Ariel Simnegar

Hi guys! I graduated from UMass Amherst with degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics and am currently earning to give as a Quant Trading Analyst at DRW.

I'm still learning about which causes I care the most about, but I'm passionate about the usual EA talking points: global poverty, animal welfare, and extinction risks.

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Has anyone actually talked to conservatives* about EA?

I have friends who'd identify as "deeply conservative" who I'd include in my above answer, but I'd opine that "deeply conservative" is a significantly different characterization from "far right" in modern American politics. For example, conservative values support upholding the integrity of institutions, not insurrection and/or attempts to overturn democratic elections. Unfortunately I can't give you an informed answer on "far right" or "alt-right" types.

Has anyone actually talked to conservatives* about EA?

Sure! Conservatives and libertarians in the United States hail the separation of powers between the federal and state governments. The framers explicitly designed this separation of powers to stymie tyrannical actors: 

The smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens" (Madison, Federalist No. 10).

The framers' intentions were for the vast majority of actual governance to take place at the state level, with the federal government's enumerated powers used primarily for foreign relations:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. (Madison, Federalist No. 45)

I think this separation of powers is an extremely valuable idea. Federalism lends the United States a Byzantine fault tolerance with redundancy in the form of individual states. Novel policies can be experimented with on the state level, pros and cons can be assessed, and either other states will be convinced by the marketplace of ideas to adopt the policy or the policy will be rolled back. Even in the worst case where some states succumb to tyranny, the United States will endure.

As the centuries have passed, power has become increasingly concentrated in the federal government, and our politics have become nationalized to the point that virtually every contentious issue today concerns the actions of the federal government.

Progressives (and many EAs) have been frustrated about how the filibuster has prevented Democrats in the federal government from delivering on their ambitious promises during the 2020 election cycle and how conservative the Supreme Court is. The existence of the filibuster, which admittedly was very much unintended by the framers, has the useful role of decreasing the effective power of the federal government. The Supreme Court's power has expanded drastically outside of its original confines to the point that it can be stacked (or has been stacked, depending upon your point of view) to create tyrannical outcomes. I think EAs (and progressives writ large) could do with a greater appreciation of federalism and ways the concept of separation of powers could be extended to our altruistic goals.

Has anyone actually talked to conservatives* about EA?

I'm a conservative EA who's discussed EA at length with other conservatives.

For context, my conservative friends and I were born and raised in the comfortable left-wing community of Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to a very non-elite state school. One of the friends in the group I discuss here goes to military school and has an eye on a longer term political career.

Things my conservative friends (and I) like about EA:

  • The philosophy of choosing to make important life choices in a way which rigorously adheres to one's ethical principles.
  • Many religions mandate tithes (portions of one's income to be given to the poor), so my conservative friends see earning to give as complementary towards both secular and religious morality.
  • EA thought tends to regard solving problems like racism, sexism, and homophobia to be far less marginally impactful than poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Conservatives tend to believe that the former social issues occupy far too large a space in the American mind.
  • Liberal democracy is hailed by both EAs and (in the classical sense) conservatives.
  • The ability of EAs to talk to people on both sides of the political aisle without making emotional arguments, accusing the other side (conservatives) of disingenuousness, or behaving uncivilly. In my personal experience, these behaviors are shockingly common from the general population towards conservatives, but I've never had a fellow EA act that way towards me.
  • At the risk of repeating myself, rationality! My anecdotal experience is that those with unpopular opinions on contentious issues have often thought deeply about the issue at hand before coming to a conclusion, whereas it's easy to absorb and echo a popular opinion without thinking it through. For nearly all Western universities, conservative students are in the minority, and having a discussion with a left-wing peer who's spent substantial time thinking their ideology through is a huge breath of fresh air.

Things my conservative friends dislike about EA:

  • They're typically meat lovers XD
  • There are libertarian EAs, but the consequentialist core of much of EA thought disagrees with the idea that classical liberal principles are conclusively true. For example, one could construct a consequentialist hypothetical where restricting freedom of speech would be the right thing to do to maximize happiness, even if one believes that freedom of speech is in general an extremely important principle.
  • Conservatism tends to prioritize classically liberal principles and traditional institutions, which broadly tends towards a deontological ethical philosophy rather than a consequentialist one.
  • EA does have respect for institutions, but I think it's fair to say that the conservative prior on the value of institutions is greater than the EA prior.
  • There are some liberal policies that are difficult to avoid explicitly endorsing as an EA; for example, increasing foreign aid, socializing healthcare, and increasing environmental protections. This isn't something my conservative friends "dislike" about EA per se (as we're well-conditioned to avoid disliking somebody just because of their political views), but it is an ideological hurdle to deal with for a conservative trying to take on an EA mindset.
  • There's an undercurrent in liberal thinking where it's assumed that conservatives are at the very least ignorant and at the most acting in bad faith. EAs are quite good at avoiding that for the most part, but it does sometimes seep in, and it's frankly awful for discourse and doesn't help anybody.
  • There aren't any prominent conservative EAs (or at least none that I've heard of). As a result, EA thought tends to ignore conservative perspectives in general, even when (in my opinion as a conservative) they can be highly valuable. For example, I believe there's a seriously compelling argument that abortion should be considered an EA issue. (I've written my argument here if anybody would like to take a look. Please do comment as I'm highly interested in feedback!)