I’m interested in having a better sense of what new kinds of projects should be set up within the EA community. I think I tend to bias towards scepticism, and so find it easier to get a sense of what worries me about projects than which projects I’m excited about. I thought I’d have a go at writing out a few ideas which seem promising to me. I’d love to hear people’s views on them, and also to read other people’s lists. To provide a nudge towards others producing such lists, I’ve also shared some of the prompts I used to come up with the thoughts below.
I haven’t put a lot of time into this list, so I’m not suggesting any, let alone all, are great ideas - they’re just ones I’d be interested to hear more discussion around. I’m also biased by the corners of EA and the world I’ve spent most time in, for example academia.
Prompts for ideas
Aside from ‘what could we do with more of in EA?’, here are some of the specific questions I considered:
How do we win?
Along with: How are we currently falling short on that?
This is a different way of asking what our theory of change as a movement is, and what part of that theory of change currently seems weakest.
For example: I think one way we could make the world far better in decades’ time is by making it the case that all major decision makers (politicians, business leaders etc) use ‘will this most improve wellbeing over the long run?’ as their main decision criterion. Something which would make that most likely to happen is having EA ideas discussed in courses in all top universities. That led me to wonder whether we’re currently neglecting supporting and encouraging lecturers to do that.
What have I wanted from EA (but not gotten)?
For example: The UK government discussed the possibility of folding the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and subsequently did so. DfID, in addition to having an extremely important mission, was achieving that mission pretty well: It had a reputation for being unusually evidence-based amongst development agencies. I had the general sense that the merger would be bad, and would redirect money from trying to help those in the poorest countries to pursuing British interests abroad. But I didn’t have good evidence about whether it would be good or bad overall, or an idea of what I should do about it if it was bad (write to my local MP? Sign a particular petition?). It’s possible I simply missed the work that was done on this (there certainly is some EA work adjacent to this).
What I’d have liked was:
- A succinct summary of what seemed good and bad about the change to give me an idea of whether I agreed with it.
- A really clear action plan if I wanted to help in some way. That might include, for example: sample letters to send to your MP, some considerations on what makes letters to your MP more/less likely to succeed (are emails better than physical letters, or vice versa?), a link to where you can find out who your local MP is and what the best way to contact them is.
What problems have others experienced in EA?
For example: People often appreciate being surrounded by like-minded people. That’s one benefit people often seek from working at an organisation which explicitly identifies as EA. Another possible benefit is a clearer sense that you’re probably heading in the right direction. That comes from others with the same goals as you being able to give you frequent feedback on your direction. But almost all of the impactful positions in the world are at organisations which don’t identify as EA. So it’s important for us to find ways to make sure that wherever they work, people can still have a sense of being often around people with similar values and who help them figure out their path.
Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good
I find it hard to think about what projects EAs might work on, because of the pressure of needing to work on the thing that will help people most, rather than simply something which has a good shot at helping people some. That pressure becomes more pronounced when I think about how that time could be spent earning money to buy bed nets or deworming medicine. But I think that pressure is ultimately counterproductive, because I think we’ll only be able to do the best we can if we consider a broad array of options and think about them carefully.
Supporting teaching of effective altruism at universities:
Teaching courses at universities varies widely, and sometimes there’s little flexibility - for example where the person teaching doesn’t set the exam. Even when I’ve been teaching a class of that type, the resources used by different tutors varied, and I was grateful for people having made different reading lists because they varied in difficulty and emphasis. But often there’s great latitude - either to teach a course entirely of your own design following your interests, or to teach a class requested by students, where the level of generality is something like ‘a course on bioethics’.
There are already a number of syllabi and reading lists on effective altruism out there, as well as this teaching resources database from St Andrews. But I wonder if it would be useful for there to be a point person who had experience lecturing on these topics and who was keen to field queries and generally help people find the best resources and ways of teaching them. That person might have a sense of which guest lecturers would be good fits for complementing the class. They might keep track of which existing syllabi / reading lists suit what types of classes, so that when someone is thinking of teaching on this it’s as easy as possible to find the materials that are suited to the situation.
Something I think would be particularly useful is helping people think through which topics in ethics and bioethics courses seem more and less important to cover, and where to put the emphasis. When teaching ethics, particularly applied ethics, I found it tempting to focus on issues that are known to be contentious and seem interesting to debate (such as abortion and euthanasia). Those aren’t actually the ones that seem most important to have gotten my (Oxford) students thinking about. More important was what proportion of your income should you donate if you end up in the richest 10% of the UK. I would have appreciated seeing more examples of applied ethics courses with more focus on topics like the latter. (One caveat here is that I only taught as a grad student, so it’s very plausible others have less use of support in this vein than I would have.)
Setting up academic institutes
The Global Priorities Institute is set up to do theoretic research into how to do the most good, particularly in philosophy and economics. So far, it seems to be the only center aimed squarely at that. It seems to have done an excellent job attracting world class philosophers, but found it slower going hiring economists. That’s likely in large part due to founder effects of being set up by philosophers. But another problem is plausibly that Oxford is far better ranked globally for philosophy than for economics. Setting up a global priorities center at a top economics university seems like a hard project, but one that seems great if it succeeded. I expect it would require someone with links to the institution and an economics background, as well as solid buy in from at least one established economist there. These are pretty specific constraints. On the other hand I felt wholly unqualified when I started working with Hilary to set up the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford. It ended up only taking about two years, requiring quite a bit of perseverance and a willingness to ask for a lot of guidance from a multitude of people.
I also wonder whether it would be useful to have academic institutes set up by EAs in disciplines such as psychology and history. It seems like an important advantage to be able to hire researchers into posts where they can spend all their effort on research rather than on administration or on teaching standard courses. It also seems useful to allow researchers to feel a bit less beholden to the standard moulds for their discipline, whether that be by method (for example writing and publishing papers individually rather than collaboratively) or by publication subject matter.
Advising on civic action
I’m not a big fan of following current affairs in detail because it takes so much time and attention. But I do feel fairly strongly about taking part in democratic decision making when there are effective ways of doing so, like voting in a general election. I rely on various EA friends to help me figure out when there are significant occasions for taking part, and in those cases what I should do (for example here’s a guide to EU referendum campaigning from years ago which made it far easier for me to take part). I’d love for there to be more EA guides out there on things like ‘how much you should care about DfID merging into the FCO, and what you might do about it’ - preferably in as concrete and user-friendly a format as possible.
Translating research into action
My impression is that EAs tend to be rather more inclined to research than action, and that one result of this is there being more theoretic arguments and academic papers than fleshed out policy recommendations. That’s more the case in some places than others. For example in the UK there is an All Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations which seems to be doing good work. Developing policy recommendations seems both hard to get right and sensitive. But it does seem very important.
My perception is that when it comes to donations, the EA community has historically focused most on long-term pledges (most notably Giving What We Can, for which the main pledge is lifelong). That seems sensible for a number of reasons, including the amounts of money involved and creating a culture of seriousness about helping others.
But it might also be useful to do more experimentation with different ways of encouraging giving. That may be hard to do for an organisation which is all about a lifelong pledge, so it could be useful to have others doing it. For example, when you inherit money might be a good time to make a significant donation: if the money isn’t part of your usual revenue stream, you might not need all of it. And you might want to honour the person you inherited from by helping others in their name. Yet doing so might be kind of tricky: you might be making a more substantial donation than you have in the past, and so want more information about where to donate and how to do so effectively, without knowing where to go for that. Providing support for people in those situations could be pretty useful.
Relatedly, it might be useful to have some easy way for someone who’s about to make their yearly donation to chat to another person about it. I find it kind of hard to know where I should donate and useful to chat to others about it, particularly if they’re considering similar donation targets to me. On the other hand it might be challenging to set this up, because talking to a stranger seems pretty aversive. Or it could be that people already use things like the EA London community directory to find someone to talk to about their donation decisions if they want that.
Cause- or sector-specific community builders
Figuring out what’s most impactful is really hard. It seems especially difficult and lonely when you’re not surrounded by others aiming for the same thing. I liked Charity Entrepreneurship’s idea of starting a non-profit to support people doing what they called ‘earn to give plus’ - where the ‘plus’ was things like learning communication skills and training others in EA in them. Alongside EtG+, I think it would be great if people could figure out how to best influence important companies towards doing good. That might mean encouraging large pharma companies to increase their in-kind donations of treatments for neglected tropical diseases, or working on improving recommender systems at top tech firms.
I could imagine the kind of support CE envisions being useful for people in a wide variety of areas. It could be cool to have a point person for an area who does things like: chats to people considering moving into that area (to help them decide), regularly checks in with people working in the area (to support them in their journey), and connects people who could productively collaborate. There seem to be people playing these types of roles in some parts of EA, but I expect we could do with more.
One problem with area specific community building is that in order to be taken seriously and know enough to be helpful to people, you might yourself need to be doing object level work in the area. In that case you might have rather little time for community building. Another challenge is that these kinds of activities might particularly benefit from someone doing it long term (so that all the people in an area are aware that they’re the point person, and know them well enough to be in regular contact with them, for example). That takes time to build up, and is demanding for the person involved.