Anthony Colarusso: Consuming Altruism

Anthony Colarusso: acolarusso@college.harvard.edu

When we make donations, we like to think about it as contributing to a cause. People donate to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation because they support the cause of fighting breast cancer. They want to contribute to the goal of finding a cure.

If we truly want to make a difference, however, this is precisely the wrong way to view altruism. Effective altruism focuses on results. The central question isn’t what cause a charity supports, but instead qualitative results it receives - how much it actually helps.

This approach may seem unnatural, but it’s a question that we are all used to asking ourselves - not as altruists, but as consumers. Viewing altruism as a consumer activity may seem wrong to do when human lives are at stake, but in fact, treating donations as transactions can maximize the good we do in the world. If we aren’t trying to maximize lives saved, we aren’t treating the value of a life with maximum importance.

When you go to the store and try to decide which product to buy, you don’t focus on your cause, to buy the product itself. What you really care about is how you can get the most bang for your buck. If you need to buy bottled water, and you have the option of 1 for $.50 or 1 for $1, you make a comparison. Assuming all water brands taste equal to you, you could easily rule out the second option - it is not reasonable to spend more when you could spend less and achieve the same result. Acting as a consumer, you would want to get your water for the most cost-effective price. Being a smart consumer, you choose the first option.

If we apply this thinking to being an altruist, and making donations, we should compare prices for saving lives. We may be able to save 1 child in poverty for $3,000 or 1 breast cancer patient for $4,000, depending on what charity we donate to. Assuming all lives have equal worth, the principal concern in this situation is maximizing quantity of lives saved for the lowest price, or getting the most bang for our buck. If we want to maximize cost-effectiveness, the first option is the lowest per capita choice to save a life. If we can save lives at $3,000 each, no consumer would choose to pay more than $3,000 per life saved.

A flaw we make in choosing how to donate our money is not acting as consumers. We might not take into account a charity’s cost-effectiveness and comparing our options. We may forget that giving is a transaction and spend our money focused on the cause and without regard for the results. Of all the times in our lives when we must act as responsible consumers, making donations is the most important instance. There is no good reason we should compare what water to buy for the lowest price, but ignore this consideration when trying to save as many lives as possible. We can’t be reckless consumers of altruism when human lives are on the line.


Chris Scazzero: Income Share Agreements and their EA Implications

Chris Scazzero, cscazzero@college.harvard.edu

In 2016, Purdue University’s office of financial aid first introduced ISAs, or Income Share Agreements, for its students. Several more universities have recently followed suit. Indeed, ISAs are a fascinating financial mechanism often allowing for students to pay back their student loans with significantly less interest. This is because they aren’t quite loans, but rather are more like a kind of stock: human stock, with dividends. So, rather than paying interest on the debt, students pay their loans by guaranteeing somewhere between 2-17% of their short-term future income. If a student succeeds materially beyond imagination, there is usually a repayment cap amounting to about 2.5 times the initial funding. Under this system, about $40 million of loans have been distributed, helping several thousand American students afford their universities.

Is this a good thing for American students? Well, in typical EA style the answer is we don’t know until greater empirical data is released. Since this is a relatively new concept, we don’t have any real studies proving or invalidating its success. However, in concept, this is a very exciting idea. First, it shifts the risks of debt from the hands of college students into investors, who can pool their risk and have larger capital reserves. Second, it spurs meritocracy and social mobility, since anyone has access to this capital and the best rates of repayment will be given to those who have the highest prospects of success. Positive values, like hard work and passion, have tangible financial benefits associated with them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it means that investors, often considered a part of the most connected, informed members of society, now have a financial incentive to benefit those who need it. If they were to treat these college students like their own children, providing oversight, check-ins, and even networking advantages, then the students would earn more money in the future, and the investor would thus earn a greater return. Indeed, there is a deontological problem with this, treating humans like stock and trading them based off their projected human value. It seems to ignore their dignity. Yet, utilitarians would argue that this is the way to preserve the most human dignity, since it spurs greater social mobility resulting in the best outcome for everyone.

This is promising in and of itself, yet it seems to hold even more promise in the third world. If one thinks of human potential as financially significant for investors, then undoubtedly investors should and will turn their heads towards the most underdeveloped areas of the world; it is in these places where people with the intellect to become lawyers, doctors, etc. work on farms and in factories. Providing for their education (which would often be more of a practical, trade-school rather than a western liberal arts school) and basic needs could lead to tremendous financial returns. For once, it seems that corporate and general human interests could align. Once again, this is perhaps taking away from the freedom of global citizens to pursue their interests. For example, investors will not fund an artist to the same degree they would a potential banker. But, that being said, one cannot even imagine the tremendous impact such investment strategies can have: with the power of corporate investment, millions of people could be lifted from poverty.

See more: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2018/07/19/income-share-agreements-are-a-novel-way-to-pay-tuition-fees

Stephen Casper: An Ethical Lesson from Quantum Physics

Stephen Casper, thestephencasper@gmail.com

One of my professors, Boaz Barak, wrote this in a chapter on quantum computing in his textbook:

“If you don’t find the above description confusing and unintuitive, you probably didn’t get it. Please make sure to re-read the above paragraphs until you are thoroughly confused.”

Quantum physics are just weird. Somehow, things can be both waves and particles at the same time, be spread out over many places at once, disappear and reappear somewhere else without traversing the space in between, and display a bizarre entanglement with another particle despite no forces acting between them. It makes no sense how exactly this stuff happens, but, in a metaphysical sense, why would it? These phenomena are only exhibited by very small, very isolated, or very cold things. Meanwhile, Newtonian physics make plenty of sense because we’re used to observing them, and they are reasonably well-embedded into our mental models of the world. We don’t ever directly perceive quantum phenomena, so they don’t make sense to us nearly as easily. Yet we still have quantum theories with all of their valuable explanatory power because when physicists observed these phenomena, they didn’t say “Oh, but that doesn’t make sense. I reject this theory.” Instead, they carefully followed the logic and evidence to very novel conclusions. (Not that they weren’t skeptical at first of what seemed strange—as any Bayesian should be.)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is known for his quote, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” and we should think of ethics the same way. I wish it were viewed as bad practice in philosophical contexts to make an argument by bringing up a counterexample which everyday intuition would find repugnant and then suggesting a theory must be wrong because it conflicts with intuition in that particular case (Take the trolley problem for instance.). Arguments that only appeal to intuition are conclusions masquerading as reasons. Humans evolved a selfish, heuristical, shortsighted, and tribal sense of morality. Why should we let our instincts be in charge? Not only would that make moral philosophy a useless process of self-rationalization, it would lead us to make very bad decisions. Some of the most important moral questions of our time are examples of when a natural, intuitive sense of morality and a rational one conflict.

We can be as scientific about morality as any other science, beginning with a set of naturalistic values (I agree with the idea that we should see moral good as pertaining to the welfare of conscious beings) and soberly thinking through the trail of connected questions laying ahead of us, constantly using evidence and checking our bias. That’s much easier said than done, but my point is that we can do better than our intuition. We need to respect logic, be consistent, and take rational conclusions seriously.