Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.


Some disasters (catastrophic climate change, high-energy physics surprises) are so serious that even a small probability (say 1%) of such a disaster would have significant policy implications. Unfortunately, making predictions about such unlikely events is extremely unreliable. This makes it difficult to formally justify assigning such disasters probabilities low enough to be compatible with an intuitive policy response. So we must either reconsider our formal analyses or reconsider our intuitive responses. Read the rest of this entry »


Risk aversion and investment (for altruists)

Suppose I hope to use my money to do good some day, but for now I am investing it and aiming to maximize my returns. I face the question: how much risk should I be willing to bear? Should I pursue safe investments, or riskier investments with higher returns?

My knee-jerk response is to say “An altruist should be risk neutral. If you have twice as much money, you can do twice as much good. Sure, there are some diminishing returns, but my own investment is minuscule compared to an entire world full of philanthropists. So in the regime where I am investing, returns are roughly linear.” (I might revise this picture if I thought that I was a very unusual philanthropist, and that few others would invest in the same charitable causes as me—in that case I alone might represent a significant fraction of charitable investment in my causes of choice, so I should expect to personally run into diminishing returns.)

But on closer inspection there is something fishy about this reasoning. I don’t have great data on the responsiveness of charitable giving to market performance, but at the individual level it seems that the elasticity of charitable giving to income is about 1—if I am 50% richer (in one possible world than another), I tend to give 50% more to charity. So in worlds where markets do well, we should expect charities to have more money. If markets (rather, the average investor) do 10% better, I should expect 10% more money to be available for any particular charitable cause, regardless of how many donors it has. Read the rest of this entry »

Why might the future be good?

When talking about the future, I often encounter two (quite different) stories describing why the future might be good:

  1. Decisions will be made by people whose lives are morally valuable and who want the best for themselves. They will bargain amongst each other and create a world that is good to live in. Because my values are roughly aligned with their aggregate preferences, I expect them to create a rich and valuable world (by my lights as well as theirs).
  2. Some people in the future will have altruistic values broadly similar to my own, and will use their influence to create a rich and valuable world (by my lights as well as theirs).

Which of these pictures we take more seriously has implications for what we should do today. I often have object level disagreements which seem to boil down to disagreement about which of these pictures is more important, but rarely do I see serious discussion of that question. (When there is discussion, it seems to turn into a contest of political ideologies rather than facts.) Read the rest of this entry »

Self-driving cars as a target for philanthropy

The cost of driving

Driving causes a lot of damage; in the US alone, each year there are about 2 million accidents, around 30,000 people die, the CDC estimates $100 billion of costs from injuries and lost productivity, and it looks like well over 50 billion hours are spent driving. (Interesting aside: these quantities would all be equal at $2 / hour and $3 million / life, which I believe are relatively close to the average american’s actual reservation prices.)

Another way to estimate the size of losses from auto collisions is to look at the auto insurance industry, which has revenues of around $180B, of which more than 2/3 goes to claims. Claims and CDC estimates seem likely to be (highly correlated) overestimates for damages, but I think the ballpark figure of $100B in damages, 30,000 lives, and 50 billion hours is probably about right.  Read the rest of this entry »

Four flavors of time-discounting I endorse, and one I do not

(I apologize in advance for a bit of a long post. There is a more concise summary at the end.)

We often choose between doing good for the people of today and doing good for the people of the future, and are thus faced with a question: how do we trade off good now vs. good later? A standard answer to this question is to invoke exponential time discounting with one discount rate or another.

When I consult my intuition, I find that at least over the next few thousand years, I don’t much care about whether someone gets happier today or happier tomorrow—it’s all the same to me. (See also here for a much more thorough and correct discussion of this issue, and see here for a much more poetic description.)

Nevertheless, there are a few senses in which I do discount the future, and I think it’s important to bring those up to clarify what I do (and don’t mean) by saying that I have weak time preferences. Read the rest of this entry »

Improving decision-making

One way to influence the future is to improve human decision-making—to make people smarter, encourage metacognition, improve institutional decision-making, etc. Any of these changes will probably have an impact on how future folk manage the problems they face, and on the sorts of infrastructure and capabilities they in turn build for the farther future. Even if we don’t know what those problems will be, or what exactly we would want smarter or better-educated people to do, it seems like a safe bet that there will be opportunities for them to apply their increased capabilities.

But at the same time, I think most of the problems humans face are caused by humans. So if you make humans better at doing whatever they do, you speed up the creation of problems as well as their resolution.

Nevertheless, I tend to suspect that increasing human capabilities is a positive change on balance. I’m not sure about this, or about the magnitude of the impact; since it looks like capability improvements might be leading contenders for altruistic interventions, it seems like an important question. Depending on the answer, I may decide to work directly on the biggest problems I can see, or instead to help prepare future folk to do the same.  Read the rest of this entry »

Pressing ethical questions

In general I spend surprisingly little time thinking about ethics. My thoughts tend to go like this: even if I don’t know exactly what I want now or what I will want in the future, there are some convergent instrumental goals which I want to pursue anyway, and I can mostly postpone ethical deliberation. (Here I am going to set aside my self-interest and focus on my altruistic interest.)

In particular, for a broad range of values, the first thing to do is to establish a stable, technologically sophisticated civilization at a large scale, which can then direct its action on the basis of careful argument and reflection. When I need to make a tradeoff between clarifying my ethics and increasing the probability of such a civilization existing, I’m not inclined to reflect on ethics. This might be an error, but it’s my current well-intentioned best guess.

However, there are a few decisions I face today that do require that I have some idea what I value. So it seems worth putting in a bit of time to get a clearer picture. Here are some ethical questions that seem to bear on immediate practical issues (albeit, often in a roundabout way): Read the rest of this entry »

Taxonomy of change

I suspect that the events of each year are morally neutral, when taken altogether. This is not because I know anything about the future. It’s because I think the world of tomorrow is as valuable in expectation as the world of today nearly as a tautology. I wouldn’t pay any money to transform the world of today into the world of tomorrow—I’d rather just wait a year. Unfortunately, in light of concerns about replaceability, many of our actions may (essentially) have the effect of accelerating progress in one domain or another. If that’s the case, it behooves us to have an understanding of which changes in the world we like and which are negative.

The observation that the total of all changes is neutral, may help us pin down the impact of some kinds of change. For example, suppose A, B, and C are all changing. If we have no good arguments about whether A and B are changing in a good way, but we can tell that C is changing in a negative way, we can conclude that A and B together are changing in a positive way (and the default presumption should be that each of them is positive).

I am particularly curious about whether economic and technological progress are good, and how good they are. But in order to attack that question, I first have to ask: how good are the other events taking place over the same time? Should we be happy that faster technological change leaves less time for other developments, or should we be concerned? Here I’ll give a more elaborate taxonomy than I have in the past, and in future posts I’ll flesh out some of these categories further.

This is not an exhaustive taxonomy, but I’ve tried to include the categories that seem most significant to me: Read the rest of this entry »


Suppose I am trying to evaluate the consequences of taking job X. Here is a sequence of (hopefully decreasingly) naive ways to think about the impact of my decision.

(I don’t know if the later analyses are actually reasonable, but I’d really like to see more intellectually serious discussion of this issue by people who understand the world, and particularly economics, better than I do. I wouldn’t be surprised if more sophisticated versions of this analysis are already well-understood amongst economists, and simply haven’t been noticed by altruists trying to understand this issue. In that case, hopefully someone can point that out to me. Some of these analyses, and more sophisticated elaborations on them, appear in Ben Todd’s masters thesis.) Read the rest of this entry »

How useful is “progress”?

Most of the things that are happening in the world seem valuable to me: we understand science and engineering better, we acquire more expertise, the productive workforce grows, we invest in infrastructure and capital faster than it degrades, and so on. If I make the world of today richer or more technologically sophisticated, it seems like those gains will persist and compound for quite a while. On the other hand, people who work at cross-purposes to progress seem to get little traction. So naturally, when I consider trying to make the world better, I’m inclined to try to accelerate progress. Unfortunately I think that our intuitions overstate the value of speeding up progress (of all kinds), and that in the aggregate I don’t much care whether human progress goes faster or slower.

The basic issue is that accelerating progress doesn’t change where we are going, it only changes how quickly we get there. So unless you are in a rush, speeding things up doesn’t make the world much better. Of course, there are some cases where speeding up society does change things—for example when society is racing against destructive natural processes—but I suspect those effects are small.

Read the rest of this entry »