I think the term ‘Effective Altruist’ constrains our ability to do good by framing engagement with effective altruism as a role, rather than a practice. ‘Effective Altruist’ rolls off the tongue so neatly and the role-based framing can support role modeling, accountability and a tangible community. However, a role-based framing may lead people to perceive effective altruism as unapproachable, paternalistic, unrewarding, unhumble, suspicious, threatening to peoples' self-worth and for people that like - and are like - those already in the EA community. Perhaps we could mitigate these community building pitfalls by framing engagement with effective altruism as a practice anybody can sometimes attempt, rather than the role of ‘Effective Altruists’. A practice-based framing may also be more accurate and more compatible with moral uncertainty. All in all, I suspect we would do more good by describing ourselves as ‘effective altruism collaborators’ (or similar) instead of ‘Effective Altruists’. I’m not highly confident because I don’t know what considerations I’ve missed and how much each consideration matters (I’d value your input on both).
- An analogy from agriculture (150 words)
- Working definitions for each framing (150 words)
- Comparison of each framing against three lenses - community building, accuracy and moral uncertainty (450 words).
- My current view and key uncertainties (150 words)
- Potential alternative labels for people engaged in EA as a practice
01 Analogy from agriculture
‘Agricultural extension’ can be understood as facilitating better farming practices. Governments traditionally employ 'Agricultural Extension Workers' to ride motorbikes to farmers’ fields and disseminate farming advice. This model commonly proves unscalable (there are often 500+ farmers for every one Agricultural Extension Worker), uninfluential (farmers are often uninterested in being treated as passive knowledge receivers) and unhelpful (independently providing locally-relevant farming advice is hard). To address this, extension supporters reconceptualized agricultural extension as a practice that Agricultural Extension Workers, farmers, agricultural scientists, farmers' children and anyone else can engage in, rather than the role of Agricultural Extension Workers. Reconceptualising ‘Extension’ (pronoun) as ‘extension’ (verb) may enable its facilitators to leverage more capabilities of more people and be trusted as less paternalistic. To what extent does this narrative apply to effective altruism?
02 Working definitions
I tried to interpret ‘EA engagement as a practice’ and ‘Effective Altruist’ as someone new to effective altruism would interpret the terms.
|EA engagement as a practice (‘effective altruism collaborator’)||EA engagement as a role (‘Effective Altruist’)|
|Who is responsible for EA?||Anyone||Effective Altruists|
|When do EA-engaged people try to align with EA ideas?||Sometimes||Always|
|Where do EA-engaged people position themselves?||In the system they are trying to improve||Outside the system they are trying to improve|
Many EA-engaged people don’t interpret ‘Effective Altruist’ as above (example). Even so, I think:
- Some EA-engaged people do. Why the interest in the term ‘aspiring effective altruist’ if being an Effective Altruist only means endorsing and/or sometimes applying EA ideas?
- People new to EA often do. How would we interpret ‘Effective Altruist’ without our background understanding?
03 Which framing is better?
Most considerations were collated from these four EA Forum posts (and associated comments): ‘What are your main reservations about identifying as an effective altruist?’, ‘Effective Altruism as a question (not an ideology)’, ‘The phrase “hard-core EAs” does more harm than good’, ‘Some quick notes on "effective altruism"’
|EA engagement as a practice (‘effective altruism’ verb)||EA engagement as a role (‘Effective Altruist’ pronoun)|
|Lens A) Community building: Which framing facilitates more EA community building?|
- More approachable: sometimes practicing EA (rather than redefining your identity and always trying to do EA) is less demanding
- Less paternalistic: a practice framing doesn’t necessarily separate givers and receivers of benefit
- More personally rewarding: a practice framing permits those who facilitate benefits to also benefit
- More humble: identifying as an ‘Effective Altruist’ may be perceived as self-congratulatory
- Less reputational ties between EA ideas and EA-engaged people: effective altruism does not have to represent everything every self-identifying ‘Effective Altruist’ does (and vice versa)
- Less threatening to peoples’ worth: a practice framing explicitly unties our intrinsic worth as beings from our instrumental worth to effective altruism
- Invite diversity: describing EA based on practices, rather than people already in the community, may encourage people from less represented social groups and worldviews to engage with EA
- More trust: we might invite less suspicion by acknowledging we are part of the benefited system and that we sometimes (rather than always) try to do the most impartial good
- Other considerations?
- Neat wording: ‘Effective Altruist’ rolls off the tongue
- Role modeling: identifying as an ‘Effective Altruist’ might help role model EA-aligned behavior to others and our future selves
- Sense of community: identifying as an ‘Effective Altruist’ strengthen sense of being part of a community
- More accountability: ‘Effective Altruists’ can be held to higher standards by themselves and fellow community members
- Efficiency: A more exclusive EA community might coordinate more efficiently
- Other considerations?
|Lens B) Accuracy: Which framing more accurately reflects our knowledge of our EA engagement?|
- EA Definition: Will MacAskill defined EA with verbs rather than pronouns: “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis” (MacAskill, 2017). Will also made clear effective altruism “does not claim that one is always obligated to maximise the good” (MacAskill, 2017)
- Acknowledges we are monkeys: we reflect limitations of human altruism and rationality by claiming to sometimes (not always) attempt EA
- Acknowledges we live within the world we are trying to benefit
- Other considerations?
|- Other considerations?|
|Lens C) Moral uncertainty: Which framing is more compatible with moral uncertainty?|
- Creates room for moral priorities outside EA: sometimes pursuing impartial benefit permits time for other moral priorities (like family)
- Other considerations?
- Undistracted: sharp focus on impartial benefit recognises its potentially dominant moral importance
- Other considerations?
04 Current view and uncertainties
I think describing our engagement with EA as a practice is more effective (in expectation) than describing ourselves as ‘Effective Altruists’ (mainly given the community building considerations listed in Section 03). I’m highly uncertain for four reasons (listed in order of perceived importance):
- Missed or misframed considerations: what lenses and considerations have I missed or misframed?
- Unclear consideration importance: I don’t know how much each consideration matters (and in what contexts) so I don’t know which framing is better and whether the difference is big enough to matter.
- Modesty bias: I intuitively find the term ‘Effective Altruist’ jarring and I suspect this is largely because perceived self-importance is strongly punished in most social environments I’ve lived in.
- Individual vs community level: a practice framing might be more effective if everybody discards the term ‘Effective Altruist’. However, partial discarding may be less effective if this selects for an unrepresentative ‘Effective Altruist’ sub-community that biases perceptions of EA and its broader community.
05 Potential labels for people engaged in EA as a practice
Describing ourselves in relation to our engagement with effective altruism seems hard to avoid (regardless of whether we want to). Are there terms associating us with effective altruism that roll off the tongue (like ‘Effective Altruist’) but frame EA engagement as a practice rather than a role (unlike ‘Effective Altruist’)? Below are a few ideas (ideas I think might be promising are in bold):
- Effective altruism participants (EAPs)
- Effective altruism co-workers (EACWs)
- Effective altruism collaborators (EACs)
- Effective altruism attempters (EAAs)
- Effective altruism practitioners (EAPs)
- Effective altruism supporters (EASs)
- Effective altruism-engaged people (EAEPs)
- Effective altruism practicers (EAPs)
- Effective altruism carers (EACs)
- Effective altruism triers (EATs)
- Effective altruism workers (EAWs)
- Effective altruism enthusiasts (EAEs)
- Effective altruism community members (EACMs)
- Effective altruism facilitators (EAFs)
- Effective altruism developers (EADs)
- Effective altruism contributors (EACs)
- Effective altruism friends (EAFs)
- Effective altruism companions (EACs)
- Effective altruism cronies (EACs)
- Effective altruism helpers (EALHs)
- Effective altruism assistants (EAAs)
- Effective altruism colleagues (EACs)
- Effective altruism appreciators (EAAs)
- Effective altruism sympathizers (EASs)
- Effective altruism cobblers (EACs)
- Effective altruism tinkerers (EATs)
- Effective altruism builders (EABs)
- Effective altruism cultivators (EACs)
- Effective altruism attendants (EAAs)
- Effective altruism propagators (EACs)
- Effective altruism intenders (EAIs)
- Effective altruism doers (EADs)
- Effective altruism growers (EAGs)
- Something else?