davidwalker's Shortform

by davidwalker6th Nov 20203 comments
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Could EA benefit from having a "bulldog"? 

That is, a pugnacious (but scrupulous) public advocate of EA and EA-adjacent ideas. In the EA community currently, who might come closest to being something like EA's bulldog? 

More precisely, I'm thinking of a hybrid between, say, Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer (or perhaps Derek Parfit, for added dryness). A fiery, polemical wit married to a calm, analytical rigor. 

A good, non-EA -affiliated example of this style is  Alex J. O'Connor, better known as Cosmic Skeptic on YouTube, a student of philosophy at Oxford whose confrontational yet nuanced content on atheism and veganism is rather popular now (a good example is his speech on veganism and animal rights). On his podcast, he's interviewed Peter Singer, and frequently cites Hitchens as an inspiration. 

I suspect that many EAs would be skeptical and cautious of this approach, for various reasons. Certain versions of it would appear to cut against certain EA features commonly regarded as virtues: considerateness and cooperation (and their encouragement), epistemic modesty (e.g. focusing heavily on uncertainties), compassion in disagreement, respecting norms of agreeable conduct, etc.

Similarly, it seems to carry reputational risks, including a risk of doing accidental harm to EA's public image. In this sense, it risks being a hard-to-reverse decision, resulting in more costs than benefits (William MacAskill discusses this here). Maybe this is reason enough for an advocate of this kind not to wish to be publicly associated with EA even while supporting and highlighting its cause-areas. 

On the other hand, perhaps at least some of this style can attract and/or sustain more positive, public attention than milder outreach approaches, and perhaps even shape public opinion more effectively. 

There's much more to say, but this is already much longer than I intended. I'd love to read any thoughts on this, and/or to be pointed in the direction of previous, related discussion.

I feel like the main role of a bulldog is to fend off the fiery, polemical enemies of a movement. Atheism and veganism (and even AI safety, kind of) have clear opponents; I don't think the same is especially true of EA (as a collection of causes). 

There are people who argue for localism, or the impracticality of measuring impact, but I can't think of the last time I've seen one of those people have a bad influence on EA. The meat industry wants to kill animals; theists want to promote religion; ineffective charities want to... raise funds? Not as directly opposed to what we're doing.

I suppose we did have the Will MacAskill/Giles Fraser debate at one point, though. MacAskill also took on Peter Buffet in an op-ed column. I don't know how he feels about those efforts in retrospect. 

We could certainly use more eloquent/impassioned public speakers on EA topics (assuming they are scrupulous, as you say), but I wouldn't think of them as "bulldogs" -- just regular advocates.

This Letter  made me feel like there can be organized opposition from ineffective charities

Thank you Aaron, these are great points!