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Rhodri Davies is a smart, reasonable, and well-respected commentator on philanthropy. Many people who follow charity and philanthropy in the UK (outside of EA) are familiar with his blog.

He also has a background in maths and philosophy at Oxford (if I remember correctly) so he's exactly the sort of person that EA might attract, so it should be of interest to the EA movement to know why he didn't want to sign up.

The critique that I most liked was the one entitled "Is EA just another in a long line of attempts to “rationalise” philanthropy?" I've copied and pasted it below. Rhodri has spent a lot of time thinking about the history of philanthropy, so his perspective is really valuable.


Is EA just another in a long line of attempts to “rationalise” philanthropy?

The dose of historical perspective at the end of the last section brings me to another one of my issues with EA: a nagging suspicion that it is in fact just another in a very long line of efforts to make philanthropy more “rational” or “effective” throughout history. The C18th and early C19th, for instance, saw efforts to impose upon charity the principles of political economy (the precursor to modern economics which focused on questions of production, trade and distribution of national wealth – as exemplified in the work of writers such as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo). Then in the C19th and early C20th the Charity Organisation Society and Scientific Philanthropy movements waged war on the perceived scourge of emotionally driven “indiscriminate giving”.

Charity Organization Society, by Henry Tonks 1862-1937. (Made available by the Tate Gallery under a CC 3.0 license http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11004)

This perhaps bothers me more than most people because I spend so much of my time noodling around in the history of philanthropy. It also isn’t a reason to dismiss EA out of hand: the fact that it might have historical precedents doesn’t invalidate it, it just means that we should be more critical in assessing claims of novelty and uniqueness. It also suggests to me that there would be value in providing greater historical context for the movement and its ideas. Doing so may well show that EA is genuinely novel in at least some regards (the idea of total cause agnosticism, for instance, is something that one might struggle to find in previous attempts to apply utilitarian thinking to philanthropy). But the other thing the history of philanthropy tends to show is that everyone thinks at the time that their effort to make giving “better” or “more rational” is inherently and objectively right, and it is often only with the benefit of hindsight that it becomes clear quite how ideologically driven and of their time they actually are. For my money, it is still an open question as to whether future historians will look back on EA in the same way that we look back on the Charity Organisation movement today.

The other thing that historical perspective brings is the ability to trace longer-term consequences. And this is particularly important here, because efforts to make charity more “rational” have historically had an unfortunate habit of producing unintended consequences. The “scientific philanthropy” movement of the early 20th century, for instance (which counted many of the biggest donors and foundations of the era among its followers) had its roots in the 19th century charity organisation societies, which were primarily concerned with addressing inefficiency and duplication of charitable effort at a local level, and ensuring that individual giving was sufficiently careful to distinguish between ‘deserving’ and undeserving’ cases (as outlined further in this previous article). Over time, however, the influence of new ideas about applying Darwin’s theories of evolution by natural selection to human societies led to a growing number of scientific philanthropists flirting with (or, in some cases, outright embracing) theories of eugenics; including deeply problematic, pseudo-scientific ideas about race and approaches such as forced sterilisation. Which is not to say that Effective Altruism will follow the same template, but it should provide a warning from history that “improving” philanthropy can be a dangerous business. (And some would argue that EA has already started to develop problematic consequences of its own, as we shall see in the next section).





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Thanks for posting this, super interesting! I was nicely surprised to find this forum post in the Wikipedia page on the "Scientific Charity Movement".

I think that post highlights some important differences. Some interesting quotes:
> EAs are also much less confident that they know what people need better than they do.
> To many EAs, dividing the poor into deserving and undeserving groups just doesn't make sense
> standards of evidence are much better now than they were over a century ago
> errors of charity that EA is a response to generally include the errors of SC
> The main way I see the comparison as a warning is that EA could end up somewhere where EA continues to talk in a scientific way, confidence goes up, standards of evidence fall, and EA ends up pushing hard on things that aren't actually that important.

On your point on not knowing what people want, I really like that EA in general seem pretty positive to just give direct cash transfers. When they even are unconditional, it seems at first look to me that it is quite unlikely to be judged harshly in the future.

Hi Lorenzo, can you please expand on "> EAs are also much less confident that they know what people need better than they do"?

In my experience, EA has an aura of being confident that their conclusions are more accurate or effective than others' (including beneficiaries) because people within EA arrive at their conclusions using robust tools. 

Hi Hannah! My very personal perspective, I'm still relatively new to EA.

On  "uncertainty in general", I see lots of posts on Moral Uncertainty, Cluelessness, Model Uncertainty, "widen your confidence intervals", "we consider our cost-effectiveness numbers to be extremely rough", and so on, even after spending tens of millions/year in research.
I think this is very different from the attitude of the Scientific Charity movement.

On "beneficiaries preferences" I agree with you that the vast majority of EA in practice discounts them heavily, probably much more than when the post I linked to was written.

They are definitely taken into account though. I really like this document from a GiveWell staff member, and I think it's representative of how a large part of EA not focused on x-risk/longermism thinks about these things. Especially now that GiveDirectly has been removed from GiveWell recommended charities, which I think aura-wise is a big change.
But lots of EAs still donate to GiveDirectly, and GiveDirectly still gives talks in EA conferences and is on EA job boards.

I personally really like the recent posts and comments advocating for more research, and I think taking into account beneficiaries preferences is a tricky moral problem for interventions targeting humans.

Also probably worth mentioning "Big Tent EA" and "EA as a question".

Another spiritual EA predecessor is the Efficiency Movement . Focusing on improving the efficiency of existing institutions to improve public welfare, EM had a lot of support from philanthropists like Rockefeller and Carnegie, politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover and other notable figures like Brandeis and Bedeux. While not a 1-to-1 comparison, I think the focus on methodology and process analysis to maximise societal good across diverse cause areas appealed to the same demographic.

It's like if EA managed to secure the backing of all the FAANG founders, several POTUSes and broad support in activist organisations. Apparently, it did inspire business process innovations, modern conservationism and antitrust initiatives, tackling major issues of the time.

I can't find info on the "downfall" of EM. It seems to have just faded out of the public spotlight postwar. Perhaps it focused too much on few influential decision makers instead of appealing to the public. Like how Elon Musk, Vitalik Buterin and SBF are extremely supportive of EA, but the public doesn't associate any of them as "EA public figures" unless they actively look.

I think it's an exaggeration to say that Elon Musk is extremely supportive of EA.

I mean, SpaceX, OpenAI, Neuralink and Tesla all have goals ostensibly related to x-risk and longtermism, and hve made strides in those areas. I can't think of many billionaires running one x-risk/longtermist focused company, let alone several.

Plus his review of What We Owe The Future is "Worth reading. This is a close match for my philosophy."

I get that he's controversial and objectionable in other areas, but he's clearly a longtermist.

Thanks for the response! I agree that he's a longtermist philosophically, or at least acts this way. I think he's not a "community EA" per se. For example, he founded OpenAI despite strong opposition from this community. He kicked Igor out of his Foundation. And also the object-level of his ideas for improving the future aren't very good (though I like Boring Company, I'm a big fan of digging holes).

Well ... I'm not surprised, although I did not specifically know there was bad blood there. Were people reacting negatively to monetizing Pandora's Lootbox, so to speak?

Also, I went down the rabbit hole of your profile for a bit; I'm broadly curious what interesting megaprojects you'd personally like to see attempted? I'm risk-taking, bored and like to think I'm entrepreneurial, so I'd like to take a wack at some speculative ideas that don't exist yet.

edit: bruh i saw the edit, now i have to edit

Well honestly, I think EAs on an individual+philosophical level disagree more than they publicly show. Just meeting actual EAs, I see the occasional clash between neartermism vs longtermism, messaging, community building, animal vs human prioritisations. Of course this hasn't spiral into anything bad, but it's there. I think if every EA was  billionaire, we'd see more awkward distancing as everyone pushes forward with their own thing. I don't think Bill Gates actively associates with AMF, Givewell or EA even though the Gates Foundation is actively working to eradicate malaria among other illness.

As for the object-level, yeah some are weird, but the net benefit is still great. I chalk it down to duds being inevitable when you take that many risks. For comparison, Steve Jobs certainly drove the consumer electronics industry forward, but he oversaw plenty of stupid duds that almost destroyed Apple. And he almost named the MacIntosh the "Bicycle".

Sorry, I often edit my comments after a first pass when I realized I had something important to add. I usually don't warn people if I do it within a few hours after commenting.

Were people reacting negatively to monetizing Pandora's Lootbox, so to speak?

I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to, but people didn't like the AGI meme being spread very widely, and OpenAI's Theory of Change was pretty bad, even if you take Elon Musk's comments at face value. Elon viewed artificial general intelligence as "summoning a demon" and inexplicably wanted to democratize it. This is a bad theory of change because democraticizing demon-summoning is not a good way to make sure the world is not overrun by demons. OpenAI is relatively more circumspect now but many other groups have jumped on the AGI hype train. It's not clear to me whether this is inevitable vs. accelerated by the creation of OpenAI + impressive demos from them.

I'm broadly curious what interesting megaprojects you'd personally like to see attempted?

Thank you so much for your interest! Most projects I'm excited about are pretty high-context. Are you going to EAGx Singapore? I'm not planning to go myself but I can see if any of my coworkers will be excited to shill for potential longtermist megaprojects there.

I'm volunteering there at EAGx, since I'm a matriculating student at the university itself!

In general, I've just been trawling around for more interesting projects to work on that have high uncertainty and require various skillsets. I get very uninspired with normal school/academic stuff, and I'm noticing other people can climb the career ladder better than I can so might as well lean into building. So I'm just starved for ideas.

Some examples of things that I'd be excited for generically smart + entrepreneurial junior people to try. 

  • Design better PPE (pushing the envelope on protection, comfort, or cost)
  • AI alignment research distillation
  • Identifying/summarizing the relevant resources for rebuilding after civilizational collapse.
  • Broadly, coming up with a plan and executing quickly on creating and distributing "civilizational restart manuals"
  • Ventilation and sanitation projects that pushes the envelope on either protection or cost.
  • Getting better at forecasting and/or forecasting adjacent things
    • An example of a forecasting-adjacent thing is organizing a team of forecasters to work on specific problems
    • Another example is creating data pipelines to help forecasters forecast better/faster
  • Cheaper/faster versions of any of the above, at the potential expense of quality.
    • The trick is not hogging up/monopolizing the space, so it's easy for others to move in.
  • High-quality translation of EA, longtermist, or rationality materials into local languages.
  • Doing a kickass job at university group or other community building.
  • Joining an existing EA or longtermist-oriented org working on important longtermist priorit.

Please note that while these things are all directly valuable, most of the value in doing them is a combination of skill-building, network building, and helping you to orient yourself to doing useful EA work. Also please note that I'm just one generalist researcher who has very briefly thought about each of this problems, not an expert on any of these problems and certainly not an expert on your own career options.

hmmmmn further implementation questions hehe

The community building part doesn't surprise me, I'll read stuff other people have written, unless there's an unpopular take you have that you'd like to mention. And of course shotgunning program and grant applications

I'm interested in the civilisational collapse thing. I always considered it a valid and meaningful area of investment. I'm curious how you'd recommend someone early in their career get in on this? Because I always implicitly assumed "the government was handling it", and that you'd need 30 years of civil service experience before getting to do anything.

What would you recommend to get started on forecasting? I have a fairly above-average track record especially for unusual occurences, and would not mind doing it as a hobby or full time. My issue was that I hated seeing decision makers ignore my findings/predictions, hence why I first went so hard into advocacy. I struggle to see how forecasting could go mainstream, but I find I'm earlier to trends than I expect.

I'm interested in the civilisational collapse thing. I always considered it a valid and meaningful area of investment. I'm curious how you'd recommend someone early in their career get in on this?

E.g. Think about a likely trajectory of civilizational collapse, and what's needed to restart it. Figure out a narrow subset of the problem (fertilizer?) and how would you do this if you were in charge of making it happen. 

Maybe do some desk research on what's already been done in the space, and try to branch out from there.

Because I always implicitly assumed "the government was handling it", and that you'd need 30 years of civil service experience before getting to do anything.

Which governments in particular are you thinking about? I guess my perspective  (which to be clear is more theoretical; I can definitely be corrected by empirical evidence!) is that basically no government has ever put serious effort into this. Like why would they? This seems far outside of their organizational mandate, and even many EAs I know of don't want to work on this because of the long time to impact and potentially grim worldview. 

What would you recommend to get started on forecasting? I have a fairly above-average track record especially for unusual occurences, and would not mind doing it as a hobby or full time.

Probably start an account on Metaculus or Manifold Markets and just start predicting? You can also find study materials later, like the book Superforecasting and this youtube series.  

My issue was that I hated seeing decision makers ignore my findings/predictions, hence why I first went so hard into advocacy.

I think if you built up a legible track record for your past predictions, and have good, clear, arguments for each of your future predictions, then decision-makers in EA will probably pay attention. And at this point, EA is a large enough force in the world that you can have a lot of impact just by making EA decisions better. 

EA is strategic charity. Strategic thought has a long, rich history, in politics, business, and the military. I just read Lawrence Freeman’s “Strategy,” an enormous history of strategic thought.

One thing I learned is that it’s normal for a pressing need, like strategic action, to have a history of prior theories that made sense in context, and that gave way, matured, or became richer with further strands of thought over time. I expect the same will happen with EA. That’s perfectly compatible with EA being a leading and important strand of philanthropic thought in the present, with further contributions to make in the coming decades.

There’s an essay on Philo’s substack pointing out that Netflix was just cable over the internet, but that the differences between Netflix and cable were still large enough to be a game-changer. Likewise, humans and chips are very different, yet share 99% of their DNA. EA can have similarities to earlier charity movements, yet be more different than similar in its effects. We should be careful about the tendency to stop at “scientific philanthopy. You invented scientific philanthropy.” The details and execution matter. If anything, the history of prior attempts shows a persistent need for the sort of thing EA is trying to accomplish.

I’d also point out that EA can benefit from contextualizing it in the present, not just the past. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (is it still called that?) isn’t EA, but they approach philanthropy using many of the same lenses that EA does. There’s a general push to allocate resources to target the most important, tractable, and neglected levers for making a difference in well-run government agencies, even if they don’t explicitly use the ITN framework. EA can be seen as part of a larger push to rationalize public services and allocate resources efficiently. Again, the details that make EA different from these other efforts are key, but I think that a narrative of EA as the latest in a long line of failed and faded attempts to rationalize altruism gives a different feeling that seeing it as part of a vibrant and wide ranging push across many philanthropic and public services to serve the public good more strategically.


I certainly see the parallels with 19th century technocratic progressivism  (which for all its faults seems to have had a positive influence on net), and I am not questioning the author's broader point that "improving philanthropy can be a dangerous business".

Now, if you look at the specifics of what the Charity Society Organization believed, I find it unlikely EAs would make the same sort of mistakes. 

- The idea that private charity is intrinsically preferrable to public spending when it comes to alleviating poverty is not really an EA  issue. The movement was not created in opposition to public spending and has never set out to draw that sort of separation line (to my knowledge). My read is that you can easily be pro-EA as a social democrat or Third Way type who would welcome higher public spending on anti-poverty programmes, provided they achieve their goals. There is no particular tension there.

- The idea that there are deserving and undeserving poor seems to be in direct contradiction with the sort of broad-based, every-human-being-matters, "utilitarian-ish" worldview that you often find at the moral core of EA.

- As for the appeal of eugenism, I am somewhat more worried that similar mistakes might happen, since certain brands of utilitarianism have served as a gateway drug to that thinking in the past. However the EA approach to utilitarianism seems to be a lot more sophisticated. So far I haven't seen any particular tendency for EA to propose Bond-villain schemes that would directly harm others "for the greater good". 

However, if I try to abstract away some of the common elements between those past mistakes, there does seem to be a pattern we can learn from, namely:

  • Do not turn use rationality as a cover for contemptuous views of others
  • Do not presuppose you know better than others what's good for them
  • Do not try to do good in spite of people, or against their consent
  • If "rationality", "science" or "efficiency" lead you to extraordinarily strange, "yuck" actions that cause direct harm to others, there's a good chance the "yuck" factor is not just your irrationality speaking. You're probably just wrong.

Thought it was a cool article!  Particularly liked his self reflection at the end.  I think finding ways to integrate some but not all EA principles, or to adhere moderately rather than totally, are really valuable. 

Just in terms of the title of this post, he is quick to clarify that the title of his article is:

'Why am I not an EA?' 

rather than 

'What I am not and EA.'

Which I think this title kind of misses...

I'm probably just being pedantic though.  Thanks for sharing. 

I had never heard of any of these predecessor movements to EA! Would love to read more history about the Charity Organisation Society, the Scientific Philanthropy movement, or the Efficiency Movement. 

I enjoyed "Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation" about the British Royal society. I don't know about the other movements/organizations more directly tied to EA sadly, but maybe someone else does?