Note: if you've come here because you would like to give your first impression of effective altruism, then introductions are here and here.
Note2: Robin Hanson has outlined some problems with exposing misalignment between others' actions and professed beliefs about charity.
Today, Robin Hanson wrote a blog post that explains the importance of outside criticism.
Friendly local criticism isn't usually directed at trying to show a wider audience flaws in your arguments. If your audience won’t notice a flaw, your friendly local critics have little incentive to point it out. If your audience cared about flaws in your arguments, they’d prefer to hear you in a context where they can expect to hear motivated capable outside critics point out flaws
If you are the one presenting arguments, and if you didn’t try to ensure available critics, then others can reasonably conclude that you don’t care much about persuading your audience that your argument lacks hidden flaws.
This raises the question: who are the best critics of effective altruism?
Ben Kuhn has given some criticism but he's an insider. (Since countered by Katja.) Geuss has written some helpful criticism but he's also involved with effective giving. Giles has passed on some thoughts from a friend. These critics have been heroic but they are few in number. It figures, as most of us aren't incentived to say bad things about a movement with which we affiliate, and if we were forced to, we might still pull some punches.
So what about outsiders? Well, 80,000 Hours have received some criticism on earning to give. They also debated some socialists. But these discussions were brief and narrowly focussed clashes between entrenched political ideologies. Others have targeted us for criticism that was so vitriolic that it was hard to find the constructive parts, such as William Schambra, Ken Berger and Robert Penna and the always sarcastic RationalWiki. Edit: also some criticism by Scott Walter.
So several years into our movement, that's all we have to show for criticism. A few insiders and a few fanatics? It's not to say we can't harvest some insights from there - by god we should try. But one would hope we have more.
If we cast the net wider, Warren's son Peter Buffett has debated William MacAskill on the effectiveness of charity, which is kind-of cool. There are more general aid critics: William Easterly, who is a fairly thoughtful economist and Dambisa Moyo, who I know less about. But these they don't really get to the heart of what we care about - if most aid is ineffective, then it would just be important to research it even harder.
Alternatively, we can look at more narrowly focused critics. LessWrong is often mentioned as a useful source for criticism, and it has usefully challenged philosophical positions held by some effective altruists. Its founder, Eliezer Yudkowsky has challenged hedonistic utilitarianism and some forms of moral realism in the Fun Theory sequence, the enigmatic (or merely misunderstood) Metaethics sequence and the fictionalised dilemma Three Worlds Collide. But these mostly address utilitarians and spare other effective altruists. Of course, Eliezer no outsider to effective altruism - he played some part in founding it. The most upvoted post on LessWrong of all time was in fact feedback from Holden Karnofsky about its sponsor-organisation MIRI. Again, the relevance of this to most EAs is a stretch.
In turn, Holden Karnofsky has recieved suggestions for GiveWell might react to philosophical considerations by LessWrong veterans like Paul Christiano, Carl Shulman, Eliezer and Nick Beckstead. Again, all insiders.
So here's how I sum up our problem. Almost all of our critics are insiders. Barring a couple of heroic attempts at self-criticism, we've primarily attracted criticism about donating and earning to give. We've also offended a couple of fanatics, and I don't have a strong view on whether we've learned from those. This is unsurprising. Taking self-criticism is hard and endorsing it or writing it is harder. Eliezer would say it feels like shooting one of your own men. Scott Siskind says, "Criticizing the in-group is a really difficult project I’ve barely begun to build the mental skills necessary to even consider. I can think of criticisms of my own tribe. Important criticisms, true ones. But the thought of writing them makes my blood boil."
But criticism seems especially important now as effective altruism is growing fast, our culture is starting to consolidate on the Facebook group and here and as we model it in the popular talks and introductory materials that we give to new community members.
To develop the effective altruist movement, it's essential that we ask people how we've failed, or how our ideas are inadequate.
So an important challenge for all of us is to find better critics.
Let me know if there's any big criticm that I've missed, or if you know someone who can engage with and poke holes in our ideas.
Related: The perspectives on Effective Altruism we Don't Hear by Jess Whittlestone. The Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs
Scott Alexander writes about the motte and bailey doctrine: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/
Basically, people will retreat to obvious platitudes (the motte) when defending their position, when in fact they're actually trying to promote more controversial ideas (the bailey). The motte for EA is "doing the most good" and the bailey is, well, everything else we promote. Ideally the place to launch criticism is the bailey. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism has been directed to the motte, which leads to bizarre statements like "well maybe suffering isn't bad, we don't want everyone to be happy all the time" or "it's impossible to know which things are better than others". This may be part of the reason much of the criticism has fallen flat so far.
We have been criticised by people who have encountered us briefly for things like:
I have not publicized my support of Effective Altruism at this point due to a fear of appearing arrogant.
One could argue that this applies as well to any altruistic or charitable movement but that isn't true: with EA there is also the tacit and easily verbalized assumption that my method of charitable giving is more effective than and thus superior to other people's, and that I'm therefore not only more generous but also more edified and generally intelligent than proponents of Ineffective Altruism, of which there are legion.
An example: I was co... (read more)
Another criticsm: the movement isn't as transparent as you might expect. (Remember, GiveWell was originally the Clear Fund - started up not necessarily because existing charitable foundations were doing the wrong thing, but because they were too secretive).
When compiling this table of orgs' budgets, I found that even simple financial information was difficult to obtain from organizations' websites. I realise I can just ask them - and I will - but I'm thinking about the underlying attitude. (As always, I may be being unfair).
Also, what Leverage Research are... (read more)
The Boston Review held a Forum on Effective Altruism with some excellent criticism by academic, non-EAs.
I've recently been considering the analogy between Effective Altruism and the movement towards Evidence Based Medicine. The strongest similarity is that they both seek to use the conscientious application of high quality evidence to guide decision making. EBM has been criticised extensively, and many of its critics care deeply about the 'project' of medicine. It strikes me that these critiques could provide useful points to consider for EA. Maybe gathering and considering these would be a useful project for a CEA intern or similar.
There's also the feedback we get in talks, and the comments on all the articles and media attention we've gotten, which is very extensive. I've also presented on these topics in an academic setting.
And I asked for feedback here: https://www.facebook.com/wdcrouch/posts/10100610793427240?stream_ref=10
From this, I feel I know the most common criticisms of EA (as practiced, rather than in theory) pretty well.
Manageable, with further work:
Difficult to overcome:
I think that you dismiss the critiques of Moyo and Easterly to quickly. They are critiques of top down aid, which EA is a champion of. Easterly in particular is critical of organizations which plan without understanding or asking the needs of the communities. Yes, this means that more research is needed, but of a drastically different kind. The problem with allowing organizations to assess themselves, is that they will not look for faults that they know exist. AMF, for example, stops testing communities for malaria after the lifespan of the donated ne... (read more)
I originally posted this on the Facebook thread that linked to this discussion, but that thread was deleted, so I'm reposting it here.
The strongest counterargument against EA that I know of is an attack on its underlying methodological individualism. By "individualism" here I mean analysing our actions as those of individuals deciding and acting in isolation. That is, looking at what we ought to do regardless of how this correlates with the behaviour of others.
To see why this could be a problem, take Downs paradox of voting, as illustrated here. ... (read more)
This past summer I was introduced to the Effective Altruism movement via The Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). I love the CFAR crew and found a few kindred spirits who are also EA's.
I became interested in EA because I'm constantly running into charitable or grassroots organizations that are incredibly ineffective with fighting poverty and misinformation within minority communities, specifically in urban spaces like the Southside of Chicago. I believe that I've found some of the root causes and was hoping to glean some information or techniques for im... (read more)
There is also this post by Scott Walter which I thought had some pretty good points.
It seems worthwhile to differentiate between
For example, EA individuals tend to have a left-wing bias (and when the survey's results are released hopefully we'll have data on this) but this isn't inherent to EA ideals - many EA ideals are quite right wing.
Here's the link to the Facebook group post in case people add criticisms there.
Glad you linked to Holden Karnofski's MIRI post. Other possibly relevant posts from the GiveWell blog:
Why we can't take expected value estimates literally even when they're unbiased (I remember this causing a stir on LW)
Sequence vs cluster thinking
There are more on a similar philosophical slant (search for "explicit expected value") but the above seem the most criticismy.
I think you missed this one from Rhys Southan which is lukewarm about EA: Art is a waste of time says EA
I don't see the Schambra piece as particularly vitriolic.
I don't know where to find good outside critics, but I think there's still value in internal criticism, as well as doing a good job processing the criticism we have. (I was thinking of creating a wiki page for it, but haven't got around to it yet).
Some self-centered internal criticism; I don't know how much this resonates with other people:
This post seems pretty good to me, although I don't agree with all of it.
I'm confused. AFAIK Yudkowsky's position is utilitarian, and none of the linked posts and sequences challenge utilitarianism. 3WC being an obvious example where only one specific branch - average preference utilitarianism - is argued to be wrong. The sequences are attempts to specify parts of the utility function and its behavior - even ... (read more)
Patri recently linked to a post that was basically written directly to EAs:
On Saving the World and Other Delusions
I'm new to EA (and so effectively an outsider), and here are a few critiques that immediately come to mind, and which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere. The first two are simply aspects of EA that might render it unpalatable or too counter-intuitive for the masses:
It would seem to follow that robbing from the rich and giving to the poor is ethically required. Imagine a man eating a feast with two dozen turkeys, and right next to him is a family full of starving children. If you could steal a turkey and give it to the family without anyone noticing, sho
I was googling "effective altruism arrogant" and it turned up a few links which I'm posting here so I don't lose them:
A thought: It seems like the EA community has a pretty strong focus on criticism, whether it's internal or external. Is it possible that this can itself be counterproductive? If the EA community is a fun place to be, that's good for both recruiting and retention, right?
Or to steelman Robin Hanson's recent post, if the EA community is ever to expand beyond high-scrupulosity, taking-abstract-moral-arguments-seriously, relentlessly-self-criticizing folks, it may need to find a way to help people achieve conventional self-interested goals like making friends... (read more)
On the important challenge of finding better critics, my personal strategy is going to be to seek a greater quantity of critics. My rationale for this is that we won't know which criticism(s) is or are the best until they'... (read more)
What sort of criticism is the effective altruism community seeking? I notice much of the prior criticism cited are medium- or high-profile media criticism to effective altruism, in the form of a response to, e.g., William MacAskill's articles publised on Medium, or Peter Singer's TED talk. However, from the perspective of effective altruism itself, there isn't an incentive for it to be popular, or widely read. The important thing to effective altruism is that the criticism of its ideas are noted, and that its critics are engaged.
I ask because I have friend... (read more)
I wonder what you would get if you offered a cash prize to whoever wrote the "best" criticism of EA, according some criteria such as the opinion of a panel of specific EAs, or online voting on a forum. Obviously, this has a large potential for selection effects, but it might produce something interesting (either in the winner, or in other submissions that don't get selected because they are too good).
I suppose I could be counted among those "outside critics" the topic mentioned. What surprised me, however, was that I expected to find an article eschewing the role of criticism and suggesting ways of removing critics, inside and outside the ranks of its members. This is what one often encounters in organizations that feel threatened by anything but the most complementary remarks on what they are doing. In addition, I stopped by this site for one, and only one, purpose. To briefly describe my thoughts about a world where "altruism" w... (read more)
Here is someone's initial exploration of a potential criticism: https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/805005126222513/?notif_t=group_activity
(A poll about whether a nonprofit with a charismatic and intelligent leader and an unfalsifiable premise of how their charities does good would succeed in getting funding from the EA community.)
This piece by George Monbiot represents one strand of potential deep criticism, which is that many goods are incommensurable in value: http://www.monbiot.com/2014/07/24/the-pricing-of-everything/
This is a pretty common view in philosophy, and it would make the EA project much more limited in what it could achieve.
Is there any particular topic, or set of ideas, from effective altruism criticism is being sought for? Alternatively, is there a particular format for the criticism that's being preferred? In particular, if I know some folks who might criticize effective altruism, I could ask them to publish their perspective on this forum. On the other hand, the threat of receiving downvotes, and being in the element of an intellectual opponent, seems to me a (fair) reason one might not want to publish criticism(s) of effective altruism on this forum.
I believe if it's exp... (read more)