TL;DR: I used to be in EA and share some bad experiences. I also think that a lot of EA’s problems stem from it trying to “have it all”: Being academic, elite, and a social movement at the same time. I further argue that the problems that arise from this lead to diversity issues.
This article will be written in a style that's more rough and emotional than usual on this forum.
A personal and emotional part
My perspective: White cishet female student with academic background from Germany. I was very active in an EA group around 2016-2018 and still have many EA friends but left when I heard people wishing to “filter the valuable people”. All people are valuable and a social movement should never exclude anyone for not having the skills or the will to have a high impact within it.
There were a bunch of other problems that I think stemmed in part from EA culture. I ignored personal boundaries by “rationalizing them away”, which I now think is only natural within the EA framework. It has to do with EA being built on the idea of “optimization”, which is not possible for a real person, at least not by using rationality instead of intuition. Rational thinking is slow, and that’s why it’s only sufficient to solve limited problems. It’s not the right tool to optimize very complex personal things.
I’m still mad because I couldn’t get through to fellow EAs regarding questions of (demographic and cultural!) diversity. I gave a talk about it and may have influenced some people there but in my own group, people just weren’t listening. We had someone in our group who wanted EA to be “open to everybody” by actually opening it up to right-wing people, which would actually have excluded a lot of minorities. We discussed about pronouns and why you shouldn’t say N-word and on facebook, an influential figure wrote something like “Oh no, Louis CK! May I still find you funny?” when he should have supported women. (https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/11/9/16629400/louis-ck-allegations-masturbation) At one point, a German org member mistook my asking about diversity as being about diversity of study majors…
EA made me quite rigid and intolerant of other ideas, and it made me look down on people for not (yet) working on EA causes within the EA framework. I even looked down on climate activists, even though that cause area was second-tier on 80,000 Hours then. I think they felt it. I always felt a strong urge to convert them into EAs when that happened. Ironically, the people I was hardest on were the ones already dedicated to great causes.
And then the strong feeling of inadequacy because my chronic mental illness didn’t allow me to have a “high-impact career”. I think imposter syndrome is a big thing in EA, precisely because it’s so elitist. I’ve never felt like an imposter as a vegan, for example, or as an environmentally conscious person. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome)
A more objective part where I try to connect some dots
I’ll just list the contra points and how I think it all works together. Of course there are pros to being an “academic social movement” as well, but I’ll leave that to another writer.
EA’s origin is academic (Peter Singer etc.) and institutional (GiveWell etc.) – it’s NOT a grassroots movement. This is important to note because it’s quite unusual for social movements and it upends the way movements usually form: https://pressbooks.howardcc.edu/soci101/chapter/21-3-social-movements/
Many questions arise from this special situation – how do you align being an academic trend, an innovation in charity, and a social movement at the same time?
Having been there when EA took off in Germany, I witnessed how this was discussed and how much effort was put into establishing a rather academic and elite movement whilst keeping the public at bay. Local groups seemed to be seen as “recruiting agencies” rather than connections to the open public.
In another form, e.g. by separating academic/institutional ambitions from being a social movement, EA might be able to have a great(er?) impact on charity work and on private donations at the same time whilst avoiding to come off like a cult or an elitist group of people who are like-minded to a fault.
Trying to be everything (except for the masses) at once leads to strong internal tensions which probably can’t be resolved. You can’t expect an academic level of engagement from most people in the movement, regardless of how much you recruit from elite universities, and you can’t expect them to not be so overwhelmed with all the information that they don’t take shortcuts like thinking too much alike or deferring to authorities. Strong and comprehensive ideas are difficult to share and lead to strong separation from the outside world, as opposed to focusing on a single idea or something that only encompasses a fraction of people’s life.
The weird mix of social movement and academic/elitist ambition leads to many of the known problems. I’ll give you a commented list:
- Everyone wants to be at the forefront of EA ideas and opinions, but that’s not possible
- Signalling understanding of EA ideas is highly rewarded
- Persistent misconceptions, e.g. Cool Earth (for a long time the only climate charity that was recommended somewhere in EA, on the grounds of a single article) or the seldom considered fact that “x-risk” are legion (and not one single cause area)
- Strong culture
- People who are mostly in the movement because they feel “they’ve found their tribe” – I’ve heard this so often
- Perpetuated weirdness (nerdiness, meal replacements, rationalism, high-brow language, ...)
- Self-improvement to the brink of hustle culture
- Being utilitarian to a fault: It may be healthier and “truer” to live according to a mix of different ethical principles, e.g. taking something from Aristotle and Kant as well and not just from the consequentialists and utilitarians. Recent example: The Albert Schweitzer Foundation now explicitly mentions “blended meat”, i.e. a mix of meat and plants, in their public strategy. I think this costs them a lot of credibility, even though it may lead to good consequences in the short term.
- The Effective Altruist’s Deadly Sin: Pride – it’s really hard to actually reflect on what you need and what you’re doing if you’re considering yourself as already very rational. Also, trying to solve problems by means of rationality feels right but often won’t lead you anywhere because you need to tap into the emotions and intuitions.
- Emotions and emotional expressions/arguments hold high value and a lot of information that EAs miss (e.g. people who are discriminated against often have strong, justified emotions that are worth listening to)
- Of course, “true” rationalism knows this, but most people just aren’t there yet, especially if they’re young.
- Looking down on people who volunteer elsewhere (in my case, even climate activists)
- The feeling of having it all figured out
- Devaluing causes or charities as “donating for fuzzies”
- Always having to prove to yourself that you belong here (imposter syndrome)
- Moral licensing and neglecting important causes because EA thought is extended to all parts of life
- Endless discussions about whether to vote, be an ethical consumer, give to homeless people etc.
- Living wastefully or not doing enough against climate change or pollution
- Pressure to “be in Oxford”
- Extreme role models
- Language and discussion culture: Expectation to always be objective and eloquent in writing only makes sense in academia or journalism. This discourages many people from sharing their ideas and is a subtle form of tone-policing (https://medium.com/@chanda/what-s-the-harm-in-tone-policing-e933d90af247)
- EA is a philosophy of optimization. There are adverse effects when this is extended to other areas of life.
- Strong incentive to ignore personal boundaries, even subconsciously encourage other to do the same (people are young, rationalists tend to disregard emotions)
- Always something more you “can do”: Pressure!
- It’s impossible to optimize behavior accurately just by thinking hard about it:
- Do things actually work like they do in the model?
- Huge uncertainty!
- People tend to not know and then disregard their limitations
- Do things actually work like they do in the model?
- Micro-managing out of fear that the carefully crafted (because not grassroots) movement might falter
- I was asked by the German EA Foundation not to speak to journalists about the lack of women in the movement
- The EA Foundation in Germany did a lot of strategy work and tried to influence local groups a lot.
- I feel like this happens a lot less nowadays =)
These tendencies, in turn, help explain diversity problems. Because of its academic ambition, EA is reluctant to be available to the most people. Its rationalism and arrogance scare off people with high EQ or strong feelings. Because of its optimization, it focuses most on rich and well-educated people as its donors and talents. Because of the demographics that result from this, it’s easy to feel shame about not being an Oxford researcher who donates, like, 80% of their earnings. And EA does show considerable “white savior” vibes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_savior).
To conclude: I think that the unique structure of the EA movement really accounts for most of its recurring problems, and indirectly leads to problems with diversity. EAs should think again if they really want to combine philosophy, academics, charities and a semi-open group of people into what it currently is, or if it may be better to split the academic and institutional side from the social movement a bit more. It would be a much easier way toward community health than trying to find fixes for every one of these issues.
Thank you so much for listening. I really hope this helps.
I felt seen by this post so I want to give a shoutout: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/MjTB4MvtedbLjgyja/leaning-into-ea-disillusionment