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Why the triviality objection to EA is beside the point

Robert Wiblin recently wrote a good post with the self-explanatory title "Disagreeing about what’s effective isn’t disagreeing with effective altruism". At the end, there is one parapgrah which I think concedes too much, however, regarding the triviality of the EA message. He writes:

 Have I now defined ‘effective altruism’ to be so obvious that nobody could challenge it?

Here he seems to agree that if this were the case, then that would be a problem. However, he then goes on to argue that this isn't in fact the case - people do challenge the EA message, even if we understand it in his thin sense (as trying to do the most good you can, using analysis and evidence).

I guess it's true that some people do challenge the EA message, but I don't agree with the notion that it would be a problem if that weren't the case. It would be if we were at an academic seminar, trying to argue for a philosophical thesis. Philosophical theses shouldn't be trivial or obvious. We are not at an academic seminar, however - we are trying to change the world. And in the real world, lots of altruistic work isn't remotely effective. This includes lots of work done by people who would agree that it is obviously true that you should be effectively altruistic if asked. It is one thing to intellectually agree that you should be effectively altruistic, if someone asks you that question. It is quite another thing to actually be effectively altruistic. In order to be so, I would guess you need to be constantly reminded of the necessity of thinking about evidence and cost-effectiveness.

Here I think the EA movement has a very substantial role to play. My hypothesis is thus that the EA message is very fruitful even though it may be philosophically trivial. My anecdotal observations of EA members support this hypothesis - EAs seem to me to be highly effectively altruistic on average - but they're only anecdotal. Ultimately, this question needs to be settled through empirical research.

As Robert notes, lots of criticism against the EA movement is not directed against the central EA message - what Iason Gabriel in a critical piece calls "the thin version" - but rather against a number of "associated ideas", as Robert calls them (what Gabriel calls "the thick version"). These include criticisms of RCTs, particular conceptions of what's valuable, and so forth. I think this is at least partly due to confusion over the triviality objection.

To see that, note that Gabriel motivates his choice to criticize the thick rather than the thin version of the EA movement as follows.

This paper focuses on the thick version of effective altruism. Not everyone who identifies with the movement shares each individual belief, but, taken together, they capture much of what makes the approach interesting and unique. They also explain many of the moral judgments that effective altruists make.

My emphasis. Here Gabriel seems to imply that the thin version is trivial and not worth discussing. Well, it may be philosophically trivial, but again, the point isn't to be philosophically interesting, but to improve the world. And as a matter of fact, the EA movement is the first social movement which defines itself as a movement that is trying to improve the world in the most evidence-based and cost-effective way possible. Unlike other movements, the EA movement is thus not committed to any specific strategy, but rather to whatever strategy turns out to be most effective. Like I said above, my guess is that this means that the EA movement has an enormous potential for doing better than all other social movements, precisely because its members are constantly thinking about evidence and cost-effectiveness. Far from being uninteresting, the thin version of the EA movement is thus very interesting and unique indeed - it is one of the great innovations of the 21th century, as Pinker rightly has said. Hence those who want to discuss the EA movement has every reason to focus on the thin version.

As a side-note, it seems to me that the (thin) EA message has been explicitly designed to be trivial/obvious, at least for large swathes of the liberal, educated part of the population (whether this is indeed true someone who knows more about the EA history could perhaps tell me). The fact that the EA movement is such a "broad tent" - that it includes organizations which work on poverty reduction, animal suffering, X-risk and meta causes - makes it easy for these kinds of people to find a place within the EA movement. To my mind, this is not a weakness, but a strength.

[Slightly edited]

Comments (2)

Comment author: Toby_Ord 29 July 2015 07:44:54AM 1 point [-]

Thanks Stefan, this is a very good point.

Comment author: zdgroff 20 July 2015 08:28:58PM 0 points [-]

I agree with you on your central premise that philosophical triviality is okay if the idea is still valuable and important. But I think EA happens to be less trivial than even Rob says. It looks to me (from a cursory reading of Iason's paper) like the 'thick version' in Iason Gabriel's post is quite a bit thinner than the 'associated ideas' in Rob's post. The thick version involves assumptions that I think are pretty central to EA - the broadly consequentialist framework (which includes the erasure of the action/omission distinction common to many moral theories and a morally egalitarian ethos with regard to categories like nationality and species) and confidence in scientific methodology. The associated ideas go further than that - the idea that earning to give is highly effective or that RCTs are highly valuable same more specific than even the thick version. I think Jason's thick version is a better description of EA than the thin version (which is closer to what Rob uses in his post), and though it's more trivial than a version incorporating all of those incorporated ideas would be, it's significantly less trivial than the thin one.