Topic Contributions


The totalitarian implications of Effective Altruism

Thanks for your three comments, all of which make excellent points. To briefly comment on each one:


The distinction you draw between (a) do the most good (with your entire life) and (b) do the most good (with whatever fraction of resources you've decided to allocate to altruistic ends) is a really good one. I firmly agree with your recommendation that the EA materials make it clearer that EA is recommending (b). If EA could reformulate its objectives in terms of (b) this would be exactly the type of strengthened weak-EA I am arguing for in my piece.


Thanks for the links here. All of these are good examples of discussions of a form of weak EA as discussed by Michael Nielsen in his notes and built upon in my piece. I note that in each of the linked cases, there is a form of subjective 'ad-hocness' to the use of weak EA to moderate EA's strong tendencies. I therefore have the same concerns as outlined in my piece. 


You've touched upon what was actually (and still is) my second largest concern with the piece (see my response to ThomasWoodside above for the first). 

I'm conscious that totalitarianism is a loaded term. I'm also conscious that my piece does not spend much time kicking the tyres of the concept. I deliberated for a while as to whether the piece would be stronger if I found another term, or limited my analysis to totalisation.  I expect that the critique you've made is a common one amongst those who did not enjoy the piece. 

My rationale for sticking with the term totalitarianism was twofold:

(A) my piece argues that we need to take (what I argue are the) logical outcomes of strong EA seriously, even if such consequences are clearly not the case today. As set out in my piece, my view is that the logical outcomes of an unmitigated form of strong EA would be (i) a totalising framework (i.e. it would have the ability to touch all human life), and (ii) a small number of centralised organisations which are able to determine the moral value of actions. When you put these two outcomes together, there is at least potential for an ideology which I think fits quite neatly into Dreher's definition of totalitarianism as used in my piece and applied in your comment above. I therefore reached the view that to duck away from use of the term would be unfaithful to my own argument, as it would be turning a blind eye to what I see as a potential strong EA of tomorrow due to  the state of EA today. 

(B) I thought totalitarianism was the best way of capturing  and synthesising the two separate strains of my argument (externalisation and totalisation). Totalisation is only one element of this. 

Thanks again for your really engaging comments. 

The totalitarian implications of Effective Altruism

Thanks for this, and I can definitely see the parallels here. 

Interestingly, from an initial read of the extracts you helpfully posted above, I can see Popper's argument working for or against mine. 

On one hand, it is not hard to identify a utopian strain in EA thought (particularly in long-termism as you have pointed out). On the other, I think there is a strong case to be made that EA is doing exactly what Popper suggests when he says:  Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries. I see the EA community's efforts in areas like malaria and direct cash transfers as falling firmly within the 'elimination of concrete evils' camp. 

The totalitarian implications of Effective Altruism

Thanks for the recommendation. This dovetails nicely with my 4th recommendation (identify a firm philosophical foundation for the weakened form of EA I am proposing). The 'spheres of personal liberty' concept sounds like a decent starting point for a reformulation of the principle. 

The totalitarian implications of Effective Altruism

Thanks for engaging with my piece and for these interesting thoughts - really appreciate it. 

 I agree that, on a personal level, turning 'doing the most good' into an instrumental goal towards the terminal goal of 'being happy' sounds like an intuitive and healthy way to approach decision-making. My concern however is that this is not EA, or at least not EA as embodied by its fundamental principles as explored in my piece. 

The question that comes to my mind as I read your comment is: 'is instrumental EA (A) a personal ad hoc exemption to EA (i.e. a form of weak EA), or (B) a proposed reformulation of EA's principles?'

If the former, then I think this is subject to the same pressures as outlined in my piece. If the latter, then my concern would be that the fundamental objective of this reformulation is so divorced from EA's original intention that the concept of EA becomes meaningless. 

The totalitarian implications of Effective Altruism

This is a really interesting parallel - thank you!  

It ties neatly into one of my major concerns with my piece -whether it can be interpreted as anti-rationality / a critique of empiricism (which is not the intention). 

My reflexive reaction to the claim that "enlightenment is totalitarian" is fairly heavy scepticism (whereas, obviously, I lean in the opposite direction as regards to EA), so I'm curious what distinctions there are between the arguments made in Dialectic and the arguments made in my piece. I will have a read of Dialectic and think through this further.