Effective Altruism, Before the Memes Started

by NicholasKross17 min read13th Oct 202122 comments

33

Criticism of effective altruismEffective altruism messaging
Frontpage

This post was written by Devin Kalish, my co-blogger who does not have an account on the EA Forum. I'm posting this on his behalf, and will reply to comments with his replies if/when he responds to them.

Epistemic Status: Uh, I haven't written one of these before, but since I'm cross-posting to EA Forum, I will disclaim in advance that I banged the first draft of this out in like an hour when I should have been studying, and the empirical claims about movements in it I give examples of aren't supported more deeply. I rely on the readers to share similar impressions to me on reflection, so don't treat this as any great confirmation of those impressions.

Special thanks to Glen Weyl for offering some comments on this piece during this very busy time for him.

Summary (added Oct 13, 2021): I wrote a good deal of this stream of conscious so it isn’t really structured as an argument. More a way of me to connect some personal thoughts/experiences together in a hopefully productive way. I can see how that wouldn’t be super accessible. The basic argument embedded in it though is:

  1. Effective Altruism, like many idealistic movements, started out taking critics very very seriously and trying to reach out to/be charitable to them as much as possible, which is a good thing.

  2. Effective Altruism, like most movements that grow older, is not quite like that anymore, it seems to respond with less frequency and generosity to critics than it used to, which is unfortunate but understandable.

  3. Understandable as it is, we should at least take a bit more notice of it if that’s the path we are going down because…

  4. Many movements move on from here to ridiculing criticisms by treating common criticisms as though they were obviously, memeably false, and that everyone in the know gets that (I didn’t use examples, but the one most on my mind was the midwit meme format, which only requires the argument being ridiculed, your stated, undefended position, and some cartoons, to make it look like you’ve made a point). This is bad and we should be careful not to start doing it.

The post proper:

The Effective Altruism movement is not that old, but it is not that new either. There are various ways it has changed, but I wanted to share a little bit of nostalgia. Back in the youth of the movement in 2013, the CEO and a consultant from Charity Navigator published a hit piece on Effective Altruism that is now somewhat notorious in the movement, in no small part, for being pretty bad[1]. It makes a few highly abstracted, melodramatic arguments that could be countered with simple case comparisons, it engages in needless name-calling (defective altruism), and to boot it was written by people with an extremely obvious professional conflict of interest with the movement. And yet, William MacAskill read this, emailed its authors to isolate their core intellectual disagreement, and then published a brief, pretty polite response to it in the same publication. This was not the only time something like this happened, a few months later he had an exchange with Warren Buffet's son, which was also polite and seems to me more charitable than the quality of the arguments really warranted (though it was on the heels of a much less polite exchange).

Fast-forward to 2021. Phil Torres writes a piece for Current Affairs tearing into longtermism, one of MacAskill's biggest interests and a topic he's personally contributed to within Effective Altruist thought. In my opinion, it also isn't great, but it is better than these earlier critiques on any dimension you could care to measure. It makes intellectually interesting points about the philosophy[2], it gets specific, and it quotes major figures and works within the field. Far from coming from an outsider who has barely thought about this and who has a conflict of interest, it comes from someone who used to be involved with the Future of Humanity Institute, and has nothing obvious to gain from loudly trashing it. He has also written better-received critiques of longtermism in the past, suggesting this was not just a first impression of his. And how does MacAskill respond? Well, as far as I can tell barely at all. Just a couple comments on an EA Forum post that tangentially address relevant points in the article without mentioning it directly. In fact, if Torres is to be believed, he may have even offered to send a draft of the piece to the Future of Humanity Institute for comments before it was published, and gotten no reply.

The closest thing to a charitable, prominent reply to it that I've seen is this recent EA Forum post briefly accepting the criticism, and drawing on Scott Alexander's classic post about "noticing the skulls". I agree with most of what Manheim says in this post, but I don't think it grapples with this change very well. It gives the critics some credit, and insists that EAs shouldn't stop listening in, but doesn't mention this almost indescribable, gradual shift in Effective Altruism's relationship with its detractors.

Very early on, when I was first learning about Effective Altruism, something that strongly endeared me to the movement was its willingness to respond to critics, to take their points, and try to evolve with the best versions of those points. This has not been entirely lost, but the movement is less wide-eyed and idealistic on this front than it once was, and this is a loss worth some notice at least. I have written pieces highlighting problems in Rationalism and RadicalXChange, so why not make it a trilogy with Effective Altruism. And as with the rest of these pieces, this one is going to have to touch on Glen Weyl.

A secret which I did not tell anyone about our encounters, not even him, is that the cold email I first sent him wasn't the first draft. I had previously started composing, mostly as a way of venting and with barely serious intentions to ever send it, a much more frustrated, uncharitable email, detailing all of the ways I have felt about his criticisms in my darker moments, all the things I occasionally secretly suspected about his motives. There are still darker moments when I believe a couple of them, but most of these are things I was thoroughly dissuaded of afterwards. At the time though, I was much more torn. The next day I deleted the whole thing, and composed the much more measured version of it that I did send. I do not at all regret this change of heart.

Okay, I have another secret about these interactions. The phrase "I'm living in your head rent free" may be often misused as a lazy dismissal, but the phrase might as well have been invented for my relationship with Glen Weyl. Weyl has probably emailed with lots of fans with various critiques, and I have no reason to believe he viewed our interactions as especially different from the rest of these. But to me, he was the first public figure I had previously admired to email me back with as much care after a cold email, and we emailed way more than I had with any other public figure. Consequently, I wound up with an unusual, probably unwarranted degree of interest in what he in particular thought about the movements I was in or cared about. I don't want to criticize him for responding with the care he did, it means a great deal to me that he did, but it resulted for reasons I wouldn't have foreseen in a sort of emotionally exhausting quasi-parasocial relationship to his criticisms of these movements.

Early on in this period I wrote a piece, with feedback from him, responding to his criticisms of Rationalism, even though I thought many of them weren't great. I also emailed back and forth with him to try to clarify and resolve our disagreements. Fast-forward to the present day. Weyl has conceded some points of our disagreement, and even apologized for the way he has interacted with Rationalists in the past, apologized in ways I would even consider unnecessarily hard on himself. His criticisms have also appeared to clarify a bit in my opinion, and generally improved, and he seems to have regularly interacted with other critics of his criticisms. In fact, as I was working on this piece, he released a new blogpost outlining many of these changes. On any reasonable standard, I consider him an even better critic today than he ever was. And yet... I am more exhausted with some of his statements than ever.

It takes so little, because I invested so much of my mental energy into his particular corner of the discussion. Weyl's own response to the Torres article, for example, is something that on reflection did not warrant the frustration it generated in me. One thing that aggravated me about it was broadly the comparison between Rationalism/longtermism and religious extremism. He did not do much to spell out this view (though he discussed it in more detail with Nathan Young in a way that didn't leave me fully satisfied), but the clearest first question to ask is why he does not merely compare Rationalist/longtermist extremism with religious extremism? The statement seems to suggest either that he doesn't believe more moderate members of these groups exist, or that even the moderate ones are as bad as the extremists of other ideologies. Both possibilities seem to beg for at least some defense.

A more specific point he made in the surrounding discussion which may have upset me even more was in stating that he didn't think figures like Ord or Bostrom really have a commitment to pluralism or the idea that theirs is just one worldview of many. I do not know enough about Bostrom's interactions with other worldviews to comment on him, but to my eyes there are few people who are worse examples of what Weyl is describing than Toby Ord. In his most famous work on longtermism, he spends the whole second chapter detailing seven different arguments and appealing to different worldviews in defense of his position. And this isn't just tactical slyness, he puts this care for other worldviews into practice in his more academic work as well, being one of the major figures in getting contemporary academic philosophy to take the idea of uncertainty between different ethical theories seriously in practical reasoning.

That said, the thread disagreed with the Torres piece in some ways Weyl wouldn't have in the past, such as noting that longtermism isn't actually all that influential, and he mainly said things that I might have expected given his earlier statements. Since I discuss Weyl a good deal in this piece, I showed him an earlier draft of it before publishing and had a phone-call to discuss his feedback. I used a different, I think worse example of my frustrations in that draft, but mentioned I might switch to discussing this thread instead. On the call, he said that he basically agrees with the content of the Torres piece, but felt the tone and overall approach of it was not productive. I have an interestingly parallel, but somewhat different reaction, in that I think pretty much all of the examples it gave were accurate, but its overall interpretations and implications were wrong to the point of being misleading. Despite having some agreements like this, and many of his reactions being predictable, these smaller problems were enough to bring me back to that place where I was when I wrote that first, long-deleted email draft.

And so... despite missing that wide-eyed early EA, I can sympathize with present-day William MacAskill. He wanted to take every major criticism of EA as seriously as possible early on, to help it be a movement that stuck to its ideals of improving, of extending the hand of friendship to apparent enemies, and internalizing every critique as charitably as possible. After a while, caring this much about critics is exhausting. Elsewhere MacAskill has discussed his (unrelated) mental health and anxiety problems. I strongly relate to them, and it seems I am not alone among EAs. By 2021, I can't be alarmed that he would for the most part ignore critics far better than ones he previously would have devoted great energy to[3].

Incidentally, this is now one way that I look at Weyl and RadicalXChange. Starting around the publication of his book, Weyl has responded to his critics with as much generosity as possible, and extended the hand of friendship to them, sought to internalize their points as much as possible. He has recounted this, but I have also seen it in real time, in for instance his signal-boosting of this glib piece from LessWrong criticizing his COVID-19 white paper. While this post seemed to me like a piece of sloppy venting, he is still at the point of being idealistic enough to actively signal-boost it. Truthfully this has led me to be less confident in my own criticism of RadicalXChange. Perhaps it was reasonable, but I now believe Weyl would have somewhat exaggerated to me how reasonable of a critique he thought it was even if he thought it was mostly wrong, as a matter of personal principle. So future readers of it beware[4]. I wish Weyl luck, quite sincerely, in keeping this up. And yet, I am not optimistic. I cannot think of any modern ideological movement that managed to keep itself in this humble phase for very long.

Effective Altruism, like RadicalXChange, and like Rationalism, is small enough that much of the narrative about it is shaped by the views of a handful of publications on the outside of it who glance in, as Tanner Greer noted about the NYT SSC affair, almost like gods descending from the heavens to declare what your movement now is to people who will never interact with a representative sample of its members. What tops Google, what is the most famous piece of media written about you, how will people react when you introduce your interests to them. This is inevitable, and probably an important part of the process of movement growth, but it makes it hard to shrug off hit pieces, or things we see as hit pieces. Hard to think "well, some more sympathetic journalist will come along and scrutinize this properly". No one is coming to save you, it is just random small bloggers like me, and a handful of overworked, emotionally exhausted movement figure-heads like MacAskill.

So, I would like to say that Effective Altruists should work hard to return to this early, idealistic phase, the one RadicalXChange (or at least Glen Weyl) currently appears to be in. But I don't have much hope for that. Let me offer a suggestion that I hope is more workable though, and that I see as absolutely essential: don't meme the opposition. One exhausting thing about interacting with critics over a long period of time is that, however many times you have tried to incorporate their points, to extend your hand in friendship, you are going to see the same arguments many many times. Sometimes, people just aren't convinced by your replies, and sometimes, new people come along you haven't talked to yet. And neither of those things are always enough to make changing the movement the best response.

I don't want to search out all of the examples, but I don't think it will take much persuading for my readers to believe that lots of ideologies get frustrated with seeing the same arguments they feel have been perfectly adequately answered, and get some satisfaction out of creating memes (both in the media genre and Dawkins senses) that functionally do nothing but the argumentative equivalent of repeating the words of the critique back in a funny voice. I don't see a ton of this in Effective Altruist circles right now. My heart is warmed that EA seems to still have enough of an immune system against this stuff that Robert Wiblin, for instance, will occasionally get his knuckles slapped for being a bit snarky on twitter. But I do see this as the next phase in the evolution of movements, the phase movements older than Effective Altruism have very often slipped into.

First you interact with critics as charitably as possible, making all reasonable concessions possible, and taking even the unreasonable points seriously. Then you get tired of doing this every time, and sit back watching what others say about you from the sidelines, only occasionally piping in. Then, when you have seen the same frustrating arguments enough, you make memes. It becomes an understood shibboleth of the movement that you have a grasp on the memes of these arguments. Perhaps long enough into this, you will have forgotten what the actual right replies to them are, and you take it for granted that this point is stupid and bad. This on its own is bad, maybe the criticism didn't used to be right, but perhaps a long enough time has passed since the meme became established knowledge that the criticism has become more apt, and no one will bother to notice it, because it is not the sort of criticism your people take to heart.[5]

Even if this isn't the case, the people on the inside who secretly take this criticism seriously become more and more cynical about the movement. Eventually you lose the best internal critics, and through "evaporative cooling", the movement is rewarded for becoming less self-critical by getting to become still yet less self-critical. Maybe this stage in the development of a movement is inevitable, and the right thing to do is to notice when the movement has gone too far down this path and to jump ship to a newer one. But maybe not. I miss the old days of Effective Altruism when it felt like all critics were treated as so important and worthy of serious engagement, but I can't blame the movement too much for slacking off a bit here. I get that. I pray though, that I will never come to miss the current stage of Effective Altruism, the one before the memes started.


  1. In the process of working on this piece, I had a run-in with a current employee of Charity Navigator who insists it is now a very different company that would not put out a piece like this today. This is not especially pertinent to the content of my post, but it is something I think is worth emphasizing so people don't mistake this as a recommendation against using them. ↩︎

  2. Though it seems to operate on both a misunderstanding of its application, and some philosophical counterarguments that suggest to me a misunderstanding of the non-identity problem. ↩︎

  3. On our call, Weyl suggested another possible explanation (which he doesn't necessarily endorse, he just doesn't know what the right reason is). He suggested that early Effective Altruism might have needed to make a positive impression to get more connections and resources, and once it had pulled that off, it saw engaging so much with critics as less necessary. Nick is also quite sympathetic to this account. It is worth keeping this and other possibilities in mind, but the explanation I describe here fits with various other events I've experienced that suggest to me this sort of movement fatigue. ↩︎

  4. On our call Weyl emphasized to me that he didn't think "good" versus "bad" was a great way to think about criticisms, noting both that the effort in communication was another valuable dimension, and that apparently poorly spelled-out arguments are reactions to something, and the mature thing to do is to work to figure out what that something might be and how troubling it is. I agree with this, and along with social dynamic dimensions, feel it is a good reason to be charitable to criticisms even if they seem "bad". Otherwise I would not find the practice admirable at all. I do, however, think that this winds up casting a very wide net, and returns us to the fatigue problem I wish to emphasize in this piece. ↩︎

  5. Ed. Note: To tangent off this problem a bit: the internet allows us to link the best arguments, not just copy-paste but link them. I almost long for ye olden days of giant indexed argument databases. At the emotional risk of disappointing people yet again with a project that never comes, I do have a secret project idea for a way to fix this problem...] ↩︎

33

22 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:32 AM
New Comment

There was this response by Hadyn Belfield to the longtermism article a few months ago. 

I also don't think that William MacAskill has to be the person that responds to each criticism if there are others better placed to respond.

I was about to write a comment along the lines of your second point. I agree it's unreasonable to expect Will to personally comment on or reply to public criticisms of EA/longtermism - lots of people in the community are well-placed to do that.

Devin's response (also to DavidNash): “Sorry, there might be a misunderstanding here. The William MacAskill example is supposed to be more a framing device and specific case I’ve been thinking about, not any sort of proof that there’s a problem. As I mention in my epistemic status section, the overall claims I make about EA aren’t defended here, I rely on readers to just share this same impression of current fatigue with critics relative to early EA on reflection. If you don’t, that’s fine, but this piece isn’t going to try to convince you otherwise. On MacAskill more specifically, I agree that he isn’t at all obligated to respond, but my point in bringing him up is that, given his earlier behavior, if there hadn’t been a change in him between then and now, I would have expected he would respond. There are plenty of explanations other than a simple fatigue story, I’m intrigued by barkbellowroar’s comment bellow for instance, but my theory here is that it may be in part related to this broader trend in the movement.”

See my response about the specific reason I think Will and others have not responded - and why I think they are right not to do so directly.

(And I'm still very much on speaking terms with Phil, and understand why he feels aggrieved, even though I don't agree with him either about his current approach, or the substantive criticisms, as I noted in the piece you linked.)

I tried reading this but found it difficult. I think a bullet-point summary or tl;dr would help, as would section headings. 

Devin's reply/summary:

“Thanks for the comments. Sorry, I wrote a good deal of this stream of conscious so it isn’t really structured as an argument. More a way of me to connect some personal thoughts/experiences together in a hopefully productive way. I can see how that wouldn’t be super accessible. The basic argument embedded in it though is:

  1. Effective Altruism, like many idealistic movements, started out taking critics very very seriously and trying to reach out to/be charitable to them as much as possible, which is a good thing

  2. Effective Altruism, like most movements that grow older, is not quite like that anymore, it seems to respond with less frequency and generosity to critics than it used to, which is unfortunate but understandable

  3. Understandable as it is, we should at least take a bit more notice of it if that’s the path we are going down because…

  4. Many movements move on from here to ridiculing criticisms by treating common criticisms as though they were obviously, memeably false, and that everyone in the know gets that (I didn’t use examples, but the one most on my mind was the midwit meme format, which only requires the argument being ridiculed, your stated, undefended position, and some cartoons, to make it look like you’ve made a point). This is bad and we should be careful not to start doing it.”

Re: 4, I think this has a reasonably high chance of being correct. I feel somewhat guilty here, as I have indeed made memes critical of some of the criticisms of EA/longtermism, and perhaps this is bad for my soul or the soul of the movement or something. (Though in my partial defense I am publicly critical of the midwit memes specifically)

Thank you, I believe that it would be helpful to have this intro on the top of the post.

I agree with Linch, it was difficult to follow your train of thought… but I still found it worth reading to the end. 

It feels like you (the OP) had three distinct streams of thought intertwined; (a) the parts about Glen Weyl, (b) the general point that movements tend to stop engaging with critics, and then (c) using EA as your example for (b). This piece may have flowed better if you just cut out the parts about Glen Weyl -I for one had no idea who this was because I don’t engage on those other forums you mentioned. It doesn’t add much to your main point or reflections on the EA movement, and feels like a bit of a distraction from them. (this is just meant as friendly feedback, take it or leave it). 

Aside: I'm confused by the "who does not have an account on the EA Forum. I'm posting this on his behalf, and will reply to comments with his replies if/when he responds to them." Anyone can make an account here, it's only a few steps, and it's very fast.

Devin's reponse:

“Yeah, I was wondering when that might come up. I have a general resistance to making extraneous accounts, especially if they are anything like social media accounts. I find it stressful and think I would over-obsessively check/use them in a way that would wind up being harmful. Even just having this post up and the ability to respond through Nick has occupied my attention and anxiety a good deal the last few days, or I might do more cross-posts/enable comments on our blog. That said, I did consider it. EA forum seems like it would not be so bad if I was going to have an account somewhere, and there’s still a decent chance that I will make one at some point. When I asked Nick about the issue, he said he already had an account and was very willing to post it for me (by the way, thanks again Nick!). I still considered making one because I thought it might seem weird if it was posted by him instead, but for better or worse I wound up taking him up on it.”

One thing that jumped out at me as I read your post is the several references you make to the EA movement’s engagement with past critics - and by “EA movement” I mean William MacAskill - which to me reads as an underlying issue, and possibly the explanation for the point you appear to be making, in that the movement no longer responds to critics. 

One of my favorite modern aphorisms (which, regrettably, I can’t recall who I heard it from) is, “I hate Lord of the Rings…. but it’s still a billion dollar franchise.” The point being that every idea (be it a world-changing philosophy or what started as a simple fiction book) has critics and as things scale you begin to realize you can keep defending your work… or you can reach a threshold of “advocates” so you can just concentrate on your work… because your advocates will defend the work for you. 

Which to me is the larger part of the issue here: MacAskill was definitely a major voice in the beginning of the movement, as expected, given his help founding it and his book Doing Good Better - but all movements (much like startups) must face that first “crisis” of being able to support itself without needing the founder’s daily involvement in putting out small fires, or in this case, engaging with every new (or old) criticism that comes in. Unfortunately,  EA appears to be having a hard time moving past its need for founders to be highly involved at the ground level. A movement that continues holding on to its founders writes its own stagnation, because the founders cannot continue their own work in further developing the very ideas and vision that the movement was built on. 

I can’t speak for the founders because I wasn’t there at the time they were creating the movement, but I can’t imagine they intended to remain involved in the daily activities of the movement long-term.  I surmise there was an expectation that at some point, a threshold of people would “join” the movement, and they would be able to step back (into their existing, professional roles) and not have to invest so much time and energy into the development and maintenance of the movement, because enough structure would be in place so that it would be able to carry itself forward. 

I believe in many ways this has happened - the Centre (CEA), despite some instability early on, has done a remarkable job of taking over this crucial “hand-off” of the more practical, infrastructure side of the movement. Where EA seems to be struggling is in the “hand-off” of the more academic, intellectual part of the movement - the philosophical claims of EA are much more nuanced and the ability to argue and debate them require a deeper understanding of various ethical theories, traditional approaches in philanthropy as well as knowledge of economics, statistics and a slew of other subjects. 

I don’t think Will is the only person who can defend the ideas of EA, but Will might be the only person in EA who is confident enough in his understanding of the ideas (having helped create them) that feels he can publicly respond and debate the ideas with external critics. This unfortunately leads to an “ouroboros effect” in which Will feels he can respond so he does, which leads to other EAs not feeling they have the same level of understanding as him to publicly defend EA, so they continue ignoring critics waiting for Will to say something, so Will does and so on… this has surely been exhausting and stressful for Will and unfortunately it has reinforced a bad habit in the movement of “somebody else’s problem” (or in this case “Will’s problem.”)

I believe there are solutions to rectify this but even I don’t feel qualified to make suggestions, for many reasons, but primarily being that I am not a founder so I don’t feel like I have the “authority” to tell “leadership” how to manage the movement they created. This ties into a more complex web of issues that I see unfolding as the movement continues to grow, so to clarify I don’t think the solution here is as simple as founders “passing the baton” to the next round of leadership. The EA movement can definitely take advice from community-building best practices, but EA is a more unique kind of movement, which means not all of the traditional solutions can just be applied “cut and paste” and expected to work well. 

OP: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts because I believe it’s a good practice to document and demarcate changes (real or perceived) in the movement for future historical reference. 

MacAskill was definitely a major voice in the beginning of the movement, as expected, given his help founding it and his book Doing Good Better - but all movements (much like startups) must face that first “crisis” of being able to support itself without needing the founder’s daily involvement in putting out small fires, or in this case, engaging with every new (or old) criticism that comes in.

Originally it was Toby handling all the media attention etc. - transferring this onto Will, because Toby didn't want to do it any more, was a deliberate strategy. This transition was so successful it seems a lot of people are not aware of the prior situation!

Will might be the only person in EA who is confident enough in his understanding of the ideas (having helped create them) that feels he can publicly respond and debate the ideas with external critics.

I don't think this is the case; there are lots of people who could write a response to Torres, people are just too busy / think it's not very valuable to engage at length with bad-faith attacks.

Devin's response: “I would be careful about calling this a bad faith attack. It may seem low quality or biased, but low quality is very different from bad faith and bias is probably something most of our defenders are guilty of to a decent degree as well. I’m not an expert on this case, but my own understanding is basically that Torres wrote a more academic, EA-targeted version of this before, got no responses or engagement he found adequate, despite reaching out to try to get it, and decided to take his case to a broader audience. I think there’s a ton wrong with his analysis including stuff a more balanced view of his subjects should have easily caught, but I see every indication he was trying to criticize in good faith. Then again, I am not super familiar with this case, and maybe I’m totally wrong. But one of the broader points of my piece is something like this: we can’t engage with all critics without being overwhelmed, indeed we can’t even engage with all the critics who really deserve some engagement without being overwhelmed. It is much much better to just admit this than to act like we are engaging with everyone who deserves it by getting trigger happy with accusations of bad faith and unreasonableness. Even when each of these is true, they are far too tempting an excuse once they enter your arsenal.”

I’m not an expert on this case, but my own understanding is basically that Torres wrote a more academic, EA-targeted version of this before, got no responses or engagement he found adequate

He got a very lengthy response here - far more detailed than most people would get.

I see every indication he was trying to criticize in good faith.

In contemporary western society, 'white supremacist' is one of the most harmful accusations you can make about someone, and should not be done without serious evidence, yet Phil flings the slur around with abandon.  Indeed, in the Current Affairs piece he goes so far as to conveniently 'forget' to mention that one of his targets founded an organization dedicated to helping the global poor and committed to give away everything he earned above £18,000.

It is important to be open-minded with criticism, but at some point we need to accept that some people are bad actors. The community has already spent an inordinately large amount of time dealing with Phil already, both online and in person, culminating in his current status of being banned from multiple EA spaces for dishonesty. I recommend you read the thread here for an overview.

Devin's response:

“The white supremacy part doesn’t have this effect for me. Yes there is a use of this word to refer to overt, horrible bigotry, but there is also a use of this word meaning something closer to ‘structures that empower, or maintain the power, of white people disproportionately in prominent decision-making positions’. It is reasonable to say that this latter definition may be a bad way of wording things, you could even argue a terrible way, but since this use has both academic, and more recently some mainstream, usage, it hardly seems fair to assume bad faith because of it. Some of the other stuff in this thread is more troubling, it seems there is a deep rabbit hole here, and it’s possible that Torres is generally a bad actor. Again, I don’t want to be too confident in this particular case. Although it seems we have very different ways of viewing these criticisms even when we are looking at the same thing, I will allow that you seem to have more familiarity with them.”

The LOTR analogy was intriguing to me, thank you!

This seems like an important criticism and warning - but I think that the response to the Torres piece has been dismissive for reasons largely unrelated to the discussion here. I've spoken to Phil recently, and he feels like he's been reasonable in personally attacking several people in EA, both because of how they treated him(1), and their supposedly dangerous / "genocidal" ideologies - and he isn't likely to change his mind. That seems to be why most of the people whose positions are being attacked aren't responding themselves - not only were they personally attacked, but it seems clear that substantive engagement with the specific criticisms is no longer a way to effectively respond or discuss this with Phil.

Otherwise, I think EA still does have a record of being very willing to engage in discussion, and I agree that we need to be zealous in protecting our willingness to do so - so thanks for this post!

1) I won't comment on what happened, other than to say that most of what is being complained about seems like typical drama where it's easy to blame anyone you'd like depending on the narrative you construct. 

Devin's reply:

“Thanks for the response, reading your posts was one of the biggest inspirations for me writing this, its overall demeanor reminded me of what I see as this older strain of EA public interface in a way I hadn’t thought of in a while. On the point of MacAskill responding, I think the information you’ve given is helpful, but I do think there would have been some value in public commentary even if Torres personally wasn’t going to change his mind because of it, for instance it would have addressed concerns the piece gave outsiders who read it, and it would have both legitimized and responded to the concerns of insiders who might have resonated with some of what Torres said. As it happens, I think the community did respond to it somewhat significantly, but in a pretty partial, snubbish way. Robert Wiblin for instance appeared to subtweet the piece like twice:

https://mobile.twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1422213998527799307

https://mobile.twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1438883980351361030

Culminating in his recent 80k interview which he strongly advertised as a response to these concerns (again, without naming the article):

https://mobile.twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1445817240008355843

A similar story can be said of MacAskill himself, shortly after the piece came out he made some comments on EA Forum apparently correcting misconceptions about longtermism the piece brought up without engaging with the piece directly:

https://eaforum.issarice.com/posts/fStCX6RXmgxkTBe73/towards-a-weaker-longtermism#TmaKvfoLo5jtNAoWw

https://eaforum.issarice.com/posts/fStCX6RXmgxkTBe73/towards-a-weaker-longtermism#aYW8s8mY2brTvGNJX

Maybe Torres doesn’t deserve direct engagement even if some of his concerns do (or maybe he does), but it seems hard to deny that its publication had some non-trivial impact on the internal conversations of the movement, including in some ways there was already an appetite for. Though again I can’t expect more direct engagement (especially from those personally attacked), it does seem to me more thorough, direct engagement from prominent figures would have been better in many ways than most of the actual reaction.”

I mostly agree, but the revision of the Longtermism white paper from the original "work in progress" version seems like exactly the type of response to some of the early claims you're requesting - see the discussion on fanaticism. And given how recent all of this is, further responses could still be forthcoming, as these types of conversations take time.

I enjoyed reading this; the format and content agreed with me--pun unintended.