10

The effectiveness-alone strategy and evidence-based policy

Effective altruism could be said to consist of three claims. Call them Effectiveness, Altruism and EA-morality, respectively:

 

Effectiveness: When you're acting altruistically, you should be effective.

Altruism: You should act altruistically a lot.

EA-morality: Global empathy, future lives are very valuable, animal lives are valuable, etc.*

 

Effectiveness concerns your means, whereas Altruism and EA-morality concern your ends. Now presumably it is, in general, easier to sell Effectiveness than Altruism and EA-morality, respectivelyAccepting Altruism means less money and time for yourself, whereas accepting EA-morality might mean a fundamental transformation of your moral values. Accepting Effectiveness means none of those things. Really, it seems very hard to argue against Effectiveness (though people do try to some extent, by all means).

This raises the question of whether it is wise to sell EffectivenessAltruism and EA-morality as a package deal, as it were, or whether it is better to try to sell Effectiveness alone to some people. 

An obvious option is to adapt the message to the audience: to sell the package deal to those who are likely to be open to Altruism and EA-morality, but to focus on Effectiveness when dealing with people who are unlikely to accept those other two claims. You could also, of course, try to sell the Effectiveness + EA-morality-pair (which is what GiveWell is doing, I guess) or the Effectiveness + Altruism-pair if you think that your audience could buy them, given whatever circumstances they are in. In this post, I am, however, going to focus on the Effectiveness-alone alternative. 

One reason why this option is attractive is that people are already carrying out a tremendous amount of work which they claim to be altruistic. For instance, most people who do political work, in an extended sense (including voters, people who participate in internet discussions, and so on), would say that this work is being carried out for altruistic reasons. They wouldn't say that they argue for low taxes, or higher benefits, or whatever, because such policies benefit themselves. Rather, they would argue that they benefit society, are just, or some other reason which is not specifically tied to their own good.

Now of course you could argue that some of these people are fooling themselves, and that the real motives for their political actions are purely self-interested. That may be, but is irrelevant here. The fact that these people claim to be altruistic (when acting politically) suffices to make them open to criticism from Effectiveness. Because, suppose that:

 

1) They accept Effectiveness.

2) They claim to be acting altruistically when acting politically. 

3) It can be shown that a set of actions suggested by the EA-community, X, are more effective at reaching their altruistic goals than their political actions are.

From 1)-3) it follows that:

4) They should change their course of action to X.

 

This means that if we could make this existing altruistic work more effective, that could do an enormous amount of good. There is one important caveat that must be made here, however. If people get more effective at reaching goals which are altruistic, as opposed to self-interested, but which are opposed to the EA-movement's goals, then that is obviously not a good thing.

How much existing altruistic work, in the sense used here, has this character? Far less than usually thought, I should say. Even though there are fundamental value disagreements, most political disagreements rather stem from factual disagreements, as Michael Huemer have argued. Most people want less crime, better health, better education, more wealth, and so on (albeit to slightly different degrees). We can discuss this, however.

Also, even if some people do have such "negative" altruistic goals, we could just avoid helping them with those, and focus on making more effective the altruistic work which is, at least roughly, aligned with our own goals.

 

I take it that some EA-organizations are already involved with making existing altruistic work more effective. That would go for, e.g. 80,000 hours and GiveWell. However, there are many areas where lots of altruistic work is being carried out where the EA community hasn't been that much involved.

One of these areas is politics. The benefits of making politics more evidence-based and rational, and thereby more effective, should be vast. 

Moreover, there is in fact already an existing movement for making politics more evidence-based. For instance, there's the Coalition for Evidence-based policy in the US and the British What Works Network. Evidence-based policy is a catch-word in many countries (it's essentially a corollary of Effectiveness and as such really hard to argue against). 

This means that if the EA community would do more work on evidence-based policy, it would have many allies. This is an advantage for two reasons.

 

1) It obviously increases the chances of success - of making policy more evidence-based.

2) It also provides us with an opportunity to convince mere Effectivists, if we may call them such, to become full Effective Altruists. Once you have acquired people's confidence, it'll be easier to convince them of the more far-reaching ideas of the EA movement. This is a general advantage of the Effectiveness-alone strategy.

 

As a matter of fact, I recently started a network for evidence-based policy in Sweden, for precisely these reasons. We're only in the start-up phase so far, but people are generally positive to the idea, which makes me think we have reasons for optimism. I'm also running a blog on rational political debate, which is attached to this network (a rational debate obviously makes rational, evidence-based policy more likely). (The blog is in Swedish but some posts in English can be found here.) This work has also been well received, and has got some limited attention by the media.

I thus think there are some reasons to believe that this cause is tractable. It also clearly has scale and is relatively neglected (most people are working on object-level politics - for this or that political party or movement - and very few work on the meta-level, to make politics more evidence-based and rational). Hence I think it scores well on all of the EA movement's three cause selection principles.

 

Politics is just one area, however. Ideally, we would go through all kinds of altruistic works, and point out to people that if you do this for altruistic reasons, then you should be effective, and if so you should do Y instead of Z.

I'd be interested to hearing your views both on the Effectiveness-alone strategy in general, and on the suggestion that EA-members should work on making politics more rational in particular.



* Of course there is not perfect agreement among EA-members on what the EA-movement's values should be, but let's leave that aside in this post.

Comments (11)

Comment author: William_S 07 May 2015 05:51:35PM 2 points [-]

Another application of the Effectiveness-alone strategy might be to create an EA organization aiming to improve the effectiveness of charities by applying EA ideas (as opposed to evaluating charities to find the best ones).

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 08 May 2015 09:10:27AM 0 points [-]

That is a very good idea! I suppose someone must have tried that?

Comment author: William_S 08 May 2015 07:08:41PM 1 point [-]

I haven't heard of anything like this. It's the sort of thing that might feel less important than identifying/supporting top charities to most EAs. It might also require some expertise both in the area of the charity and in EA, to actually provide value. It's the sort of thing that might be a good fit for someone with, say, a commitment to an existing organization, but with an interest in EA.

Comment author: tomstocker 07 May 2015 01:38:32PM 2 points [-]

Sounds great! Nice work getting the network set up :)

Comment author: tomstocker 07 May 2015 01:40:27PM 2 points [-]

Maybe one point, is that as EAs, inasmuch as we care about people benefiting from our endeavours, we should try to focus on areas that are higher impact rather than just areas that are altruistic, as the permeation of effectiveness only matters in as far as it changes things that matter, so you might as well start with things that matter (unless you need proof of concept to get there within a particular system and want to chose an uncrowded place first)?

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 07 May 2015 03:02:36PM 0 points [-]

Thanks! And good point. Yes, all the usual considerations apply, such as tractability, scale and neglectedness. It's not obvious that making ineffective altruistic work always is tractable and neglected, and always has scale, but I think that in many cases, it does. For instance, I do think that making politics more rational fulfills all of those conditions.

Comment author: HaukeHillebrandt 08 May 2015 10:05:41AM *  1 point [-]

This is a great idea!

One idea I had a while ago is doing research into optimal reading. I did a quick literature review some time ago trying to find out the ideal size of fonts for fast reading, but couldn't find any definite data. Most of the things written on speedreading seem to be completely unscientific (e.g. flashing words one by one on the screen).

An app could measure how far away you are from the screen with a webcam and then collect data on how fast you're reading. This app could then automatically adjust the font size etc.

The idea here is not so much the app, but more that so many people are reading every day for multiple hours. Making everyone read faster (~more effective) even by 0.1% would have a lot of benefits.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 08 May 2015 11:25:26AM 0 points [-]

That sounds like an excellent idea!

I think it could be great if one could somehow make clear to people that such an app, and other effectiveness-increasing tools, had been constructed by EAs for EA purposes. For instance, you could include the EA logo somewhere. That way, developing such tools would not only make people more effective, but also potentially attract them to the EA movement.

Comment author: weeatquince  (EA Profile) 08 May 2015 09:34:36AM 1 point [-]

I agree that increasing evidence based policy and also transparency of policy making decisions is one of the most important political areas to focus on. (Based on my first hand experience of working in policy making.)

Comment author: jayd 13 May 2015 12:41:28AM 0 points [-]

Can you expand on that? What is your experience? Is it in the US context?

Comment author: jayd 07 May 2015 08:16:37PM 1 point [-]

In addition, politics may be unusually friendly to EA-morality, or at least to consequentialism. Compare discussions of government house utilitarianism.