This post in three sentences
EA has grown dramatically in financial and cultural influence. Despite an awareness and desire for broadening the EA tent, strong cultural inertia from the movement’s unique origins means it will take a concerted effort to enlarge and realize the full potential of the EA movement. A more ecumenical EA movement with an order of magnitude more anchor organizations weaved into a web of loosely aligned nodes with diverse theories of change would greatly enhance EA’s positive impact on the world.
EA as it is, EA as it might be
"You can read ungodly reams of essays defining effective altruism - which makes me wonder if the people who wrote them think that they are creating the greatest possible utility by using their time that way."
That sentence sums up what might be called the EA navel gazing tendency, a strong inward looking bent that’s very common to the early days of many movements. Or consider for example two of the highest voted criticisms of EA as part of the ongoing contest:
- Physicist Michael Nielsen talking about how EA dogmatism leads to mental health challenges.
- Zvi criticizing the contest itself which is fine though sorta leads to a circular meta conversation.
I agree broadly with the points those authors make. But those are super inward looking takes. There’s a whole wide world beyond EA! Theoretically that’s what EA is looking to impact!
Reading the various mass media profiles of some of the early EA philosophical founders provides a lot of helpful context for someone like myself that’s only loosely followed the movement over the years. The puritanical ideal that animated that early momentum and continues to motivate hardcore EA adherents is great! It’s inspiring to see folks so committed to making the world a better place and maximizing their impact.
That reminds me though how many flourishing communities committed to a common goal have a spectrum of adherents. There is space in an ecumenical movement for more monastic living, just as there is also space for less hard core commitment. Imagine an EA movement open to all and committed to the idea that: “No matter who you are, or where you are on your journey to make the world a better place, you are welcome here.”
(That riffs on a similar invocation common to many Episcopal churches. That statement also might seem sorta banal and uncontroversial, which would be good! It’s good to have these types of unifying statements to bring together a broad movement.)
EA SWOT Analysis
As someone who, like many twentysomethings, spent a ton of energy trying to “change the world’ and spent a good chunk of time in public policy, nonprofit, tech and government, the EA movement has genuinely unique strengths that are hugely valuable to improve how we work to positively impact the world. Below is a simple SWOT analysis of EA’s current operational picture.
That focus on questioning what impact was actually achieved, bringing a diverse global perspective to bear and a new youthful cadre of altruists is great! The challenge is that EA can be a bit insular and impenetrable. From an outside perspective, there are odd unspoken assumptions that lead to EA cultural practices and consensus beliefs in what the most optimized ways of creating impact include. Below I summarize a few actions that would help open up EA and realize it’s potential as an ecumenical big tent movement.
Actions to make EA more open and ecumenical
Based on that strategic picture, how might we proactively build a big tent EA movement and work to maximize our collective impact?
1. Meaningfully engage with existing criticism outside the EA movement.
To be honest I’d love to win a big prize from EA. I’m having my first kid this Fall, and I’d love the money for their college fund. It’s sort of crazy though that I haven’t seen any serious pushback on the idea that investing $100,000 in an essay contest is an effective use of philanthropic dollars! In my experience, the biggest motivator for this type of thing is status, not just money. It seems that useful critiques might have been acquired for much less money.
More broadly, in the EA forum, some of the norms around evidence and conversation are super duper academic. I don’t really want to take the time to write a 3000 word essay in response to a question from an undergraduate when the honest answer is, “you’ll probably see things differently after you’ve had a few years of work experience.” I also know enough about these questions to know that there is a whole literature and philosophical tradition which often can just get skirted over in say the intro to EA literature.
EA is grounded in consequentialism and the more dogmatic strains fall pray to that to a fault. In one conversation on the EA Forum, someone was defending ignoring a homeless person struggling right in front of them if that meant helping a larger number of people in a more geographically disparate location. I appreciate the ideal of impartiality and geographic agnosticism. I have also been around the block enough to see how such logic games can easily become an excuse for honestly messed up behavior. The road to hell is paved with good intentions as the saying goes.
Rather than engage in half-baked internet philosophizing, I would be curious to hear the EA philosophical-founders in dialogue with leading critiques of consequentialism. Say an EA podcast with say MacAskil and Paul Hurley, author of Beyond Consequentialism, a former prof of mine.
Another area that I don’t really understand is the AGI subset of EA and the almost religious commitment to that cause area. I would love to see prominent EA’s actually meaningfully engage with those critiques rather than get another internet forum comment about how these critiques have already been addressed elsewhere. That of course begs the question of where those critiques are addressed and no I don’t consider an impenetrable link to a hundred page maths heavy alignment research pdf that requires a half dozen PhDs to parse to address said critique.
Here are two AGI critiques that are worth engaging with for reference:
There is also a nice VGR essay on AGI that I linkposted. That saw little to no engagement on EA. On LW, no one really tries to steelman or deeply engage with the arguments. In fact the top rated comment on LW states that they just skimmed VGRs post. That is not an indicator of a community that deeply and meaningfully engages with criticism.
2. Respect wisdom outside the academy
EA reminds me of a lot of internet communities that pretend there’s not a hierarchy when there very clear is one. This reminds me of the great canonical essay on the “tyranny of structurelessness” which is something that EA movement leaders should read, consider, reflect and engage with, particularly in terms of how the EA Forum is structured given how central that seems to the movement. There is also a wide variety of existing altruistic organizations with hierarchies and established practices that EA could help and also benefit from in turn.
3. Build alliances with existing organizations working to be effectively altruistic
There are a wide variety of existing organizations that provide the means for people to do good in the world. Generally, the implicit question is how to do the most good. No often those legacy are not as analytical and committed to going down the rabbit hole of intellectual inquiry wherever it may lead as most EAs. But that doesn’t mean legacy do-gooders don’t want to be effective too!
There is a huge opportunity for EAs to get outside of their bubble and make friends with other organizations. Here is a great EA Forum post offering a lot of great ideas in that direction. Imagine Rotary clubs discussing the long term future of humanity over one of their lunches before going to support their local schools.
3b invest in infrastructure to measure public outcomes more broadly!
As I mentioned in an early post on state capacity, “NYU GovLab estimated that only one out of every hundred dollars in government spending in the US was backed by rigorous evidence that the program works.” That presents a massive opportunity for EA to fill that measurement gap.
4. Avoid dogmatic answers to complex questions about what creates impact
Not every aspect of reality can easily be summarized in a spreadsheet. Perhaps walking past human immiseration directly in front of you — such as homelessness in San Francisco — in order to invest resources in a speculative future risk like AGI is not the best use of resources?
“You have to have and use hierarchies of entitlement, and it is by no means clear that academic cosmopolitans, who ask us to jettison bounded, tribal, family-centered obligations in favor of unbounded, global, humanity-embracing obligations, have it right, while ordinary people who rank obligation by affinity have it wrong. Humanity is too big to get your arms around all of it at once.”
5. Embrace a wide array of diverse EA nodes
There is a rather large number of essays and inquiries into what constitutes EA. Perhaps just asking the question of how we might make the most positive impact given resources available is really all that’s needed.
People can answer that in a diversity of ways. Those multiple strains of thought are a strength. EA has a lot of history and implicit cultural assumptions from being a small, tight nit community that’s grown to have a ton of resources over the last decade.
EA can embrace a multiplicity of answers and continually asking the question rather than looking for the most highly optimized dollar ROI (which presumes a whole host of assumptions and axioms about what is worth measuring).
EA seems to have a small number of core nodes in the movement:
- Center for EA
- Open Philanthropy
- Future Fund
- Oxford / SV?
There are zillions more orgs working altruistically in the world. Perhaps EA might move towards a broader world where EA concepts like rigorous impact evaluations and discussion on this forum about impact are ingrained more broadly into a wide variety of altruistic organizations.
Thank you to Peter Elam for reading an early draft of this post.