Summary of my academic paper “Effective Altruism and Systemic Change”

by antonin_broi 23d26th Sep 20194 comments


I’ve recently published a paper entitled “Effective Altruism and Systemic Change” in the academic journal Utilitas (a philosophy journal). In this post I would like to introduce its main ideas for a non-academic EA audience and highlight what I think is most interesting to EAs.

There is already a significant literature dedicated to EA ideas in academic philosophy (53 results in the category “Effective Altruism” on PhilPapers), but there is little interaction between this research and the actual EA movement. There are good reasons for this: most of this research takes a fairly “external” perspective on EA, which might be considered by many EAs as having little relevance to what they do, and academic writing is often intricate and convoluted. By writing this post, I hope to contribute to bridge this gap, and encourage others to do so. I’m also looking forward to feedback on these ideas!

Summary of the paper in plain English

The paper can be found here. It deals with the systemic (or institutional) change objection against EA, according to which EA neglects changes that affect large-scale institutions or social systems. Most of the intuitive interpretations of this objection seem to fail (see Brian Berkey’s paper for a review), so the challenge has been to come up with a more compelling interpretation.

The paper has two distinct and fairly independent parts. In the first one (Sections I and II), I criticize a recent version of the systemic change objection put forward by Alexander Dietz. I think his objection has some theoretical appeal, but ultimately does not work very well (in particular, I don’t see how it can be applied to real-life situations).

In Section III, I propose a new way of understanding the systemic change objection. The ideas it is based on are pretty intuitive, so I would guess many in the EA movement have already thought about them. Though in the paper it is introduced informally, all of this could be more rigorously put in mathematical terms. Here is the bottom line:

  • I take systemic change to be a result from actions that affect large-scale political, social and economic institutions. Institutions can be difficult to disrupt, but when they are, after a critical mass of effort is exerted on them, the disruption can potentially bring about very positive change and enable us to reach an improved equilibrium. Intuitively, there are increasing marginal returns (IMR) at the threshold point where the critical mass of efforts bears its fruit and starts to bring about systemic change. Here is a toy example: resources put into lobbying MPs to vote for a law have little impact until the majority of MPs have been talked into voting for the law, at which point the impact made is huge. This suggests that cause areas that deal with systemic change are likely to have IMR when relatively large amounts of resources are put into them.
  • The methodology used in the EA movement does not seem to be suited for dealing with IMR, and thus with systemic change. There are two potential problems:
    • The assumption of diminishing marginal returns (DMR) is regularly made (see for example William MacAskill’s talk and 80,000 Hours’ prioritization framework) and arguably underlies the Neglectedness factor in the Scale-Neglectedness-Tractability framework (see here and here for previous discussions of this in the EA literature), which directly contradicts the possibility of IMR.
    • The recommendation of going for the low-hanging fruits seems to be based on the assumption of DMR. Low-hanging fruits are interventions which are initially very effective and with rapidly DMR. In terms of Cotton-Barratt’s metaphor, they are nuggets of gold lying on the ground that we can easily pick up. Interventions with IMR, in contrast, can be seen as seams of gold buried deep in the ground which require a lot of efforts to reach. If they are large enough, the recommendation of picking up the nuggets of gold first (i.e. going for the low-hanging fruits) is suboptimal: it would be better not to spend any time picking up the easy gold, and go instead for the larger seams.
  • This could explain in which sense EA may be considered as overly individualistic (this is a common criticism made against EA, see for example here). The existence of cause areas with IMR implies that we may have some reason to coordinate our efforts and pool our resources to spend them on these cause areas to achieve systemic change (i.e. reach one of the larger seams deep in the ground). If IMR are ignored, this kind of collective cooperation is unnecessary: EAs may instead focus on filling the needs of the most effective cause areas, up to the point where their marginal impact decreases so much that it equals that of the next most effective cause areas, then fill the needs of the latter, and so on.
  • It is sometimes thought that low-hanging fruits and systemic change are antagonistic: going for the low-hanging fruits may undermine the impact of interventions which bring about systemic change (think about the opposition between reform and revolution in Marxist thought, or between welfarist and abolitionist strategies in the animalist movement). If this is the case, it is even more important to pay attention to those interventions that bring about systemic change, since by picking up some adjacent low-hanging fruits we may undermine their cost-effectiveness.

To be clear, I do not think this objection is convincing as it stands. The main takeaway of the paper seems to me that it provides some common ground for constructive discussions between EAs and some of their critics, and within the EA movement. Two directions for future research strike me as particularly interesting:

  • To what extent is this interpretation of the objection a steelman of what some EA critics have in mind? I’m rather skeptical that it is close to what EA critics have in mind, but it might still help make sense of some of their intuitions. For example, the focus on undertaking collective actions and contributing to existing social movements (like anti-capitalist movements) could suggest that they think there are collective actions in which the more participants there are, the more effective the contribution of the next participant will be (which amounts to positing IMR). In any case, I would be interested in hearing more from EA critics.
  • Are IMR commonly found in cause areas? This is obviously a difficult question. The objection is associated with the idea that there are IMR in some cause areas in such a way that it could be very cost-effective to invest large amounts of resources in these cause areas. If this were true, there could be a blind spot in current EA methodology, and it would be worth thinking about potential solutions. One example could be to consider different ranges of resources and rank cause areas by their expected marginal impact per [x] dollars, instead of ranking cause areas by their expected marginal impact per dollar. But if it turns out that this kind of IMR is relatively rare, the objection would be likely to fail. General considerations against IMR in cause areas have been put forward (see Cotton-Barratt’s arguments; see also the discussion on the EA forum here), and it seems plausible to assume DMR in specific domains like research. I would be interested in seeing more specific considerations bearing on other cause areas (including the cause areas EA critics are most interested in).

I would like to thank Florent Berthet, Guillaume Corlouer, Romain Destenay and Laura Green for very useful feedback on earlier versions of this post.