EA’s Image Problem

[Thanks to Max Dalton and Harry Peto for extensive comments, corrections and additions.]

I am a committed EA and am thrilled that the movement exists. Having spoken to many non-EAs, however, I’m convinced that the movement has an image problem: outsiders associate it and its members with negative things. This is partly unavoidable: the movement does and should challenge what are strongly held and deeply personal beliefs. However, I think we as a movement can do more to overcome the problem

I first list some criticisms of the movement I’ve heard. Then I discuss, one by one, four key causes of these criticisms and suggest things we can do to combat them.

I think some of the key causes give people legitimate reasons to criticise the movement and others don’t. However, all criticisms damage EA’s image and should be avoided if possible.

Criticisms of EA

· Smug and Arrogant – EAs have a strong conviction that they’re right and that they’re great people; similarly that their movement is correct and more important than all others

· Cold Hearted – EAs aren’t sufficiently empathetic

· Rich-Person Morality – EA provides a way for rich, powerful and privileged people to feel like they’re moral people

· Privileged Access – EA is only accessible to those with a large amount of the educational and socio-economic privilege

The latter two are particularly worrisome for those who, like me, want EA to change the attitudes of society as a whole. The movement will struggle to do this while it’s perceived as being elitist. More worryingly, I think the latter two are legitimate concerns to have about EA.

Key Cause 1- Obscuring the distinction between being a good person and doing good

There is a distinction

Suppose Clare is on £30K and gives away £15K to AMF, while Flo is on £300K and gives away £30K. Clare is arguably a more virtuous person because she has made a much bigger personal sacrifice for others, despite the fact that Flo does more absolute good.

Now suppose Clare mistakenly believes that the most moral action possible is to give the money to disaster relief. Plausibly, Clare is still a more virtuous person than Flo because she has made a huge personal sacrifice for what she believed was right, and Flo has only made a small sacrifice by comparison.

In a similar way people who make serious sacrifices to help the homeless in their area may be better people than EAs who do more absolute good by donating.

The EA movement does obscure this distinction

-The distinction is ignored completely whenever an EA assesses an agent by calculating the good that is produced by their actions (or, more specifically, by calculating the difference between what did happen and what would have happened if the person hadn’t lived). For example, William MacAskill claimed to find out the identity of “The Best Person who Ever Lived” is using this method[1].

-The distinction is obscured when EAs say ambiguous things like “It’s better to become a banker and give away 10% of your income than to become a social worker”. The sentence could mean that becoming a banker produces better outcomes, or that a person who becomes a banker is more moral. The former claim is true but the latter depends on the banker’s motivations and may be false. They may have wanted to go into banking anyway; and giving away 10% may only be a small sacrifice for them.

-We can also confuse the two sides of the distinction when we think about our own moral aims. We want to do as much good as possible, and we evaluate the extent to which we succeed. However it’s easy to confuse failure in achieving our moral aims with a failure to be a good person. This is a common confusion. For example the father who can’t adequately feed his children, despite working as hard as he could, has done nothing wrong yet still feels very guilty.

-Some of the discourse within the movement appears to imply that those who do the most good are, because of this, the best people. For example, EAs who are earn lots of money, or are successful more generally, are held in very high regard.
(Third post down on here https://​​www.facebook.com/​​groups/​​effective.altruists/​​search/​​?query=matt%20wage)

How does obscuring this distinction contribute to EA’s image problem?

Suppose non-EAs are not aware of the distinction, or think EAs are not aware. Then the EA movement will seem to be committed to the claim that EAs are, in general, significantly better people than non-EAs. But EAs often live comfortable lives with relatively low levels of personal sacrifice, so this is bound to make non-EAs angry. Even slight confusion over this issue can be very damaging.

More specifically:

· Smug and Arrogant – if EAs appear to think that they’re much better people than everyone else, then they seem smug and arrogant

· Cold Hearted – if EAs appear to think people who have a bigger impact are more moral than those who make significant personal sacrifices, this might comes across as cold hearted. If EAs find out how good a person someone is by calculating their impact this may appear cold hearted

· Rich-Person Morality – The rich and powerful can do much more good much more easily. If people confuse doing good with being good then they may think EAs believe the rich and powerful can be good much more easily.

I think the criticisms here are partly unfair – EAs often do recognise the distinction I’ve been talking about. The problem arises largely because EA’s outcome-focussed discourse makes confusions about the distinction more likely to occur.

How can we improve the situation?

· -Distinguish between being good and doing good whenever there’s a risk of confusion

· -Be wary of posting material that implies that EAs are all amazing people (For example the description in EA Hangout reads “Just to chill, have fun, and socialize with other EAs while we’re not busy saving the world.” I know this is funny, but I think it’s potentially damaging if it feeds into negative stereotypes.)

· -Conceptualise debates with opponents not as about whether EAs are better people, but as about whether EAs have the correct moral views

· -Consider explicitly saying that EA’s key claim is about which actions are better not which agents are better.
E.g. “EAs do think that giving to AMF is a better thing to do than giving to the local homeless. But they don’t think that someone who gives to AMF is necessarily a better person than someone who gives to the homeless. It’s just that even bad people can do loads of good things if they give money away effectively.

Key Cause 2- Core parts of the EA movement are much easier for rich, powerful and privileged people to engage with

What aspects, and why are they easier?

GWWC’s pledge
Getting the certificate for making pledge is a signifier of being a good person. It is a sign that the pledger is making a significant sacrifice to help others. It is sometimes used as a way of determining whether someone is an effective altruist. But the pledge is much, much easier to make if you a rich or financially secure in other ways. For example it’s harder to commit to giving away 10% if your income is unreliable, or you have large debts. So it’s easier to gain moral credentials in the EA movement if you’re rich.

The careers advice of 80,000 hours
It’s focussed on people at top universities, who have huge educational privilege. Following the advice is an important way of engaging with the community’s account of what to do, but many people can’t follow it at all.

Privilege-friendly values.
It’s much easier for someone who hasn’t experienced sexism to accept that they should not devote their resources to fighting sexism, but to the most effective cause. It’s much easier for someone who hasn’t been depressed, or devoted a lot of time to helping a depressed friend, to accept that it’s better to give to AMF than to charities that help the mentally ill.

More generally, being privileged makes it much easier to select causes based on only their effectiveness. I think there’s a danger people think we aren’t prioritising their cause because we’re not fully empathising with a problem that they’ve had first-hand experience of.

How does this contribute to EA’s image problem?

· Rich-Person Morality – EA-related moral accolades are much more easy for the rich and powerful to earn than anyone else.

· Privileged Access – many parts of the movement are harder for non-privileged people to engage in. They understandably feel that the movement is not accessible to them.

I think the criticisms here are legitimate. EA is much more accessible and appealing to those who are rich, powerful and privileged. The image problem here is exacerbated by the fact that the demographic of EA is hugely privileged.

How can we improve the situation?

· -Continue to stress how much good anyone can do

· -Be sensitive to your wealth, as compared with that of your conversation partner, when talking about EA. Urging someone on £30K to give 10% when you have £50K after donating may lead them to question why you’re asking them to live on less than you live on.

· -Be sensitive to your privilege, as compared with that of your conversation partner, when talking about EA. Be aware that it may have been much easier for you to change your cause prioritisation than it is for them.

· -Adjust the pledge so that, below a certain income threshold, one can give less than 10%

· -Consider redressing the balance of career advice

An objection

It might be in the interests of the EA movement to carry on celebrating high-impact individuals more than they deserve. For a culture where being good is equated with doing good incentivises people to do more good. These incentives help the movement achieve its aims. It wants to do the most good, not to accurately evaluate how good people are.

For example, it might be false to write an article saying that some Ukrainian man is the best person who ever lived. But the article might encourage its readers to do the most good they can. Sometimes, when speaking to wealthy people, I pretend that I think they’d be moral heroes if they gave away 10% of their income.

Similarly it might be in the interests of the movement to be particularly accessible to the rich, powerful and privileged. For these people have the potential to do the most good. Many will feel uncomfortable with this type of reasoning though.

These considerations potentially provide arguments against my suggested courses of action. We should think carefully about the arguments on both sides so that we can decide what to do.

Key Cause 3- EAs are believed to be narrow consequentialists

What is a narrow consequentialist?

A consequentialist holds that the goodness of an action is determined by its consequences. They compare the consequences that actually happened with those that would have happened if the action hadn’t been performed. A narrow consequentialist only pays attention to a small number of types of consequences, typically things like pleasure, pain or preference satisfaction. A broad consequentialist might also pay attention to things like equality, justice, integrity, promises kept and honest relationships.

Why do people believe that EAs are narrow consequentialists?

It’s true!

Many effective altruists, especially those who are vocal and those in leadership positions in the movement, are narrow consequentialists. This isn’t surprising. It’s very obvious from the perspective of narrow consequentialism that EA is amazing (FWIW I believe it’s amazing from many other perspectives as well!). It’s also obvious from this perspective that furthering the EA movement is a really great thing to do. People with other ethical codes might have other considerations that compete with their commitment to furthering the EA movement.

The popularity of the consequences-based argument for EA

This argument runs as follows: “You could do a huge amount of good for others at a tiny cost to yourself. So do it!”
This is exactly the argument a narrow consequentialist would make, so people infer that EAs are consequentialists. This inference is somewhat unfair, as it’s a powerful argument even if one isn’t a consequentialist.

EA discourse

Some discussion on EA forums implicitly presupposes consequentialism. Sometimes EAs attack moral commitments that a narrow consequentialist doesn’t hold: they equate them to “caring about abstract principles”, claim that those who hold them are simply rationalising immoral behaviour, and even assert that philosophers aren’t narrow consequentialists only because they want to keep their jobs!

How does this belief about EAs contribute to EA’s image problem?

· Smug and Arrogant– EAs are committed narrow consequentialists even when the vast majority of experts dismiss it. This is dogmatic and arrogant, without independent reason to think the experts are wrong (independent of the moral arguments for and against narrow consequentialism).

· Cold Hearted – if EAs are narrow consequentialists then they will over simplify moral issues by ignoring relevant considerations, like justice or human rights. It might seem like it is this oversimplification that allows EAs to figure out what to do by calculating the answer.

o This plays into the idea that EAs make calculations because they are cold hearted

o At worst people think that EA’s strong line on which charities one should donate to is a result of their narrow consequentialism and thus of their cold heartedness

I think both criticisms here are too harsh on EA but do find it surprising that many avowedly rational EAs are so strongly committed to narrow consequentialism.

How can we improve the situation?

· -Don’t see EA as being a moral theory where there is “something that an EA would do” in every situation. Rather see EA’s appeal as being independent of what underlying moral theory you agree with

· -Refrain from posting things that assume that consequentialism is true

· -Don’t just use the consequences-based argument for EA

This last point is particularly important because the other arguments are really strong as well:

· -The drowning child argument first asserts that you should save the drowning child (it needn’t say why). Then it asserts that various considerations aren’t morally relevant. This argument isn’t consequentialist, but should appeal to all ethical positions.

· -The argument from justice make use of the fact that many causes recommended by EA help those who
i) are in desperate poverty
ii) are in this position through no fault of their own
iii) are often poor for the same reason we’re rich
The argument points out that this state of affairs is terribly unjust, and infers that we have a very strong reason to change it. I think it’s a hugely powerful argument, but it’s not clear that it can even be made by a narrow consequentialist.

Key Cause 4 - EAs discourse is alienating


Terminology from economics and philosophy is often used even when it’s not strictly needed. This makes the conversation inaccessible to many.

EAs are very keen to be rational when they write, and to be regarded as such. This can create an intimidating atmosphere to post in.

EAs often celebrate the fact that the movement is “rational”. But “rational” is a normative word, meaning something like “the correct view to have given the evidence”. Thus we appear to be patting ourselves on the back a lot. This is alienating and annoying to someone who doesn’t yet agree with us.

How does this contribute to EA’s image problem?

· Smug and Arrogant- claiming that your position is rational is smug because it like saying that you have great views. This can come across as arrogant in a conversation because it might seem like you’re not seriously entertaining the possibility that you’re wrong.

· Cold Hearted – use of technical language makes the movement appear impersonal

· Privileged Access – EA is less accessible to those that don’t know the relevant vocabulary or who aren’t confident. This tends to be those without educational and socio-economic privilege

I think these criticisms are mostly legitimate, but also think that EAs are very friendly and inclusive in general.

How can we improve the situation?

· -Avoid alienating discourse. Follow George Orwell’s writing rules: never use a longer word when a shorter one will do; if it’s possible to cut out a word then do; and Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

· -Avoid words like “rational” which imply a superiority of EAs over others


Be sceptical of my arguments here, and reply with your objections, but also be sceptical of your current practices. Think about some ways in which you could better combat EA’s image problem.

[1] http://​​swarajyamag.com/​​culture/​​the-best-person-who-ever-lived-is-an-unknown-ukrainian-man/​​