As a philosopher, writer, and co-founder of non-profits, I seek to address crucial questions. A question is crucial if, depending on which answer we select, it drastically affects our decision-making and the direction our lives and society take. I am currently writing a book aiming to shed light on such questions: What should be the ethico-political priorities of our time? And how can we make the maximum amount of progress on them with our limited resources?
Suppose you’re carrying $1,000 in your pocket while walking past a pond where a child is drowning. Do you walk in to save the child, sacrificing the money? If you judge saving a life more important than $1,000 worth of additional luxury goods: Yes. – But then what’s the difference to not donating thousands of dollars more to demonstrably life-saving charity?
We would not confine and mass-kill dogs for our consumption. But pigs are beings at least as intelligent as dogs: They answer to their names, are able to learn more commands and use mirrors. They are also more intelligent than some humans. – What’s the difference there?
Suppose your brain was copied into a non-biological, digital substrate. Questions of identity aside, do you think this new version of you has moral weight? These scientists do, and they believe we are well on our way to creating vast amounts of artificial minds. – If there is even a slight chance that they are right, shouldn’t we be alarmed?
These are just three examples of crucial questions. We can’t avoid them, and getting them wrong could be catastrophic, which is why critical, evidence-based thinking is vital. In order to help address crucial questions in theory and practice, I co-founded the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF), whose projects are described below. EAF was founded in 2013 and I served as its president until December 2016. I have since stopped working for EAF in order to be able to focus on writing and co-found additional projects aimed at effective suffering reduction.
The Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF) is a think-and-do-tank with the aim of tackling the most pressing ethical issues of our time in a scientifically grounded way. Effective altruism is the foundation’s core concept: Our resources – time and money – are limited. How can we use them to prevent the most suffering and save the most lives? More fundamentally, which arguments do or don’t speak in favor of investing lots of resources into altruistic endeavours in the first place? EAF pursues these questions based on research in philosophy, cognitive and social psychology, and economics.
Sentience Politics is a project aiming to do politics for all sentient beings. “Sentience” means the ability to have conscious experiences or feelings – especially feelings of pain and pleasure, suffering and happiness. This ability is characteristic of both humans and many non-human animals alike. It is the most basic reason why we benefit from legal rights, and are harmed in their absence. Sentience is therefore politically crucial – or it would be, in a more rational and compassionate world. Sentience Politics’ main goal is changing decision-architectures and structures that are causing comparatively huge amounts of unnecessary suffering. Because of its annual confinement and killing of more than 50 billion land animals, the livestock industry is probably one of the biggest easily removable sources of suffering on our planet. Additionally, it contributes to global instability by being among the very top causes of climate change, and is connected to world hunger and public health issues. Rational politics prioritizes interventions that result in positive consequences for as many areas as possible (ultimately: sentient beings), and it tends to favor interventions that are comparatively neglected (due to diminishing marginal utility of activist resources). Sentience Politics is currently running political initiatives for more veg options in public canteens in Switzerland’s direct democracy, with an eye on maximizing the amount of relevant public discourse through suitable media coverage. Another focus consists in promoting effective donating whose ethical relevance is systematically underrated.
Raising for Effective Giving (REG) is a meta charity for professional poker players, traders and entrepreneurs interested in having a positive impact on the world by donating a substantial fraction of their earnings to the most effective charities. “Cost-effective giving” means using science and rational decision-making to find the interventions that can be expected to help the greatest number of individuals to the greatest extent. Research in health economics has shown that charities’ direct impact may differ by a factor of up to 100. REG aims to promote the idea of effective giving in the worlds of professional poker, finance, entrepreneurship and beyond. Many poker players and trader recognize that the rationality skills used for maximizing expected monetary value transfer to maximizing the expected life-saving impact of charitable donations. Moral maximization follows from the premises that 1) all lives matter and 2) all lives matter equally.
The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a group of scholars working to explore crucial considerations for how to reduce violence and suffering in humanity’s future, drawing on insights from computer science and mathematics, physics, philosophy, sociology and various other fields. Due to the possibility of space colonization and artificial superintelligence, future suffering could be vast. FRI’s work is guided by the moral view that the avoidance of intense suffering and dystopian scenarios should take moral priority (Suffering-Focused Ethics, SFE), given that the risks of astronomical suffering (s-risks) are very real.
This project aims to advance public discourse on bio-ethical questions. Their stakes often involve great amounts of involuntary suffering, which makes them an opportunity for ethical impact and supports their political priority. Examples are the debates about embryonic stem cell research, pre-implant genetic diagnosis, cloning, organ donation, the right to assisted dying, animal testing and alternative methods, psychoactive drugs, physical and mental enhancement technologies as well as cyborgs (who already exist) and their rights.
We aim to improve our (and especially future societal decision-makers’) capacity to choose and achieve their practical goals, i.e. to avoid all the cognitive biases that tend to impair our decision-making. Paths: General workshops; workshops for professionals such as lawyers, doctors, managers or entrepreneurs; development of school and university curricula; student groups at various universities.
With this project we aim to increase awareness of the ethical importance of international politics relative to domestic politics. Across the current political spectrum there is widespread belief in the priority of domestic over international affairs, but this prioritisation is unjustifiable on a non-nationalist ethical outlook. Stable and cooperative international institutions are crucial for the well-being of the present generation as well as the (much more numerous) generations to come. Gains from trade through compromise should be identified and pursued, dangerous arms races avoided – especially as regards disruptive emerging technologies in the bio-, nano- and AI domains.