Saturday, November 30, 2019

Person-affecting views may be dominated by possibilities of large future populations of necessary people

On symmetric person-affecting views (PAV), in choosing between actions only necessary people, those who will exist regardless of our immediate choice, count while those whose existence is contingent on our choices are ignored. Chaotic 'butterfly effects' mean that almost any terrestrial action will shortly scramble the genetic makeup and identities of future terrestrial births. Thus philosopher Michael Plant invokes symmetric PAV to say that '[o]n this, roughly speaking, the well-being of future entities, human or non-human, does not count" and to argue in favor of a focus on short-run impacts on long-lived existing creatures (humans and dogs, but not chickens or ants) rather than long-run consequences of altruistic interventions, since vast future populations would be composed of contingent rather than necessary people. However, the empirical underpinnings of this move are questionable: there are reasonable possibilities on which astronomically large populations of necessary people will exist, and credence in such possibilities will mean that they account for the bulk of expected impact on necessary people. I raise three such possibilities: technological life extension, contact with distant aliens, and fission cases.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Financial returns of interstellar colonization for the sedentary

Summary: In thinking about the likelihood of interstellar colonization by our civilization, or possible alien civilizations, one question is motivation: how strong are the incentives to do so? If moderately fast self-replicating probes can build infrastructure in a new solar system and send back information or material goods requiring extensive experimentation or computation to produce, then even at current market interest rates a colonization mission could deliver extremely high return on investment. For patient long-lived decision-makers with strong property rights or stability, returns could be overwhelming.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Flow-through effects of innovation through the ages

Summary: Per the previous post, it appears that growth impacts of saving lives have historically dwarfed the immediate effects, by increasing technological innovation that eventually led to the rich and populous modern world. Active work on technological innovation contributes more to technology than the average of all activity in society, and so might be expected to have larger growth effects. Moreover, in ancient times not only did society have smaller population and output, it also invested much less of those resources into R&D. The greater neglectedness raised the marginal impact of ancient R&D enormously, so that past altruists who contributed to innovation could have had multiple orders of magnitude more impact on long-run living standards and years of life lived than those who saved lives or provided direct aid. The strength of this preference increases enormously as we consider earlier periods in history.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Flow-through effects of saving a life through the ages on life-years lived

Summary: Historically, human populations were much smaller, and humans have long contributed to a process of technological accumulation that lead to current enormous human populations. Thus, saving a drowning child 10,000 years ago would have, by increasing economic output and technological advance, lead to hundreds of additional human lives by today, and potentially far more in the future. Because past populations were smaller by a greater factor than they were poorer, the ancients' opportunities to bring about QALYs may be much greater and closer to those of moderns than is sometimes thought, at least within the field of local direct life-saving. Impacts were also enormously greater in comparatively non-Malthusian periods, when a saved life could compound at high local population growth rates. In some ways, this is a historical analog to Nick Bostrom's 'Astronomical Waste' argument, showing that the basic logic of longtermism has held in the past in at least some domains. However, expediting growth is a relatively easy change to transmit over long periods, whereas trajectory changes that attempt to shape the character or actions of society at future technology levels (rather than when they are reached) face the problem of decaying influence.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Annual 'splitting' of funding gaps can be partial funging when gaps carry over across years

In a 2015 blog post, the Open Philanthropy Project contrasted several strategies for coordinating Good Ventures' donations with those of smaller donors. One was 'splitting,' in which a large donor commits to funding only a fixed percentage of a funding gap (between two thresholds of efficacy) in a given year. The advantage of this is said to be that a $1 marginal donation by a small donor will increase funding to the recipient charity by $1, in contrast to 'funging' where the large donor reduces its donation in response to the small donor, so that funding to the recipient charity increases by substantially less than $1. However, this distinction does not hold when funding gaps can substantially carry over from year to year. In the limit of perfect carryover, funging of small donors could approach 100%. With substantial stochastic carryover funging could be likewise substantial, while 'one-time' opportunities may suffer minimal funging. I suggest that some accounting for carryover across periods must accompany 'splitting' to avoid donor illusion.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Creating a donor-advised fund lottery

Summary: In a previous post I discussed the construction of charity lotteries, which let donors who think that the effectiveness of their donations has increasing returns to scale convert small donations into a small chance of donations large enough to exploit scale economies. However, transaction and coordination costs pose a barrier to individual users: there are scale economies to setting up charity lotteries. Effective altruists looking for projects could set up a charity lottery with low transaction costs using a donor-advised fund to provide easy access to small donors.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The age distribution of GiveWell recommended charities

Summary: GiveWell's list of top and standout charities is identical to that of 2014, although with special emphasis on the Against Malaria Foundation. Giving What We Can's recommendations have been static for several years. To estimate what rate of churn we should expect, I examine the age distribution of GiveWell (and Giving What We Can) recommended charities. For top international aid charities, typical age is a decade or less, possibly a result of focus on smaller organizations narrowly focused on interventions with recent funding gaps.