Updated Syllabus on EA/Longtermism
Should be a fun course to teach!
Six years ago I posted a syllabus for a 9-week UK undergraduate course on Effective Altruism. But that’s now quite outdated. So I’ve been updating it to take into account recent developments, as well as expanding it to cover a full 16-week US semester. Here’s my current best effort for a course titled ‘Effective Altruism and the Future of Humanity’. Alternative suggestions (for both topics and readings) welcome!
Schedule of Readings
I suggest two textbooks: DGB abbreviates MacAskill’s Doing Good Better. WWO abbreviates What We Owe the Future. (Too much MacAskill, you may wonder? But in my experience, undergraduates love the clarity of his writing. So I expect these two books would work well to base the course around—when supplemented with other sources to add philosophical diversity and depth.)
The week 9 material (on fanaticism and risk-aversion) is likely too advanced for many undergraduates, but I like to include something to stretch the very best students. If you include it, be sure to reassure the class that they shouldn’t stress too much if they find that material challenging. They’ll find the subsequent weeks much easier.
I assume each week is split between two teaching days, which I label ‘a’ and ‘b’.
Week 1: Introducing ‘Effective Altruism’
a: DGB, introduction + chapter 1.
b: DGB, chapters 2 - 3.
Key Questions: Are QALYs a useful measure? Is it better to make hard trade-offs in cause selection (engaging in philanthropic 'triage') to maximize the good done, or to select causes on some other basis such as flipping coins or emotional resonance? How much good does (the best) aid do?
2. Global Poverty and the Demands of Beneficence
a: Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ + the utilitarianism.net study guide
b: Timmerman, 'Sometimes there is Nothing Wrong with Letting a Child Drown'
Optional: Miller, ‘Beneficence, Duty, and Distance’
Key Questions: Are we morally required to donate much of our income? How much?
3. Do the Numbers Count?
a: Taurek, 'Should the Numbers Count?'
b: Parfit, 'Innumerate Ethics'
Key Questions: Is it better to save five people than just to save one (other) individual? If individuals may reasonably prioritize themselves, may strangers likewise prioritize this individual?
4. Difference-Making and Expected Value
a: DGB, chapters 4 - 5
b: DGB, chapter 6
Optional: Joe Carlsmith's blog posts on expected utility, parts I and II (N.B. within a few months, we should have this content wrapped up more neatly as a guest essay on utilitarianism.net)
Key Questions: Should we be guided by average or marginal utility? Is 'expected value' reasoning the right way to take low-probability outcomes into consideration? Is it important to be the direct cause of a benefit, or just to (even indirectly) maximize the total amount of good done?
5. Do non-human animals matter?
a: Singer, ‘All Animals are Equal’.
b: Setiya, 'Humanism'
Optional: Sebo, 'The Rebugnant Conclusion'
Key Questions: Should we care about non-human suffering? Is there a morally relevant feature that distinguishes humans from non-human animals? How much weight should we give to the interests of non-human animals? How should we treat creatures (e.g. insects, digital minds) about whose sentience or moral status we may be uncertain?
6. Do Future Generations Matter?
a: WWO, introduction & chp. 1.
b: Utilitarianism.net chapter on 'Population Ethics'.
Key Questions: Should we care about distant future generations? How much weight should we give to future people relative to present-day ones? How bad would human extinction be? How should we evaluate tradeoffs between quantity and quality of life?
7. What Difference Does Longtermism Make?
a: WWO, chapter 4; Mogensen, 'Moral Demands and the Far Future'.
b: WWO, chapters 5 - 7.
Key Questions: Extinction and similar catastrophes would also be bad for existing people. In light of this, what difference does it make whether we count future generations or not?
8. Strong Longtermism
a: Greaves & MacAskill, 'The Case for Strong Longtermism'
b: Karnofsky, 'Why We Can’t Take Expected Value Estimates Literally (Even When They’re Unbiased)'; Karnofsky, 'Worldview Diversification'
Key Questions: Should we accept the expected-value argument for giving absolute priority to global catastrophic risk mitigation? To what extent should a lack of epistemic "robustness" lead us to discount a cost-effectiveness estimate? How should we take normative uncertainty into account here?
9. Risk-Aversion and Fanaticism
a. Beckstead & Thomas, ‘A paradox for tiny probabilities and enormous values’
b. Pettigrew, 'Should longtermists recommend hastening extinction rather than delaying it?' (and discussion here)
Key Questions: Is it worse for a decision theory to be reckless (risking arbitrarily great gains at arbitrarily long odds for the sake of enormous potential) or timid (permitting passing up arbitrarily great gains to prevent a tiny increase in risk)? Should we be so averse to tiny risks of bad outcomes that we'd rather humanity had no future at all?
10. Ethical Consumerism and Moral Offsetting
Key Questions: If sweatshop jobs are a step up from the alternatives, how should we weigh the benefit they provide vs worries about complicity in exploitation? Is there anything wrong with carbon offsetting? Are other forms of moral offsetting (e.g. meat offsetting, murder offsetting) relevantly similar?
11. Critiques (I): Justice
a: Gabriel, 'Effective Altruism and Its Critics'
b: Crisp & Pummer, 'Effective Justice'
Key Questions: Does EA neglect considerations of justice? (Is it sometimes unfair to distribute benefits in a utility-maximizing way?) Does EA neglect systemic change? What are the most important injustices to prioritize?
12. Critiques (II): Impersonality
Key Questions: What is the proper role of moral considerations in the good life? Would a perfect moral agent be insufferably dull? Are there moral risks to being too impartial?
13. Critiques (III): Inefficacy
Key Questions: Can the marginal contributions of a single individual really make any difference at all? Are such individualistic considerations sufficient to explain our moral obligations? Is it better to believe in efficacy or helplessness?
14. The Meaningful Life: Altruism vs Perfectionism
a: Singer, 'Why Act Morally' (Practical Ethics, chapter 12)
b: Huddleston, 'Consecration to Culture' (pp. 138 - 146 only) + Chappell, 'The Nietzschean Challenge to Effective Altruism'.
Key Questions: Why be moral? Is one better off as a happy couch potato, or slaving away in service to some larger goal? In seeking something "larger than ourselves", should we prioritize the interests of other individuals, or cultural projects? Is it reasonable to donate to art museums or opera houses over global health charities?
15. Career Choice + Writing Workshop
a: DGB, chp 9; 80 000 Hours, 'Summary: what makes for a high-impact career?'; Karnofsky, ‘My current impressions on career choice for longtermists’
b: Draft workshop in small groups.
Key Questions: How should you choose what career to pursue? Is "earning to give" ever better than working in the social sector? Do high-paying corporate jobs tend to be intrinsically immoral? Is “follow your passion” good career advice? How important are considerations of “personal fit”? What do you think would be the best use of your skills and aptitudes?
16. Evaluating Charities
a: DGB, chapters 7 & 10.
b: Giving Game: pre-read details of the four main "EA Funds" to choose between at https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/donate/organizations
Key Question: How should one compare global poverty vs other potential causes (animal welfare, longtermism, and EA movement-building)? How will you choose to direct your professor's charity budget for the year?
Here are some things I recommend trying, if the class size allows:
(1) Class Presentations. Here are the instructions I give my students:
Everyone will sign up to present on a different reading (from week 2 onwards). When your week comes, you'll prepare a brief (1 pg max) handout that aims to do two things: (i) highlight the central ideas of the reading (NOT an exhaustive summary), and (ii) suggest 3 - 4 "discussion questions" for class discussion.
Please email the instructor your draft handout by the end of Friday the week before your presentation, to allow a couple of days for feedback & possible revisions.
Although “student-led learning” sometimes risks superficiality, I find this does actually work really well here (at least if you’re willing to put in the time to pre-review their presentation materials).
(2) Four-Sentence Paper assignments (with “re-do” options to build mastery)
"[Author] says… I say… Someone may object… I respond that…"
This task provides a gentle introduction to the essential skills of writing a philosophy paper: (1) identifying a suitable topic; (2) crafting a thesis statement; (3) anticipating objections; (4) presenting reasons / critical argumentation.
You may choose to complete a 4-sentence paper (following the above schema) on any reading from those assigned for weeks 2 - 5. It should be submitted by the day before the class for which your chosen reading is assigned. (I'll try to grade & return it within a week.) If you're not happy with your grade, you can re-do this assignment on new readings in subsequent weeks (up to and including week 5), up to once per week, and just the best grade will be kept.
N.B. Grade this harshly! Many students are initially terrible at this, and need practice to improve. Feel free to share my example good and bad answers.
(3) An ‘Argument Probe’ Assignment (instead of an essay plan):
In 1 - 2 pages, briefly explain the central argument of your planned final paper, and the 2 - 3 most pressing objections or counterarguments that you plan to address. (Do NOT attempt to summarize everything you plan to discuss in your paper. Focus on the most important point.)
The purpose of this 'probe' is to allow me to help you to identify potential weaknesses at the heart of your final paper before it's too late. The more that you're able to flesh out your central argument, the more helpful I can be in my feedback.
It’s hard to emphasize enough how much they should not submit a bullet-pointed summary essay plan for this assignment. Students are often initially baffled by the idea that there’s a different way to prepare for writing a paper, but I think it’s really important.
(4) A Peer Draft Workshop in the final weeks of class, where groups of 3 - 4 students read and offer constructive feedback on each others’ final essay drafts. To incentivize participation, I offer 2.5 points (/100) for submitting a (near-) complete draft by the due date, and 2.5 points for offering constructive feedback on the workshop day. It’s an easy 5 points for students who are conscientious and on top of things.
(5) Giving Game: I like to use the final day of class to let students choose how to split a sizeable portion of my charitable budget—e.g. $100 per student—between the major cause areas that we’ve studied. Many appreciate the chance to put what they’ve learned “into practice”. It’s worth checking if you can get matching funds from your University; sometimes they have dedicated budgets for innovative pedagogy. It’s a nice opportunity to redirect corporate funds to save lives.