I though I'd share my reflection on Effective Altruism having just completed the Introduction to EA course.   It is commonly observed in technology start-ups that the culture of a newish organisation reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the dominant founder's personality.  It seems this is also true of EA which  reflects the academic philosophy origins of the organisation.  There are many positives associated with this (deep thinking with logic and a profound acceptance of debate) but there are also negatives.  I wanted to focus on 3 closely related points that I think EA needs to address if it is to continue grow so as to have more impact on our world.

  1.  EA is excessively focus on direct results and tends to neglect indirect effects.  I think this arises from the thought experiment where the focus is on a single point.  For example the transplant challenge where killing 1 person to harvest their organs would save 5 lives hence should be supported if we are serious about consequentialist utilitarianism.  Of course people object with the focus on rights but I challenge the basic hypothesis because of the indirect effects.  If we lived in a society that did such things, then we would live in fear of being chosen as the sacrifice and this would do harm to a huge number of people so you could not support the principle even with extreme utilitarianism.  Even if you said it was only volunteers who would be sacrificed then it would still do harm to many who would feel pressured to volunteer or guilty about not volunteering.   I see this problem as fundamental to EA and needs much more thought.  What are the indirect consequences of giving money directly to the poor if it was really adopted on a huge scale?  We know that there are valid criticisms of free loading in European social safety net so how would this apply ?  What level of inflation would be caused if the gifting became significant in scale which are not  apparent in small scale test cases.  Can such direct giving of cash ever be sustainable on a large scale given the selfishness of so many people ?  There are innumerable cases of small cases studies which failed to scale - scaling is really a major challenge.  Also the details of implementation can make a huge difference.  Giving deworming pills either works or does not work entirely dependent on how it is done and the very cheap approach of just giving out the pills does not work as shown by many studies.   This also goes the other way; if I build a factory in a poor country which is internationally competitive, train the local workforce effectively  and pay decent wages by local standards then at least at first, the cost effectiveness from an altruistic assessment will be low.  But by creating real long term sustainable  jobs and a viable local economy, the long term implications just multiply and if you consider these indirect effects this could be the very best type of project for EA to support.  Of course, the implementation is absolutely critical and to develop an internationally competitive factory in a poor country is not at all easy.   But I still say lets us move our focus and consider the indirect effects just as much as the direct effects.
  2.  A specific example of the first point is investing in technology and capabilities that have huge long term potential is being under-rated in EA.  The donation of malarial bed nets is highly rated and yet surely the elimination of malaria is a much more effective strategy and there is little doubt that this will be achieved in the next few decades.  So EA should focus on supporting the most promising approach to eliminating malaria (probably through genetic manipulation of mosquito populations) and not the band aid solution of bed nets.  Same with Climate Change; there are so many areas were technology will make a huge difference and investment in these areas should be our priority.  The only solution to climate change is approaching net zero but this requires an effective carbon offset credit system which does not exist today but which could be enabled through satellite Earth Observation technology and drone monitoring technology. Without such a system, carbon offset credits are often fraudulent or just mis-guided - we need the feedback that they work.  This is crucial to combatting climate change so this is where EA should be investing together with the numerous technologies developing alternatives to fossil fuels, concrete etc and improving farming methods such as suppressing cattle methane using sea weed in cattle feed or kelp farming in general.  EA needs to change its perspective as to what works by recognising that our world is shaped, for good and ill, by technology and hence we must invest in the right technology as the top priority.  Such investments will also provide a direct financial return  that can be reinvested to enable further giving and investments.  
  3.  EA needs to raise its game in terms of influencing our society and the academic approach is a turn-off to many, particularly the excessive focus on AI risk. Other than technology, the main influence on our world is decisions made by governments and leaders and we need to start working to improve our governmental systems.  In western democracies this means influencing the masses so they stop voting for populist idiots and idiocies. In poor countries, it means effectively tackling corruption (and the money laundering enabled by rich countries) and putting limits on dictators.  This is an area that is very difficult with no easy solutions but we need to generate a system that will be viewed sympathetically which means it must be diverse (not just race and gender but wealth, power and lived experience) and it must be approachable and not overly elitist, intellectual and theoretical.  Perhaps we need a separate EA splinter to enable the core EA thinking, which is alienating to many, while also developing an  effective influencing network.  It is clear we need to plan for long term gradual growth by converting people to our cause as has been achieved many times in the past by religions and political movements.  We need EA to become  as powerful in the 21st century as communism was in the 20th century and we need to continually learn and adapt as we go.  I'd suggest this is the path to EA doing the greatest good.





More posts like this

No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities