Coordination is an oft-discussed topic within EA, and people generally try hard to behave cooperatively toward other EA researchers, entrepreneurs, and donors present and future. But “Effective Altruism and Free Riding” makes the case that standard EA advice favors defection over cooperation in prisoner’s dilemmas (and stag hunts) with non-EAs. It poses the question whether this is good or bad, and what can be done about it.
I’ve had a few thoughts while reading the article but found that most of them were already covered in the most upvoted comment thread. I’ll still outline them in the following as a reference for myself, to add some references that weren’t mentioned, and to frame them a bit differently.
The project of maximizing gains from moral trade is one that I find very interesting and promising, and want to investigate further to better understand its relative importance and strategic implications.
Still, Scott’s perspective was a somewhat new one for me. He points out that in particular the neglectedness criterion encourages freeriding: Climate change is a terrible risk but we tend to be convinced by neglectedness considerations that additional work on it is not maximally pressing. In effect, we’re freeriding on the efforts of activists working on climate change mitigation.
What was new to me about that is that I’ve conceived of neglectedness as a cheap coordination heuristic. Cheap in that it doesn’t require a lot of communication with other cooperators; coordination in the sense that everyone is working towards a bunch of similar goals but need to distribute work among themselves optimally; and heuristic in that it falls short insofar as values are not perfectly aligned, momentum in capacity building is hard to anticipate, and the tradeoffs with tractability and importance are usually highly imprecise.
So in essence, my simplification was to conceive of the world as filled with agents like me in values that use neglectedness to coordinate their cooperative work, and Scott conceives of the world as filled with agents very much unlike me in values that use neglectedness to freeride off of each other’s work.
Obviously, neither is exactly true, but I don’t see an easy way to home in on which model is better: (1) I suppose most people are not centrally motivated by consequentialism in their work, and it may be impossible for us to benefit the motivations that are central to them. But then again there are probably consequentialist aspects to most people’s motivations. (2) Insofar as there are aspects to people’s motivations for their work that we can benefit, how would these people wish for their preferences to be idealized (if that is even the framing that they’d prefer to think about their behavior)? Caspar Oesterheld discusses the ins and outs of different forms of idealization in the eponymous section 3.3.1 of “Multiverse-wide Cooperation via Correlated Decision Making.” The upshot is, very roughly, that idealization through additional information seems less doubious than idealization through moral arguments (Scott’s article mentions advocacy for example). So would exposing non-EAs to information about the importance of EA causes lead them to agree that people should focus on them even at the expense of the cause that they chose? (3) What consequentialist preferences should be even take into account – only altruistic ones or also personal ones, since personal ones may be particularly strong? A lot of people have personal preferences not to die or suffer and for their children not to die or suffer, which may be (imperfectly) aligned with catastrophe prevention.
But the framing of the article and the comments was also different from the way I conceive of the world in that it framed the issue as a game between altruistic agents with different goals. I’ve so far seen all sorts of nonagents as being part of the game by dint of being moral patients. If instead we have a game between altruists who are stewards of the interests of other nonagent moral patients, it becomes clearer why everyone is part of the game, their power, but there are a few other aspects that elude me. Is there a risk of double-counting the interests of the nonagent moral patients if they have many altruist stewards – and does that make a difference if everyone does it? And should a bargaining solution only take the stewards’ power into account (perhaps the natural default, for better or worse) or also the number of moral patients they stand up for? The first falls short of my moral intuitions in the case. It may also cause Ben Todd and many others to leave the coalition because the gains from trade are not worth the sacrifice for them. Maybe we can do better. But the second option seems gameable (by pretending to see moral patienthood where one in fact does not see it) and may cause powerful cooperators to leave the coalition if they have a particularly narrow concept of moral patienthood. (Whatever the result, it seems like that this the portfolio that commenters mentioned, probably akin to the compromise utility function that you maximize in evidential cooperation – see Caspar Oesterheld’s paper.)
Personally, I can learn a lot more about these questions by just reading up on more game theory research. More specifically, it’s probably smart to investigate what the gains from trade are that we could realize in the best case to see if all of this is even worth the coordination overhead.
But there are probably also a few ways forward for the community. Causal (as opposed to acausal) cooperation requires some trust, so maybe the signal that there is a community of altruists that cooperate particularly well internally can be good if paired with the option of others to join that community by proving themselves to be sufficiently trustworthy. (That community may be wider than EA and called differently.) That would probably take the shape of newcomers making the case for new cause areas not necessarily based on their appeal to utilitarian values but based on their appeal to the values of the newcomer – alongside an argument that those values wouldn’t just turn into some form of utilitarianism upon idealization. That way, more value systems could gradually join this coalition, and we’d promote cooperation the way Scott recommends in the article. It’ll probably make sense to have different nested spheres of trust, though, with EA orgs at the center, the wider community around that, new aligned cooperators further outside, occasional mainstream cooperators further outside yet, etc. That way, the more high-trust spheres remain even if sphere’s further on the outside fail.
Finally, a lot of these things are easier in the acausal case that evidential cooperation in large worlds (ECL) is based on (once again, see Caspar Oesterheld’s paper). Perhaps ECL will turn out to make sufficiently strong recommendations that we’ll want to cooperate causally anyway despite any risk of causal defection against us. This stikes me as somewhat unlikely (e.g., many environmentalists may find ECL weird, so there may never be many evidential cooperators among them), but I still feel sufficiently confused about the implications of ECL that I find it at least worth mentioning.