Should We Fear A.I.?

It is very telling that almost every portrayal of artificial intelligence in science fiction is a cynical one: A.I. is almost always prone to rebelling against, dominating, or otherwise coming into conflict with humanity. Judging by the continued prevalence and widespread acceptance of this trope, it appears that there is an inherent, almost universal perception that A.I. is bad news for our species. Continue reading

The Best Way to Save a Life

The wisest question is not  “What is the greatest good?” but rather: What is the greatest good where the next dollar could have the greatest impact?”

The amount of suffering in the world is so vast in its scale and severity that it can be overwhelming to take it all in, let alone know where to start in alleviating it. We are but lone individuals amid a world of billions, many of whose wealthiest denizens seem utterly indifferent to the plight of the masses. It is easy, if not understandable, to feel cynical and despairing.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic tackles the concept of “effective altruism” — helping the world in the most efficient, sustainable, and consequential way possible. He cites a large breadth of wisdom on the matter, summing up a general guide to better giving thusly:

The simplest way to explain effective altruism and its discontents is to begin with three pillars of the movement: (1) You can make a truly enormous difference in the world if you live in a rich country; (2) you can “do good better” by thinking scientifically rather than sentimentally; and (3) you can do good even better by trying to find the greatest need for the next marginal dollar.

In other words, if you are at least a middle-class person in a wealthy country, and rely on science, reason, and evidence to guide your donations, you can do a lot more substantive good than you may think. Continue reading

Tackling Poverty By Giving Money Directly to the Poor

It seems like a such an obvious idea: help the world’s poor by simply giving them the money they need. Although it is of course important to support groups that provide water, medical care, and other necessities, empowering someone with the funds they need to get out of poverty seems like a worthy and sensible approach.

But how does one money to those in need, especially when they live on the other side of the world? Among the thousands of different aid groups that exist in the United States alone, there are apparently none that simply pass your funds along to the recipient — except for GiveDirectly, the first (and so far only) nonprofit that focuses exclusively on unconditional cash transfers.

An assessment by Huffington Post’s Impact column shows how deceptively simple yet effective this strategy is:

GiveDirectly transfers about $1,000 to very poor families over the course a year. It makes no rules or even suggestions about how to use the cash.

Since launching in 2011, the group has distributed about $15 million to communities in Kenya and Uganda. These are not the poorest countries in the region. Rather, they are at the center of Africa’s revolution in mobile banking, which is crucial to GiveDirectly’s strategy. A person in sub-Saharan Africa is 60 times more likely to have a mobile financial account than a European.

Once GiveDirectly has selected a village based on publicly-available poverty data, it uses an ingeniously simple method to identify who will receive money: it enrolls households who live in homes built with thatched roofs and mud floors (as opposed to corrugated metal roofs or concrete floors). The use of organic materials is a reliable indicator of severe poverty — easy for members of the community to understand, and for GiveDirectly’s staff to audit, the group states.

The money is then delivered electronically. Recipients typically receive an SMS alert and then collect cash from a nearby mobile money agent. (If they are among a dwindling minority in Africa that doesn’t have a mobile phone or SIM card, GiveDirectly helps them buy one using a portion of the cash transfer.)

Distributing the money electronically slashes costs and eliminates several prime opportunities for corruption (i.e., fewer middlemen to siphon off funds or ask for bribes). It is at the core of GiveDirectly’s plans to scale its work to millions of poor people worldwide.

This helpful chart shows how donations are allocated. It is always vital to only support those organizations uphold both transparency (by showing financials and methodology) as well as efficiency (seeing how much goes to the cause versus overhead, staff, etc.) In this regard, GiveDirectly checks out.

But given that GiveDirectly is the only major aid group focusing on cash transfers, does that suggest the approach is inefficient? Is that why it has not caught on? Thankfully, there is growing research confirming the merits of the direct aid approach:

Cash transfer programs have an extensive research record, including dozens of peer-reviewed studies spanning at least 13 countries in four continents. The U.K.’s development agency calls cash transfers “one of the more thoroughly researched forms of development intervention”; a gold-standard charity evaluation group GiveWell (not affiliated with GiveDirectly) says transfers “have the strongest track record we’ve seen” for a non-health poverty program.

Longer-term research into anti-poverty interventions is rare, but it exists for cash transfers. A 2013 study in Uganda found that people who received cash enjoyed a 49 percent earnings boost after two years, and a 41 percent increase after four years, compared to people who hadn’t gotten a transfer. Another study in Sri Lanka found rates of return averaging 80 percent after five years. In Uganda, not only were the cash recipients better off, but their number of hours worked and labor productivity actually increased.

Do many people just end up wasting their money on alcohol or smokes? Last year, the World Bank reviewed 19 studies of cash transfer programs and said the answer is no. “Almost without exception, studies find either no significant impact or a significant negative impact of transfers on expenditures on alcohol and tobacco,” the report stated. “This result is consistent across the world.”

There is also the research cited in the book “Poor Economics“, written by MIT graduates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who founded the university’s Poverty Action Lab in 2003 precisely to study the impact and efficiency of cash transfers. Pushing back against the widespread notion that the poor are unable to manage their money — and thereby cannot be entrusted with direct funds — they found that on the contrary:

…the poor are in some ways even more sophisticated with their finances than wealthier people, partly because it is so important that they get things right. The extreme poor personally manage loans to family and neighbors; they evaluate credit offers without the support of financial institutions; they manage their day-to-day cash flow in the context of very inconsistent income patterns. All of this helps explain why giving cash to the poor, rather than allocating capital on their behalf, has proven particularly effective.

Indeed, accounts for GiveDirectly show that recipients spend their funds in wildly different ways: to acquire basic needs, like food or health care; to get an education or technical training; and to start or expand a business. Everyone has different needs and goals, and the poor know better than everyone what their conditions are and how best to improve them. Even if their ventures fail — which is certainly the case at times — it is no different than what we would expect of any middle or upper class person in the developed world. People have dreams and potentials that they want to tap, so empower them with the means to do so.

To be sure, there is no perfect solution to poverty, and even cash transfers have their shortcomings, as one of GiveDirectly’s lead researchers, Chris Blattman, pointed out in an op-ed in the Times about a project in Liberia:

Almost no men wasted [the money]. In the months after they got the cash, most dressed, ate and lived better. Unlike the Ugandans, however, whose new businesses kept growing, the Liberian men were back where they started a year later. Two hundred dollars was not enough to turn them into businessmen. But it brought them a better life for a while, which is the fundamental goal of any welfare program. We also tested a counseling program to reduce crime and violence. It worked a little on its own, but had the largest impact when combined with cash.”

So even when the results fall short of the goal, there can still be a silver lining. Moreover, financial resources can only go so far without access to the goods and service, from healthcare to education, that people need to get ahead. That is why such efforts must be coupled with other programs that fill in the gaps, or directed to areas where an infrastructure exists to make the money go far.

In any case, what matters is that more people benefit from the aid than squander it, and by that standard direct cash transfers seem to work.

But the positive impacts of cash transfers have been consistent and wide-ranging, from improved nutrition, healthier newborns and greater school participation to decreased HIV infection rates and psychological distress. As a result, according to a 2011 review by the UK’s development agency, global aid has undergone a “quiet revolution,” with developing countries launching transfer programs believed to reach between 750 million and one billion people.

Nevertheless, GiveDirectly is determined to make its solutions as results driven and empirically validated as possible. There remains an accountability problem in the aid world, with relatively little research done to validate existing models of aid. (That is why I am a big advocate for, and frequent user of, Charity Navigator, which you can read about here.)

GiveDirectly is leveraging its data to help improve transfer programs carried out by others. It has again publicly pre-announced new RCTs of its work, including one ambitious study of how cash transfers impact communities at a macro-level. “We’re asking questions like, what happens to the structure of businesses after cash transfers? How does local government change what they do? How do schools reallocate their budget? What happens to the prices of goods?” Niehaus said. “These are the sorts of questions that finance ministers have.”

GiveDirectly also continues to run experiments to test its core model. It tried directing cash toward female heads of households and toward younger women, and using criteria other than owning a thatched roof. None substantially changed the results. A new RCT is testing what happens when cash recipients have more control over the timing of their transfers (some want a lump sum upfront to pay for an expensive item; others want the payments spread out so their in-laws stop asking for loans). Another trial will find out what happens when GiveDirectly provides information about possible ways to spend the money.


It goes without saying that this is a welcome development that us would-be humanitarians should welcome and support. With increasingly more advanced information technology, there is no reason why an aid organization should lack data or evidence of its approach, or why it should not respond to said data with any necessary changes.

If you are interested in learning more about the “effective altruism” movement that is underpinning GiveDirectly’s efforts, check out the following TED Talk by ethicist Peter Singer here. And as always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

Four Examples of Philosophy Making a Difference

Philosophy has something of a bad rap. While associated with high mindedness and culture, it popularly perceived as an armchair discipline with very little real-world application. (Nevermind the research showing how surprisingly lucrative a philosophy degree can be.) But philosophy has more to give us than interesting thought experiments to chew on, or intellectual credibility among our peers. Even as we speak, it is being utilized in some very potent ways, as philosophy professor Patricia Illingworth highlights in a HuffPo piece.

Today innovative work in philosophy combines philosophical analysis and rigor, with organizational acumen and leadership. Much of this innovation is taking place in applied ethics. Typically, applied ethics involves identifying and analyzing social problems; sometimes it also proposes means for solving those problems in an ideal world. It rarely creates mechanisms capable of solving problems in the real world.

Personally, applied ethics is the part of philosophy that matters most to me, given how very relevant it is in a world beset with so many problems yet also so many potential solutions. Why humanity still struggles with hunger, poverty, war, and exploitation despite unprecedented abundance and freedom (by historical standards) must necessarily lead us to consider reflecting upon, and tweaking, our own moral and ethical foundations.

That said, here are some of the ways philosophers are seeking to improve the world by applying philosophical principles and discoveries:

  • Lisa Fuller helps Médecins Sans Frontières (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) ground its missions and goals “on the basis of sound moral principles”, as informed by field research and the voices of those it has served. She helped refine the group’s values, such as organizational independence, solidarity, and integrity, and fleshed them out more transparently so as to improve moral and decision making, as well as set the bar for other humanitarian organizations.
  • Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund (HIF) addresses one of the most glaring yet little discussed injustices in the world: why so many sick and poor people are deprived of medicines for often treatable diseases. The HIF incentivizes research on neglected diseases by rewarding research and development funds to pharmaceutical firms that demonstrate quantifiable good health outcomes. This model is already being tested in Mumbai, India with regards to tuberculosis.
  • The Life You Can Save organization, founded by Peter Singer, encourages people of all incomes to give more money to charity, and to do so in a way that will have the greatest impact. Through extensive and rigorous research, it highlights the best charities for donors to consider, and even offers a public forum through which people can pledge — and be accountable to — a certain promised amount. The group’s efforts have spawned the “effective altruism” movement, which emphasizes evidence and reason as guides towards high-impact giving.
  • In the book Blood Oil, (which is on my reading list), Leif Wenar makes the case that the “purchasing practices of affluent countries, guided by the rule of might makes right” leads to untold human suffering in resource-rich countries. He advocates two solutions: the Clean Trade Act, which would make it it illegal to purchase oil from mis-governed nations; and the Clean Hands Trust, in which countries that purchase oil from exploitative regimes are subject to taxes that are then used to fund trusts in the interests of citizens of resource-cursed countries.

These are just some of the appreciable ways in which philosophy is being applied. They may not all prove effective or viable, but the point is to expand the limits of what we think we know in terms of evidence, reason, and ethics so as to continually improve the world and the human condition. The more analyze, debate, and reflect upon the state of the world and how we can better it, the closer we come to a fairer, more just, and more prosperous global society.

What are your thoughts?


Reassessing Milgram’s Infamous Psychology Experiment

During the 1960s, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that would become one of the most infamous and influential in the history of psychology. Taking place within the recent memory of the Holocaust — indeed, Adolf Eichmann’s high-profile war crimes trial took place at the same time — Milgram’s study purportedly led to the disturbing conclusion that humans could be made to do evil things when commanded by an authority figure. Continue reading

Wise Words From Seneca

What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?

— Seneca

Ideally, these reflections would be part of everyone’s daily  routine. We should begin everyday with the mindset that there may be some injustice that we must remedy, a flaw or problem that we must work on, an internal or external challenge that we must persevere against. We should end everyday reflecting on what we did or did not do, what we learned, what we changed for the better. Being a good, productive, and life-affirming person requires constant effort and mindfulness; it means making ethical conduct a habit, something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day activities, interactions, and decisions, big and small.

This is of course difficult to do on a consistent basis; it requires effort and force of will. And certainly, anyone with the time and mental clarity to devote themselves to thinking deeply about how they live and behave is likely in a position of socioeconomic privilege — financially stable, able to enjoy a certain amount of downtime, etc. But that just means we have all the more reason to make the most of our fortuitous circumstances, to apply ourselves in a meaningful way in the lives of others. It not only makes the world a better place, it makes us happier and more well-adjusted people.

Each day that we can count some measure of progress in some area of our lives — in our personal goals, moral character, etc. — is a day of gratification, of life affirmation, of hope that the next day will bring more opportunity, growth, and meaning in our lives. And if you are unable to cite any instance in which you did right by others or for yourself, then ask yourself why and learn from it. None of this is easy to do consistently, but few good things worth doing are.

What are your thoughts?


The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.

This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.


The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?

— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus

Continue reading

The Global Crisis In Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any successful, functioning society. Without it, corruption, apathy, and exploitation reign; institutions across both the public and private sectors become ineffectual, as people have difficulty working together or relying on one another’s expertise or knowledge.Unfortunately, the results of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer suggest that a lack of trust — and the subsequent consequences of it — will become one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century.

Half the countries surveyed were classified as “distruster”, in which the overall level of trust among informed members of the public is below 50 percent. This distrust is directed towards all institutions in society — government, business, news media, and even non-government organizations (such as think tanks, charities, civil society groups, etc.)

Many of the countries with a high rate of distrust include stable and robust democracies such as Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and the U.K. Unsurprisingly, each of these countries is facing some sort of national crisis or other, ranging from pervasive economic stagnation to difficulty responding to the migrant crisis.

Other developed and free societies such as the Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the U.S. were “neutral” — that is, with roughly equal numbers of people trustful and distrustful towards institutions — but still below the global average. These countries are often politically polarized, with citizens split on a range of national issues.

Perhaps most interesting is the minority countries with a high level of public trust, which include autocracies such as the United Arab Emirates and China, semi-democracies like Singapore, new and/or fragile democracies like Indonesia (and arguably India), and highly prosperous countries such as the Netherlands.

These results go to show that trust is a fickle thing, contingent on a range of factors beyond whether a society if free or democratic (which has long been considered the primary prerequisite for building social cohesion and public trust). Some autocracies manage to have a lot of trust directed towards their governments (or more likely their private sector institutions), others do not; some robust democracies continue to earn the trust of citizens, others continue to disappoint (regardless of their success elsewhere).

The Economist offers some additional insights:

Continue reading

Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading