barkbellowroar

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Effective Altruism, Before the Memes Started

One thing that jumped out at me as I read your post is the several references you make to the EA movement’s engagement with past critics - and by “EA movement” I mean William MacAskill - which to me reads as an underlying issue, and possibly the explanation for the point you appear to be making, in that the movement no longer responds to critics. 

One of my favorite modern aphorisms (which, regrettably, I can’t recall who I heard it from) is, “I hate Lord of the Rings…. but it’s still a billion dollar franchise.” The point being that every idea (be it a world-changing philosophy or what started as a simple fiction book) has critics and as things scale you begin to realize you can keep defending your work… or you can reach a threshold of “advocates” so you can just concentrate on your work… because your advocates will defend the work for you. 

Which to me is the larger part of the issue here: MacAskill was definitely a major voice in the beginning of the movement, as expected, given his help founding it and his book Doing Good Better - but all movements (much like startups) must face that first “crisis” of being able to support itself without needing the founder’s daily involvement in putting out small fires, or in this case, engaging with every new (or old) criticism that comes in. Unfortunately,  EA appears to be having a hard time moving past its need for founders to be highly involved at the ground level. A movement that continues holding on to its founders writes its own stagnation, because the founders cannot continue their own work in further developing the very ideas and vision that the movement was built on. 

I can’t speak for the founders because I wasn’t there at the time they were creating the movement, but I can’t imagine they intended to remain involved in the daily activities of the movement long-term.  I surmise there was an expectation that at some point, a threshold of people would “join” the movement, and they would be able to step back (into their existing, professional roles) and not have to invest so much time and energy into the development and maintenance of the movement, because enough structure would be in place so that it would be able to carry itself forward. 

I believe in many ways this has happened - the Centre (CEA), despite some instability early on, has done a remarkable job of taking over this crucial “hand-off” of the more practical, infrastructure side of the movement. Where EA seems to be struggling is in the “hand-off” of the more academic, intellectual part of the movement - the philosophical claims of EA are much more nuanced and the ability to argue and debate them require a deeper understanding of various ethical theories, traditional approaches in philanthropy as well as knowledge of economics, statistics and a slew of other subjects. 

I don’t think Will is the only person who can defend the ideas of EA, but Will might be the only person in EA who is confident enough in his understanding of the ideas (having helped create them) that feels he can publicly respond and debate the ideas with external critics. This unfortunately leads to an “ouroboros effect” in which Will feels he can respond so he does, which leads to other EAs not feeling they have the same level of understanding as him to publicly defend EA, so they continue ignoring critics waiting for Will to say something, so Will does and so on… this has surely been exhausting and stressful for Will and unfortunately it has reinforced a bad habit in the movement of “somebody else’s problem” (or in this case “Will’s problem.”)

I believe there are solutions to rectify this but even I don’t feel qualified to make suggestions, for many reasons, but primarily being that I am not a founder so I don’t feel like I have the “authority” to tell “leadership” how to manage the movement they created. This ties into a more complex web of issues that I see unfolding as the movement continues to grow, so to clarify I don’t think the solution here is as simple as founders “passing the baton” to the next round of leadership. The EA movement can definitely take advice from community-building best practices, but EA is a more unique kind of movement, which means not all of the traditional solutions can just be applied “cut and paste” and expected to work well. 

OP: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts because I believe it’s a good practice to document and demarcate changes (real or perceived) in the movement for future historical reference. 

Effective Altruism, Before the Memes Started

I agree with Linch, it was difficult to follow your train of thought… but I still found it worth reading to the end. 

It feels like you (the OP) had three distinct streams of thought intertwined; (a) the parts about Glen Weyl, (b) the general point that movements tend to stop engaging with critics, and then (c) using EA as your example for (b). This piece may have flowed better if you just cut out the parts about Glen Weyl -I for one had no idea who this was because I don’t engage on those other forums you mentioned. It doesn’t add much to your main point or reflections on the EA movement, and feels like a bit of a distraction from them. (this is just meant as friendly feedback, take it or leave it).