Friday 21 August 2020

Effective altruism

 Peter Singer, everyone's favourite utilitarian philosopher [prev] was on RTE TED NPR on Saturday where the TED Radio Hour (originally broadcast in June) was reflecting on ethical issues thrown up by Coronarama. He was laying out the stall for Effective Altruism. Altruism is where you take one for the team and most of us think that is worthy and deserving of respeck. Like when teenager Callum Keane recently plunged into the River Boyne to save two smaller kids who were in trouble. Hats off our Callum! And he can join our club of anti-drowners.

That anecdote is right on the money for Peter Singer, whose experimental ethics I wrote about in 2015: "Singer is fond of pointing out that we would happily ruin a $700 suit wading into a muddy pond to save a drowning child but won't shell out $7 to immunize one on the other side of the Third World". I think the phrase was invented by William MacAskill in his book title Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference.  It's hard to see us rescue-from-drowning people as doing better . . . although there are plenty of cases where they contribute to the problem by being out of their metaphorical and actual depth and needing rescue in their turn. In the ruined suit story, Singer is starting a dialogue where lives are given a monetary value to make it easier to compare different actions and inactions. This is where my correspondent B starts to get hopping mad because, for her, it is invidious to say we don't have enough resources to save everyone. And Coronarama has thrown that into focus because a whole raft of things, previously deemed to be impossible (like Universal Basic Income UBI has now appeared as Pandemic Unemployment Payment PUP) are now possible.

 Peter Singer gives a couple of neat comparators: 

  • Guide dogs for the blind? [Only symmetrical blondes need apply] That's a great thing to do but it costs $40,000 to get a fully trained guide-dog into the hands of its new owner (and given the lifespan of dogs, that's a 10 year contract). otosotw [on the other side of the world] it costs $20-$50 to cure one poor black person of blindness from trachoma. And there are more than enough cases to spend the entire $40K doing good out there
  • Highway departments in the US have a threshold for fixing dangerous stretches of road = accident black spots. If the works cost more that $9 million they won't be authorised unless the quants estimate that more than one life would be saved over the lifetime of the fix (no highway lasts forever). But that's a lot of money to save one life. otosotw, you can save the lives of a lot of small black people by rolling out a bed-net scheme to prevent malaria. It's only $2K for every life saved there.
If you're going to tithe your income for something of no direct benefit to you, then it's worth doing some research to get better leverage from your goodness-bucks. Help?:
  • Give Well We search for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar.
  • The Life You Can Save Effective charities do more with your donation.

1 comment:

  1. As you rightly surmised, I do have issues with the concept of effective altruism. If altruism is ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’ it seems counter intuitive to put some sort of logical structure based on a profit and loss calculation for someone’s altruism.

    Singer drives me a bit crazy with his assumptions. The example he gives of the person ruining a $700 suit to save a drowning child but not give $7 to immunize a child on the other side of the road is disingenuous. How does he know that? Is the extension of that premise that everyone who saves a local drowning child must have the cost of their clothes weighted against what, if anything, they give to another charity? What is the benchmark? If my clothes only add up to $100 then is it ok for me to save a drowning child but not donate to immunization in Africa? And what if the act of saving a drowning child sparks a light in the person who then goes on to donate to what Singer has dedicated is the most worthy cause based on his scale of altruism. And would Singer be happy to sit in front of the parents of the drowned child and state that he could have saved their child but his suit is worth $700 and he thought if he could sell it for $400 then he could immunize 100 children and save their lives and isn’t that worth it. 100 children trump 1 child.

    Singer doesn’t take into account the wider social aspect. Guide dogs are trained, it requires people to donate time and effort and skill, they are contributing to local businesses, they are earning a wage and paying taxes. The blind person has a set of capabilities that can be utilized because of the guide dog, or we can make the decision that it’s not cost effective for a human being to be given all possible help to live a full life and the people who work with dogs for the blind are more effective if they work for a bank and earn more money because? And who makes the profit and loss decisions on who gets the cure for trachoma – those over 50 should be out because well what’s the point really, the return on investment for curing those up to 20 is better. And in which countries do you cure blindness. Have to take into account the wider social, economic and political structures. So blind people in a war torn country should be further down the list then those in a more stable but still ineffective political state because that’s a better return on investment. Why bother curing a person of blindness if they have a 20% chance dying of hunger or conflict, then another country has an environment that higher general survival rate?

    If individuals commutate their acts of altruism based on rate of return, then communities start to and then socioeconomic and political institutions amplify that. I personally don’t want to be Solomon and have the blind person and the down syndrome person stand before me and make a decision who gets the $40,000.

    We have enough resources to save everyone.

    "...And that's what your holy men discuss, is it?" [asked Granny Weatherwax.]
    "Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin. for example." [answered Mightily Oats.]
    "And what do they think? Against it, are they?"
    "It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."
    "There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
    "It's a lot more complicated than that--"
    "No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
    "Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes--"
    "But they starts with thinking about people as things..."
    --from Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett.