This page features a written interview that Brian Tomasik did with Seung-Zin Nam in Feb.-Mar. 2016.
Q: Hi Brian, you are one of the most distinctive voices and idea providers in the effective-altruism movement. Your paper about wild-animal suffering has been widely discussed, and your decision to earn to give must be inspiring for young people who want to do as much good as possible. Do you sometimes feel the fatigue of demandingness too? And how do you find new inspiration and motivation? I mean, your concerns aren't quite easy to resolve, if at all.
A: I'm not often fatigued by altruism because I have a pretty laid-back lifestyle, including sleeping 9.5 hours per day and exercising 1.5 hours per day. And in the remaining hours, work and leisure are often hard to distinguish. Is talking with friends about altruism issues "work"? It doesn't feel like it most of the time. Likewise for learning new material, writing essays, and giving feedback on article drafts that others have written. So most of what I do on a daily basis is just "have fun" in various productive ways, and it's hard to tire of this.
That said, I often worry that my work is less optimal than something else I could be doing. Probably it is. But I have limited willpower and don't push myself too hard -- maybe to avoid burning out and maybe because of selfishness.
Rather than using willpower, I find it's often more effective in the long run to put yourself into situations where doing useful things comes naturally -- such as by surrounding yourself with friends who are also interested in reducing suffering. Once this social context is built, maintaining day-to-day motivation is usually less of a struggle.
Of course, there will still be some periods where you're more burned out or distracted than usual, but I find that such moods are pretty cyclical. That you get tired of altruism for a few days or weeks doesn't mean you'll never get back into it again.
Q: For complex life, pain has been a crucial evolutionary selective advantage. David Pearce's concept of The Hedonistic Imperative proposes a controlled evolution away from this. Would the process of replacing common evolution lead necessarily to a massive extinction of species, especially the r-selected ones? Must we try to avoid procreation of certain individuals and species similarly to animal advocates who want to castrate pets?
A: There are many different approaches to the problem of wild-animal suffering. I outlined the main ones in this talk.
I personally think the most cost-effective way to reduce wild-animal suffering in the short run is probably through land-use change, such as converting grass lawns to gravel so that the lawns support much smaller populations of invertebrates in the future. This isn't about extinction per se but about changing population sizes. Creating a few more gravel lawns seems unlikely to make many species go extinct.
Pearce has suggested that gene drives might allow for reducing wild-animal suffering if humans were to spread gene edits throughout wildlife populations in order to reduce animals' pain sensitivities or otherwise improve their qualities of life. In principle, if we were omniscient, we might be able to use gene drives to decrease animal suffering without causing extinctions, though in practice, I expect that spreading gene edits on this scale would significantly change ecological equilibria and thus would cause many extinctions. (That said, we should remember that species extinction in itself is not ethically important; species diversity and ecosystem stability are only instrumentally relevant insofar as they affect human and animal wellbeing.)
Feeding the homeless
Q: A rather personal question: would you give money to a homeless person in the street when you cannot be sure if he would spend your donation on animal products?
A: I don't carry cash with me, so I truthfully say that I can't offer money. However, if I'm not in a hurry, I sometimes do offer to buy the person something directly, which is a way to ensure that the person won't spend the money on drugs/etc.
One time, while I was handing out Vegan Outreach brochures, someone approached me and asked for money. At the cafeteria, the person requested a chicken burrito, which I grudingly agreed to buy. I figured it would be less unpleasant for me to hand out a few more brochures to offset the harm of doing this than to say no to the person for whom I had promised to buy food.
From a rational perspective, giving money to people on the street is less cost-effective than donating it to developing-world charities. So the main reason I do it is because of social pressure and moral pluralism. It's relatively trivial to spend $15 once in a while, so I don't sweat it that much.
Finally, I should point out that some animal products, especially beef, might prevent net wild-animal suffering, although this is a challenging question that needs further exploration. I still think it's plausibly bad in expectation to eat poultry products.
Q: You describe yourself as an antirealist in a metaethical sense. This means, more or less, that you don't believe in absolute ideals. How can we then say that progress can be made when convergence of values is not even realistic?
A: Progress has (in some domains) been made relative to our own values, even if those values are "only" our personal desires. The reason I put quotes on "only" is that our desires are what matter most to us, so they're hardly a trifling matter. The deep emotions that we normally associate with moral "truth" can attach just as strongly to our own personal feelings about how we want the world to be.
I think it's reasonably likely that Earth's future will be controlled by what Nick Bostrom calls a "singleton": "a single decision-making agency at the highest level". This is a form of convergence of values. But it's not the kind that moral realists are looking for, since the singleton's moral views are determined by a power struggle among competing factions, some of which win out over others. For instance, the singleton might be a notional "paperclip maximizer", whose goal is to maximize the expected number of paperclips in the universe.
Similar power struggles have shaped the dominant moral views of present people. History is written by the winners, and as the current winners of history, we tend to like our own moral views compared with those of the past.
Q: US politician Jeb Bush was asked during his presidential campaign whether he would kill baby Adolf Hitler if he was able to go back in time. “Hell yeah, I would!” was his answer. What would you do?
A: Ordinarily, killing humans is a terrible idea, even if it's "for the greater good" because -- apart from the direct suffering caused to the victim and his/her family -- violence leads to degradation of social trust, increased fearfulness among the populace, impulses for revenge, and hatred of the perpetrator.
That said, there are some cases that probably warrant breaking this heuristic. Self-defense is one of them. And preventing genocide is plausibly another.
Of course, in any practical situation, we don't have the hindsight of history. It's easy to carry out well-intentioned actions that actually cause more harm than good. So I wouldn't read too much into the Hitler thought experiment.
Q: You care especially about wild animals because they outnumber everything else. Your current focus lies also on artificial intelligence because NPCs for example are likely to emerge in big numbers in our future. Do you think that what lacks is first and foremost more knowledge about minimal forms of sentience? For which entities would you start to care if minimal sentience would be discovered one day? Need the hard problem be resolved before we can go beyond talking about the nonzero sentience of one's laptop?
A: I think sentience is a high-level concept that we ascribe to physical systems, rather than an ontologically objective property that the systems possess. And for this reason, I don't accept the "hard problem", since I don't think ontological qualia exist. (To use the terminology of David Chalmers, I’m a type-A physicalist.)
As an analogy, I think "consciousness" is like "justice" -- it's a high-level property that we attribute, to greater or lesser degrees, to physical systems. Most of us agree that we are conscious, just like most of us agree that when a poor, unarmed person is shot by police without a trial, that's a form of injustice. But people can disagree about boundary cases or how much moral priority different forms of injustice have, just like people can disagree about boundary cases for what's conscious or how much moral priority different kinds of minds have.
Given my view, whether people care about simple systems is in large part a moral question. That said, I do think intuitions about the matter can be refined by studying neuroscience and computer science, in order to better appreciate what sentience actually looks like "under the hood" and what kinds of other systems exhibit traces of the same behavior.
Effective altruism vs. other movements
Q: "Effectiveness" is a label for a whole movement. Can you describe what effectiveness means compared to noneffective sorts of altruism?
A: I don't like to label activities as "effective" vs. "ineffective" because I think it's easy to overestimate the effectiveness of one's own work relative to that of others. Even if a person doesn't explicitly think about outcomes when doing activism, she will tend to follow accumulated wisdom about how social change happens that's embodied in the set of activities that activists tend to do: conducting lobbying campaigns, getting media attention, policy and prioritization research, fundraising, etc.
Of course, some causes are more important to advocate for than others, and some are net harmful. But I think the differences among activist causes are smaller than some effective altruists tend to believe, because there's so much spillover (both good and bad) among different causes and among different social outcomes.
Effective altruists tend to make their goals relatively explicit and then think strategically and analytically about how to pursue those goals, although this process is imperfect and requires numerous heuristics. Many other activists are motivated in other ways -- e.g., by intuitions about justice, freedom, personal connection to an issue, and so on. Both types of people may work on important projects, and neither approach is more correct in an absolute sense; it just depends on one's intellectual background, personality, and motivations.