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This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Effective Altruism Forum. Though most of the ideas have been raised here before, perhaps many times, I thought it might still be of interest as a brief presentation of them all!
* The people you think are totally wrong may not actually be totally wrong.
Effective altruism is a ‘broad tent’
As is obvious to anyone who has looked around here, effective altruism is based more on a shared interest in the question 'how can you do the most good' than a shared view on the answer. We all have friends who support:
- A wide range of different cause areas.
- A wide range of different approaches to those causes.
- Different values and moral philosophies regarding what it means to 'help others'.
- Different political views on how best to achieve even shared goals. On economic policy for example, we have people covering the full range from far left to far right. In the CEA offices we have voters for every major political party, and some smaller ones too.
Looking beyond just stated beliefs, we also have people with a wide range of temperaments, from highly argumentative, confident and outspoken to cautious, idiosyncratic and humble.
Our wide range of views could cause problems
There is a popular saying that 'opposites attract'. But unfortunately, social scientists have found precisely the opposite to be true: birds of a feather do in fact flock together.
One of the drivers of this phenomenon is that people who are different are more likely to get into conflicts with one another. If my partner and I liked to keep the house exactly the same way, we certainly wouldn't have as many arguments about cleaning (I'll leave you to speculate about who is the untidy one!). People who are different from you may initially strike you as merely amusing, peculiar or mistaken, but when you talk to them at length and they don't see reason, you may start to see them as stupid, biased, rude, impossible to deal with, unkind, and perhaps even outright bad people.
A movement brought together by a shared interest in the question ‘what should we do?’ will inevitably have a greater diversity of priorities, and justifications for those priorities, than a movement united by a shared answer. This is in many ways our core strength. Maintaining a diversity of views means we are less likely to get permanently stuck on the wrong track, because we can learn from one another's scholarship and experiences, and correct course if necessary.
However, it also means we are necessarily committed to ideological pluralism. While it is possible to maintain ‘Big Tent’ social movements they face some challenges. The more people hold opinions that others dislike, the more possible points of friction there are that can cause us to form negative opinions of one another. There have already been strongly worded exchanges online demonstrating the risk.
When a minority holds an unpopular view they can feel set upon and bullied, while the majority feels mystified and frustrated that a small group of people can't see the obvious truth that so many accept.
My first goal with this post is to make us aware of this phenomenon, and offer my support for a culture of peaceful coexistence between people who, even after they share all their reasons and reflect, still disagree.
My second goal is to offer a few specific actions that can help us avoid interpersonal conflicts that don't contribute to making the world a better place:
1. Remember that you might be wrong
Hard as it is to keep in mind when you're talking to someone who strongly disagrees with you, it is always possible that they have good points to make that would change your mind, at least a bit. Most claims are only ‘partially true or false’, and there is almost always something valuable you can learn from someone who disagrees with you, even if it is just an understanding of how they think.
If the other person seems generally as intelligent and informed about the topic as you, it's not even clear why you should give more weight to your own opinion than theirs.
2. Be polite, doubly so if your partner is not
Being polite will make both the person you are talking to, and onlookers, more likely to come around to your view. It also means that you're less likely to get into a fight that will hurt others and absorb your precious time and emotional energy.
Politeness has many components, some notable ones being: not criticising someone personally; interpreting their behaviour and statements in a fairly charitable way; not being a show-off, or patronising and publicly embarrassing others; respecting others as your equals, even if you think they are not; conceding when they have made a good point; and finally keeping the conversation focussed on information that can be shared, confirmed, and might actually prove persuasive.
3. Don't infer bad motivations
While humans often make mistakes in their thinking, it's uncommon for them to be straight out uninterested in the welfare of others or what is right, especially so in this movement. Even if they are, they are probably not aware that that is the case. And even if they are aware, you won't come across well to onlookers by addressing them as though they have bad motivations.
If you really do become convinced the person you are talking to is speaking in bad faith, it's time to walk away. As they say: don't feed the trolls.
4. Stay cool
Even when people say things that warrant anger and outrage, expressing anger or outrage publicly will rarely make the world a better place. Anger being understandable or natural is very different from it being useful, especially if the other person is likely to retaliate with anger of their own.
Being angry does not improve the quality of your thinking, persuade others that you're right, make you happier or more productive, or make for a more harmonious community.
In its defence, anger can be highly motivating. Unfortunately it is indiscriminate about motivating you to do very valuable, ineffective and even harmful things.
Any technique that can keep you calm is therefore useful. If something is making you unavoidably angry, it's typically best to walk away and let other people deal with it.
5. Pick your battles
Not all things are equally important to reach a consensus about. For good or ill, most things we spend our days talking about just aren't that 'action relevant'. If you find yourself edging towards interpersonal conflict on a question that i) isn't going to change anyone's actions much; ii) isn't going to make the world a much better place, even if it does change their actions; or iii) is very hard to persuade others about, maybe it isn't worth the cost of interpersonal tension to explore in detail.
So if someone in the community says something unrelated or peripheral to effective altruism that you disagree with, which could develop into a conflict, you always have the option of not taking the bait. In a week, you and they may not even remember it was mentioned, let alone consider it worth damaging your relationship over.
6. Let it go
The most important advice of all.
Perhaps you are discussing something important. Perhaps you've made great arguments. Perhaps everyone you know agrees with you. You've been polite, and charitable, and kept your cool. But the person you're talking to still holds a view you strongly disagree with and believe is harmful.
If that's the case, it's probably time for you both to walk away before your opinions of one another fall too far, or the disagreement spirals into sectarianism. If someone can't be persuaded, you can at least avoid creating an ill-will between you that ensures they never come around. You've done what you can for now, and that is enough.
Hopefully time will show which of you is right, or space away from a public debate will give one of you the chance to change your mind in private without losing face. In the meantime maybe you can't work closely together, but you can at least remain friendly and respectful.
It isn't likely or even desirable for us to end up agreeing with one another on everything. The world is a horribly complex place; if the questions we are asking had easy answers the research we are doing wouldn't be necessary in the first place.
The cost of being part of a community that accepts and takes an interest in your views, even though many think you are pulling in the wrong direction, is to be tolerant of others in the same way even when you think their views are harmful.
So, sometimes, you just have to let it go.
If you agree with me about the above, you might be tempted to post or send it to people every time they aren’t playing by these rules. Unfortunately, this is likely to be counterproductive and lead to more conflict rather than less. It’s useful to share this post in general, but not trot it out as a way of policing others. The most effective way to promote this style of interaction is to exemplify it in the way you treat others, and not get into long conversations with people who have less productive ways of talking to others.
Thanks to Amanda, Will, Diana, Michelle, Catriona, Marek, Niel, Tonja, Sam and George for feedback on drafts of this post.
If funding were available, the Centre for Effective Altruism would consider hiring someone to work closely with Prof Nick Bostrom to provide anything and everything he needs to be more productive. Bostrom is obviously the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and author of Superintelligence, the best guide yet to the possible risks posed by artificial intelligence.
Nobody has yet confirmed they will fund this role, but we are nevertheless interested in getting expressions of interest from suitable candidates.
The list of required characteristics is hefty, and the position would be a challenging one:
- Willing to commit to the role for at least a year, and preferably several
- Able to live and work in Oxford during this time
- Conscientious and discreet
- Able to keep flexible hours (some days a lot of work, others not much)
- Highly competent at almost everything in life (for example, organising travel, media appearances, choosing good products, and so on)
- Will not screw up and look bad when dealing with external parties (e.g. media, event organisers, the university)
- Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom
- Willing to do some tasks that are not high-status
- Willing to help Bostrom with both his professional and personal life (to free up his attention)
- Can speak English well
- Knowledge of rationality, philosophy and artificial intelligence would also be helpful, and would allow you to also do more work as a research assistant.
The research Bostrom can do is unique; to my knowledge we don't have anyone who has made such significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity as a whole. As a result, helping increase Bostrom's output by say, 20%, would be a major contribution. This person's work would also help the rest of the Future of Humanity Institute run smoothly.
The Centre for Effective Altruism, the group behind 80,000 Hours, Giving What We Can, the Global Priorities Project, Effective Altruism Outreach, and to a lesser extent The Life You Can Save and Animal Charity Evaluators, is looking to grow its team with a number of new roles:
- Giving What We Can: Director of Research
- Giving What We Can: Communications Manager
- 80,000 Hours: Head of Research
- Central CEA: Chief Operating Officer
- Global Priorities Project: Research Fellow (accepting expressions of interest at this point)
- We are also looking for 'graduate volunteers' for Giving What We Can in 2015, particularly over the summer
We are so keen to find great people that if you introduce us to someone new who we end up hiring, we will pay you $1,000 for the favour! If you know anyone awesome who would be a good fit for us please let me know: robert [dot] wiblin [at] centreforeffectivealtruism [dot] org. They can also book a short meeting with me directly.
We may be able to sponsor outstanding applicants from the USA.
Applications close Friday 5th December 2014.
Why is CEA an excellent place to work?
First and foremost, “making the world a better place” is our bottom line and central aim. We work on the projects we do because we think they’re the best way for us to make a contribution. But there’s more.
The specifics of what we are looking for depend on the role and details can be found in the job descriptions. In general, we're looking for people who have many of the following traits:
- Self-motivated, hard-working, and independent;
- Able to deal with pressure and unfamiliar problems;
- Have a strong desire for personal development;
- Able to quickly master complex, abstract ideas, and solve problems;
- Able to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing and in person;
- Comfortable working in a team and quick to get on with new people;
- Able to lead a team and manage a complex project;
- Keen to work with a young team in a startup environment;
- Deeply interested in making the world a better place in an effective way, using evidence and research;
- A good understanding of the aims of the Centre for Effective Altruism and its constituent organisations.
I hope to work at CEA in the future. What should I do now?
Of course this will depend on the role, but generally good ideas include:
- Study hard, including gaining useful knowledge and skills outside of the classroom.
- Degrees we have found provide useful training include: philosophy, statistics, economics, mathematics and physics. However, we are hoping to hire people from a more diverse range of academic and practical backgrounds in the future. In particular, we hope to find new members of the team who have worked in operations, or creative industries.
- Write regularly and consider starting a blog.
- Manage student and workplace clubs or societies.
- Work on exciting projects in your spare time.
- Found a start-up business or non-profit, or join someone else early in the life of a new project.
- Gain impressive professional experience in established organisations, such as those working in consulting, government, politics, advocacy, law, think-tanks, movement building, journalism, etc.
- Get experience promoting effective altruist ideas online, or to people you already know.
- Use 80,000 Hours' research to do a detailed analysis of your own future career plans.
Cross-posted from http://www.robertwiblin.com
There is a principle in finance that obvious and guaranteed ways to make a lot of money, so called ‘arbitrages’, should not exist. It has a simple rationale. If market prices made it possible to trade assets around and in the process make a guaranteed profit, people would do it, in so doing shifting some prices up and others down. They would only stop making these trades once the prices had adjusted and the opportunity to make money had disappeared. While opportunities to make ‘free money’ appear all the time, they are quickly noticed and the behaviour of traders eliminates them. The logic of selfishness and competition mean the only remaining ways to make big money should involve risk taking, luck and hard work. This is the ’no arbitrage‘ principle.
Should a similar principle exist for selfless as well as selfish finance? When a guaranteed opportunity to do a lot of good for the world appears, philanthropists should notice and pounce on it, and only stop shifting resources into that activity once the opportunity has been exhausted. This wouldn’t work as quickly as the elimination of arbitrage on financial markets of course. Rather it would look more like entrepreneurs searching for and exploiting opportunities to open new and profitable businesses. Still, in general competition to do good should make it challenging for an altruistic start-up or budding young philanthropist to beat existing charities at their own game.
There is a very important difference though. Most investors are looking to make money and so for them a dollar is a dollar, whatever business activity it comes from. Competition between investors makes opportunities to get those dollars hard to find. The same is not true of altruists, who have very diverse preferences about who is most deserving of help and how we should help them; a ‘util’ from one charitable activity is not the same as a ‘util’ from another. This suggests that unlike in finance, we may able to find ‘altruistic arbitrages’, that is to say ‘opportunities to do a lot of good for the world that others have left unexploited.’
The rule is simple: target groups you care about that other people mostly don’t, and take advantage of strategies other people are biased against using. That rule is the root of a lot of advice offered to thoughtful givers and consequentialist-oriented folks. An obvious example is that you shouldn’t look to help poor people in rich countries. There are already a lot of government and private dollars chasing opportunities to assist them, so the low hanging fruit has all been used up and then some. The better value opportunities are going to be in poor, unromantic places you have never heard of, where fewer competing philanthropist dollars are directed. Similarly, you should think about taking high risk-high return strategies. Most do-gooders are searching for guaranteed and respectable opportunities to do a bit of good, rather than peculiar long-shot opportunities to do a lot of good. If you only care about the ‘expected‘ return to your charity, then you can do more by taking advantage of the quirky, improbable bets neglected by others.
Who do I personally care about more than others? For me the main candidates are animals, especially wild ones, and people who don’t yet exist and may never exist – interest groups that go largely ignored by the majority of humanity. What are the risky strategies I can employ to help these groups? Working on future technologies most people think are farcical naturally jumps to mind but I’m sure there are others and would love to hear them.
This principle is the main reason I am skeptical of mainstream political activism as a way to improve the world. If you are part of a significant worldwide movement, it’s unlikely that you’re working in a neglected area and exploiting how your altruistic preferences are distinct from those of others.
What other conclusions can we draw thinking about philanthropy in this way?