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Key Positions

  • For this critique, Systems change and systemic change are not the same thing. EA references to systemic change do not attempt to reimagine our shared, reality shaping discourse. Rather, they focus on modifications to the discourse as it is without challenging it, to make it possibly better (e.g., policy changes). Systems change is broader and is a challenge to the system as it is- a reassessment, revision and reassumption of what we share as reality.
  • Systems change, when it happens, is rarely dramatic and oftentimes not even noticeable until it has already happened. It is, however, almost always intentional. And when it's not intentional, there's likely no choice in it happening (see x-risk concerns) which is also when it can be dramatic.
  • Most of what is claimed about economics, what EAs and other systems-agnostics tend to treat axiomatically, is not a science and not derived from the rigorous application of scientific method. It should never be treated as given. It is a constructed human study [art] - created quite explicitly with human, shallowly reductionist intention. Treating it axiomatically is not really rational.
  • Positivist and economic reductionist* intentions have reductionist results. Reductionist results miss everything they exclude, which is always and certainly a lot of stuff, especially when the subject is people. Economics is about people. Reductionist use of economics excludes people. Treating reductionist tools axiomatically robs people [subjects] of agency. Robbing people of agency means automatically retarding the effectiveness of giving, interventions and ultimately, EA as a project. *Please see reading note on reductionism.
  • We occupy a self-interested system that was created for and by the study of economics and those interested in self [the self-interested?]. There is something other, maybe even before this self-interested system that is fundamentally more compatible with altruism than the current system. A lot of economic theory points to a system of reciprocity where altruism can be seen as a facet of strong reciprocity.
  • Self-interest is antithesis to altruism. It's contradictory to reify the self-interested system by using its tools axiomatically and treating the question of systems change ambivalently all while claiming altruistic intent.
  • The EA project’s overwhelming reliance on the social theories of modern economics, especially its reductionist ideas, is  one of the biggest obstacles to EA, as a human behavior or movement, realizing its full potential.
  • This is not a case against rationalism, it's not even a case against using the tools of rationalism, including economic tools to inform as part of a set of informing tools and processes; it is a case against the over use of reductionism and a case against systems change agnosticism [ambivalence].
  • This is not a “left” or a “right” argument, both of which are reduced, dualistic artifacts of the self-interested system. This is an argument for systems [discourse] change with altruism and other forms of reciprocity as central to this change.

Reading Note

Please consider this critique prefaced with "I would argue..."

This is the first part of a three part critique, the second being an application of this critique to a cause exploration in order to demonstrate this critique's utility and a third being an application of this critique to values lock-in, prompted by What We Owe The Future. You can find the cause exploration here: Reciprocity & the causes of diminishing returns: cause exploration submission and the values lock-in essay here: Values lock-in is already happening (without AGI).

You can view everything in brackets [] as a helper word(s) in case the concept being expressed is unfamiliar. These words can also be read as part of the text, of course. You can also just ignore everything in brackets too, if it makes it easier for you. Even better, insert  [your own]...

*Reductionism has a lot of varied meaning in different settings and their discourses. The use of reductionism in this critique is specific and limited to positivist and economic reductionism as they relate to economic or human exchange discourse as well as the individual within these discursive settings. This use should not be conflated with Derek Parfit's reductionist view of personal identity. My position for this critique is that the social cannot be reduced in truth defining ways and that reductionism is just a tool to further or aid understanding, not understanding in and of itself, in the social [discursive] context. This contention and the arguments presented here might raise questions and have potential implications about the nature of the individual outside of human exchange settings, especially since a primary subject here is self-interest. I would suggest, however, there is potentially more alignment with  Parfit's reductionism, which dissolves the notion of self, and what I am arguing, than there is conflict (e.g., to what extent are the problems of the impersonal also the problems of the self-interested system [discourse]?). There is not, however, room to discuss all of this in this critique.


If we honestly examine the history of what we know today as economics, we can easily see its quite human, artful and reductionist origin. The form it takes today isn’t even 300 years old, yet as a society, we treat it like it's always been there and always will be, like a force of nature. In its origins, it began as a study of the self-interest problem and through its evolution, has become a reifying tool of a self-interested system. 

Thinkers, within and outside of mainstream economics, have long debated the nature of non-self-interested or other-regarding behavior like altruism, with most thinkers settling on the notion that these other-regarding behaviors, mostly forms of reciprocity, are sourced from the same self-interested nature of people from which economics finds it origins. It has only been within the past half century or so that mainstream economics has even considered the notion economic anthropologists and evolutionary studies have been arriving at: that other-regarding behaviors are independent of self-interest. It's only been in the last quarter century that mainstream economic experimentation has confirmed this independent nature. 

This critique of effective altruism frames this history of economic thought, from Adam Smith to Kate Raworth,  from an outside perspective, examining how the positivist project has shaped our discourse [systems] and left us with a self-interested system so encompassing, even its detractors are unable to describe it without substantiating it. Altruism is, in almost all ways, antithesis to self-interest, but like the confined detractors within economic thought, EA's proponents seem unable or maybe unwilling to challenge the self-interested discourse [system]. This theoretical ambivalence is one of EA’s biggest challenges and the source of many of its own constraints from a lack of depth in giving to an inability to organically expand its appeal in ways that would fit its own ambition. 

Systemic Default

What ties Effective Altruism (EA) proponents together from a theoretical perspective seems to be minimum view variations of a subjectively applied, modern utilitarianism. EA proponents tend to offer generally agnostic positions on systems and ideology as aspects of EA. Maybe this approach is to ensure room is left open for potential systems change opportunities within the bounds of EA thought, but perhaps also to ensure that the focus of the EA project doesn’t alienate any particular ideological perspective. Others might think our systems as they are currently constituted are good or at least relatively [pragmatically?] optimal. Others still might also just possess a true agnosticism about systems, pursuing instead a broad assumption that people have values and want to act upon them positively in some fashion and that that is good enough - the system in which this happens is irrelevant to this desire.

However, agnosticism is often, in and of itself, a position taken. It can be informed by a theoretical perspective or even, in its ambivalence, act as one itself. No opinion can be and often is an opinion in that it is saying something, issuing a judgment of other opinions. And agnostics can be just as adamant in their position as those explicitly representing a perspective or ideology. This exchange between Peter Buffett and Will MacAskill from earlier days of the EA project serves as a good example of this. Buffet wrote, 

So in some ways I think I am very suspect of “data-driven” approaches in general. Not that data can’t be useful, but it’s intuition and the willingness to see beyond data that will get society and culture to a new and more just place. I think that we have lost our way as a global community.  Yet this is a relatively recent phenomenon. We have become a world of transactions, not relationships...[1]

To which MacAskill responded, 

You say you’re suspect of any “data-driven” approaches to doing good. I think this might be the fundamental issue here: whereas you’re suspect of data-driven approaches, I’m suspect of “intuition-driven” approaches. The key problem, in my mind, is just that there are too many different pressing problems in the world...

All of which was subsequent to an initial engagement that thematically sounded more like this, from MacAskill, 

Peter Buffett’s argument belies an astonishing lack of understanding of both economics and of the extremity of global poverty…[2]

Although not specifically calling for a “systems change” challenge to prevailing systems, Buffet’s argument throughout their year long exchange consistently alluded to this perspective and drive using terms such as “unjust systems”, which was consistently rebutted by MacAskill with what effectively amounted to a defense of operating within the existing system, but with better data and better reasoning. The existing system for this argument is of course, an economic system of positivist origin which MacAskill not only treats as is, but also defends vigorously in being adamant about using data, economics and rationalism applied to both of these in order to describe people and society. This defense and [positive] noncritical acceptance of the status quo system is pretty consistent among EA proponents. For example, in building an actual case for a sort of new ‘moral trade’ approach to human exchange, Toby Ord states this:

What can we say about the theory of moral trade? First, it is worth pointing out that moral trade is already encompassed within the standard definition of trade in economics. When economists speak of a person’s preferences, they include both the person’s prudential preferences and their moral preferences in an undifferentiated set of preferences. So when it comes to trade, moral trade is mixed in with regular trade. For economists, moral trade is thus not an additional kind of trade, but a subcategory.[3]

Ord continues, highlighting the lack of focus within ‘standard’ economics on moral preferences, because preferences are just aspects or ‘subcategories’ of self-interest within economics. But for Ord, in this context, that is not a statement of criticism, it's a statement of acceptance.

Economic approaches could be used to transform the very simple examples of moral trade that I give (which we could call moral barter) into more sophisticated systems to realize greater gains.

That lack of focus on moral preferences is a noncritical opportunity to advance Ord's moral trade proposition. Interestingly, in this same paper, Ord actually tests his moral trade concept, briefly applying it and its implications to supposed situations from a number of different philosophical perspectives, including a consequentialist position and a deontological position. No such testing is done from an economic theory perspective. Economics is just ‘standard’. More recently, this same default or reliance on mainstream economics norms as 'given' and 'standard' was repeated in a strong, economics-based defense of international aid by MacAskill in 2019[4] and then again by Ord in the presentation of a wellbeing measure for economic evaluation (expansion of QALY) in 2021.[5] Mainstream economics as 'given' or 'standard' is consistent throughout most of MacAskill and Ord's body of work, to present. 

It’s most likely old news to anyone familiar with EA principles that EA, as a project or even an informal association of similarly motivated rational, critical thinkers, has little collective or agreed-to interest in economic systems change theories or theories about the origins of human economic behavior. In a battle against  intuition and ideas of change, accepted axioms of economics and claimed science applied to economics as well as corroborating data and data-driven rationality win every time. What might be surprising to some people, however, is how radical it is to accept the system as is, to reify the systemic default and how radical that is for a movement focused on more and better altruism, a fundamentally economic concept, specifically. To understand just how radical this is, it's important to first understand what our economic system of positivist origin actually is. 

I Think Therefore I am… Self-interested?

Science is a set of tools we use in order to rationally get closer to the truth. These same tools, when used objectively as possible, would tell us that treating most scientifically derived understanding, certainly treating any application of this understanding in social study, as axiomatic would likely be non-scientific, even anti-scientific. The scientific method rarely arrives at law and even when it does, this same method tells us those laws can be broken and in fact, it's imperative to continually test them for weakness. Yet people, in a probable quest for certainty and sometimes a quest for expediency, arrive at absolutes constantly, claiming hypotheses, theories and their postulates and suppositions to be ‘standard’, ‘given’, ‘accepted’ and more. This approach is not only limiting, it's quite likely misleading.

Throughout Buffett and MacAskill’s entire exchange referenced above and indeed, throughout most EA thought, ideas of economics are treated with the same axiomatic assumption as are principles of scientific methodology and their subsequent laws, as if they weren't all made to be broken. Here’s an example from the recently updated EA introductory essay, recognizing the difficulty of prediction, but treating axiomatically predictive economic modeling related to future AI potential:

It’s extremely hard to predict the future of technology, but various arguments and expert surveys suggest that this achievement is more likely than not this century. And according to standard economic models, once general AI can perform at human level, technological progress could dramatically accelerate.[6]

There is actually quite little about economics as we currently understand it that is ‘standard’. There is, however, a constructed discourse surrounding the study of economics that has quite consciously pursued the positivist objective of transforming what was once the study of political economy into the purported science of economics our modern rational discourse disseminates without even a second of critical thought. This is not rational. 

Around the time Adam Smith first, briefly, implied a self-interested motive as a fundamental aspect of human economic behavior,[7] his thinking buddy and OG positivist, David Hume, quite publicly and intentionally set out to instantiate the growing study of political economy as one of his ‘sciences[s] of man’, specifically, 'a science of commerce' which would, ultimately, be reduced to “...a whole science in a single theorem”.[8] From its very origin, what we now refer to as economics and many of us take as a ‘given’, ‘standard’ or some other implication of truth about human behavior, was constructed with reductionist intention, like so many other simplifying, symbolizing, summarizing human arts. Within the same timeframe that shallow readings of Darwinism were subjecting the world to terrifying notions of eugenics and the like, political economy became economics, separating the social from the economic, and the positivist project’s economic public relations efforts combined with another shallow reading of Darwinian evolution further solidified the self-interested nature of homo economicus as a product of natural selection - an individual surviving an evolutionary battle of the fittest. And rationally, supposedly, we’ve been testing ‘laws’ of economics, all based on this notion; generally, shallowly, they work. It all makes such [reductively] perfect, historically rationalized sense, why wouldn’t we accept it as truth?

Smith’s original postulation about the self-interest of humans was, paradoxically, in response to the problem of self-interest. He basically suggested that in order to ensure efficiency and equity in the face of potentially self-interested parties to an exchange, participants in an [market] exchange were and should behave self-interestedly. His solution to the problem of self-interest was more self-interest. Mind you, there was no Darwinian influence, no empirical study arriving at this conclusion for Smith and Smith himself varied on this postulate quite significantly, himself a pretty open moralist. There was, in  The Wealth of Nations, a fair bit of historical observation, but very little actual economic anthropology, just [hi]story. Smith’s conjecture, while well informed, was just that - conjecture. Another word we might be claim.

By the time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels came on the scene almost a century later, the excesses of human exchange operating from the perspective of self-interest as a solution to self-interest were abundantly apparent. So, they proposed that basically, the solution to materialism [self-interest] and its systems of exploitation isn’t actually more self-interest, but essentially the social control of self-interest.[9] The socialist project’s effective use of the growing study of political economy combined with that previously mentioned as well as its own parallel, but equally selective reading of Darwinism, helped push the positivist project along and even further codified a scientific study of economics, entirely based on a notion of self-interest because even the dirty hippies of the 19th and early 20th century  (e.g., Marx & Engels) agreed with its basic precepts and modeling. In the discourse of human material exchange (trade, markets, etc.), the right and the wrong side, depending on your side, both agreed on the nature of the problem, so why would we consider anything else? If right is wrong and wrong is right, what else is there? This codependent dualism persists to this day, the left and the right, the dreamer and the rationalist, intuition versus economic data like in Peter Buffett and MacAskill’s debate on how to approach philanthropy. It is the same argument about what exactly is the best solution to the problem of self-interest. This is a system of self-interest.

One of the most interesting aspects of the self-interested system is its illusionary lack of intention 300 years after it was quite explicitly, artfully created from human intention, based on a conjecture and an ambition. It just is now, is the proposition and so many of us buy that proposition, often because of correlative ‘evidence’ and a reductionist desire for axiomatic expediency. The proposition, of course, is completely false, we can easily see how it was constructed. The entirety of the self-interested system, from the totality of laissez faire capitalism and the objectivist self-interest-is-the-only-virtue to the command economy authoritarianism of communist impossibility, is constructed. Neither of these opposing perspectives, what we now refer to as the economic ‘left’ and the ‘right’, nor their ancillary arguments (e.g., data vs. intuition), is more than 300 years old and none of it is any more natural than any other human idea. Its the same with the seemingly never ending dualism between these extents of self-interested problem solving that leaves little room for other thought. It is an artifact of the positivist project that looms so large, and is held so close no one can see its edges anymore. It might as well be 13.8 billion years old, but it only took 200 to 300 years to become near-god-level truth. 

What is Altruism?

Perhaps altruism is a response to this same problem of self-interest? Some people might argue that altruism, in its purest form, is the opposite of self-interest - at least from an economic perspective. But how then, if humans are at their core self-interested economically, as our entire positivist study of economics is informed and still informs, does altruism even exist? How could such a human characteristic survive natural selection, for instance? How would any form of non-self-interested behavior survive in a system of self-interest? Is altruism just a form of self-interest?

As it turns out, both economic insiders and outsiders have toiled and still are toiling with this near-contradiction. For instance, a little less than a century after Marx and Engels helped reinforce the discourse of economics as a study and science of the self-interest problem,[10] Karl Polanyi challenged the then axiomatic notion that humans only act self-interestedly in exchange, postulating, through his relatively deep study of human exchange and market culture, that humans can and do act in [non-materially-self-interested ways] other-regarding ways in human exchange and they do so because material self-interest is not their only motivation. For Polanyi, 

The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end.[11]

This distinction might seem trivial, but it has proven key to an ever broadening understanding of human economic motivation. Because, if humans aren’t solely motivated by their [material self-interest] individual survival, then what else could motivate them? Polanyi postulated social status as a non-material motivation and the importance of reciprocity to social status, a proposition still squarely within the self-interested problem paradigm (social status for Polanyi is a self-regarding behavior), but a distinct enough deviation from the shallowly-scientific, purely positivist perspective. Is altruism all about status? 

A much more well known contemporary of Polanyi, John Maynard Keynes played his own part in challenging the notion that self-interest balances self-interest to solve the problem of self-interest in markets from within the positivist project's mainstream of economic thought. His critique was quite practical, summarized: self-interest solving for self-interest wouldn't lead to full employment; equity and equilibrium were not necessarily economic outcomes of the self-interest solution to self-interest, even in perfect settings.[12] While Keynes in no real way challenged the underlying kernel of ‘truth’ in the self-interested system, homo economicus, his pragmatic position in macro policy did eventually open the door to broader considerations of the nature of self-interest within the self-interested system, because his observations about macro dynamics within the system turned into prescriptions that actually worked. By the 1970s, outsider behavioral economics and other outside perspectives had developed significant bodies of work expanding on the notion that self-interest wasn’t necessarily as maximizing as we’ve all been led to believe. Indeed, other aspects of human behavior might have a role to play, even though most of these aspects, like predilection towards altruism, were likely born of a self-interested nature. During this time period, most mainstream economists - those making economic decisions or informing those decisions - deviated very little from the homo economicus model - our self-interested system.

It really wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seriously just a couple decades ago, that mainstream economics took seriously the theoretical notion that maybe, just maybe, there is no self-interested actor, but perhaps something like a multiple-interest actor and they had evidence to rationally prove it. In 2002, Ernst Fehr, Urs Fischbacher and Simon Gächter, writing from the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics introduced to mainstream economics several important notions - that there existed significant biological evidence (genetic) for altruistic behavior,  cultural evolutionary evidence for altruistic behavior, and crucially for the satisfaction of economic discourse, rational, experimental evidence of altruistic behavior leading to a notion of strong reciprocity [boss-level altruism, both socially reinforcing and socially regulating]- a behavior that can be seen as completely detached from the notion of self-interest. Fehr and others would continue with this work for at least another decade, developing a fundamentally mainstream, behavioral economic theory of reciprocity, including and effectively dependent upon altruistic intent, that challenges the self-interested system’s kernel, homo economicus. 

…most individuals treat moral values as ends in themselves, not merely means toward maintaining a valuable social reputation or otherwise advancing their self-interested goals. This conclusion follows from observing that even in one-shot, anonymous interactions of the sort studied in our experimental work, individuals behave in ways that reflect the moral standards of their particular social group.[13]

Morals are relative to social groups, but right and wrong [morals] are socially dependent [necessarily other-regarding], rather than merely derived from self-interest. The work of economic theorists like Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, Armin Falk, Joseph Henrich, Stefano Zamagni and of course, Fehr has consistently returned to a fundamental shift in the understanding of the self-interested system’s whole reason for being and they’ve been using economic empiricism and rationality to prove it - the tools of the positivist project. What remains, however, is the why? Although game theory, thought experiments, evolutionary science and anthropological economics have consistently confirmed for those willing to look that indeed, humans might actually be fundamentally motivated by something entirely different than their own material self-interest, homo economicus remains the kernel of truth in our discursive system of economics. Again, why?

Because, this is our system. The self-interested system is what we know and despite rational, empirical results acceptable within economics undermining this very system, we are so used to it, we’re so accustomed to its custom, we can no longer see its edges. Fehr, Giniti, Bowles and all the other insider challengers to the inside, what do they use to describe their challenge? The exact same, oftentimes reductionist tools that the self-interested system uses to constantly reify its standard-ness, givenness, its axiomatic nature and simplicity. The simplest explanations are the simplest. Why read in more or ask more when ‘basic economics’ or ‘fundamental economics’ proves your point, justifies your position, solves the problem? 

Outside of these systemic confines, however, a rational thinker might ask - if the study of evolution and economic anthropology as well as the self-interested system’s own self-referencing tools all indicate that humans evolved or developed to be or just are  [altruistic] strongly reciprocal just as they evolved or developed to be or just are self-interested, then shouldn’t we question the fundamental models and understandings underpinning our entire economic [system] discourse? The same economic system artfully, intentionally designed by the positivist project quite specifically to address the problem of self-interest with, mostly, solutions rooted in self-interest? Wouldn’t honest positivism demand it? For instance, in a sort of experimental question: 

If humans evolved forms of reciprocity, including altruism in addition to and not dependent upon the evolution of human self-interest, and it is these reciprocal behaviors that make them distinct among species,[14] while self-interest is ubiquitous, then which of these two human behaviors is likely more fundamental to human nature or even human existence? Or, put another way, which of these two behaviors, reciprocity or self-interest, makes humans not just like any other animal?

This is the question that positivism did not ask, it just assumed the answer was self-interest and went with it, turned it into 'truth'. There are, of course, a multitude of evolutionarily acquired behaviors and traits besides reciprocity that make humans distinct among animals, but few of those have been more definitively absent in how we humans have chosen to describe ourselves since our own self-described enlightenment. And even fewer other behaviors and traits that are likely this fundamental to our uniqueness as animals have had their behavioral antithesis emphasized and prioritized so likely incorrectly. 

 Theory about the political economy, anthropology and evolutionary science aren’t the only places thought about reciprocity has emerged in human history. Almost universally, human theologies, at least those developed prior to our current self-interested system, held and continue to hold a prescriptive ethic of reciprocity. This is represented throughout the Abrahamic traditions as the golden rule, to do unto [for] others as you would have done unto [for] you. In Hinduism the concept of ahimsa and an obliged duty to others is central while various sayings of the Buddha and Confucius mirror variations of the golden rule and predate it. For the case being made here, it’s not so much about there existing a theological underpinning to reciprocity than it is the near universal importance of reciprocity. Given an evolutionary or anthropological lens to this aspect of human culture, a utilitarian or even a pragmatist perspective might tell us it's there because it works. There’s no ethic of self-interest universal across theological traditions prior to the self-interested system. 

Reciprocal systems or aspects of reciprocity emerge throughout the political economy - largely despite the omnipresent material focus of the self-interested system. The EA project is a solid example, as is the open source movement, all restrained, of course, by the dominant discourse. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that at least one other system came before the self-interested system we currently find ourselves within, imperfectly, but before. Maybe evolutionarily emergent, maybe through another route, but before. If we venture to answer our experimental question with the evidence at hand and determine reciprocity to be the human default, even a simple majority default or in the very least, one of the human defaults, with the possibility of self-interest existing in the absence of reciprocity, then maybe before [capitalism and socialism] the dueling answers to the self-interest question, there’s a sort of reciprocal-ism, an answer to the human-interest question.[15] Not the opposite of self-interest, but before it in a way, at least for humans. 

Unrealized Potential

Radical  economist Kate Raworth has proposed and made a case for a new economic model with balance as its focus.[16] The model focuses on the ecological ceiling and social foundation of resource exploitation and human wellbeing, with balance being the zone between this foundation and ceiling.

It's a modern economic model painting a picture of a sustainable future, with specificity. Raworth is less precise about how we get there. In what system of self-interest do individuals choose a course of action where [future] potential detriments are largely abstract notions separated from the individual by time and geography, except on occasion of happenstance? But the occasional impact on self is never enough to outweigh the [expressed] perceived benefit of material pursuits. Further, if you take the previously mentioned possibility that reciprocal systems are before self-interested ones, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that self-interest emerges in the absence of reciprocity. It is, in a way, metaphorically akin to a fight or flight response when expected security, both material security and safety, is absent. How can we expect people in a fight or flight response mode to switch to abstract future considerations? 

From a non-theoretical perspective, say a practical perspective, it might be a bit difficult to envision exactly how altruism fits within the concept of reciprocity. This is, in part, because of the dominant self-interested discourse, but it's also about time, which is naturally confusing in the abstract, especially social abstraction. One way the self-interested system deals with time is to de-abstract it as debt, but in a reciprocal system, you don’t actually ever owe anyone anything because you are [inherently] naturally reciprocal. Reciprocity is the motivating aspect of exchange, rather than self-interest. One way to describe this intention is maximizing the benefit to all parties in an exchange without harming anyone, as opposed to maximizing benefit to self. If you are unable to reciprocate immediately, then you reciprocate at another time, in another way, and possibly, even another geography. Reciprocal acts out of immediate time and place are altruism or at least one way to explain altruism in a reciprocal system. When you hear someone talking about 'giving back' in the context of altruistic acts, this is what they are talking about. It’s referred to as an aspect of strong reciprocity in modern behavioral economic circles because functionally [basically], it’s as reciprocal as a person or group can be with others; reciprocity is always grounded in we rather than I

If the entire world were populated by effective altruists, we’d make it to Raworth’s sustainable zone (the donut). But the entire world is not populated by effective altruists because most of the  world can’t even envision themselves as anything more than self-interested beings fighting for survival, because that’s what they’ve been told they are. And of course it is one of the missions of the EA project to make it possible for people to consider other ways of being (through resource security, health and wellbeing), but, given what we know about how the current dominant discourse was devised with intention, we also know then that it's not enough to give, we also have to show with intention. If the EA project wants to be as effective as possible, then changing the discourse away from self-interest needs to be a primary focus of the project and this change needs to permeate everything EA. Considering the objectives of the EA project, now and for the future, it's only rational. 

Altruism is a difficult concept to grasp not only because of future abstraction, but also because it takes opportunity [privilege]. The larger concept of reciprocity isn’t so difficult to grasp, most of us practice innate forms of reciprocity consciously and subconsciously, and since other forms of reciprocity and altruism, when perfect, have the same or very similar outcomes, is there ultimately a difference? Yes, the EA project and its proponents have an obligation to the promotion of effective philanthropy and giving. In the system as it is, this is where there is the greatest concentration of resources, outside of government, that can be employed for benefit. But if you buy the idea that discourse change is an imperative of the EA project as I would argue rational reflection requires, then the promotion of all forms of reciprocity is as equally important as the promotion of effective philanthropy. Fortunately, one does not need to surfer for the benefit of the other. And I would argue, the promotion of both would result in significant impact multiplication well beyond secondary effects, for both. 

To illustrate this perspective, I have applied this critique of EA to a cause exploration very loosely in the shallow investigation format: Reciprocity & the causes of diminishing returns: cause exploration submission. This is the constructive portion of this critique. In this exploration, using real world examples, I show how conscientious discourse change not only can and does make interventions more effective, but also how it  greatly improves or has the potential to improve the agency of intervention beneficiaries. It is this agency, a key and necessary component of reciprocal systems, that will allow more people greater opportunity to consider other forms of reciprocity. This is discourse change and it is likely one of the things the EA project needs to further if it is going to be even more successful. 

More Unrealized Potential

In the linked cause exploration, I focus on the benefactor > beneficiary relationship and the agency of those actors with an emphasis on bolstering the agency of beneficiaries through intentional benefactor reciprocal discourse change. This is just a narrow subset of how intentional discourse change can positively impact EA engagements and efforts, improving effectiveness. Here are three more, offered in brief with questions for further investigation.

Benefactor > cause organization relationship

An EA philanthropist uses the tools of the EA project in order to find and engage with the most effective use of funds, typically channels through a nonprofit, NGO or other cause-focused organization. Effectiveness is the priority - minimizing the priorities of cause organizations and their agents [agency], which might be an intentional aspect of the EA project. But, in addition to this, I’d imagine it's quite likely that this same process limits the effectiveness of organizations by driving them to sacrifice the application of their learned perspective to sort of side-objectives that would, potentially, improve their effectiveness (e.g., concern for overhead percentages preventing an impact improvement investigation). Does the EA philanthropist have a reciprocal and even effectiveness-oriented obligation to take on or somehow otherwise ensure these side-objectives are addressed?

Expanding the number of effective altruists

How would a broader, maybe more accurate discourse make EA more accessible and more impactful? Would it help the EA project grow more rapidly? Think about current systemic change advocacy - how large is the climate change movement in the US compared to the EA movement? One is explicitly prioritizing and advancing systemic change [broadening] while the other is advancing an individualist movement [limiting]. 

I think People within a self-interested system are less likely to find the discourse of altruism accessible and even less likely to find the discourse of preference sacrificing within effective altruism accessible. Peter Buffet’s ‘intuition’ is basically a self-interested system response to being told what to care about. The EA project should actively work to find ways to break people free from the discourse of self-interest. What people do find accessible, for instance, are other forms of reciprocity attached to points in time and space. Mutual benefit, cooperation and even socially regulating forms of reciprocity are examples of behaviors people engage with constantly. Could incorporating these similar-outcome behaviors into the dialog of EA help make the EA project more accessible to more people?

Cross-disciplinary opportunities

Specialization is a hallmark of the self-interested system. In our modern economy, it's how people survive and within the system, flourish. But self-interest as a dominant pattern, oftentimes the only pattern, helps create the silos that everyone always bemoans limiting cross-disciplinary activity. Changing discourse to one of reciprocity, rather than self-interest, could help significantly break down barriers to cross-disciplinary work. Open journals are an interesting reciprocal development, but represent a very small portion of what is ‘disciplinary’. Could fostering reciprocal relationships within and between academia help drive cross-disciplinary work and solutions? 

This critique isn’t suggesting that the EA project surrender rationalism and data to intuition. To the contrary. I am suggesting that EA proponents deepen their meaning and understanding of what is rational, beyond the reductionist predilection for finding the simplest answers because even if the intent is to find the truth, reductionism almost always only finds the partial truth [excludes], but disguises it as the needed [only] truth. By taking one more step, a reciprocal step, actively incorporating the agency of beneficiaries, for instance, what is true takes on a deeper meaning and the effectiveness of interventions can be measurably, further maximized. Beneficiaries become benefactors. Systems change.

My expertise: I have graduate level education in global political economy (MA), business administration (course work), communications and entrepreneurialism (certificates) in addition to undergraduate education in international relations (BScEcon). I have significant experience in business strategy, economic development (large municipal) and marketing/communication with a specialization in cause communication. I currently work in impact through a benefit corporation with a giant theory of change. I am a JavaScript programmer (if that's a thing worth mentioning). 


  1. ^

    An exchange between Peter Buffet and Will MacAskill as relayed by MacAskill, here: MacAskill, Will (2014), Peter Buffett: Philanthropy disguises itself as a fix when it’s a part of the problem, Quartz , retrieved from: https://qz.com/201778/warren-buffetts-son-philanthropy-disguises-itself-as-a-fix-when-its-a-part-of-the-problem/

  2. ^

    MacAskill, Will (2013), What Warren Buffett’s son doesn’t understand about the world, Quartz, retrieved from: https://qz.com/110616/what-peter-buffett-doesnt-understand-about-the-world/

  3. ^

    Ord, Toby (2015), Moral Trade*, Ethics, 118–138.

  4. ^

    MacAskill, Will (2019), Aid Scepticism and Effective Altruism , Journal of Practical Ethics, 7, No. 1.

  5. ^

    Ord, Toby, et. al., (2021), Quality adjusted life years based on health and
    consumption: A summary wellbeing measure for cross‐sectoral economic evaluation, Health Economics, 30.

  6. ^

    Centre for Effective Altruism (2022), What is effective altruism, retrieved from: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism

  7. ^

    Smith, Adam (1776), The Wealth of Nations, Chapter 2.

  8. ^

    Hume, David (1752), Political Discourses, 254.

  9. ^

    Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1848), The Communist Manifesto.

  10. ^

    Marx, largely through posthumously published manuscripts (1844 Manuscripts, 1932), proposed a sort of proto-theory [claim] of human nature that incorporated aspects of reciprocity and egalitarianism in a propertyless state, but not necessarily based on any sort of empirical or serious historical observations, as far as these manuscripts reveal. Regardless, the socialist project did not depend on these observations for theorizing the class struggle against material excess and exploitation and Marx indicated elsewhere (The Communist Manifesto, 1948) that humans, through progress, had effectively evolved beyond what was before, including, presumably, this speculated, originally unpublished maybe-nature.

  11. ^

    Polanyi, Karl (1957), The Great Transformation, 46.

  12. ^

    Keynes, John Maynard (1936), The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Book II & Book V.

  13. ^

    Fehr, Ernst, et. al. (2002), Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms, Human Nature, 13, 1-25.

  14. ^

    What is distinct, in this context, is relative. Most science, including science meant to expand the concept of reciprocity in the animal world, indicates that there are forms of reciprocity (e.g., indirect, future-considering, calculated, etc.) that are exceptionally rare behaviors in species and that their most complex forms are unique to humans.  See, for example: Schweinfurth, Manon K.  & Call, Josep  (2019), Reciprocity: Different behavioural strategies, cognitive mechanisms and psychological processes,  Learning & Behavior, 47. 

    Self-interested behaviors are not nearly as distinct among species, relatively. 

  15. ^

    For the most part, this critique is not directly addressing specific values or how self-interest and reciprocity are expressed, which within the frame given here, could be emergent with self-interested systems, reciprocal systems or even the interplay between these two systems and others. And of course values could also be contingent upon circumstance and even prior values, making how self-interest and reciprocity are ultimately expressed, variable. This is to say that this critique does not view systems or human natures [behaviors and qualities] as static, but likely indicative and directional. 

  16. ^

    Raworth, Kate (2017), Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Chelsea Green Publishing.

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Some assorted responses to bits of your post:

"Altruism is systems change, so why isn't EA?"  It's true that Effective Altruism isn't that interested in trying to throw out the idea that self-interest, although not a perfect model of human behavior, can be a helpful way to understand how individual people's choices are influenced in a consistent direction by the incentives society gives them.  But it's unfair to say that just because we like using the tools of mainstream economics, EA is against "systemic change".  Like you say, even communism is basically built on a framework of self-interest-based economics analysis, but few would claim that a communist revolution "isn't real systemic change".  Indeed, Effective Altruism loves systemic change:

  • Most recent Open Philanthropy research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website collates research on and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research what should be the most important reform priorities for governments, and how they can improve cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within the nonprofit sector, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors about their successes and failures, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts to improve animal welfare regulation, such as Humane Society US-FARM. Other activists are working for dramatic society-wide changes in how society views the moral importance of non-human animals.

"Radical  economist Kate Raworth has proposed and made a case for a new economic model with balance as its focus...  Raworth is less precise about how we get there."  I don't understand what the idea of ecological limits / environmental protection has to do with replacing self-interest as the basis of economic modeling??  Like you say, achieving a prosperous society without causing unsustainable levels of pollution, etc, is a goal, but not a method or a modeling technique.  Personally, I think that society should do a much better job of taxing negative externalities -- implementing carbon taxes to reduce emissions, congestion taxes to reduce traffic, taxes on things like cigarettes and sugary drinks that damage people's health.  But the idea of using government to correct for the negative externalities of individual behavior, doesn't require overthrowing normal economic analysis.  Indeed, the whole plan (which works very well when it is all-too-rarely implemented!) is created with the tools of economic analysis.


"If humans evolved forms of reciprocity, including altruism in addition to and not dependent upon the evolution of human self-interest, and it is these behaviors that make them distinct among species, while self-interest is ubiquitous, then which of these two human behaviors is more fundamental to human nature or even human existence?"  Reciprocity and altruism are not totally unique to humanity -- altruistic behaviors have famously been observed in numerous species.  Check out this video on Arabian Babblers (who aggressively "compete" to be the most helpful), and this wikipedia page on some "eusocial" species that have been shaped by group-level selection.  The tools of fields like evolution and economics aren't stumped/bamboozled by these situations -- rather, they are perfectly capable of understanding these fascinating exceptions to the general rule.

"To the contrary. I am suggesting that EA deepen its meaning of what is rational, beyond the reductionist predilection for finding the simplest answers because even if the intent is to find the truth, reductionism almost always only finds the partial truth [excludes], but disguises it as the needed [only] truth."  Just wanted to mention that I have no idea what this means; I am going to need some more examples of what it might mean for EA to deepen the meaning of what is rational, in order to visualize what your suggestion might possibly look like in practice.  What awesome new things will become possible, when we throw out normal economics and create our own new way of modeling human nature?  Is the point of creating a new version of economics that it will actually make people in the real world be less selfish?  Or is it just to understand the world better by making a more complex model?  etc.

I am sorry if the following comes off as rant-y or dismissive, but I have just gotta say it:  Personally, I am a huge fan of (what I think of as) systemic change.  I love nothing more than thinking about georgism, charter cities and network states, prediction markets, approval voting and liquid democracy, sortition, quadratic funding for promoting positive externalities, and so many other exciting ideas for improving the future.  (I love these things so much that I spent a month creating an award-winning entry in a "world-building" competition to describe utopian futures for humanity!  Wherein I tried to create a realistic narrative of how a revolution in improved governing institutions could develop over the next three decades.)  And I love to meet other people who claim to be looking for radical new solutions and new experimental ways of governing to solve deep societal problems.  But so often, it turns out that yet again it is just a bunch of cliché, politically left-wing language that either doesn't present a clear plan at all (let's overthrow the academic field of economics in favor of something more holistic and not based around self-interest, and then this will lead to a transformed world via... ???), or else the plan is just "we should be more socialist", which is incredibly boring to me since (like you say in the post) this is not a radically new idea at all -- it's the primary axis on which all politics has been fighting back and forth for decades.  So, I just want to communicate, from the depths of my heart, that I am not trying to put down your post because I don't like the idea of radically improving the world via systemic change.  Rather I think that so much more is possible -- there is so much more territory to explore than the tired old battlefields of socialism, degrowther eco-doomerism, identity-politics culture wars, etc, that I see so many idealistic young people glomming onto as if they were groundbreaking and full of new potential.  There are genuinely new ideas all around, important and tractable but tragically neglected even by the people who say they are most eager to fight for systemic change.


You've got five points of contention or question, I will address them in order. 

1) Systemic change and systems change are not the same thing. The things you outlined that EA engages with on a systemic change level, are things meant to make the self-interested system better. My greater argument, put another way, is that EA has the potential to challenge the self-interested system, but its too busy propping up the self-interested system to realize it. EA is operating within the self-interested system, just as communism and socialism have and do, reifying self-interest in the process. Its rhetorically oxymoronic and generally contradictory to claim to be an altruist while also explicitly claiming not to challenge self-interest; altruism is literally a challenge to self-interest, the only way you can define altruism without challenging self-interest is to make altruism a form of self-interest (which is what economics strained to do for generations). 

2) I'm using the example of what Raworth envisions to say that altruism and all the other forms of reciprocity are what can get us to balance. There are a lot of other examples in the world, of course. I cut, for instance, another section on Hopi culture - one that to this day still practices implicit and explicit reciprocity as fundamental parts of their culture and modes of exchange. They've also managed a sustainable existence (balanced) for millennia in some of earth's harshest environs. 

From my critique: "If the entire world were populated by effective altruists, we’d make it to Raworth’s sustainable zone (the donut). But the entire world is not populated by effective altruists because most of the  world can’t even envision themselves as anything more than self-interested beings fighting for survival, because that’s what they’ve been told they are..."

3) I don't actually claim that altruism and other forms of reciprocity are unique to humans, just that it makes them distinct among species. There is no other species on earth that cooperates and practices reciprocity at the level humans do. I will argue this point, not that there aren't other instances. New Caledonian crows use tools, but humans really, really use tools would be an analogy of what I mean by distinct. 

4) The linked application of this critique to a cause exploration is literally an example of what I mean by a deeper rationalism. Very simply, I mean the over use of reductionism is making EA shallow and therefore, oftentimes/sometimes wrong and it need not be. 

5) And I agree with your notion that the dualism of right/left "systems" change ideas is getting us... not where we need to be. That's part of why I am approaching that as one system and suggesting, with evidence, that there is another. 

Thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

Quick feedback: I stopped reading after the summary because I find the writing style exhausting. There's a lot of complicated words that require the reader to do a lot of active thinking and interpretation


Thanks for the feedback.

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