Immanuel Kant is a profoundly influential figure in modern philosophy, and was one of the earliest proponents for universal democracy and international cooperation. He also thought that women have no place in civil society, that illegitimate children should receive fewer legal protections, and that there was a ranking in the moral worth of different races.
Throughout history we’ve consistently believed, as common sense, truly horrifying things by today’s standards. According to University of Oxford Professor Will MacAskill, it’s extremely likely that we’re in the same boat today. If we accept that we’re probably making major moral errors, how should we proceed?
If our morality is tied to common sense intuitions, we’re probably just preserving these biases and moral errors. Instead we need to develop a moral view that criticises common sense intuitions, and gives us a chance to move beyond them. And if humanity is going to spread to the stars it could be worth dedicating hundreds or thousands of years to moral reflection, lest we spread our errors far and wide.
Will is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, author of Doing Good Better, and one of the co-founders of the effective altruism community. In this interview we discuss a wide range of topics:
How would we go about a ‘long reflection’ to fix our moral errors?
Will’s forthcoming book on how one should reason and act if you don’t know which moral theory is correct.
The following are some reflections on what it’s like to work at GiveWell written by one of our readers. We’re posting their thoughts because we’ve written about GiveWell as a high-impact career in the past, and are keen to share more information about it. The opinions below, however, may not reflect our views.
I worked at GiveWell from August 2014 to May 2016. This piece is a reflection on my time there, on things I think GiveWell does well as an employer, on things I think it could do better, and why I decided to leave.
I envision two functions for this piece: (1) as an exercise to help me process my time at GiveWell, and (2) as a resource for people considering working at GiveWell. When I was considering taking a job at GiveWell, I found Nick Beckstead’s reflection on his internship at GiveWell to be very helpful. Outside of Nick’s piece, there isn’t very much substantive information available about working at GiveWell. Many people consider employment at GiveWell; I hope some of those people find this reflection to be useful.
I learned about GiveWell in Spring 2014, after reading Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality in a college ethics class and encountering related topics on the internet. By the time I took the ethics class, I knew that I did not want to go to graduate school immediately after my undergraduate, but I was very taken by academic ethics and wanted to continue serious thinking about the topic.
Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.
Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1
Despite being the most widespreadcritique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.
Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!
So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.
What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:
Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.
It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.
Ben recently interviewed Brad Wong about his career and current job at the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), a leading global think tank which draws together over 100 top economists to work on prioritizing the solutions to the most pressing global issues.
We spoke to Brad to learn more about whether working at the CCC could be a good opportunity for our members, following up on our previous research.
The interview was conducted via phone call. Below we summarise the key messages of the conversation, followed by some excerpts, which have been edited and reorganised for clarity.
In summary, Brad told us:
Brad manages a project to provide cost-benefit analysis of the UN’s next development goals.
Before this job, Brad completed a PhD, worked as a consultant at Booz & Company, and did strategic consulting at an Indian non-profit, Technoserve. All three were good preparation for his current role, which requires an understanding of academic research and development, combined with the ability to manage a project and get things done.
Brad really enjoys his work at the CCC. Day-to-day, the work ranges from very exciting (networking with UN ambassadors) to quotidian (writing contracts, organising meetings, proofreading).
He’s excited about the project’s potential impact – their analysis is being used at the highest levels within the UN and there are already more than 100 media articles about the project from major outlets, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Brad would like to continue working at the CCC, though long-term would like to work at a major foundation or consult for foundations.
80,000 Hours did not directly affect his decision to work for CCC, but exposure to Givewell and 80,000 Hours significantly changed his attitude towards impact in his career.
I recently conducted a ‘shallow investigation’ (see GiveWell) into cause prioritization, with the help of Nick Beckstead. It covers the importance of cause prioritization; who is doing it, funding it, or using it; and opportunities to contribute. We had conversations with eight relevant people. The full document is here and the collection of related interview notes and such is here. This blog post is a summary of my impressions, given the findings of the investigation.
Cause prioritization research seems likely enough to be high value to warrant further investigation. It appears that roughly billions of dollars per year might be influenced by it in just the near future, that current efforts cost a few million dollars per year and are often influential, and that there are many plausible ways to contribute. It also seems like things are likely to get better in the future, as more work is done.
Paul Christiano: Computer science PhD student at UC Berkeley
Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
This is a verbatim email conversation from the 26th of March 2014. Paul is a proponent of cause prioritization research. Here he explains his support of prioritization research, and makes some suggestions about how to do it.
Note: Paul is Katja’s boyfriend, so consider reading his inclusion as a relevant expert with a grain of salt.
This is a summary made by Katja of points made by Owen during a conversation on March 24 2014.
What the Global Priorities Project (GPP) does
The Global Priorities Project is new, and intends to experiment for a while with different types of projects and then work on those that appear highest value in the longer term. Their work will likely address questions about how to prioritize, improve arguments around different options, and will produce recommendations. It will probably be mostly research, but also include for instance some policy lobbying. They will likely do some work with concrete policy-relevant consequences and also some work on general high level arguments that apply to many things. Most features of the project are open to modification after early experimentation. There will be principally two audiences: policy makers and philanthropists, the latter including effective altruists and foundations. GPP has some access to moderately senior government and civil service policy people and are experimenting with the difficulty of pushing for high impact policies.
Research topics will be driven by a combination of importance and comparative advantage. GPP is likely to focus on prioritizing broad areas rather than narrower interventions, though these things are closely linked. It is good to keep an eye on object level questions to ensure that you are thinking about things the right way. Owen is interested in developing frameworks for comparing things. This can produce value both in their own evaluations and through introducing metrics that others want to use, and so making proposals more comparable in general.
We recently interviewed Caroline Fiennes to find out about her ideas on opportunities to make a difference promoting effective philanthropy, and more about her organisation, Giving Evidence. The aim was to both inform our strategy as an organisation, and find opportunities for people who are interested in leading a career in this area.
The interview was conducted via phone call. Below we summarise the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts, which have been edited and reorganised for clarity.
In summary, Caroline told us:
Billions of pounds are donated to charity in the UK each year, but there’s little evidence which can inform donors’ decisions about where to donate. Hence, this money probably doesn’t have as much impact as it could.
One intervention would be to set up something like Charity Navigator for the UK, ideally rating charities both on organisation quality (as Charity Navigator does) and on the strength of the evidence behind the interventions they implement. There are many people interested in taking this project forward, but it’s difficult to raise money for it.
Another intervention is creating a platform to publicly collect and share the monitoring and evaluation data that charities already produce. Over a billion pounds is spent on monitoring and evaluation each year, but it seems that only about two percent of the studies get shared. Giving Evidence recently raised funding to explore how to create a system for sharing evidence in the UK criminal justice sector.
In October, Bjorn Lomborg from the Copenhagen Consensus Centre led a global priorities setting session at 80,000 Hours: Oxford in the Oxford Union. The video of the event has been uploaded by the Union.
In the session, Lomborg guides the audience through the pros and cons of different uses of development aid, and asks them to put them in order of priority from the perspective of maximising the welfare of the global poor. Throughout the session, live votes are taken from the audience via wifi.
In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).
We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.
The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.
We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.
There are several health interventions that have been found in academic papers to have a cost-effectiveness that’s similar or better than distributing insecticide treated bed-nets, but which lack a high quality charity to implement them. For someone with the right entrepreneurial skills, it could be extremely effective to create such a charity.
One example of a promising intervention is using mass media to promote positive health behaviours. Development Media International is attempting to become a highly effective, transparent, scalable charity that implements this intervention.
Clara Marquardt, a member of Giving What We Can, recently interviewed Will Snell, a member of 80,000 Hours and the Director of Public Engagement & Development at DMI.
Before scaling up, DMI decided to gather more evidence about the effectiveness of using mass media to promote health, since the existing evidence is patchy. In the interview, Will explains how DMI overcame numerous challenges to design, fund and carry out a $12mn randomised control trial into the effectiveness of their program. He also explains the story and mission of DMI, giving an insight into the advantages and challenges of running an impact-focused charity.
We rate cause prioritisation research and advocacy as high priority (to be explained in an upcoming post)
If you’re pursuing prioritisation research within finance and don’t want to pursue earning to give, then we recommend generally aiming to build career capital, building a community of people who support prioritisation, and promoting areas of social finance that seek to assess the social value of different projects. Though note that this is a judgement call.
What we learned
We prepared this list of ways that people are trying to improve the far future.
The direct impact of doing ‘impact investing’ (attempting to invest in socially beneficial companies) doesn’t seem high relative to donations to cost-effective charities, but the industry might be improvable, could produce useful research and could move more resources into altruistic causes (as we’ll explain in an upcoming report).
Impact investing seems like a reasonable area for someone looking to build career capital and promote prioritisation, though we don’t have much confidence in this.
If you’re looking to spend or influence large budgets with the aim of improving the world (or happen to be extremely wealthy!) we recommend taking a look. It also contains brief arguments in favor of five causes.
In this post, I offer some thoughts on my experience working at GiveWell. I’ve had a number of different people ask me about this, and I think many people interested in effective altruism are curious about working there. So I thought I would explain my views in detail so that others who are thinking about working there have more information.
I worked at GiveWell for two months in 2012, during which time I mainly did literature reviews and constructed cost-effectiveness models for a few different interventions (breast-feeding promotion, vaccination for neonatal tetanus, vaccination for meningitis, and vaccination for measles).
While there, I primarily learned about how to do a literature search, how to evaluate research (especially causal attribution in economics), and how to construct cost-effectiveness models. I also learned a lot about how to run an effective organization in general, which may have been the most valuable part of the experience.
For people who may be a good fit and have the opportunity to work at GiveWell, I recommend trying it without hesitation. I believe that working at GiveWell is an outstanding opportunity for personal development and having an impact. I also found it a very enjoyable place to work.
I didn’t end up working at GiveWell because the work they wanted me to do didn’t line up well with the work that I wanted to do, working there offered me less autonomy than my best alternative (working at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford), and I believed that working at the Future of Humanity Institute would offer me more job security and options in the future.
We recently interviewed Roland Mathiasson, vice president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), a leading global think tank which draws together over 100 top economists to work on prioritizing the solutions to the most pressing global issues. The Center’s leader, Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and has been repeatedly named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy. We initiated the interview after being contacted by Roland about a job opportunity with CCC…
I recently interviewed Eva Vivalt, who works for the World Bank and is the founder of AidGrade, a new organisation that evaluates and recommends different development programs on the basis of effectiveness. AidGrade’s mission is “to improve the effectiveness of development efforts by understanding and encouraging what works using rigorous, actionable and engaging evidence.” You can find out more about AidGrade on their website here.
Recently we interviewed Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of the independent, nonprofit charity evaluator GiveWell. We recommend GiveWell as a leading source of information on where to have the largest impact with your charitable donations.
Our conversation suggested that GiveWell might be one of the highest impact career opportunities in the world. There’s reason to think that GiveWell has the potential to be an extremely impactful organisation, but they are short of some key types of staff. If you fit their criteria, then this is a position really worth considering. Read on for excerpts from our conversation on (i) what GiveWell does and why it’s important (ii) what kind of people will do well there (iii) how you can get a job there.
Holden Karnofsky is the co-founder and co-executive director of GiveWell, an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator. We recommend Givewell as a leading source of information on where to have the largest impact with your charitable donations.
In 2012 GiveWell moved over $9.5 million to its top charities and the amount of money moved by GiveWell has so far been roughly doubling each year. GiveWell also recently formed a partnership with GoodVentures, a new multi-billion dollar foundation which aims to do as much good as possible. This has already had huge impact, for example at the end of 2012, Good Ventures awarded $2 million in grants to GiveWell’s top recommended charities.