In their report on Charter Cities, DavidBernard and Jason Schukraft write:
Finally, the laboratories of governance model may add to the neocolonialist critique of charter cities. Charter cities are not only risky, they are also controversial... Whether or not this criticism is justified, it would probably resonate with many socially-minded individuals, thereby reducing the appeal of charter cities.
I want to preface my comments by saying that I respect the authors, I thought the report as a whole was super useful, and I'm personally biased because I like Charter Cities.
Having said that, I thought this particular piece of reasoning was really poor.
Note the phrasing "Whether or not this criticism is justified". The authors are bracketing the question of actual material harms, instead invoking the neocolonialist critique only to point out that it might entail PR risk.
There are various reasonable ways to engage with Leftist Ethics, but this strikes me as among the worst. As I understand it (admittedly a bit uncharitably), the authors are saying:
We don't care whether or not neocolonialism is actually bad.
But we are worried someone might think that it's bad.
So we should avoid grant-making that could be critiqued on those grounds.
There are several problems here:
We should care if neocolonialism is real, if it's bad, and if it's induced by Charter Cities. If so, that should impact the cost-effectiveness estimate, not just factor in as a side-comment about PR-risk.
The question of PR-risk is a purely logistical question that should be bracketed from discussions of cost-effectiveness. In the case that an intervention is found to have high cost-effectiveness and high PR-risk, we should think strategically about how to fund it, perhaps by privately recommending the intervention to individual donors as opposed to foundations.
We should cite and engage with specific arguments, not imagine and then be haunted by some imagined spectre of Leftism. The authors mention the "neocolonialist critique" three times, never bothering to actually explain what it is, who advocates for it, how harmful it is, or how it could be avoided.
In other words, the authors take Leftist Ethics both too seriously, and not seriously enough.
Of course we can all come up with some caricature of the neocolonialist critique, but that's precisely the problem. You can think of it as a kind of inverted-Strawman. In the classical version, you invent an ideological opponent in order to dismiss it. In the inverted version, you invent an ideological opponent in order to fall prey to it, and then avoid engaging with it seriously by saying "we don't care if it's true, but other people might think it is."
Although Charter Cities are just one application of this flavor of argument, were we to apply its logic more generally, we would arrive at a devastating and paralyzing ideology. Leftist Ethics genuinely does warn against many things, but imagined Leftist Ethics potentially warns against everything.
So not only is the logic itself poor, the principle it entails backtests horribly against important EA causes and interventions:
Funding bednets? Isn't it too paternalistic to think you know better than poor people? How can you justify any intervention other than GiveDirectly?
AI Safety? That's just a speculative distraction from the real problems of algorithmic bias, predictive policing and government surveillance.
I'm not even making this up. Here's a recent GiveDirectly post on EA Forum explaining that "The GiveWell team is incredibly intelligent, but they're mainly Americans or Europeans who haven't spent significant time in environments of extreme poverty... We think that imbalance is grossly unjust." Or here's Daron Acemoglu in The Washington Post arguing that we should "stop worrying about evil super-intelligence" in order to focus instead on the "most-ominous... labor-market effects of AI".
Again, at least in these cases we can engage with the object-level arguments and dismiss them. But once you start saying, "Whether or not this criticism is justified, it would probably resonate with many socially-minded individuals", you're just totally screwed.
So what should we do instead? At a high level: either ignore Leftist Ethics entirely, or take them much more seriously. Specifically, some reasonable options are to:
Ignore Leftist Ethics: Just write it off entirely and double down on utilitarianism.
Incorporate Leftist Ethics using a formal meta-ethical framework: Take the humble outside-view where Leftist Ethics gets assigned some credence on the basis of having many smart proponents. See MacAskill on Normative Uncertainty as a Voting Problem, Nick Bostrom on the Parliamentary Model of Meta-ethics and MacAskill, Bykvist and Ord on Moral Uncertainty. Note that you still have to understand Leftist Ethics rigorously enough to know that it actually endorses.
Think of Leftist Ethics as a helpful pointer to some Utilitarian-relevant concerns: Take the potential accusation of neocolonialism seriously, but only as an object-level concern about the material harms, then evaluate it as you would any other cost.
You'll note that none of these incorporate any notion of PR-risk. My view is that the question of "how does this impact our reputation and long-term giving prospects?" should be bracketed in discussions of cost-effectiveness.
If an analysis does find that an intervention is highly cost-effective, and separately finds that it carries some potential PR-risk, that's fine. Maybe it shouldn't be funded by Open Philanthropy, but the recommendation can still be referred to either private donors or philanthropist-driven institutions like the Survival and Flourishing Fund.
Finally, how should this work operationally? I see three promising avenues:
We try to run a "What Leftist Ethics can teach Effective Altruism" workshop, post the slides online and slightly improve everyone's understanding across the board.
99% of Effective Altruists ignore Leftist Ethics entirely in their professional writing, but some organization (probably Rethink Priorities) hires one or two people whose job is to analyse Effective Altruist initiatives through the lens of Leftist Ethics and then incorporate those views through approach #2 or #3 outlined above.
We say something like: "There's already a lot of money and talent that takes Leftist Ethics seriously, we recognize their work as important, but choose to be the one haven of Utilitarian thinking in the world".
Those all seem much better to me than the current status quo.
And again, sorry for beating up on the Rethink Priorities report, I thought it was very good otherwise.
(Disclosure: I've spoken to Mark Lutter who runs the Charter Cities Institute informally and have received support from him in the form of advice and introductions. We haven't discussed this idea, and he did not review a draft of this post.)