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Some related thoughts and questions:

One day some historian of effective altruism will marvel at how easily it transformed itself.   
—Michael Lewis, Going Infinite

A universal refusal to propagate the human species would be the greatest of conceivable crimes from a Utilitarian point of view
—Henry Sidgwick, The Method of Ethics

NunoSempere points out that EA could have been structured in a radically different way, if the "specific cultural mileu" had been different. But I think this can be taken even further. I think that it's plausible that if a few moments in the history of effective altruism had gone differently, the social makeup—the sort of people that make up the movement—and their axiological worldviews—the sorts of things they value—might have been radically different too. 

As someone interested in the history of ideas, I'm fascinated by what our movement has that made it significantly different than the most likely counterfactual movements. Why is effective altruism the way it is? A number of interesting brief histories have been written about the history of EA (and longer pieces about more specific things like Moynihan's excellent X-Risk) but I often feel that there are a lot of questions about the movement's history, especially regarding tensions that seem to present themselves between the different worldviews that make up EA.

For example,

  1. How much was it the individual "leaders" of EA who brought together different groups of people to create a big-tent EA, as opposed to the communities themselves already being connected? (Toby Ord says that he connected the Oxford GWWC/EA community to the rationality community, but people from both of these "camps" seem to be at Felicifia together in the late 2000s.) 
  2. When connecting the history of thought, there's a tendency to put thinkers after one another in lineages as if they all read and are responding to those who came before them. Parfit lays the ground for longtermism in the the late 20th century in Reasons and Persons and Bostrom continues the work when presenting the idea of x-risk in 2001. Did Bostrom know of and expand upon Parfit's work, or was Bostrom's framing independent of that, based on risks discussed by the Extropians, Yudkowsky, SL4, etc? There (maybe) seems to be multiple discovery of early EA ideas in separate creation of the Oxford/GWWC community and GiveWell. Is something like that going on for longtermism/x-risk?
  3. What would EA look like today without Yudkowsky? Bostrom? Karnofsky/Hassenfeld? MacAskill/Ord? 
  4. What would EA look like today without Dustin Moskovitz? Or if we had another major donor? (One with different priorities?)
  5. What drove the "longtermist turn?" A shift driven by leaders or by the community?

A few interesting Yudkowsky (not be taken as current opinions, for historical purposes) quotes (see also Extropian Archaeology):

From Eliezer Yudkowsky on the SL4 mailing list, April 30, 2003:

Since the lack of people is a blocker problem, I think I may have to split my attention one more time, hopefully the last, and write something to attract the people we need. My current thought is a book on the underlying theory and specific human practice of rationality, which is something I'd been considering for a while. It has at least three major virtues to recommend it. (1): The Singularity movement is a very precise set of ideas that can be easily and dangerously misinterpreted in any
number of emotionally attractive, rationally repugnant directions, and we need something like an introductory course in rationality for new members.

(2): Only a few people seem to have understood the AI papers already online, and the more recent theory is substantially deeper than what is currently online; I have been considering that I need to go back to the basics in order to convey a real understanding of these topics. Furthermore, much of the theory needed to give a consilient description of rationality is also prerequisite to correctly framing the task of building a seed AI. 

(3): People of the level SIAI needs are almost certainly already rationalists; this is the book they would be interested in. I don't think we'll find the people we need by posting a job opening. Movements often start around books; we don't have our book yet.

It's fascinating to me that this is the reason that there's a "rationality" community around today. (See also) What would EA look like without it? Would it really be any less rational? What does a transhumanisty non-AI-worried EA look like?—I feel like that's what we might have had without Yudkowsky. 

One last thing:

From Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Extropians mailing list, May 12, 2001:

Nick Bostrom wrote:
> I now have a presentable version of the paper I presented at the most
> recent Foresight gathering. It's available in two formats:

I was there for the presentation and I, literally, felt slightly sick to
my stomach. I'd like to endorse "Existential Risks" as being scary and
well worth reading.

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