The perspectives on effective altruism we don’t hear

This is my con­tri­bu­tion to the De­cem­ber blog­ging car­ni­val on “blind spots.”

If I’d heard about effec­tive al­tru­ism in differ­ent cir­cum­stances, I think I could have re­acted quite nega­tively to the whole con­cept. If I’d been in­tro­duced to the idea of effec­tive al­tru­ism by a friend who put a slightly nega­tive spin on it, say­ing it was cold or overly de­mand­ing or some­thing, I can to­tally imag­ine my­self form­ing a nega­tive im­pres­sion. I’d be sur­prised if I were the only per­son for whom this were true.

Per­haps we should be think­ing more about how the ideas of effec­tive al­tru­ism might be—and are be­ing—per­ceived by differ­ent peo­ple, to en­sure that peo­ple like me don’t end up be­ing put off. It’s not that we don’t spend any time think­ing about this—there’s cer­tainly a fair amount of talk about how to “pitch” or “frame” effec­tive al­tru­ism and giv­ing. But most of this dis­cus­sion is in­ter­nal—just a bunch of peo­ple who are already con­vinced by EA talk­ing about how it might be per­ceived. As ob­jec­tive as we can try to be, there’s ob­vi­ously a mas­sive se­lec­tion bias here.

The opinions we don’t hear

My friend Uri Bram re­cently wrote a great lit­tle ar­ti­cle for Quartz called “ The most im­por­tant per­son at your com­pany doesn’t work for you .” He makes the fol­low­ing point: the peo­ple who stay work­ing at your com­pany are a very non-ran­dom sam­ple of all the peo­ple who could pos­si­bly work for you, ob­vi­ously—they’re likely to be those who feel most pos­i­tively about the com­pany. This means that if you only seek feed­back from your cur­rent em­ploy­ees, you’ll likely get the im­pres­sion that things are go­ing pretty much fine. It’s the peo­ple who left the com­pany, or who never ap­plied in the first place, who are most likely to have use­ful in­for­ma­tion about the com­pany’s short­com­ings.

I think the same point ap­plies to the EA move­ment. If we want to re­ally get an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the short­com­ings and pos­si­ble failure modes of the move­ment, we need to do more than talk about it our­selves (al­though this is cer­tainly use­ful.) We also need to ac­tively seek out feed­back from peo­ple who aren’t already con­vinced by EA, peo­ple who have a nega­tive im­pres­sion of EA, or per­haps peo­ple who were ini­tially in­ter­ested but were put off by some­thing, or just didn’t get more in­volved. I can think of plenty of peo­ple like this my­self, and yet I’m not spend­ing much time ask­ing for their opinions and con­sid­er­ing them as valuable, rele­vant feed­back.

Maybe you’re already do­ing this much more than me—I’m sure some peo­ple are, and that’s great. But I also think it’s not some­thing we’ve pri­ori­tised or talked much about ex­plic­itly as a group. This is sur­pris­ing, in a way—seek­ing nega­tive feed­back is such an ob­vi­ously use­ful thing. So why aren’t we do­ing this more?

Valu­ing feed­back isn’t enough

One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is just that seek­ing crit­i­cism is a psy­cholog­i­cally difficult thing to do. I think this is definitely at least part of what’s go­ing on. Most effec­tive al­tru­ists I know re­ally value feed­back and crit­i­cism—much more than the av­er­age per­son—and are much bet­ter at seek­ing feed­back than most as a re­sult. But we’re all still hu­man, and so for most of us, hav­ing our be­liefs challenged still feels un­pleas­ant some­times. It feels es­pe­cially un­pleas­ant when it comes to is­sues that are close to your iden­tity or so­cial group—which is cer­tainly the case for many with effec­tive al­tru­ism.

Another, re­lated prob­lem is that it’s easy to im­me­di­ately write off peo­ple who re­act nega­tively to EA as “just not like us.” This isn’t an ex­plicit thing, but it can hap­pen im­plic­itly—I’ve no­ticed my­self think­ing some­thing like this. Some­one crit­i­cises some el­e­ment of effec­tive al­tru­ism and I’ll find my­self writ­ing their com­ment off with a thought like “they just don’t re­ally get it”, or “they’re bi­ased be­cause x”, or “they’re not re­ally the kind of per­son we’d ex­pect to be in­ter­ested.” I’ve had some fairly heated dis­cus­sions with my par­ents about the GWWC pledge, for ex­am­ple—they don’t par­tic­u­larly like the idea of me donat­ing a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of my earn­ings right now for var­i­ous rea­sons. When we ini­tially had these con­ver­sa­tions, I mostly wrote off their com­ments as “them just not get­ting it” at best, and “them be­ing crazy un­rea­son­able” at worst. It’s only re­cently that I’ve started to see these con­ver­sa­tions as a use­ful piece of feed­back—both a differ­ent per­spec­tive on how I should pri­ori­tise my spend­ing, and on how cer­tain ideas might be off-putting to oth­ers. This doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, but I do now see that their per­spec­tive is use­ful for me to un­der­stand.

Re­ject­ing some­thing some­one else says with “they don’t get it” or “they’re be­ing un­rea­son­able” is es­sen­tially a defen­sive re­ac­tion. What this misses is that ev­ery piece of feed­back—no mat­ter how it’s framed or where it comes from—con­tains use­ful in­for­ma­tion.

Fi­nally, ac­tively seek­ing out feed­back from oth­ers—es­pe­cially those who aren’t im­me­di­ately within our so­cial cir­cle—can just be effort­ful. Even if you know that seek­ing feed­back is a good idea and you’re not ac­tively avoid­ing it, it takes time and effort to ac­tu­ally go and ask ques­tions, think about differ­ent per­spec­tives, and to ex­tract use­ful in­for­ma­tion from it. Th­ese con­ver­sa­tions can also be awk­ward or lead to con­flict. A big part of the rea­son I don’t always talk to my fam­ily and friends about effec­tive al­tru­ism is that I don’t want to seem like I’m preach­ing, or get into a heated dis­cus­sion.

How can we ob­tain more varied per­spec­tives on effec­tive al­tru­ism?

So what can we do, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, to re­duce this se­lec­tion effect and get more use­ful in­for­ma­tion about where the EA move­ment be go­ing wrong? A few ideas:

  1. See ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions with friends and fam­ily as an op­por­tu­nity to learn about their per­spec­tive . If some­one you’re talk­ing to isn’t im­me­di­ately taken in by an idea you’re tel­ling them about, it’s nat­u­ral to think you can ei­ther switch topic or try harder to per­suade them. But there’s a third op­tion: you could try to bet­ter un­der­stand what their per­spec­tive is on what you’re say­ing, and why it might not ap­peal to them. You might not agree with their per­spec­tive, but that doesn’t mean it’s not use­ful. It’s still their re­ac­tion, and oth­ers might have a similar one—and it’s valuable for the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment to see where these per­spec­tives are com­ing from.
  2. Mak­ing more effort to un­der­stand the per­spec­tives of those who are crit­i­cal of effec­tive al­tru­ism—peo­ple who write crit­i­cal pieces on­line or ar­gue in Face­book com­ments, for ex­am­ple. It’s so nat­u­ral to get on the defen­sive in these situ­a­tions, but it’s also so valuable to take a step back and ask: what is mak­ing them think or feel this way? Why does what I’m say­ing seem wrong or trig­ger­ing to them? How might their be­liefs and val­ues differ from mine to make this the case?
  3. Ac­tively seek­ing out feed­back from peo­ple who seem to have a nega­tive or not-en­tirely-pos­i­tive view of effec­tive al­tru­ism . This could in­clude a range of peo­ple: friends and fam­ily, those who have spo­ken out pub­li­cly in crit­i­cism, or per­haps peo­ple who we might ex­pect to be al­igned with effec­tive al­tru­ism but don’t ap­pear that in­ter­ested—there are a num­ber of aca­demics and pub­lic figures who might fit this de­scrip­tion that it could be re­ally valuable to talk to.
  4. Do­ing on­line stud­ies and sur­veys to get more data on how peo­ple re­act to differ­ent fram­ings of effec­tive al­tru­ism . As I said at the be­gin­ning of this post, the way that mes­sages are framed can make a mas­sive differ­ence to how peo­ple re­act to them. I think there’s still a lot that we could learn about how peo­ple re­spond to differ­ent ways of talk­ing about effec­tive al­tru­ism, and the kinds of peo­ple who find the ideas most ap­peal­ing. Run­ning stud­ies on­line is one way we could get a lot of in­for­ma­tion on this at rel­a­tively low cost.
I’d be in­ter­ested in what oth­ers think—whether we should be fo­cus­ing on get­ting more di­verse per­spec­tives, and, if so, what the best strate­gies for do­ing that are.