What Does It Mean to Be "Aligned" with Effective Altruism, Anyway?

"EA-aligned" of the most common phrases used to indicate that an individual or organization identifies with effective altruism." The search results for the term show that over the years it has been used in 440 different posts on this forum alone

Individuals tend not to express their 'alignment' with EA by literally saying: "I am aligned with EA." Phrases like "I am an effective altruist," or "I identify as an effective altruist" have a similar, if not the same, meaning. 

It's likelier for an organization to represent itself with the term 'EA-aligned,' such as by stating "[insert organization name here] is an EA-aligned organization" in an introduction or update post from the organization on the EA Forum.

I'm not aware of any other movement that uses 'alignment' as a way for an individual or organization to indicate its identification with that movement. In any other movement, someone can say "I'm a libertarian," or "I'm a feminist," or "I'm a vegan." Nobody refers to themselves as "libertarian-aligned," "feminist-aligned," or "vegan-aligned." 

Yet EA has a reason to use the term "alignment," or "aligned." EA is a movement that demands from its participants that they not only share a rough set of moral values but a more rigorous set of scientific, or epistemological, principles as well. That's the 'effectiveness' part that is meant to distinguish EA from other movements. 

Being 'aligned' with EA is meant to indicate one seeks to adhere with those principles (and whichever practical methods they may entail). A vague "set of principles" doesn't indicate what those principles specifically are but it's often assumed they are implicit in the definition of EA. The most common definition I'm familiar with is that effective altruism is a movement that: "uses evidence and reason to figure out how to do the most good."

That has always seemed to vague to me, so one definition I've used is: "using science, evidence and reason to solve the world's most pressing problems." That's a clunkier phrase not as useful for brand representation but, in my opinion, accurately reduces ambiguity in the statement of what is meant by "doing the most good." 

Yet formulating the best possible definition of EA wouldn't itself solve the problem of how the phrase "EA-aligned" can put people off.

What's Wrong with "EA-Aligned"? 

The phrase is more useful for describing different kinds of activities, like "EA-aligned research," but it can be uncomfortable when it becomes an identity for an individual or organization. Forum user electroswing posted in January of this year about how "EA alignment" has those heavily involved with the movement to sometimes think of it like it's a process of indoctrination

I've also met a lot of individuals new to EA, or who work for a number of organizations, who become visibly uncomfortable when I've casually asked them, without thinking about it, if they're 'aligned with EA, or 'identify as effective altruist.' 

All matter of people may understandably be concerned that "EA aligned" means they're expected to embrace the moral or political values of EA as some kind of ingroup. There is a minimum extent to which that's true of EA but that's true of any other movement, (sub)culture or intellectual community too. 

Yet even people who have been in the movement for a while may feel like 'EA-aligned' has a stricter meaning, like sticking to a particular interpretation of effective altruism, or maybe long-termism, as an ideology, or behaviours like donating a certain percentage of your income, or giving up meat consumption. 

One effort that could help is for the movement to make more explicit that 'EA-aligned' means adherence to trying to optimize for doing good according to a scientific mindset, as opposed to demanding anyone in EA make major personal changes in EA lest they be judged, though that alone won't solve the problem.

Should We Use a Different Term?

I've noticed the problem has gone unsolved for the last few years, so in the last year I've routed it around it by using different phrases entirely. When referring to individuals, instead of a phrase like "EA-aligned folks," or even "effective altruists," I use the phrase "participants in EA." I've also begun using the phrase "EA-affiliated" as opposed to "EA-aligned" organization, though "EA-associated" might work too.

 These alternative phrases may not seem to hold as much meaning but they don't have the same baggage as "EA-aligned" either. Answering the question of what it means to identify as an effective altruist might require a philosophically complicated answer. 

I know how to answer the question of what it means to participate in EA by referencing more concrete, objective examples of participation, like effective giving, altruistic career choice and lifestyle changes. 

An organization that doesn't have a confident sense of what it means for it to be 'EA-aligned' may not want to identify as such. Yet not doing so may make staff at an organization feel like they're at risk of not receiving donations or other kinds of support if they're not 'EA-aligned' enough. 'EA-associated' could simply mean there being a public association on the internet, or in adjacent communities, between the movement and an organization.

One problem is that news articles about EA and outside criticisms of it associate other groups or organizations with EA that don't have, and maybe don't want, anything to do with EA. I prefer 'EA-affiliated' because it gives an organization a chance to indicate whether it wants to be identified with EA, without a chance of implying it sticks to an exclusionary and narrow definition of the philosophy. 

It's Not Just Semantics

This may all seem like nothing more than semantics. I would tend to agree but, for this particular case, it's hard to over-emphasize how 'alignment' is an unusual phrase for a movement to use so much. The meaning isn't super clear. It sounds to some people like it carries the weight of more cult-like movements that tend to develop their own special language to distinguish insiders from outsiders. 

Since I've begun using phrases other than "EA-aligned," it has begun feeling strange to read or hear others using it. I realized why is that I don't feel like I know what "EA alignment" really means. As the movement has grown and changed, it has become more complicated. The term is now used in a way that has much more meaning to it than the simple message of "using evidence and reason to do the most good," like it did when the movement began over a decade ago. 

I don't expect the entire community to switch to using my preferred terminology, or for anyone to adopt these terms overnight. These are terms I've only thought of myself I invite others to suggest other ideas. What I really want to do is start a conversation about how we present or represent what the core values of EA mean, both to each other, and to the public in general. 

7

New Comment