Erik Hoel on effective altruism and utilitarianism

Erik Hoel on Effective Altruism, Utilitarianism, and the Repugnant Conclusion | Econtalk with Russ Roberts

Check out Econtalk’s Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Effective altruism involves billionaires creating various institutions to give away their money to charity in a manner they deem effective
  • Due to the core of the movement being utilitarian, the effective altruism movement ends up having many repugnant and strange conclusions 
  • “Maximizing the most good for the most number of people” can lead to repugnant conclusions when applied at-scale
  • Changing the scale of these simple thought experiments adds complexities that completely change the calculus of the scenario 
    • Not only should you not have the birthday party for your son, but you’re morally obligated to spend less time with your son so you can work more and send more money to help solve the malaria crisis in Africa
  • The repugnant conclusion of never-ending well-being arbitrage: everyone ends up with a life that is just barely above the subsistence level 
    • Effective altruism wants to arbitrage all the extra happiness away and fairly distribute it amongst the global population 
  • Trading instances of good and evil is not fungible in the way that utilitarians want it to be 
  • The effective altruism movement is an attempt to formulate morality from the top-down, which is antithetical to how morals have emerged since the dawn of humanity 
  • Utilitarianism treats good and evil as big mounds of dirt of varying sizes; Theoretically following the logic of utility, if enough people stub their toe over time, its respective pile of dirt could become larger than the pain-caused-from-WW2 pile of dirt 
  • Economists often neglect qualitative components when forming policy and only account for the quantitative when making moral equivalencies, which results in bad policy 
  • Charity is good; there are aspects of the effective altruism movement that are good, but the mandate to maximize it at scale deserves to be questioned and investigated

Intro

What is the Effective Altruism Movement?

  • Effective altruism is a new movement that is based on the work of moral philosophers and funded by billionaires, according to Erik Hoel 
  • Effective altruism involves billionaires creating various institutions to give away their money to charity in a manner they deem effective
  • Effective altruism in its simplest form is just the “Moneyball of charities”, a reference to a movie where the sport became all about statistics and less about the players  
  • The effective altruism movement is based on conceptions of utilitarianism, which is an effort to maximize the good for the most amount of people
    • “Good” is defined in some mathematical formula 
  • Due to the core of the movement being utilitarian, the effective altruism movement ends up having many repugnant and strange conclusions  
  • The movement itself is not bad, according to Erik, but for effective altruism to continue to gain mainstream acceptance, it will be forced to disregard the more original utilitarianism conceptions and instead turn into an organization that “does cool stuff with billionaires’ money”

Using the Trolley Problem to Analyze Effective Altruism 

  • The Trolley problem is a thought experiment in philosophy and psychology involving the ethical decision to sacrifice one person to save a larger number 
  • The majority of undergraduate students think the person should flip the switch and divert the train so it kills one person and not five 
  • Many ethical dilemmas, at their core, are versions of the Trolley problem 
    • Or at least the “math” is the same, for example: should a surgeon kill one person to get the organs needed to save five persons? 
    • The rogue surgeon problem is an example of what Erik calls a repugnant conclusion
  • “Maximizing the most good for the most number of people” can lead to repugnant conclusions

Using the Shallow Pond Problem to Think about Effective Altruism 

  • The shallow pond problem was created by contemporary philosopher Peter Singer in his 1971 article Famine, Affluence, and Morality
  • The core tenant of Peter Singer’s argument: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • The “drowning child” thought experiment involves seeing a child drowning in a pond on your way to work. Most people would jump in the pond to save the child, not thinking twice about the laundry bill from getting their clothes dirty. And yet, the amount of dollars spent on the dry cleaning bill could be spent on saving a child from starvation in a land far away. Why do most people feel obligated to jump into the pond, but a lesser amount of people feel obligated to help the child that is farther away?
  • Changing the scale of these simple thought experiments adds complexities that completely change the calculus of the scenario 
  • Much of the Effective Altruism movement is based on the shallow pond problem 

The Repugnant Conclusion

  • Philosopher Derek Parfit formulated the “repugnant conclusion” in response to effective altruism and utilitarianism
  • The repugnant conclusion is the extension of utilitarianism to the global population instead of using utilitarianism in these thought experiments with just a few people
  • Applying the logic of utilitarianism at scale to the global population of 10 billion people reveals its weaknesses as a theory 

Examples of Applying the Shallow Pond Problem at Scale 

  • You are morally obligated not to have a birthday party for your five-year-old because the money could be spent to save children dying from malaria 
  • Extending it even further: Not only should you not have the birthday party for your son, but you’re morally obligated to spend less time with your son so you can work more and send more money to help solve the malaria crisis in Africa
  • Whether your son has the party or not, he’ll still be happier than the children dying of malaria, so the logic of effective altruism says you have a moral imperative to get the bed nets to the children that need them instead of throwing a birthday party or even spending time with your son 

Arbitraging Well-Being Never Ends

  • “Selling” your well-being and sending it to other parts of the world that have less well-being sounds good on the surface, but when do you stop?
    • Effective altruism says to never stop arbitraging your well-being
  • It argues that if you’re really maximizing the good, you should just keep arbitraging your well-being away until the cows come home  
  • The repugnant conclusion of never-ending well-being arbitrage: everyone ends up with a life that is just barely above the subsistence level 
  • All the extra happiness has been arbitraged away so that it’s been fairly distributed among everybody else 
  • Arbitraging well-being does a lot of good, according to Erik Hoel, but he disagrees with some of the core assumptions of the effective altruism movement, especially around the notion of maximizing it

Repugnant Conclusions 

  • The average person participating in effective altruism probably doesn’t need to “bite the bullet” of the repugnant conclusion, but many of the leaders do toy around with the repugnancy that’s inherent within utilitarianism
  • Some utilitarians think that if rabbits suffer in their lives, then it is better for the world if fewer rabbits exist. More homo sapiens on Earth means there will be fewer rabbits, and subsequently less rabbit suffering, so therefore it is good that there are fewer rabbits. 
    • Erik uses this example as another repugnant conclusion of effective altruism 
  • Oftentimes, non-utilitarianism ethics are required to reach the proposed solution of utilitarianism, such as accounting for the natural order 

Artificial Intelligence Safety and the Effective Altruism Movement  

  • It’s reasonable to think that people should give to charity, according to Erik 
  • The Effective Altruism movement is the largest donor to artificial intelligence safety and has majority influence in the direction of AI safety 
  • People are concerned about AI getting out of control and taking over the world
    • William Macaskill, a leading thinker in the effective altruism movement,  has categorized AI as an existential threat, on par with nuclear war 
  • However, Macaskill differentiates AI taking over the world from nuclear fallout, arguing that civilization ends if a large-scale nuclear war broke out but civilization does not necessarily end if sentient AI takes over the world and removes all homo sapiens
    • Following the utilitarianism to its repugnant conclusion, there would be more AIs on Earth suffering less than homo sapiens, therefore it would be a net positive for Earth 
  • Erik Hoel thinks we should challenge the people and companies who are creating the really powerful artificial intelligence, which are really expensive to make and train so there’s only a handful of companies capable 
  • The effective altruism movement has a level of sympathy for AI genocide on humanity, which is something that should be investigated 
  • The dominant mission of AI safety is to create AIs that can be perfectly enslaved so that nothing goes wrong 

Religion’s Role in Rejecting Repugnant Conclusions 

  • Erik Hoel wrote an essay describing how humanness is a moral quality in and of itself 
  • Maintaining our connection to our humanity is morally important 
  • Putting a chip in everyone’s head to make them happy all the time would reduce humanness, and is not something a long-term humanist would support 
  • Plato’s theory of ethics suggests that things should act in their platonic form to their nature 
    • A good bear is a good hunter
    • It is moral for a bear to be a good hunter, even if it causes suffering, according to Plato’s theory of ethics 

Systems, Markets, & Morality 

  • Systems that are designed from the bottom-up are more robust than systems designed from the top-down 
  • Erik draws parallels from optimal system design to optimal morality formulation 
  • The effective altruism movement is an attempt to formulate morality from the top-down, which is antithetical to how morals have emerged since the dawn of humanity 
  • In a sense, morality has market qualities since its robust forms of it oftentimes emerge from the bottom up through centuries and millennia 
  • This is obviously a reductive analogy, considering the many things that have emerged from the bottom-up, including racism 

Why Utilitarianism Crumbles When Applied At-Scale

  • Utilitarianism treats good and evil as big mounds of dirt of varying sizes
    • Pain experienced from WW2 is a large mound of evil dirt, and pain experienced from stubbing your toe is a smaller amount of dirt
  • Theoretically, if enough people stub their toe over time, its respective pile of dirt could become larger than the WW2-pain pile of dirt 
  • Erik Hoel argues that “good and evil” are not just big mounds of dirt; there are qualitative differences between various types of evils and goods 
  • Trading instances of good and evil is not fungible in the way that utilitarians want it to be 

Economists Using Utilitarianism In Policy Formulation

  • Economists justify policy proposals by trying to identify moral equivalencies
    • For example, free-trade will bring X amount of additional benefit to the broom consumer, and Y amount of pain to the local broom suppliers, X is a greater absolute value than Y, therefore it is better 
  • Russ Roberts is pro free-trade; he uses this example to demonstrate how wrong many of these “metrics” are in practice 
  • Economists often neglect qualitative aspects as an input variable

Charity  

  • The effective altruism movement treats things like charities that people don’t normally treat as a charity, such as AI safety 
    • Erik is not necessarily against this 
  • Treating it as a charity allows them to raise money for their influence on it and distribute it in a way that grants them more power 
  • “More weird things should be thought of as charity causes.” – Erik Hoel  

Criticisms that Erik Receives 

  • Erik is a neuroscientist and does not have the background of a traditional neuroscientist 
  • Philosophy is a relatively easier field for people to jump into and start criticizing things  
  • The people who critique Erik are constantly trying to find ways to address the repugnant conclusion and they continue to fail 
    • They admit these failures in their academic papers, but are ambiguous about the failures in the books they publish because they can be 

Credit Where Credit is Due

  • The effective altruism movement does a lot of good in the world  
  • Generally, it is a relatively admirable movement 
  • Erik’s criticism of the movement provides a path forward and goes into the notion of expanding the idea of charity  

Books Mentioned

Econtalk : , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Notes By Stan Rizzo

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 35,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks