Why and how the EA-Movement has to change

by Hans Waschke-Wischedag2 min read29th May 20209 comments

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When I first heard of effective altruism, the idea caught on immediately and I sought out more resources. Not long after I was an enthusiastic effective altruist. The concept of doing great things inspired me and I soaked up the contents that the EA-Community provided. I then also joined a local EA Group (this post is anonymous in order to protect their privacy). Whilst I only have experienced this one local group, the issues that I have observed likely extent to other groups and the EA-Movement in general, especially since they are deeply rooted in most of the content provided among the EA-Community.

The single biggest issue (and the only one I am going to outline) that the EA-Movement faces, is lack of independent thought. Effective altruism is doing the most good you can. This very simple main idea provides the only axiom by which all actions are to be judged. I painfully experience that many, who call themselves effective altruists, do not rethink or judge their actions according to this axiom. Instead they turn to blueprints provided by EA-popular-culture. MacAskills book "Doing Good Better" is a perfect example. The book has not quite the same role for the EA-Movement as the bible has for Christians, but in this context I find the comparison to be on point. Both of which provide additional axioms for "how to be an effective altruist (or Christian)" that can not generally be derived from the very foundational "trying to the most good". The book describes, as many other resources do, what an effective altruist is like and which actions he pursues.

As with all dogmatic structures that drop from heavenly sources and are not inexplicable by pure reason, this leads to serious problems. Looking at the local EA-Group, I honestly can not remember any person in my life that is using his resources less effective than every single member of this group. I jokingly started calling them the "ineffective altruists of the city I live in" when I was talking about the group with my friends and family. And they do live up to their name. Like many local groups this one also receives small funds from the CEA, which are squandered of course for utterly useless purposes like distributing ugly flyers in the neighborhood, purchasing outdated and below average books or watching documentations on factory farming. Worst of all, our time is wasted. The weekly meetings are not filled with much content except for who gets to moderate next week (no one ever wants to). Somehow, these meetings do take 3 hours that could be used more effective doing literally anything else. It is safe to say that for the negative promotion alone, this local group is downright harmful. Most of the members live their lives according to doctrines that they believe are inherent with EA. This includes for example being vegan because it is seemingly obviously the logical and most effective way to improve the world we live in. The only doctrine that is unpopular (I wonder why) is donating to effective charities, although most members "know" that "donating 10%" (no more, no less) is what an effective altruist should do.

I think that the idea of effective altruism has huge potential and a social movement can help to promote the idea. But living our lives according to blueprints of "what a effective altruist is like" is extremely dangerous and potentially very harmful. I urge you to really think about how much good the actions you take do. As for me, I will continue to be a happy effective altruist. Therefore I see myself forced to let go off the by far most ineffective activity of the last months, interacting with the EA-movement.

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Although this is getting downvotes I do find it interesting at least in that it points out that at least one local group (and so probably more) are operating in ways that turn off interested folks. Unfortunately we don't know which group, although I encourage the poster to reach out to someone at CEA and maybe they can look into it and see if there is anything they can do to help this group improve (if that is indeed appropriate) as part of their community-building efforts.

But I think it's worth highlighting that here we have someone who care about about EA that they came here to make a post about how frustrated they are with their experience with EA! I think that points out that there is likely some opportunity to do better embedded in this!

What kind of activities would you like your local group to offer and what is stopping you from implementing these changes (within or even outside of the local group)? This is meant to be an honest question. Maybe other people could help you (from CEA, from other groups, people here in the forum... ).

Great Question. I just think that along with the social aspect of a local group, the group should mainly provide feedback and help. I have of course tried to speak about what I do to improve the world we live in.

The problem really is that (at least within this group) new ideas are extremely rare and do not get a lot of reception. It is more like a echo chamber of confirmation for the group members. I am very unsure wether I should bother CEA with this since it might waste their time as well.

On the one hand I empathise with your situation – (seemingly) interested in the guiding principles and the core idea and put off by other aspiring EAs in your immediate vicinity. On the other hand, I don't see your situation as generalisable to EA as a whole and very contrary to most experiences on conferences, in local groups etc (e.g. DGB is neither bible-like, nor an EA-blueprint imho).

Your title's "why" seems to be solely based on a small sample of local EAs and the "how" is just a 'really think about how much good the actions you take do'?

You could've addressed your local group directly, or started separate events or meet-ups meeting your standards (which is something people did before and which is encouraged as to circumvent lock-in). You could've been more careful with the generalisations and written a caveat on how to not run a local group as to not put off newcomers. But in this format, you don't really provide a differentiated critique and I'm not really sure where you're going with this post. Hence a downvote.

It is true that my experience comes from only one local group and it is great to hear that this does not necessarily extent to others. I just felt that the cause of all this is not the group but rather how EA-culture is set up. Therefore, it would not surprise me to see those problems elsewhere.

As to "how", calculating your actions is all it takes.

Starting a separate event or group is a nice idea. Thank you !

Thanks for sharing. Probably a bit too cynical for my taste (e.g. you mention many of them are vegan, which may not be the most effective thing you can do, but certainly is evidence for them going out of their way to live in line with their values, yet regarding donating 10% being "unpopular (I wonder why)" you seem to imply they wouldn't be open to any kind of sacrifice), but I do believe I've at least seen a few of these tendencies in others as well as myself, and it makes sense to look out for them.

Also I found your remark on the 10% number rarely being questioned somewhat enlightening, as I myself haven't done so I'm afraid. Maybe it's a bit similar to vegetarianism and veganism which are two comparably crowded spots on a continuum of ways to eat. These are easy categories, and once you're in one of them, it's easy to communicate it to others and has a clear effect on your self image, i.e. thinking to yourself as "a vegetarian" instead of "<insert random complicated formula of how to evaluate which being you eat and which you don't">. Plus it probably works better as a potential role model for others.

With donating 10% (esp. if in combination with the giving what we can pledge) you also end up in such a distinct category. For people who donate less it's a nice (albeit arguably arbitrary) ideal to look up to. For people who've reached it it certainly makes sense to grow beyond it. Although I can imagine people wanting to do good primarily via their career, and donating 10% simply being sort of their baseline, and maybe a way of signalling to the outside world that they're really living what they preach and as such gaining more credibility. And for signalling purposes, which aren't inherently bad or anything, it makes sense to settle on a nice round number.

I don't think this post actually is anonymous

"Wischedag" isn't really a last name and alliterates with "Waschke". "Hans" is a german placeholder name.

Looks like it is. Waschke-Wischedag already *sounds* like a made-up German name and googling confirmed that.