How Effective Altruists Can Be Welcoming To Conservatives


Most effective altruists are on the left; only a small number of effective altruists are on the right (as opposed to identifying as centrist, libertarian, or something else). For this reason, effective altruists often assume that everyone interested in effective altruism is a liberal. However, many conservatives are interested in doing good better, and it seems to me that there’s low-hanging fruit in making the EA community a community in which conservatives feel comfortable.

(To be clear, I myself am a liberal. I’m basing this post partially on my own experiences as a person with minority political beliefs in various communities, and partially on talking with conservative friends. I encourage conservative commenters to offer their advice and opinions.)

There are some compromises we don’t want to make in order to make conservatives feel more welcome. Most obviously, we don’t want to compromise honesty. In certain cause areas such as criminal justice reform, many top charities will have a liberal lean. (Of course, it’s perfectly possible that in other cause areas the top charities will have a conservative lean– and part of the advantage of being inclusive of conservatives is that they might alert us to those charities.) As effective altruists, we must report honestly what we believe the best place to donate is, and not censor ourselves based on political convenience.

There are some ways that effective altruist norms have evolved that may make conservatives uncomfortable but that we wouldn’t necessarily want to change. For example, effective altruist communities typically request that people use trans people’s preferred pronouns. Many conservatives (and some liberals) are uncomfortable using trans people’s preferred pronouns, and this norm may make them feel unwelcome. However, I think that using trans people’s preferred pronouns is in fact a relatively low-cost way to make trans people much happier and I do not think the effective altruist community should shift to a different set of norms in order to welcome conservatives.

Nevertheless, there are certain pieces of low-hanging fruit that I think many effective altruists may want to consider picking up.

Much of the low-hanging fruit actually overlaps with other kinds of low-hanging inclusiveness-related fruit we might want to pick. For example, while effective altruism as a movement is consequentialist, many conservatives (and, for that matter, non-effective-altruist liberals) are not strict consequentialists. Remember that most people have some non-consequentialist beliefs and that it is not a completely baffling and incomprehensible situation if someone objects to a course of action for non-consequentialist reasons.

The key thing is to always consider that a conservative may be in your audience. Many effective altruist speeches and essays assume the entire audience votes Democratic, even when the subject is entirely unrelated to politics. It’s easy to make an off-handed remark about vote-trading to get Clinton to win being a plausible EA cause or the president being the world’s number one Cheeto-related existential risk, but these remarks can hurt conservative listeners or readers. It is often worth rereading your speech or essay, imagining that you are a conservative and flagging passages that would make you feel unwelcome.

Pay particular attention to your jokes. Many jokes hinge on the idea that a group of people (none of whom, obviously, are in the audience) is stupid, not worth listening to, or evil, or on misrepresenting a group’s opinions so that they look dumb. These jokes feel awful if you’re a member of that group, and they’re not good from a truth-seeking perspective either– if you want to claim that a group of people is generally stupid and evil, you should defend it properly and not hide behind humor.

In particular, watch what you say about creationists. I have seen many rationalists and effective altruists say “we should engage with the arguments of people who disagree with us, as long as they’re not incredibly dumb like young-earth creationists.” It’s true that there are likely to be few young-earth creationists in EA. However, since political views run in families, many conservatives have young-earth creationist friends and family, and many used to be young-earth creationists themselves. Having their loved ones or past selves dismissed as incredibly dumb can make many people feel like you’re calling them dumb.

Similarly, think twice before making broad generalizations about Trump supporters. Many conservatives voted for Trump (often very unenthusiastically), and even those who stayed home, voted third-party, or held their noses and voted for Clinton may have loved ones who voted for Trump. Calling all Trump supporters Nazis or racists can make even Never Trump Republicans feel like you’re calling all conservatives Nazis or racists. When it is necessary to talk about Trump supporters, try specifying exactly what you mean: say “Trump’s base in the primaries has above-average levels of ethnocentricism according to polls”, not “Trump supporters are racist.”

Take particular care to avoid characterizing all conservatives as sexist, racist, xenophobic, or homophobic. Again, speaking in specifics can help: “many conservatives support reduced immigration, which I believe is harmful to the global poor,” not “conservatives hate immigrants.” Try engaging with conservatives’ arguments: for example, you might explain that the evidence suggests that immigrants do not actually take our jobs.

Scrutinize every mention of Donald Trump with great care. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that we should never mention the president, but I think it is best to avoid mentioning him in effective altruist writing unless he is obviously relevant to the topic.

“If you’re religious, then the most effectively altruist thing is to convert everyone because of the infinite utility of Heaven” is not nearly as clever as you think it is. Every religious effective altruist has heard this argument from a hundred different atheists, including ones whose religion does not actually include a concept of Heaven. No religious effective altruist is doing this. Stop bringing it up.

Don’t schedule all your events on Sunday mornings.

When it is necessary to give political examples, try to give an equal number from both sides of the aisle. I find pro-life causes to be a particularly fertile source of examples. Pro-life advocacy is similar to effective altruism in many ways: its advocates believe that they’re fighting against an ongoing moral atrocity and it involves expanding the circle of concern. There’s a lot of opportunity to prioritize pro-life charities or start new charities based on reason and evidence. For example, as far as I’m aware, few pro-life advocates are exploring provision of long-acting reversible contraception, uterine replicators, or early miscarriage prevention.

When it is relevant, make a point of highlighting the altruistic achievements of conservative politicians. For example, Senator Mike Lee, a Republican, has been one of the strongest voices in favor of allowing animal-product-free alternatives to be labeled “mayonnaise,” “soy milk,” and so on. Not only is understandable labeling important in the short run, it establishes a good precedent for clean meat being labeled as meat, which could help customers accept it as an alternative to animal-grown meat. Similarly, PEPFAR– a program championed by George W. Bush– has saved the lives of at least a million people for only $2,500 a life, competitive with GiveWell top charities.