Some Modes of Thinking about EA

by edoarad 13d9th Nov 20193 min read3 comments


[I've been thinking a lot lately about EA as an R&D project. While collecting my thoughts, I had some notes on other ways of thinking of EA which might be valuable. This is not meant to be precise or complete.]


There is a constant debate on how we should define EA and what it entails. In this post, I present several modes of thinking about what is EA which might be useful in some context. My goal in writing this is to present and combine several old and new ideas, to hopefully spark new ways of thinking. This should also help to clarify that there are many ways of looking at EA, although the following is not at all aimed to be a rigorous taxonomy.

I find particularly interesting the distinction between EA as an individual project rather than a community project, which seems to me to be conflated frequently. I think that there is much more room for clarification and deliberation on this.

Modes of thinking about EA-

EA as a Question

EA Should be thought of as a question- “How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?”.

Useful -

  • for being Cause Impartial.
  • for maintaining flexibility and seeking new information.
  • as a way of communicating openness.

EA as an Ideology

Effective altruism is an ideology, meaning that it has particular (if somewhat vaguely defined) set of core principles and beliefs, and associated ways of viewing the world and interpreting evidence.

Useful -

  • to critically consider which viewpoints, questions, answers and frameworks are actually privileged in EA discussion.
  • when thinking in terms of principles and identity.

EA as a Movement

The mode of thinking that involves how the EA community revolves around a set of ideas, norms and identities.

Useful -

EA as a Community

Who are the people involved? How are they connected? What do they need?

Useful -

EA is an Opportunity

We are in a unique position to do a lot of good

Useful -

  • for enjoying the process of doing good better.

EA as a Moral Obligation

If there is a way to do a lot of good, we ought to do that. If we can do more good, we ought to do that instead. Can be very dependant on cost to self.

Useful -

  • for considering how much one should sacrifice.
  • when pondering the exact normative stance. What is good?

EA as a Worldview

Specifically mentioned in this post that a crucial assumption of EA is that we can discover ways to do more good. Also, it is a basic assumption the some ways of doing good are much better than others.

Useful -

  • for articulating underlying assumptions of the community and engage with criticism.
  • to systematically analyze what is still not known and what we need to research further.

EA is a commitment to Epistemology

In this post Stefan argus that EA is not about factual beliefs, but instead about epistemology and morality. In EA, the discovery process of facts involves the use of evidence and reason.

Useful -

  • when making personal or professional decisions, and we want to make sure that we are doing it right.
  • for setting a standard for the community's processes.

EA is an Individual Mission

People in EA should seek to do as much good as their limited resources allow, while analyzing their own worldview and moral stance and acting accordingly.

Useful -

  • for considering career/life options.
  • when bargaining in a moral trade.
  • when analyzing one self's marginal value (see [this response] from Hilary Greaves to the "collectivist critique").

EA is a partnership.

People with somewhat different moral perspectives and world-view agree to work together.

Useful -

  • when thinking how (and why) to contribute to each other's goals.
  • when help is needed from people we trust.

EA is smarter than me

A lot of decisions can be delegated to the EA set of ideas and leadership. I do not need to figure out exactly why, say, longtermism is correct because a lot of work has been done to convince a lot of people. This allows me to work on what I believe to be the most important thing to do without actually understanding why.

Useful -

  • to efficiently accept a world-view based on some simple and plausible assumptions.
  • when thinking about how we present our claims to the general community.
  • when we are wary of being cultish.

EA is a set of memes

There is a vastly growing set of ideas and insights arising from EA.

Useful -

EA is a set of Organisations and Community Leaders

EA is somewhat centralized and is influenced by a set of key individuals and organisation.

Useful -

  • when trying to affect the community and looking for points of influence.
  • when considering other dynamics in the community.
  • when seeking help or collaboration with a specific project.

EA is an inspiring community and social network

EA is awesome!

Useful -

  • when considering whether to attend EAG or not 😊