[Link] "Radical Consequence and Heretical Knots" – an ethnography of the London EA community

by Milan_Griffes1 min read9th May 201913 comments



Previously: I want an ethnography of EA

Dan Artus wrote an ethnography of the London EA community. Here's the abstract:

This dissertation ethnographically explores the relationship between data, ethics, rationality and empathy in the London branch of the Effective Altruist community.
The Effective Altruists are a global movement inspired by the utilitarian views of Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Through promoting the use of data and evidence over empathy in maximising the good people do, they are often a source of controversy.
In their radical quest to maximise the good they do, complex sets of relationships and meanings emerge in a tangle I call the ‘Heretical Knot’. I set out a frame for how we can think about and untangle this knot in the ethical lives of the Effective Altruists.
I do this by taking ethics as the open question of ‘what shall I do?’, rather than predeterminate of specific meanings or practises. Rather, by focusing on processes of decision-making and the ethical agency of objects, I explore the complex relationship between data and ethics as they emerge in the lives of the Effective Altruists. In this way, I trace how data and objects mediate specific types of moral and ethical relationships between actors.

(h/t David Nash for surfacing this.)

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Maybe someone could read and summarize the core points of this? I read the first chapter and didn't get a lot out of it, and wasn't able to parse passages such as

Technologies of the self anchor these reflective practises; data in this sense forms a bridge between the actual and the virtual, as the creation of the self spills over into the negotiated co-creation of worlds. Empathy and emotion are not in conflict, but complex mediation and configuration.
The meaning of those practises, the positions they occupy and the selves they created were problematic rather than the practises in and of themselves. It is in this sense that ‘ethics’ as a dimension of social life is is here distinguished from pre-theorised systematics; it shapes the connotations for how selves are formed, others are engaged and worlds are envisioned. Yet the perceived Heresy is a deeply personal thing, made through enrolment into this ‘moral assemblage’. As the ethical subject develops, its possibilities for further self-reflection and development are also changed. Whilst the others ‘clicked’ into this assemblage, for Sarah the strands of relational fabric become tangled... The ‘Heresy’ of the EAs for many isn’t in any single thing they do; no one practise is the cause of offense, but it the complex relational possibilities of specific lived encounters in which the self is so profoundly involved. At the moment of ‘ethical breakdown’, reflection fails and revelation is rejected.

And my favourite quotation from the entire dissertation:

"The EAs had invited Dr Michael Plant, a researched on in the psychology of happiness at Oxford University. Over six feet tall with swept back blonde hair and an almost palpable aura of charisma, he looked like equal parts (and slightly more slender) Thor and a Californian surfer. Accompanied by his equally glamorous looking partner who toted a high-powered camera, they looked every inch an Effective Altruist power couple."

Who said EAs needed more charisma? ;)

"In the space of cause neutrality, the charge made is that the EAs don’t see people. As Rubenstein puts it, she notes that ‘the EA community systematically excludes the very people who are its central objects of concern’ (2015, p.521). And this is technically true; [...] Cause neutrality, by its nature, hollows out this immediate intimacy and replaces it with the type of rationalistic or algorithmic thinking that troubles so many people.

"...Much of the rejection of digital relationships as ‘inauthentic’, of needing co-presence and immediate connection, I think at the heart of many of the claims of the inhumanity of the EAs.

"...Keane sums this up: ‘As people become aware of the chains of causality that link them to very distant others, they may come to feel responsible for things that happen at a distance’ (p.454). These ‘very distant others’ are those the EAs care about deeply. In all my interactions with the Effective Altruists, one could never accuse them of not caring. It may be better to say they experience inter-subjective empathy after they’ve managed to work out what represents the most impactful thing for them to do."

"The EAs aren’t elitist as a matter of principle, but as a consequence of their priorities. The way they treat potential members, themselves, their causes and their beneficiaries stems from this."

"My participants are upfront about their reliance on the evaluatory bodies - largely for pragmatic reasons. As Claire explained, she was acutely aware that they’d simply done more research than she’d ever be able to.


"The type of moral authority mediated by data is heavy and can dictate the course of one’s very life. For the EAs It gives voice to the unconscionable weight of human suffering in the world and as well as the means to push back against it."

"In our interview Claire explained that she attempted to minimise the role of emotion in her ethical decisions. In a different vein, she reported it was fairly common practise to use these emotional responses to stimulate themselves in particular directions - such as watching factory farming videos if they needed motivation. The perspective is dramatic, but is mirrored in much of the wider discourse; as Rubenstein points out EA thinking encourages ‘people in wealthy countries to think of themselves as heroes and rescuers’ (2016, p.520). Parit put it in perhaps the starkest terms as he said, ‘we decide who lives and who dies’. The small actions for the EAs are never just actions in and of themselves, but are parts of responses to an inexhaustible and radical ethical demand. The only limit, in ideological terms, is when they can give no more."

"In order to self-optimise, the EAs are self-disciplined - even to the extent that one described the act of giving to ineffective, local charities was a guilty pleasure in the form of an ‘empathic hit’, approximate to buying an ice-cream."

From the conclusion:

"The assertion that the EAs don’t see people can be shown to be misguided; rather that they relate to them in a variety of complex ways, driven by an unerring focus on maximising their impact. [...] Their way of being-in-the-world is radical, provocative and has its profound limitations."

No, he doesn't say what those limitations are.

There's a narrative of a woman with the pseudonym Sarah who volunteered with EA London. Dan writes:

"[Effective Altruism] presented a version of herself or a future that she saw as incompatible with the type of impactful person she wanted to be. The notion of the onus of personal responsibility or triumph replayed claims of elitism she’d earlier mentioned, in that she’d have to think of their collective giving as a type of ‘tax’. The meaning of those practises, the positions they occupy and the selves they created were problematic rather than the practises in and of themselves. ... Sarah ultimately left the Effective Altruists, thanking them for their time."

For what it's worth, I'm not sure how much of the EA London community Dan managed to capture, but I think there's something in this. I do think some people leave EA, not because they think the logic is wrong or anything, but because they can't see themselves as the Earning-to-Give hero in a story with such excessive wealth inequality. It's not the kind of impact they're okay with having, not the kind of person they want to be.

Since I just listened to it I can't help but see parallels to Mauricio Miller describing the certain visions the poor need to latch onto in order to be lifted from poverty: http://www.econtalk.org/mauricio-miller-on-poverty-social-work-and-the-alternative/

I doubt there's a good way of manipulating EA culture to present the variety of visions people would need to jump on board. I suspect it will take a decent amount of time for EA to mature and develop before there are the multiplicity of alive paths that will attract a greater number of people.

fwiw I found the later chapters to be more legible.

I think the gist of the "Heretical Knot" is that we could always do more good, and so we are always second guessing ourselves and burning out attempting to do more.