80,000 Hours Podcast

#87 – Russ Roberts on whether it's more effective to help strangers, or people you know

80,000 Hours Podcast

If you want to make the world a better place, would it be better to help your niece with her SATs, or try to join the State Department to lower the risk that the US and China go to war?

People involved in 80,000 Hours or the effective altruism community would be comfortable recommending the latter. This week's guest — Russ Roberts, host of the long-running podcast EconTalk, and author of a forthcoming book on decision-making under uncertainty and the limited ability of data to help — worries that might be a mistake.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

I've been a big fan of Russ' show EconTalk for 12 years — in fact I have a list of my top 100 recommended episodes — so I invited him to talk about his concerns with how the effective altruism community tries to improve the world.

These include:

• Being too focused on the measurable
• Being too confident we've figured out 'the best thing'
• Being too credulous about the results of social science or medical experiments
• Undermining people's altruism by encouraging them to focus on strangers, who it's naturally harder to care for
• Thinking it's possible to predictably help strangers, who you don't understand well enough to know what will truly help
• Adding levels of wellbeing across people when this is inappropriate
• Encouraging people to pursue careers they won't enjoy

These worries are partly informed by Russ' 'classical liberal' worldview, which involves a preference for free market solutions to problems, and nervousness about the big plans that sometimes come out of consequentialist thinking.

While we do disagree on a range of things — such as whether it's possible to add up wellbeing across different people, and whether it's more effective to help strangers than people you know — I make the case that some of these worries are founded on common misunderstandings about effective altruism, or at least misunderstandings of what we believe here at 80,000 Hours.

We primarily care about making the world a better place over thousands or even millions of years — and we wouldn’t dream of claiming that we could accurately measure the effects of our actions on that timescale.

I'm more skeptical of medicine and empirical social science than most people, though not quite as skeptical as Russ (check out this quiz I made where you can guess which academic findings will replicate, and which won't).

And while I do think that people should occasionally take jobs they dislike in order to have a social impact, those situations seem pretty few and far between.

But Russ and I disagree about how much we really disagree. In addition to all the above we also discuss:

• How to decide whether to have kids
• Was the case for deworming children oversold?
• Whether it would be better for countries around the world to be better coordinated

Get this episode by subscribing: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the linked transcript.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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