Dylan Matthews of Vox's Future Perfect on the history of Effective Altruism, recent developments, and what Effective Altruism means to him.
I found the section titled What EA has meant to me especially moving:
Things have indeed gotten weird in EA. The EA I know in 2022 is a more powerful and more idiosyncratic entity than the EA I met in 2013. And as it’s grown, it’s faced vocal backlash of a kind that didn’t exist in its early years.
A small clique of philosophy nerds donating their modest incomes doesn’t seem like a big enough deal to spark much outside critique. A multi-billion-dollar complex with designs on influencing the course of American politics and indeed all of world history … is a different matter.
I’ll admit it’s somewhat hard to write dispassionately about this movement. Not because it’s flawless (it has plenty of flaws) or because it’s too small and delicate to deserve the scrutiny (it has billions of dollars behind it). Rather, because it’s profoundly changed my own life, and overwhelmingly for the better.
I encountered effective altruism while I was a journalist covering federal public policy in the US. I lived and breathed Senate committee schedules, think tank reports, polling averages, outrage cycles about whatever Barack Obama or Mitt Romney said most recently. I don’t know if you’ve immersed yourself in American politics like that … but it’s a horrible place to live. Arguments are more often than not made in extreme bad faith. People’s attention was never focused on issues that mattered most to the largest number of people. Progress for actual people in the actual world, when it did happen, was maddeningly slow.
And it was getting worse. I started writing professionally in 2006, when the US was still occupying Iraq and a cataclysmic recession was around the corner. There were already dismal portents for our country’s institutions, but Donald Trump was still just a deranged game show host. One of the dominant parties was not yet attempting full coups with the help of armed mobs of supporters. The Senate’s huge geographic bias was not yet the enormous advantage for Republicans it has become today, rendering the body hugely unrepresentative in a way that offends basic democratic principles. All of that was still to come.
Derek Parfit, one of the key philosophers inspiring effective altruism, once wrote that he used to believe his own personal identity was the key thing that mattered in his life. This view trapped him. “My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness,” he wrote in Reasons and Persons. “When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.“
Finding EA was a similarly transformative experience for me. The major point for me was less that this group of people had found, once and for all, the most effective ways to spend money to help people. They didn’t, they won’t, though more than most movements, they will admit that, and cop to those limits to what they can learn about the world.
What was different was that I now had a sense that there was more to the world than the small corner I had dug into in Washington, DC — so much so that I was inspired to co-found this very section of Vox, Future Perfect. This is, in retrospect, an obvious revelation. If I had spent this period as a microbiologist as CRISPR emerged, it would have been obvious that there was more to the world than US politics. If I had spent the period living in India and watching the world’s largest democracy emerge from extreme poverty, it would have been obvious too.
But what’s distinctive about EA is that because its whole purpose is to shine light on important problems and solutions in the world that are being neglected, it’s a very efficient machine for broadening your world. And especially as a journalist, that’s an immensely liberating feeling. The most notable thing about gatherings of EAs is how deeply weird and fascinating they can be, when so much else about this job can be dully predictable.
After you spend a weekend with a group where one person is researching how broadly deployed ultraviolet light could dramatically reduce viral illness; where another person is developing protein-rich foods that could be edible in the event of a nuclear or climate or AI disaster; where a third person is trying to determine if insects are capable of consciousness, it’s hard to go back to another DC panel where people rehearse the same arguments about whether taxes should be higher or lower.
As EA changes and grows, this is the aspect I feel most protective of and most want to preserve: the curious, unusually rigorous and respectful and gracious, and always wonderfully bizarre spirit of inquiry, of going where the arguments lead you and not where it’s necessarily most fashionable to go.
That felt like an escape from American politics to me — and it can be an escape from other rabbit holes for others too. Oh, yeah, and it could, if successful, save many people from disease, many animals from industrial torture, and many future people from ruin.
The Against Malaria Foundation, MacAskill notes, has since its founding “raised $460 million, in large part because of GiveWell’s recommendation. Because of that funding, 400 million people have been protected against malaria for two years each; that’s a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s saved on the order of 100,000 lives — the population of a small city. We did that.” That’s a somewhat boisterous statement. It’s also true, and if anything a lower bound on what EA has achieved to date.
My anxieties about EA’s evolution, as it tends toward longtermism and gets more political, are bound up in pride at that achievement, in the intelligent environment that the movement has fostered, and fear that it could all come crashing down. That worry is particularly pronounced when the actions and fortunes of a handful of mega-donors weigh heavily on the whole movement’s future. Small, relatively insular movements can achieve a great deal, but they can also collapse in on themselves if mismanaged.
My attitude toward EA is, of course, heavily personal. But even if you have no interest in the movement or its ideas, you should care about its destiny. It’s changed thousands of lives to date. Yours could be next. And if the movement is careful, it could be for the better.