Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Month: April, 2013

Astronomical waste

Warning: this is an unusually unusual post.

Previously I argued that human activity is only useful on net to the extent that non-human activity is harmful. This raises the question: how harmful are events in nature? I think that the big things to have in mind are disasters, resource use, and decay. But another possible problem is that natural resources throughout the universe may be slowly running out through no fault of humanity’s. Galaxies are receding, time is running out, stars are burning down. Intuitively this doesn’t seem like a big deal. The universe is very old, and our entire history is less than an instant from its perspective, while our behavior on earth is having big effects on short timescales. But it seems worth checking anyway. Read the rest of this entry »


Estimates vs. head to head comparisons

Summary: when choosing between two options, it’s not always optimal to estimate the value of each option and then pick the better one.

Suppose I am choosing between two interventions, X and Y. One way to make my decision is to predict what will happen if I do X and predict what will happen if I do Y, and then pick the option which leads to the outcome that I prefer.

My predictions may be both vague and error-prone, and my value judgments might be very hard or nearly arbitrary. But it seems like I ultimately must make some predictions, and must decide how valuable the different outcomes are. So if I have to evaluate N options, I could do it by evaluating the goodness of each option, and then simply picking the option with the highest value. Right?

Read the rest of this entry »