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Shouldn't 'Effective Altruism' be capitalized?

by aaronmayer1 min read11th Jun 202113 comments

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When we talk about EA, we're talking about a quite specific set of values & practices (such as evidence-based reasoning, cause prioritization, etc.) and institutions (such as CEA, Animal Charity Evaluators, etc.). If someone said "Oh yeah, I'm an effective altruist - I always look at Charity Navigator before donating to make sure the overhead is low," then that wouldn't necessarily be considered Effective Altruism. I've been capitalizing it in my communications over the past year while working as the community organizer for EA NYC, but now I'm wondering whether I was right to do so... 😶

Let me know what you all think! Curious to hear where you stand!

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I've made it official CEA policy that we always use lower case. (Edit: If you see "Effective Altruism" on one of our posts or websites in a place where it shouldn't be capitalized, please let me know so I can fix it.)

My reasoning:

  1. Like others have said here, I think of EA as a philosophy/system of thought, along the lines of "liberalism" or "utilitarianism", rather than as a formalized religion or political institution, like "Christianity" or "the Democratic Party".
  2. I agree that there are specific values and practices that are inherent to EA, but it's difficult to point to any one thing that would "qualify" a person or organization as officially being "part of EA" vs. not.
    1. There is such a thing as a "registered Democrat", but "registered EA community member" isn't really a thing. You can set up a profile on the EA Hub, but so can literally anyone; this doesn't confer any official privileges.
    2. See why I don't like the term "effective altruist" (including my reply to Michael Aird's comment, which pulls out the difference between that question and the capitalization question).
  3. Regarding institutions, I consider many organizations to be some degree of "EA-aligned" even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with our movement. I think of this alignment as a spectrum, rather than a binary thing where an org does or doesn't "count".
    1. For example, consider a global health charity that gets serious consideration from GiveWell but doesn't quite pass the bar to be a "Standout Charity". Do the charity's employees have "EA jobs"?
      1. Their work is aligned with EA's mission, and presumably involves what most people in EA would consider a "promising cause area". Given this, I see the "EA jobs" question as beside the point.

In your example, of the person who uses Charity Navigator, I still think the binary distinction isn't helpful:

  • Is this person trying to do more good? Yes.
  • Is the strategy they're using likely to help them do substantially more good than they would otherwise? Probably not.
  • Is their personal philosophy generally in line with EA? Impossible to tell from this single statement.
  • Would they fit in well at an EA meetup? Depends on how open they are to considering different ideas.
  • Should they be hired for a role at a very EA-aligned organization? Depends on their skills and other elements of fit; their confusion about overhead is just one small fact about them. I wouldn't want them writing curricula about effective giving, but they might be a great accountant.

...and so on.

***

I got off-topic at the end there, but to return to my main point: 

I think that capitalizing "effective altruism" makes it seem more like a binary thing (you count or you don't, you have this identity or you don't) and less like a spectrum (many people are aligned with EA to some degree, but no one is a perfect exemplar of every EA principle). But given how complicated the above questions can get, I think "spectrum" is a better fit than "binary".

Thanks for writing this! I used to write it as Effective Altruism, and once I noticed that a lot of articles and people refer to it in lowercase, I switched to using that. But it wasn't that clear to me why I should be using lowercase until you wrote this.

Anyway, I just noticed now that on the effectivealtruism.org website, the navigation bar says "Introduction to Effective Altruism", and also the parts "Articles > Introduction to Effective Altruism", the title of that post, and the link to that post on the homepage, under "Reading". That is probably wo... (read more)

Anyway, I just noticed now that on the effectivealtruism.org website, the navigation bar says "Introduction to Effective Altruism", and also the parts "Articles > Introduction to Effective Altruism", the title of that post, and the link to that post on the homepage, under "Reading".

I think the only inconsistency I see is the capitalization of 'effective altruism' in the navigation bar. The 'Introduction to Effective Altruism' article is capitalized simply because all the articles in that section use title case. In any case, I agree with the overall point that it makes sense to make sure capitalization is consistent throughout the site (and I personally agree it should not be capitalized).

2Aaron Gertler1moGiven that the navigation bar text refers to an article with a capitalized title, I think its current capitalization is correct and consistent. It's possible that "action" in "Take action" should be capitalized, though; I'll give that some thought.
2BrianTan2moYeah I realize now it's capitalized probably because the article and multiple other pages are in title case rather than sentence case. I guess it's okay then to keep the article title the same.
1lukefreeman1moYeah, title case or proper case is common for page titles, article titles and headings (generally H1, H2, and often even H3).

I only capitalise it when referring to organisations that have effective altruism in the name (e.g. "Effective Altruism Australia") – i.e. as a proper noun. I don't capitalise it when referring to the philosophy and social movement (similar to feminism, environmentalism etc).

This is also our brand guidelines at GWWC and EAA.

I generally don't capitalize "effective altruism" just as I wouldn't capitalize "liberalism" or "socialism" so... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I pretty much echo everything Aaron G said but in short it comes down to the impression left on the reader. "Effective Altruism" looks like a group one could try to join; "effective altruism" looks like a field of study or a topic of discussion. I think the latter is more the impression we want to cultivate. Remember the first rule of EA: WE ARE NOT A CULT!

I've seen a mix of some people capitalizing effective altruism, maybe more often in communications with a more general audience, and some people not capitalizing it. I generally try leave it uncapitalized, following CEA policy, but sometimes I capitalize it when it makes it clearer that effective altruism is an actual Thing, not just altruism that is effective, and not a generic made-up compound term like, say, "efficient humanitarianism" or "impactful lovingkindness". For example, if I write in a self-introduction "I'm passionate about effective altruism", lowercase effective altruism doesn't read like a term that you could google, at least to someone who has never heard of effective altruism before, so I would probably capitalize effective altruism here. If it's in a context where it's clear to the readers that effective altruism is a specific thing, I would leave it lowercase. Minor note: somehow, some Hack4Impact folks have described Effective Altruism as an organization, in some Slack messages and in a social impact talk they wrote, and capitalizing the term may have contributed to that misconception.

Yeah, lowercase (other than in titles) is what helps ensure that "effective altruism" isn't seen as a single organisation.

the community, yes. the practice / approach, no.