Ben Kuhn recently wrote on how and why effective altruism may or may not seem welcoming to newcomers, and suggestions as to what could be done to make effective altruism more welcoming. He noticed a lack of diversity (within effective altruism) on lines such as age, career, lifestyle, socioeconomic class, level and type of education, etc. He notes everyone else might feel crowded out by some perceived mono-culture, and while like any community effective altruism might tend toward this failure mode by default, it's in everyone's interest to go beyond typical thinking in brainstorming new ways to welcome others.
On some object-level issues Mr. Kuhn mentioned, debate broke out among commentators. Despite trying to quell or improve the quality of this debate as a moderator, Mr. Kuhn feels it degraded into acrimony, vitriol, and strawmanning. Indeed, some commentators expressed they might leave effective altruism behind entirely. He felt this fiasco discouraged him more than any explicit counter-argument that trying to build and hold together effective altruism as a singular community isn't worth it if there will be so much collateral damage to the movement and its adherents. Several dozen people appeared to agree with Mr. Kuhn's newfound pessimism, or at least they didn't disagree with it. I, on the other hand, strongly disagree. While I acknowledge effective altruism needs to look at itself, and thus strong optimism about its self-awareness may not be justified, I don't believe a doom-and-gloom outlook is justified either.
Below is my open letter to Ben Kuhn and effective altruism as a whole to not give up on the value of building community. It's been edited for brevity, and clarity. Note that I never originally discussed the object-level issues in debates which originally so discouraged Mr. Kuhn. I encourage you not to make your discussion of this open letter about that, as the pattern of falling into a debates in which we misrepresent each other is what urged this letter in the first place.
Hello Ben. I hope you're doing well. I'm Evan Gaensbauer.
I read your last blog post, and all the comments on it. It appears no more than five anonymous persons participated in these fights online you cited. Posting anonymously allows people to feel they can write comments online they otherwise wouldn't feel comfortable with.They may be expressing more extreme views than what they really hold in their everyday thoughts. Anyway, five anonymous people having a debate about one or two issues doesn't strike me as sufficient to stop trying to make the effective altruism community more welcoming. Maybe no one individual should try so hard to hold people together if it strains their willpower and capacity to handle stress. However, I don't think that's sufficient for all of us to stop trying, though. I don't want to get rid of having one thing called "the EA community".
Effective altruism could become a movement of multiple communities, in which people of different political stripes or cluster-groups stick to their own. However, I'd be fine with that if everyone kept donating money to effective charities, discussed and debated what those were, while still largely agreeing with one another, and kept thinking about how they can lead lifestyles and careers which are more effectively altruistic. I think such a movement could be welcoming, as multiple communities, because when effective altruism stops being correlated with particular ideologies, it stops being an ideology itself, and people would think of it as common-sense. It stops being perceived as politics, and starts being perceived as the sensible mechanics of doing good. That would be great news.
Five people debating in the comments on one blog? I bet, collectively, they spent less than five person-hours writing those comments. I can scarcely think of one individual in this community who hasn't spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours learning more about effective altruism, ethics, and research to inform not just where they donate, but how to inject more altruism into lots of parts of their lives. That effort trumps political debate. For whatever reason, five people were drawn to one blog time and again over the course of five days, likely there for only minutes at a time, to have a debate which was refereed, rather than just deleted. These people weren't calling each other names, or swearing, or launching ad hominem attacks all the time. That's what I think of as "calm" and "level-headed". If you're in a bubble of people like that, even the most pessimistic people drawn to flame wars are more polite to one another than people I've witnessed arguing my entire life.
We can't measure how much "acrimony" is captured in these comments. Maybe these people went on with their days, slightly grumpy, but in a regular mood within the hour. Maybe not. We don't know, though, and I don't think that's substantial enough evidence to become so pessimistic. Surely someone was effected, as one or two commentators wrote they might leave effective altruism if it continues to be like this. If having these conversations in person isn't an option because these anonymous commentators aren't in the Bay Area, you or I could reach out personally, let them know an email or something, and chat with them on Skype. That takes the misinterpretation and misplaced vitriol out of Internet debates. Based on how dearly they consider their relationship with effective altruism, I imagine they're people we could trust personally and in discussion, and people we might already know.
If people feel scared, threatened, and vulnerable, those are things which make effective altruism unwelcoming, but can be addressed.
I have made hundreds of friends on Facebook through effective altruism. "Facebook friends" often means little, but what I mean is there are hundreds of individuals, strangers and acquaintances and role models, who want me to be part of their professional and personal networks, because they assume through association effective altruism makes us kindred spirits. I've met dozens of them in person. We lean on each other for emotional and moral support. Nobody is taking for granted the contributions of others. I'm honored people like yourself I aspire in my methods of thought and care to become more like treat me no less well than anyone else.
While there is a share of effective altruists who feel unwelcome, I think people can and do make enough friends and allies in this movement to keep their ear to the ground about effective altruism news. Never have I ever encountered someone who didn't feel welcomed by effective altruism, but then also abandoned their drive to do good works, or a desire for clearer thinking in assessing their own choices. Even if someone stops publicly affiliating with "effective altruism" the movement, if they still donate to effective charities, if they still make ethical lifestyle choices like vegetarianism or something else as it suits their values, then I think effective altruism has done it's job. In engaging the public, effective altruism's mission is use its passion to inspire confidence in others to take substantially effective action, not just symbolically signal association with a special group. Even if someone exits effective altruism, they can still donate to effective charities, they can still spread messages professionally and privately about quantifying efforts and evidence-based interventions, and they can still advocate. A piece of effective altruism can be left with them in all the good works they do for the rest of their lives.
I'm not saying we should be totally optimistic about making effective altruism more welcoming. Effective altruism will never be perfect, and more struggles may come. I just mean five commentators this one week among the thousands of people becoming involved with effective altruism doesn't seem enough evidence to justify massive pessimism either. Sincerely,
When I wrote:
I'm honored people like yourself I aspire in my methods of thought and care to become more like treat me no less well than anyone else.
this extends to anyone now reading this as much as it does Ben Kuhn. I've met some people I once thought of as personal heroes, such as Will MacAskill, founder of Giving What We Can, and Holden Karnofsky, founder of Givewell. When I met them, they told me how my thoughts, and the rationale behind my actions, even if they wouldn't agree with them perfectly, they definitely respected and were grateful for. That's why I think of these people as role models I can aspire to be like, not great men on a pedestal who have a status I can never achieve. I reflected on how personal friends I knew before getting involved with effective altruism, like Joey Savoie and Xio Kikauka, who founded Charity Science, or others who have donated thousands of dollars, like Andrew McKnight, of volunteered dozens of hours, like Eric Chisholm and Max Carpendale, should be my role models, too.
Even very different people who I sense sincerely wish to make an effort, even if they can't always make the most effort, are kindred spirits in challenging themselves to do good even when they must make great effort to change their minds and actions to do so. It's this willingness which can act as a common core of effective altruism, feelings of solidarity and humility as being a peer alongside your own role models, which can also be the spirit with which we welcome others. We're not close to failing in that regard to give up hope, so let's keep trying.