• Asking for thoughts on Nadia Asparouhova (nee Eghbal) essay on EA ideas
  • Any questions you would pose to Nadia, also be interested in hearing

Nadia Asparouhova (nee Eghbal) wrote an essay which had EA at its core:

“One of the most visible ideologies in tech is effective altruism (or EA), a philanthropic school of thought that advocates for “us[ing] high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible.”. If you don’t buy into its philosophy, it’s easy to write off effective altruism as yet another eccentric subculture. But effective altruism is both less and more interesting than it seems.

Although I’m not an EA, I think effective altruism is a useful blueprint for understanding a growing number of influential subcultures in tech right now, from progress studies to It’s Time to Build to crypto public goods funding. EA is the strongest example of what I think of as an Idea Machine: a network of operators, thinkers, and funders, centered around an ideology, that’s designed to turn ideas into outcomes.

Effective altruism’s strength lies in its infrastructure, which we can use to better understand how other idea machines work, what their impact will be, and what’s needed to make them more effective.”

The limitations of effective altruism

Firstly, I want to address why effective altruism, as I’ve stated elsewhere, “cannot singlehandedly meet the civil purpose of philanthropy.” In other words, if effective altruism is so good already, why do we need other idea machines at all?


Full essay here.

I think makes several thoughtful insights and writes in good faith (and is an EV grant winner; and former microgrant funder). 

I’d be interested in what people think?

(And, in particular, I don’t think personally I am 100% “EA” although I might be (maybe I am 50% EA, and Tyler Cowen is maybe 60% EA? (Cowen has said he is two-thirds utilitarian); in that I do some giving (10% income) and much work which might be EA aligned; but some giving (arts) which is not EA and some giving (microgrants) which might not be/may be; and a career which is impactful (but almost certainly not most impact; and EA was created in its 1.0 form many years after I left university)

Also, I will be podcasting with her later in June, so interested in any thoughtful questions you might have.

Excerpts of ideas:


NA: I expect that effective altruism will always be an example of what I’ve called “club” communities elsewhere: high retention of existing members, but limited acquisition of new members, like a hobbyist club. EA will continue to grow, but it will never become the dominant narrative because it’s so morally opinionated [Me/BY: I found this reflection on how she views EA's morals interesting] . I don’t think that’s a problem, though, because ideally we want lots of people conducting lots of public experiments.


​​Although I don’t personally identify with the ethos of effective altruism, I also think they’ve done a lot of things well. EA has a remarkably good infrastructure for attracting and retaining members, identifying cause areas, and directing time and dollars towards those efforts. A common critique of EA is that it fails to attract operational talent, but despite its weaknesses, it’s still the best example of what I’ve been calling an “Idea Machine” in my head – maybe not the best term in the world, but let’s roll with it because I’m bad at naming.

( C )

Effective altruism’s cause areas have been largely shaped and developed by its community, including the EA Global conference and the EA Forum. While there’s some evidence to suggest that EA began to mature and stagnate in the late 2010s, the appearance of another new major funder, Sam Bankman-Fried, has breathed new life into the machine – although I’d argue that SBF’s involvement could branch into a new machine in itself (see next section…[Future Fund]).


Interested in any thoughts? Thanks, Ben 


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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:28 PM

Firstly, I want to address why effective altruism, as I’ve stated elsewhere, “cannot singlehandedly meet the civil purpose of philanthropy.”

I think Nadia is misreading EA as a fundamentally philanthropic movement. EA is about maximizing the amount of good we do. Longtermism is about maximizing the EV of the future. Philanthropy is part of that, but far from the whole picture. Neither have made any claims about fulfilling the civil purpose of philanthropy-which I take it is something like libraries and children's hospitals. In their more extreme forms, EA and longtermism may claim on the margin they are more important than those things, but not that they meet the same purpose. 

I enjoy the piece, but do think it misses the mark in its comments on EA.  

Thanks that’s very useful context for me. So, eg, my reading if that many EAs would say art charity does not fall under EA thinking.

But, it would be part of wider charity.

You are saying that EA is not making any claims or efforts in wider charity but more specifically on maximising good.

But does EA think wider charity that does not maximise good eg art charity is therefore a waste or it’s not really in EA’s purpose universe so it’s not really relevant.

I think it would be similar to the opinion people would have on the choice of film you choose to see at the cinema or which meal to buy at a restaurant. 

I don't see EA as trying to maximise all donations, just maximise the impact of donations set aside for effective giving. And the donation side is just part of the larger set of actions we can take when trying to do good.

Julia Wise has a couple of good posts on this topic - Giving Cheerfully and It's Okay to Feed Stray Cats.

OK. That makes sense.  As new-ish to this forum and more EA people, I do not think people outside EA looking in get this impression.