Tl;dr: 

In Forum posts and in conversations, you’ll hear (and find yourself saying) that “EA should” do something. But “EA” is not an agent, and it’s hard for “EA” to do anything. I think we should[1] try to notice these moments and explicitly think through who the subject of that sentence could be. 

Disclaimers: 

  1. Written quickly. I might have missed important considerations — feel free to point them out, and I may correct the post or add them in!
  2. I am not claiming that all “EA should” posts and statements in the past have been unhelpful. I just think that many of them would be (even) more helpful if they were reworded.
  3. I’m not including specific instances of the issue because I don’t want to single anyone out. My guess is that most of us have said something like this, as I certainly have!

Why “EA should” is an unhelpful phrasing

  1. “EA should” is often vague.
    1. Statements like this can be interpreted in too many ways, which makes them less helpful than they could be.
    2. For instance, “EA should do more to help with COVID” could mean anything from “the EA movement has underestimated the severity of COVID” to “it is your duty as an EA to help with COVID” (and beyond).
    3. Vagueness also makes you much harder to argue with, and I believe that being easy to argue with is a virtue.
  2. Responsibility gets diffused
    1. Nobody naturally thinks “oh, you’re telling me that I should do this,” and so fewer people take ownership of the issue.
    2. Suppose that you’ve discovered a very significant gap in EA work. If you write a post like “EA should do more to help with COVID,” you might mean, “EA funders should fund vaccine distribution” or maybe “someone with operations skills should improve vaccine distribution systems.” With these rewordings, grantmakers or people with ops skills might sit up and notice that this post or message is for them.
    3. (It’s almost a passive formulation.)
    4. Also:
  3. You are part of EA.
    1. This might not apply in all situations, but—  if you think that, say, 80,000 Hours should have a problem profile for a problem that they’ve neglected to list, you might just want to write a version of the problem profile and publish it. Or, if you think someone should start a PA Agency, you could try to directly make that happen.
    2. (Related EA Forum tag.)
  4. Specifying the statement could help you check that it’s true or identify a more specific bottleneck.
    1. Suppose you find yourself saying, “EA should rely more on personal assistants.” Then you think to yourself, “ok, I guess I’m saying EA grantmakers should be willing to fund you for PAs.” So you go check, and see that apparently, grantmakers are funding PAs. So maybe you think to yourself, “But there are still lots of EAs without personal assistants who should probably still have some. Maybe 80K should recommend that people go into that as a career path!” And you check, and see that that, too has happened. I don’t know what the real bottleneck here is, or if it’s even a problem, but it’s possible that at this point you conclude that either there are serious coordination issues (in which case maybe you’ll write a post about how valuable it would be if someone could coordinate a personal assistant service for EAs) or that there’s just not that much demand for one reason or another.

Types of “EA should” moments and how we can turn them into something more useful (examples)

Below are some example “EA should” statements and their translations (rephrasing the statements without using “EA should”), sorted by the types of meanings they would have.

  1. Someone in the EA community should do a specific thing
    1. “EA should have a PA agency!”
      1. Might become “Someone (maybe you!) should start an EA PA agency!”
    2. “EA should fund XYZ”
      1. Might turn into “the Long-Term Future Fund should fund XYZ” (or “small donors should donate to XYZ, because of reasons”).
  2. More people in the EA community should do a specific thing (or, “you, generic reader, should do a specific thing”)
    1. “EA should take comparative advantage seriously and outsource more labor”
      1. Might become “more EAs should outsource more of their labor” or maybe “take comparative advantage seriously; hire a PA,” etc.
    2. “EA should taboo ‘EA should’”
      1. Could become “You, reader, should rephrase ‘EA should’ statements (and so should I).”
  3. EA would be better if it had a certain property
    1. “EA should be more geographically diverse”
      1. Becomes “here’s why geographic diversity would help EA”
  4. An issue is underemphasized by many people in the community, or by large EA institutions (or, alternatively, an opportunity is being ignored)
    1. “EA should pay more attention to XYZ”
      1. Becomes “the scope of the XYZ problem is worse than you might think” or “the problem profile of XYZ understates its importance/ neglectedness/ tractability,” etc.
    2. “EA should have more events”
      1. Might become “events are impactful and there is demand for a lot more…”
  5. There are likely other types of “EA should” statements that I’m missing. Hopefully the comments will help flesh this out. :)

If you think “EA should” do something, it’s possible you should just start the thing

See this post. 

Consider reaching out to people directly if you find yourself wanting to say “EA should” do something

The Forum is great (or at least, I think so). But if you think that e.g. Open Philanthropy should fund some project that they aren’t funding, you could consider just emailing Open Philanthropy or the people running the project, and try to put that in motion.

“EA should do XYZ” is not the only troublesome phrasing that I often see or hear. 

Another frequent offender is “EAs should XYZ” or “people in EA should do XYZ.” I generally view this as less of an issue than the subject of this post — it’s often plausible that many EAs should consider doing something (e.g. of this use 1, 2, 3). I still think that qualifying such statements can be helpful, but generally this phrasing seems better than the “EA should” phrasing, since there’s often an implied “at least some” or a “more”; “more EAs should post summaries…” [Edit:] David points out that there's a post on a very related topic: The Folly of EAs Should. It makes a stronger case against "EAs should" statements.

Other people have written about things like overuse or misuse of jargon

Conclusion and thanks!

I’m going to try to be more specific than “EA should do XYZ” when I think about potential improvements, and I think you should try to be specific, too. 

The name for this post came from a conversation with Ollie Base, Kuhan Jeyapragasan, JP Addison, and Will Payne.

Please don’t use this post to shut down criticisms of approaches in EA. If someone has noticed a gap in the EA movement and has used the “EA should” phrasing, feel free to use this post to suggest a rephrasing, but please don’t use it to tell them “you and your post suck” or the like. Thanks! 

  1. ^

    :)

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Strongly agree on this. It's been a pet peeve of mine to hear exactly these kinds of phrases. You're right that it's nearly a passive formulation, and frames things in a very low-agentiness way.

At the same time, I think we should recognize the phrasing as a symptom of some underlying feeling of powerlessness. Tabooing the phrase might help, but won't eradicate the condition. E.g.:
- If someone says "EA should consider funding North Korean refugees"
- You or I might respond "You should write up that analysis! You should make that case!"
- But the corresponding question is: Why didn't they feel like they could do that in the first place? Is it just because people are lazy? Or were they uncertain that their writeup would be taken seriously? Maybe they feel that EA decision making only happens through "official channels" and random EA Forum writers not employed by large EA organizations don't actually have a say?

 

Thank you for this! A big issue I face as a community-builder is disabusing people of the notion that EA is a homogeneous, unified entity - to which phrases like, 'EA should' or 'EA thinks' contribute.

Relatedly, I think unnecessary confusion results from the multiple definitions of 'effective altruism' as an a) intellectual project, b) social movement, c) community. For example, I think the idea that EA is not utilitarianism rings more true for EA as a community than EA as an intellectual project. Increasingly, I have found myself wishing that there were some distinct term for the community... C.f. 'climate change' vs 'climate change advocates'

I think another problem with “EAs should” is that it’s a phrase that ignores trade-offs. I’d like to see things rephrased to something like this: ‘ “EA should be more geographically diverse” becomes “here’s why geographic diversity would help EA”’ + “so it’s worth it to have less funding for [other project] in order to increase funding for this project.”

When I need to think of an example of a trade-off I’m willing to make, it tends to sharpen my thinking. I realize EA feels flush with cash right now, but alas, money, people,time, and attention are not infinite! Thinking about actual trade-offs keeps that fact clear.

(For me, writing this comment traded-off against time spent reading another post. I endorse that choice).

Thanks for the post! It actually made me remember of "Should" considered harmful, which argues that the word "should" is often harmful because "it disconnects the reason from the task".

There was some related discussion on this a while ago - 'The Folly of EAs Should'

This is incredibly useful, thanks for pointing it out! Adding it to the "Semi-related thoughts" section. :)

This also seems relevant: Shoulding at the Universe: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RpXyy2RLnEU

Related to the post and very related to this comment is this post: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/M8cEyKmpcbYzC2Lv5/exercise-taboo-should

The post claims that saying things like should, good or bad, (or other words that carry moral judgement) can often lead to bad reasoning because you fail to anticipate the actual consequences. (I recommend reading this post, or at least the last two sections, the sentence here isn't really a good summary.)

Actually, some replacements suggested in this post may not help in some cases:

Someone in the EA community should do a specific thing
[...]

More people in the EA community should do a specific thing
[...]

EA would be better if it had a certain property
[...]

An issue is underemphasized by many people in the community, or by large EA institutions
[...]

The problem isn't that those words are always bad, but that you need to say more specifically why they are bad, or you might miss something. Therefore those sentences should be followed with a "because" or "otherwise" or preceded with a reason, like in this very sentence.

Of course, in some truly obvious cases it is ok to just use "good" or "bad" or synonyms without a more explicit reason, but those words should be warning signs, so you can see if you didn't reason well. 

(Have you noticed how often I used good, bad or should in this comment, and what the fundamental reasons were that I didn't bother justifying and just accepted as good or bad?) (Also, replacing "good" with something like "useful" or other synonyms doesn't help, they should still be warning signs.)