Effective Altruism As A Tower Of Assumptions
I have an essay that my friends won’t let me post because it’s too spicy. It would be called something like How To Respond To Common Criticisms Of Effective Altruism (In Your Head Only, Definitely Never Do This In Real Life), and it starts:
Q: I don’t approve of how effective altruists keep donating to weird sci-fi charities.
A: Are you donating 10% of your income to normal, down-to-earth charities?
Q: Long-termism is just an excuse to avoid helping people today!
A: Are you helping people today?
Q: I think charity is a distraction from the hard work of systemic change.
A: Are you working hard to produce systemic change?
Q: Here are some exotic philosophical scenarios where utilitarianism gives the wrong answer.
A: Are you donating 10% of your income to poor people who aren’t in those exotic philosophical scenarios?
Many people will answer yes to all of these! In which case, fine! But…well, suppose you’re a Christian. An atheist comes up to you and says “Christianity is stupid, because the New International Version of the Bible has serious translation errors”.
You might immediately have questions like “Couldn’t you just use a different Bible version?” or “Couldn’t you just worship Jesus and love your fellow man while accepting that you might be misunderstanding parts of the Bible?”
But beyond that, you might wonder why the atheist didn’t think of these things. Are the translation errors his real objection to Christianity, or is he just seizing on them as an excuse? And if he’s just seizing on them as an excuse, what’s his real objection? And why isn’t he trying to convince you of that?
This is also how I feel about these kinds of critiques of effective altruism.
To me, the core of effective altruism is the Drowning Child scenario. The world is full of death and suffering. Your money (or time, or whatever resource you prefer to spend) could fix more of it than you think - one controversial analysis estimates $5,000 to save a life. You would go crazy if you tried to devote 100% of your time and money to helping others. But if you decide to just help when you feel like it or a situation comes up, you’ll probably forget. Is there some more systematic way to commit yourself to some amount between 0% and 100% of your effort (traditionally 10%)? And once you’ve done that, how do you make those resources go as far as possible? This is effective altruism, the rest is just commentary.
There’s a lot of commentary. Effective altruism is now a semi-organized movement, with leaders like Will MacAskill and Toby Ord and institutions like the Open Philanthropy Project. It’s produced a vast literature on effective charities, ranging from how to best prevent malaria to how to promote animal welfare to speculative scenarios about AI apocalypse. These aren’t above criticism, and lots of people have criticized them. But if you criticize them successfully, and feel like they’re discredited, then you’re back at the basic tenets of the movement again.
Think of it as a tower of assumptions. If you destroy the foundation, the whole tower falls. But if you destroy the top floor, all the other floors are still standing:
When people say things like “I think AI risk is stupid, so I’m against effective altruism”, the two halves of that sentence might both be true, but the “so” joining them isn’t.
Freddie deBoer writes that:
The correct ideas of EA are great, but some of them are so obvious that they shouldn’t be ascribed to the movement at all, while the interesting, provocative ideas are fucking insane and bad. The first time I googled “effective altruism,” within 10 minutes I was reading an argument that we should commit genocide against all predatory species, as they kill herbivores, see, and that’s negative utility or whatever.
I don’t think “kill predatory animals” is an especially common EA belief, but if it were, fine, retreat back to the next-lowest level of the tower! Spend 10% of your income on normal animal welfare causes like ending factory farming. Think that animal welfare is also wacky? Then donate 10% of your income to helping poor people in developing countries. Are those kinds of things “so obvious that [they] shouldn’t be ascribed to the movement at all”? Then how come so few other people do them?
Think that 10% is the wrong number, and you should be helping people closer to home? Fine, then go even lower on the tower, and donate . . . some amount of your time, money, something, to poor people in your home country, in some kind of systematic considered way beyond “I saw an ad for March of Dimes at the supermarket so I guess I’ll give them my spare change”. If you’re not doing this, your beef with effective altruism isn’t “the culture around Open Philanthropy Project devalues such and such a form of change”, your beef is whatever’s preventing you from doing that. You may additionally have an interesting intellectual point about the culture around Open Phil, much as you might have an interesting intellectual point about which Bible translations you’d prefer if you were Christian. But don’t mistake it for a real crux.
Near the end of my too-spicy-to-publish essay:
Q: Separate from any questions about my personal obligations, I just think it’s important to call out the ways effective altruism as a movement is doing harm.
A: Separate from any callouts of effective altruism as a movement, I just think it’s important to confront the question of whether you personally should be donating 10% of your income to the poorest people in the world.
For me, basically every other question around effective altruism is less interesting than this basic one of moral obligation. It’s fun to debate whether some people/institutions should gain or lose status, and I participate in those debates myself, but they seem less important than these basic questions of how we should live and what our ethics should be.
Q: Come on, effective altruism doesn’t even emphasize the “donate 10% of your income to effective charities” thing anymore! Now it emphasizes searching for an altruistic career!
A: Are you pursuing an altruistic career?
Q: No, because I think all the altruistic careers on their list are stupid and won’t really help anybody!
A: Then are you donating 10% of your income to charity?
Q: You’re just doing a sneaky equivocation thing where you conflate “effective altruism”, a specific flawed community, with the idea of altruism itself, thus deflecting all possible criticism!
A: You caught me. Are you donating 10% of your income to the poorest people in the world? Why not?
Q: FINE. YOU WIN. Now I’m donating 10% of my income to charity.
A: You should donate more effectively.