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Talking About Effective Altruism At Parties

(Cross-posted from my blog, with a few edits.)

Many of the effective altruists I've known were first introduced to EA through some kind of interpersonal connection -- a friend got interested first, or they heard about it at a college event, or something along those lines.

I've introduced a few people to EA this way myself. But it's a tricky thing to get right -- as we all know, many EA ideas can sound very strange at first, especially if the explanation is just a few words off.

So I'm listing some of the best ways I've found to explain EA quickly, plus a few additional ideas. My goal is to explore many different frames for EA, so that we can find the best ways to explain it to many different types of people. The goal of any one of these frames is to open a short conversation, or create enough interest that someone will click on a link you send them later.

(Note: No frame is perfect for all conversations, and some may be terrible if used in the wrong circumstances. Be careful.)

 

After you read this, please add your favorite frame(s) in the comments! (If you have any.) I'd love to use this page to start collecting lots of examples, so we can collectively figure out the best-sounding frames, even if we're a long way from an RCT of EA frames.

 

List of Frames

Excited Altruism

Some people see charity largely as a way to avoid moral guilt. I think that's a fair interpretation, but when I give, most of what I feel is excitement! I may never get the chance to save a child from a burning building [source for the example], but I can still make a child's life much better, and maybe even help to save a child who would otherwise have died a preventable death. Why not be excited about that? I'm also excited to live in a time when we've started to have really good evidence around how to help people on the other side of the world, so that I can be really efficient in the way that I give. When I give, I feel much the same as when I volunteer -- glad that I've done something positive, and hopeful about the results. Hence, "excited altruism".  

 

The Feeling of Relief

"Has there ever been a time when you started to get sick, and you knew it was going to be bad? And you had a moment of 'oh, no, please, anything but...'?

"When I think about the people who are helped by groups that fight malaria and parasitic worms, I think about those moments. "I've had those 'oh no' moments a few times, but that usually meant a really bad fever or a case of strep throat -- something that would go away in a few days when I took the right pills. And meanwhile, I'd be more or less okay -- I could call in sick to work, get homework from my professor, and catch up on life when I got better.

"But if I lived in a village where malaria is very common, I might have a higher-than-50-percent chance of getting it during the rainy season. So when I woke up and felt sick, my 'oh no' moment might mean several weeks spent in bed. During this time, I wouldn't be fit to farm, and I'd lose quite a bit of money as a result -- meaning I might be skipping meals later. If it were a parasitic worm infection, the symptoms wouldn't be the same, but the general principle holds true; I'd be in bad shape.

"When I give money to buy deworming pills or a malaria bednet, I imagine someone who would be having one of those 'oh no' moments instead being perfectly healthy and not having their life disrupted. I imagine how good I'd feel if someone stopped one of my strep infections before it happened. It feels awesome, and that makes me excited to give someone a chance at one fewer 'oh no' moment."  

 

Global Inequality (Money)

(For use in conversations where people claim to favor local giving.)

"I'll grant that inequality causes problems in the United States. But U.S. inequality is minor compared to inequality on the planet Earth. "Did you know that Earth has a higher Gini coefficient than any single country? A lot of us are part of the global '99 percent', so to speak.

"The average American CEO makes about 200 times as much as me. And I make about 200 times as much as some of the poorest people in the world.

"One big project of effective altruism is to reduce global inequality. By letting more migrants into the U.S. (where they'll send money back to their families), by cutting down on illicit cash flows (when rich people in poor countries don't pay taxes and hide money abroad), and also by literally asking rich people to give cash to poor people. That seems to work pretty well."  

 

Global Inequality (Attention)

(For use in conversations where people claim to favor local giving.)

"There are a lot of Americans we tend to ignore. The homeless, American Indians, ex-felons... plus a lot of other groups. And that's terrible.

"But I think that we ignore people in some other countries to an equal extent. That happens with charitable giving, too. For every dollar an American donates, we send about six cents to other countries.

"Intellectually, I understand the philosophical position behind giving locally. But on a personal level, I find it really hard to see nationality as a thing that should guide me, apart from any other factors. Maybe direct friendship, or shared membership in a small group, but not nationality."  

 

Doubling Income

"Major social problems in the U.S. are generally harder to solve with money than major social problems in the developing world. Still, there are obviously ways you could spend money to change the life of a fellow American. And that would often by a kind, world-improving thing to do.

"But money goes so much further abroad that it took me a long time to understand exactly how big the difference is. 

"GiveDirectly lets me send money straight to someone in Kenya. If I give them about $700, they can use that money to double a family's income for the entire year. Can you imagine what the impact would be if you doubled someone's income in the U.S. for a year?

"But that would be about 20 times as expensive in the U.S. And the impact would be similar either way. $700 transforms a poor Kenyan's life in about the same way you'd expect $14,000 to transform a poor American's life."  

 

Shared Humanity

"Does the cold, calculating part of EA mean that I lose some of my empathy?

"Well, maybe. It's definitely hard for me to feel empathy for someone who survives on a couple of dollars a day. It would feel arrogant to claim that I 'understand' that person. Our lives are different in almost every way.

"But even if I'll never know what it's like to eat the same thing for almost every meal, I think there are basic human pleasures that I share with pretty much every other human who ever lived.

"I know what it's like to learn something new. I know what it's like to see an old friend after a long separation. I know what it's like to sit inside when the weather is bad and hear the raindrops on the roof and think 'yep, I'm glad I'm not outside right now'. I know what it's like to fall in love with someone and wake up smiling just because that person exists.

"So when I need an emotional boost, I imagine the person I'm helping. And the way that, even though we are just about as different as two humans can be, we still share those awesome things. And I'm hopefully freeing that person up to not feel as much stress, and to have more time to feel the kinds of happiness I think we do share."  

 

Ridiculously Lucky

I keep my version of this frame on the page where I track my giving. I might also whip out my phone and quote my idol, The Unit of Caring:

I firmly refuse to feel guilty about my outrageous cosmic luck. I find it far more satisfying to pay it forward. See, luck, like pretty much everything else, can be bought with money [...] I was born by sheer chance into a country that has eradicated malaria already but I can buy a couple bednets towards the project of stamping it off this earth entirely [...] Almost every advantage I have, everyone ought to have, and giving them money is the closest I can come to putting a finger on the cosmic scales.

 

Revenge

"I have a hard time getting angry at people. I usually feel like people's reasons for doing bad things made sense to them at the time, and whenever I get mad at them I remember times people were mad at me for doing bad things, and then I feel kind of sick.

"But getting angry is really satisfying. So instead I get angry at problems. I'm angry at meteors that have the sheer nerve to get within a billion miles of Earth. I'm angry at mosquitoes, because they're always biting people. I'm angry at the social systems, built on purpose or by accident, that ruin lives with no remorse, because they are abstract concepts that can't even feel remorse.

"EA is my way of saying 'screw you, problems!' You want to keep people in jail? I'll bail them out. You want to make people sick? I'll murder you. You want to threaten my planet? I'll wipe the very possibility of you from existence. And I'll do it with the cold, brutal efficiency of an executioner."

 

Social Justice

"I'm generally a fan of the modern social justice movement. I think they've done more good than harm, and will end up doing much more good than harm in the long run.

"But like any movement, they wind up focusing on some people more than others, to avoid being stretched really thin. I think EA does a good job of catching some of the groups SJ sometimes doesn't catch.

"A focus on local movements and protests means we don't always catch people who aren't from our country, and that's one of EA's major focuses. And while SJ has a lot of vegetarians and vegans, I haven't seen a lot of animal-rights rhetoric; that's another major EA focus.

"When I think 'all lives matter', I'm not going for a counterpoint to 'black lives matter'. I'm going for 'don't forget the lives of people who live outside the classic U.S. race/gender/class spectrum!' Even if 'racism' manifests very differently in India or Nigeria or Myanmar, poverty and the lack of education still cause very familiar problems there."  

 

Being Embarrassed in the Future

"Paul Graham wrote a great essay on 'what we can't say now'. It's about how the world might change in the future.

"We can look back at every other era and find problems with how they lived. Segregation, slavery, wars of conquest... there's always something.

"What will our great-grandchildren be embarrassed about when they look at the year 2016? Probably the 'rights issues' we're still struggling with. But I think they'll also be confused and angry about how many people we left out to dry because they weren't in the same country, or because of generic arguments about how 'aid doesn't help' or 'start helping in your own backyard'.

"This extends to some uncomfortable opinions, too. Like the idea that some causes, or specific charities, are simply a waste of time and money. I wonder if our descendants will look at the amount we give to museums or symphony orchestras, and just be completely confused as to why so many people were dying for lack of really cheap medicine in other parts of the world.

"Basically, I'm assuming my descendants will be smarter than I am, and I try to donate in part so that my giving will make sense to them."

Comments (8)

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 17 November 2017 05:34:03AM *  3 points [-]

Is it just me, or does the "excited altruism" frame sound perverse to anyone else? I can understand excitement about helping people, but it can easily sound like deriving excitement from other people being in unfortunate situations. Like if no one needed help, you'd be less excited?

...I find it hard to imagine people who just wish there was a building burning down somewhere nearby, so they could play the hero.

Comment author: tobiaspulver 17 November 2017 09:27:36AM *  4 points [-]

It's not just you. I very much share this sentiment, as do many other EAs that I know.

FWIW, this blog post by Nate Soares on the topic of altruistic motivations really resonated with me: http://mindingourway.com/altruistic-motivations/

Comment author: lofticries 21 November 2017 07:20:26AM 2 points [-]

It seems kind of weird to cite an Internet essay in a personal conversation.

In particular, Paul Graham is a textbook example of someone who's probably really famous in Silicon Valley nerd tech circles, but if you talk to most people they'll have no idea who he is.

Comment author: Denkenberger 18 November 2017 05:23:51PM 2 points [-]

A lot of us are part of the global '99 percent', so to speak.

Did you mean to say 1 percent?

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 17 November 2017 06:36:28AM *  2 points [-]

Sorry but talking about getting revenge on mosquitoes sounds ridiculous.

Tbh I don't think I've talked about being in EA in person but if I did I would just say that it's the right thing to do, because some things are more important than personal interests.

Comment author: Lila 16 November 2017 09:52:36PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think most of these will convince people to share your views, often because they come from different moral perspectives. They seem too negative or directly contradictory for people to change their minds - particularly the ones on social justice. However, it might help people understand your personal choices. What have been your results?

Comment author: JanPaul123 21 November 2017 06:07:18AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for sharing. I'd be curious to hear which ones have worked best for you, and in which situations. I personally really like the "Doubling Income" one!

I guess what I usually say is a common one, but I like to frame it as a journey of choices, as that's what it was for me: "Realising how lucky I am and how much misery there is in the world, I wanted to help other people, but I didn't know where to start. Should I use my skills to work for a non-profit? Or volunteer? Should I donate to the Red Cross when a disaster strikes? But my local library has a fundraiser, what about them? Oh and I already turn off the lights when I leave a room, perhaps that's enough? EA is all about figuring out what is actually the most effective way to do good."

Comment author: rjmk 17 November 2017 09:54:32AM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for this post! I think it will make me more comfortable discussing EA in my extended friendship circle.

Which frames work best probably depend on the who you're talking to*, but I think the two on global inequality are likely to be useful for me (and are most similar to how I currently approach it)

I particularly like how they begin with explicitly granting the virtue and importance of the more local action. Firstly, it's true, and secondly, when I've seen people change cause focus it's normally been because of arguments that go "helping this person is good, but the reasons for helping this person apply EVEN MORE here".

Remembering to explicitly say that I think the local cause is important and moral is the behaviour change I'll take away from this.

* For example, with most people I meet, I can normally take moral cosmopolitanism for granted