The Many Faces of Effective Altruism
Author’s Note: This post based on a Discord rant
Epistemic Status: Very very unrigorous, just a distillation of some things I’ve been thinking about recently that some of my friends encouraged me to post somewhere
The Effective Altruism movement is, in my opinion, not a single subculture, but a coalition of several related ones that occupy a similar memespace, and often overlap. Recently I have been thinking about this undertheorized aspect of the movement, and wanted to share the beginnings of some distinctions that I see within the movement, and how these might be useful for understanding key things about it. Like all labeling schemes of this sort, this is also of limited value, will undoubtedly be controversial, especially when I get into my specific impressions of what fits where, and will probably be significantly shaped in various ways by my own personal sympathies. Nevertheless, and occasionally against my better judgement, I appreciate when other people make new labeling schemes like this, so I hope I can produce one that is valuable myself. My current thinking divides Effective Altruism into roughly six aesthetics/subcultures that seem meaningfully distinct:
Wholesome Effective Altruism: This is the more infographic/nerdy stuff, often with an interest in popular appeal. It is also more concerned with political causes outside of the common EA priorities, and adheres to EA on top of this basically because doing good is good. Lots of sort of adjacent, mildly sympathetic non-EA media leans this way, like “The Good Place” or Vlogbrothers or Kurzgesagt. Think Future Perfect or Our World in Data for more directly movement aligned media. Example figure: Ezra Klein
Emo Effective Altruism: Emphasizes feeling the appropriate weight from things like suffering and death, lots of the art associated with EA comes from this corner in some way. Made up of people who are real into stuff like “Fable of the Dragon Tyrant” and “500 Million, but not a Single One More” and “On Caring”. I also tend to group the more “emotionally intelligent” side of EA in here, though that’s a debatable connection. Example figure: Eliezer Yudkowsky
IDW Effective Altruism: This is the more centrist or right-leaning, anti-woke side of EA. Often embraces some version of Bryan Caplan’s “EA is what SJ ought to be” idea. Sort of the right’s answer to Wholesome EA, sharing a “doing good is good” type motivation, and also featuring figures who are sympathetic but not that centrally involved, like Steven Pinker and Coleman Hughes. Example figure: Sam Harris
A-aesthetic Effective Altruism: Don’t want to put out much of a vibe at all, and prefer purely unbiased, rigorous analysis. The source of many-a-long, nuanced document Effective Altruists are keen to cite (but perhaps uneager to read), though there is more accessible work that also fits this tone in my opinion. Relatively few people purely fit into this category, though many combine other categories with it, or occasionally wear the a-aesthetic hat. Example Figure: Hilary Greaves
Contrarian Effective Altruism: This is not necessarily about liking unpopular ideas, but more about being super into weird ideas because they seem interesting and cool. Usually I picture the type of person who is into the simulation hypothesis and grabby aliens but doesn’t seem that worried about them viscerally. Not many major figures in the movement seem to fit that well into this category, but I’ve met lots of people on the ground within EA clubs who fit here more solidly. Example figure: Robin Hanson
Cheery utilitarian Effective Altruism: People in this category basically see some underlying tenets of utilitarianism as uncomplicatedly true and good without much of a desire to make this visceral, for instance by doing the emo thing and getting artsy about it. I also picture people in this group as having a fairly cheerful and humorous disposition. A greater quantity of happiness is just better! Not all or only utilitarians fit in here. Picture someone who is more Bentham than Mill, more Norcross than Singer. Example figure: Sam Bankman Fried
Most people, including the example figures I listed, don’t just fit cleanly into one of these categories. Some examples of people who clearly straddle some line in my eyes include Brian Tomasik the a-aesthetic emo, Robert Wiblin the contrarian cheery utilitarian, Liv Boeree the wholesome IDW, and Nick Bostrom the contrarian emo. Some of these crossovers are interesting phenomena in their own right, for instance the a-aesthetic emo faction sounds like a contradiction, but makes up the backbone of a sort of ascetic, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” type moral core of the movement, one that gets emotional at abstract concepts and numbers in spreadsheets the way other people get emotional at personal stories. Likewise wholesome IDW sounds contradictory, since my framing sets up one as almost just a further right version of the other, but there is a sort of distinct group of people who consistently give off elements of both vibes, often characterized by really liking Elon Musk. Aside from Boeree, Tim Urban is someone I think fits here.
This spread is an undertheorized aspect of the movement, but I think helps better frame various debates about the image and culture of the movement in general. For example, I find that lots of coverage of EA from the outside, including otherwise well-researched coverage, leans into a sort of ascetic frame that always seems badly incomplete at best (some more insider coverage seems to lean this way as well). Some of this comes from what the movement may have looked more like in the past, but I think it is also the impression you get from running into the aforementioned sizable a-aesthetic emo population of EA, and pattern matching it to Effective=a-aesthetic, Altruism=emo, to get oneself a compelling narrative of the movement as a whole.
Maybe even more significantly, lots of people like different local EA scenes vastly better or worse than others, and which one they run into can make all the difference for whether they stick around (or sometimes if they winding up taking some time to circle their way back into EA after being put off by it). There are probably lots of reasons for this, but the biggest one, to my eyes, is that different local groups drift towards favoring different subcultural currents. Some of these currents will badly turn off the same people who are uniquely attracted to another of these currents. If you are very into sincerity and really feeling the scale of the world’s problems, the emo side of EA can offer you something really special, whereas there might be something hard to put into words that will uniquely disturb you about the contrarian side, which is often very interested in fun ideas without seeming to inhabit what it would really feel like to believe them about the world.
A related phenomenon is people who are surprised by what they find when they get more involved in EA, or even feel mildly deceived. EA will often try to coordinate around advertising itself with a certain framing that leans on one or two of these vibes, while being less eager to advertise the others. As an example, I think a common public framing is more Wholesome or A-aesthetic leaning, in that it tries to frame EA as just being about doing work to advance a set of uncontroversial positive principles most people can get on board with and feel empowered by. It will not be at the forefront of this messaging that, when you start being more of a movement insider, you will spend a good deal of your time talking with people who feel genuine empathy with bugs, or see EA as a sort of replacement for conventional left wing politics, or are casually bullet biting utilitarians, or really like talking about obscure decision theories. EA is a mad mad place if you actually look at it as a whole, and not just because weird ideas flourish in it, but I think between all of these affiliated subcultures, nearly everyone can find some niche they like in it. Many people can even find some niche that speaks to them like no other subculture they’ve found, and hopefully anyone, regardless, can find someplace in the movement comfortable enough that they can use their connection to the movement to do good, what it ideally should all be about at the end of the day.
For my own part, I think I have at least some minor degree of sympathy for all of the listed perspectives. From the inside I most feel like I am part of the emo group, but a good deal might come down to how I am actually perceived from the outside, which I just don’t know. One problem for this model is that, very likely, many people are motivated on the inside in a way that doesn’t reflect the group they come off as from the outside. I particularly worry about this for the specific figures I cite, and I don’t give them as examples because I think they would endorse my labels, so much as because the way they come off helps me illustrate some of the hard to explain parts of these aesthetics. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed/mischaracterized some of these, this is just roughly my perspective for now.