In his post about political culture at the edges of EA, user kbog points out:

Perhaps the most common criticism of EA is that the movement does not collectively align with radical anticapitalist politics.

This is the typical criticism EA doesn't engage enough in "systemic change", the system usually implied to be capitalism. However, it's been my experience EA's critics aren't always explicit about the "system" they're referring to. The "system" often appears to be capitalism, but it's not self-evident to me this is what is meant most of the time. Of course, the social/political "system" in question usually includes capitalism, but among leftists it appears it also includes some or all of the following:

  • (cishetero-)patriarchy
  • Western chauvinism
  • white supremacy
  • (presumably other structures/systems of oppression I've missed)

In particular, with the predominance of intersectionality in social justice movements in recent years, it appears the "system" many leftists seek to change isn't merely capitalism, or a matter of political economy, but of intersecting structures of oppression. For example, academic theory in the philosophy of social justice has given rise to the idea of a "kyriarchy", which is a term for describing:

  • how there are structures for oppression along all axes of personal/political identity that correspond to the role the patriarchy plays in oppression along lines of sex, gender, and sexuality.
  • the fact that these structures for oppression intersect such that they are part of a single system of oppression.

The soundness of the notion of a "kyriarchy" is disputed outside EA, including within leftist politics itself, and to settle issues surrounding that question isn't the job of EA. Most leftist critics of EA may not have as explicit a theory as that of the kyriarchy or similar intellectual ideas when they posit a single sociopolitical system that includes but is not limited to capitalism. Finally, it's definitely the case at least some leftist critics of EA do indeed intend the "system" in need of change is the economic system of capitalism, without commenting on the relationship of EA to anything else in politics.

However, for the sake of being comprehensive and accurate in responding to criticism, EA should understand what all kinds of different leftist critics of EA are actually saying.


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This is sort of an off the cuff ramble of an answer for a topic which deserves more careful thinking, so I might make some hand-wavy statements and grand sweeping claims which I will not endorse later, but:

First off, I feel that it's a little unhelpful to frame the question this way. It implicitly forces answers to conflate some fairly separate concepts together 1) The System 2) leftists 3) critiques of EA.

Here's a similarly sort of unhelpful way to ask a question:

What are these "cognitive biases" that effective altruist critiques of veganism are seeking to make us aware of?

How would you answer?

Most effective altruists support veganism! The central insight motivating most vegan practices is similar to the central insight of EA. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of effective altruists think AI risk rather than veganism is a best possible way to go about doing good, and cite cognitive biases as the reason why people might not realize that AI risk is the top priority.

Cognitive Biases are a highly useful but fully generalizable concept that can be used to support or critique literally anything. You should seek to understand cognitive biases them in their own right...not only in the light of how someone has used them to form a "critique of veganism" by advocating for AI risk instead.

That's how you'd answer, right? So, in answer to your question:

What exactly is the system EA's (leftist) critics are seeking to change?

Most ideologically consistent leftists support EA, or would begin supporting it once they learn what it is. Utilitarianism / widening of the moral circle is very similar to ordinary lefty egalitarianism. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of the left don't think some particular EA method are the best possible way to save the world, and cite Failure to Challenge the System as the reason.

The System is a highly useful but fully generalizable concept that can be used to support or critique literally anything. You should seek to understand it in its own right...not only in the light of how someone might invoke it to form a "critique of (non-systemic) effective altruism" by advocating for systemic change instead

I hope this analogy made my point - this question implicitly exaggerates a very minor conflict, setting up an oppositional framework which does not really need to exist.

...okay, so to actually attempt to answer the quesiton rather than subvert it. Please note that the following are not my own views, but a fairly off the cuff representation of my understanding of a set of views that other people hold. Some of these are "oversimplified" versions of views that I do roughly hold, while others are views that I think are false or misguided.

What is the system?: Here's one oversimplified version of the story: from the lower to upper paleolithic, egalitarian hunter gatherers gradually depleted the natural ecology. Prior to the depletion, generally most able bodied persons could easily provide for themselves and several dependents via foraging. Therefore, it was difficult for anyone to coerce anyone else, no concepts of private property were developed, and people weren't too fussy about who was related to whom.

In the neolithic, the ecology was generally getting depleted and resources were getting scarce. Hard work and farming became increasingly necessary to survive and people had incentive to violently hoard land, hoard resources, and control the labor of others. "The System" is the power structures that emerged thereby. It includes concepts of private property, slavery, marriage (which was generally a form of slavery), social control of reproduction, social control of sex, caste, class, racism, etc - all mechanisms ultimately meant to justify the power held by the powerful. Much like cognitive biases, these ideas are deeply built into the way all of us think, and distort our judgement. (E.g. do you believe "stealing" is wrong? Some might argue that this is the cultural programming of The System talking. Without conceptions of property, there can be no notion of stealing)

Despite resource scarcity declining due to tech advance, the bulk of human societies are still operating off those neolithic power hierarchies, and the attending harmful structures and concepts are still in place. "Changing the system" often implies steps to re-equalizing the distribution of power and resources, or otherwise dismantling the structures that keep power in the hands of the powerful.

By insisting that the circle of moral concern includes all of humanity (at least), and actively engaging in a process which redistributes resources to the global poor, effective altruists would generally be considered as a source of positive contributing to the dismantling of "The System". I do think the average leftist would think Effective Altruism, properly pitched, is generally a good idea - As would the average person regardless of ideology, realistically, if you stuck to the basic premises and didn't get too into some of the more unusual conclusions that they sometimes are taken to.

So how come some common left critiques of EAs invoke "The System"?:

Again, I don't (entirely) agree with all these views, I'm explaining them.

1) Back when the public perception of EA was that it was about "earning to give" and "donating"...especially when it seemed like "earning to give" meant directing your talent to extractive corporate institutions, the critique was that donations do not actually alter the system of power. Consider that a feudal lord may "give" alms to the serf out of noblesse oblige, but the fundamentally extractive relationship between the lord and serf remains unchanged. I put "give" in quotes because, if you really want to understand The System, you have to stop implicitly thinking of the "lord's" "ownership" of the things they "nobly" "give" to the "serf" as in any way legitimate in the first place. The lord and serf may both conceptualize this exchange as the lord showing kindness towards the serf, but the reality is that the lord, or his ancestors, actually create and perpetuate the situation in the first place. Imagine the circularity of the lord calculating he had made a magnanimous "impact" by giving the serf a bit of the gold... that was won by trading the grain which the serf had toiled for in the first place. Earning to give is a little reminiscent of this...particularly in fields like finance, where you're essentially working for the "lord" in this analogy.

2) Corporate environments maximize profit. Effective altruists maximize impact. As both these things are ultimately geared towards maximizing something that ultimately boils down to a number, effective altruist language often sounds an awful lot like corporate language, and people who "succeed" in effective altruism look and sound an awful lot like people who "succeed" in corporate environments. This breeds a sense of distrust. There's a long history within leftism of groups of people "selling out" - claiming to try to change the system from inside, but then turning their backs on the powerless once they got power. To some degree, this similarity may create distasteful perceptions of a person's "value" within effective altruism that is analogous to the distasteful perception of a person's "value" in a capitalist society. (E.g. capitalist society treats people who are good at earning money as sort of morally superior. Changing "earning money" to "causing impact" can cause similarly wrong thinking)

3) EAs to some extent come off as viewing the global poor as "people to help" rather than "people to empower". The effective altruist themself is viewed as the hero and agent of change, not the people they are helping. There is not that much discussion of the people we are helping as agents of change who might play an important part in their own liberation. (This last one happens to be a critique I personally agree with fairly wholeheartedly, and plan to write more on later)

To the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is incorrect, as EA enters the policy arena more and more, we will once again come in friction with leftist (and other political movements), unlike EA has since its inception. The difference this time is we would be asserting the systemic change we're pursuing is more effective (and/or in other ways better) than the systemic change other movements are engaging in. And if that's the case, I think EA needs to engage the communities of our critics just as critically as they have engaged us. This is something I've begun working on myself.

I would strongly recommend not creating a false dichotomy between "EA" and "Leftists", and setting up these things as somehow opposed or at odds. I'm approximately an EA. I'm approximately a leftist. While there are leftist-style critiques of EA, and EA-style critiques of leftism, I wouldn't say that there's any particular tension between these frameworks.

There is really no need to draw lines and label things according to ideology in that manner. I think the most productive reply to a "X-ist" critique of EA is an X-ist support of EA, or better yet, a re-purposing of EA to fulfill X-ist values. (Yes, there are some value systems for which this cannot work...but the egalitarian left is definitely not among those value systems)

to the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is correct, EA should internalize this criticism, and should effectively change socioeconomic systems better than leftists ever expected from us


And to that I would add, don't needlessly frame EA as fundamentally in opposition to anyone's values. EA can be framework for figuring out strategic ways to fulfill your values regardless of what those values are. (Up to a point - but again, "leftists" are well within the pale of that point.)

...and perhaps better than leftist political movements themselves (lots of them don't appear to be active or at least effective in actually changing "the system" they themselves criticize EA for neglecting).

Well, I think this is an unhelpful tone. It is, again, setting up EA as something different and better than leftism, rather than a way for us to fulfill our values - even if our values aren't all exactly the same as each others. This isn't particular to leftism. If you wanted the members of a church congregation to donate to Givewell, you should focus on shared values of charity, not "EAs could save more souls than Christianity ever could". The goal for EA is not to engage against other ideologies, the goal (to the extent that EA ideas are good and true, which obviously they may not all be) is to become part of the fabric of common sense by which other ideologies operate and try to perpetuate their goals.

Beyond the tone it's also just not true, in my opinion. Seems to me that social change does in fact occur constantly due to political movements, all the time. What's more, I'm pretty sure that the widespread acceptance of the basic building block concepts of effective altruism (such as, all people are equally important) are largely due to these leftist social movements. I don't think it's a stretch to say that EA itself is at least in part among the products of these social movements.

I think you're underestimating the level of hostility most socialists and communists have towards philanthropy and EA in particular. In my experience (online only) EAs receive consistent, active and preemptive hostility from leftist groups, including vicious attacks on personality and character rather than mere disagreement about ends and means. It's naive to think that small questions of framing would shift this relationship.

Of course it's important to frame things in such a way that a sizeable minority of leftists go along with us, but that's always going to be in opposition to concerted hostility from powerful people within the leftist ecosystem. And really this is more a matter of public-facing communication rather than stuff on this forum.

The goal for EA is not to engage against other ideologies

It's a perfectly valid goal. If other ideologies are wrong (or, to put it in subjective terms, if they contradict our own values) then we ought to defeat them - if that is in fact possible and the most effective strategy in pragmatic terms. There's nothing special about other people's ideologies that renders them immune to criticism and change like anything else.

EA can be framework for figuring out strategic ways to fulfill your values

It might be useful to promote this to other people in some cases, but as a concept of EA this view is philosophically untenable. See:

Strongly upvoted. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response.

Utilitarianism / widening of the moral circle is very similar to ordinary lefty egalitarianism. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of the left don't think some particular EA method are the best possible way to save the world, and cite Failure to Challenge the System as the reason.

At least one leftist critique of EA has made the case while leftist political movements and EA can find common ground in the ideals shared between egalitarianism and utilitarianism, thro... (read more)

I'm going to critique Connor's article, and in doing so attempt to "lead by example" in showing how I think critiques of this type are best engaged. There's two problems with Connor's article, and they both have to do with this sentence. The less important problem: Who is the "our" in the phrase "our own land"? We're on the internet, yet Connor just assumes the reader's allegiances, identity, location, etc. Why is everyone who is not in some particular land implicitly excluded from the conversation? Why is "us" not everyone and "our land" not the Earth? EA is just as guilty of this, for example when people talk about dollars going farther "overseas" []. This is the internet, donors and academics and direct workers and so on live in every country, so where is "local" and where is "overseas", exactly? For all EA's globalist ambitious, there is this assumption that people who are actually in a low-middle income country aren't a part of the conversation. (I agree with everything the "dollar overseas" article actually says, just to be clear. The problem is what the phrasing means about the assumptions of the writers.) It's bad when Connor does it and it's bad when effective altruists do it. Yes, we are writing for a specific audience, but that audience is anyone who takes the time to understand EA ideas and can speak the language written. This is part of what I'm talking about when I say that EA makes some very harmful assumptions about who exactly the agents of change are going to be and the scope of who "effective altruists" potentially are. This problem is not limited to EAs, it is widespread. The problem isn't the phrasing, of course, it's what the phrasing indicates about the writer. The more important problem, and on this forum, this one is preaching to the choir of course, is 2) You can't just assume that your solidarity group is the most effective way to do things. Someone still has to do a
Come on, the assumption of the writers is "people looking to us for philanthropy advice are predominantly living in the First World," and that assumption is correct. (And it's not a self-fulfilling prophecy, either). OK, then how do you know that it doesn't merely indicate that the writer is good at writing and marketing? More evaluations and analyses are always nice (and some EA orgs have done that kind of thing, I believe). But their value can be dubious and it may just be a fruitless meta trap. You may think that an EA organization is under-allocating time and money for meta evaluations, but other people are going to disagree, and the reasons for such disagreement need to be properly addressed before this kind of thing can be used as a general criticism. No one has a monopoly on critiquing people merely for having unexamined assumptions. If you start it, it turns into a game of whataboutism and petty status-seeking where no actually useful progress is made to help with important efforts in the real world. Drop the methodology wars and focus on making actual progress.
I think that's a little unfair. It wasn't just have an "unexamined assumption", he just declared that solidarity was the best way and named some organizations he liked, with no attempt at estimating and quantifying. And he's critiquing EA, an ideology whose claim to fame is impact evaluations. Can an EA saying "okay that's great, I agree that could be true... but how about having a quantitative impact evaluation... of any kind, at all, just to help cement the case" really be characterized as "whataboutism" / methodology war? (I don't think I agree with your first paragraph, but I do think it's fair to argue that "but not all readers are in high income countries" is whataboutism until I more fully expand on what I think the practical implications are on impact evaluation. I'm going to save the discussion about the practical problems that arise from being first world centric for a different post, or drop them, depending on how my opinion changes after I've put more thought into it.)

I wish I could even more strongly upvote this. I think the tension between EA and leftism is largely a product of mutual misunderstanding. In general, I think there is more overlap and room for cooperation than disagreement (particularly on things like open borders, decarceration, wealth redistribution/addressing inequality). I would encourage EAs to check out a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) meeting in their hometown. Even if you strongly disagree with leftism/socialism, you'll see a very different method of organizing people committed to hel... (read more)

Yet persistent attempts to explain EA have accomplished, as far as I can tell, nothing in the way of improving leftist attitudes towards EA. The reason there is tension is that the socialist movement gains status and notability when they condemn the things that are associated with capitalism in the public conscience. It's really that simple. They are not dispassionate philosophers trying to understand things, they are a political movement that seeks attention and power. And they can gain much more attention and power if they position themselves as loud critics of EA than if they attempt a long quiet slog through the mud of rigorous cause prioritization. Of course EA seeks attention and power too, but with a very different set of constraints and incentives. Re: the DSA. Have you seen this story []?
Eh, I've explained EA to a lot of lefties I meet and almost all of them have never heard of it, but are on board with the basics. However, my interpretation of and description of EA is pretty consistent with my lefty principles (both are extensions of radical egalitarian principles to me), and I'm sure lots of lefties would not like how market-friendly EA tends to be. I say some version of: EA is a social movement of people trying to do as much good as possible, using evidence to inform their perspective. This generally leads to people giving money to highly effective charities, giving up animal products, and prioritizing the long-term future. Current Affairs overall is fairly amenable to EA and has a large platform within the left. I don't think "they are a political movement that seeks attention and power" is a fair or complete characterization of the left. The people I know on the left genuinely believe that their preferred policies will improve people's lives (e.g. single payer, increase minimum wage, more worker coops, etc.). You may disagree with their prescriptions, although based on the pro-market sources you tend to cite on these topics, you may not be interrogating your own biases enough. But if you believe what the typical DSA member does (that we know what the right policies are to address inequality and healthcare, and the only thing standing in the way of making them happen are entrenched wealthy interests), then their strategy of mobilizing large numbers of people to organize and canvass for these issues is a smart one. The EA approach to policy will only help affect things on the margin or in very technocratic roles, IMO. These things are important too, but EA has demonstrated no capability to mobilize popular support for its preferred policies. Read the article. I can definitely see that happening and agree with the author's ideas at the end. I'm based in NYC and the DSA here is quite big and very effective at electoral politics (e.g. AOC and hope
It's unclear to me how representative this is of either EA or leftists. Year over year, the EA survey has shown the vast majority of EA to be "left-of-centre", which includes a significant portion of the community whose politics might very well be described as 'far-left'. So while some leftists might be willing to surmise from one EA-aligned organization, or a subset of the community, being market-friendly as representative of how market-friendly all of EA is, that's an unsound inference. Additionally, even for leftist movements in the U.S. to the left of the Democratic establishment, there is enough ideological diversity I would say many of them appreciate markets enough such that they're not 'unfriendly' to them. Of course there are leftists who aren't friendly to markets, but I'm aware of a phenomenon of some factions on the Left to claim to speak on behalf of the whole Left, when there is no reason in the vast majority of these cases to think it's a sound conclusion to draw that the bulk of the Left is hostile to markets. So, while 'a lot' of leftists may be hostile to markets, and 'a lot' of EA may be market-friendly, without being substantiated with more empirical evidence and logical qualification, those claims don't provide useful info we can meaningfully work with. I think you're misinterpreting. I never said that was a complete characterization, and fairness has nothing to do with it. Leftist movements are political movements, and I would say they're seeking attention and power like any and every other political movement. I'm on the Left as well, and that I and the people who are leftists genuinely believe our preferred policies will indeed improve people's lives doesn't change the fact the acquisition of political power to achieve those goals, and acquiring the requisite public attention to achieve that political power, is necessary to achieve those goals. To publicly acknowledge this can be fraught because such language can be easily, often through moti
It's kind of funny to me that post on the DSA you've just linked is written by the same author of the Current Affairs article I linked on your post about socialism and EA the other day that you ripped apart.
Well I don't play character assassination games, I've got no vendetta against the guy. Knowing about economics and observing the health of social movements are orthogonal. Would I trust Daron Acemoglu's opinion of the internal workings of the DSA? Of course not.
Yeah, I just meant it's a funny coincidence. I don't think there is any issue citing him here.
Yeah, I didn't notice it, I was under the impression that 99% of Current Affairs was written by Nate.

As someone who agrees EAs aren't focused enough on systemic change, I don't see a single "system" that EAs are ignoring. Rather, I see a failure to use systems thinking to tackle important but hard to measure opportunities for interventions in general. That is, I may have particular ideas for systemic change of particular systems (academia and research, capitalism, societal trust) I'm working on or have worked on, but my critique is simply that EAs (at least in the mainstream movement) tend to ignore this type of thinking at all, when historically the biggest changes in quality of life seem to have come from systemic change and the resulting feedback loops.

Can you give an example of a concrete argument along the lines of this "type of thinking" that was or would be ignored?

It's hard to point to thoughts not thinked :). A few lines of research and interventions that I would expect to be more pursued in the EA community if this bias wasn't present: 1. More research and experimentation with new types of governance (on a systemic level, not just including the limited research funding into different ways to count votes). 2. More research and funding into what creates paradigm shifts in science, changes in governance structures, etc. 3. More research into power, and influence, and how they can effect large changes. 4. Much much more looking at trust and coordination failures, and how to handle them. 5. A research program around the problem of externalities and potential approaches to it. Basically, I'd expect much more of a "5 why's approach" that looks into the root causes of suffering in the world, rather than trying to fix individual instances of it. An interesting counter example might be CFAR and the rationality focus in the community, but this seems to be a rare instance, and at any rate tries to fix a systemic problem with a decidely non-systemic solution (there are a few others that OpenPhil has lead, such as looking into changing academic research, but again the mainstream EA community mostly just doesn't know how to think this way).
If you just look backwards from EAs' priorities, then you have no good reason to claim that EAs are doing things wrong. Maybe such systemic causes actually are worse, and other causes actually are better. Arguments like this don't really go anywhere. Especially if you are talking about "thoughts not thinked", then this is just useless speculation. Aside from rationality, some relevant areas of interest in EA are human enhancement to eliminate suffering (cf David Pearce - this is absolutely as "root" as it gets, more so than any sort of political or social activism), functional decision theory to enable agents to cooperate without having to communicate, moral uncertainty to enable different moral theories to cooperate (MacAskill and I have both written to push this), the stuff Scott Alexander has written about 'Moloch', and value spreading (EA growth but also general advocacy for rationality, animals or other issues). By the way I've had no problem incorporating goals for better governance when quantitatively scoring []political candidates. You can probably say that I happen to underestimate or overestimate their importance but the idea that it's inherently difficult to include them with EA methodology just seems clearly false, having done it. I mean it's pretty easy to just come up with guesstimates if nothing else. What's systemic if not voting mechanisms? Voting seems like a very root part of the government system, more so than economic and social policies for instance. What would a "systemic solution" look like? Conquering the world? I don't see what you are getting at here. I feel like you are implicitly including "big" as part of your definition of "systemic", and that inherently and unreasonably excludes any feasible goals for small projects. Well they're not going to change all of it. They're going to have to try something small, and hopefully get it to cat
Maybe, but I didn't say that I'd expect to see lots of projects trying to fix these issues, just that I'd expect to see more research into them, which is obviously the first step to determine correct interventions. What would count as useful speculation if you think that EAs cause prioritization mechanisms are biased? Voting mechanisms can be systemic if they're approached that way. For instance, working backwards from a two party system in the US, figuring out what causes this to happen, and recommending mechanisms that fix that. This is another great example of EA bucking the trend, but I don't see it as a mainstream EA cause. These are certainly examples of root cause thinking, but to be truly systems thinking they have to take the next step to ask how can we shift the current system to these new foundations. The EA Methodology systemically underestimates systemic changes and handwaves away modelling of them. Consider for instance how hard it is to incorporate a feedback loop into a guesstimate model, not to mention flowthrough effects, and that your response here didn't even mention those as problems. Non-systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, then creating an organization that teaches people to be rational. Systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, asking what about the system creates irrational people, and then creating an organization that looks to change that. I'm including systems thinking as part of my definition. This often leads to "big" interventions, because systems are resillient and often in local attractors, but oftentimes the interventions can be small, but targeted to cause large feedback loops and flowthrough effects. However, the second is only possible through either dumb luck, or skillful systems thinking. They "have to" do that? Why? Certainly that's one way to intervene in the system. There are many others as well. "Hopefully" getting it to catch on elsewhere also seems silly. Perhaps they could try to lo
I will note that I notice that I'm feeling very adversarial in this conversation, rather than truth seeking. For that reason I'm not going to participate further.
But you were talking about supposed deficiencies in EA modeling. Now you're talking about the decision of which things to research and model in the first place. You're shifting goalposts. That's no more systemic than any other way to decide how to improve how to improve voting. Changing voting mechanisms is basically working backwards from the problem of suboptimal politicians in the US, figuring out what system causes this to happen, and recommending mechanisms that fix that. Whether "figuring out" is more guided by empirical observations or by social choice theory doesn't change the matter. Well you can point out arguments that people are ignoring or rejecting for bad reasons, but that requires more concrete ideas instead of speculation. Maybe the lesson here is to dabble less in "speculation" and spend more time trying to make concrete progress. Show us! What's a good cause we've missed? Yes, because right now the only good way to approach it is to pretty much "get better at biology" - there is not enough fundamental knowledge on cognition to make dedicated progress on this specific topic. So EAs' decisions are rational. By the way, no other groups of "systems thinkers" are picking up on paradise engineering either. Like, uh, building institutions and advocacy for responsible AI design, and keeping them closely networked with the EA community, and spreading the idea of functional decision theory as a component of desirable AI design, with papers about FDT cooperation being published by multiple EA groups that focus on AI (MIRI and FRI)? Lol. I included "feedback loops" in arithmetic in a Word document. I had governance listed as 5% equal to the sum of other long-run policy issues, but due to the feedback loop of better governance begetting better governance, I decided to increase it to 10%. Done. Right. Let's build kibbutzim where children are conditioned to make rational decisions. Sounds super tractable to me! Those silly EAs have been missing this low-h

Strongly upvoted. This highlights the difference between criticisms of EA it doesn't focus enough on systemic change that come from a particularly left-wing perspectives, and others which are based on empirical or ethical disagreements as opposed to political ones. This is a distinction I should have made clear in the OP, and I didn't. Thanks for the clarification.

Usually they're just talking about capitalism and not bothering with all the critical theory stuff. Goals seem to generally consist of (1) removing institutions and practices of international trade and finance, and relegating economic activity to being a domestic phenomenon, and (2) reforming or replacing private economic activity so that economic decisions are determined by workers or the government rather than by business leaders and capital owners.

I'm aware there are at least some critics of EA who by "systemic change" do indeed bother with the critical theory stuff, in addition to capitalism, as they see the other structures of oppression they're trying to point at as part and parcel with capitalism. I recall an article or two like this, but I don't specifically remember which ones right now. I will try finding them, and when I do, I'll respond with another comment.

Yeah, but I already acknowledged what they're usually doing. I want to know what the unusual leftist critics of EA think.

I'm fairly centrist, but if I put my leftist hat on, the thing that feels worst about global development EA is the lack of context.

EA often celebrates individuals who give a lot of money, without recognising where that money comes from. We don't openly acknowledge how much money Britain and America have gained from the Global South, both in the past and right now. Sure, trade deficits are complicated, but on the surface we're getting a lot more than we give, and we get a significant amount of interest from developing world debt.

Sure, it's great when rich people donate to help poor people, but why are the rich rich, and why are the poor poor? EA is always very quiet about that. Maybe we can't change global economic systems, but it would nice if we could acknowledge that they're the backdrop to everything we do.

EA often celebrates individuals who give a lot of money, without recognising where that money comes from. We don't openly acknowledge how much money Britain and America have gained from the Global South, both in the past and right now

Have you asked EAs what they think about economic history? Why don't you do that before making presumptions about others' attitudes towards it?

Of course some (not nearly all) of America and Britain's wealth comes from interactions with the global South, and furthermore of course some comes from unfair i... (read more)

Exploiting others makes you less virtuous, and singing the praises of rich philanthropists without acknowledging that paints an incomplete picture. If we don't acknowledge it, it's reasonable for leftists to assume that we don't know or don't care. It might not hurt to repeat some of that economic and historical literature in an EA venue. The mere existence of books on a topic doesn't give any indication of EAs' opinions on those books.
But (a) it's not clear that virtue matters, as virtue ethics is controversial (as are all moral theories) and most of us adhere to consequentialism, and (b) merely making money from interacting with someone is not sufficient for exploitation to take place, it must also be one of the unfair interactions, and (c) Khorton did not talk about where we get our own wealth: he talked about where American and British wealth has generally come from, which is something with a long history and many factors regardless of our personal behavior. These are the kinds of nuances that demands for "acknowledgement" routinely obfuscate. Every picture that isn't published in a book or journal is incomplete; saying that a philanthropist got their money from exploitation is an incomplete picture. And the incomplete picture of "this philanthropist just does a lot of good" is closer to the truth than the incomplete picture of "this philanthropist made a lot money from exploitation and oppression, and is just giving some of it back". Because once you take all the nuances into account, the proportion of our money that we could say has some kind of moral taint or special obligation (other than that which is ordinarily implied by utilitarian/benevolent motives) is just going to be somewhere between 0 and 25%. In any case, generally painting a complete picture about this seems unimportant in the first place: per the goals of EA, we should paint a complete picture of how to do good now and in the future, and to the extent that belaboring economic history can inform these efforts, it should be belabored specifically in the contexts where it is actually relevant (i.e. writings about how to improve economic systems, and so on), not obnoxiously inserted into all regular discourse about philanthropy per se.
Point of correction: khorton is a 'she', not a 'he'.
Downvoted because this is rude
Downvoted because you're not engaging with my arguments.

I expect EA hasn't publicly acknowledged this is as much as we maybe should have in the past because:

1. Even if we were to assume the worst, and that all the gains of the Western world EA is giving away were originally ill-gotten, it wouldn't change how we think it is best redistributed to improve the world, including to do justice by the very people the wealth would allegedly have been expropriated from;

2. Acknowledging this can give opportunistic critics of EA the chance to back EA into a corner and pillory us as too ignorant of issues of justi... (read more)

While I didn't upvote kbog's comment for being rude, and I agree with you he didn't need to be that rude, I didn't downvote it either because I think he is reaching for a valid point. While I express it differently, I share kbog's frustration with how sometimes effective altruists say we should extend so much charity to anti-capitalist critics of EA, while it may not be a majority of them, there are lots of kinds of anti-capitalism it seems EA should not actually want to reconcile with. I expressed that point without the rudeness o... (read more)

I agree there are beliefs and belief systems that EA is incompatible with, although my post wasn't coming from a place of anti-capitalism: even with my leftist hat on, all I would want is to regulate global market failures. It's a pretty big leap to hear "global markets make the rich richer and the poor poorer" and assume communism :)
Right, I wasn't assuming communism on your part. I was just sharing thoughts of my own that I thought better represented the frustration kbog was trying to express. I did this because I thought he was making a valid point with his comment you downvoted about how the kind of question you're asking would lead EA to prioritize a route for public dialogue that it doesn't actually make sense to prioritize, since it is one you made from a leftist viewpoint as a thought exercise, even though you clarified you yourself are a centrist, and as a criticism of EA it is unsound. My above comment was also addressing the premise you thought the historical origins of wealth as seen from an anti-capitalist perspective is a very relevant criticism of EA. I of course assumed by 'leftist' you meant 'anti-capitalist', which you did not. So, my last comment doesn't apply. I was aware that you yourself were just wearing a leftist hat for the sake of argument, and I did not assume communism on your part. Of course, regarding your point about questions of reform of contemporary global markets, I agree with you, and disagree with kbog, that that is a legitimate criticism of EA the community should think more about.
Nothing that I've said here is about whether or not we should reform global markets, nor about whether or not we should adopt communism as Khorton inexplicably assumed. The issue here is not about policy, it's about discourse, viz. the idea that we ought to emphatically and preemptively notify people and atone for the causes of our own and the general Western prosperity, with the implicit assumption that such causes make it morally disagreeable.
Okay, so, what has has happened is: * khorton said she is a centrist, who for the sake of argument, was putting on her 'leftist' hat. * By "leftist", I thought she meant she was being the devil's advocate for anti-capitalism, when she was actually being an advocate for progressive/left-liberal reform. * She assumed that you assumed, like me, she was playing the role of devil's advocate for anti-capitalism, when you did not, i.e., not anti-capitalist. * While khorton's original comment didn't mention reform and regulation of global markets, she made clear in her next response to me that is what she intended as the subject of her comment even though she didn't make it explicit. * I got mixed up, and as the subject changed, I forgot market reform was never even implied by khorton's original comment. While I disagreed with how rude your original response to her was, I did agree with your point. Now that you've edited it, and this comment is sorted, I've now upvoted your comment, as I agree with you.

I don't think there's a clean answer to this, since not all "system" critics have strong ideas about what the "system" is, and those with strong ideas still don't see eye-to-eye. Some aren't even leftist (I'd also put, say, Angus Deaton in this category, since he sees EA as addressing symptoms rather than root causes).

The best way to learn about this is to read critics carefully and try to interpret their words charitably. You can find a lot of EA criticism on this page developed by CEA. I'd especially recommend the following sections:

  • Does effective altruism neglect systemic change?
  • Does charity and aid really work?
  • Does effective altruism neglect effective interventions when the impact can't be measured?


If I had to give a quick summary of the "system" objection that I thought critics from anywhere on the political spectrum would generally support, I'd say something like:

"Many attempts to fix problems by throwing money at the apparent direct cause of the problem have failed or had little impact, because the reason the problem was happening was not actually this 'direct cause'.

"Effective altruism seems to focus on attacking the direct causes of problems in the development space, without as much energy going toward the considerable work that has been done on political and economic systems that are an ongoing source of problems and won't be improved by spending on 'direct causes'."

For a leftist, the "systems" I mentioned might be capitalism and (at the far edges of leftism) what we think of as "democracy" (which may not actually be very democratic). For a non-leftist, the systems could be over-regulation by governments, restrictive immigration laws, tyranny and corruption within governments, etc. (That said, I don't think political lines are always this clearly drawn -- there are right-wing anticapitalists and socialists who support open borders.)


Overall, I don't think these objections make much sense nowadays. EA is moving quickly toward more work on policy and systemic change, and we were already deeply involved in those things years ago.

From my viewpoint, to the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is correct, EA should internalize this criticism, and should effectively change socioeconomic systems better than leftists ever expected from us, and perhaps better than leftist political movements themselves (lots of them don't appear to be active or at least effective in actually changing "the system" they themselves criticize EA for neglecting). If that's the case, I think what we've been doing is mostly lip service, or bending the activities we currently suppo... (read more)

4Aaron Gertler4y
I also don't know of any single place where most EA policy work is gathered together for easy reference, and I'd be grateful to anyone who compiled such a resource. I maintain that I don't think the criticism is "correct" in any meaningful sense. Past EA efforts to examine possibilities for systemic change generally concluded that doing so wasn't worthwhile given the limited resources at our disposal (one notable exception is Open Phil, which has more available resources than any other organization in EA). I'm in favor of more work on figuring out policy strategy from an effectiveness perspective, but I don't know that "EA" is responsible for that work -- it has to be done by individuals, and helped along by organizations who provide incentives to those individuals, but there are reasonable incentives in place already (at least for some areas of policy). Are there specific actors within EA who ought to be doing more, but aren't? (I often see arguments like "EA should do X", but rarely "org Y should do X" or "individuals in group Z should do X", even though arguments of the latter types seem more useful.) What would this due diligence look like? Is there a certain thing you wish someone had created that no one has? Have people created the kinds of things you want, but in a low-quality fashion? Also, I expect GiveWell's upcoming policy change work [] (and ongoing work by orgs like J-PAL that have GiveWell funding) to generate a lot of systematic change per dollar spent. Have you looked at J-PAL's Innovation in Government Initiative [] at all?
I agree. It's my habit for the sake of argument in casual and generic discussions in EA to treat "EA" as a unitary blob of resources. I agree if we're seriously trying to getpoliy specific, it doesn't make sense to talk about EA as a whole unit, but the individual actions of particular actors in and around the EA ecosystem. I haven't thought about this enough to name specific organizations. There appear to be blocs within EA who support policy reform in particular areas, which may or may not be shared with the Open Philanthropy Project. However, unlike Open Phil, the most a bloc of supporters for a particular kind of policy reform in EA appear to organize themselves into is an informal association that is all talk, no action. When I think of EA-connected policy work, the following comes to mind: * Open Phil, through their grants. * The NGOs Open Phil grants to, which usually either predate EA, or are largely independent of the community aside from their relationship with Open Phil. * A number of academic/research policy institutes focused on global coordination, AI alignment, and other x-risks, launched in tandem with some of the world's leading research universities, such as UC Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. In other words, these are all orgs that probably would have gotten off the ground, and could achieve their goals, without the support of EA, except for Open Phil as an EA-aligned org. And by "Open Phil", it's more like just Good Ventures and a handful of program officers. So if we subtract their efforts from the rest of the policy work the EA community can take credit for, there isn't much left. Collectively combined, the rest of the EA community is several thousand people with a decade of experience through dozens of independently launched NGOs/NPOs and tens of millions of dollars at their disposal who, for all we talk about public policy, haven't done much about it. I believe some EA associations in Europe have done some policy c