I had written the below memo quickly while travelling to the Meta Coordination Forum 2023 because I think the virtues/values aspect of EA principles deserves more attention, and because it seems to me that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit there in terms of actions to take. I’m sharing the memo here (unedited) in the hope it will be useful for others as well. Please excuse the sloppy language, and please leave a comment if you’d like me to clarify anything.
These are five somewhat overlapping (categories of) things I think meta orgs could and should do more of. I found it easiest to come up with concrete ways to apply these to CEA and 80k, but I think there's something for many organisations and people in the EA meta space here.
Highlight EA values and virtues at every relevant opportunity
- Personally I'd put in things like impartial altruism/compassion, scout mindset (as a set of values/virtues), earnestness (loved the recent 80k podcast with Toby; good example for how to implement this!), integrity, humility (epistemic, moral, and broader), practising what you preach, collaborative spirit, etc. etc.
- There are so many places where these could be promoted explicitly but they currently aren't (to the extent I think they should be), e.g. at EA Global, online, in media interviews, in community building
- But one way to keep highlighting them is just by regularly discussing and debating what they actually are and should be!
- To illustrate: just yesterday I talked to a friend of mine who has been very actively involved in the EA community for years (both professionally and socially) and had never even heard of CEA's guiding principles. From my experience, I wouldn't be surprised if this is true even of a majority of people who self-associate with the EA community.
- Some nice potential side effects are (1) you may be more likely to attract the right types of people into the movement and (2) this may improve the EA brand more generally
Celebrate the stories of people and organisations who act according to EA values and virtues
- I'm talking about stories where people/orgs lived up to these values while trying to do the most good they can (given their values/worldview), so as opposed to (only) highlighting people who have a lot of impact ex-post (in whatever way); people who intellectually contribute most to EA; or people who happen to be exceptionally talented/skilled/smart/wealthy/powerful.
- Some example types of stories that immediately come to mind (again, some of which have been promoted by 80k and CEA already)
- Stories of how people decided to make a radical switch in the cause area they worked in based on impact considerations
- Stories of people/orgs who shut down projects that weren't worth continuing
- E.g. No Lean Season
- Stories mentioned in the Scout Mindset book
- Stories of people/organisations in EA supporting people/organisations in EA with different worldviews (could be moral trade, but also just a general collaborativeness)
- Similar stories of collaboration with non-EA communities and organisations
- Stories of people who toil in the background / don't seek recognition (perhaps even anonymised :))
- Stories of people who tried but "failed" in some way
Give a platform to and more generally reward virtuous members of the community
- These are many of the main characters in the above stories
- E.g. virtuous earning-to-givers (I could name a few), or people with limited resources who still manage to have a significant impact (in a virtuous way)
Organise discussion and debate across cause areas/worldviews
- I think some kind of cause neutrality/"cause prio mindset" (i.e. being willing to change the cause you dedicate your resources to based on impact considerations; ideally even proactively pursuing this) is one of the key if not the key value/virtue that sets EA apart from other communities.
- I get the impression a significant amount of people cluster together in their cause area/worldview groups and feel awkward or even aversive about openly discussing their worldview with people who come to different conclusions (e.g. they may just "tolerate" these people's conclusions rather than engage in constructive discussion on this point), which is a situation that's very far away from what I think the ideal is, i.e. a community that's all of safe, challenging and constructive on this point at the same time, where you unite around the values/virtues rather than the worldview/cause you currently end up concluding your resources should go to.
- And obviously this current environment is bad from an epistemic perspective as well, encouraging tribal tendencies around the wrong things (conclusions rather than principles).
- I think even just having a few more sessions at EAG(x)s or 80k podcasts on that discuss this could be a significant step in the right direction. These could e.g. be debates/discussions or just people sharing their own cause prio journey.
- There've been some recent attempts at this I believe (e.g. Michael Plant criticising longtermism at an EAG(x)), but I think a lot more could be done.
Promote and facilitate people and orgs with different worldviews supporting and strengthening each other
- IMO one of the most valuable resources the EA community has or could have is our (potential for) to solve coordination problems and collaborate/trade across such varied people, organisations, causes etc. if indeed we are united by these underlying principles/values/virtues
- Of course this requires some amount of (well-calibrated) trust, but I think also post-FTX there is ample resource to delve into here, e.g. as most trust doesn't have as significant a potential downside as the types of trust that were given to SBF/people at FTX
- Based on my limited information, I expect there are already lots of stories of support and collaboration that could be celebrated (which most people may not know about!); this would be a very simple intervention in this category.
- I also believe there's a lot of room for (organising) productive ideation around how collaboration, support and resource sharing across causes/worldviews could be further improved, e.g. in terms of sharing networks; best practices; mentorship etc. etc.
Thanks to Lauren Mee for giving me the inspiration for the contents of this memo in a personal conversation, and to United Airlines for having dysfunctional Wi-Fi on my plane to the US which helped me actually write it (as I couldn't access anything else).