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A Conversation About Effective Altruism

This is a log of a conversation I had with Boris Yakubchik on Facebook about 11 months ago, or in other words in January 2015. [Comments from now are added in brackets.]

Michael Hrenka
Hi Boris

Boris Yakubchik
Hello

Michael Hrenka
It’s been quite a while since we have talked last time. How are you doing?

Boris Yakubchik
I’m fantastic bought a house, celebrated 3 years with Yetzenia, have a steady income, donating to charities still, almost done paying off all loans (except the house).

How have you been?

Michael Hrenka
Wow, that sounds awesome! Congratulations!

Boris Yakubchik
Thank you

Michael Hrenka
I’ve dropped out of university due to ME/CFS have lived on welfare for half [one] and a half years. But I’m making slow progress about getting more healthy. And I’ve recently started a new forum: The Social Future Forum http://radivis.com/sff/forum/ [Comment: Yeah, that’s a very old link that’s defunct now – the F3 started humbly as addition to my personal blog]

And there’s still this reputation economy system called Quantified Prestige I want to develop as web application. Only making very slow progress on that project though.

Boris Yakubchik
Sorry to hear

Michael Hrenka
Sorry about what?

Boris Yakubchik
About dropping out of college due to a medical condition.

Michael Hrenka
Yeah, well, I a degree wouldn’t have made much of a difference for me personally anyway.

Boris Yakubchik
Looking at the forum link; when did you start it?

unfortunately not many users yet

Michael Hrenka
And the disease is really nasty, but I like the perspective that it’s such a great challenge that it’s the perfect training for all consecutive challenges. I’m becoming tougher and tougher ^^

2-3 weeks ago.

I focused on the technical stuff first. But I realized I need to change my focus to get more activity in that forum.

Boris Yakubchik
Good luck with the challenge; I think having a positive outlook that you do is the best strategy

Michael Hrenka
Thank you very much!

Boris Yakubchik
With a forum as broad as this, I wonder if it’s worth hiding several categories so as to funnel new people in a more focused location (more interaction with a smaller population - don’t spread them thin)

And then as more activity happens, you can open up other topics?

Also - was reading about Quantified Prestige … did you by any chance come across a SciFi book “Daemon” and “Freedom” (it’s a 2-book-long series)?

Michael Hrenka
Yes, I’ve considered that. Thanks for the feedback. So far, I erred on the side of being too broad, rather than being too restrictive. But maybe I need to review that stance.

I’ve read Daemon, but not Freedom

Do you think that Freedom is more relevant to reputation economy than “Daemon”?

Boris Yakubchik
I think so, in the first part I don’t remember them using it as much - it was mostly a setup

In the second it goes all-crazy full war-like scenario with communities building their own self-sustaining villages

Michael Hrenka
I see. Then it would seem that I need to read Freedom after all. I didn’t like “Daemon” too much, so I wasn’t too eager to read the sequel ^^ [oh, and it happens that I still haven’t read that]

Ok, that DOES sound interesting.

Boris Yakubchik
Ah. Well - it’s a rather fast read … I’d recommend it, it’s the closest thing (besides Reddit & LessWrong) that I’ve come across where you upvote stuff.

Michael Hrenka
cool

Anyway, what topics are you interested in at the moment?

Boris Yakubchik
I have about 10 more books on my “must-read” list … haven’t been doing much; have been mostly on vacation mode - playing computer games for almost a month maybe …

Planning to put in some serious reading time in the upcoming months. Want to be done with that reading list already

Michael Hrenka
Hehe, I know that feeling

What do you want to think about? Maybe my forum could help structure your thoughts

Oh, I misread your “serious reading time” as “serious thinking time”, but maybe that was not too bad [I guess I was tired when I had this chat, and also much more affected by ME/CFS than I am now]

Boris Yakubchik
For years I’ve felt like I wanted to learn more about how the world works; I feel like with the hundreds (I think it’s over 200) of books (nonfiction) I’ve read, I have a good grasp on reality, how the world works, etc.

I feel like it’s more time for action for me … my central aim is to encourage much more people to make giving a larger part of their lives (Giving What We Can style - give at least 10% to cost-effective charities).

Michael Hrenka
After all, I guess the books you want to read are seriously thought provoking.

Boris Yakubchik
yes yes

Michael Hrenka
So, your focus definitely lies of effective altruism in general?

Boris Yakubchik
very much so

Michael Hrenka
Does the EA community have a forum at the moment?

Boris Yakubchik
Yes http://effective-altruism.com/
Newest Submissions - Effective Altruism Forum
effective-altruism.com

Michael Hrenka
Looks quite Less Wrong-ish

Boris Yakubchik
yes yes - they almost surely just copied the code

Michael Hrenka
I personally don’t like systems in which you can get downvotes too much

Boris Yakubchik
I think it costs 10 “karma” to downvote something by 1 point.

so it REALLY disincentivizes downvoting, unless it’s really bad.

Michael Hrenka
That’s interesting.

So, how much does downvoting happen after all then?

Boris Yakubchik
Not often as far as I can tell, but it’s hard to see. One downvote can be counteracted by one upvote.

I would double-check the 10 vs 1 karma trade-off; I’m unsure if that’s how it works - I’m not certain.

Michael Hrenka
Is there any evidence that EA could become a real mass movement?

Boris Yakubchik
There is continued (exponential I think) growth in donations to top-recommended charities. There is growth of Giving What We Can memberships. There are a lot more articles about effective charity … I’m ‘inside’ the EA movement so I might have a biased perspective, but it looks like it’s on its way to be more popular.

Boris Yakubchik
Peter Singer will be releasing his book in 2015 about effective altruism. [this turned out to be true:

It seems to have good ratings, too. I haven’t read that one either, yet.]

Will MacAskill will release his book about EA stuff in 2015 (later in the year). So there will be easy-to-approach material about EA stuff

Michael Hrenka
That sounds very encouraging.

Do you have something like an “elevator pitch” to “sell” people to becoming effective altruists?

Boris Yakubchik
Hmm - can’t find a ready-link for it … I’ll glance some more …

Boris Yakubchik
Here’s something by one guy from 2012 … https://globofthoughts.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/effective-altruism/
The effective altruism movement
globofthoughts.wordpress.com
I claim three things: Many people who profess some degree of altruism are not being very effective, despite their good intentions. Regardless of how ineffective their past decisions were, they can …

Boris Yakubchik
But if you were to send someone to a page to read about it, of course I’d recommend something else

Michael Hrenka
Ah, I see. I guess you would need two different kinds of elevator pitches: One for people to become altruists in the first place, and one for altruists to become effective.

(Or for people to first become “effective” in general and then to become altruists…)

Boris Yakubchik
It seems that encouraging people to give more cost-effectively is HUNDREDS of times better than encouraging people to give more (without altering where they give).

It’s hard to increase one’s giving by a factor of 1,000 but it’s easy to increase the effectiveness of your donation by that much

Michael Hrenka
It might still be worth to encourage people to start giving at all, if you can do it so that they start becoming effective altruists an once (which shouldn’t be much more difficult than making them altruists in the first place).

Boris Yakubchik
Definitely once the person starts giving, they are more likely to see themselves as a “giving kind of person”

Boris Yakubchik
Have you heard of this:


Self-perception theory - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Self-perception theory (SPT) is an account of attitude formation developed by psychologist Daryl Bem.[1][2] It asserts that people develop their attitudes (when there is no previous attitude due to a lack of experience, etc.—and the emotional response is ambiguous) by observing their own behavior an…

Michael Hrenka
I think there are still many people who think there are more important ways to improve the world than EA. How would you try to convince them otherwise?

Boris Yakubchik
I’d definitely want to hear them out - I’d want to know what they think is a good way to make the world better

Michael Hrenka
Sounds like an interesting theory. I think I have heard about it previously, but haven’t given it much thought or attention.

My view is that we should focus more on structural and ethical changes, even if they are very hard. But they make a lot of difference in the end.

That’s what my intention is with the reputation economy: Create a complementary system that has better incentives for ethical and beneficial actions.

Boris Yakubchik
Coincidentally: https://80000hours.org/2014/12/earning-to-give-is-systemic-change/
Earning to give is systemic change - 80,000 Hours
80000hours.org
One of the most common criticisms of earning to give (e.g. see this article released yesterday), and advocating for charitable donations generally, is that it just makes thing better at the margin, and doesn’t address the “systemic”, “structural” “root cause” issues that really matter. One response…

Michael Hrenka
EA looks a bit “conservative” from my perspective. (But then, so does almost everything else ;))

Boris Yakubchik
Most people aren’t able to change their careers, or devote a great deal of time towards some new goal. But almost everyone is able to take a small fraction of their earnings and give to the causes that make the world significantly better

I’ve really not come across as-widely-applicable strategy as Earning to Give

Michael Hrenka
Yes, that’s a good point. And the article you’ve linked to it fine, too. [yeah, must have been rather brain fogged at that time.]

Boris Yakubchik
You’re definitely right about ethical and structural changes. I feel that EA provides that for people - it changes the discourse about charity (it’s not about “what feels good” but about “what works, given the evidence”). It encourages people to care more about others (and not just neighbors, but those far away). Finally, it is even broad enough to consider the suffering of non-humans as worthy of concern!

Boris Yakubchik
Oh - and a branch of EA is concerned with far future (averting X-risk)

Michael Hrenka
Have you considered that furthering systemic political innovations like a universal basic income would be a worthy EA cause?

Boris Yakubchik
Universal Basic Income would be magnificent.

At the moment, it’s unlikely to be a world policy. And it would unlikely happen in the US for a while either.

A much more preferred goal that would help the very worst-off would be Open Borders

Michael Hrenka
Yes, I think the best what can be done now, is to facilitate more experimenting into UBI, its consequences, and how to do it right.

Boris Yakubchik
Sadly, it’s similarly politically unlikely. But it has amazing arguments in its favor from every direction of political lean!

I think UBI might start first in some Scandinavian countries … spread to the EU, and then further.

Michael Hrenka
I don’t think that it’s politically unlikely. It needs more time to mature in the heads of people until it becomes a viable tool.

Interesting. There are arguments that it might be more likely to start somewhere in the developing world first, because with higher inequality, it seems to be more beneficial and easier to finance.

I’ve got an idea. I think that EA is such an important topic that it deserves its own section in the Social Future Forum. Can I copy our conversation into a forum thread?

Boris Yakubchik
Sounds good

I’m sorry I had to run off the PC … I have to run now - student to tutor.

This was a great conversation! Do message me again - would be great to talk again

Have a Happy New Year!

Michael Hrenka
Thank you very much, and have a happy and successful New Year!

Addendum:
Boris Yakubchik
Found a link that’s a short intro to EA for people: http://claviger.net/introduction-effective-altruism.html
Introduction to Effective Altruism