Why it’s a bad idea to break the rules, even if it’s for a good cause

…social norms have to be evaluated on the basis of their outcomes, like everything else. And that might prompt people to think that they should break norms and rules fairly frequently. But we wanted to push against that…

Stefan Schubert

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How honest should we be? How helpful? How friendly? If our society claims to value honesty, for instance, but in reality accepts an awful lot of lying – should we go along with those lax standards? Or, should we attempt to set a new norm for ourselves?

Dr Stefan Schubert, a researcher at the Social Behaviour and Ethics Lab at Oxford University, has been modelling this in the context of the effective altruism community. He thinks people trying to improve the world should hold themselves to very high standards of integrity, because their minor sins can impose major costs on the thousands of others who share their goals.

In addition, when a norm is uniquely important to our situation, we should be willing to question society and come up with something different and hopefully better.

But in other cases, we can be better off sticking with whatever our culture expects, both to save time, avoid making mistakes, and ensure others can predict our behaviour.

In this interview Stefan offers a range of views on the projects and culture that make up ‘effective altruism’ – including where it’s going right and where it’s going wrong.

Stefan did his PhD in formal epistemology, before moving on to a postdoc in political rationality at the London School of Economics, while working on advocacy projects to improve truthfulness among politicians. At the time the interview was recorded Stefan was a researcher at the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford.

We also discuss:

  • Should we trust our own judgement more than others’?
  • How hard is it to improve political discourse?
  • What should we make of well-respected academics writing articles that seem to be completely misinformed?
  • How is effective altruism (EA) changing? What might it be doing wrong?
  • How has Stefan’s view of EA changed?
  • Should EA get more involved in politics, or steer clear of it? Would it be a bad idea for a talented graduate to get involved in party politics?
  • How much should we cooperate with those with whom we have disagreements?
  • What good reasons are there to be inconsiderate?
  • Should effective altruism potentially focused on a more narrow range of problems?

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The value of coordination

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This post is intended for people who are already familiar with our key content. If you’re new, read the basics first.

In assessing your positive impact on the world, you need to look at the additional good you do after taking into account what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. But how can you evaluate this?

One way is the “single player approach” – consider what would happen if you act and what would happen if you don’t act, holding everyone else constant, and then look at the difference between the two scenarios.

This approach worked pretty well in the early days of effective altruism, but it starts to break down once you’re part of a community of thousands of people who will change their behaviour depending on what you do.

When you’re part of a community, the counterfactuals become more complex, and doing the most good becomes much more of a coordination problem – it’s a multiplayer rather than a single player game.

In this post, I’ll list five situations where this insight can help us to become even more effective, and I’ll suggest new rules of thumb that I think might be the best guide in a multiplayer world. This is a complex topic, so the answers I give are still tentative. I’m keen to see many more people in the community start thinking about these issues,

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Take the growth approach to evaluating startup non-profits, not the marginal approach

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In its first 2 years, Google made no revenue. Did this indicate it was a bad idea to invest or work there?

We spent the summer in Y Combinator, and one of the main things we learned about is how Y Combinator identifies the best startups. What we learned made me worry that many in the effective altruism community are taking the wrong approach to evaluating startup non-profits.

In summary, I’ll argue:

  1. There’s two broad approaches to assessing projects – the marginal cost-effectiveness approach and the growth approach.
  2. The community today often wrongly applies the marginal approach to fast growing startups.
  3. This means we’re supporting the wrong projects and not investing enough in growth.

At the end I’ll give some guidelines on how to use the growth approach to evaluate non-profits.

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Will effective altruism destroy the arts? No.

158300A recent article on the Washington Post expressed concern that the growth of effective altruism could seriously reduce funding for the arts. It even mentions that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation recently decided to focus 100% on funding the arts and culture, in part because “philanthropy, directly or indirectly influenced by the effective altruist approach, is increasingly focused on problems perceived as more pressing”.

This was astonishing to me.

Here’s why effective altruism is not going to destroy the arts.

1) Only a couple of percent of American philanthropy is influenced by effective altruism, and it’s not taking funding from the arts.

Explicitly “effective altruist” giving is well under $100m per year, only 0.03% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

If we look more broadly to giving that has an effective altruist style, even if it doesn’t explicitly use the label, the Gates Foundation is the largest proponent. But the Gates Foundation spends about $4bn per year, only 1% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

It seems hard to claim that more than a couple of percent of American philanthropy is even remotely influenced by effective altruism. One study found that only 3% of American donors give based on the relative performance of the nonprofits they donate to. Only 4% of total American giving even goes to international causes,

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