Dear EA-verse, 

Thank you for posting the contest soliciting critiques of the EA movement. I have to say though. I am somewhat loath to critique a movement that’s getting people to go forth and do some good in the world. With all the problems we face, any initiative to get more people donating and doing good with their skills is, well, a good thing! I do admire the spirit of continuous improvement so will try to honor that in this first post of mine. 

Spending the past week digging into the EA forums, links members kindly shared and talking to several EA adjacent friends, I do have a few thoughts that I’d like to share for discussion and reaction. Although I’ve spent over a dozen years in EA-adjacent spaces, I’m still very much new here so the epistemic status of these thoughts is very much tentative, provisional and subject to revision. I thank you in advance for your constructive ideas and insights.

First, I have to confess I don’t understand the use of the phrase “effective altruism.” A more accurate phrase for much of what goes on here might be “optimized altruism” rather than the effective sort. Why optimized? Much of the rhetoric and donations seems to be about the biggest global impact per unit of dollar and/or effort. Yet those first order direct impacts neglect the many possible second and third order impacts. 

Let’s consider a couple examples. First, suppose one donates to their local animal shelter rather than to the highest ranked GiveWell charity. Is that really a bad thing? Might that donation to a local cause even be a more effective thing? Consider that one may not just donate to their animal shelter but also take their pet for classes to said shelter. Further consider that one may meet other people and make friends at the animal shelter. That may seem small but when you consider the loneliness crisis and the unraveling of society in places like the US, that’s actually the sort of small action that’s instrumental to a functioning civil society. Given the realities of current geopolitics, a small action to prevent a civil war in these United States and avoid global upheaval may very well save countless lives.

Now that’s just a story. It’s not data and evidence. We can discuss the implicit causal linkages each step of the way. We should also though discuss the implicit assumptions in the priors that doing the most good with a given amount of inputs is the best path to uplifting the human conditions. What’s missing in the alternative scenario where one donates to give bed nets or a similarly high impact strategy to uplift the greatest poverty? You’re not actually going to forge the same type of human connection with someone halfway around the world that you can with your local community. There’s also always the question of sustainability and the broader questions of development. It does not ultimately do a ton of good to lift someone out of immediate poverty if say the result is that’s just another mouth to feed in the upcoming global food crisis. 

Second, I have to confess I don’t understand the ultimate aims of the EA movement. Perhaps that’s fine? It seems some argue that EA isn’t an ideology so much as a question: “How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?” I have to wonder though with so many resources -- money, time and talent -- being dedicated to this movement, if a greater sense of responsibility and stewardship is needed. 

There are very sound reasons to be skeptical that simply encouraging greater amounts of individual donations will be enough to address the massive amounts of world poverty. There are deep reasons why there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet and yet so many members of our human family still go hungry. 

Anything that people can do to help alleviate that suffering is a good thing! And people that are donating so much of their income and orienting so much of their lives to optimally impact that harsh reality of contemporary human existence is again a good thing! Yet let’s be clear eyed about what’s going on. 

The unspoken story underlying too much work in global development goes something like this: You’re poor and destitute. I’m not and have resources to give. Here’s a fish / fishing rod / fishing lesson that I have determined is the most effective. Go forth and be saved! Here I’m not questioning anyone’s motives, casting aspersions or even saying this is true of EA -- again I’m new! -- but just trying to share a hyper simplified story of the subtext that’s all too common in global development.[1] 

As an alternative consider the following story: here I am. Here are changes I have made to get my community in order. You and your community are cordially invited to do the same. In my experience, this latter approach of leading by example is much more sustainable and powerful. And that’s true whether you’re working at the level of a team of twelve or much larger scales.

That’s my motivation in wondering why there is such a massive aversion to local impact[2] and more nuanced stories of impact that consider second, third etc effects. Further  I wonder why there isn’t more EA work to address the very real needs for better public problem solving and moral action in the more affluent areas of the globe that members of the EA community tend to reside in. Source EA survey [LINK] 

There is a MASSIVE need for money, time and talent to develop more effective government operations. See the highly suboptimal response in far too many Western democracies to Covid-19 or the challenges in building much of anything public works-wise in places like the United States. Here is a seven minute memo I wrote on that subject surveying the growing movement focusing on the “state capacity” deficit:



Will working on that state capacity issue lead to a clear quantifiable metric with a high ratio of impact to input? No, policy work is fuzzy, messy and doesn’t save lives so immediately, usually.[3] Neither this type of policy work working in areas of the world with the highest poverty. Yet there emphatically is poverty and avoidable public problems in many of the affluent areas of the planet that EA members live in! 

Further note that improving state capacity involves leveling up the public sector's digital competency. While many projects in the gov / civic tech space are locally focused, the power of the digital revolution is naturally global. Solutions developed in one place can be scaled elsewhere. Lead by example. 

Cui bono: Perhaps this betrays my biases since I’ve had similar motivations to the EA community yet spent my first dozen years out of undergrad working on government reform issues, primarily in California and mostly through the lens of better public technology.

Thank you for taking the time to read this far, and I look forward to the opportunity to dig in deeper in the comments. 


Locke (PA IRL)


PS  Also on a tangent, I’d like to offer a BIG thank you to whoever designed this forum. It’s seriously kinda amazing -- great user experience. 

[1] a family friend and mentor gave me a book called “The Ugly American” which shares a bunch of parable-like stories in global aid that shapes some of my thinking here. 

[2] looking at the main EA webpage and topics that a EA forum member handily pointed me too, global development and avoiding global risks seem to be the main foci of the movement.

[3] see this example of leading practices in more effective government and better use of data that literally saved lives in NYC through more optimized fire inspections. 






More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

A brief response to one point: if you are including second-order and third-order effects in your analysis, you should include them on both sides. Yes, donating to a local cause fosters connections in the community and ultimately state capacity and so on. But saving people from malaria does that stuff too, and intuitively when the first order effects are more dramatic, one expects the second order effects to be correspondingly more dramatic: you meet a new friend at your local animal shelter, and meanwhile the child that didn't die of malaria meets a whole life's worth of people, their family has less grief and trauma, their community has greater certainty and security. Of course, it's really hard to be sure of the whole story, but I don't see any reason to suppose that going one step deeper in the analysis will totally invert the conclusion of the first-level analysis.

I agree that the second- and third-order effects of e.g. donating to super-effective animal advocacy charities are, more likely than not, larger than those of e.g. volunteering at local animal shelters. (though that may depend on the exact charity you're donating to?)

However, it's likely that some other action has even larger second- and third-order effects than donating to top charities - after all, most (though not all) of these charities are optimizing for first-order effects, rather than the second- and third-order ones. 

Therefore, it's not obviously justifiable to simply ignore second- and third-order effects in our analysis.

Great point! That is definitely the case that there's effects on all sides.  The challenge of course is that the deeper you go into second and third order effects the more you sort of have a model of everything and then its really just what your prior worldview is. 

Note that there emphatically is not, however, generally a direct relationship between your random software engineer donating on GiveWell and the ultimate recipient. That's just the nature of the situation. 

Also I would not say that this is 100% a given: "Yes, donating to a local cause fosters connections in the community and ultimately state capacity and so on. " Local donations can also foster Tamney Hall style corruption which can be corrosive to a high capacity state apparatus.

That political machine did though probably create a lot of community and integrate a lot of immigrants into New York. 

I like the following article as a summary of what's going on in terms of why people don't focus on local altruism: Global economic inequality: what matters most for your living conditions is not who you are, but where you are. There's also this article from 2021: Don't we spend too much on foreign aid already? 

  • "The huge majority of the world is very poor. The poorer half of the world, almost 4 billion people, live on less than $6.70 a day. If you live on $30 a day you are part of the richest 15% of the world ($30 a day roughly corresponds to the poverty lines set in high-income countries)."
  • "private Americans, foundations, and corporations gave about $23 billion to support international affairs in one recent year. [That's] an astoundingly large number, but it's only about 5% of the $418 billion that Americans donated to charity that year."

People outside of EA generally emphasize local altruism way too much. This means that the most effective opportunities for helping people alive right now are very likely not local. 

There's  existing writing that addresses issues you've touched on: 

And finally: EAs are into policy and systemic change. You should read more about that on the Forum: policy, improving institutions

And finally: EAs are into policy and systemic change.

Yes, but not enough, I suspect. 

Also there seems to be an imbalance between different EA cause areas in terms of “how much work there currently is on policy and systemic change”. Reading the post titles under the policy tag may help one notice this.

Yeah I share your suspicion. Reading through the institutional decision making topic, most if not all of the writing seems to be basically applying LessWrong style rationality principles to decision making. There isn't any real say structural analysis. For example in So Cal where I live, there's precisely a zillion local municipalities, a bunch of Balkanized fiefdoms that often work at cross purposes. The challenge isn't a lack of quality information and decision heuristics. It's the reality that there's a panoply of veto points and a rube goldberg esque system that makes it impossibly difficult to get things done. Vitalik had a nice piece on the underlying issues with Vetocracy that's worth a read. 

Thanks for sharing! I haven't had a chance to dive super deep though the piece on improving institutions was very theoretical. Here's the direct link to the comment I left on that post in case you're at all curious. 

Also a random tech support-ish q that I'm not sure where to put. How does one do something like the "improving institutions" with the little circle so that all the forum posts under that topic pop up? Also a meta q: where one direct these types of getting starting tech support q's? Thanks!

Lastly regarding the articles you sent, how does "practicing compassion and generosity with those around us" get operationalized in the EA community?

 How does one do something like the "improving institutions" with the little circle so that all the forum posts under that topic pop up?

It's just a link to the topic page, like you linked to a post. You can find all topics here (on the left on the homepage there is a "topics" link).

meta q: where one direct these types of getting starting tech support q's?

There's the Open Thread on the homepage, How to use the Forum, the Feature Suggestion Thread, or the support/feedback chat in the bottom right (at least on desktop)

How does "practicing compassion and generosity with those around us" get operationalized in the EA community?

The most salient example that comes to mind may be going vegetarian/vegan (for ethical and/or climate reasons), which (a little less than) half of the community members claimed to have done, according to a survey.

Apart from that there's also everyday altruism, e.g. helping granny cross the street.

Nothing more comes up, though I had only thought about this for twenty seconds so I have probably missed something.

[comment deleted]1

Thank you for this critique! 

Just want to highlight one thing: comments to this post are sometimes a bit harsh, but please don't take this to mean we're unwelcoming or defensive (although there may be a real tendency to overly argue for ourselves). The style of discussion on the forum is sometimes just like this  :)

Thanks! All good. 

There is a MASSIVE need for money, time and talent to develop more effective government operations.

You might be interested in the topic "Improving Institutional Decision Making"
There's a lot of work in this area, e.g. recently an EA was running for congress and there was a big campaign around it

And posts like U.S. EAs Should Consider Applying to Join U.S. Diplomacy, but indeed arguably there could be more.
 (Edit: I now see it was already linked in Jeannie's answer, but I guess worth repeating)

More from Locke
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities