Getting to the Mainstream


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how we ought to live. The aim has always been to get people to behave more ethically, and so to bring about a better world.  The Life You Can Save (TLYCS), an organization I founded and which I now serve as board president, focuses on making effective giving part of mainstream thinking about giving .  I hope some of you will want to take a look at the organization’s Strategic Plan for producing large-scale behavioral change.  It provides some insights into our  thinking, where we are today, and where we want to be in the future.


In 2012, The Life You Can Save was a book, which I published in 2009, and a website set up by a friend and sjupporter, intended to promote the ideas of the book and encourage people to pledge to donate a percentage of their income to effective charities.  At that time Charlie Bresler  approached me, offering to turn TLYCS as a meta-charity, based both on his time and work (he became its unpaid Executive Director), and on his funding.  I thought it was risky (relative to Charlie’s alternative of giving his money to the Against Malaria Foundation) but a risk worth taking.  Since then, I’ve become more and more convinced that the bet has paid off handsomely.  Last year, we moved $2.7m (a conservative estimate) to our recommended charities, more than $9 for every dollar spent on operating expenses.  These metrics should continue to improve as growth in money moved has so far been strong in the current year, while expenses are roughly he same as last year.


TLYCS has built a small but talented team led by Charlie (former president of the Men’s Wearhouse) and COO Jon Behar (a 10 year veteran of the world’s largest hedge fund).   Our impact to date has been significant, and is growing at a steep trajectory, but this progress only represents the early stages of our plans.  Ultimately, TLYCS wants to develop the capacity to introduce huge numbers of people to the idea of effective giving, and to have available the tools and messaging to get them to act.  We also want to build a community that will nurture and increase their involvement over time.  Our Strategic Plan explains the vision for making this happen, and how added capacity will translate to more impact. I hope you’ll read the Strategic Plan and consider supporting TLYCS.


Comments (8)

Comment author: Cornelius  (EA Profile) 27 June 2017 11:09:34PM *  2 points [-]

I've for a long time seen things this way:

  • GiveWell: emphasizes effectiveness: the logic pull
  • TLYCS: emphasizes altruism: the emotion pull
  • GWWC: emphasizes the pledge: the act that unifies us as a common movement (or I think+feel it does)

One cute EA family.

Comment author: MartinHoover 20 July 2017 07:02:19AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the info.

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 02 July 2017 10:13:54PM 0 points [-]

I have some doubts generally about the principle of mainstreaming. It seems to me that it utilises dominant ideologies 'strategically', thus reifying them. In terms of the animal movement this is very much the case in regard to One Step for Animals, Pro-Veg and The Vegan Strategist. All these groups and organisations have adopted a mainstream 'pragmatic' approach which concurrently undermines social justice.

This is of course one approach, but i do not believe there is sufficient evidence to pursue it, or that it stands to reason. It would be far better for these mainstream groups to avoid social justice issues completely, so that would include rights and veganism (the cessation of exploitation), rather than essentially undermining them to privilege their approach.

For example, i think it is deeply unfortunate Matt Ball recently said that we need to utilise the idea that people hate vegans in order to appeal to non-vegans and 'help' animals. I would question the ethics of this, and also whether it is in fact true that 'people' hate vegans, or that forming and perpetuating this idea would be a good thing anyway. This is one example, but in my view mainstreaming sets forth a cascade against people that are trying to do good pro-intersectional social justice work, and it is i believe also true that groups involved in 'mainstreaming' have not sufficiently evaluated their approach, so it seems unworthwhile to support it, even whilst many EAs seem to do just that.

Comment author: DonyChristie 02 July 2017 11:22:45PM 1 point [-]

What empirical tests can we make to measure which approach is more effective? What predictions can be made in advance of those tests?

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 03 July 2017 02:09:49PM *  2 points [-]

First of all we would need to accept there are different approaches, and consider what they are before evaluating effectiveness.

The issue with Effective Altruism is that it is fairly one dimensional when it comes to animal advocacy. That is it works with the system of animal exploitation rather than counter to it, so primarily welfarism and reducetarianism. In relation to these ideas we need to view the subsequent counterfactual analysis, and yet where is it? I've asked these sorts of questions and it seems that people haven't applied some fundamental aspects of Effective Altruism to these issues. They are merely assumed.

For some time it has appeared as if EA has been working off a strictly utilitarian script, and has ignored or marginalised other ideas. Partly this has arisen because of the limited pool of expertise that EA has chosen to draw upon, and this has had a self replicating effect.

Recently i read through some of Holden Karnofsky's thoughts on Hits-based Giving and something particularly chimed towards the end of the essay.

"Respecting those we interact with and avoiding deception, coercion, and other behavior that violates common-sense ethics. In my view, arrogance is at its most damaging when it involves “ends justify the means” thinking. I believe a great deal of harm has been done by people who were so convinced of their contrarian ideas that they were willing to violate common-sense ethics for them (in the worst cases, even using violence).

As stated above, I’d rather live in a world of individuals pursuing ideas that they’re excited about, with the better ideas gaining traction as more work is done and value is demonstrated, than a world of individuals reaching consensus on which ideas to pursue. That’s some justification for a hits-based approach. But with that said, I’d also rather live in a world where individuals pursue their own ideas while adhering to a baseline of good behavior and everyday ethics than a world of individuals lying to each other, coercing each other, and actively interfering with each other to the point where coordination, communication and exchange break down.

On this front, I think our commitment to being honest in our communications is important. It reflects that we don’t think we have all the answers, and we aren’t interested in being manipulative in pursuit of our views; instead, we want others to freely decide, on the merits, whether and how they want to help us in our pursuit of our mission. We aspire to simultaneously pursue bold ideas and remember how easy it would be for us to be wrong."

I think in time we will view the present EAA approach as having commonalities with Karnofsky's concerns, and steps will be taken to broaden the EAA agenda to be more inclusive. I think it is unlikely however, that these changes will be sought or encouraged by movement leaders, and even within groups such as ACE i remain concerned about bias within leadership toward the 'mainstream' approach. Unfortunately, ACE has historically been underfunded, and has not received the support it has needed to properly account for movement issues, or to increase the range of the work it undertakes. I think this is partly a leadership issue in that aims and goals have not been reasonably set and pursued, and also an EA movement issue, where a certain complacency has set in.


Comment author: Austen_Forrester 05 July 2017 12:06:02AM 2 points [-]

I don't see how TYLCS is selling out at all. They have the same maximizing impact message as other EA groups, just with a more engaging feel that also appeals to emotions (the only driver of action in almost all people).

Matt Ball is more learned and impact-focused than anyone in the animal rights field. One Step for Animals, and the Reducetarian Foundation were formed to save as many animals as possible -- complementing, not replacing, vegan advocacy. Far from selling out, One Step and Reducetarian are the exceptions from most in animal rights who have traded their compassion for animals for feelings of superiority.

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 05 July 2017 10:10:50AM *  1 point [-]

Maximising impact wouldn't necessarily rely on messaging that undermines other groups in the broader animal movement. I don't think it is a good thing to take such an approach either in relation to Effective Altruism or in the broader animal movement.

Matt Ball's recent vox article stated that people love animals and hate vegans and that we need to act on this. I think this isn't a good thing, particularly where someone as respected as Matt Ball is equating vegans to hezbollah through someone as dedicated to animal exploitation as Bourdain. This of course is quite an extreme example compared to what many 'pragmatists' (for instance Tobias Leenaert) have been doing for some time. Yet it has become a dominant theme in Effective Altruism, and it isn't justified. Instead, i would argue it is actually quite harmful.

In terms of where we should be aiming, then i believe we ought not be undermining veganism on an institutional basis, as Reducetarianism and One Step put forward (so they shouldn't utilise a misrepresentation of veganism to privilege their approach). Neither would recycling anti-vegan rhetoric or irrational justifications for animal consumption reflect well on the integrity of Effective Altruism, nor is there any evidence for it being a particularly 'effective' approach, beside it being popular among people who have been conditioned to exploit animals. However, popularity need not be pursued through the replication of carnism, or the utility of the carnist system, there are other values and methods with which to make appeals.

It's also really not a question of superiority, this is something which is generally brought up to dismiss the issue. Instead it is a question of integrity, responsibility and consideration. I think these are all central values of Effective Altruism, and they need to be applied.

Comment author: devon_fritz 02 August 2017 04:06:57PM 0 points [-]

In which way do you believe that pragmatism undermines social justice? Couldn't it be that a pragmatic approach increases social justice, if it is shown to be the most effective?