Saturday, 31 January 2015

Figuring Good Out - January Master Post

For this month's Figuring Good Out on "origin stories", we received 5 submissions.

I wrote about my transition from atheism to pop philosophy & science to LessWrong to EA.

Michelle Hutchinson wrote about how her meeting with Will Macaskill in graduate school led to her joining Giving What We Can.

Bernadette Young argued that the literary character Dorothea Brooke is an alternative example of an EA advocate.

Tom Stocker explained the many different factors that guided him toward EA.

Peter Hurford covered how the connections he made in the EA network influenced major life decisions of his.

February's topic, as suggested by Ben Kuhn & Ruthie, is "writing about explaining effective altruism." This isn't a call for new definitions or explanations of EA - it's a call for thinking about how to explain EA, especially in person.

Monday, 26 January 2015

I'm On Gratipay

You can now find me on Gratipay.

I'm hoping to continue looking into the relationships between EA, marketing, social movements, and art. I think I'm relatively non-replaceable here in that nobody else associated with the EA movement seems too interested in personally researching these areas.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Cellphones As Paperweights

I'm skeptical of most art's ability to do much in terms of making the world better. This could easily be interpreted as me being skeptical of art itself as a tool for improving the world. I could easily be accused of overlooking how art provokes discussion, challenges norms, entertains and inspires audiences, and motivates empathy.

But it's not that I don't recognize these benefits. It's that I believe art can be so much more powerful than this.

We're in the early stages of art being used to save lives and reduce suffering in a predictable and scientific way. Compared to this, I don't much care for provoking discussion. Most art probably does more good than harm but using a life-saving tool for the self-actualization of the rich is like using a cellphone as a paperweight.

Paperweights do more good than harm too but if you found out yours could connect you to Google Maps, you'd pick it up off the desk and start keeping it by your side. 

I'm not skeptical of art as much as I am of the artists - those who would rather challenge gender norms in the West than eradicate malaria in the South.

While the artists create on firmly weighted down paper, the third world's living in poverty and the rich are missing their calls.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Will Effective Altruize For Food

I'm hoping to quit my job and start part-time or full-time paid EA work for an EA organization or private funder(s) in the near future.

If you're reading this post, you likely already know what I have to offer and how much you value those skills. I can write, research, summarize, philosophize, organize, social psychologize, and do various other tasks like Google Grants optimization and data entry. I also have media skills from my BA and MA: videography, editing, sound/radio, etc.

Let me know if you have a project in mind. We can Skype. :)

Potential Projects:

At Ben Kuhn's suggestion, I'm listing some projects I could work on.

One possibility is to continue applying EA-style ideas to artistic production. I'm interested in untangling the messiness of the arts ecosystem and determining how to yield the greatest cultural value from artistic output. My impression is that this question isn't considered to be high-value among EAs.

A second possibility is to write more in-depth book summaries. I was contracted to summarize Cialdini's Influence recently and I could do the same thing with various other books and resources if that's considered useful. I also wrote a summary of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness and David Allen's Getting Things Done. I'm not sure how useful people would find these summaries.

A third possibility is to delve more into marketing, communications, and outreach. I've done some of that on this blog but I definitely don't have professional-level marketing skills & knowledge. I recently began summarizing the textbook Principles of Marketing and I think it might be high-value for me to continue learning marketing. Marketing is one of the things the EA community wants to improve at but nobody is really bothering to learn the subject.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Choose-your-Charity Tax

Boalt Hall suggests a Choose-Your-Charity Tax. This would provide a tax credit of one dollar for each dollar of charitable giving, up to a certain limit, perhaps 10% of one’s income. So if a taxpayer grossing $100,000 a year donates $10,000 dollars to the charity of his or her choice, he or she would receive a $10,000 tax credit.

“A decision to vote for the Choose-your-Charity Tax expresses a willingness to endure significant personal sacrifice, but only willingness to do so if others match that willingness.  
“And if others match, then the sacrifice is not a drop in the bucket, but a great wave of change – and the taxpayers know that. By matching contributions with over 100 million US taxpayers, it would be possible to solve vast problems. Roughly speaking, supporting such a policy is equivalent to being willing to give $1 when the personal price of giving that dollar is one-hundred-millionth of a dollar. This is the ultimate expansion of the proven “matching” tactic that has already helped increase donations to charities.”

For the average taxpayer, 10% of their income equals roughly $4,000 per year. Even those that agree with Singer’s ideas on charity might struggle to take that $4,000 dollars out of their own pocket and give it to a poor person. But with the Choose-your-Charity Tax, your $4,000 donation is matched by 100 million other American taxpayers, producing $400 billion/year in extra charity.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Kosher Consequentialism

In trying to prove that consequentialism faces difficulties, my thesis supervisor gave the example of self-driving cars.

Suppose you're riding in a self-driving car. Suddenly, you wind up in a desperate situation with a minivan full of passengers. Your vehicle has two options: (1) to collide in such a way that you survive but that several people in the minivan die or (2) to collide in such a way that you die and everybody else survives. If programmed with consequentialist instincts, your car would intentionally kill you in order to save the majority.

From this, I was supposed to gather that obviously, this would be horrible and that obviously, this suggests a problem with consequentialist ethics.

Whether self-sacrificial cars are good for society, I have no idea. It isn't as obvious to me as it is to my supervisor that it's wrong. But even presuming that it is as horrible as he suggests, this is only a problem for the most naive forms of consequentialism.

There is a market for kosher meat because its believed by some to be more pious (it isn't), more humane (it isn't), more sanitary (it isn't), and healthier (it isn't) than regular meat. For all of these imaginary benefits, you have to pay more to get it. Some people - mainly the ones unconcerned with the piety factor - don't need to pay extra for the real thing but just want something with that familiar kosher taste. Supermarkets now offer "kosher style" meat. It isn't actually kosher but it tries to replicate kosher in the same way that a veggie burger tries to replicate beef.

A lot of thought experiments that try to prove consequentialism is awful really only refute "consequentialist style" theories of ethics. My supervisor's error was in confusing consequentialism ("seek the greatest good for the greatest number") with an action that seems to seek the greatest good for the greatest number but actually leads to more harm than an alternative action.

Kosher consequentialists are interested in the "actually" part of the equation. Just because sacrificing your life for five others seems like a very utilitarian thing to do, it actually isn't consequentialist at all if that action leads to horrible outcomes (which my supervisor believes it does).

If a world where self-driving cars make naive "consequentialist style" decisions to kill their owners is worse than a world where cars make other decisions, then consequentialism prefers the alternative. Kosher consequentialism favors whatever works. If you can imagine a nightmare scenario caused by consequentialist actions, then you are very probably imagining actions that are only superficially similar to consequentialism.

You could make a consequentialist justification for the car saving the minivan and you could make a consequentialist justification for the car protecting its owner. Attributing consequentialism to the option that superficially appears to serve the greater good isn't quite kosher.

Monday, 5 January 2015


For this month's Figuring Good Out, the topic is "EA origin stories." I don't think of myself as "an EA" and I can't remember how things happened very well. Looking back, the years blend together and I can't quite remember the cause-and-effect of it all. But here's a story.

I've always been interested in philosophical questions and arguments. I think my main obsessions as a teenager were art (what makes "good art" good?), morality (what makes "good deeds" good?), and atheism. Coming from a broken home where I spent alternating weekends with my orthodox Jewish father and my basically-secular Jewish mother, I grew up in a uniquely good environment to produce anti-religious views. I'd go from eating McDonald's one day to waiting six hours between meat and dairy the next. One Saturday I'd watch cartoons all day and eat in front of the TV. The next Saturday I'd have to go to synagogue and sit silently through kiddush. Who could grow up in these conditions and see the religious bits as anything other than unnecessary inconveniences?

I never lost my faith, I just never believed to begin with. I remember one of the teachers at my Jewish high school asking the class about their religious beliefs. I was surprised at all the hands going up. I remember walking home as a teenager and the thought occurring to me for the first time that everyone else actually believes this stuff. When hearing the stories from the Old Testament as a kid, I had always thought of them as fables like Jack and the Beanstalk and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It had weirdly never really occurred to me that everybody around me, including the adults, thought Jonah and the Whale was non-fiction.

When the New Atheism movement emerged, I was an easy sell. Dawkins and Hitchens led me to Harris and Dennett, who led me to Pinker, Krauss, and Singer, who led me to the Churchlands and to science communicators like Michio Kaku, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, and Dan Ariely. And the arguments against religion brought me to David Hume and Bertrand Russell and the circle kept expanding. 

I took some philosophy electives in school: Intro to Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind, and then another course that talked exclusively about Kant for the first half (and then apparently talked exclusively about Hegel for the second half but I stopped going by that point). I kept reading. Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape got me to change my mind about one of my favourite topics. At the time, I had a softer stance on morality where nothing could be objectively good or bad because something-about-culture. Still though, becoming a consequentialist had no real effect on my behaviour. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and did nothing.

Fortunately, I had already read two books by Peter Singer in my first year of university. The first, The Life You Can Save, I read after my Philosophy of Science teacher told our class about an argument that one moral philosopher makes for giving to the poor. He confessed that although the argument had initially made him feel guilty, he'd found possible weak points in the philosopher's premises after further consideration. I had never heard of Peter Singer before but I, for one, had not been able to find these weak points and was still feeling guilty. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and did nothing.

The second book I read by Peter Singer was Animal Liberation. I had always been kind of sympathetic to animal suffering but never really cared enough to inconvenience myself over it. Singer's book was an eye opener for me. He kept quoting this amazing passage by Jeremy Bentham (who I'd never heard of) that made everything clear. Although I became very confident that eating animals was immoral, and tentatively thought that I would like to become a vegetarian in the future, my general stance on the issue was: eating meat is bad but I just don't care. I read his book, agreed with his arguments, changed my beliefs, and still I did nothing.

This sort of pop philosophy and pop science became one of my main past times. I read articles from my favourite philosophers on a daily basis. A friend and I began a pact where every day we'd send each other one new article to read. I remember the excitement I'd found when, after about a week of doing this, I discovered Daniel Dennett's Tufts University page online. It contained the PDFs for what seemed to be every article he'd ever written, spanning back several decades. I decided to read through all of them in order, a few each day. I never got more than a few articles deep. My friend called me one day to tell me that everything had changed - that he had found enough reading material to keep us both busy for ages - it was endless - it was all compiled into neat sections on this one website - and so my attention turned toward LessWrong.

My friend had been in a phase of figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, so he was emailing all sorts of folks in various professional fields to ask for advice. One of these people worked for an organization called the Singularity Institute. The employee (Malo), sent my friend a long list of reading material, including the Sequences. I began reading and it was right up my alley.

There's a specific feeling I get when I have more exciting reading material than I have energy to stay up any longer. I can't remember how long it took me to read the Sequences but I know that I was reading for hours a day and I have particularly warm memories of the How to Actually Use Words section.

Through these, I got into "rationality" and became more interested in cognitive biases. I read Thinking, Fast and Slow and it became my new favourite book. I read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. I read Luke Muehlhauser's Common Sense Atheism blog basically cover to cover within a month. I read mountains of material, agreed with many arguments, changed my beliefs many times, and still I did nothing.

At some point, I heard the term "effective altruism." It may have been on LessWrong. It may have been on Luke's podcast. It may have been from Peter Singer. Or from my friend. Or from following Eliezer Yudkowsky on Facebook. The origin of my EA story is the fuzziest part of my EA origin story. At any rate, I discovered the movement and felt no resistance to any of its ideas. As mentioned earlier, I had already bought Singer's argument for EA from the moment my teacher told it to my class, years prior.

The ideas had grown on me to the point that I was becoming more interested in all this rationality and philosophy talk than I was in the topic of my career and education. When I entered my MA in Media Production, I had no ideas at all for the sort of creative video project I had planned to produce. My mind was in philosophy mode. A couple of epiphanies about art later, I decided to write a thesis paper about what an effective altruist worldview has to say about artistic value. My paper transformed many times in the telling but it sort of stuck to that theme.

In the early days of researching my paper, I began to realize how big my topic was. If I wanted it to be as good as my favourite books and papers, I'd have to learn a lot more. I emailed Brian Tomasik, whose blog I had been reading. In hindsight, I don't know why I emailed him given that my project had so little to do with his subject matter. He responded that no, I didn't need to learn game theory and to my surprise, he added me on Facebook. For the past year or so, I've asked Brian a totally random question on Facebook about once a month ("hey, so how does eating meat compare to buying from Nike?"). He played a big part (along with the documentary, Earthlings) in me finally becoming a vegetarian.

Now that I think about it, when I first emailed Brian, I asked him if I could join the Foundational Research Institute, naively thinking that I was qualified. He responded that I should create my own blog to showcase my abilities. I started A Nice Place To Live and posted 1+ post a day for the first month with Brian as my only reader.

Slowly, in incremental steps, I approached the cluster of properties associated with effective altruism. I started reading GiveWell's blog. I familiarized myself with more theory on existential risk. I completed my thesis paper. I once donated $50 to the Against Malaria Foundation. But really, I've changed very little.

Now, I participate in the EA blogging carnival that I created, post on the EA forum, have a bunch of EA Facebook friends, and I think a lot of EAs know who I am but I'm not sure about that. If at some point in this story, I crossed the threshold of EA-dom, I cannot point to any explicit point of origin.

New Summary of GTD

Last month, I summarized David Allen's Google Talk explaining the ideas from his book, Getting Things Done. The talk motivated me to read the book. Here is my somewhat more in-depth summary of GTD.

Work and play are famously believed to be in tension with one another. David Allen says they don’t have to be.

You can keep up on your personal life, handle everything you need to handle, and you can do it without falling behind at work, losing sleep, or becoming more stressed. Allen’s method isn’t based on sheer willpower – it’s a system that breeds efficiency and relaxed productivity, making you get more done in the same amount of time, while keeping your cool.

As Allen puts it, “There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water’ and top athletes refer to as the ‘zone,’ within the complex world in which you're engaged”.

How does the surface of a pond react to the drop of a pebble? Perfectly appropriately. A pond doesn’t overreact or underreact. Ripples form according to the mass of the pebble and the force of the drop. Nothing else.

In karate, students are trained to emulate the pond in this way. Stay relaxed, stay balanced, apply techniques, and don’t overreact or underreact. Allen carries this metaphor over to self-management. People are constantly giving either more or less attention to things than they deserve: whether it’s their boss’s comments or the growing pile of dishes in the sink. Be like the pond. Still like water. Neither overreacting or underreacting. Respond perfectly appropriately.

Think back to the last time you were highly productive. Were you stressing out or did you feel in control?

While you were reading this summary, your mind probably wandered, at least once, to something else, maybe something that you need to get done later or that’s been bothering you for a while. During the time that you had these thoughts, did you make any progress on them? Probably not. If something’s on your mind then you probably aren’t making any progress on it and, by definition, your mind isn’t clear.

If nothing else, these distractions are wastes of time and attention. An organizational system that takes these tasks off our minds is the first step toward greater focus and productivity. Items stay on your mind because (1) you haven’t thought of the next action you can take to handle that item, (2) you are unsure about the intended outcome you’re seeking, or (3) you haven’t put reminders of the action and outcome in a place where you’ll see them at the right time.

TIP: The first lesson to learn from GTD is to write things down, even when you don’t feel like you need to. If your brain had a brain, “it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them”. But you’re on your own with a piece of equipment that remembers you need milk when you’re in the shower but not when you’re in the grocery store. So get things on paper. I recommend using an app like Evernote to send yourself reminders at specific times (e.g. when you know you’ll be home).

Work of the past used to be clear-cut and physical. Fields needed ploughing and crops needed harvesting. Nowadays, most jobs are much more ambiguous. The organizational tools of the past (calendars, to-do lists, and ABC prioritization) don’t map perfectly onto contemporary jobs where employees are buried in email, must interact with other departments, pick up the slack of their coworkers, etc.

We need new tools that are better suited for modern day jobs and people.

It’s typical of motivational speakers and gurus to preach “the big picture:” the self-reflexive clarification of fundamental goals and values. Finding meaning and order in life. Allen instead preaches the little picture: next actions and outcomes. He’s not outlining a philosophy of How To Live A Meaningful Life – he’s looking at what works for getting things done.

Almost everyone feels as if they have too much on their plate and not enough time to do it all. This is because they don’t have a proper system for managing their “open loops”. Taking mental notes and then doing what comes to mind is not a system. It’s letting life happen to you. What works is taking charge of the commitments you need to get done. They range from household chores, to things you want to buy, to places you need to tidy, to emails you need to check, to people you agreed to meet. Anything you intend or intended to do that hasn’t been accomplished yet is an open loop.

Allen offers a five-step system for workflow mastery:
  1. Collecting
  2. Processing
  3. Organizing
  4. Reviewing
  5. Doing

The process begins with the collection of all your commitments. Go through your calendar, your files, the papers lying around your house, etc. Gather up all your to-do lists, write down all your appointments and things that need to be bought, moved, or handled in any way. Once these commitments are all one in place, you have the beginning of a system that you can trust. If your system is incomplete, your brain won’t trust it. But if you know that all your commitments are in one folder, you’ll never need to look for them anywhere other than in that folder. Open loops won’t weigh on your mind so much once you know exactly where they’re filed and when you’ll get to them.

Once you’ve collected all your commitments into one place, it’s time to process them. There is a specific process for sorting open loops.

If something can be done in less than 2 minutes, do it now. If it can’t, ask yourself if you’re the right person for this job and consider delegating it. If you are the right person, defer it. Schedule a specific time for it to get done. Make a note on your calendar. Treat your calendar as sacred and resist the impulse to postpone actions once you’ve reached the date marked for them on your calendar.

Allen also suggests a folder for reference materials, as well as a Someday/Maybe file for things that you might want to accomplish one day but that aren’t pressing.

Reminders will be useless if they aren’t seen at the right time and place. For easy reviewing, place tasks in a calendar, “Next Actions” list, “Projects” folder, and/or a “Waiting For” list (for tasks that require something else to happen before you can take your next action).

Group your next actions into bunches that can be completed successively. So your “Calls” list should include all the phone calls you need to make. Once you’re in phone mode, you might as well stay there. And “Errands” should include all the things you need to do once you’re out. Other suggested list headings are “At Computer,” “At Office,” “At Home,” “Agendas,” and “Read/Review.”

Non-actionable items can be stored in a “tickler file.” The tickler file holds physical reminders that you want to see on specific dates – like a three-dimensional calendar. Imagine a folder containing documents filed for different dates. Basically, it’s the same idea as sending emails to your future self except that it utilizes physical documents.

And whatever needs to be trashed, trash. You probably have a lot of junk hanging around that clutters up your workspace. Throw out everything except supplies, equipment, decorations, and reference material.

When it comes to selecting next actions in the moment, consider four criteria:

Context – Where are you and what tools do you have at your disposal?
Time – How much time do you have available?
Energy – Which actions do you have the required energy level to deal with?
Priority – What is the most important and urgent remaining action for me to take?

The doing phase is self-explanatory on its surface: get things done. Remember to work smarter, not harder. It often takes a lot of time and effort to close loops. But that doesn’t mean maximizing your time and effort spent is the best way to speed the process up. Formalizing your decision process with a planning model can help you generate action steps with minimal effort in just a few minutes.


To accomplish virtually any task, your mind has to go through 5 steps:
  1. Defining purpose and principles - what you want to do and why
  2. Outcome visioning – envision what it’s going to be like and what you’ll get out of it
  3. Brainstorming – asking yourself questions about when, where, how, to go about it
  4. Organizing – sort your brainstormed ideas and questions into a prioritized list
  5. Identifying next actions – go through a list of actions according to your priorities

You identify a need, imagine a way to fill it, generate ideas about how to fill this need in the optimal way, sort these ideas into a structure, and then use that structure to guide actions that turn your ideas into real outcomes. Allen calls this the naturalistic planning model. The planning stage isn’t done until every action step has been outlined except for those that cannot be determined until some other event occurs.

It’s rare for people to actually go through all these steps in an organized way. In real life, meetings often start with the question: “What’s a good idea for this?” Allen only recommends asking this question 80% of the way through your planning process.

People aren’t good at planning ahead. In elementary school, kids learn to write an outline for their reports. But often, the students write the report and then base the outline on what’s already written. This inability or unwillingness to structure ideas lasts into adulthood.

When shit hits the fan, the natural planning model gets done in reverse. In an emergency, people find ways to get the work done. Then when they realize there’s a problem, they try to get organized. This leads to an unproductive brainstorming session. Which may lead to an introspective clarification of what they’re really trying to get done and what purpose it serves. No matter what, you’re going to have to go through the five steps to realize your goal, so you might as well get it done in advance in a structured, safe way.

Notice that this process requires no new skills. You already have the ability and tools to go through all five steps on your own.

Allen: “You can try it for yourself right now if you like. Choose one project that is new or stuck or that could simply use some improvement. Think of your purpose. Think of what a successful outcome would look like: where would you be physically, financially, in terms of reputation, or whatever? Brainstorm potential steps. Organize your ideas. Decide on the next actions. Are you any clearer about where you want to go and how to get there?”

TIP: Allen gives an example of his own trick for getting himself to exercise: costume. Putting on exercise clothes makes him feel like exercising. If he doesn’t put the clothes on, he’ll feel like doing something else. Another example is putting something in front of the door, or attaching it to your keys, if it’s something that you need to remember to take with you. These are very simple actions you can take that will let your System 2 win the tug of war with your System 1.

When most people go through Allen’s comprehensive collecting process, they describe themselves as “exhausted”, “overwhelmed”, or “fatigued”. Yet upon completion, they use words like “relieved” or “in control”. How does it work that the same task creates such opposite emotions? Is organization enjoyable or exhausting?

First, Allen asks us to locate the source of the negativity. He says that the negative emotions associated with his organization process come from the collection of broken commitments. The “in” basket fills up with tasks you committed to but never actually got done. This is damaging to your self-trust. You want to be able to trust yourself to do the tasks you’ve laid out for yourself.

When you hold commitments only in “psychic RAM", you’ll probably dedicate either too much or too little attention to them. When you remember something you need to do and write it down, it feels good. But when you trust yourself and your system enough that you believe everything you need to worry about is written down where it needs to be then it will feel even better. You’ll no longer have to spend time thinking of your commitments (reminding yourself about them) instead of thinking about them.

Another source of negativity is imagination. When we contemplate doing our taxes, we imagine scenarios of how grueling a process it is and how confused and frustrated we’ll end up. The solution to our own creativity is to intelligently dumb things down by focusing on the next action. “Doing taxes” is difficult but specific actions are easily completed. You’ll get much more of a boost of positive energy at the thought of sitting down for an action you’re confident you can accomplish.

TIP: Every week, do a Weekly Review. Go through the five phases of workflow management, organize your loose papers, process your notes, check the upcoming dates on your calendar, review your files and folders, and empty your head.

Allen uses the metaphor of altitudes to describe the various levels at which one can think about goals.

50,000 feet: Life
40,000 feet: 3-5 years
30,000 feet: 1-2 years
20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
10,000 feet: Current projects
Runway: Next actions

At each of these levels, you have open loops that need to be closed. Allen suggests starting from the bottom up, at the level of next actions. Figuring out your higher level goals and values won’t necessarily lead to concrete next actions you could take to approach those long-term goals. Next time you end a meeting, ask: “What’s the next action?”

Open-minded Disbelief

Over New Years, my sister accused myself and another sister of being "close-minded" for not believing in astrology. It stood out to me that defining "close-minded" as "not believing in something" is pretty crazy. For one thing, nobody believes in everything so the accusation is hypocritical. Secondly, beliefs usually (if not always) imply disbeliefs. If you believe it to be cold outside, that means you don't believe it to be hot. But thirdly, I disagree with the commonly implied association between "open-mindedness" and belief.

Being open- or close-minded is one thing. Believing or not believing is a completely separate thing. I'm not sure open-mindedness is even correlated with belief.

I think there are some statements that are so clearly false that it requires close-mindedness to continue to believe them. In the case of astrology, an open-minded person would consider the available evidence, come up with arguments for why astrology is likely true or false, and search for a model of the world where it's being true makes sense. Given that there is nothing approaching good evidence, good reasoning, or a model of the world where astrology makes sense, in order to still believe that astrology is true, you need to be actively closing your mind to the alternative possibility. I think an open-minded person would struggle to believe in astrology because they would be open to impartially weighing the evidence and various arguments to figure out what's really true. An open-minded consideration such as this can only lead to the conclusion that astrology is false.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Figuring Good Out - December Master Post

A month ago I announced the start of the new EA blogging carnival, Figuring Good Out. The topic for the first month was "blind spots" in the EA movement. We received a pretty good 6 submissions. Hopefully, this number grows next month.

I wrote that "wasting" money and time is sometimes just you investing in yourself.

Ben Kuhn wrote about the need to, when identifying your comparative advantage, make sure you are comparing yourself to the right class of people.

Ruthie Buyers challenged the assumptions behind the popular EA idea that volunteering your time for a good cause is generally less effective than doing more of your day job.

Peter Hurford wrote a guide on how to run an effective fundraiser, something few EAs would consider their forté.

Jess Whittlestone advised us to consider the perspectives on effective altruism we don't hear.

Finally, Dale asks us to think of how our beliefs impact our other beliefs.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Reductionist Treaties

Some disagreements aren't disagreements at all but are illusions of tone and emphasis. Rhys Southan writes a blog called Let Them Eat Meat that rebuttals the arguments for ethical veganism. An ex-vegan himself, he believes that factory farming is really, really horrible and that people should instead feed from lower-exploitation methods of meat production. I think Rhys's position is more closely aligned with veganism than it is with the status quo. But I wouldn't pick up on that from a passive reading of his blog, which is really heavily focused on refuting ethical veganism.

I think these disagreements often come from expectations that others are tribal about their beliefs. If I'm a vegan and someone disagrees with me, I'd go straight to assuming that they see no ethical problems with eating meat. It's an all or nothing way of thinking - either they're with me or against me.

When it comes to complicated subjects where there are many possible defensible positions, all or nothing thinking brews a lot of tension between people whose opinions are pretty similar. It can be hard to tell who your allies are because people rarely break their views down into sub-views, allowing their opponents to identify exactly which sub-views they agree and disagree on. I imagine resolving this problem by clearly stating your sub-views, along with your broader view. In the end, your opinion should look something like a treaty.

So in the case of contemporary debates on the effects of religion, where there's a lot of hostility between people that probably agree on most relevant sub-views, I would offer a treaty of exactly what I accept and reject. My opponent would then be able to pinpoint which parts of my treaty are the points of disagreement and need to be compromised.

My Atheism-Religion Treaty:
  • None of the world's religions are literally true and none of their holy books are factual.
  • Religion is not needed for people to act morally.
  • The current rate of religion in the world is too high and we should hope for rates of religion to lower over time.
  • Religious ideas currently have too much power in politics and we should hope for this power to lessen over time.
  • An atheist should be able to get elected as president of the United States.
  • Supernatural claims require extraordinary evidence.
  • Religion should not be taught in science textbooks or classrooms.
  • When religious claims clash with scientific claims, we should side with science.
  • Religion is sometimes a motivating force for positive actions and it is sometimes a motivating force for negative actions.
  • We shouldn't be too hard on religious people - it isn't a good persuasion tactic anyway.
  • Holding religious views doesn't make you stupid or immoral. 

I think if Sam Harris, Johnathan Haidt, and Reza Aslan outlined their views like this, instead of signalling themselves as either enemies or friends of religion, they would find that they only disagree on one or two sub-views.