Political culture at the edges of Effective Altruism

bykbog 4mo12th Apr 201927 comments

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There is much controversy over political and cultural disputes, issues that are frequently labeled as 'culture wars'. The idea of solving these disputes, as in researching and debating and coming to an informed position on these things, seems to be frequently (and quite correctly) regarded as intractable and not really worthwhile for serious EAs.

But it might be useful to narrow our scope from all of society down to the local environment, immediately surrounding the EA movement. In this context, we have robust, direct information on how political and cultural ideologies are variously beneficial or harmful for the things we understand. Thus, we can (hopefully) get a narrow window of observations that are broadly agreed-upon. The scope will be limited, but the reliability will be high.

(There is another thing we can look at, which is the benefits or harms from people's political ideologies within the EA movement, but I won't touch that because it's clearly not going to be robust and uncontroversial.)

Using this framework, first let's list the local impacts of left-wing politics:

Impacts on the EA movement:

  • Perhaps the most common criticism of EA is that the movement does not collectively align with radical anticapitalist politics
  • Other people object to EAs taking careers in high finance and consulting, based on the idea that these careers are a major part of the market economy and therefore are immoral
  • A college group of disability activists disrupted an Effective Altruism event at University of Victoria
  • An autistic rights activist condemned EA by alleging incompatibility between cost-benefit analysis and disability rights
  • Key EA philosopher Peter Singer has been viewed negatively by left-wing academia after taking several steps to promote freedom of speech (Journal of Controversial Ideas, op-ed in defense of Damore)
  • Key EA philosopher Peter Singer was treated with hostility by left-wing people for his argument on sex with severely cognitively disabled adults
  • The EA movement has been viewed negatively by left-wing people due to some overlap with the forum LessWrong and its members, to which they are heavily hostile, partially for political reasons

Impacts on poverty relief:

  • Less support for Givewell recommendations and similar efforts, in order to focus on political activism

Impacts on animal welfare:

  • Left wing narratives tend to push more support for animal rights and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare. This part is good, though it is not prosecuted with nearly the same vigor as left wing narratives on other matters of social justice

Impacts on existential risk:

  • Useful x-risk researchers, organizations and ideas are frequently viewed negatively by leftists inside and outside academia, due to association with the forum LessWrong and sometimes for direct hostility to their political views
  • Google dissolved its AI ethics board due mainly to hostility against its most right-wing member

Overall this looks bad; almost all impacts are negative. Moving on to right-wing politics:

Impacts on the EA movement:

  • There seems to be some implicit dismissal of EA as being too "blue-tribe" and liberal, leading conservatives to be disinterested in the movement from the outset. This is not easily observed, but seems to be the best explanation for the lack of conservative uptake and interest
  • Peter Singer has been treated with hostility by traditional conservatives for his arguments on after-birth abortion and zoophilia
  • MacAskill's interview with Joe Rogan provoked hostility from viewers because of an offhand comment/joke he made about Britain deserving punishment for Brexit
  • William MacAskill received pushback from right-wing people for his argument in favor of taking refugees

Impacts on poverty relief:

  • There is opposition to Givewell charities based on the idea that the recipients of Givewell aid are low-IQ and overpopulating
  • There is some attachment to charities which help one's own country or town, rather than global charities like Givewell recommendations

Impacts on animal welfare:

  • General opposition, even hostility to animal rights and welfare

Impacts on existential risk:

  • None yet, that I can think of

With right-wing politics, again we see a consistent trend where political culture interferes with the immediate context of Effective Altruism.

Left-wing political culture seems to be a deeper, more pressing source of harm. However, if we are trying to judge how good/bad ideologies are in a general sense, this judgment has less external validity because it depends on where EA and its projects are located in geographic, cultural and economic space.

One might wonder, to be fair: are there any cases where people's political apathy or centrism damages their relationship with Effective Altruism? As far as I can tell, there are none.

So in summary, while broader questions of political culture may be too difficult to answer with any reasonable amount of research labor, we have one cluster of clear data points telling us that relatively moderate political culture (i.e.: in between the American political mainstreams) or political apathy are most beneficial. This post is not meant to invalidate or debunk broader arguments about political culture writ large. However, it should be particularly interesting to those who prefer robust evidence in lieu of naive expected-value estimates.

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