With a career sat at the intersection between social impact and global health, I have developed an allergy to expressions like ‘democratising access to X’ and ‘blockchain-enabled solutions to *insert social injustice here*’. My teeth have been cut by the UN, Think Tanks, Corporate Philanthropy and a range of advocacy groups, so I know how empty such language can really be. Value signalling, buzzword bingo and CorporateSpeak are all examples of the ways in which our careful choice of words can give the impression of impact, of common cause, while deflecting attention and scrutiny. 

 

When we agree to the ways in which we speak we are, to an extent, agreeing on the ways in which we are allowed to think. By adopting a shared lexicon, we dull our analytical thinking and trade our agency for a thin sense of camaraderie or in-group identity. As any self-help guru can tell you, with strength in numbers it becomes easier to dress up common sense as the profound. That’s why I was so suspicious when I was introduced to Effective Altruism, worrying these new key terms would be just as vapid as the boardroom mantras I already had tattooed to the tip of my tongue and the pit of my stomach. But I’m here, writing on the EA Forum after a whirlwind weekend at EAGxBerlin. So clearly something must have gone right. 

 

My conference experience was, I’m sure, fairly typical: over-caffeinated, under-slept and socially saturated, but I know I’ve caught the EA bug. Although I wouldn’t allow myself to use words I didn’t fully understand or believe in just to fit in, the sincerity of those I met combined with the hard logic of the premises at play were enough to see this social justice warrior parley with the best of them. That said, while I may have tried the Kool-Aid, I’m certainly not drunk on it. There were aspects of the conference that I felt were lacking and some conversations that left me cold. The thing which concerned me most, however, was the intellectual homogeneity I saw. Scout versus soldier mindsets aside, I didn’t come across that many delegates who really had their boots on the ground. I looked around to find software developers, scientists, researchers, policy-makers and other trutlenecked pontificators, but a very poor showing from the creative world. 

 

This is to EA’s detriment. We learn as much from fiction, from art, as we do from instruction and rebellion is found in the literary world or the fresco long before it hits the debating floor. So where are our radicals? Where are our writers? Our artists? Our poets? Our anarchists? Unless EA changes its positioning soon, it is so obvious to me that this well-meaning platform will remain a sparring ground of ideas, of ivory towers, and not of grassroots or picket lines. 

 

We need these trailblazers. The march of human progress – okay the cha-cha slide of human progress – is defined by the coupling of the radical with the practical. Be it the tandem influence of Martin Luther King and Malcom X for civil rights, or of the Suffragettes and Suffragists for women’s suffrage, one cannot make headway on social injustice without the counterbalance of the other. The radicals are there to stir up the public frenzy that threatens power into action while making the moderates seem reasonable enough to hold the pen. Without them, attempts to evoke change from the inside would only suffocate. 

 

In the remit of EA, radical actors are now a necessity; they lend the energy, the direction, and the credibility it needs to win over a broader public and not just the choir it preaches to. The world of social justice is not so easily swayed as Silicon Valley, we do not iterate, and we certainly do not ‘fail fast’. Such concessions cost lives. This doggedness is something EA sorely lacks at present: its principles are more fluid, more congenial to the power structures that cause the existential threats it rails against. Such flexibility may make us more effective collaborators, but not necessarily more effective influencers. The direction provided by political or ideological weathervanes does not hold its ground in changing winds. Instead, by appealing to the social justice warrior, EA targets become non-negotiable and our politic more steadfast and demanding. 

 

But EA Principles do little to endear themselves to social justice. Strict rationalism and Pascal-Wager-like calculations for doing good feel false, contrived, and a far cry from the wildfire of activism. Longtermism is abhorrent to the advocate. Indeed, for those surrounded by subsistence, corruption, exploitation and torture, the hypothetical - the far future - represents a luxury holiday and not an international emergency. They cannot afford to indulge in a worldview that overshoots far beyond present dangers. Instead, like a patient in a car crash, first aid must be performed before surgery. Moreover, the moral value of future lives is a viewpoint many in social justice have seen weaponised against them. My own work to promote reproductive freedom in women and access to abortion comes up against this argument daily, for example. All this breeds a fundamental distrust between the actors on the ground and the castles in the sky that EA conjures. Urgent work is therefore needed to see EA principles embraced by the marginalised and those mobilised to support them directly. 

 

I offer three initial routes to making headway here. Firstly, it is essential that we find common ground to work from, reconciling our theory and our language with the real-world experience of advocates. We are not so different, and we need to prove that. We need to demonstrate how what can come off as fixed narratives and frameworks are completely complimentary to the goals and methods of social justice. We need to seek out consultation with these groups, diversifying our policy stream to include the tip-of-the-spear actors good policy is inspired by. We will need to get creative with the bridges that we build, however, looking for rebellion in the arts, community collectives and affinity groups as well as the well-worn path to not-for-profits. Second, we must diversify where we publish; features in The Economist and big wins in academic journals will not exactly bring us to the beating heart of changemaking. We need to move away from these old guard outlets and find spaces where we make ourselves open to criticism and co-creation. Finding vanguard collaborators will be key to this. Thirdly, we need to consider introducing advocacy-specific prizes, funds or scholarships within EA, investing in the work and the people that can make our ideas not just palatable for gamechangers, but downright inspiring. 

 

By prioritising diversity in thought, we will naturally make progress on wider ambitions to improve the inclusivity of EA; a quick look at leading posts on the Forum makes it clear I am hardly the first to have noticed where representation in EA must improve. A pyramidical hierarchy capped with white men will not change the world. Instead, this agenda must be incorporated and cherished as a means of future-proofing our ambitions. By welcoming both radical action and creative spirit, we move from virtue-signalling to virtuous action while also addressing the blind spots that are the blight of likeminded minds. We must seek out wisdom wherever we find it and be held to account by those fighting for the future in the here and now and not just the there and then. 

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I'm a bit confused by this post. You start off by relating your frustration with "vapid" rhetoric (and its epistemic costs in "dull[ing] our analytical thinking"), but then seem to advocate that EA pivot towards embracing vapid social justice rhetoric?  Maybe I've misunderstood what you're suggesting.

I also worry that the post assumes that SJWs (rather than, say, policy-makers who read The Economist) constitute "the beating heart of changemaking".  But (insofar as I have a grasp on what that even means) that doesn't seem accurate to me.

The world of social justice is not so easily swayed as Silicon Valley, we do not iterate, and we certainly do not ‘fail fast’. Such concessions cost lives.

Doesn't stubborn failure to iterate or swiftly identify & learn from mistakes risk costing even more lives?  I think this point illustrates the risks of leading with rhetoric.  It's really important to first work out what's true, not just what sounds good.

Really interesting criticism, Richard - and one I appreciate. I’m fresh out of the EA gate so am keen to be redirected when I’ve missed something important. My starting point here was a more general description about my initial reluctance to engage with EA and how my worries were assuaged by actually getting stuck in and seeing how what I first felt might be empty language was backed up by real sincerity. So to be clear: I am not accusing EA of false rhetoric - I was pleasantly surprised that the key terms and principles shared weren’t parroted back as I’ve experienced in ESG, but were deeply resonant to those I spoke to. It was incredibly refreshing.

Instead, this post is simply my reflection on what I felt was a surprising absence of social justice advocates in this space as I thought this would be their natural habitat. I think that the tension between long term thinking and immediate catastrophe is best bridged by those working at the coalface of how existential risk manifests today, so I wanted to write about the value of appealing to the SJW spirit, rather than dismissing it. However, at present, many in that world view EA as disconnected from the very real suffering and emergency in the here and now and lodge ‘little less conversation, little more action’ criticisms, which aren’t justified either. Overall, we need to do more to explain EA principles in a way which appeals to this important pressure group as it is, in my mind at least, to our detriment that these different factions of the altruistically minded cannot seem to find a common ground to work from.

There is some overlap in the New Yorker coverage: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/15/the-reluctant-prophet-of-effective-altruism

But thank you for your feedback. It’s really valuable to me as I try and accelerate my learning.

I just wanted to share this as best practice in terms of calling in naturally adverse audiences to longtermist goals: https://republicen.org 

I should also note, no theory of change is perfect - your point on the importance of responsiveness is well made - but it’s through collaboration we maximise the chance of controlling for individual blind spots and limitations. I’m not advocating for either / or here, just a move away from ‘more of the same’.

As an aside, I certainly do not think the work and messaging of social justice is vapid and am unsure if that is your own belief or something you have taken from my writing?

"Unless EA changes its positioning soon, it is so obvious to me that this well-meaning platform will remain a sparring ground of ideas, of ivory towers, and not of grassroots or picket lines."

Yes, there's a lot of abstract arguments in EA, but we've also achieved significant things. See here: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/impact Thus, it doesn't seem fair to imply that EA is currently merely a sparring ground of ideas and ivory towers. EA's ground-level work doesn't look like picket lines, but it's very much there. One of the unfortunate baked-in problems of the EA Forum is that the most impactful things often aren't talked about a lot because there's not a lot of new information to share about them. I don't know a good solution to this, and I don't think it's anyone's fault, but it does mean that a lot of discussion in the EA Forum will be more the ivory tower type - stuff that's largely settled, like the Against Malaria Foundation, doesn't get a lot of debate.

I'm also curious how you reconcile certain parts of this essay.

First, you've written this:

"The world of social justice is not so easily swayed as Silicon Valley, we do not iterate, and we certainly do not ‘fail fast’. Such concessions cost lives. This doggedness is something EA sorely lacks at present: its principles are more fluid, more congenial to the power structures that cause the existential threats it rails against. Such flexibility may make us more effective collaborators, but not necessarily more effective influencers. The direction provided by political or ideological weathervanes does not hold its ground in changing winds. Instead, by appealing to the social justice warrior, EA targets become non-negotiable and our politic more steadfast and demanding. 

But EA Principles do little to endear themselves to social justice. Strict rationalism and Pascal-Wager-like calculations for doing good feel false, contrived, and a far cry from the wildfire of activism. Longtermism is abhorrent to the advocate."

I accept this as largely true. The one suggestion I'd make is that I don't think EA's principles are more fluid - it is our methods that are more fluid, and more congenial to existing power structures.

That said, for the most part, this is entirely accurate. You seem to have very accurately hit upon several major differences in the way EA and social justice operate, in a way that indicates to me that you understand both pretty well. But then, you write later:

"Firstly, it is essential that we find common ground to work from, reconciling our theory and our language with the real-world experience of advocates. We are not so different, and we need to prove that. We need to demonstrate how what can come off as fixed narratives and frameworks are completely complimentary to the goals and methods of social justice."

My question is - ARE our frameworks completely complimentary to the goals and methods of social justice? This doesn't seem obviously false to me, but it also doesn't seem obviously true either. Iteration, rationalism, remaining open to changing paths and changing our minds, and rejection of ideology are all pretty big in the EA movement. However, you then take it as a given that social justice and EA are compatible. I'd love to hear a more fleshed-out argument for why this is the case. 

Thanks for writing this up and sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is clear (to me) that you went into this very observant and that you engaged with the ideas.

Brief disclaimer: While reading your post I had a few ideas. Below is written more loosely in a conversational style as I am afraid if I don't comment something of lower quality now while in the flow I will not comment at all.

  • I understand you suggest that JSW need to be included. That you value grassroot movements, correct? That this would increase the diversity of thoughts within the community and would help it scale (and I guess have more impact).

I see a few concerns related to this. I think there are some important memes within the Effective Altruism movement that help it have a positive impact. Some of those memes are around scientific basics and rigour. Comparing estimates (Shut up and multiply) and trying to have the better arguments win, not the most emotional compelling ones. Will briefly explore this below with an example*. I am concerned that having the community grow too fast will dilute these ideas and eventually replace this carefully shaped culture.

Especially among SJW I see a lot of rage (which is understandable). My current understanding is that the revolutions SJWs are aiming for would most likely be extremely terrible. It is not clear to me that something better will necessarily emerge when something is being destroyed (talking about systems and institutions here).  Having less abrupt change, an evolution, seems to be a strategy with less risky downsides.  This is surely a onesided view that you could add nuance to. It is just that I have seen a lot of hate coming from these meme-spheres that was not tied to a positive future vision. 

And yeah aiming to doing the most good one can accomplish is challenging. And I would be very surprised that the actions that are intuitively correct are also the most impactful ones (relevant: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately). So to repeat myself - I am careful around introducing strong heroic emotions into careful complex work. But yeah sometimes I do too feel a need for some of the heroic sagas. Will share some at the end of this comment**.

But you are not alone in wanting the community to expand. Both WillMacAskill and Scott Alexander (2 prominent figures) have advocated adjacent ideas. Will has spoken out in favour of community building (even more than the current baseline - can't find the source right now - it was probably in the latest 80k podcast episode with him) and Scott advocated to open up the EAG conference and have the next one host 10k people without admissions.

*Example of unintuitive charities having a large impact:

Okay, say you (a western person on a median income) care about Education because it is Empowering and lifts people out of Poverty. As a result you want to support a school project. You have already bought into the fact that your support goes a longer way in a developing world so you are looking at projects to support overseas. How do you help? Donate or buying books and writing materials -- crowdfund to build an additional class room -- or pay to hire an additional teacher ---- or go there in person and teach for a few months. These might be $10 - $100 - $1,000 -- and $10,000 contributions. And all of these feel right (at least to me).

But what if I told you that you could buy years of schooling for a kid for just a few dollars by deworming them. This was the finding of one of the deworming charities years ago. Idea is as follows: it costs between $0.5 and $1.5 to deworm one kid for one year. If you do this consistently by the time they have grown up they have had an additional year of school attendance because they simply got sick less (worms coming through unsafe drinking waters). This is unintuitive. This is unsexy.  But pretty effective.

(Numbers are not exactly correct. Is has been awhile since I read about this cause area of effective global health / development projects to fund. Here a post by GiveWell which I quickly found and skimmed.)

And yes you can totally make the argument that someone needs to crowdfund a school first before (dewormed) kids can attend it, to which I argue that the former is more likely to get attention and funding from the average person (with spare income) than the 'sit down and multiply' type of results that bring us deworming projects. So we need a world in which both happen. And I expect the neglected parts to be the unintuitive ones.

Also talking about donations and contributions. I slightly got the impression that you think there needs to be more Walk and less Talk. Might have misread you here. I just want to emphasize that I think there is a very decent amount of Walk. Lots of people donate 10% of their income and people start non-profits and change their careers. Just this EAGxBerlin I also had the opportunity again to speak to many bright and motivated young-ish people who were asking about career advice. And changing your career seems like a pretty big commitment to me.

**Lastly on Art and Narratives

I agree there could be more. I am exploring this myself a bit. I think aesthetics and art are currently undervalued on average in the community. But the trend is going in the right direction. With the community's capacities growing (more funding, more people) we also see more prices being offered for creative writing contests

Some pieces that are adjacent to the EA community that I love: [Existential Hope (for positive futures], [The Dragon Fable (for epic and heroism], [Rational Animations for cute alien doggos], [Wisdom Age by Roote (this one visualises beautifully the difference attitudes and approaches from different communities such as SJW, EA, capitalism, post-capitalism etc. ]