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Effective altruism is worth spreading

Why do some people become effective altruists? To those who are, it can seem like an obvious, logical course of action. After all, it only relies on a desire to help people and to get more value for your money. There are a lot of potential supporters of effective altruism out there! Still, relatively few of them are actual supporters. I want to talk about why this gap exists and what we can do about it.

First, is the gap a bad thing? I think it is, even if we only focus on the perspective of the potential effective altruist. If you want to do something, knowing how to do it is valuable to you. So for people who really want to help others, informing them is a useful service. Not knowing, and even not knowing that there's something to know, is a problem for them. And the more people who support these ideas, the more they will collectively be able to achieve.

To spread the movement, it must be appealing

Why isn't everyone who really cares, and is willing to act on reasonable arguments, already an effective altruist? It can seem a pretty obvious idea: to maximise what you can achieve you should measure and evaluate the options and act accordingly. Even ten years ago there were far fewer people acting efficiently on these beliefs, but the numbers have been growing quickly. To get to this stage it isn’t enough to have a desire to help and common sense. The answer must be that it is one of those ideas which seems obvious only in retrospect. You also need to be exposed to the concepts, and to approach them with an open mind.

So if we want these ideas to spread, we need to make them widely available and accessible. By accessible I mean that they should be easy-to-understand, appealing, and non-confrontational. Confrontation frequently closes people's minds against new ideas. Similarly, if the ideas initially appear odd or distasteful it can stop people ever taking them seriously.

Don’t make arguments that sound too weird

For people who have internalised the central concepts of effective altruism, there is often a tension here. It turns out that these first, in-retrospect-obvious, ideas are just a small part of larger and more general theories which are being developed. The new ideas are often important and intellectually exciting, and it is natural to want to share them widely.

This can often be a mistake. Even very natural ideas are often built on the paradigm of effective altruism. Without the context of this paradigm they may seem strange or ill-founded. This can be a disservice to the ideas, to effective altruism, and to the people hearing them. These people might very reasonably dismiss the ideas, and attach negative connotations to them. In turn this could stop them from ever seriously considering the central ideas of effective altruism, even if with proper consideration they would have loved these ideas.

For example, after internalising the idea that we should be seeking to help people as much as we can, people often notice we may have opportunities now to help people in the future. If the future has a decent chance of being long and prosperous, perhaps most people are yet to come. And if we have opportunities to increase that chance of being long and prosperous -- for example by reducing the risk of human extinction -- it’s plausible these opportunities are the best use of our resources. As presented here this argument runs a little fast, passing over key questions such as how we could ever expect to be able to reduce this, and it is unclear that it would convince anyone who hadn’t already thought about charity as an activity that could be optimised.

Far worse is to present the conclusion without the argument. You might say something like “The most important thing we can do is to stop humanity going extinct,” (when most people have never seriously thought about scenarios where this happens), or “Compared to the far future, people alive today hardly matter.” The danger here is not just of seeming wrong, but of seeming like a crackpot, even to a smart and well-informed audience. With enough time they might try to understand why you’d believe this obviously wrong thing, and perhaps realise you could be right. But with a limited amount of attention they’re likely instead to use the good rule of thumb of not paying attention to crazy ideas. Even questions, like “How can we best reduce the chance of extinction?”, can sound similarly weird because of their implicit assumptions.

Of course, important ideas should not be dropped or forgotten. On the contrary, they should be discussed and developed. But we should take care to keep open the dialogue between people who have spent a long time thinking about effective altruism, and those who are just encountering it for the first time. The ideas are natural, and have a broad appeal, and it would be a great shame if they never realised that broad appeal because the groups developing them became too specialised, too quickly.

Be nice to people

There are a couple of other traps to avoid. Firstly, using the terminology of a group in order to affiliate with that group. Sometimes it's useful to have specialist terms, but usually you don't need them. Using them makes the group look more insular to outsiders (which the effective altruist movement really isn't), and can also lead people reading arguments to take away the wrong message. Avoiding unnecessary terminology is part of not being too 'clannish' about effective altruism. It isn't "us against the world", since most people are really on our side.

A particularly unhelpful line of thought runs as follows. Effective altruists are typically likely to do much more to help the world than other people. So given a choice between prioritising the resources (time or money, say) of effective altruists and others, it's good to favour the effective altruists. They are in practice ‘more important’ than regular people, even if you think all people’s welfare matters equally.

This last distinction is subtle and liable to be drowned out by the general distastefulness of the idea that people in a particular group matter more than others. It looks particularly bad if the reasoning is applied to oneself, as it is likely to be. Note that the argument doesn't need to be given explicitly to be harmful. If someone internalises the idea that they matter more than other people, elements of this are likely to show in conversation. Moreover, it can manifest itself in antisocial behaviour. Even if this is intended in the service of greater social good, there is a serious risk that the behaviour could become associated with effective altruism and taint the idea. If one of the most important things we can do is to help more people to become effective altruists (and right now, I think it is), it's important that we not just do good, but are seen to do good by society's standards. This mindset has a worrying potential to undo that. Be nice to people.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Nick Beckstead, Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, Toby Ord, Pablo Stafforini, Robert Wiblin, and Julia Wise for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this post.

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You make excellent points, Owen. Especially resonant with me was your point about avoiding overly strange-sounding arguments. When faced with threatening ideas, especially those that are very demanding (such as donating a lot to charity), a person will look for any excuse to dismiss them. One of the primary ways people do this is by finding some fault in the person challenging them, such as radicalism. Too often, advocates walk straight into this, making themselves seem like, heck you said it, crackpots. I saw a video of Peter Singer giving a speech about EA recently. He began the speech by praising a number of effective altruists for donating their organs while they're still alive to whoever may need them. This would be seen as extremely radical by most people. Thus, many of the people in the audience (or watching on Youtube) likely dismissed making large donations to effective charities as also radical, because it's being proposed by these radical organ-donating people that call themselves “effective altruists”. The focus of my life is promoting vegetarianism as it is a practice of heinous victimization on a grand scale. It bothers me to see some veg activists publicly declaring that nature or wildlife should be completely eradicated so as to avoid wild animal suffering. To a meat-eater pondering giving up meat to have compassion for animals, this would seem so absurd and radical that he would have a good chance of dismissing vegetarianism altogether, as it's proponents are clearly cuckoo. It's important to come across as reasonable when advocating for something and keep your extremism to yourself. No matter how right you think you are, talking about giving internal organs away, as with Singer's example, ain't going to cause a rush at the local hospital for organ transplant volunteers... but it will prevent people from becoming major donors!!

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