Author’s Note: This post based on a Discord rant

Epistemic Status: Very very unrigorous, just a distillation of some things I’ve been thinking about recently that some of my friends encouraged me to post somewhere

The Effective Altruism movement is, in my opinion, not a single subculture, but a coalition of several related ones that occupy a similar memespace, and often overlap. Recently I have been thinking about this undertheorized aspect of the movement, and wanted to share the beginnings of some distinctions that I see within the movement, and how these might be useful for understanding key things about it. Like all labeling schemes of this sort, this is also of limited value, will undoubtedly be controversial, especially when I get into my specific impressions of what fits where, and will probably be significantly shaped in various ways by my own personal sympathies. Nevertheless, and occasionally against my better judgement, I appreciate when other people make new labeling schemes like this, so I hope I can produce one that is valuable myself. My current thinking divides Effective Altruism into roughly six aesthetics/subcultures that seem meaningfully distinct:

  1. Wholesome Effective Altruism: This is the more infographic/nerdy stuff, often with an interest in popular appeal. It is also more concerned with political causes outside of the common EA priorities, and adheres to EA on top of this basically because doing good is good. Lots of sort of adjacent, mildly sympathetic non-EA media leans this way, like “The Good Place” or Vlogbrothers or Kurzgesagt. Think Future Perfect or Our World in Data for more directly movement aligned media. Example figure: Ezra Klein

  2. Emo Effective Altruism: Emphasizes feeling the appropriate weight from things like suffering and death, lots of the art associated with EA comes from this corner in some way. Made up of people who are real into stuff like “Fable of the Dragon Tyrant” and “500 Million, but not a Single One More” and “On Caring”. I also tend to group the more “emotionally intelligent” side of EA in here, though that’s a debatable connection. Example figure: Eliezer Yudkowsky

  3. IDW Effective Altruism: This is the more centrist or right-leaning, anti-woke side of EA. Often embraces some version of Bryan Caplan’s “EA is what SJ ought to be” idea. Sort of the right’s answer to Wholesome EA, sharing a “doing good is good” type motivation, and also featuring figures who are sympathetic but not that centrally involved, like Steven Pinker and Coleman Hughes. Example figure: Sam Harris

  4. A-aesthetic Effective Altruism: Don’t want to put out much of a vibe at all, and prefer purely unbiased, rigorous analysis. The source of many-a-long, nuanced document Effective Altruists are keen to cite (but perhaps uneager to read), though there is more accessible work that also fits this tone in my opinion. Relatively few people purely fit into this category, though many combine other categories with it, or occasionally wear the a-aesthetic hat. Example Figure: Hilary Greaves

  5. Contrarian Effective Altruism: This is not necessarily about liking unpopular ideas, but more about being super into weird ideas because they seem interesting and cool. Usually I picture the type of person who is into the simulation hypothesis and grabby aliens but doesn’t seem that worried about them viscerally. Not many major figures in the movement seem to fit that well into this category, but I’ve met lots of people on the ground within EA clubs who fit here more solidly. Example figure: Robin Hanson

  6. Cheery utilitarian Effective Altruism: People in this category basically see some underlying tenets of utilitarianism as uncomplicatedly true and good without much of a desire to make this visceral, for instance by doing the emo thing and getting artsy about it. I also picture people in this group as having a fairly cheerful and humorous disposition. A greater quantity of happiness is just better! Not all or only utilitarians fit in here. Picture someone who is more Bentham than Mill, more Norcross than Singer. Example figure: Sam Bankman Fried

Most people, including the example figures I listed, don’t just fit cleanly into one of these categories. Some examples of people who clearly straddle some line in my eyes include Brian Tomasik the a-aesthetic emo, Robert Wiblin the contrarian cheery utilitarian, Liv Boeree the wholesome IDW, and Nick Bostrom the contrarian emo. Some of these crossovers are interesting phenomena in their own right, for instance the a-aesthetic emo faction sounds like a contradiction, but makes up the backbone of a sort of ascetic, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” type moral core of the movement, one that gets emotional at abstract concepts and numbers in spreadsheets the way other people get emotional at personal stories. Likewise wholesome IDW sounds contradictory, since my framing sets up one as almost just a further right version of the other, but there is a sort of distinct group of people who consistently give off elements of both vibes, often characterized by really liking Elon Musk. Aside from Boeree, Tim Urban is someone I think fits here.

This spread is an undertheorized aspect of the movement, but I think helps better frame various debates about the image and culture of the movement in general. For example, I find that lots of coverage of EA from the outside, including otherwise well-researched coverage, leans into a sort of ascetic frame that always seems badly incomplete at best (some more insider coverage seems to lean this way as well). Some of this comes from what the movement may have looked more like in the past, but I think it is also the impression you get from running into the aforementioned sizable a-aesthetic emo population of EA, and pattern matching it to Effective=a-aesthetic, Altruism=emo, to get oneself a compelling narrative of the movement as a whole.

Maybe even more significantly, lots of people like different local EA scenes vastly better or worse than others, and which one they run into can make all the difference for whether they stick around (or sometimes if they winding up taking some time to circle their way back into EA after being put off by it). There are probably lots of reasons for this, but the biggest one, to my eyes, is that different local groups drift towards favoring different subcultural currents. Some of these currents will badly turn off the same people who are uniquely attracted to another of these currents. If you are very into sincerity and really feeling the scale of the world’s problems, the emo side of EA can offer you something really special, whereas there might be something hard to put into words that will uniquely disturb you about the contrarian side, which is often very interested in fun ideas without seeming to inhabit what it would really feel like to believe them about the world.

A related phenomenon is people who are surprised by what they find when they get more involved in EA, or even feel mildly deceived. EA will often try to coordinate around advertising itself with a certain framing that leans on one or two of these vibes, while being less eager to advertise the others. As an example, I think a common public framing is more Wholesome or A-aesthetic leaning, in that it tries to frame EA as just being about doing work to advance a set of uncontroversial positive principles most people can get on board with and feel empowered by. It will not be at the forefront of this messaging that, when you start being more of a movement insider, you will spend a good deal of your time talking with people who feel genuine empathy with bugs, or see EA as a sort of replacement for conventional left wing politics, or are casually bullet biting utilitarians, or really like talking about obscure decision theories. EA is a mad mad place if you actually look at it as a whole, and not just because weird ideas flourish in it, but I think between all of these affiliated subcultures, nearly everyone can find some niche they like in it. Many people can even find some niche that speaks to them like no other subculture they’ve found, and hopefully anyone, regardless, can find someplace in the movement comfortable enough that they can use their connection to the movement to do good, what it ideally should all be about at the end of the day.

For my own part, I think I have at least some minor degree of sympathy for all of the listed perspectives. From the inside I most feel like I am part of the emo group, but a good deal might come down to how I am actually perceived from the outside, which I just don’t know. One problem for this model is that, very likely, many people are motivated on the inside in a way that doesn’t reflect the group they come off as from the outside. I particularly worry about this for the specific figures I cite, and I don’t give them as examples because I think they would endorse my labels, so much as because the way they come off helps me illustrate some of the hard to explain parts of these aesthetics. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed/mischaracterized some of these, this is just roughly my perspective for now.

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:49 AM

I thoroughly enjoyed this! The tone of the writing matched perfectly with the idea that is being conveyed.

If I may add a category:

  1. Desi EA - Someone not from a developed country kinda feeling out of place and totally inadequate to do anything about most mainstream EA cause areas. Mostly English-speaking educated elite from developing countries who possibly watch a lot more Hollywood than their local genres. (Also has some inability to parse slang. I honestly didn't understand what the moniker "IDW" and "A-aesthetic" meant although I think I understood the explanation)

Thank you! I'll admit my experience is a bit limited, and I haven't had much exposure to Desi EAs, but this sounds like a good extra category I, and maybe others in EA from the US or UK, often neglect in our analyses. "IDW" stands for "Intellectual Dark Web", which is sort of the name given to a group of centrist or right leaning, anti-woke public intellectuals like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris. "A-aesthetic" is just supposed to mean "non-aesthetic", as in avoiding attaching some particular cultural aesthetic to one's messaging.

FWIW, when I first saw that I wondered "what's the difference between the A-aesthetic and the B-aesthetic?" It might be clearer to say "non-aesthetic" or just something like "no frills".

Agreed, in retrospect it is pretty obvious that there is no good way to attach the prefix "a" to a word that starts with an "a" and have anyone intuitively get what you mean.

What about dank effective altruism?

I wonder if Twitter data (e.g., follows, engagement) would replicate some of these distinctions in terms of clustering, and if it might show areas of common cross-pollination? (Of course, there may be some representativeness issues with some groups, but it’d still be interesting or at least “amusing.”)

Oh yeah, there's clustering networks showing mutual followers of e.g. Twitch streamers, it shouldn't be too hard to make this for the EA sphere on twitter.

I'd be very curious to see something like this. My guess is it will be hard to extract the type of vague cultural currents I'm talking about from other distinctions that might exist in the data, like people focusing on different cause areas, or from different parts of the political spectrum.

Thanks for writing this up!

What are the use cases you envision for terms like these ones?

I appreciate the concern that people might feel deceived when finding out that the movement doesn't look quite like what they were expecting, but I think this might be better addressed by pointing out to new people EA is a broad group with a variety of interests, values, and attitudes.

I'm concerned that splitting up EA according to aesthetics/subcultures might be harmful, and I think it should be handled with care. The human tendency to look for identity labels and subgroups to belong to is very strong, and subgroup identification can create insularity and group polarization, which are probably things we should avoid. It could also result in people altering beliefs in order to fit an identity framing as Lizka describes in the case of longtermism here.

Any large coalition will have variation across the group, and terms that describe subgroups can be helpful. However, while describing EA in terms of cause area or even terms like 'longtermist' give me a strong idea what a person or group might be interested in and what might be valuable to them, I'm not sure what information the aesthetic categories give me as a descriptor.

There's also a lot of complexity in the connections between groups and ideas in EA, and I think this is an aspect of EA which should be encouraged and emphasized, not flattened into categories. 

Thanks for the comment. I agree with most of this, and think that this is one of the major possible costs of labels like this, but I worry that some of these costs get more attention than the subtler costs that come from failing to label groups like this. Take the label of "Effective Altruism" itself for example, the label does mean that people in the movement might have a tendency to rest easy, knowing that their conformity to certain dogmas is shared by "their people", but not using the label would mean sort of willfully ignoring something big that was actually true to begin with about one's social identity/biases/insularity, and hamper certain types of introspection and social criticism.

Even today there are pretty common write ups by people looking to dissolve some aspect of "Effective Altruism" as a group identifier as opposed to a research project or something. This is well meaning, but in my opinion has led to a pretty counterproductive movement-wide motte and bailey often influencing discussions. When selling the movement to others, or defending it from criticism, Effective Altruism is presented as a set of uncontroversial axioms pretty much everyone should agree with, but in practice the way Effective Altruism is discussed and works internally does involve implicit or explicit recognition that the group is centered around a particular network of people and organizations, with their own internal norms, references, and overton window.

I think a certain cost like this, if to a lesser extent, comes from failing to label the real cliques and distinct styles of reasoning and approaches to doing good that to some extent polarize the movement. This is particularly the case for some of the factors I discuss in the post, like the fact that different parts of the movement feel vastly more or less welcoming to some people than others, or that large swaths of the movement may feel like a version of "Effective Altruism" you can identify with, and others aren't, and this makes using the label of Effective Altruism itself less useful. For people who have been involved in different parts of the movement and are comfortable moving between the different subcultures, I would count myself here for instance, this tension may be harder to relate to, but it is a story I often hear, especially relating to people first being exposed to the movement. I think this is enough to make using these labels useful, at least within certain contexts.

Not sure how relevant, but this reminds me of stories from inside Valve, the noted semi-anarchistly-organized game developer. People can move to any project they want, and there are few/no formal position titles. However, some employees have basically said that, because decision-making is sorta by consensus and some people have seniority and people can organize informally anyway, the result is a "shadow clique/cabal" that has disproportionate power. Which, come to think of it, would probably happen in the average anarchist commune of sufficient size.

TLDR just because the cliques don't exist formally, doesn't mean they don't exist.

I enjoyed this! I don't quite get the distinction between #1 and #6, though. Is the primary axis around the weirdness of the ideas you're into? So, Wholesome EAs are anti-weirdness, cheerful utilitarians are weirdness-neutral, and contrarians are pro-weird?

Thanks! I don't think that's quite it. I think wholesome EA is in general more skeptical of weird, unproven ideas than many of the others, and is at pains to qualify arguments for such ideas with disclaimers that it is going to sound strange and is maybe wrong, whereas contrarian EA is less interested in that. Cheerful utilitarians are also to an extent characterized by being unconcerned with ideas others find weird, but pretty specifically along the moral access, and with less attraction to weirdness per say than the contrarians. I view them as more being the faction that will casually talk about how excited they are to continuously line our lightcone with computronium powering orgy simulations in a trillion years. There is maybe some tendency to emphasize the weird ideas a bit in this group as well, but not so much because these ideas are just fun to think about, as because it is sassy in a way cheerful utlitarians are disposed to be.

Good post! I'll take another look later.

Nitpick: Utilitarianism has tenets, not tenants.

Thanks for this post. I wonder if it would be good to somehow target different outside of  EA subcultures with messaging corresponding to their nearest-neighbor EA subculture. To some extent I guess this already happens, but maybe there is an advantage to explicitly thinking about it in these terms.

I hope so, something like this is maybe one of my motives in making these distinctions explicit. I think this is part of what I meant when discussing the phenomenon of people feeling deceived when the movement looks much different from what they thought. In all likelihood the side of it they were originally interested in does exist and plays a genuine role in the movement, but it may have been put forward with something like the sense that "this is what Effective Altruism looks like" rather than "this is a side of Effective Altruism that might work for you".