Larry Temkin takes half a red pill

His new book is Being Good in a World of Need, and most of all I am delighted to see someone take Effective Altruism seriously enough to evaluate it at a very high intellectual level.  Larry is mostly pro-EA, though he stresses that he believes in pluralist, non-additive theories of value, rather than expected utility theory, and furthermore that can make a big difference (for instance I don’t think Larry would play 51-49 “double or nothing” with the world’s population, as SBF seems to want to).

So where does the red pill come in?  Well, after decades of his (self-described) intellectual complacency, Larry now wonders whether foreign aid is as good as it has been cracked up to be:

In this chapter, I have presented some new disanalogies between Singer’s original Pond Example, and real-world instances of people in need.  I have noted that in some cases people in need may not be “innocent” or they may be responsible for their plight.  I have also noted that often people in need are the victims of social injustice or human atrocities.  Most importantly, I have shown that often efforts to aid the needy can, via various different paths, increase the wealth, status, and power of the very people who may be responsible for human suffering that the aid is intended to alleviate.  This can incentivize such people to continue their heinous practices against their original victims, or against other people in the region.  this can also incentivize other malevolent people in positions of power to perpetrate similar social injustices or atrocities.

The book also presents some remarkable examples of how some leading philosophers, including Derek Parfit, simply refused to believe that such arguments might possibly be true, even when Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton endorsed one version of them (not exactly Larry’s claims, to be clear).

Another striking feature of this book is how readily Larry accepts the rising (but still dissident) view that the sexual abuse of children has been a grossly underrated social problem.

What is still missing is a much greater focus on innovation and economic growth.

I am very glad I bought this book, and I look forward to seeing which pill or half-pill Larry swallows next.  Here is my post on Larry’s previous book Rethinking the Good.  Everyone involved in EA should be thinking about Larry and his work, and not just this latest book either.


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