Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Repeat: (Kinda) Against "EA" / Utilitarianism. Definitely Against Big Numbers (with update)


Whenever I hear "wild animal suffering," I want to gouge my eyes out.

I've talked elsewhere (1, 2about why I think classic utilitarianism is wrong. In the case of wild animals, it is like someone comes across a child kicking a dog, but instead of helping, says, "There are 100,000 insects around a lake in remotest Siberia. 100,000 >> 1. So I must ignore the dog."

I know it is impolite to question an "effective" altruist. More tellingly, questioning anything said by someone claiming to be an EA will lead to thousands of words in "rebuttal" showing how the numbers are on their side ("trillions of lives!").

But the first time I heard someone argue re: wild animal suffering, my first reaction was: "This person thinks they are smarter than everyone else, so they felt compelled to come up with some math to prove they had an insight no one else had before."

What makes it especially painful is that tractability -- the ability to actually do something about a problem -- is supposed to be a part of effective altruists' calculations. But this goes out the window once they start talking about large enough numbers: "Even the tiniest chance of accomplishing anything has a greater expected value because of the gazillion of potential lives at stake."

I don't want anyone to suffer, but I do wish people would have a sense of how real suffering is. Suffering isn't a game, it isn't an academic exercise. Ethical imperatives shouldn't just be a debate answered by who can come up with the largest numbers.

2020 update: I could be convinced otherwise, but I think that I would rather light money on fire than give it to certain "wild animal" organizations. 



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