Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 12 November 2014 05:08:21PM *  15 points [-]

I agree that EA shouldn't be defined by any particular conclusions about how to do the most good. But in addition to the question, there is also a methodology that goes along with it:

  • Impartiality or cosmopolitanism - that is to say, that everyone is (close to) equally important, and non-humans deserve some weight as well
  • A willingness to consider and compare all options in a open-minded way
  • Epistemic humility - we shouldn't assume our conclusions are better than others, and so it is important to...
  • Use evidence and reason in an attempt to be persuasive to others.

Then we should also be willing to act on the above rather than ignore it. These certainly aren't new ideas, but rather the application of approaches from the enlightenment, natural sciences and social science (at least when done well) to altruistic endeavours.

I agree that 'effective altruist' is an awkward term that is unintentionally self-aggrandising, but I use it for lack of a better alternative. 'Aspiring effective altruists', or 'members of the effective altruist community', might be better.

Comment author: HelenToner 28 April 2015 11:20:43PM *  5 points [-]

This is a great comment. If I were to rewrite this post now, I would make sure to include these.

Also, going back to a conversation with you: if I were to rewrite, I would also try to make it clearer that I'm not trying to give a formal definition of Effective Altruism (which is what it sounds like in the post), just trying to change the feeling or connotations around it, and how we think about it.

Comment author: HelenToner 28 April 2015 11:13:47PM 3 points [-]

This is awesome, Ryan! Well done on working so hard to pull it together, and on actually pulling it off.

Comment author: pappubahry 18 October 2014 03:06:22AM 1 point [-]

Pretty passively.... Like I'll send some money GiveWell's way later this year to help find effective giving opportunities, but it doesn't feel inside of me as though I'm aspiring to something here. The GiveWell staff might aspire to find those better giving opportunities; I merely help them a bit and hope that they succeed.

I also think that describing ourselves primarily as having a never-ending aspiration is selling us short if we're actually achieving stuff.

Comment author: HelenToner 18 October 2014 10:33:26AM *  0 points [-]

I think it's fair to say that "aspiring" doesn't quite fit for you. The point of that word being there is to reduce the strength of the claim: you're focused on being effective, you're trying hard to be effective, but to say that you are effective is different.

Maybe the slightly poor epistemology doesn't matter enough to make up for the much clearer name... I'm not sure.

Comment author: pappubahry 17 October 2014 04:19:41PM *  4 points [-]

I disagree with a bit of the intro and part one.

You can easily say that Effective Altruism answers a question. The question is, "What should I do with my life?" and the answer is, "As much good as possible (or at least a decent step in that direction)." Only if you take that answer as a starting premise can you then say that EA asks the question, "How do I do the most good?"

Conversely, you can just as easily say that feminism doesn't ask whether men and women should be equal (that they should be is the starting premise), it asks how society is structurally unequal and how we might re-make society so that it becomes equal.

So I don't see EA as necessarily in some different category than the (other) ideologies that you list.

In part one, I just... don't really see a big issue with -ism versus -ist, at least not one any near as large as you're claiming exists. “Can I [x] and still be a member of the Effective Altruism movement?” seems about as natural a question to ask as “Can I [x] and still be an Effective Altruist?” As long as there's an EA movement that's in any way demanding of its followers, it provokes the same sort of questions regardless of whether we call ourselves followers of Effective Altruism or Effective Altruists. Insofar as there's a problem, I think it's the "impudence" that you mention of calling this movement Effective Altruism in the first place.

(If someone comes up with a better term for EA followers, I'll be happy to adopt it -- I don't see it as a big issue. In the meantime I'll occasionally call myself an "EA" if it makes sense to do so in context.)

Alternative descriptors include “aspiring effective altruist”, “interested in Effective Altruism”, “member of the Effective Altruism movement”… What do you think of those options?

"Aspiring effective altruist" doesn't describe me: I don't aspire to anything more than what I'm currently doing, which is donating a decent-sized fraction of my salary to charity. I plateaued in my journey towards an idealised EA several years ago.

"Interested in Effective Altruism" is far too weak.

"Member of the Effective Altruism movement" is something I'd happy to call myself.

Comment author: HelenToner 18 October 2014 10:29:42AM 1 point [-]

You can easily say that Effective Altruism answers a question. The question is, "What should I do with my life?" and the answer is, "As much good as possible (or at least a decent step in that direction)."

I think this is the key part of our disagreement - I don't think this is the case - and I've answered more fully in my comment in reply to Kerry. Would love to hear your thoughts there.

Comment author: Kerry_Vaughan 17 October 2014 10:32:20PM 8 points [-]

I see two claims in the post: 1) EA is asking a question not answering it and 2) the practical benefits of thinking of EA as asking a question outweigh the costs. I'm uncertain about the first claim and I disagree with the second.

For the first claim, it seems to me that EA is answering a question. The question is "what should I do with my life" and the answer is "do the most good with the resources available to me." This at least seems equally as reasonable as the interpretation you suggest. Perhaps there's some method of determining which interpretation is better, but I don't know what that method might be.

For the second claim, I think there are very significant practical downside to thinking of EA as a question and avoiding calling ourselves "effective altruists." It seems to me that, Paul Graham's arguments aside, people like creating identities. We build identities around all kinds of things and are motivated to act based on the identities we create. So, if increasing the number of people with the EA meme is beneficial (and I think it is) and if building an identity around it is useful for spreading the meme, then it seems like there are huge practical benefits to representing EA as an identity.

Comment author: HelenToner 18 October 2014 10:26:30AM *  9 points [-]

Great comment, thanks Kerry. To your first point: seems to me that EA is answering a question. The question is "what should I do with my life" and the answer is "do the most good with the resources available to me."

I'm really glad you stated this clearly (and it's the same idea as in pappubahry's comment). If this were the core idea of EA, then I agree that this whole post would be incorrect.

Is it the core idea though? None of the introductions I linked to above mention anything about what one "should" do. Certainly there are several EA organisations that are linked to spreading the idea of EA & motivating more people to donate, but that seems to me to be easily explained by:

  1. The ease with which resources can be turned into life-improvements ("ease" referring to convenience, speed, low information barriers) compared to just about any other time in human history.

  2. The stable instrumental goal of trying to spread one's own values, to make it more likely they are fulfilled.

My impression is not that the organisations in question (which are made up of aspiring effective altruists, or people interested in Effective Altruism, or whatever) see some kind of terminal value in persuading others to dedicate their lives to helping others. Certainly I find the idea of this (persuade others to do good with their resources) being a core motivating philosophy of my life very off-putting.

One of the things I love about EA (or perhaps just my interpretation of EA) is that it's driven by curiosity and compassion, not moralising.


For your second point:

I think what you've said actually splits into two things:

a) Should we promote having an EA identity, and b) Should people who have that identity call themselves "effective altruists"

I think you're right about a), and about the huge benefits of community, signalling, self-signalling, commitment etc that come with making Effective Altruism part of one's identity.

But I don't think it necessarily follows that the name "effective altruists" is the best way to refer to oneself, and one of the reasons I wrote this post was to point out the downsides of using that phrase.

I particularly care about the first impressions of people who have the potential to have a large impact on the world - who I expect will generally be more analytical, better informed and more sceptical than the typical person. In my experience organising EA Melbourne, this kind of person is often really put off by a group of people who just get together every few weeks to talk about stuff, and who call themselves both effective and altruistic. They are also put off if people in that group claim (as lots do, initially) that maximising your earnings and donating to global health charities is the best way to improve the world.

I think it's really important that our memes don't get stuck on one object-level strategy like that.

(I do wish I could think of another identifier that's as pithy as "effective altruist" though.)

What do you think?


Effective Altruism is a Question (not an ideology)

What is the definition of Effective Altruism? What claims does it make? What do you have to believe or do, to be an Effective Altruist? I don’t think that any of these questions make sense.  It’s not surprising that we ask them: if you asked those questions about feminism or... Read More
Comment author: HelenToner 16 October 2014 01:56:27AM *  5 points [-]

Some current things that are trying to push on "differential progress", if I understand you right:

Does that look right? What else would you add?

(Paul, I think I've heard you talk before about trying to improve institutional quality - do you know of anyone you think is doing this well?)

Comment author: HelenToner 15 October 2014 03:53:02AM 0 points [-]

Do you have any thoughts about how to juggle timing when different opportunities will arise at different times? For example, if applying for jobs & university places at the same time, the response times will be very different.

The obvious strategy is to delay the decision as long as possible, but it's hard to know how to trade off confirmed options that will expire against potential options you haven't heard from yet.

One EA friend I talked to about this said he tried to do this, then found that when it came down to it he couldn't bear to let an opportunity slide while waiting for others, so just took the first thing he got.

Comment author: Niel_Bowerman2 06 October 2014 03:12:21PM 3 points [-]

If your aim is tax-deductibility, and there are charities that you can't current get tax-deductibility to, then why not setup a charity that simply makes grants to overseas charities? This is what we have done in the UK with the Giving What We Can Trust, which has had hundreds of thousands of pounds donated through it to non-UK charities. This means that you can donate to any charity in the world rather than limiting yourself to Australian charities.

Comment author: HelenToner 14 October 2014 06:00:05AM 2 points [-]

Turns out tax deductibility is much more complicated in Australia than elsewhere, and is made even worse by the fact that a couple of legal challenges are currently underway, so the case law is in flux.

There are a couple of people in Melbourne (not me!) who know their way around the tax system very well and are planning to write up the parts that would be relevant to setting up a re-routing fund. I think they're not prioritising it because setting up such a fund looks like it would be at least 1 full time job, plus a decent amount of accounting/legal/senior-community-figure support.

In response to Open Thread 2
Comment author: ericyu3 08 October 2014 08:06:57AM 2 points [-]

What do effective altruists think about population ethics? I asked about this on Slate Star Codex, and got the impression that there's too much disagreement for there to be an Official Position about this. I'm asking again here since I want to know what the general range of opinions on this is. Do you think that the number of future lives should be valued systematically, and if so, what sorts of future lives do you think we should:

  1. Pay to add?
  2. Be indifferent to adding?
  3. Pay to prevent adding?
In response to comment by ericyu3 on Open Thread 2
Comment author: HelenToner 13 October 2014 11:29:46PM 4 points [-]

Nick Beckstead's thesis "On the Overwhelming Importance of the Far Future" deals thoroughly with these questions from the perspective of Effective Altruism (albeit within the framework of a Philosophy PhD). See especially chapter 4.

Working through the thought experiments he presents and seeing the different unintuitive consequences of each theory changed my mind: I had strong intuitions that creating extra happy lives had no moral value, but I'm now convinced that doesn't make sense. I also agree with Ryan that the question becomes less about what is worth adding and what isn't, and more about what we fundamentally value and whether that will be increased.

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