A lot of times, I see empirical work and I go, “That doesn’t even pass the sniff test for me.” And the sniff test is kind of like common sense, right? That was really an incredible achievement. Russ Roberts: Let me try to disagree with… I’m not going to try to disagree–. Robert Wiblin: Yeah. For me, that’s the essence of that decision. But we’re less likely to enter longstanding political debates, such as what the tax rate should be, where a few more voices are unlikely to make much difference. These are all things that typically are in the public sphere. Or has this just become nonsense?” But then I guess when I think about like the clear examples in my own life, something from my own experience where I’m like, “I’m a pretty cheerful person.” And then I have some friends who are extremely anxious or depressed or some of that. But the other things I think are more interesting, which have to do with just trying to measure satisfaction or happiness. They’re the source of activism of people who are passionate about change, about improving the world. Russ Roberts: Would you really not see that because you’re so focused on counting the basketball passes. Are you going to be one of those people before you have kids, who turns into one of those people who’s satisfied? The person answering the questions, are they going to be honest with themselves? The greatest good for the greatest number of people is one tenet of utilitarianism, and this way of thinking is alive and well under a new name: “effective altruism”. It’s not a very tractable problem, as we say, but the scale of the issue, the importance of the issue is so great that I think it’s worth people potentially having a crack or dedicating their career to try and make progress on this issue. I agree with you very much that reducing the risk of a military confrontation with China is a really good idea. Let’s distinguish between whether a cause is difficult to quantify and whether it’s political. Effective Altruism at Harvard. But what about things that are at the more micro level, like kindness? I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours. We care about meaning and serenity and some more complicated subtler things, that’s part of it. I’ve got to decide whether to have kids myself. I think kindness, I might not call it kindness because that’s such a broad class. So that’s, I would say, the way I ground my skepticism. What I like about effective altruism, and I think is extremely important, is its focus on results. Okay? Some good things, mostly bad. And I don’t mean non-fictional accounts, fictional accounts, that try to distill that identity change that I’m talking about. I might do it against their will if I loved them and thought enough about my own confidence that this was good for them. I can’t tailor it. Utilitarianism doesn’t have to be at odds against fairness. It may vary by place and time and circumstance. I’ll have to adapt.”. And I’m not really comfortable saying, “Yeah, let’s go back to the minimum wage.”. Is it because there’s something fundamentally different about the American economy?” Possible. Where good could mean satisfying to you or good could mean impact on the world at large. Russ Roberts: So those are harder to measure and tend to be ignored. But it seems like at the extremes, you can. If I thought a policy was going to lead to tyranny or oppression, I would stay away from it. It’s not to be mastered. They also claim that firms relentlessly pursue profit, and will move a business to Asia in a minute, or to Mexico to save a little bit of money. Russ Roberts: A long enough rant for you? There are quire a lot of people who decide to try to have their impact through giving donations, but I think that’s probably a minority of people now, or at least it’s just one approach of many that the people in effective altruism take. Obviously it’s a better world where women and people of different sexual orientation are respected rather than condemned or vilified or abused or oppressed, but it’s not obvious to me that the larger trends of human history are headed in the right direction. And therefore you might decide to be a vegetarian if couldn’t buy your chicken in that plastic Purdue package that makes it look like something other than a chicken. I don’t have a nice suit really, but okay, we’ll pretend. Russ Roberts: One more example and I’ll shut up. When combined with various other views, consequentialism yields various moral theories.. So I have to take that claim with a grain of salt and my own skepticism, that maybe it’s not really motivated by looking at the data and looking at the evidence and weighing common sense versus the empirical analysis versus the theory. So I want to come to that, but before I do, can I backtrack for a minute? I guess I have a somewhat pessimistic take, which is that we should trust it less than most people think, but I think you have maybe an even more pessimistic take. In general, we can’t have the same sort of robust evidence base that we’re used to in global health interventions, for example. But if you said to me, “You know, I think Americans should get along better with Russians, Chinese and Swedes.” I don’t know how to start with that. And I said to my wife, “Have you seen the fan?” Because there were only two places to have it. :2:4–7 Altruism refers to improving the lives of others—as opposed to egoism, which emphasizes only self-interest. These worries are partly informed by Russ’ ‘classical liberal’ worldview, which involves a preference for free market solutions to problems, and nervousness about the big plans that sometimes come out of consequentialist thinking. So here’s the problem. Russ Roberts: So I don’t have any problem. I just mentioned in passing, I try to give 10% of my after income to charity. I may not even know actually how I can spend time reading to my kid at night knowing that I ought to be doing some consulting work at night raising money and buying more of those bed nets. Or worse, it turns out everybody had kids. We want to think of happiness as a… In math, we call a ‘scalar’. And it’s a great learning experience. But at the same time, I’m aware that maybe I kind of overestimate my sniff ability. How do we deal with that? Robert Wiblin: We’ve invented external wombs, you don’t even have to get pregnant anymore. But I think people should be free to choose what they ingest. It just has to then be weighed up against the negatives. But since I worry that there aren’t going to be any saints in that position, in fact, the worst will rise to the top, I’m going to forego the right solution, which is this international government run by saints. Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Russ Roberts. You can definitely get a lot better at that kind of really difficult decision-making on the fly. These are all things that typically are in the public sphere. I think that’s wrong. It seems like people’s suitability for different roles can vary massively, and you really want to find an area where you can thrive and excel and be especially good, but better than other people, potentially find your kind of comparative advantage. What’s moving about it is how these small townsfolk rose to the occasion in taking care of these strangers, and in doing so, what was motivating them was a sense that as a Newfoundlander, somebody from Newfoundland, that’s what they did. And personally, I focus more, I have more of an interest on policy careers or research careers or ways that people can do good directly rather than by donating money. Some people think it’s good in moderation. Is that, if you just left people to themselves, they would have to do all of this research for themselves upfront to try to figure out, “What are the most pressing problems in the world and which ones are solvable and which ones aren’t?”. Russ Roberts: But there’s a whole other question of, “Well, that might be true. Others think, “Absolutely. The minimum wage has a big negative effect on the employment opportunities of low-skilled workers. Those are the negatives, okay? Some good things, mostly bad. So for all my skepticism about empirical research, I have never claimed that facts are irrelevant. Russ Roberts: No, no. Effective Altruism. We created the League of Nations. Okay sorry, I shouldn’t… Yeah that’s true. We’ve spent quite a bit of time on effective altruism and I think we’ve reached… Well we found that we agree maybe more than we thought. In fact, the expression, “Be kind, everyone is in a battle,” is a motto to live by that most of us I think fail to live by. John Gray, for example, refers to ‘utilitarian effective altruists’, and in his critique does not distinguish between effective altruism and utilitarianism. I think it matters. We think that that would be a good thing if they spent more time thinking about how could they help others rather than just how could they have a career that’s enjoyable to them? Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical.” Alright, without further ado, here’s my interview with Russ. I try to give 10% of my income to charity, my after-tax income. What problems are most burning and most desperately need solving? Because one way to think about it is over the next 20 years, you’ll wait for this data to come out and then when you’re 45, you’ll know whether you should have kids or not, and maybe it’s too late. There’s just so many decisions to make and it’s so hard to optimize and so much uncertainty. Some progress, even if you couldn’t solve it. That doesn't have to be the case for Altruism. It was not science. So some people would say climate change. You may not be able to biologically, but of course, being a parent is what you do. I think you mean your demeanor is more cheerful, your average level of delight in daily life. Initially it was most people only cared about white men, then women, then people of color, we got rid of slavery; you’ve had a kind of expanding circle of moral consideration. But the idea that we know the best way to have an impact, it’s kind of the opposite of what we think at 80,000 Hours. The challenge is knowing which ones to follow and listen to. You’ve got the rise of communism and fascism, Stalinist Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. Put that to the side for the moment. So that’s a common claim. And those experiences also changed them. And I think we have a temptation to use data anyway, and I think that’s a mistake. Effective altruism is built on the simple but unsettling idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good one can. Is this country going to hold together? So I’m inclined with these policy decisions. Help me. This idea that when people hear words associated with the elderly, they move more slowly. It’s weird that that’s the thing that we’ve relentlessly focused on. And I see things in my children that were in my dad that he passed on genetically and environmentally through me that I, in turn, passed on environmentally to my kids. We’re not sure about that. My wife and I have a very complicated dynamic with each other, with each child, when the six of us are together, when subsets of us are together, it’s all different. The biggest public challenge we have, there’s two of them that are in the news constantly, right now, it’s racial relations, particularly the role of the police in urban areas of the United States. William MacAskill on Effective Altruism and Doing Good Better, L.A. Paul on Vampires, Life Choices, and Transformation, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity, The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World, An oasis of kindness on 9/11: This town welcomed 6,700 strangers amid terror attacks, Frequently Asked Questions About GiveWell’s Charity Research and Recommendations, #32 – Prof Bryan Caplan on whether the Case Against Education holds up, totalitarianism, & open borders, #45 – Prof Tyler Cowen's stubborn attachments to maximising economic growth, making civilization more stable & respecting human rights, #63 – Vitalik Buterin on better ways to fund public goods, blockchain's failures, & effective giving, #51 – Martin Gurri on the revolt of the public & crisis of authority in the information age, #68 – Will MacAskill on the paralysis argument, whether we're at the hinge of history, & his new priorities, Benjamin Todd on the core of effective altruism and how to argue for it (80k team chat #3), Being too confident we’ve figured out ‘the best thing’, Being too credulous about the results of social science or medical experiments, Undermining people’s altruism by encouraging them to focus on strangers, who it’s naturally harder to care for, Thinking it’s possible to predictably help strangers, who you don’t understand well enough to know what will truly help, Adding levels of wellbeing across people when this is inappropriate, Encouraging people to pursue careers they won’t enjoy. Russ Roberts: Part of the reason, besides the fact that I think it’s important to treat human beings as adults and not as children, but the other part is that, giving power to people with guns, to give them the right to break into people’s homes, to look for these things that we’ve decided, some people have decided, are not good for you, is a really bad set of incentives that gets unleashed. I understand the good part of it, certainly the move toward less racism, less sexism, less sexual judgment. It’s horrible. It’s very concerning. But my guess is that both sides are both correct. And, in particular, I would suggest that maybe the lesson there to be learned is we should do actually fewer things together and more things locally. Robert Wiblin: We don’t think that people should focus only on having an impact, but I guess it is kind of part of the message that we think, especially, or at least people in our audience, people who are very educated, often very privileged, potentially who could have a lot of influence on solving some of these pressing global problems. Stefan Schubert. Did they exclude anything? There’s a show on Broadway: it’s in darkness now because of COVID. If you pick a problem that’s important and you can help a lot, that would seem to be a better problem to devote yourself to. Or is it that you do disagree some kind of more fundamentally with the idea of building a career around trying to do as much good as possible or something like that? Robert Wiblin: That’s why you need a community of people. First, I don’t like macroeconomics, not because the theories are complex, but because I think they are too mathematical. So there’s a famous study, which I’m not going to describe in exact detail, but it’s a test of perception. They’re in the public sphere for a variety of reasons, but they’re in the public sphere. I mean, I think when people consider the example of unjustly executing one person to benefit lots of other people, there’s like many reasons why people just find that morally repugnant. Robert Wiblin: I think anyone who really understood statistics or social science would have looked at that and said, “Well, maybe that’s an interesting piece of evidence and it’s cool that they did that research and there’s a good reason to go out and try it again.” Or even, “This might be true that this might fall through.” Or especially, “Because this had such an unusually large positive effect, we would expect that if we did it again, the effect they would find will be a lot smaller. Maybe there’s cases where it’s close to you and you can’t say whether this effect on person A is bigger or smaller than effect on person B. So I’ve recently been listening to this lecture series called The Other Side of History, where it goes through from tens of thousands of years ago to what was life like just for an ordinary person? Facts are huge and science underlies 99.9% of the things that make our life pleasant. And I love what you just said. Then you have the glorious highs, the wondrous things, the deep satisfaction, the emotional joy that you feel and delight in having children. You said given how much good we’ve achieved so far from broadening or moral calculus, how do you know that? I go back to the original Bram Stoker’s Dracula version. Now we’ve tried as humanity, we’ve tried to improve that. And the answer is, of course, data is often very helpful. Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Full transcripts are available on our site and compiled by Zakee Ulhaq. I don’t know how to do that. And in some ways, I think people in the general public can latch onto specific ideas that they hear about and think that they’re very good, but the more you focus on these issues, the more you realize how little we know, just how clueless we are about the effects of our actions and how hard it is to work out what’s impactful. Yeah. Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I actually have an idea. Russ Roberts: I think the argument then is, now what? But what if by getting together you create tyranny?” You allow someone to totally dominate this world government you think is necessary to fight climate change. Should you become a psychotherapist? Une division de 80,000 Hours, Effective Animal Activism, est créée pour intégrer des réflexions sur le bien-être animal. Today’s episode is with Russ Roberts, the host of my favourite podcast, EconTalk. It seemed implausible to start with. I think they’re both at risk right now. If you’re not a parent now. 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