish" I don't mean it with the negative moral connotations that the word carries, I mean it as a descriptive term. There are some things that we do for ourselves and there are some things that we do for others - this is as things should be. I'd welcome any suggestions for a substitute for the word "selfish" that has the same denotation but which is free of negative conotations.

(3) Wei_Dai thought that my post assumed a utilitarian ethical framework. I can see how my post may have come across that way. However, while writing the post I was not assuming that the reader ascribes to utilitarianism. When I say "we should" in my post I mean "to the extent that we ascribe to utilitarianism we should." I guess that while writing the post I thought that this would be clear from context, but turned out to have been mistaken on this point.

As an aside, I do think that there are good arguments for a (sophisticated sort of) utilitarian ethical framework. I will make a post about this after reading Eliezer's posts on utilitarianism.

(4) Orthonormal thinks that I'm treating cryonics differently from other expenditures. This is not the case, from my (utilitarian) point of view, expenditures should be judged exclusively based on their social impact. The reason why I wrote a post about cryonics is because I had the impression that there are members of the Less Wrong community who view cryonics expenditures and advocacy as "good" in a broader sense than I believe is warranted. But (from a utilitarian point of view) cryonics is one of thousands of things that people ascribe undue moral signficance to. I certainly don't think that advocacy of and expenditures on "cryonics" is worse from a utilitarian point of view than advocacy of and expenditures on something like "recycling plastic bottles".

I've also made the following modifications to my post

(A) In response to a valid objection raised by Vladimir_Nesov I've added a paragraph clarifying that Robin Hanson's suggestion that cryonics might be an effective charity is based on the idea that doing so will drive costs down, and explanation for why I think that my points still hold.

(B) I've added a third example of advocacy of cryonics within the Less Wrong community to make it more clear that I'm not arguing against a straw man.

Without further ado, below is the main body of the revised post.


Advocacy of cryonics within the Less Wrong community

Most recently, in Christopher Hitchens and Cryonics, James_Miller wrote:

I propose that the Less Wrong community attempt to get Hitchens to at least seriously consider cryonics.


Eliezer has advocated cryonics extensively. In You Only Live Twice, Eliezer says:

If you've already decided this is a good idea, but you "haven't gotten around to it", sign up for cryonics NOW.  I mean RIGHT NOW.  Go to the website of Alcor or the Cryonics Institute and follow the instructions.

[...]

Not signing up for cryonics - what does that say?  That you've lost hope in the future.  That you've lost your will to live.  That you've stopped believing that human life, and your own life, is something of value.

[...]

On behalf of the Future, then - please ask for a little more for yourself.  More than death.  It really... isn't being selfish.  I want you to live.  I think that the Future will want you to live.  That if you let yourself die, people who aren't even born yet will be sad for the irreplaceable thing that was lost.

In Normal Cryonics Eliezer says:

You know what?  I'm going to come out and say it. I've been unsure about saying it, but after attending this event, and talking to the perfectly ordinary parents who signed their kids up for cryonics like the goddamn sane people do, I'm going to come out and say it:  If you don't sign up your kids for cryonics then you are a lousy parent.

In The Threat of Cryonics, lsparrish writes

...we cannot ethically just shut up about it. No lives should be lost, even potentially, due solely to lack of a regular, widely available, low-cost, technologically optimized cryonics practice. It is in fact absolutely unacceptable, from a simple humanitarian perspective, that something as nebulous as the HDM -- however artistic, cultural, and deeply ingrained it may be -- should ever be substituted for an actual human life.

Is cryonics selfish?

There's a common attitude within the general public that cryonics is selfish. This is exemplified by a quote from the recent profile of Robin Hanson and Peggy Jackson in the New York Times article titled Until Cryonics Do Us Part:

“You have to understand,” says Peggy, who at 54 is given to exasperation about her husband’s more exotic ideas. “I am a hospice social worker. I work with people who are dying all the time. I see people dying All. The. Time. And what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?”

As suggested by Thursday in a comment to Robin Hanson's post Modern Male Sati, part of what seems to be going on here is that people subscribe to a "Just Deserts" theory of which outcomes ought to occur:

I think another of the reasons that people dislike cryonics is our intuition that immortality should have to be earned. It isn’t something that a person is automatically entitled to.

Relatedly, people sometimes believe in egalitarianism even when achieving it comes at the cost of imposing handicaps on the fortunate as in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Harrison Bergeron.

I believe that the objections that people have to cryonics which are rooted in the belief in people should get what they deserve and in the idea that egalitarianism is so important that we should handicap the privileged to achieve it are maladaptive. So, I think that the common attitude that cryonics is selfish is not held for good reason.

At the same time, it seems very likely to me that paying for cryonics is selfish in the sense that many personal expenditures are. Many personal expenditures that people engage in come with an opportunity cost of providing something of greater value to someone else. My general reaction to cryonics is the same as Tyler Cowen's: rather than signing up for cryonics, "why not save someone else's life instead?"

Could funding cryonics be socially optimal?

In Cryonics As Charity, Robin Hanson explores the idea that paying for cryonics might be a cost-effective charitable expenditure.

...buying cryonics seems to me a pretty good charity in its own right.

[...]

OK, even if consuming cryonics helps others, could it really help as much as direct charity donations? Well it might be hard to compete with cash directly handed to those most in need, but remember that most real charities suffer great inefficiencies and waste from administration costs, agency failures, and the inattention of donors.

Hanson's argument in favor of cryonics as a charity is based on the idea that buying cryonics drives the costs of cryonics down, making it easier for other people to purchase cryonics and also that purchasing cryonics normalizes the practice which raises the probability that people who are cryopreserved will be revived. There are several reasons why I don't find these points a compelling argument for cryonics as a charity. I believe that:

(i) I believe that in absence of human genetic engineering, it's very unlikely that it's possible to overcome the social stigma against cryonics. So I assign a small expected value to the social benefits that Hanson envisages which arise from purchasing cryonics.

(ii) Because of the social stigma against cryonics, signing up for cryonics or advocating cryonicshas a negative unintended consequence of straining interpersonal relationships as hinted at in Until Cryonics Do Us Part. This negative unintended consequence must be weighed against the potential social benefits attached to purchasing cryonics

(iii) Point #3 below: purchasing cryonics may be zero-sum on account of preventing future potential humans and transhumans from living.
Overall I believe that the positive indirect consequences of purchasing cryonics are approximately outweighed by the negative indirect consequences of purchasing cryonics.

How do the direct consequences of cryonics compare with the direct consequences of the best developing world aid charities? Let's look at the numbers.  According to the Alcor website , Alcor charges $150,000 for whole body cryopreservation and $80,000 for Neurocryopreservation.  GiveWell  estimates that VillageReach and StopTB save lives at a cost of $1,000 each. Now, the  standard of living is lower in the developing world  than in the developed world, so that saving lives in the developing world is (on average) less worthwhile than saving lives in developed world. Last February  Michael Vassar estimated  (based on his experience living in the developing world among other things) that one would have to spend $50,000 on developing world aid to save a quality of life comparable to his own. Michael's estimate may be too high or too low, and quality of life within the developed world is variable, but for concreteness let's equate the value of 40 years of life of the typical prospective cryonics sign-up with $50,000 worth of cost-effective developing world aid. Is buying cryonics for oneself then more cost-effective than developing world aid?

Here are some further considerations which are relevant to this question:

  1. Cryopreservation is not a guarantee of revitalization. In  Cryonics As Charity  and elsewhere Robin Hanson has estimated the probability of revitalization at 5% or so.
  2. Revitalization is not a guarantee of a very long life - after one is revived the human race could go extinct.
  3. Insofar as the resources that humans have access to are limited, being revived may have the opportunity cost of another human/transhuman being born.
  4. If humans develop life extension technologies before the prospective cryonics sign-up dies then the prospective cryonics sign-up will probably have no need of cryonics.
  5. If humans develop Friendly AI soon then any people in the developing world whose lives are saved might have the chance to live very long and happy lives.

With all of these factors in mind, I presently believe that from the point of view of general social welfare, donating to VillageReach or StopTB is much more cost-effective than paying for cryopreservation is.

It may be still more cost-effective to fund charities that reduce global catastrophic risk. The question is just whether it's possible to do things that meaningfully reduce global catastrophic risk. Some people in the GiveWell community have the attitude that there's so much  stochastic dilution of efforts to reduce global catastrophic risk that developing world aid is a more promising cause than existential risk reduction is. I share these feelings in regard to SIAI as presently constituted for reasons which I described in  the linked thread . Nevertheless, I personally believe that within 5-10 years there will emerge strong opportunities to donate money to reduce existential risk, opportunities which may be orders of magnitude more cost-effective than developing world aid.

It may be possible to construct a good argument for the idea that funding cryonics is socially optimal. But those who supported cryonics before thinking about whether funding cryonics is socially optimal should beware falling prey to  confirmation bias  in their thinking about whether funding cryonics is socially optimal.

Is cryonics rational?

If you believe that funding cryonics is socially optimal and you have generalized philanthropic concern, then you should fund cryonics. As I say above, I think it very unlikely that funding cryonics is anywhere near socially optimal. For  the sake of definiteness and brevity, in the remainder of this post I will subsequently assume that funding cryonics is far from being socially optimal.

Of course, people have  many values  and generally give greater weight to their own well being and the well being of family and friends than to the well being of unknown others. I see this as an inevitable feature of current human nature and don't think that it makes sense to try to change it at present. People (including myself) constantly spend money on things (restaurant meals, movies, CDs, travel expenses, jewelry, yachts, private airplanes, etc.) which are apparently far from socially optimal. I view cryonics expenses in a similar light. Just as it may be rational for some people to buy expensive jewelry, it may be rational for some people to sign up for cryonics. I think that cryonics is unfairly maligned and largely agree with Robin Hanson's article  Picking on Cryo-Nerds .

On the flip side, just as it would be irrational for some people to buy expensive jewelry, it would be irrational for some people to sign up for cryonics. We should view signing up for cryonics as an understandable indulgence rather than a moral imperative. Advocating that people sign up for cryonics is like advocating that people buy diamond necklaces. I believe that our advocacy efforts should be focused on doing the most good, not on getting people to sign up for cryonics.

I anticipate that some of you will object, saying "But wait! The social value of signing up for cryonics is much higher than the social value of buying diamond necklace!" This may be true, but is irrelevant. Assuming that funding cryonics is orders of magnitude less efficient than the best philanthropic option, in absolute terms, the social opportunity cost of funding cryonics is very close to the social opportunity cost of buying a diamond necklace.

Because charitable efforts vary in cost-effectiveness by many orders of magnitude in unexpected ways, there's no reason to think that the supporting causes that have the most immediate intuitive appeal to oneself are at all close to socially optimal. This is why it's important to  Purchase Fuzzies and Utiltons Separately . If one doesn't, one can end up expending a lot of energy ostensibly dedicated to philanthropy which accomplishes a very small fraction of what one could have accomplished. This is arguably what's going on with cryonics advocacy. As Holden Karnofsky has said, there's  nothing wrong with selfish giving - just don’t call it philanthropy . Holden's post relates to the phenomenon discussed Yvain's great post  Doing your good deed for the day . Quoting from Holden's post

I don’t think it’s wrong to make gifts that aren’t “optimized for pure social impact.” Personally, I’ve made “gifts” with many motivations: because friends asked, because I wanted to support a  resource I personally benefit from , etc. I’ve stopped giving to my alma mater (which I suspect has all the funding it can productively use) and I’ve never made a gift just to “tell myself a nice story,” but in both cases I can understand why one would.

Giving money for selfish reasons, in and of itself, seems no more wrong than unnecessary personal consumption (entertainment, restaurants, etc.), which I and everyone else I know does plenty of. The point at which it becomes a problem, to me, is when you “count it” toward your charitable/philanthropic giving for the year.

[...]

I believe that the world’s wealthy should make gifts that are aimed at nothing but making the world a better place for others. We should challenge ourselves to make these gifts as big as possible. We should not tell ourselves that we are philanthropists while making no gifts that are really aimed at making the world better.

But this philosophy doesn’t forbid you from spending your money in ways that make you feel good. It just asks that you don’t let those expenditures lower the amount you give toward really helping others.

I find it very likely that promoting and funding cryonics for philanthropic reasons is irrational.

Implications

The members of Less Wrong community have uncommonly high analytical skills. These analytical skills are potentially very valuable to society. Collectively, we have a major opportunity to make a positive difference in people's lives. This opportunity will amount to little if we use our skills for things like cryonics advocacy. Remember,  rationalists should win . I believe that we should use our skills for what matters most: helping other people as much as possible. To this end, I would make four concrete suggestions suggestions. I believe that

(A) We should encourage people to give more when we suspect that  in doing so, they would be behaving in accordance with their core values . As  Mass_Driver said , there may be

huge opportunity for us to help people help both themselves and others by explaining to them why charity is awesome-r than they thought.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, according to  Fortune magazine  the 400 biggest American taxpayers donate an average of only 8% of their income a year. For most multibillionaires, it's literally the case that millions of people are dying because the multibillionaire is unwilling to lead a slightly less opulent lifestyle. I'm sure that this isn't what these multibillionaires would want if they were thinking clearly. These people are not moral monsters. Melinda Gates has said that it wasn't until she and Bill Gates visited Africa that they realized that they had a lot of money to spare.

The case of multibillionaires highlights the absurdity of the pathological effects of human biases on people's willingness to give. Multibillionaires are not unusually irrational. If anything, multibillionaires are unusually rational. Many of the people who you know would behave similarly if they were multibillionaires. This gives rise to a strong possibility that they're  presently  exhibiting analogous behavior on a smaller scale on account of irrational biases. 

(B) We should work to raise the standards for analysis of charities for impact and cost-effectiveness and promote effective giving. To this end, I strongly recommend exploring the website and community at  GiveWell . The organization is very transparent and is welcoming of and responsive to  well-considered feedback.

(C) We should conceptualize and advocate high expected value charitable projects but we should be especially vigilant about the possibility of overestimating the returns of a particular project. Less Wrong community members have not always exhibited such vigilance, so there is room for improvement on this point.

(D) We should ourselves donate some money that's optimized for pure positive social impact. Not so much that doing so noticeably interferes with our ability to get what we want out of life, but noticeably more than is typical for people in our respective financial situations. We should do this not only to help the people who will benefit from our contributions, but to prove to ourselves that the analytical skills which are such an integral part of us can help us break  the shackles of unconscious self serving motivations , lift ourselves up and do what we believe in.

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