The Unit of Caring is one of the most prominent blogs in effective altruism. Its author, Kelsey Piper, now covers a variety of EA-related stories as a journalist at Vox. In this blog post, she responds to a questioner who challenges the more speculative (“fringe”) cause areas within effective altruism.
Question to the blog
What do you think about the more fringe parts of EA?
I get really angry seeing people call themselves EAs but then spending all of their time writing speculative essays on, say (to quote those I came across most recently), how actually wildlife conservation is bad because animals in the wild suffer. Like, it's fun to think about that, but my goals as an EA are very different than those of someone who thinks stuff like that is even comparable with global development or long-term sustainability.
But I do wonder what your opinion is, since you do have a record of being sensible in evaluating ideas regardless of how fringe they are, which I really appreciate.
One big formative influence on how I think about this is imagining that effective altruism had existed at various other moments in history. Would we have been doing any good, or would we have been too stuck in the assumptions of the time period?
Would an effective altruist movement in the 1840s U.S. have been abolitionist? If we think we would have failed to stand up against slavery, what do we need to change, now, as a movement, to make sure we’re not getting similarly big things wrong?
Would an effective altruist movement in the 1920s U.S. have been eugenicist? If we think we would have embraced a pseudoscientific and deeply harmful movement like the sterilization campaigns of the Progressive era, what habits of mind and thought would have prevented us from doing that, and are we actively employing them?
I think that for effective altruism to be robustly good — to be a movement that would have done good even when embedded in societies that were doing great evil, or societies that were oriented around entirely the wrong questions, or a society that had a “do-gooder” consensus that was actually terrible — there are a bunch of things that have to be in place.
Firstly, we have to actually be doing things that benefit the people who need it most. Last year, donations moved through GiveWell to top charities (not counting donations from Good Ventures) increased to $65 million. If that number wasn’t impressive, and wasn’t increasing, I would be worried that we were failing as a community. We need the reality check of being accountable for actual results. We need to actually do things.
Next, we need to be continually monitoring for signs that the things we’re doing are actually doing harm, under lots of possible worldviews. That includes worldviews that aren’t intuitive, or that aren’t the way most people think about charity. If recipients aren’t happy, that’s an enormous potential warning sign. If our efforts increase suffering, even if it’s in some weird way that’s hard to take seriously, that’s a warning sign. If there are forces systematically ensuring we don’t hear from recipients, that’s a warning sign. Basically, we need to cast a really, really wide net for possible ways we’re screwing up, so that the right answer is at least available to us.
Next, imagine someone walked into that 1840s EA group and said, ‘I think black people are exactly as valuable as white people and it should be illegal to discriminate against them at all,” or someone walked into the 1920s EA group and said, “I think gay rights are really important.” I want us to be a community that wouldn’t have kicked them out. I think the principle I want us to abide by is something like ‘if something is an argument for caring more about entities who are widely regarded as not worthy of such care, then even if the argument sounds pretty absurd, I am supportive of some people doing research into it. And if they’re doing that research with the intent of increasing everyone’s well-being and flourishing as much as possible, then they’re part of our movement’.
So that’s a bunch of broad movement-level principles about how I’d like effective altruism to work. I want us to be open to the idea that our society is very wrong about important things, I want us to be supportive of efforts to care about more, and I want us to be casting a really wide net for ways we could be going wrong. Finally, to make sure all of this work stays grounded enough that it can actually help people, I want all of the above to happen only in conjunction with growth in the resources we allocate to concrete priorities.
In other words, at any given time, I hope most of our efforts are dedicated to doing solid, clearly important things — and at the same time, I hope we have space to hear out more speculative things, and specifically to hear out (1) arguments for caring about things we wouldn’t normally think to care about, (2) arguments that our society is fundamentally and importantly wrong, and (3) arguments that we are making important mistakes.
So that provides one angle of argument for why I want people to call themselves EAs even if their work is quite speculative and even if they care about different things than me, as long as they’re trying to do as much good in the world as possible in an impartial, maximizing, outcome-oriented way.
This means many EAs will have very different goals from one another. That’s okay. The main argument against EAs all sharing a single priority is that we’d be very motivated not to change our minds if we had to leave the movement when we became persuaded that something else was the most important thing to do. It works a lot better, given how much uncertainty there is about what the most important priorities are, to have a movement for everyone trying to do as much good as possible in an impartial, maximizing, outcome-oriented way.
Then, in addition to that, I think there’s a very concrete argument that wild animal suffering is an area worth researching.
Right now there is vanishingly little research into what animals’ lives are like, especially wild animals. Almost no research into the effects of climate change, environmental measures, or land use changes examines the effects those will have on the suffering of animals. There’s a new research field focused on these questions, called welfare biology. I think fundamental welfare biology research, like fundamental development economics research or fundamental medicine research, is going to dramatically influence our understanding, ten years from now, of which interventions are a good idea.
Just like I want people who develop vaccines and research global development to be in EA, I want people who research welfare biology to be in EA. This doesn’t rely on any of the above arguments that speculative work is good in general. The whole core of this argument is ‘welfare biology looks like a field that has important research questions relevant to doing as much good as possible.’ I am excited about what the field will look like in ten years, even though most of its core questions, given the field’s nascent stage, are pretty uncertain.
One last thing: There are so many awful problems in the world, and every person working on them can do so much, that it is hard not to take it personally when someone is wasting their time. After all, there’s so much good they could do if they spent it well! But I think that, long-term, it’s just not sustainable to be mad at people for being wrong about what’s most important. One of the biggest changes in my thinking over the last few years has just been this growing sense of how hard it is to arrive at true understandings of things, and how complicated and detailed reality is. This has made it a lot easier for me to look at people who I feel are totally wrong-headed and be glad they’re trying, and hopeful that there’s some productive fruit down the path they’re walking. I think that every single person doing speculative research in EA really, deeply cares about making the world a better place, and even though I think many of them are off-base, I very much hope their research teaches them important things I can use to try to fix stuff.