Being Inclusive

by deluks9172 min read17th Jan 20215 comments

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Most people involved in effective altruism want to be inclusive. However, some people think the community can feel exclusive to people who are 'average'. It seems like a decent number of people feel discouraged when they try to move from medium to high engagement with Effective Altruism. Why do people feel this way? To be clear I mean ‘inclusive’ in a broad sense: Can people who want to become involved in the community do so in meaningful ways? Will they feel included?

A very large percentage of EA funding comes from one couple. Estimates suggest that Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna plausibly account for over half that over half of total EA funds. Wealth is quite concentrated in most countries. So it seems more tractable to try to influence large donors even though the average American household donated a few thousand dollars last year. I endorse the common advice to focus on absolute impact. But even a small probability of influencing a large donor is worth more expected dollars than most people can realistically donate. One promising initiative is Founder's Pledge but there is still a limit to how many people can justify founding a startup.

The EA community is clearly trying to expand its influence in academia. This is probably a sensible strategy. This analysis suggests it worked well for the 'neoliberal' movement. However, it is not the easiest project to contribute to. Getting any sort of academic position is very difficult. And academic prestige is quite hierarchical; top schools are much more influential (though there are some interesting outliers like George Mason).  

The EA community also tends to promote a very conservative approach. For example, EAs have been warned not to rush to translate material. It does seem reasonable to be worried about lock-in and EA concepts can be hard to translate. Lock-in risks have also been raised with respect to founding EA groups. Though it seems like forming student groups is still heavily encouraged. If you engage a lot with effective altruist literature you will absorb a message that it is important to get many things right the first time. 

It is worth explicitly asking why the community even wants to be inclusive. Jane Street Capital is not very inclusive. The vast majority of people who want to work there cannot. Some people I have spoken to feel that EA is trying to solve hard problems and those problems are basically unrelated to inclusion. If you accept fewer warm fuzzies you can get more done. In their view, it is basically a category error to even consider inclusion except insofar as inclusion helps solve the hard problems. How can we reply to them on their own terms? 

I think there are a few instrumental reasons to focus on feeling inclusive. It is genuinely difficult to know who is going to be in a position to help or put in an important good word. We don’t know which perspectives will turn out to be influential. Being exclusive destroys serendipity. Weak ties are less likely to help if the community is perceived as discouraging. It is very bad for the movement if the wrong people drop out because they or their friends feel unable to contribute. We don’t want to reduce our exposure to tail windfalls.

I think there are structural problems and no easy answers. But if the community is going to emphasize strategies that are hard to contribute to then we should consider ways to mitigate the downside. Are there straightforward and low-risk ways to get involved that we should promote more. Should we re-consider some decisions like de-emphasizing earning to give and reducing the size of EA global? Donating money is relatively accessible compared to many alternatives. I am sure there were sensible reasons to reduce the size of EAG but many people I know were hurt when they could not attend. I am not suggesting to prioritize inclusion over everything else, but I do think we should weight it more heavily when making tradeoffs and considering funding decisions.

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With respect to effective charitable giving being more accessible, I think it could make sense to deemphasise the link between effective giving and effective altruism, and for some people to work on promoting effective giving more rapidly + widely than effective altruism itself

This is in part why we're giving more attention and resources to Giving What We Can. Donating is something that is very accessible to many people and can be very impactful. Creating a culture where people give more and give more effectively is a way of fostering the values of compassion and critical thinking.

We're working on developing more information on how people can use their time to be an advocate or a volunteer. There's been some great work done on this in the effective animal advocacy movement also.

I look forward to seeing more work in the space of making more of EA more accessible to more people, helping us create more positive change in the world.

Thanks for writing this up! I think this is really important topic and I'm glad it's being discussed. I'm hoping to discuss some of the possible solutions brought up:

Should we re-consider some decisions like de-emphasizing earning to give 

I have only been involved in the EA community for a couple of years so I may not have the full picture about what de-emphasizing means.  My impression of the current advice on earning to give is that it's represented as one great option among many, and a sort of baseline impact you can have working even a fall-back job.  In this way, I've thought the discussion is becoming increasingly more inclusive about what sort of role is an "EA" role.   Are others perhaps not getting the same message I am? (e.g. I could see that if it felt like the advice went from "everyone should be earning to give" to "no one should be earning to give" that could alienate people.)

Should we re-consider...  reducing the size of EA global?

 At least for my experience as a grad student applying to conferences, I don't think there's a perception that the small conferences are exclusive, perhaps because it's common knowledge (or maybe common lore?) that not everyone within one research group will be accepted. So, research groups self-select only one or two people to apply per year, with the understanding that if you aren't going this year, it will be your turn in a future year. This ends up working out fine because there are lots of small conferences to choose from, and people within one group can just rotate through which one they go to any given year. Things probably can't work exactly like this because EA is a lot less compartmentalized than, e.g., physics research, but perhaps there is some mechanism design like this that could be done to help people self-select out rather than being rejected?

I don't get this critique. Obviously if you are capable of a high-priority path you should take it, and it needs to be clear to people what those are. If you're not, you do the next best thing. The point is to do the best YOU can do. Not some theoretical person that has your name but a completely different set of abilities. When I was a kid I wanted to be President. Now I am resigned to the fact that that will never happen, but I don't feel excluded when a Presidential election is in the news day after day. 

I also think it's important to be honest with people about their probabilities of success. I could spend all my time running Vermin Supreme-style campaigns for President, because being President is the "best" thing, or I could make use of the more limited political talents I actually have and maybe over my career be pivotal in one or two changes to the law in my area of expertise by a) having an area of expertise, and b) being humble and developing good relationships with my Senators/Congressperson. But I have to understand the ways I fall short of the typical viable Presidential candidate in order to understand why the second option is better for me. 

One thought that re-occurs to me is that there could be two, related EA movements, which draw from each other.    No official barrier to participating in both (like being on LessWrong and EA Forum at the same time).  Possible to be a leader in both at the same time (if you have time/energy for it).  One of them emphasizes the "effective" in "effective altruists", the other the "altruists".  The first more like current EA, the second more focused on increasing the (lasting) altruism of the greatest number of people.  Human resource focused.   

Just about anyone could contribute to the second one, I would think.  It could be a pool of people from which to recruit for the first one, and both movements would share ideas and culture (to an appropriate degree).