1.- Giving voice to Sam
Despite its apparent vagueness, the idea of “doing the most good” is deeply metaphysical. That Good is something that can be maximized means that we can order the future states of the world and single out the best ones. It means that Good is a unitary object and that prioritization is possible.
In addition, Effective Altruist (EA) principles imply a commitment to impartiality, and it must never be forgotten that evolution created the ethical instinct to benefit the in-group (Gintis and Bowles, 2013), so, by extending the moral circle to all conscious beings (weighted by consciousness intensity, but not by biological or cultural proximity), EA leverages the ethical instinct against its own evolutionary target. Therefore, the EA culture is intensely idiosyncratic and there is nothing surprising in the fact that the typical EA (let’s call him Sam, as they do in the post that has inspired this article) is “ethically utilitarian and politically centrist; an atheist, but culturally protestant. He studied analytic philosophy, mathematics, computer science, or economics at an elite university in the US or UK. He is neurodivergent.”.
EA mainly means putting the classic questions of peace and war, economic development and scientific progress at the center of political debate. The rationalist universalism of EA directly confronts the idea that politics and social action is about status and the struggle for power, and asserts that there is a relatively defined and measurable “common good” and social mobilization must be geared towards maximizing it. For EA the emancipation of social groups must be approached from the perspective of their human (actually conscious) dignity and not from any particularism. In short, in the face of decades of postmodernity, the EA and Rationalist communities represent the rehabilitation of the ideals of Modernity, and precisely in its most extreme form.
Are these ideas evenly distributed among the different ethnic and social groups? No, and therefore it is not reasonable to be surprised at the lack of diversity of an intentional community defined by them. Sam the Altruist has come to his (right) convictions as a consequence of living in a wealthy society that has educated him, and that society is rich because its culture has the pro-social traits that EA philosophically codifies. Sam is the product of a bunch of lucky historical coincidences, from the Battle of Marathon to the Normandy landing, passing through the Glorious Revolution. These coincidences have occurred in some places and not in others (unlike Sam, as a Spanish I am quite conversant with the concept of historical failure) and they have disproportionately affected some social and national groups and not others.
One of the things that moves Sam is the consciousness of privilege, but at the same time he believes that the Western history is not mainly a horror to be ashamed of, but rather a model to be exported. His consciousness of privilege is an incentive to accelerate the historical process of which he himself is a product. If Sam were a fan of Avatar, and considered Western history to be an abomination, perhaps he wouldn't be so eager to spread the blessings of bed nets and contraceptives to all nations (and instead he would advocate for isolationism and Pentecostalism). That's why he is skeptical towards quotas and opposes ethno-masochist kowtow, but he also unreservedly accepts all those who share his objectives and aspire to convince the rest.
Lastly, Sam is probably skeptical of capitalism too, but he believes it has to be replaced with something better, and the bloody social experiments of the XXth century have taught him to prefer revolutionary processes to happen at a safe distance from his middle-class existence, although of course, he is delighted that unemployment insurance payments are lengthened when his country enters a recession.
2.-A Movement, not an organization
Before going into details about how to institutionally structure a social or ideological movement, it is worth clarifying that a movement is precisely defined by not being institutionalized.
Although EA's goals are as ambitious and universal as those of the Communist Party or the Catholic Church, when it comes to means, EA is a pragmatist philosophy that supports experimentation and instrumental pluralism. Therefore, in the absence of a single strategy, it is not necessary (it would be counterproductive) to have a hierarchical institutional organization.
However, although maintaining the decentralization of the movement is an asset, it is convenient to have (the sooner the better) a conversation about objectives and best practices for the organizations that integrate it.
3.- EA Governance is not a pressing issue
If I had to select the greatest misfortune that humanity suffers, autocracy would be the first. Almost inevitably biological competition ends in a Malthusian demographic regime and political competition tends to generate extractive social regimes (North, Wallis & Weingast, 2009) generally autocratic and often punctuated by wars of succession. A constant struggle against Nature is therefore the fate of every conscious ethical being.
That's why not only I sympathize with republican institution building, but it is the central theme of my intellectual interests. Therefore, anything that involves replacing an arbitrary decision regime with a mechanical system deserves my sympathy.
However, youthful democratic enthusiasm should not make us forget that the canonical social mechanism that makes optimal use of information is not the Athenian assembly, nor the ballot box, but the market. The theoretical and experimental results on voting systems are moderately encouraging (Casella & Macé, 2021), and compared to Louis XIV or Vladimir Putin even the ballot box shines like a City on a Hill, but democracy is deeply affected by rational irrationality (Caplan, 2001) and nothing similar to the two theorems of welfare economics or the empirical evidence supporting the Efficient Markets Theory (Bangle, Engle and Murray, 2013) exists for voting systems.
Furthermore, when an organization has the welfare of its members as its goal, democracy has multiple shortcomings, but at least the legitimacy of the group deciding on its own destiny is plausible. Organizations defined by a mission other than the welfare of their participants, however, have to consider how to represent the beneficiaries of their activities. The demos that EA serves is mainly formed by the “bottom billion” people, by farmed animals and I guess for some (put me on the skeptical side) by suffering shrimps.
GiveWell and other neartermist organizations are largely in a situation analogous to firms in a capitalist society. They have a clear business model, which consists of offering results to their donors, defined by key performance indicators (KPIs). While technical improvements to those KPIs and prioritizing methodologies would certainly be welcome if well supported, the democratization of the fund allocation mechanism would make it almost surely less competitive in the fundraising market. These organizations don't need more democracy any more than Toyota does, since market discipline is their true meta-governance system, and the kind of donors that EA organizations attract are precisely (and by design) the most well-informed and focused on the welfare of the recipients. I really do not think anyone has a real interest in affecting this part of the movement, which is indisputably effective.
Now, what characterizes EA is its political potential. A large and self-aware group trained in rational choice and utilitarianism, free of ethno-masochistic trauma, and with technical training is a very serious risk for the postmodern left. Paradoxically, it is also the case for extreme right-wing populism that badly needs a technical elite obtained from the typical EA demographics to implement its traditionalist or fascist political schemes.
The political part of the EA movement (Global Priorities and Existential risk) is linked to Oxbridge and Silicon Valley, and thankfully the governance problem is relatively modest at the present time, when activism is mostly about funding research and sustaining an intellectual movement. The movement's star scholars have academic positions obtained through the usual process based on peer-reviewed results precisely in the scientific fields less affected by postmodernism and identity politics.
Although in philosophical terms (both ethical and epistemological) I am quite aligned with the core of the movement, my opinion on global priorities is substantially different than theirs (see here my position, that somewhat matches that of Tyler Cowen), but I can't ascribe those differences to any particular institutional bias nor I find any institutional remedy to them.
Of course, if the EA branch focused on global priorities and existential risk manages to gain control over resources or make decisions for which academic credentials are not a sufficient source of legitimacy that would force the construction of a different governance structure designed to address those expanded powers. But these problems are still not a reality but only a still distant hope.
Bali,T.G, Engle,R.F, Murray, S., "Empirical Asset Pricing: The Cross Section of Stock Returns", Wiley Ed., 2013
Caplan, B., “Rational Irrationality and the Microfoundations of Political Failure”, Pulic Choice, 2001
Casella , A. & Macé, A., “Does Vote Trading Improve welfare? ”, Annual Review of Economics, 2021
Gintis, H. & Bowles, S., “A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution ”, Princeton University Press , 2013
North, D.C.; Wallis, J.J., & Weingast , B.R., “ Violence and Social Orders : A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History ”, Cambridge University Press, 2009