Hide table of contents

As someone who identifies as a socialist, politically to the left of many progressive critics of EA, I wanted to outline where I disagree with some liberal progressives criticisms of EA.

Obviously, I am just one socialist and my views probably differ a fair amount from the average socialist.

My view of  "liberal progressive criticisms of EA" is mostly based on tweets, but I think this article is a good example of what I categorise as a liberal progressive criticism of EA: https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/10/17/1060967/effective-altruism-growth/.


Explicit and Implicit Prioritisation

Some liberal progressive criticisms of EA treat opportunity costs and prioritisation as things that EA has created which unfairly pit good causes against one another.

All political movements have limited resources and must prioritise certain issues. Often, individuals aligned with political movements do not realise that they are prioritising certain issues over others, or do not want to recognise this reality, because deeming some good causes less worthy than other good causes is deeply emotionally uncomfortable for most people

EAs are less uncomfortable with this because they are used to prioritisation, and prioritise between causes explicitly rather than implicitly.  

I think many liberal progressives focused on issues like student loan in Western countries do not recognise, or do not want to recognise, that they are prioritising this issue over vaccinating the world's poorest children against disease. However, EAs prioritising existential risks generally explicitly recognise and state that they are prioritising this over global health. 

This leads some critics to a double standard of criticising those who explicitly prioritise issues over global health in favour of  those who implicitly prioritise other issues over global health, despite the impacts on global health being the same.


Scope Insensitivity

EAs are generally aware of scope insensitivity. 

If asked to compare issues, it is likely that liberal progressives would at least agree that global health should in theory be prioritised over issues such as student loans or better healthcare for poorer Westerners. However, liberal progressives will likely still not prioritise pandemic preparedness and global health sufficiently even in theory, because of scope insensitivity and failures to understand the gulf in impact between initiatives focused on poorer Westerners vs the global poor.


Differences in Priorities and Neglectedness

Liberal progressivism is a much more successful ideology / movement than EA, in terms of reach and influence. EA claims to do the most good, but adherents of many ideologies and  movements expect that they are doing the most good too, and are likely surprised when EA's cause priorities do not reflect their own. They may also simply  critique EA out of disagreement between their priorities and EA's priorities. 

But EA priorities differing from the priorities of mainstream political movements is a systematic feature of EA, because EA focuses on neglected issues. If liberal progressivism or conservatism sufficiently prioritised AI safety, pandemic preparedness, global health or factory farming, there is a good chance that EA would switch to new priorities. 

EA does not focus on the "most important" issues - it focuses on the issues where additional time or money will have the largest social impact.


Localism, Internationalism and Xenophobia

My view of liberal progressivism is that it largely embraces localism with a preference for local resources being used to solve local problems by local actors.

However, the world is very unequal. The areas with the best resources and the most skilled actors to deploy them are also the areas with the least severe problems. The areas with the most severe problems have the fewest resources and the least skilled actors to deploy them. A preference for localism over internationalism would likely exacerbate international inequalities. 

This contrasts with the internationalist view in EA, with distant resources being used to solve local problems via collaboration between distant actors and local actors, but usually with the distant resource-holders setting priorities based on what they believe will benefit locals the most using evidence and reasoning.

Localist views also implicitly devalue the lives of foreigners. I find that localist liberal progressives draw vivid, human images of beneficiaries of charity in western countries, while relegating foreign beneficiaries of charities to faceless statistics. 

Cause priorities in Western liberal progressivism also implicitly place much lower value on the lives of foreigners than EA does - overseas development funding seems to be much lower down the list of priorities than student debt relief!

(As someone who spent their childhood in a middle income country, this deeply upsets me because it reminds me that some people on "my side" of the political spectrum would implicitly value my life a lot less had I not immigrated to the West.)


Binary View of Conservatism vs Liberal Progressivism

Some views on EA see it as a branch of political conservatism, since EA does not fit in neatly with liberal progressivism. I think this stems from viewing the world through a binary lens of liberal progressivism vs conservatism. Since EA doesn't seem like liberal progressivism, some people think it must be conservatism, and for people who dislike conservatism, EA must therefore be bad. This is despite EA significantly contributing to Biden's win in 2020.


Guilt by Association and Double Standards

Effective altruism is associated with a lot of people. Under whatever definition of "morally bad" you have, some of those people are morally bad. Liberal progressives use EA's associations with Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to categorise EA as conservative. But of course, any influential ideology is associated with some morally bad people, including ideologies like socialism (the examples for socialism are obviously way worse than many other ideologies) and liberal progressivism. I think guilt by association is *generally* an unfair way to criticise a movement or ideology.

EDIT at 122 upvotes:

White Saviourism

I also think a poorly thought out view on white saviourism feeds into liberal progressivism’s liking for localism. 

I think this view is derived from concerns I share - that some white Westerners have done harm abroad while claiming to be doing good or aiming to do good, some white Westerners have used opportunities to do good abroad as a way to feel good about themselves rather than to benefit others and some white Westerners have cariacatured poor Africans and South Asians as lacking agency, which feeds into racism against black and brown people in Western countries.

I think some see localism as a solution to this problem, but because I think localism  exacerbates international inequality and doesn’t really tackle extreme poverty (which I think is a worse problem than white saviourism), I think EA style evidence-based development is a better solution.


Knowledge about International Inequality

 I think many liberal progressives are simply unaware of the extent of international wealth inequality, and may be surprised if they used Giving What We Can’s “How Rich am I?” calculator or used the Dollar Street tool on gapminder.com. I think EAs are much more aware of international inequality, so are more internationalist and less localist than liberal progressives.



Better criticisms of EA from further to the political left coming soon!

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Not sure I would characterize progressive liberalism as particularly localist in the narrow sense. If you polled the founders and executives of international NGOs (organizations whose very existence is a refutation of narrow localism) my guess is you would find a whole lot of liberalism in there.

My sense is that both liberalism and socialism are more internationalist, on average, than conservatism.

For example, speaking in a European context, socialism has a proud internationalist tradition (the anthem is not called L'Internationale  for nothing) yet Third Way social democrats as well as liberals (the more centre-right European brand Americans may not be used to) have tended to be the strongest supporters of European integration. Conservatives meanwhile have predictably pushed for policies such as reduced foreign aid, reduced immigration, and exiting the EU. This both reflects differing ideologies and differing electorates - conservative voters tend to be older and more rural.

Any sets of ideas, especially those resembling political ideologies, are bound to enter into tension at some point. However I believe it is also possible to fuse liberalism, socialism, and EA inspired thinking in a fruitful way.

For example you could take:

  •  from liberalism, a commitment to human rights (including property and free enterprise) and checks and balances... but not the idea that those are sufficient in and of themselves and anything more such as a social safety net or guaranteed health insurance represents creeping tyranny
  •  from socialism a commitment to democracy, realized capabilities, non-exploitation, and the notion that "currently existing capitalism" is not some final form of economic arrangement we can never improve upon... but not the idea that enhanced conflict,  sectarianism, and a general attitude of sarcastic nastiness represent the best way to achieve those goals
  • from EA, impartial welfarism across space and time, scope sensitivity, and the use of reason and evidence in argument (what you might call the Enlightenment toolkit)... but not the idea that it is a totalizing solution that solves the need for politics forever. 

I suspect a number of EA-sympathetic left-wingers would sit fairly comfortably at this intersection.

I'm thinking of liberal progressivism as a narrower category than liberalism generally.

I do think that liberal progressivism is popular amongst internationalists, but that is because the other major political force in America is conservatism which is even less internationalist than liberal progressivism.

I think internationalism is more popular amongst socialists and liberals than amongst liberal progressives.  I think that socialists and liberals are a lot more internationalist than liberal progressives, who are a bit more internationalist than conservatives.

Love this fusion and mostly agree with it.

I'm wondering if some of the difference of opinion in several comments are definitional. Can you clarify how you see liberal progressivism in comparison to liberalism generally? For example, as someone heavily involved in United States politics, I see the terms usually understood in the following way by my colleagues (and opponents). But this is not necessarily how they are used globally:
* Socialism = far left socially and economically
* Liberal progressivism = progressivism (the phrase liberal progressive isn't used by most politically active citizens) = solidly left socially and economically
* Liberalism  = Center-left socially and economically (although historically has been used where progressive is used today)

Mostly agree, although I don't necessarily think property rights as currently understood in Western culture are actually good.

This leads some critics to a double standard of criticising those who explicitly prioritise issues over global health in favour of those who implicitly prioritise other issues over global health, despite the impacts on global health being the same."

I think this actually understates the case, in that even many EAs who explicitly "downgrade" global health to some extent still give it significant priority -- and donations -- in practice (likely more so than most critics/non-EAs).

"This is despite EA significantly contributing to Biden's win in 2020."

What makes you think this?

SBF's donations. Just going off the size of the donation and the closeness of the result here.

I think the implicit claim here is that because SBF (or Dustin/Cari for that matter) was a major EA donor, everything he donates counts as an EA donation. But I don't think that's the right way to look at it. It's not logic we'd apply to other people - I donate a chunk of my money to various EA-affiliated causes, but if I one day decided to donate to the Met most people would consider that separate from my EA giving. 

I would classify donations as EA donations if they fall into one of the below two buckets:

  1. Donations given out by a major EA org: Examples include the Open Philanthropy Project, GiveWell, and The FTX Future Fund.
  2. Donations given out by EAs or EA-affiliated people to causes that have been discussed and argued for a lot in the EA community. Bonus points if it's explicitly listed as a cause area on major EA org websites. Examples include anti-malaria nets, animal welfare charities, pandemic preparedness, and AI safety research. I also think donations to Carrick Flynn's campaign would fall into this bucket given the amount of discussion there was about it here.

I agree with Kei here. It seems very odd to credit 'EA' as significant to the election result. To do so seems to imply that there was some kind of coordinated, unified effort to influence the election, whereas what OP is describing is major donations from one actor who was also associated with the EA movement.

This is about much more than not unfairly associating EA with SBFs actions (and donating to the Democratic party is hardly a bad thing to be associated with, compared to SBFs other actions). It's an incorrect description of EA beliefs and culture as a whole. I think if you asked 100 EAs 'what's the best thing you could do with a few billion dollars', 'donating to the Biden campaign' would be fairly low down the list of results.

On a superficial level I agree. But then on second thought, it seems weird to me to group together donations backed by wide community discussion with those by e.g. OpenPhil, which is controlled by a board of 5-6 people.

Dustin & Cari were also among the largest donors in 2020: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/10/20/21523492/future-forward-super-pac-dustin-moskovitz-silicon-valleys

I think you’re confusing the 2020 and 2022 elections. SBF was a fairly minor donor in 2020.

Personally I didn't put much weight on this sentence because the more-important-to-me evidence is many EAs being on the political left (which feels sufficient for the claim that EA is not a generally conservative set of ideas, as is sometimes claimed). See the 2019 EA Survey in which 72% of respondents identified as Left or Center Left. 

Agree that healthcare is a priority, but I think given trade-offs between improving healthcare for the world's poorest and the poor in Western countries, socialists are generally better than liberal progressives at prioritising the world's poorest (but not as good as EAs imo)

Thanks for writing this!

Wouldn't have guessed from the username that you're a socialist :)

This contrasts with the internationalist view in EA, with distant actors solving local problems using distant resources.

You wrote this in a short way, but I think it's worth expanding upon. Progressives often equate that very idea with neo-colonialism, and they're not wrong in principle. In EA we need to take attention to both make sure it does involve locals in a meaningful enough way, and to present the ways it is very different in practice from neo-colonialism. Or, in other words, to show where that criticism is wrong, but to learn from the part that's right.

Concretely, I'm pretty uncomfortable with GiveWell's moral weights being set for a large part using a donor survey. Why should Western donors get to decide what's important for people in developing countries?

Worth pointing out that some socialists will also find this neo-colonialist.

To be fair, I'm not sure I've presented EA fairly there - EA initiatives do involve locals and benefit from local information and tacit knowledge (but maybe not sufficiently). Might be more appropriate to say "EAs use distant resources to solve local problems via collaboration between distant actors and local actors, but usually with the distant resource-holders setting priorities based on what they believe will benefit locals the most using evidence and reasoning." Will edit to make this correction.

Didn't know this about GiveWell - will read about it but at face value seems pretty awful to me!

Look here (Google doc) for more info about the GiveWell moral weights. I don't like their approach to this, but as always I can praise them highly for the transparency :)

This was one of the best written, best thought out replies to a huge set of criticisms about EA. 

This is a major contribution. Even if EA was bad, these criticisms are defective and block real thought and understanding.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities