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My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

And a much delayed response...

It is actually 'prima facie obvious' to some people that philanthropic do-gooders - those who 'aim at making the world better' through individualised charity are not actually having a positive impact. This kind of critique of charity and philanthropy is much older than EA.

So maybe everyone will agree with the thin claim that people who try to make the world better in some way will usually have more positive impact than those who don't try. But this has no implications for charity vs politics or anything else - it seems to be no more than the truism that its good to care about goodness. Though I guess some consequentialists would quibble with that too.

I did indeed cherry pick some provocative issues to put in the article, but this was to illustrate the complexity of the issues rather than just to score cheap points.

And you may well be right that I don't get it, as I am not steeped in decision theory or Bayesian methods. So maybe the point is better put this way: EAs do indeed have this prior assumption that charity is good and a charitable movement is a good movement. But plenty of people quite justifiably have the opposite prior - that charity is mostly bad and that a charitable movement does more harm than good by slowing down and distracting from necessary change. If so, EA and its critics are in the same position - and so its not reasonable for EAs to chide their critics for somehow not caring about doing good or adopting anti-charity positions because it makes them sound cool to their radical friends.

My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

I'm back for some reason!

Here's my attempt at non-snide answer.

I think the issue is maybe not really about doing any particular reading or research, but about worldviews.

One does not usually get 'converted' to socialism or whatever simply by reading a couple of smart articles on the issue. Nor would one necessarily be persuaded of the relevance of social movement studies specifically or anything else if one was constitutionally disinclined to think it worthwhile.

A worldview is not just something we rationally choose based on evidence. It is a complex function of upbringing, education, experience, moral commitments and who knows what other combination of emotional, unconscious or whatever factors. We

EAs seem disinclined to recognise that they do in fact have such a worldview and that it plays a big role in how they think about doing good. Givewell does have some important posts about its 'worldview characteristics' but seems to underplay the extent to which these views are controversial and thoroughly intertwined with its understanding of altruism.

With respect to social movement studies, I think the underlying worldview characteristic is the idea that the most significant social changes usually come about by way of more or less organised collective efforts, rather than isolated individual efforts. The field investigates how these organised efforts work.

But if you just don't believe that social movements are the key drivers of change in human history, I don't think there are any '2 papers' that will persuade you!

My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

I do actually discuss this issue a little, although perhaps not quite in these terms. Critics do argue, in fact, that growing EA as it currently works would be bad because it perpetuates harmful attitudes to charity (see e.g. Gabriel's article).

I can assure you that it is not at all obvious that EA is the best movement precisely because of this focus on charity/individualism etc. and the more general epistemic gaps I discuss in the paper.

EA can certainly be defended as an effective movement, rather than just in terms of the effectiveness of its donations, but this takes on the burden of all the historical and qualitative arguments it has avoided e.g. the tricky stuff about the cultural impact of certain kinds of rhetoric, problems of power and compromise, the holistic and long term impact of the changes it seeks, the relationship between its goals and its methods etc. This is fine, but it puts EA in exactly the same position as other movements - reliant on deeply uncertain evidence and thus to some extent a matter of faith and commitment rather than certainty and

My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

Hi thanks for your comment! Sorry for delayed response.

As it happens I think that radical social movements, broadly understood, do have the capacity to course-correct, learning from what has worked or failed before and are compatible with our understanding of human behavior. And certainly they are tolerant of uncertainty - there is little choice but to be!

I'm not sure what it means to be grounded in consequentialism - to invoke it explicitly? Not sure why this would be so important - everyone cares about consequences and radicals have often not been restrained by deontological concerns.

I think that global impartiality is impossible - there is no such thing as a wholly neutral perspective on social phenomena, because qualitative interpretation is fundamental to any social inquiry.

Scope sensitivity: I think that e.g. the distinction between base and super-structure reflects a kind of scope-sensitivity - the idea that some parts of society matter more than others to outcomes and so its more important to change them. Plus the spectrum of reformism to radicalism reflects an awareness of the differences in scale/impact of different social and political changes.

Status-seeking: I think EA has just as much of a problem with this, in light of its affiliation with tech/data/wealth/rationalism, all of which are pretty near the top of cultural, economic and political hierarchies right now!

More generally: I'm happy for EAs to prefer their paradigm - I just think they should admit that any paradigm, including their own, has to be justified in the same inevitably controversial, qualitative terms and that evidence/claims of effectiveness within a paradigm are therefore contingent not just on the 'data' but on these qualitative arguments for the paradigm itself. This puts EA on the same footing as those who endorse different paradigms - doesn't prove EA to be wrong, but does suggest it should be more humble and less inclined to traduce its critics as epistemically lazy or whatever.

My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

Thanks for your comment. Apologies for delayed reply.

Apologies is this sounds a bit snide but...invoking this 'two paper rule' is exactly the kind of faux-smart heuristic that EA's critics have a problem with. It tries to take short-cuts to working out what is the best thing to do and even to justify them as themselves effective. But I think this mis-understands the holistic and historically extended nature of worldviews/movements/anlayses.

Social movement studies happens to exist as a self-identified field. That EA's haven't heard of it may say more about them than about the field. But it has a much longer and broader history in other disciplines and outside formal academia.

So, being slightly facetious, I would say that you should read Marx's Capital, Vol 1. and, maybe, Lenin's 'Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism' - even if some of the theoretical and empirical details are wrong or outdated, the basic analyses retain a lot of force and are undoubtedly key texts in the relevant social movements.

My new article on EA and the systemic change objection

Hi - thanks for your comments! Apologies for the delay in getting back to this. Some responses.

1. Re: labelling. I'm not familiar with the Pritchett stuff - is it his 'four fold smell test', which asks whether the proposed development intervention involves something that actually is widespread in developed countries? It looks like a shorthand that is underpinned by a systemic analysis of the history and causes of development, plus some idea that it will happen the same way now as in the past.

My critique is intended to be primarily epistemic - that EA underestimates the urgency and significance of necessarily rather speculative social analysis - and that this therefore puts it at risk of endorsing interventions that are either not the best available or actually make the problem worse by perpetuating the system that causes it.

I think that is the general form of any systemic change objection - that EA ignores relevant 'systemic evidence' and thus gets the wrong answers about effective interventions. This critique can be mounted from the perspective of any substantive social analysis. I develop a socialist version both because I endorse it (though I don't defend it in the paper) and because there are many lefty critics of charity and I think their arguments have been both a bit weak and unfair to EA and that EA's have often responded with similarly weak and unfair arguments.

2. Two points.

I'm very sympathetic to pretty radical critiques of neo-classical economics, especially in its mainstream dominant forms, so I don't think that there is any reason to think that the majority of economists are correct and, in fact, some basic reasons of institutional incentivisation (as well as ideology etc.) to think that they mostly pretty wrong.

I do not offer a direct argument against the claim that capitalist/growth is the best anti-poverty tool. In fact I am quite happy to shift the argument on to this terrain - the terrain of macro-economics, political economy, historical analysis etc. - my aim is precisely to show that this kind of reasoning is inevitably implicated in any attempt to do the most good, and thus in defenses of charity, however obvious it seems that charity is helpful. And of course I think that there is no straightforward empirical data that proves the overall benefits of capitalism at all or as it has actually played out - the relevant counterfactual (i.e. a history of socialism) cannot be tested.

3. It is certainly conjectural - trying to illustrate a genre of reasoning rather than prove the specific claim. I think its an interesting open question whether donations to socialist charities do more harm than good by exploiting NOYB norms - certainly, socialists will usually insist that giving money by itself is far from a sufficient contribution.

I actually included a very approximate quantitative analysis in an early draft, but it was taken out after review as seeming to contradict the overal argument defending qualitative evidence. But, basically, it does sound implausible but it really depends how you specify the all important 'numbers' about a) how much an individual could contribute to the revolution, b) how likely it is that socialism would happen and work and c) how much better it would be. But: there are relatively few affluent people in the world, those who help start a movement probably 'do more' than those who take it to final victory and its conceivable that a long period of socialism would save a truly vast number of lives, as well as relieving a huge amount of other suffering. Once you think in those terms, the trade off is less obviously in favor of e.g. AMF.

4. Excellent question! Socialists have always had big problems with internationalism vs nationalism and current democratic institutions are a big part of this. Undoubtedly, a really effective economic democracy would have to be international in character.