This is a linkpost for https://reboothq.substack.com/p/ineffective-altruism

This isn't my writing, but I thought I should share this recent criticism of EA. The author has engaged seriously enough with effective altruism that they were able to explain the argument for it pretty faithfully. Although I don't agree with most of the arguments in the post, I think it provides a thoughtful perspective that reflects how people outside the movement (especially those with a social justice background) are likely to view EA.

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My very short summary of the post:

  1. It gives a pretty fair exposition on the EA movement, including recognising its diversity of thought.
  2. It argues that important types of "good" are much less measurable (because they are abstract, long term, or don't make sense on am individual level), but have to be taken into account. It also argues explicitly against Longtermism, ostensibly promoting a discount coefficient close to, but smaller than, 1.
  3. It derives some conclusions on things that ought to be done, like labor unions and mutual aid communities.

I agree with most of it, but struggle to see how this all implies the focus on local action that underlies it.

For example, this is a core paragraph:

What might “moral good” look like outside of market-derived values (like the maximization principle)? How can we collectively decide to allocate resources? How can we build societies based on principles that cannot be measured, like mutual respect and solidarity? How can we eliminate material misery from the world? What might we do to ensure the flourishing of future generations, rather than just their survival? How can we depart from a society where those who have the privilege to choose to care about others can, and move towards a society where everyone has the power to care about others and must?

And indeed most of these are guiding questions for me too; and so far, they've mostly guided me to Effective Altruism, even if they also encourage additional actions that the EA movement isn't yet taking.

It seems to me some criticisms, including this one, paint a picture that does not very accurately describe what most effective altruists are up to in a practical sense. You could get the idea that EA is 10,000 people waking up every day thinking about esoteric aspects of AI safety, actively avoiding any other current issues regardless of scale.

In reality, a fair chunk (probably a vast majority?) do what most would perceive as "traditional" charity work, e.g. working at an organisation that tries to alleviate poverty or promote animal welfare, organising their community (university etc.) to promote doing good, doing research on effective methods for solving large problems in society today, or getting more people and organisations to donate money to charitable causes.

I have a hard time believing the general public actually thinks existential risk research on things like pandemic preparation/prevention is a bad idea or not money well spent. But if you equal existential risk with AI threat, it's a whole other framing.

Every movement will have far-out elements that might be hard to make sense of without a lot of context, but that are also just one facet of the movement as a whole. A lot of the recent criticisms of EA I've seen target longtermism in its most "extreme" form, and drag all of effective altruism with it. The criticism of longtermism is very healthy and useful, in my opinion, but this conflation is concerning.

Well AI Safety is strongly recommended by 80k, gets a lot of funding, and is seen as prestigious / important by people (The last one is just in my experience). And the funding and attention given to longtermism is increasing. So I think it's fair to criticize these aspects if you disagree with them, although I guess charitable criticism would note that global poverty etc got a lot more attention in the beginning and is still well funded and well regarded by EA.

A lot of the recent criticisms of EA I've seen target longtermism in its most "extreme" form, and drag all of effective altruism with it.

Although I am philosophically very persuaded by longtermism (I think it is an especially important contribution from the effective altruism community and I'm actively working on longtermist causes alongside other ones) I think that it's not the only game in town and we should be careful about times when we might be accidentally representing EA in that way. I think that if we're not especially careful to represent the diversity within EA and too actively promote one particular set of conclusions we'll continue to have hit pieces (like this) that start to equate EA with longtermism.

Exactly! Somewhat of a sidenote but I find it relevant: I've seen this thing with many political parties in Sweden that usually have a youth organisation that for various reasons often represents a more radical version of the so-called party line on various issues. Political opponents will try to hold the party responsible for what the youth branch says and does, but it's generally understood by most (I think) that the latter is the avant-garde and should not be conflated with the general views of e.g. those voting for the party in elections. Denying there are important connections between the two would be dishonest, but so would saying they are the same be.

paint a picture that does not very accurately describe what most effective altruists are up to in a practical sense.

And also what they do in their daily lives, outside the time or resources they allot to "effectiveness".

It was nice to read something that was both well-written and well-intentioned!

I don't agree with the proposed alternative to longtermism of 'ineffective altruism' eschewing metrics in favour of doing things what intuitively feels right.  If you disagree with longtermism the natural conclusion to me intuitively seems to be doubling down on high empirical standards and measurability.

On a slightly uncharitable side note, something I find amusing is that it's not long ago we were getting criticised for being overly obsessed with only what could be measured, and that we should be more open to the value of systemic change and such. Then a few years pass by, and now the criticism is that we're overly focused on existential risks that are impossibly difficult to measure and can be used to justify anything!

I am suspicious that while these criticisms attack the methodology of effective altruism, the methodology is not the real cause of tension but rather its conclusions.

On a slightly uncharitable side note, something I find amusing is that it's not long ago we were getting criticised for being overly obsessed with only what could be measured, and that we should be more open to the value of systemic change and such

To be charitable to EA's detractors, it's very possible these are criticisms coming from different people! Some people will be more worried about measurable outcomes, others about systemic change. If EA is getting both kinds of criticisms then it's probably doing better than if it's only getting one type!