Effective Altruism Criticisms

Disclaimer: being neurodivergent, I sometimes fail to communicate my thoughts clearly.

I recently learned about the Effective Altruism (EA) organization who has a competition with incentives for people to help with their error correction. The strategy of a competition and the goal of doing error correction is extremely important in my mind.

My criticisms are generally related to attention and technology because I believe attention is the most valuable resource in the world and technology can help us manage our attention better.

While I think my criticisms are valid, I do not live by my criticisms. I try to keep some cash on me to give to people who are asking for help. Engaging with EA has led me to learn about Trachoma, and I am considering donating money. I wish I could trust the people I give to. But that just isn’t practical at this point in time. My criticisms are meant to encourage us to transform into people who can give with confidence because we are able to identify the most trustworthy people.

Criticism: EA Transparency Technology

How good is the judging process for this competition? Why should I trust the process and the technology? Why should I donate money to Effective Altruism or the charities they point towards?

My claim is that transparency technology should be developed and utilized in order to help determine which ideas, people, and organizations can be trusted. EA is lacking in their use of and advocacy for transparency technology. I could spend my entire life pointing out transparency technology ideas and I would love to do that for the benefit of the world. I will list out a few of those ideas now.

Note that I am recording myself doing this work using Open Broadcaster Software. The judges for this competition could do the same. Reviews of the recordings could be crowdsourced to help identify important points which help with learning and teaching about ideas, people, and organizations. This post is also in version control with historical changes

Financial Transparency

The first technology I developed in the past for my business was a website which exposed my paypal transactions for the world. The implementation was limited because of the available technology at the time, but the underlying goal of financial transparency remains important. We want to earn and maintain trust. And we want to facilitate error correction.

As a donor, I want to know the amount of money which is coming into the organization and I want to know the amount of money which is going out of the organization. I want to know what the money is being spent on, and I want to know why that money is being spent. I want to be able to designate my donations toward specific projects and goals within the organization. For example, I could designate funding towards the development of a team within EA which develops this financial technology.

As a donor, I want to make sure that ideas which facilitate more income and better spending are identified and the people who are able to identify such improvements are also identified. We are generally interested in identifying better ideas and identifying people capable of identifying better ideas.

Process Transparency

The technology for financial transparency should be open sourced in the proper process so that it can be reviewed and trusted. The technology also becomes available to other organizations who also become more trustworthy when they use the technology. Even the process by which technology becomes open source can be shared and can be considered as technology which can be iteratively improved.

All of the processes can be iteratively improved upon with the help of transparency technology.

How will this competition get judged? There are judges that have been selected. What was the process for selecting those judges? And when each judge participates with their activities regarding the competition, what is their process? How can we facilitate the process of process improvement itself? I know these judges have a limited capacity. What happens as the number of submissions increase?

By explicitly sharing the process for this competition in a transparent way we can facilitate error correction: or the process of process improvement. Other organizations can implement those processes to accomplish their own error correction. And what if we were to develop a platform which facilitated such competitions like the one I am participating in with this writing?

Transparency Technology Conclusion

Perhaps you can begin to see how every aspect of life can be integrated with transparency technology such that teaching and learning is accelerated. EA is attempting to do these teaching and learning activities in general by pointing out career paths and the best places to send money. EA is also attempting to do learning activities with this competition. But all learning and teaching activities are a collection of processes (or ideas) which can be made machine readable and integrated into our machines with the help of software engineers for the benefit of all.

Our knowledge can be integrated into platforms served by our machines and we can do our part in the process by which our knowledge becomes systematized for all.

Criticism: Risk of Altruism Itself

Criticizing altruism itself is a risky move because the competition is being hosted by altruists who have bias. I don’t need to criticize altruism. I can work to develop technology for altruists even if I fundamentally disagree with them and their ability to be effective at accomplishing their larger goals. This is why I like engineering (tool making). Engineering is agnostic about your morality. An engineer can help you accomplish your goals even if the engineer has disagreements with the person using their tool. My hope is that knowledge tools (transparency technology) will help us learn about our mistakes. We are all making mistakes.

I am not an altruist in the same way that others are. While doing some research on effective altruism, one point stood out to me in a TED talk with a screenshot of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website which included the phrase “all lives have equal value”. The word “value” is subjective because there are many kinds of value. I agree with the phrase “all lives have equal intrinsic value” but I disagree with the phrase “all lives have equal extrinsic value”. In order to be the most effective altruist, you must distinguish between the different kinds of value. A failure to recognize that different people have different extrinsic value results in avoidable costs and inefficiencies.

At a later point in that TED talk, Peter points out that you can provide a blind American with a guide dog or you can cure between 400 to 2000 people of blindness with the same amount of money. I think that’s a very important point in general because you could have a much bigger impact with your donation. But that impact is unknown. It could be good or bad in terms of outcomes for our world. One of the unlikely hypothetical worst case scenarios is that all of the 400 to 2000 people could become child rapists.

One of my counterclaims is that there are a minority of people who are more extrinsically valuable than all other people on Earth. And if we can identify and invest into this minority of people, we will have better outcomes in less time. This is how I understand the word “effectiveness”.

Another counterclaim is that there are a minority of people who have the potential to be the most extrinsically valuable people on Earth and they are stuck in a situation with blindness and poverty. So I love Peter pointing out that we can spend money for one blind American or 400 to 2000 people with blindness because we do have the opportunity to be more effective and productive with our spending.

One of my main criticisms of altruism itself is that this belief can lead a person towards actions which cause more harm in the end if the altruist does not recognize that different people have different extrinsic value.

Conclusion

There are reasons why I don’t give out a lot of money and I don’t make sacrifices to my standard of living. I’m sure I am biased, but I think it’s mostly a matter of trust. I want my wife and I to be able to trust people and organizations with our money so that we want to make sacrifices to our standard of living.

When an organization (like EA) implements transparency technology, the best and brightest people in the world can point out errors and delegate their donations in the most effective ways which are not understood by the people managing the organization itself.

Notes

I think the criticisms regarding technology transparency apply to every organization of people. I was disappointed with the climate change competition recently done by xprize because they did not investigate the underlying physics behind our team’s idea. We were hoping they would either tell us what was wrong with our physics, or they would help point at a new idea that could save billions of lives. You can see from their feedback that they did neither.

footnotes

Written by Gavin Palmer practicing a relationship with the Greatest Intentions

Serious content should have version control with historical changes.

Proof of Work