When discussing critiques of effective altruism,[1] I often find that lots of different kinds of critiques are lumped together, which can lead to people talking past each other. [2]

Here's an attempt at categorising different things one might focus on – I'm not sure the categories are exhaustive and I also welcome suggestions for refined categorisations.

Four categories of critiques

Normative assumptions & moral values 

This includes the philosophical underpinnings of effective altruism, including (but not limited to) claims about what is valuable and what people ought to do.

Empirical assumptions & theories of change

This includes beliefs about empirical questions like "How likely is human extinction this century?" or "What is the most cost-effective way of improving human health?" It also includes worldviews or theories of change, like "Positive societal change is more likely to be gradual than radical" or "Positive societal change is more likely to be driven by elites than by large movements."

Institutions & organisations in the effective altruism social movement

This includes both institutions in the broad sense of the word, such as how hiring practices or how strategic decisions for the social movement are made. It also includes questions pertaining to specific organisations, such as how transparent a particular funder is or how much an organisation achieved in the past year. 

Social norms & practices in the effective altruism community

This includes things about the community aspect of effective altruism, i.e. the ways that people in the movement interact not just as colleagues, but also as friends, partners, housemates, and subscribers to a shared ideology. Topics to explore could include how people interact with those outside the movement, the effects of talking about money in a certain way, or the causes and effects of demographic and intellectual homogeneity.

Examples in each category

I also include below some examples of existing work in each category, though each list is thoroughly non-exhaustive. Also, I'm sure that some of the examples could fit into more than one category; I tried placing them in the category they seemed to represent the most.

For several of these examples, I haven't read them in their entirety; some I've only barely skimmed. For each, I'm sure there are things I don't agree with, just as there is something in every one of these that I do agree with. 

You'll note that these aren't sweeping critiques of effective altruism or longtermism as a whole, they are rather critical assessments of specific aspects (although those would also be interesting). I personally find that while both "we should use evidence and reason to do the most good" (effective altruism) and "positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time" (longtermism) are rather unobjectionable as general claims, the way they are practised could be better, hence the value of critiques.

I would love to see more examples – please post your favourites in the comments!

Normative assumptions & moral values

Xuan: AI Alignment, Philosophical Pluralism, and the Relevance of Non-Western Philosophy

Unruh: Constraining longtermism (Working paper, likely available upon request)

Mogensen: The only ethical argument for positive 𝛿?

Russell: On two arguments for Fanaticism

Joe_Carlsmith: On infinite ethics

Empirical assumptions & theories of change

Garfinkel: How sure are we about this AI stuff?

Srinivasan: Stop the Robot Apocalypse

Denise_Melchin: Why I am probably not a longtermist

weeatquince: The case of the missing cause prioritisation research

Singer: The Hinge of History

Weyl: Hear This Idea interview (second half)

Brian Tomasik: Why Charities Usually Don't Differ Astronomically in Expected Cost-Effectiveness

A Red-Team Against the Impact of Small Donations

Hauke Hillebrandt: Critique of OpenPhil's macroeconomic policy advocacy

Multiple authors: Reviews of "Is power-seeking AI an existential risk?"

Institutions & organisations in the effective altruism movement

alexrlj: Why I’m concerned about Giving Green

Evan_Gaensbauer: The EA Community and Long-Term Future Funds Lack Transparency and Accountability

MathiasKB: Issues with centralised grantmaking

CarlaZoeC: Democratising Risk - or how EA deals with critics

NunoSempere: Shallow evaluations of longtermist organizations

Organizations prioritising neat signals of EA alignment might systematically miss good candidates 

Free-spending EA might be a big problem for optics and epistemics

Social norms & practices in the effective altruism community

CarlaZoeC: Objections to value-alignment between effective altruists

Gregory_Lewis: In defence of epistemic modesty

Linch: The motivated reasoning critique of effective altruism

Racial Demographics at Longtermist Organizations

MichaelA: 3 suggestions about jargon in EA

Robert_Wiblin: When you shouldn't use EA jargon and how to avoid it

MagnusVinding: Against the "smarts fetish"

A quick note on critiques and action

Critiques can be super valuable for generating hypotheses and contributing to a healthy epistemic culture. 

But I want to stress: In the absence of action, critiques don't do much.

In fact, they can be worse than nothing, insofar as they create an appearance of receptiveness to criticism despite no actual action being taken. Indeed, when doing things like writing this post or hosting sessions on critiques at EA conferences, I am sometimes concerned that I could contribute to an impression that things are happening where they aren't.

This means that (1) critiques should strive to be constructive and highlight implications and solutions whenever possible; and (2) people who generally think that red-teaming is useful should be ready to take action or change course in response to a valid critique. 


  1. ^

    Or criticisms, or red-teaming, or minimal-trust investigations, or adversarial collaborations, or internal debates, or whichever you prefer to call it.

  2. ^

    This has little to do with critiques of effective altruism, but I'm reminded of one of my favourite papers in normative ethics, which also seeks to minimise confusion by offering some categories: Kagan (1992) The Structure of Normative Ethics

    From the opening paragraph: "If you open a typical textbook on normative ethics, it will have a discussion of what it thinks of as rival theories: there might be a chapter each on, say, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and virtue theory. The assumption seems to be that these three are alternative attempts to answer the same basic questions. This seems to me exactly incorrect."


11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:46 PM
New Comment

Thanks for the useful classification with included article selection.

And I think that, given the variety of critiques, the Criticisms of EA Tag has gotten a bit broad. There are already separate tags for critiques of causes, orgs, and the community, so maybe the EA critique tag can be split into normative and empirical critiques.

A normative critique to which I would love to see responses:

nil: some concerns with classical utilitarianism

Re: community, people have discussed potential downsides of the name 'effective altruism'.

(Independent of any wishes to change the name of existing EA things, I think it's good to be aware of those potential downsides.)

Thanks for posting this! I briefly tried imagining other potential categories that might have been left out, but I couldn't think of any clear ones, so it seems decently accurate at least on the surface.

I would prefer if this article contained quick summaries of the links. 

Thanks; I (too) briefly tried imagining other categories, but was quite happy with those four!

Regarding the first distinction, there is this recent (free) book that argues for the possibility of better politics by more strongly keeping normative and empirical assumptions separate from each other (which is called "the two-step ideal" in Chapter 1, pp. 9–17). I read the book twice and found it very illuminating on that distinction. Note that the book itself takes no normative step until Chapter 7, so it's not all about reducing suffering.

What category would you put ideas like the unilateralist's curse or Bostrom's vulnerable world hypothesis? They seem like philosophical theories to me, but not really moral theories (and I think they attract a disproportionate amount of criticism).

This is an excellent red teaming work ! Kudos!!

I'd add a fifth; one about individuals personally exploring ways in which an EA mindset and / or taking advice / guidance on lifestyle or career from their EA community has led to less positive results in their own lives.

Some that come to mind are:

Denise's post about "My mistakes on the path to impact": https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/QFa92ZKtGp7sckRTR/my-mistakes-on-the-path-to-impact And though I can't find it the post about how hard it is to get a job in an EA organisation, and how demoralising that is (among other points)

Wouldn't this category be part of the fourth one? You're just pointing to more concrete examples of "practices in the EA community"? Or am I missing something (pretty likely).