Why I prefer "Effective Altruism" to "Global Priorities"

by AllAmericanBreakfast4 min read25th Mar 202120 comments

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Edit: Jonas responds in comments that he was not intending to argue for a name change, but more a change of emphasis. I respond explaining why I took “name change” as a reasonable interpretation, but you should read his OP and decide for yourself.
 

In comments to Jonas Vollner’s post, Ryan Carey makes a good argument that we should change the name of our movement from EA to Global Priorities, or at least change the emphasis. Among other options, “global priorities” was suggested. Tractability concerns aside, I have six key arguments for why this specific name change would not be the right move.

These are my personal intuitions on the implications of names. I don't consider this a strong form of evidence. So I will keep this brief.

"Global Priorities" sounds more arrogant than "Effective Altruism."

Yes, EA can sound arrogant to some people. But many people wrestle with the question of how to make real positive change, and it makes sense to build a community to support that. Saying you're part of a Global Priorities movement sounds like you're wanting to impose your views on what those priorities should be.

Don't trust me, though. Run a poll, maybe on Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Give a one-paragraph description of the EA movement's mission and principles, but randomly title it the "Global Priorities" or "Effective Altruism" movement. Randomly show one or the other to respondents. Ask them which sounds more arrogant, and which they'd be more likely to support or join.

"Global Priorities" doesn't convey the moral or political basis for that prioritization.

Whose priorities? The national interests of the most powerful nations? Are we advocating for world government? For a command economy? To give a voice to less powerful groups? What makes something a priority? Are those priorities supposed to be good? The meaning of the name is more open to interpretation.

"Global Priorities" implies a focus on institutions.

Altruism is clearly something that individuals can do. But most individuals don't have a say in what our global priorities should be. I can be an effective altruist while working in a purely technical role. But it's not clear to me that I can be involved in a movement for global priorities doing that sort of work. GP sounds like it's all about governance.

"Global Priorities" doesn't necessarily imply a need for change.

GP could easily just be about gathering inputs from a bunch of powerful interests about what they consider their priorities to be, and then coordinating to achieve them. Those priorities don't necessarily have to be transcendently important or good from a consequentialist standpoint.

If I had to guess, many major powers would currently consider the free flow of oil to be a greater global priority than minimizing animal cruelty, and that sounds like a very different sort of movement from the one we've got.

"Global Priorities" doesn't necessarily imply an emphasis on neglected issues.

Some of our causes may only need to comprise a tiny fraction of global spending or work hours to be sufficient. Perhaps the world only needs to sink a total of $20 billion/year into biosecurity to do a good job. That would be about half of one percent of the US government's 2019 tax revenue.

But if you asked somebody to look at a budget and rank causes by the importance they are assigned, it would be reasonable to rank them by the amount of budget that's been allocated. And also to spend the most time arguing over the biggest budget allocations. Spend 1/200th of your time arguing over 1/200th of the budget.

We're trying to create a movement that inverts this. We deliberately try to spend the majority of our time arguing over the issues that get a very small fraction of the budget, specifically because they are so neglected. And the reason why is that this is the realm where the wins come cheap. It flows from the concern for "effectiveness."

A global approach is not necessarily the best approach to doing good better.

The idea of prioritizing global causes, then sticking our resources into them according to that, is one way to approach EA. It's probably our common-sense default within the movement. But EA doesn't inherently have to be about that, it might not be the best approach for individuals within the movement, and it might not be the right approach to EA in 20 or 50 years' time. Heck, what if we have a Martian colony by then? Do we change the name to "Interplanetary Priorities?"

Conclusion

I see "Global Priorities" as a cause within EA, but I don't think we should let that cause become the movement. It's not even the only approach to governance, let alone altruism. Spinoffs within or associated with the EA movement that specifically tackle global priorities should consider using that in their name. But I came for the guidance for what I should be doing with my life in order to do the most good, and I think that mission is best described by the name Effective Altruism.

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I think you make good points - basically all of these points came up in my mind when I read Jonas's post and the comments there, so I'm glad you've already written them up nice and clearly!

That said, I think it's also worth highlighting the following comment Jonas made on his post:

The current discussion in the comments seems quite centered on "effective altruism vs. global priorities". I just wanted to highlight that I spent, like, 3 minutes in total thinking about alternative naming options, and feel pretty confident that there are probably quite a few options that work better than "global priorities". In fact, when renaming CLR, we only came up with the new name after brainstorming many options. So I would really like us to generate a list of >10 great alternatives (i.e. actually viable alternatives) before starting to compare them.

(See also my reply there.)

Jonas Vollmer and others have a good argument that we should change the name of our movement from EA to Global Priorities.

Ugh, I really want to strongly object to that characterization of my post! I was mostly trying to share some concerns that I wasn't sure what to make of, and my key recommendation was that we "might want to consider de-emphasizing the EA brand". Rebranding the EA community was more of a tentative personal opinion, and "global priorities" was just a very tentative example for what the name could be in such a case.

I would appreciate if you could edit the post to make this clearer. I only discovered your post a day after it was posted, and am worried that people will now read my piece as saying something that I tried to avoid saying.

Otherwise, I think these are great points, and I agree with them. A lot ultimately comes down to empirical testing.

Hi Jonas. On taking a second look, the sentence that clinched me interpreting your argument as being for a name change from EA to GP (or something else) was:

“ I personally would feel excited about rebranding "effective altruism" to a less ideological and more ideas-oriented brand (e.g., "global priorities community", or simply "priorities community")”

I will make a note that you aren’t advocating a name change. You may want to consider making this clearer in your post as well :)

If you look back at Jonas' post a name change was just a "potential implication", alongside other steps to "de-emphasize the EA brand". I wouldn't say therefore that he is advocating a name change, just putting the idea out there.

Also he certainly doesn't advocate changing it to "Global Priorities" specifically as you have claimed. It was just one very tentative idea he had (clue is in the use of "e.g.").

EDIT: re-tracted as I thought AllAmericanBreakfast still thought Jonas was advocating for a name change but I misread

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Yeah, if anything this post should be positioned as an argument against Ryan Carey, not Jonas. Ryan is the one who really ran with the GP label in his comment; it was clearly just a throwaway suggestion in Jonas's post.

That said, given how much karma Ryan's comment was getting it's not obviously unreasonable to prepare a top-level response. But it should be positioned in that context, rather than misrepresenting Jonas's post.

[Edited to weaken some overstrong phrasing]

I don't know how much of an outlier I am, but I feel like "change the name of the movement" is mostly not an option on the table. Rather there's a question about how much (or when) to emphasise different labels, with the understanding that the different labels will necessarily refer to somewhat different things. (This is a different situation than an organisation considering a rebrand; in the movement case people who preferred the connotations of the older label are liable to just keep using it.)

Anyhow, I like your defence of "effective altruism", and I don't think it should be abandoned (while still thinking that there are some contexts where it gets used but something else might be better).

I think it's almost certainly possible to change the name of the movement if we want to – I think this would take an organization taking ownership of the project, hosting a well-organized Coordination Forum for the main stakeholders, and some good naming suggestions that lots of people can get behind.  Doing something ambitious like this might also generally improve the EA community's ability to coordinate around larger projects, which generally seems a useful capacity to develop.

That said, it would be a very effortful project, and should be carefully traded off against other priorities that might have a better benefit/cost ratio. It seems pretty likely to me that other priorities should be higher up on the list. This is why I also emphasized the "use of different labels in different contexts" more than the suggestion that we should rebrand EA in my original post.

(Perhaps that's what you meant with "not an option on the table"? I felt sad when reading that because I understood it as pessimism about EA's ability to coordinate, which I think hasn't really been attempted very well yet.)

Hmm, no, I didn't mean something that feels like pessimism about coordination ability, but that (roughly speaking) thing you get if you try to execute a "change the name of the movement" operation is not the same movement with a different name, but a different (albeit heavily overlapping) movement with the new name. And so it's better understood as a coordinated heavy switch to emphasising the new brand than it is just a renaming (although I think the truth is actually somewhere in the middle).

I don't think that's true if the name change is minor so that the connotations are pretty similar. I think that switching from "effective altruism" to "efficient do-gooding" is a switch which could more or less happen (you'd have a steady trickle of people coming in from having read old books or talked to people who were familiar with the old name, but "effective altruism, now usually called efficient do-gooding" would mostly work). But the identity of the movement is (at least somewhat) characterised by its name and how people understand it and relate to it. If you shifted to a name like "global priorities" with quite different connotations, I think that it would change people's relationship with the ideas, and you would probably find a significant group of people who said "well I identify with the old brand, but not with the new brand", and then what do you say to them? "Sorry, that brand is deprecated" doesn't feel like a good answer.

(I sort of imagine you agree with all of this, and by "change the name of the movement" you mean something obviously doable like getting a lot of web content and orgs and events and local groups to switch over to a new name. My claim is that that's probably better conceived of in terms of its constituent actions than in terms of changing the name of the movement.)

Thanks, that makes sense!

Yeah, it's an unfortunate phrasing. Often when people, especially authorities, say that they feel that something is not on the table, they're in-effect declaring that it is off the table, while avoiding the responsibility of explaining why. Which probably was not intended, but still came across as a bit uncool. It's like: can't we just figure out whether it's a good idea, and then decide whether to put it on the table?

Definitely didn't mean to shut down conversation! I felt like I had a strong feeling that it was not an option on the table (because of something like coherence reasons -- cf. my reply to Jonas -- not because it seemed like a bad or too-difficult idea). But I hadn't unpacked my feeling. I also wasn't sure whether I needed to, or whether when I posted everyone would say something like "oh, yeah, sure" and it would turn out to be a boring point. This was why I led with "I don't know how much of an outlier I am"; I was trying to invite people to let me know if this was a boring triviality after it was pointed out, or if it was worth trying to unpack.

P.S. I appreciate having what seemed bad about the phrasing pointed out.

I am enjoying all this recent discussion on what we should be calling "effective altruism". 

As EA ideas become more common and get applied in a larger variety of contexts, it might be good to have different words that are context and audience specific.  For example, "global priorities" seems like a great name for the academic field, and it can be acknowledged that it is related to "effective altruism" the social movement which is, itself, clearly very distinct but still related to the LessWrong/Rationality community. Maybe policy orientated effective altruism needs its own name (clearly related to the academic field and social movement but distinct from it?). Similarly, maybe it is also okay for a broader appeal version of effective altruism to have a different name (this is maybe what the GWWC brand is moving towards?). 

The effective altruism project is pretty broad and even if a large amount more thought had been put into the name, it still seems unlikely to me that one name could appeal to policy-makers, academics, the broader population and students/ people on the internet that both like to deeply philosophise about morality and base their lives around the conclusions of that philosophising. 

I have some data that may be relevant to folks with interest in this topic*:
I work for CEA, and this quarter I did a small brand test with Rethink’s help. We asked a sample of US college students if they had heard of “effective altruism.” Some respondents were also asked to give a brief definition of EA and a Likert scale rating of how negative/positive their first impression was of “effective altruism.”

Students who had never heard of “effective altruism” before the survey still had positive associations with it. Comments suggested that they thought it sounded good  - effectiveness means doing things well; altruism means kindness and helping people. (IIRC, the average Likert scale score was 4+ out of 5). There were a small number of critiques too, but fewer than we expected. (Sorry that this is just a high-level summary - we don't have a full writeup ready yet.)

Caveats: We didn't test the name “effective altruism” against other possible names. Impressions will probably vary by audience. It could still be the case that "EA" puts off a sub-set of the audience we really want to reach. (E.g. if we found that highly critical/truth-seeking people in certain fields were often turned away by "EA," I'd consider that a concern. We don't have that data). 

I do think this is encouraging, but doesn't settle the question.  Testing other brands and sub-brands may still be a good idea. Testing brands within very specific sub-audiences is also harder to do. CEA is currently considering trying to hire someone to test and develop the EA brand, and help field media inquiries.

*I think this post may have been written after I gave Max the info that he posted  on my behalf here so I'm cross-posting. 
 

This is great, I’ll put a note in the main post highlighting this when I get home.

As noted in my other comment, I think you make great points, though I also think that we should probably not spend too much energy specifically pitting "effective altruism" against "global priorities" before we've thought about more names and what our goals are. 

Those things being said, here are three additional points I'd make in favour of "effective altruism" over "global priorities", which I think are related but somewhat distinct from what you've said:

  • Another specific reason why a "global approach" or "global priorities" aren't necessarily what all EAs should focus on (even within their "altruistic budgets" of time, money, etc.) is comparative advantage. To elaborate: There are some cases in which something like "charity starts at home" makes sense, because there are cases in which "local issues" are easier for a person to learn about, form connections relevant to, gain influence over, and/or get motivated about.
    • I mainly have in mind "local" at a national or regional level, rather than e.g. individual cities.
    • E.g., I think people from the EU who want to influence AI policy are often/usually better off influencing EU AI policy rather than US AI policy. And this is despite the fact that I think US AI policy is in general substantially more important to influence on the margin.
    • Open Phil make a similar argument for making US policy a major focus area (though I'm not sure I fully endorse all their priorities there, personally).
    • This still requires prioritisation (e.g., don't just jump to working on improving education in one's city because that's what one has already heard about), but pushes against just picking global priorities, or even things that are global priorities on the margin (so account for neglectedness) in general.
  • I think "using evidence and reason to do the most good possible" really is a great slogan-length encapsulation of the aims of EA, from my perspective. Relatedly, I think the "combining the head and the heart" framing seems appropriate to me (and also compelling to me personally, though that data point seems less relevant). And "effective altruism" lines up neatly with each of those two-part framings.
    • I think this aligns closely with a bunch of things you already said. To some extent, this may just be a different way of framing some points you made.
  • I think "global priorities" doesn't strongly imply actually taking any actions (whether large-scale or individual). It sounds more naturally like it focuses on research. 
    • EA is already often perceived as too research-focused, so it might be good to avoid things that would exacerbate that.

Thank you for this post. This is a really fascinating discussion. I'm not entirely sure which "side" I end up on (or, of course, maybe there's another name that would be better than both that hasn't been proposed). At first I wasn't sure, but I might agree that GP sounds more arrogant than EA. Or at least they're both pretty close. 

Honestly, this whole debate—and similar recent ones— has made me very confused about what EA is at the moment. I look back to the pitch that I gave my college roommate about doing more good by being thoughtful and deliberative about charities and I wonder how much longer that will be (should be, can be) the EA (GP?) pitch. I wonder how I would've reacted to a GP pitch about researching and engaging in ostensible global priorities over the "you can help a lot of people and isn't that good" pitch.

I think EA sometimes tries to have it all. Like, it wants to be everything and to be compatible with all (or most) worldviews. But it seems to me that if you want to be an "international social movement" then you probably can't be Global Priorities, because that (I would argue) is pretty arrogant and exclusive. However, if you want to have more of a research/prioritization focus and less on things like individual donors, well, then Effective Altruism might not cut it either.

So, what is EA? Is it about donating? Going vegan? Getting an impactful job? Doing high-level research into cause X? Is it movement focused or is it research focused? 

My intuition is that you can't be all of this. Or, at the very least, we don't have the bandwidth for all of this. 

I'm very confused about this, does anyone have a way to resolve this at least a little?

I think it can be all of this, and much more. EA can have tremendous capacity for issuing broad recommendations and tailored advice to individual people. It can be about philosophy, governance, technology, and lifestyle.

How could we have a movement for effective altruism if we couldn’t encompass all that?

This is a community, not a think tank, and a movement rather than an institution. It goes beyond any one thing. So to join it or explain it - that’s a little like explaining what America is all about, or Catholicism is all about, or science is all about. You don’t just explain it, you live it, and the journey will look different to different people. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Thanks for this response! This is helpful, but I still have uncertainties.

Take conferences as an example. Conferences can only be about so much, obviously given their limited time and bandwidth. Should we expect that EA conferences in the next ten years (let's say) will have all of these things? That Session A will be about how veganism is necessary (or unnecessary) and that Session B will be about how it only makes sense to focus on the longterm? 

I think it seems possible that you're right, but also EA is still very young and has already changed a lot in its short time on Earth. So, I think it's reasonable to assume that it will continue to change, and I think we can't easily say that it will or won't change in a way that becomes far less interested in lifestyle issues and far more interested in really big, cerebral questions about the future, cause x, and so on.  Anecdotally, I think it's fair to notice that EA is moving in this direction a bit already. Why would we think that it won't continue to? The proportion of EA that is interested in lifestyle vs metaethics vs whatever else is not destined to be the same proportion forever, right? And therefore the content of the movement will change.

Some of this disagreement might come down to the earlier forum debate of EA as a question vs an ideology. I view it as an ideology and very much not as something that you live in the way that you describe. But that strikes me as an agree to disagree-type situation. 

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