Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Free Will and Poor People

As I explained yesterday, I'm currently reading Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment by JD Trout and I've been surprised by how relevant the book is to effective altruist issues. Today, I read Chapter 2, which debunks arguments relying on the concept of "free will" to blame the poor for their situations.

Fortunately for readers, Trout doesn't waste the chapter trying to convince us that we have or don't have free will. He seems to believe in a limited form of free will but here, he's more concerned with demonstrating that we're less free than we think we are. More often than it seems, we are affected by the environment but give it no credit. We commit the fundamental attribution error, attributing the actions of others to their personalities rather than to contextual factors. Poor people are often the victims of this bias:
"One spokesman, for example, explained that, 'The rules for escaping from poverty in America are simple: 1) finish high school; 2) get a job, and stick with it; 3) do not have children outside of marriage. Those who abide by these rules of middle-class existence will not be chronically poor in the US.' ... 
"But people whose basic needs are threatened do not have many effective options. They don't choose to live in a tenement in the way that another might choose to rent rather than buy. And to claim that impoverished people are responsible for the consequences of their choices just because they have chosen otherwise is an awfully thin wedge with which to separate our resources and others' desperate need. And sometimes, when we make poor choices, it is not because we have neglected excellent alternatives, but because poor options are all we have. 
If we are interested in improving human well-being, we should set aside dithering controversy and mystification about free will - the rhetoric of nation-builders and ideologues - and cut quickly to what we do know. For example, we know that when people have the right options, they form habits, say, to save more money through automatic-deduction plans, to eat healthier by controlling portion size, and to stay sober by shifting social settings to patient but firm supporters. But all of these habits are shaped passively, with change in people's circumstances and the crafting of institutions that enhance their well-being."

The above demonstrates Trout's preference for policy changes as a way of reducing poverty. So far, my interpretation of his position is that donating people money is nice, but that a really effective and sustainable treatment for poverty is to change the situation of the poor, for example, with policy reform.

Throughout the chapter, I was reminded of the opening words of an essay called A Behavioral-Economics View of Poverty:
Standard theorizing about poverty falls into two camps. Social scientists regard the behaviours of the economically disadvantaged either as calculated adaptations to prevailing circumstances or as emanating from a unique "culture of poverty," rife with deviant values. The first camp presumes that people are highly rational, that they hold coherent and justified beliefs and pursue their goals effectively, without mistakes, and with no need for help. The second camp attributes to the poor a variety of psychological and attitudinal short-fallings that render their views often misguided and their choices fallible, leaving them in need of paternalistic guidance. 
We propose a third view. The behavioural patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviours often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worst outcomes.

Like Trout, these authors don't see poor people as evil or lazy. They are like us - but poor. Previous circumstances largely dictate their current circumstances.

Earlier in the chapter, Trout expresses a disdain for empathy-based morality. The passage is another really obvious tie-in to effective altruist ideas and issues:
"We imagine that we would sympathize with a child at our dinner table who was without food or health care coverage. From this introspective cinema, we infer that we must have fellow feeling - the right degree of empathy. So, not to worry. If we don't feel the same urgency to assist those farther from our dinner table, it must be because the problems are too complicated to understand or to manage. But the problem with an empathy-based moral evaluation may be simpler to understand than we imagine. 
Because we don't actually see the starving children, we don't think about them. And so we don't empathize with them, and don't act. Another reason for inaction is uncertainty. So it is no wonder that people don't assist when it isn't exactly clear how they should. If a child is drowning in front of you, it is clear what to do. If people are starving around the globe, it may be clear that you should do something, but difficult to formulate a specific intention or craft a plan that can be implemented. Do I work in a homeless shelter? Do I give money to UNICEF? Do I get involved in electoral politics to support policies that are most likely to help the afflicted group?"

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Book Recommendation: Why Empathy Matters

When I began reading Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment by JD Trout, I wasn't expecting it to be so closely aligned with effective altruist messages because I'd never encountered it on any EA reading lists. I think the book's absence from these lists is a glaring oversight. Below, I've transcribed a nice sample from the first chapter. Hopefully, those that like it decide to check out the book.
Judging by many of the important individual and social choices we make, our concept of a good life is grotesquely imbalanced, even by our own standards. Our empathic organ acts like a switch that turns the emotional heat on or off. It doesn't regulate the temperature of the system. As a result, people display undue concern about events in the present, about people nearby, and about the suffering of those most like us. And this imbalance creates perverse "coincidences." We favour ourselves over others even when we risk nothing by putting others first. We give a lot of resources to people with a name we know, while unfamiliar people much worse off get ignored. 
The normal products of empathy are healthy and effective. Any biases that quiet the impulse to help, any ways of framing poverty that make the problem appear hopeless, any excuses designed to politely silence or deflect charity activists, should be traded for strategies that simply ensure that help will reach the target. We simply overindulge our sloppy responses to human suffering. Like our reaction to other automatic psychological processes, such as intuitive judgment, we just can't believe that our empathic intuitions place our priorities on a crash course.
Our preferences are routinely inconsistent and, when we frame issues in a slightly different way, easily reversible. These phenomena are now well but have not yet fully influenced political action. ... Human empathy evolved to respond to a victim we knew, not to a mass slaughter whose dead equaled in number the entire population of Oslo, or Lisbon, or Oklahoma City.
Genocide notwithstanding, hunger and illness are the most certain routes to misery, and reducing both is the surest path to life satisfaction. If securing a chance at life satisfaction is a social priority, then our resources should be more squarely devoted to eradicating poverty. Economically less productive nations have been able largely to eliminate these problems. Wealthier nations, such as the United Stated, have not been able to generate public support for entitlement programs that would do better than leaving 11 million children impoverished and 43 million people without health insurance. A number of European nations could act as models. If the United States is unwilling to study their lessons, it is only because eliminating the chief sources of human misery is simply not a priority, or because we have turned away from the problem. It is worth at least acknowledging this fact before attempting to tackle the obstacles.
Compared to typical EA reading material, Trout is more optimistic about policy change and less optimistic about charity as a method of reducing poverty.

For those who don't know, Trout co-authored Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment with Michael Bishop.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Argument For E-E > Other Art

The following is an adaptation of Peter Singer's argument for donating to foreign aid.
  1. Suffering and death are bad.
  2. Preventing something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, would result in a better outcome than not preventing that bad thing from happening.
  3. All things being equal, by funding entertainment-education in developing nations instead of funding narrative media targeting first world audiences, you can prevent more suffering and death, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
  4. Therefore, all things being equal, funding entertainment-education for developing nations would result in a better outcome than would funding narrative media for first world audiences.
     The argument basically takes the form of "charity X > charity Y." It doesn't recommend how one should act, only that a first specific action leads to better outcomes than a second specific action. These two actions fall somewhere on a continuum of other actions, some better than both, some worse than both, and some falling in between the two.

     All the weight falls on the third premise. As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, I believe there is much more evidence supporting the impact of E-E in developing nations than of other narrative media targeting first world audiences. Apparently, GiveWell does too. If there is a case to make for the superior importance of first world art and entertainment, I am confident that it relies on speculative claims, rather than documented findings. I would support funding the research of those speculative claims more than I would support funding the art itself.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Why I Wouldn't Donate To The Arts

Peter Singer's "Good Charity, Bad Charity" was recently published in the New York Times. In the article Singer argues that donors should favour giving opportunities in "health and safety" rather than in arts and culture. I think this is obviously true - but nevertheless, the article has received some backlash. Here are a few reasons why I don't think people should donate to the arts:

Firstly, some health interventions like the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets are highly evidence-backed. It is even possible to quantify how much money a given charity needs in order to save a life. The effectiveness of arts and cultural organizations are not and arguably cannot be quantified or demonstrated with such rigour. There is evidence of positive effects coming from art, but little to no hard, causal evidence suggesting that art rivals efforts to save lives or eradicate terrible illnesses. I hold that we should favour the area with more evidence supporting it. This could be an argument for funding more research on the effects of art, rather than funding art itself.

It's also common sense, at least to me, that staying alive and healthy is a higher priority than widening the selection of art I can choose to enjoy. From a consequentialist perspective, more suffering is caused by death than joy is caused by new publicly funded art. Remember that the positive value of experiencing the artwork needs to be compared to the positive value of the alternative artwork that would have been experienced without public funding.

Many times now I've encountered the argument that staying alive and healthy is only worthwhile if one gets to experience a world with art. I think this is crazy. For one thing, it implies that animals (which do not experience art) do not deserve to live or do not have interests that need to be valued. Secondly, it implies that less arts funding equates to a world with literally no art, despite the fact that there are already countless artworks in existence and that reductions in donations would not stifle the production of commercial art and entertainment. Thirdly, it denies all the non-art pleasures that can make life worth living.

Thirdly, much art, especially the type that people donate toward, is targeted at middle and upper class educated Western museum-goers. This is hardly the demographic most in need of help. Rather, it is a case of the rich getting richer while the poor are neglected. I think that before the world's richest 1% (anybody making over $34,000 a year) receive new luxuries, the world's poorest people should receive fundamental care like food, water, shelter, basic infrastructure, freedom, etc. Denying this puts you in the awkward position of prioritizing your own rich community above the world's poor. Even arts-based charities aimed at the poor are offering a higher-level good to those in need of lower-level goods.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Singer's article is that it frames donations as either-or: either you donate to health interventions or you donate to the arts. This is true, but if you think a charity like GiveDirectly is superior to your favourite arts charity, then this likely applies to your second batch of money just as much as it applies to your first batch of money. If the charities aren't equal, then there's no reason for your donation sizes to be equal. The exception is if you supply your preferred charity with money until it has no room for more funding. This provides an opportunity to move down the list to your second favourite charity. The thing is, that there is not just GiveDirectly. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other health-based charities, that likely outdo even the best art charity. Even a multi-billionaire can go through all his or her money and never "max out" the non-profit health sector.


There is one exception to all this. Organizations that produce entertainment-education fall in between the realms of "health" and "art." Entertainment-education (E-E) is art that specifically attempts to persuade audiences toward healthier behaviours. Funding entertainment-education is arguably "arts funding" but it's unlikely to be what most people have in mind when they talk about funding the arts. E-E programs are typically soap operas and uninteresting from stylistic and aesthetic perspectives.