Reference movements for Effective Altruism

by tomstocker19th May 20156 comments



A simple beg: please can you comment with some suggestions for which historical movements have relevance to our learning about effective altruism (and why you think so time permitting)?

UPDATE (based on early feedback from facebook/here): please pick why it relates with one salient aspect and explicitly state it if at all possible. Preferably in terms of its ambition and its relation to the rest of society / political structure. Thanks!


This exercise is aimed at understanding whether we can expect EA as a movement to be net positive, sustainable, coherent etc. and what kind of internal institutions or practices might need to be developed to increase our probabilities with respect to expected long term positive impact.

A friend drew a parallel between early christian church wrt roman empire and EA wrt modern liberal democracy. He was worried that the values drift in EA would be at least as large as that with the early church and its adoption by the roman empire, and later by other socio-political groups. I thought this was worth writing about - and want to see if there are other parallels like this that we can come up with collectively before exploring them a bit more.

There have also been two helpful posts on here recently. One, Ben West's piece on the value of reference class forecasting, and the other Owen Cotton-Barrett's article on the value of movement growth.

The first indicates that effective bench-marking is a powerful way to think about what will work going forwards. This, admittedly, is hard to do for historical movements as most movements the size of EA at the moment will probably have not been recorded - so there's a large class of 'failures' we'll never know about. However, I still think that getting a decent class and looking at how they developed and how society responded to them will tell us a lot.

The second outlines why getting a better understanding of movement growth dynamics is pressing, and indicates a few key questions that we will want to ask once we have our data: how wary should we be of controversy? How has gaining traction worked in terms of garnering inclination?

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I've heard a few people suggest early Quakerism as an example (from back when Quakers were often notably successful as merchants).

From a review of Peter Singer's new book in the New York Review of Books: In holding this rationalistic view Singer departs from earlier thinkers who have promoted altruism as a social movement. Though we hear nothing of its history in this book, the belief that organized altruism can be a means of improving human life is not new. The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889–1968) founded the Center for Creative Altruism at Harvard University in the late 1940s, in the belief that altruism could be organized as a force for good. Unlike Singer, Sorokin thought of altruism as concern for others motivated by love and empathy, the study of which he termed “amitology.” Sorokin did not claim to be the first to have suggested that altruism could be turned into a social movement. Correctly, he credited the idea to the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who in fact invented the term “altruism” (from the Latin alteri, or “others”).

An exponent of what he called positive philosophy—a system of ideas based on the belief that science alone can provide genuine knowledge—Comte created an influential movement, now largely forgotten, that in its heyday helped shape the thinking of figures such as the novelist George Eliot and the Social Darwinist theorist Herbert Spencer. Comte did not believe that altruism could be promoted simply, or even mainly, by an improvement in human powers of reasoning.1 A complex system of practices was needed, including daily rituals, which Comte propagated as part of a positivist church that he founded. Some of these practices—such as touching at regular intervals the parts of one’s skull that were associated, according to theories of phrenology that were popular at the time, with altruistic impulses—may seem eccentric today.

Singer makes no reference, here or so far as I know in any of his writings, to Comte, and he differs from the French thinker in suggesting that strong emotions of empathy may be detrimental to effective altruism. Yet there are some clear parallels between Comte’s way of thinking and Singer’s version of utilitarianism. One of the central tenets of positivism was that ethics should become a branch of science. Ethical dilemmas were soluble problems like those found in chemistry and physics. By applying the methods of science—observation, experimentation, and measurement—moral quandaries could be resolved in ways that left no room for doubt. In this positivist view moral questions had objective answers, which could be discovered by anyone who possessed the necessary knowledge and powers of reasoning. Moral disagreement could only be a result of ignorance or irrationality. [...] It may be that some good can come from effective altruism. Singer is right that some kinds of suffering—that involved in factory farming of animals, for example—are given insufficient attention in current moral thinking. Even so, a life shaped by a thin universal benevolence is an unattractive prospect. For many of us a world in which our own projects and attachments were accorded value only insofar as they enabled us to maximize the general good, where human values were subject to a test of marginal utility and the relief of suffering given overriding priority over aesthetic pleasure, would be hardly worth living in. Happily there is no reason to suppose that any such world will come into being. If history is our guide we can expect Singer’s movement for effective altruism to go the way of Comte’s church of positivism, which has passed into history as an example of the follies of philosophy.

I think there are several parallels with cryonics. Both this and EA appeal to reason and often have emotional rationalizations as reactions. Early growth of cryonics looked exponential, but recent decades it has been more linear. There are currently debates about how to sell it (e.g. emergency medicine or gateway to transhumanism) and how to deal with controversy.

From my reply when you solicited German/Christian examples: I wonder whether there were any similar elements in some of the early protestant movements (anabaptists, Hutterites, etc.), which were strong in Germany. A question, not an assertion.

I argued here that Marxism could be seen as an attempt at being "effectively altruistic" (although a failed one, in my view). The whole thread ("Why is effective altruism new and obvious?") might be interesting to you.