James Herbert

3Amsterdam, NetherlandsJoined Mar 2022


I'm currently Co-Director of EA Netherlands (with Amarins Veringa). We're working to build and strengthen the EA community here.

Before this, I worked as a consultant on urban socioeconomic development projects and programmes funded by the EU. Before that, I studied liberal arts (in the UK) and then philosophy (in the Netherlands).

Hit me up if you wanna find out about the EA community here! :)


Nice post! Like other have said in the comments, it's hard to come up with concrete takeaways. Personally, I'm going to spend more time with the very few quakers I know just to learn more about their general vibe.

Wait, it's a small thing, but I think I have a different understanding of decoupling (even though my understanding is ultimately drawn from the Nerst post that's linked to in your definitional link); consequently, I'm not 100% sure what you mean when you say a common critique was 'stop decoupling everything'. 

You define the antonym of decoupling as the truism that 'all causes are connected'. This implies that a common critique was that, too often, EA takes causes that are interconnected, separates them and, as a result, undermines its efforts to make progress. 

I can imagine this would be a common critique. However, my definition of the antonym is quite different.

I would describe the antonym of decoupling to be a lack of separating an idea from its possible implications. 

For example, a low-decoupler is someone who is weirded out by someone who says, 'I don’t think we should kill healthy people and harvest their organs, but it is plausible that a survival lottery, where random people are killed and their organs redistributed, could effectively promote longevity and well-being'. A low-decoupler would be like, 'Whoa mate, I don't care how much you say you don't endorse the implications of your logic, the fact you think this way suggests an unhealthy lack of an empathy and I don't think I can trust you'.   

Are you saying that lots of critiques came from that angle? Or are you saying that lots of critiques were of the flavour, 'Too often, EA takes causes that are interconnected, separates them and, as a result, undermines its efforts to make progress'? 

Like I said, it's a minor thing, but I just wanted to get it clear in my head :) 

Thanks for the post! 

I'm not sure you've quite nailed the central claim of the book. Which is fair, they don't make it clear, and I don't think the reviews did a good job of making it clear either. 

I think it's more along the lines of: 

Modern societies have lost the qualities of flexibility and political creativity that were once more common in human history. We have value lock in.

This seems plausible to me. 

They also make the following claim:

Western civilisation is not conducive to human flourishing. This is made evident by the fact that Western civilisation did not spread of its own accord. Instead, European powers ‘have been obliged to spend the last 500 or so years aiming guns at people’s heads in order to force them to adopt it’. 

This is more debatable. But I don't think it's very important (with regards to a discussion on the value of the book). 

Why? Because they only state this claim due to the fact that this is why they care about the truth of the first claim. However, I expect most people on this forum already agree that value lock in is bad and, therefore, don't need to buy this second claim to find value in the book.

Instead, to determine the value of the book (provided you already buy the first claim AND think lock in is bad), one ought to investigate claims such as the following (made in the conclusion):

  • Our society's lack of flexibility and political creativity has its origins in a confusion between care and domination.
  • Societies such as ours, i.e. those that are large and complex, do not require domination to flourish.

Thanks for putting in the work here! 

You mention that feedback from people who didn't know much about EA prior to reading the essay would be particularly valuable - we paid someone to translate it for our national group's website so we've got a bit of that:

'In the English source text I’ve noticed some minor issues with grammar and/or style (such as pronouns without referents, long-winded lines  that could be phrased more efficiently, repetitions in words and examples, the structuring of content and their respective paragraphs).' 

Furthermore, the translator was not a fan of the general structure: 

'The title is "What is effective altruism", then after the intro I'm being presented with all these long examples of things more or less inspired by EA (though never quite sure to what extent), only to be followed with the line: "Effective altruism isn't defined by the projects above, and what it focuses on could easily change." - so why did I spend my time reading these examples then?'

After receiving these comments, I shared the old one with them to see what they made of it:

'It's a better read and keeps me more engaged, addresses some of the key questions one might have about EA-thinking both more directly and more nuanced'

Hope this is useful!

Just a quick comment to say this was a very helpful post, thank you Brian! 

The most useful aspect for me was seeing how people's engagement increased over time. My big takeaway  is the importance of fellowships/discussion groups. Looking at these case studies, once someone has heard of EA, the next big moment is participation in such an activity. Would you agree?